New Orleans is known for many things, most of them outsize and extravagant: the carnivals, the beer bellies, the roaches, the hurricanes.
To an interloper like me, who moved there at age 6, the place seemed exotic and mystical. In front of our peeling, powder blue 1901 duplex, I'd climb the white marble carriage step out at the curb, imagining I was going to the ball. Sometimes I'd catch lizards sunning themselves there, or were they coachmen? All day long, through the sultry air came the faint dragon rumble of faraway streetcars; now and then the Roman Candy man steered his horse down our block, bell tinkling. And lions roared each dawn at the zoo four blocks away, just by the levee.
But memory can distort all too easily. Decades later, I returned to see that my marble carriage step was nothing more than a 10-inch-high square of concrete. The monstrous streetcar was a toy-size curiosity. And the real-life society balls that were the talk of ninth grade (Up-dos! Limos! Wild Irish Rose!) became minor and irrelevant, just teens playing dress-up.
Thankfully, the tastes of my childhood have heroically stood their ground. Every time I'm back, crawfish boils and po' boys match my ephemeral memories bite for bite.
Starting around age 30, I became obsessed with re-creating one particular food memory. I was never the child who had a fancy bakery cake at her birthday party. I was the scholarship kid at a private day school, and my mom would bake my cake—or honor my whim to have coconut-custard pie at the waterslide park.
But some birthday girls I knew ate magical confections in their magical houses: cakes to rival a bride's, one of which was called the doberge (a Frenchified version of the Hungarian dobos torte, casually pronounced "doh-bash" by locals). It came in chocolate, lemon or caramel, and for the true princess, half-lemon, half-chocolate. Standing nearly five inches tall, eight thin layers of soft white cake were interspersed with layers of custard, then it was double-iced with buttercream and ganache. Even in 1980 a single cake must have cost more than $40. I had a few treasured slices during the 12 years I lived in New Orleans.
So in the spring of 2003, on the weighty precipice of my fourth decade, wearily gravid with my first child and therefore feeling justified, I phoned Gambino's bakery to order my first doberge cake, ready to pay $85 to have the whole damn thing shipped up to me in Raleigh.
And the answer was no. They wouldn't do it. Or rather, couldn't. For this fairy tale was confounded by the elements. I had a June birthday, and it was too hot on the tarmac. There was no way to rewrite the story: The cake would melt, despite the best efforts of FedEx and refrigeration. I despaired. O why not born Aquarius?
My prince of a husband called Edible Art and all was well for a while.
A few years later, planning a New Year's party, I flirted for a week with ordering the doberge. But I was a mother of two now, and felt I should be more practical—consider the cost of diapers and all that.
Two Novembers ago, I interviewed Southern scholar John Shelton Reed, who had just edited Cornbread Nation 4: The Best of Southern Food Writing. In it, a Louisiana woman in exile had shared her nostalgia for doberge, and she offered a shortcut, using two boxes of Betty Crocker cake mix and a quick cooked pudding. I determined to bake it for Christmas dinner.
It was, of course, a disaster. I cut the layers too thick and crooked and didn't allow enough cooling time. To keep it upright, I impaled it with bamboo skewers. The thing was huge, maybe seven inches tall, and lopsided. The poured icing settled thinly on top and rimmed on the bottom—much like a monk's tonsure. It tasted OK. The reaction, repeated all evening, was, "Wow, Janey, that's really big!"
A happy ending awaits, but first a magic spell.
A few months ago, my father, a professor of American literature, attended a gathering of Southern historians. At this gathering, a fair maiden had been hired to provide a few cakes from her collection of Southern heirloom recipes.
He ate three slices of cake that night, because it evoked in him a visceral food memory of his own: This was the very thing his mother had made for most of his birthdays. It was a devil's food with white seven-minute icing, a taste he had thought lost to the ages. Before the night ended, he sought out the baker and passed her name to me, demanding I order her cake for his next birthday.
Upon my father's edict, I e-mailed "Carrie the Baker" (her Gmail handle), ordered his cake and later discovered, enclosed with the invoice, a narrow trifold brochure for Sweet Fingers Bakery. And just that easily, my quest ended: The brochure listed Doberge Cake, $60. It read: "A New Orleans tradition. Seven layers of buttery, rich cake, filled with satiny smooth chocolate custard, and finished with two distinct layers of chocolate icing. Our version is faithful to the original developed by Beulah Ledner, who sold her legendary recipe to the Gambino family in the 1940s." (Bakers aim for eight layers, but sometimes the difficult circumstances of assembly result in just seven.)
Carrie the Baker is Carrie Boone, a graduate student in library science at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. She bakes constantly, applying her research skills to the history of Southern sweets. She can tell you the provenance of a cake and how it was adapted over the past century; she is a disciple of food writers Nancie McDermott and Marcie Ferris and speaks earnestly of Southern food ways.
"A while back I was checking out every cookbook in the UNC library system that had 'Southern' in the subject heading," says Boone, utterly serious.
When I met Boone for lunch, she brought an armful of reference materials, including neatly hand-copied recipes calling for "sweet milk" (rather than the buttermilk many households would have had on hand) and yellowed pamphlets from 1953 on how to make a 7UP Cake. Boone hunts both heirloom and heritage recipes.
"This is my own way of thinking about it—a heritage recipe is so old and so widely known that a lot of different hands went into its evolution, and a lot of equally 'authentic' versions exist, like the Lane Cake (and the accompanying argument over whether adding white icing to it makes it more of a Lady Baltimore or not)," she says. "An heirloom recipe has been handed down more linearly and has way less variation. My grandma's mother's friend Eunice's recipe for coconut cake falls into this category."
Baking one at a time, cake by cake, Boone will perform 20 iterations to get one just right, then consult her Grandma Ruth in Texas and tweak it still more. She double-sifts and uses a hand mixer to more accurately feel a batter's consistency. She is humble and self-conscious, with a childlike voice, but her words are firm, her facts precise.
In two years, in her free time, she's sold about 150 cakes and a good number of pies for between $30 and $60 each. For a time, she says, she sold cake by the slice at a local service station, and "they would just fly, they would fly off the shelves—it was a good trial for me." She gets regular fan mail from her base of customers, many of whom are retired, and once received a blind proposal of marriage from a client's adult son after he tasted her strawberry cake.
She and her husband are expecting their first child in a few months (the proposal was ill-timed); when not at UNC libraries or preparing her baby's nursery, she dreams of launching a full-time cake-baking business.
Thanks to Boone, last month I was the birthday girl with the magical confection. I stood in our courtyard, surrounded by my husband, children, parents, friends and friends' children. The doberge was lovely. The little ones' eyes got bigger and bigger as their slices were plated. And then came the first bites, better than I remembered—the custard more subtly cocoa-tinged, the cake more delicate and the icing richer. It tasted European, not too sweet. But then, I wouldn't have known that at age 6; I hadn't yet gone abroad.
This June I am a queen. Long live the queen, for many cakes to come.
Carrie Boone summons our memories and makes them better.
Searching for that elusive coconut cake from your Sweet 16? Boone buys a coconut, grates the meat and pours the milk into the batter. Wish you could relive Christmas with your great aunt's Lane cake? Boone lets her Lane cake settle (with a "healthy splash of bourbon") for at least two days before it's delivered. Maybe your grandma served lemon bundt cake at bridge parties and let you sneak a slice before the plate went out? Boone's is made with Meyer lemons when in season, organic Eurekas when not. Her strawberry cake is only made these few short summer months, so get it soon, but her caramelicious burnt sugar cake will be made as long as sugar's sweet and butter's fresh. See the brochure at sweetfingers.wordpress.com.
She does take requests, if you have a food memory you're seeking.
Carrie Boone's version of Burnt Sugar Cake is adapted from More Than Moonshine: Appalachian Recipes and Recollections by Sidney Saylor Farr (1983).
Burnt Sugar Syrup
1 cup sugar
1 cup very hot water
Melt the sugar in a cast iron skillet (10- or 12-inch is best) over medium heat. The less you stir it, the better. Once the sugar is all melted and the color of tea, pour a cup of very hot water down the sides of the pan. Stir it a little bit to incorporate, and then take off heat. Pour into a glass jar or heatproof glass measuring cup. This makes right around 1 cup of syrup. Make this at least an hour before you plan to make the cake to let it cool.
Cook's note: I always use a wooden spoon to stir this because the syrup is so hot.
Burnt Sugar Cake
2 1/2 cups flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 scant teaspoon baking soda
3 eggs, separated
3/4 cup unsalted butter
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup milk
1/2 cup burnt sugar syrup
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt. If you sift it a couple of times, it's better. In a medium bowl, beat egg whites until peaks form, but they're not dry. In a large bowl, beat butter and sugar together until fluffy. Add two of the egg yolks, one at a time, beating after each. Stir the vanilla into the milk. Add flour mixture to the butter mixture, alternating with the milk—starting and ending with flour. Stir in about 1/2 cup of the burnt sugar syrup. Fold in egg whites. Pour into greased and floured 9-inch pans and bake 20–25 minutes.
Cook's note: You will have a leftover egg yolk, but you can freeze it and use it later.
1/2 cup butter
1 cup brown sugar (packed)
1/4 cup half-and-half
1 generous teaspoon vanilla
up to 2 1/2 cups powdered sugar (sifted)
burnt sugar syrup
hot water as needed
In a saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter and brown sugar. Bring to a boil, then lower heat and simmer for two minutes, stirring. Stir in the half-and-half and return to a boil. Once it boils, remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm. Gradually beat in about a cup of powdered sugar. Pour in the vanilla and about a half cup of burnt sugar syrup (or however much you have left). Slowly beat in more powdered sugar until it looks kind of like peanut butter. If it's too stiff to spread on the cake, add hot water, one teaspoon at a time, until it reaches a spreadable consistency.
Cook's note: It took a long time and a lot of wasted cakes to find an icing that I like and that complements the cake and works reliably. (The most frequently given icing for this cake tastes like powdered sugar and isn't nearly sturdy enough to keep the cake from sliding all over the place.) This is basically a penuche icing with burnt sugar in place of some of the regular sugar. It's not traditional by any means (for a burnt sugar cake).
Adapted from A Treasury of Southern Baking (1993) by Prudence Hilburn (b. 1936), a "sort-of-professional" baker and former food columnist for the Tuscaloosa (AL) News who was eventually banned from entering baking contests because she always won them.
5 large eggs, separated, then brought to room temperature
3 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
3 cups sugar
3 cups all-purpose flour, sifted together with a pinch of salt
1/4 cup milk, at room temperature (see Cook's note below)
1 1/2 cups finely chopped semi-sweet chocolate (see Cook's note below)
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Grease and flour a 10-inch tube pan.
In a medium bowl, beat the egg whites until stiff but not dry.
In a large bowl, beat together the butter and cream cheese. Add the sugar and beat on medium speed until well-blended and fluffy (about 4 minutes or so). Add the egg yolks one at a time, beating well after each. Add the flour, alternating with the milk (start and end with the flour).
GENTLY but thoroughly fold in the egg whites. Stir in the chocolate.
Spoon into prepared pan and bake for about an hour and an half. The done cake should be golden brown on top, and cracked in places, and should spring back gently when pressed.
Remove from pan immediately (slide a knife around the edge of the pan to ease it out). Turn right-side-up to cool, and let cool completely before slicing.
This cake needs no icing, but is nice with some fresh fruit.
Cook's note: Use whole milk. Using 1 or 2 percent will probably result in a drier cake. Also, resist the urge to use really good dark chocolate. It will be overpowering. I just go to Weaver Street and look and see what brand of chocolate bar: a) is around 60% cacao (higher is too strong for this, and lower is too "milky"), b) doesn't cost and arm and a leg, c) doesn't have any extras in it (like fruit, or rosemary, or toffee, or something), and d) has a cool wrapper.