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Seven Layers of Heaven

It’s long been a staple of the Jewish bakeries. Now you can make a perfect seven-layer cake at home.

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(Anthony Palatta)

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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The seven layer cake at Gideon’s bakery on 187th Street in Washington Heights is really good (much better than Stage Deli’s). They have really good black and whites also.

iprazhm says:

Aaron Hamburger said,
“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.”
Since when is it acceptable for jewish boys to dream of kissing blond-haired WASPy boys in high school?
Was this a Freudian slip because it sure has nothing to do with mom’s 7 layer cake.
So what? Can we next expect an article on lamb chops where the author contemplates whether or not he would rather prepare them or copulate with them?
No no not for me. i don’t have a lock on my cable tv blocking the filthy garbage it wants to thrust into our livingroom, just to read perverse sexual thoughts placed in my head by a ‘jewish’ web article.
Bye bye in a real and permanent way.

You kind of had me at cake, and then i learn there is an encyclopeida of jewish food?! NOM NOM NOM

lieselg says:

Or you could take two Entenmann’s or even Sara Lee pound cakes or two Osem ounce cakes for Passover, slice them sideways, assemble with chocolate frosting and cover with your dark ganache or the same frosting. You left out the apricot jam on top under the ganache or spread thinly on every layer. I’ve also made the layers on the greased outside of layer cake pans inverted on the shelves of my oven for a couple of minutes the way they did in Hungary. Easy. To iprazhm, was that really necessary? You could donate to the hungry the money you’d save thinking about chickens rather than lambs. You owe the writer an apology before next year, and probably a nice Jewish grandma, too, after you’ve read this.

This article made my day! I was born in the Detroit suburbs and my
parents both grew up there. Every time we visit, we go straight to
Zeman’s in Oak Park for seven layer cake and we call it dobosh torte since that’s what my Hungarian great-grandparents called it. Yum!

Althelion says:

I’m also from the Detroit area – still live in the exurbs. I make the trek back to Zeman’s most every week for seven layer cake. In my family, we eat seven layer cake layer by layer, from the bottom up.

My favorite dessert. Redolent of Kingston Avenue and Nana’s House. Along with it’s milchik cousin, the Black and White Circle. Later, stuck in San Francisco, I found these to be made of unobtainium.

They are easy to find in New York, of course, and in South Florida.

That’s the only way to eat it!

Zingerman’s recently started selling the dobos of fame. It is truly delectable. More moist than Star and Mertz’ bakeries, the sponge is perfect, but also quadruple the cost. The first time I ate it, I said to myself that it was the origin of Seven Layer Cake.

gingersnap222 says:

Bye!

Rebecca Klempner says:

It’s the week we’ll be reading Noah’s story in shul. Make the cake rainbow cake (by adding a couple drops of food coloring to each later) this week and it’ll be perfect! In Baltimore, we grew up eating rainbow cake for Shabbos. Schnell & Azman vs Goldman’s was a heated debate in our family. Now that I live in L.A., it’s all about Schwartz’s seven-layer—but I always wish it were rainbow-colored.

Haha yeah that was really TWISTED! An internet article with a personal anecdote – clearly forbidden in the Torah – and one that referenced budding HOMOSEXUALITY! #abomination bro. For realz though, this dude needs to eat a couple of these: http://www.deerfieldsbakery.com/images%5Citems%5Ccookies%5CCookies-Decorated-Happy-Face-Yellow_MD.jpg

Haha yeah that was really TWISTED! An internet article with a personal anecdote – clearly forbidden in the Torah – and one that referenced budding HOMOSEXUALITY! #abomination bro. For realz though, this dude needs to eat a couple of these: http://www.deerfieldsbakery.com/images%5Citems%5Ccookies%5CCookies-Decorated-Happy-Face-Yellow_MD.jpg

I grew up watching our cake baker assemble 7-Layer cakes in our family bakery. Always my favorite. I’ve never baked one myself, but I’m tempted to try. I prefer to make a real buttercream using sugar syrup at 235 degrees, beaten egg yolks and sweat. But to each his own. Thanks for a great article.

Wow, shame on you. Shame. On. You.

What does your gay fantasy have to do with the article? What does your sexuality have to do with it? It is not relevant, please cover the topic without filling me about your personal lifestyle choices. Thank you.

Terrific, nostalgic article. Why a seven-layer cake is imbued with so much emotion is still somewhat of a mystery, but it is. Similar to Rainbow cookies, which really aren’t cookies. Thank you for finding the joy. Wish you would share your recipe!!! But, I suspect it is like any good Jewish recipe – a bit of this, a pinch of that…

A bigot by any name is still a bigot. Clearly, you haven’t read much, to know that insight into the author is what gives an article more appeal. The more specific a piece, the more universal it becomes. If you really read the article, you would have seen that the cake provided a source of comfort at a very insecure time. But, your blindness to anyone with emotions other than your own is a statement about your intolerance. GOODBYE!

Wish I didn’t feel the need to respond to some of the comments, but, hey I do. This is what Aaron wrote:

“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.”

So heartened to see the objectors taken to task. Had Aaron left out this one sentence, the objectors would have been satisfied, able to naturally assume the author was straight. But, anything that changes this notion of all the world being straight, sends them flying into a bigoted rage. Aaron, thank you for giving us more insight into yourself.

Great writing and I love the reality of it all. Don’t let the negative comments bother you. Dobosh Torte is one of my favorites.

VRGordon says:

Great article,had me longing for the cakes of my youth, thank you for your writing. Don’t quite understand your negative comments, are these authors reading articles just looking for ways to insult the writer, and find fault?
Pay no attention to your detractors, I know that I didn’t.

Ann Teixeira says:

What type of knife did you use to slice your 7 Layer cake for serving?

2000

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Seven Layers of Heaven

It’s long been a staple of the Jewish bakeries. Now you can make a perfect seven-layer cake at home.

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