What's The Difference Between Maryland's Smith Island Cake And New Orleans's Doberge Cake?

It’s all about the filling.

Smith Island Cake beside Red Velvet Doberge Cake

Left: Caitlin Bensel; Food Styling: Torie Cox | Right: Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Lydia Pursell; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

At first glance, the similar delicate layers of yellow cake and rich fudge frosting may lead you to mistake Maryland’s Smith Island cake for New Orleans’ Doberge cake, or vice versa. But while the two confections are similar in appearance, residents of both locations will be the first to tell you that they are not one and the same—especially when it comes to their history.

So, what’s the difference between Maryland’s Smith Island Cake and New Orleans’s Doberge cake? We talked with local experts to find out.

Lemon-and-Chocolate Doberge Cake
Photo: Victor Protasio; Prop Styling: Cindy Barr; Food Styling: Torie Cox

First, a true Doberge cake has at least six layers of yellow butter cake. In the classic version, the layers of filling are either chocolate or lemon—made of pudding or custard, or chocolate ganache or lemon curd—used in combination with a cooked, poured icing on top, explains Charlotte McGehee, owner of New Orleans bakery Debbie Does Doberge.

This is a main point of difference from a Smith Island cake, which is typically filled and topped with cooked fudge icing or, more modernly, chocolate buttercream. Smith Island cake also typically has more layers (at least seven, but sometimes up to a dozen). 

When made correctly, Doberge cake should be moist, thanks to the many layers of filling, but not overly frosted. "Less should be more with the icing," says McGehee. "No heaps of buttercream for ‘I-don’t-eat-icing’ people to scrape off; just a delicate shell of ganache." Because of the nature of the filling, Doberge cakes should be stored in the refrigerator.

Various bakeries around New Orleans have varied interpretations of the Doberge cake, so it can be tough to define what’s "true" Doberge these days. For instance, McGehee’s 16 different flavors of Doberge cakes feature seven layers, mainly due to production technique and shipping box height, and white layers rather than yellow.

McGehee’s team is also more heavy-handed with fillings than some other makers of Doberge. "Our pudding layers serve almost as layers in their own right," she says. They finish cakes with a crumb coat of buttercream topped with poured fondant icing.

Red Velvet Doberge Cake With Cheesecake Custard

Antonis Achilleos; Prop Stylist: Lydia Pursell; Food Stylist: Emily Nabors Hall

Aside from the look and fillings of Doberge cake, its history is vastly different from that of Smith Island cake, which dates back a century to fishermen’s wives sending out large hunks of the cake with their husbands as sustenance out at sea.

Doberge can be traced back to the 1930s to a New Orleans pastry chef named Beulah Levy Ledner, who adapted the Hungarian/Austrian cake known as Dobos torte from a heavy, multi-layered, buttercream-filled cake to a lighter version using custard that was better suited to the New Orleans climate, says McGehee. 

Along with the changes she made to cake itself, Ledner also decided to change the name of her new creation to "Doberge," for the sole reason that it sounded more French, says Poppy Tooker, host of the "Louisiana Eats!" radio show and a New Orleans food authority. “New Orleans people are a little peculiar [in that] we pronounce things that are spelled the same completely differently,” she explains. (Ask a local how they say the street Terpsichore, and you’ll see what she means.) If you’re talking about the cake down in The Big Easy, you may find some pronounce it as “dough-bear-g,” while others may say “dough-bash,” Tooker says.

Ledner sold the cakes out of her bakery that she eventually sold to Gambino’s Bakery, which still exists today and is known for its Doberge cakes. She’s largely responsible for the New Orleans tradition of celebrating with these indulgent layers (and maybe enjoying a leftover slice from the fridge the next morning with a cup of coffee).

"If you’re from here, you probably grew up on Doberge birthdays," says McGehee. "New Orleanians decide they love a thing, and they love the hell out of it."

Whether you’re serving up a Smith Island cake or a Doberge cake, the differences become peripheral once your guests take their first bite.

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