New Orleans is a city draped in an invisible cloak of humidity that flourishes at a cultural rhythm slow as the ambled pace of the streetcar. The hum of the engine lets you know it’s going to be a while until you get to the street you desire. Or even Desire Street.
In the peak of summer time, sno-balls (the southern doppelganger to northern sno-cones; shaved ice that gets doused in sugary substances) are friendly guardians to guide you through each sweat-blessed afternoon. Your neighbors can be found on their porches in a stake out for cooler climates, accompanied by a chilled decoy in the form of iced down bourbon. Dogs are too lazy to howl. You might even fall asleep to the soothing lullaby of the air-conditioning unit next door, or give in to heat exhaustion, Blanche Dubois style. All of this is to say that finding energy can be desolate, that is of course, unless you quicken the tempo by locating the nearest slice of doberge cake.
Say it, slowly. “Dough-bash.”
You see, Alabama has the layer cake, known to trump even the tallest of beehives through an intimidating tower of 15 cassette-tape thick cakes, broken up by slopes of icing. Georgia knows the lane cake, a sugary dipped paean to southern households: a fluffy substance filled with egg whites and a confetti of ground pecans, coconut and raisins, boozed up with bourbon or local hooch.
When it comes to the New Orleans confectionery heritage, doberge is a completely different species altogether.
The cliff notes version of doberge history:
It began as an improvisational riff on the 128 year old Austrian/Hungarian “dobos tort”, a five-layer sponge cake teeming with chocolate butter cream and thin caramel slices. Doberge went off the rails and into a valley of thin, moist cake layers, broken up by chocolate or lemon pudding, baptized with chocolate, caramel, or lemon icing. If you ask locals about the history behind doberge, they’ll tell you Miss Beulah Ledner, also known as the “doberge queen”, invented it. Miss Ledner started baking up doberge during the depression to help with her family’s financial strains, opening up a bakery in 1933. She figured that by throwing in a Francophile “berge” on the name, it would give it that Louisiana twang.
New Orleans is all about tradition. If you’re on a doberge safari around the Crescent City, you can spot it in households during Mardi Gras, Christmas, engagement parties, birthdays, or shining in bakeries like Gambino’s (the bakery that bought out Miss Ledner in the late 40s). It’s a must to keep the family feuds at bay.
Recently, there’s been a game changer who’s cutting the lemon curd out of the frame and sauntering into uncharted territories. Enter Debbie Does Doberge, named after a 1970’s porno flick “Debbie Does Dallas”. Dreamed up by owner Charlotte McGeehee and her boyfriend/business partner, Charles Mary, Charlotte crafts up doberge cake flavors that challenge tradition, initiating a new era of guilty pleasures into the New Orleans diet. Goodbye chocolate. Hello: blueberry pancake, red velvet Elvis (red velvet cake layers with peanut butter banana pudding and peanut butter bacon icing), king cake, root beer float…
When you order Debbie Does Doberge cakes, or the “do-bites” (small pyramid shaped mini-doberge cakes), no cheerleaders or pillow talk voices are involved. In fact, the only connection to Bambi Woods and her band of “Texas Cowgirls,” is the word porn. In this case, food porn. According to Charlottte, “The original idea was to focus on individually portioned desserts (cupcakes and do-bites). Sometimes, a cake is just too much, or there isn’t an occasion for one, but you still need a doberge fix. I’ve expanded my offerings to many more than the traditional lemon and chocolate flavors. I don’t know what the old timers think, but no one has complained yet!”
Doberge goes down easy, and quick, but its process is anything but simple. Start to finish, it takes about 24 hours to craft: Charlotte begins by baking a cake, delicately cutting it into thin layers, caringly topping each layer with pudding, placing a giant slather of butter cream filling between each section, then dousing the entire cake body in icing until no bare cake is subject to a peep show.
If you find yourself in New Orleans on a hot afternoon, grab a do-bite, throw down a blanket, and eat in the shade below an oak tree draped in Spanish moss along the levee, preferably far far away from a hungry pack of cheerleaders.
Debbie Does Doberge
500 S. Telemachus Street
New Orleans, Louisiana, 70119
More information can be found: facebook.com/debbiedoesdoberge
Swamp & Circumstance
by Helen Hollyman