When I was a moody kid growing up in Detroit’s Jewish suburbs, the prosaically named seven-layer cake was the stuff of my dreams: seven impossibly thin and golden spongy planks of cake glued together with thin stripes of fluffy chocolate cream, all coated in a velvety dark chocolate glaze.
Reality, however, didn’t always live up to my dreams. The quality of seven-layer cakes varied widely from bakery to bakery. Sometimes the sponge was dry, stale, or tasted frozen, or the chocolate was sloppily applied. Sometimes the cakes were cut into tiny three-tiered bits for synagogue kiddush, thereby losing their seven-layer majesty—though they were still referred to by the iconic number “seven.”
But that cake was always there for me. First, as a restless boy counting the minutes until the end of services on Saturday morning. Then, as a lonely adolescent seeking solace at the dessert table at a bar mitzvah party while the rest of my classmates had successfully paired up for a slow dance. And finally, as a sullen teenager dreaming of kissing the blond-haired WASPy boys at my high school instead of the dark-haired girls in my Jewish youth group. That cake was my comfort through it all.
And yet the strange thing about seven-layer cake is that though it was always around, it always came from somewhere else, never homemade. When I asked my mother, a skilled baker of kugels, rugelach, and other Jewish desserts, if she’d ever tried her hand at seven-layer cake, she replied, “Why bother? You buy it at the store.”
Maybe so. Still, I was intrigued. Could I actually recreate a seven-layer cake in my own kitchen, even develop an easy-to-make version that home cooks anywhere, especially ones who lived far from a good Jewish bakery, could replicate? I was determined to try. At the very least, I might better understand the miracle of that cake I’d eaten so often, yet knew so little about.
According to Gil Marks’ Encyclopedia of Jewish Food, seven-layer cake is actually a variation on the classic multilayered, drum-shaped Hungarian torte known as a “dobos,” whose namesake, pastry chef Josef Dobos, invented the cake at the end of the 19th century.
As it traveled across the ocean to the United States, the dobos torte underwent a few changes, including its name. For example, in the New Orleans version, known as “doberge” cake, the Hungarian buttercream filling was replaced with custard, while the outside of the cake was covered in fondant instead of the original caramel.
In Jewish bakeries, where it became a holiday and Shabbat dessert staple, the cake was called “dobosh” (to reflect its Hungarian pronunciation) as well as “seven-layer cake,” and was sold in rectangular and round versions. Here, the caramel topping was replaced by dark chocolate.
“Many of the Jewish bakeries in America were run by Germans, Austrians, or Hungarians,” Marks told me. “They brought over to the new world a passion for dobos torte, which they transferred to the less baking-adept Eastern Europeans.” According to Marks, the appeal of the cake lay not only in the “wow factor” of its appearance, but also in its practicality: “The cake could be made pareve, and the frosting keeps it fresh for many days, even at room temperature.”
As I looked for some advice about how to make a perfect cake at home, I spoke to a couple of Jewish seven-layer cake purveyors in Manhattan, including Herb Glaser of Glaser’s Bake Shop, an Upper East Side landmark founded by his grandfather in 1902. “There’s no major trick,” said the baker, who starts with two thick layers of sponge cake, which he carefully splits into several thin layers and then fills. Glaser prefers the round shape, which he believes helps keep the cake from drying out. “They’re a little tedious,” he said, “but most baking is. It’s an assembly project. As long as you use high-quality ingredients, you really can’t go wrong.”
While Glaser’s cakes use dairy products, the cakes at Moishe’s Bakery in the East Village are pareve, made with oil, margarine, and vegetable shortening. Owner Moishe Perl, whose father was also a Jewish baker, has been making his seven-layer cakes the same way since 1947. “Some places are making it too sweet. Ours is low-sweet,” said Perl in his Yiddish accent, “European style.”
First, Perl bakes his sponge cakes in large rectangular sheets. Then they’re covered in mocha cream, stacked, and pressed overnight so the layers stay together and achieve their characteristic thinness. The following day, they’re cut into smaller cakes and covered in chocolate.
When asked if his cake is exactly seven layers, Perl didn’t seem as concerned with the actual number as he did with achieving a sturdy finished cake that wouldn’t topple over: “Some people say it’s six, some people say it’s seven. It depends if you count the bottom or top layer [of chocolate]. It shouldn’t be too high or it falls apart.”
Unlike Glaser, Perl believes firmly that the ability to bake these cakes or any cake is just something you’re born with. “Some people, you could try to teach them, they could never be a baker,” said Perl. “It needs a certain talent, a certain feeling that you have.”
Armed with that knowledge (and a bit daunted by Perl’s warning), I tackled the three parts of the cake: the sponge, the chocolate filling, and the chocolate glaze.
I began by comparing sponge cake recipes from various cookbooks, magazines, and websites: Jewish, Hungarian, as well as all-American classics like Joy of Cooking. Most of the recipes called for round cakes like Glaser’s. I could either bake two large layers and split them into six or seven smaller layers—a real challenge—or bake several shallow rounds one or two at a time—a real patchke. Ultimately, I decided to bake one large, thin rectangular layer and cut it into panels. The rectangular shape was closer to the version I’d grown up with, and besides, it seemed somewhat easier.
First, I tried making a rich New Orleans-style doberge cake, but the tender butter-based cake broke apart into crumbs when I tried slicing it. Also, I found that Perl’s advice about “low-sweet” cakes was correct: The intensely sugary cake overwhelmed rather than complemented the chocolate filling.
Next, I tried a few simple egg-based sponge cake recipes. Some were too thick. Others were the right thinness but dried out quickly and tasted like an eggy pancake. In the end, the winning recipe was a variation on a classic genoise, a compromise between Julia Child and Joy of Cooking. The trick, I found, was beating plenty of air into the eggs—it really helps to have a stand mixer for this—and making a small enough batch of batter so it will spread thinly in the baking pan.
The next problem was the filling, which I wanted to be rich yet easy to make. Classic chocolate buttercreams, while delicious, take time, patience, and quite a few pots and pans—not what you want to contend with when you’re making a three-part cake. To achieve the lightness and richness of buttercream without the fuss, I lightened my filling with room-temperature cream cheese, which was absolutely delicious. As a non-dairy alternative, I’d suggest my runner-up filling, made with margarine and confectioner’s sugar. Though not quite as rich or light as the cream cheese version, it has a definitive chocolate flavor.
The outside coat of chocolate was the easiest part to get right: a simple bittersweet chocolate ganache that balances the sweetness of the filling.
With all my elements in place, I performed the assembly operation, let it set for an hour, then sliced and enjoyed. The result was a light-as-air cake sandwiched with a tangy-yet-sweet chocolate cream, and coated in dark, fudgy ganache.
Just as good as Mom used to buy.
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