Architect Albert Ledner explains that his mother, born Beulah Levy in St. Rose, La., had begun selling her baked goods out of their home kitchen in the university section, when the family’s financial situation demanded a creative solution in the Depression years. “Mrs. Charles Ledner’s Superior Home Baking” was soon relocated to the basement of a raised house at 1200 Lowerline St., where Albert’s grandparents made room in their home for the young family and Beulah’s baking enterprise.
The recipes that Beulah had learned from her own mother had a strong German influence and some were traditional Jewish sweets. In what would be her most memorable creation, a Hungarian specialty was deftly adapted to Louisiana palates.
The dobos tort – a dessert made up of many thin layers of cake with filling in between the layers, which is then entirely frosted and decorated – is still popular in Hungary today. A Web site, Magyargifts.com, will take orders for delivery in Hungary of the “world-renowned Magyar treat, the Dobos Tort: eight slices of heaven with the traditional top.”
The first change Ms. Ledner made was in the name – “dobos” doesn’t sound very French, and knowing that New Orleanians loved their French pastries, she cleverly settled on “doberge,” which sounds about the same. Ms. Ledner’s version used, instead of the heavier butter cream, lighter custard filling between the layers (she preferred separately baked very thin layers). The butter cream, however, would eventually cover the entire cake and another icing would top that. Chocolate and lemon were the most popular flavors but there was also a caramel version at one time.
In the early years on Lowerline Street, the family home housed not only the bakery but also a tearoom where lunch and dinner were served. Albert and his sister Maxine took this family venture in stride: “To tell you the truth, as a youngster I really didn’t think about it. I thought it was very nice.” Albert Ledner admits, recalling that the Newcomb college faculty and students frequented the tearoom and the Ledner family dinner would take place each evening with guests at the other tables. It was always a family venture. “My sister and I were expected to help out, not cooking or baking but folding cake boxes and making deliveries.” Albert Ledner says. Charles Ledner eventually became the full-time business manager and other employees, including the fondly remembered black baker, Bertha Jackson, made the enterprise grow.
Beulah Ledner created coffee cakes, layer cakes, birthday cakes, cookies, candies, tea sandwiches and wedding cakes. Her kitchens could supply anything New Orleanians needed for a party and the business expanded. The bakery moved to 928 Canal St., where it occupied an upper floor but had a display window at ground level. In later years the bakery moved to 2721 South Claiborne Ave.
In 1946, after having struggled with rationing during World War II – a sore trial for a baker – Beulah Ledner’s health forced her to close the business and the complete “Mrs. Charles Ledner” bakery was sold to the Gambino family. After two years of enforced idleness, Beulah Ledner was ready to get back to the mixing bowls. So as not to compete with her prior bakery, in 1948, she moved her business out of New Orleans and used her own name, “Beulah Ledner” in a new location at 2513 Metairie Road in Jefferson Parish. Her husband, Charles, died at few years later but Ledner’s bakery kept growing. She increased wholesale business and became the official supplier of cakes to such demanding clients as the Boston Club – at one point she even had frozen doberge cakes available in supermarkets throughout the area.
By the time of the frozen doberge venture, Beulah Ledner had a new marketing person, her daughter-in-law Judy Ferguson Ledner. And, of course, she baked the cake when Judy married Albert. “We had the wedding at my home, so it wasn’t a huge cake. But it was very pretty – three-tiered, the almond cake and white icing and butter cream, with roses on top,” Judy remembers. Beulah, as “Mimi” was a fond grandmother, always ready to supply extra treats (“I really liked her Plum Kuchen,” Judy adds.)
The Metairie Road location proved to be too small and Albert was the architect and designer for a new bakery. The new location at 3501 Hessemer Ave., also in Metairie, opened in 1970.
Besides her business and her family, Beulah Ledner believed in giving back to her community. In 1977, her friend Chef Warren LeRuth invited her to join him and Chefs Gofreddo Fraccaro and Chris Kerageorgiou in the newly formed Chefs’ Charity for Children benefiting St. Michael’s Special School. At the age of 84, Beulah Ledner happily supplied Apple Kuchen for a dessert.
Beulah Ledner finally retired, at the age of 87, with her last workday being Mother’s Day of 1981. The community didn’t forget her. Her chef friends even gave a special luncheon in her honor at Willow Wood Home when she was a resident there.
The best way to honor a genius in the kitchen is to share her recipes in a cookbook. Let’s Bake with Beulah Ledner: A Legendary New Orleans Lady first came out in 1987 and is now out of print. Maxine Ledner Wolchansky, her Atlanta-based daughter, in her introduction to the collection, expressed her wishes for readers: “May you receive as much joy from Mom’s recipes and life history as I have.” When work on the cookbook began, Albert Ledner had the task of cutting commercial sized recipes down to family size. The all-important testing of the recipes required skilled help. Beulah Ledner worked with her daughter-in-law Judy and Judy’s friends Janice Barton and Olivia Bamforth; the four women would gather in the kitchen at Temple Sinai and bake. Judy and Olivia had long been friends, and shared a love of the theater – in fact, they had regularly performed short programs together for local audiences. Fortunately, Olivia also loved to bake and today continues to bake her own rum cakes, which she markets through Martin’s Wine Cellar for the benefit of her church, Trinity Episcopal. In what proved to be an ecumenical cooking spree (during which the Episcopalian helped produce a Seder dinner), the women carefully baked each cookbook recipe confection. Beulah Ledner supervised. “Mimi was still cooking. She told us what to do. Her memory was really very good.” Olivia explains.
Beulah Ledner died at the age of 94. Her legacy is a sweet one, perhaps best expressed in a tribute to her in her cookbook from a fellow cook, Warren LeRuth, “dobos” and “dobas” and “doberge” can be spelled many different ways but “if anybody asked me, I’d tell them it should be spelled L-E-D-N-E-R.”