The Houston Doberge Project

Every year for my Mom’s birthday lunch she has a Doberge cake from Gambino’s in New Orleans, but this year there was a Fedex snafu and it arrived spoiled. We found a last-minute replacement, but it piqued my curiosity as to better alternatives and I commissioned this survey of eight bakeries to answer the question: What’s the best Doberge cake in Houston or New Orleans? The article and pictures that follow are from food critic, travel journalist, and medical science writer Alice Levitt. I hope you enjoy the history, reviews, and surprise winner.

1885, Budapest. Franz Josef I and his wife, Elizabeth, rulers of Austro-Hungary, are attending the National General Exhibition of Budapest. There is much to see, but the emperor’s sweet tooth is pulling him toward one particular display. He simply must taste this new cake he’s been hearing about. He must find the Dobos torte.

It isn’t just any cake. With increased ease in shipping products across the continent thanks to better rail links, Jozsef Dobos had set a goal of getting his cakes into homes across Europe. But while trains were fast they weren’t refrigerated, and fluffy whipped cream-layered fancies would quickly become rancid mush in a hot railway carriage. Innovative delicatessen owner Dobos created the solution: a five-layer cake that took a cue from France with a filling of stable chocolate buttercream, a trend that hadn’t yet hit central Europe. Each layer of vanilla sponge worked with its spackling of buttercream like a well-designed piece of modern architecture, keeping itself cool and dry (but not too dry).  For a final flourish — and still more shelf-stability — the whole cake got a crisp caramel jacket. 

Dobos, a proponent of open source before it had a name, gave his recipe to the Budapest Confectioner’s and Gingerbread Maker’s Chamber of Industry in 1906 with the stipulation that it must be shared with anyone who wanted it. The cake traveled widely. Now with seven layers, it made its way to America through Jewish delis that sold it as Seven-Layer Cake. Upscale shops like the St. Moritz Bakery in Greenwich, Connecticut, enrobed it in dark chocolate instead of caramel. For its final bit of Americanization, it turned from a round cake into a rectangle. 

1933, New Orleans. It was never this hot in Hungary. Beulah Ledner, with her Eastern European blood, was not made for it. Neither were certain cakes, it turned out. During the Great Depression, she earned extra money for her family crafting the German confections her mother had taught her to make. 

One favorite was Dobos torte. But despite its Hungarian hardiness, it was not created with sticky Louisiana summers in mind. The wintry pastry needed to lighten up.

Some bakers had ballooned their cakes to 11 layers. Ledner stuck with a more modest eight. But her stroke of genius was replacing the rich buttercream between the layers with airier custard. Buttercream still made an appearance surrounding the cake, which was then covered in a layer of fondant. 

“She knew no one in New Orleans would take to an Eastern European cake,” her son Albert Ledner told Country Roads magazine. “So she Frenchified the name and called it ‘Doberge.’” With that, the pastry’s fate as a New Orleans classic, alongside King Cake and beignets, was sealed. Her Lowerline Street bakery flooded with customers who called her “the Doberge Queen of New Orleans,” perhaps not realizing that she had invented both the cake and the name. Her business grew into a new spot on South Claiborne Avenue and a new name — the Mrs. Charles Ledner Bakery. The torte options grew, too. Chocolate was the standard flavor, but there were lemon, caramel, and strawberry versions. The half-and-half cake, which allowed customers the option to taste chocolate and lemon in a single go, became the most beloved version.

Despite her success, Ledner sold the business and all its recipes in 1946, blaming health issues and World War II sugar rations. The purchaser, Joe Gambino, adhered strictly to her recipes. He opened his shop, Joe Gambino’s Bakery, in 1949 and has served the cakes to New Orleans and the rest of Louisiana, ever since. 

As for Ledner, part of her deal with Gambino included a five-year embargo on opening a new bakery in New Orleans. But she could only sit still for two, and debuted the Beulah Ledner Bakery in nearby Jefferson Parish in 1948. Demand forced her to change locations yet again and she expanded to Metairie, this time with a bakery designed and built by her architect son. Ledner ran that last bakery until 1981, when she retired at the age of 87. She ate a slice of Doberge for her birthday every year, including at her 94th and final celebration.

Unsurprisingly, the Doberge’s sugary tendrils also made their way into nearby Houston. There are six businesses in Space City that sell either Doberge or the more classic Jewish-deli-style Seven-Layer Cake. But how to know which to buy for your next birthday? I sampled all six, as well as the best of New Orleans, to figure out which should be avoided and which are worthy centerpieces for a special occasion. They are listed here from worst to best.

The Disappointment
The Dobasche, Rao’s Bakery

  • Cake: White and double fudge
  • Layers: Menu says six, but I only got four
  • Filling: Vanilla and chocolate pudding, purportedly
  • Exterior: Fudge icing, ganache top, and walnuts on the sides
  • Decorations: Just the walnuts
  • Pickup experience: Quick and easy, even on Easter
  • Flavors: Chocolate or lemon
  • Sizes: 6”, 8”, quarter, half, or full sheets

Johnny Rao opened the original location of his bakery in Beaumont on 1941, almost matching the vintage of Ledner’s cakes. The Champions-area bakery, at the top of North Houston’s internationally varied Veterans Memorial Drive, opened in 2006. Things seemed promising despite the strange spelling, “Dobasche.”

It’s a cheerful place, full of families on a Sunday morning, but the cake didn’t live up to the pleasant experience of the bakery. What made this a Doberge? Nothing, really. The four fat layers of cake alternated between too-light chocolate and white. Though the description on the menu said there were both vanilla and chocolate pudding fillings, I could only find a meager swipe of vanilla buttercream holding the layers together. The exterior fudge icing tasted suspiciously like it had been made by Duncan Hines.

Runners Up
Chocolate Daubache, French Gourmet Bakery

  • Cake: Vanilla
  • Layers: Six — four thin, two thick
  • Filling: Fudge icing
  • Exterior: More of the same fudge icing
  • Decorations: A few swirls on top
  • Pickup experience: Exceptional. The counter staffer even offered to carry the cake to the car.
  • Flavors: Chocolate or strawberry
  • Sizes: 8”

The Ramain family has been running this ladies-who-lunch destination since 1973. Yes, the raison d’être is French-inspired mousse cakes, macarons, and eclairs, but there’s a menu of “American Cakes,” too. The Daubache is served with strawberry filling by default, but is available in a chocolate version as well. 

The six layers here were the most uneven, with two thick ones in the middle resembling buck teeth in a sea of average-sized chompers. There was nothing truly wrong with this cake, but it was really just an acceptable, if slightly oversweet, layer cake with nothing to distinguish it.

Seven-Layer Chocolate Cake, Three Brothers Bakery

Cake: Fluffy, vanilla-scented
Layers: Seven
Filling: Chocolate buttercream
Exterior: Fudge icing
Decorations: Icing swirls and chocolate sprinkles with a cherry on top.
Pick up experience: Placed the order online, and pick-up was friendly and easy.
Flavors: Chocolate or mocha
Sizes: One size, which feeds about 10-12

This is a cake with history. Why not go to a comparably storied bakery? The Three Brothers saga began in 1825 with the opening of Morris Jucker’s bakery in Chrzanow, Poland. The family continued to run the business there until they were rounded up and sent to a concentration camp in 1941. Brothers Sigmund, Sol, and Max Jucker all survived to open their first Houston bakery in 1949.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that the brothers adapted to American tastes by raising the amount of sugar in their recipes. The buttercream in their Seven Layer Cake made my teeth hurt. But the fudge icing on the outside was less sweet and deeply chocolaty, enhanced with a layer of chocolate sprinkles. I ended up focusing on the perimeter of the large slice. 

The Classic
Doberge Cake, Gambino’s

  • Cake: Fluffy but sturdy and moist vanilla buttermilk cake
  • Layers: Six
  • Filling: Coffee-infused chocolate custard
  • Exterior: Chocolate buttercream and fondant
  • Decorations: Pretty buttercream flowers
  • Pick up experience: Was able to pick up from case without pre-ordering.
  • Flavors: Chocolate, lemon, caramel, or a mix
  • Sizes: 8”

So this is history. Gambino’s takes great care in crafting every cake, including baking each of its layers separately, rather than cutting one big cake into pieces. Custard is made from scratch for each specimen. And the half-and-half cakes are still one of the Metairie bakery’s best-sellers. I snapped up a chocolate cake straight from the case.

Ledner’s attempt at Americanizing her cake by adding more sugar is clear. The buttercream crunched with crystals of it. Combined with the fondant, it was unpleasantly sweet, though I liked the earthiness of the coffee in the chocolate custard.

The Original
Seven-Layer Dobash Torte, Village Bakery

  • Cake: White
  • Layers: Seven
  • Filling: Chocolate buttercream
  • Exterior: Chocolate buttercream, topped with a layer of lady fingers and caramel
  • Decorations: Nope
  • Pick up experience: Very pleasant.
  • Flavors: Almost endless.
  • Sizes: Up to you. Cakes are entirely custom.

The name Dobash is misleading; this is no New Orleans delicacy. Of all the cakes I tried, this is closest to Dobos’ original, down to the crunchy coating of caramel, now a rarity. The rectangular shape, however, may owe to Jewish owner Richard Jucker. (I also picked up a day-old bag of his varied, not-too-sweet Hamantaschen while I was there.)

Any resemblance to the Three Brothers cake is no coincidence. Jucker’s father was one of the founders of that bakery and the younger baker worked there from 1981 to 1999. But just as he broke away, this cake is very much its own torte. Fluffy, vanilla-scented layers are surrounded by buttercream that verges on too sweet, especially with the addition of the caramel, but never overwhelms as some of the others do. This is a Dobos torte for the traditionalist — and the client interested in enhancing their cake with flavors like pistachio or almond buttercream. 

The Upgrade
Seven-Layer Cake, Kenny & Ziggy’s

  • Cake: Yellow
  • Layers: Seven
  • Filling: Chocolate mousse
  • Exterior: Chocolate ganache
  • Decorations: Toasted almonds on the sides
  • Pick up experience: N/A
  • Flavors: Just chocolate
  • Sizes: Only one, a whopping two feet, eight inches. Catering director Jeanne Magenheim estimates that each one feeds up to 28 people.

It’s hard to believe that Houston is home to one of the world’s best remaining Jewish delis, but thanks to living piece of culinary history Ziggy Gruber — whose family came to the U.S. from Hungary in the early 20th century and opened New York’s famous Rialto Deli — it has been since 1999. The Deli Man himself designed his Seven-Layer cake to be a cut above the classic. 

Instead of buttercream, he ups the ante with intense chocolate mousse. A thick layer of ganache surrounds the outsized square slices of almond-bedecked layer cake. This would be my favorite if not for the too-light cake itself. Just a hint more substance, and this would be close to perfection.

The Specialist
Chocolate Doberge, Debbie Does Doberge

  • Cake: White, sturdy but moist
  • Layers: Seven
  • Filling: Custard
  • Exterior: Poured fondant
  • Decorations: You can request buttercream roses or fleurs de lis.
  • Pick up experience: N/A
  • Flavors: Endless, including pistachio, fig/white chocolate/goat cheese, and rum-spiked Bananas Foster.
  • Sizes: 6” through 16”

A designer friend described the cakes here, crafted by Charlotte McGehee and Charles Mary IV, as having the concise beauty of a sports car. Each slice is simply perfect. The balance of each precisely even layer of cake to complementary custard filling feels like eating cake in Plato’s cave.  The care taken in each detail is evident, down to the soft, uncommonly edible fondant coating on each slice, whether it covers a well-spiced carrot cake or indulgently minty chocolate one. 

Is it the best Doberge being produced in the world today? Almost certainly. But right now, the New Orleans company doesn’t ship. (They hope to start again soon.) When it does, this should be the option (smeared) on everyone’s lips. But until then, I’ll fly to New Orleans just to grab a slice of rainbow-striped cake with almond custard and sigh.

The Standout
New Orleans Daubache, The Acadian Bakers

  • Cake: Fluffy vanilla
  • Layers: Six 
  • Filling: Chocolate custard
  • Exterior: Ganache
  • Decorations: Chocolate swirls and hearts, as well as two chocolate-covered strawberries.
  • Pick up experience: Cake was more than an hour late, with little apology.
  • Flavors: Just chocolate
  • Sizes: 9”

The Acadian Bakers has the best Doberge option for a Houston resident; pastry chef Sandra Bubbert has been turning out craveable cakes for more than 36 years. Luminaries from presidents George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton to Reba McIntyre and Arnold Schwarzenegger have tasted her treats, earning her a reputation as “baker to the stars.”

I wasn’t treated like a star with the more than hour-long wait for my cake, despite having set a time for pick-up a week before, but once I tasted it, the frustration fell away. This cake is exactly what a Doberge should be. Sweet, but not overwhelming, decadently chocolaty, and sturdy enough to withstand a hot day on the Gulf Coast. 

3 thoughts on “The Houston Doberge Project

  1. Excellent article. I just returned from New Orleans and had a craving for the 7-layer doberge cakes I remembered from my college days. I couldn’t remember the name of the bakery I used to frequent, but found Gambino’s and had a slice from there before hopping on the plane back to Houston. Was trying to explain this cake to my family and came across this article. We know about Three Brother’s Bakery and Kenny and Ziggy’s, so it was great fun reading the history of the cake and getting the rankings. Thanks for the article.

  2. I’ve had the Doberge from Gambino’s, Acadian (Houston) and Baum’s (Baton Rouge)…imho, Baum’s is the absolute best! Acadian was the worst. I’ve also tried Rao’s, but I don’t see it as a true Doberge cake. In your article, “Debbie does Doberge” has definitely caught my eye and would love to give it a try. It looks fabulous!


    1. Baum’s is 100% the best! It’s been my birthday cake almost all of my 30 years. My husband makes it for me now since Baums doesn’t ship anymore and we are in Houston