Lavishly Layered

Eugenia Uhl

It’s true: You can never have too many cookbooks, but no matter how much I organize them, sometimes I can’t find one.

Alas, I found Let’s Bake with Beulah Ledner hidden between two large books. No longer in print, it has special meaning to me, but because of its size it easily disappears in the cracks.

When I was a very young girl, my mother and I would hop a train from Memphis to New Orleans to visit my grandmother and uncles. These trips were a highlight of my childhood. New Orleans, I thought, had to be the most exciting city on earth.

Not the least of the fun was stopping on Metairie Road at a special bakery. In my mind’s eye I can still see the eclairs lined up next to the creampuffs, one with chocolate icing, the other sprinkled with powdered sugar. In another case were the layered cakes, not like the two layers I knew, but with so many layers I could hardly count them. Beulah Ledner’s was my personal chocolate factory, and my favorite treats were the doberge cake and eclairs.

Ledner’s daughter, Maxine Wolchansky, published her mother’s recipes in 1987, acknowledging that many friends and relatives hailed the legendary baker as the “doberge queen of New Orleans.”

From a family of Jewish immigrants, Ledner was born Beulah Levy in St. Rose in 1894. She married Charles Ledner and, suffering during the Great Depression, began baking and selling her pastries from home. Eventually, she opened a tea room in the basement of their Uptown home on Upperline Street, serving Newcomb and Tulane students and faculty at what her daughter described as the “in” place to eat. From there, she moved her bakery to Canal Street, then South Claiborne Avenue. At age 52, she suffered a heart attack and, upon the advice of her physician, sold the business – recipes and all – to Joe Gambino with the agreement she couldn’t reopen within Orleans Parish for five years.

“A year of miserable idleness was all Beulah could stand,” wrote her daughter. “So she began looking for a new location.” In 1948 the Ledners found an old grocery store at 1413 Metairie Road in Jefferson Parish and remodeled it to suit their needs. She named it Beulah Ledner, Inc., having sold the original name of “Mrs. Charles Ledner,” and operated there until ’70 when a new building designed by her son Albert opened on Hessmer Avenue in Metairie. She retired in ’81 at the age of 87.

According to her daughter, Ledner’s signature doberge cake was an adaptation of the famous Hungarian/Austrian dobos torta, a rich cake that she considered too heavy for the New Orleans climate. So she changed the filling for the thin layers of cake from butter cream to a lighter custard, and substituted a French name to suit the locale.

In a tribute to Ledner in the cookbook, the late Warren LeRuth, one of New Orleans’ most celebrated chefs, said, “Probably the most popular cake in New Orleans, the multi-layered French doberge, was practically her invention. She got it from the French, of course, but she was the first one to do it in New Orleans and she did it best. And since she introduced it, everybody has been making them. You see them spelled ‘dobash,’ or ‘dobos,’ or ‘doh-badge,’ or even ‘do-baj.’ But they’re all the same. If anybody asked me, I’d tell them it should be spelled ‘L-e-d-n-e-r.’”

Her doberge torte is a cake for those who love to bake or are looking for something spectacular. Make it when you have a whole morning or afternoon, because there are four recipes involved.  It has eight thin layers, which can be made with two or four 9-inch baking pans, according to the size of your oven. Much easier is the creampuff, a classic choux pastry filled with vanilla custard and topped with powdered sugar. The same pastry is used for the eclair in an elongated shape. The eclair requires both chocolate custard and chocolate icing on top.

Here are her famous recipes from Let’s Bake With Beulah Ledner with a few clarifications in the directions.

DOBERGE TORTE
1 1/2 sticks butter
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon salt
4 eggs, separated
1 cup milk
3 teaspoons baking powder
3 1/2 cups cake flour (after
      being sifted)
1 teaspoon vanilla
Scant teaspoon lemon juice

Grease 9-inch cake pans. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.

In a mixer, cream butter, sugar and salt until smooth. Add egg yolks, one at a time, and blend until smooth. Add sifted dry ingredients alternately with milk. Beat until blended. Add vanilla and lemon juice and fold in stiffly beaten egg whites.

Pour 3/4 cup batter into each pan, spreading evenly over bottom. Bake for 12 to 15 minutes. Repeat baking process until batter is used entirely. This results in 8 thin layers. When cool, fill layers with Chocolate Custard Filling (see recipe). Spread Chocolate Butter Cream Icing (see recipe) over top and sides. Chill before frosting.

Frost with Always Delicious Chocolate Icing (see recipe).

CHOCOLATE CUSTARD FILLING
2 cups sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons flour
4 tablespoons cornstarch
2 heaping tablespoons cocoa
4 whole eggs
1 tablespoon butter, melted
4 tablespoons bitter chocolate, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla
4 cups milk

Mix all dry ingredients together in a saucepan. Add the whole eggs, butter, bitter chocolate, vanilla and milk. Mix and cook over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from fire to cool.

CHOCOLATE BUTTER CREAM ICING
2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
1/2 pound oleo (margarine)
1 cup cocoa
1 1-ounce square bitter
      chocolate, melted
1 teaspoon vanilla

Cream sugar and oleo. Add cocoa, then bitter chocolate and vanilla. If too thick, add a little hot water very slowly until consistency is right.

ALWAYS DELICIOUS
CHOCOLATE ICING

1 cup light brown sugar
1 cup white sugar
4 squares semi-sweet
      chocolate, melted
1/2 stick butter
3/4 cup cream
1 teaspoon vanilla

Combine all ingredients, bring slowly to a boil. Boil for about 10 minutes until icing thickens. Beat until thick enough to spread.

CREAMPUFFS
1 stick butter
1 cup water
Dash salt
1 cup flour
4 large eggs

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spray or grease a baking pan.

In a large saucepan, combine the butter, water and salt. Over medium heat, bring to boiling. Remove from heat and add flour all at once, stirring with a wooden spoon. Over medium heat, stir until the mixture until it forms a ball of dough that doesn’t stick to the sides of the pan. Place mixture in a mixer, and beat in eggs, one at a time, until the batter is smooth. The dough should be well-mixed and shiny.

Drop dough onto cookie sheet by large spoonfuls, about 2 inches across and 2 inches apart, or use a pastry bag. Bake for 35 to 40 minutes or until puffed and golden brown. Puffs should sound hollow when lightly tapped. Cool before filling. These can be filled with custard or whipped cream and dusted with confectioners’ sugar.

For eclairs, make puffs elongated, fill with chocolate custard and ice with chocolate icing.

Makes about 12 puffs.

VANILLA CUSTARD
1 cup sugar
2 tablespoons cornstarch
Pinch salt
2 eggs
2 tablespoons butter, melted
2 cups milk
1 teaspoon vanilla

Mix all dry ingredients together in a saucepan. Add eggs, butter, milk and vanilla. Cook over medium heat until thick, stirring constantly. Remove from fire and cool.

To use as filling for cream puffs, either pipe the custard through a hole in each puff, or slice in half and fill. Then sprinkle with confectioners’ sugar.

 

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