A City Drenched in Sugar
By JULIA MOSKIN
NEW ORLEANS — Other cities might be trudging through cabbage season at this point in winter, but New Orleans is eating cake. From Twelfth Night to Mardi Gras, which is Feb. 12 this year, daily consumption of king cake — a round of sweet dough glazed with purple, gold and green sugar — is more or less compulsory. It’s a clue that although this city’s rémoulades and gumbos and Sazeracs are renowned, there is also a world of sweet treats to explore.
“New Orleans is a sugar town, always has been,” said Dwight Henry, the owner of the Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe in the Seventh Ward, who has been baking here for more than 30 years. The region has been coated in the stuff since the 18th century, when spectacular fortunes were amassed on French- and British-owned sugar plantations worked by African slaves all along the River Road between New Orleans and Baton Rouge. Women called pralinières stood streetside in Jackson Square selling pralines, creamy rounds of brown sugar studded with local pecans. When slavery ended, thousands of immigrants from Sicily took jobs in the cane fields, bringing gelato and granita and marzipan to the region.
Today, the remnants of the Louisiana sugar trade are preserved here on menus, in home kitchens and in the memories of citizens whose loyalties to certain bakeries remain part of their local identity. “Whether you get your king cake at Haydel’sor Gambino’s is determined at birth,” said Amanda Hebert, a New Orleans transplant who lives in Los Angeles, referring to two longstanding rival bakeries.
Seven and a half years after Hurricane Katrina devastated the city, its cuisine is thriving again, with many of the old institutions reopened — and lots of new places where the mix of French, Spanish, West African, Sicilian and German influence that formed the local palate is being deliciously reinterpreted.
Because of the city’s unique culinary mix, certain sweets evolved and exist only here, the way lemurs are found only on the isolated island of Madagascar. There are 17-layer cakes called doberges, sugar-dusted rice fritters called calas and Sicilian ice creams in archaic flavors like gelsomino (jasmine) and torroncino (sugared almonds and cinnamon). There are cheap storefront pleasures like sno-balls, scoops of fluffy shaved ice soaked in only-in-New Orleans syrup flavors like nectar, pink squirrel and cream of ice cream. There are famous desserts like bananas Foster, invented at Brennan’s in 1951, and Mrs. Leah Chase’s dense peach cobbler and praline pudding at Dooky Chase; and under-the-radar diner treats like griddled pie at the Camellia Grill, where the cooks push aside burgers cooking on the flat-top to sear slices of pie in the salty fat that remains.
And because New Orleans is quickly becoming one of several delicious laboratories for chefs exploring the past and future of Southern food, there are also pastry chefs making playful hybrids of these deep-rooted desserts, like the bananas Foster-flavored king cake at Domenica, king-cake-flavored macarons at Sucré, and the lemon doberge king cake at Cochon Butcher. “But only from Epiphany to Mardi Gras,” said Rhonda Ruckman, the New Orleans native who oversees the desserts there and at Cochon and Herbsaint with the chef Donald Link. “We are definitely observers of tradition.”
Doberge cakes (pronounced DOUGH-bash) look ordinary — until you cut into one and reveal its many tablet-thin layers of cake and custard, stacked into a delectable mass. The cake was invented during the Great Depression by Beulah Levy Ledner, a local matron who started selling home-baked Dobos tortes to make extra money. She adapted the filling to the Louisiana climate by using custard instead of buttercream, changed the name to appeal to the region’s culinary Francophilia, and became a local legend.
No momentous birthday party or bridal shower in New Orleans is held without a doberge cake, usually filled with chocolate, lemon or caramel. Mrs. Ledner eventually sold her recipe to Joseph Gambino, whose descendants still make the classic, but a new artisan doberge company is now making waves with flavors like Bloody Red Velvet and Sweet Potato Pancake.
“I don’t want to do anything else but cake,” declared Charles Mary, the co-owner of Debbie Does Doberge, a tiny cottage business run by Mr. Mary with his girlfriend, Charlotte McGehee. Ms. McGehee, who has described herself as “a little O.C.D.,” has made the doberge even more complex, with eight layers of cake, pudding and fruit filling, and glass-smooth icing that enrobes the outside. The pair are just the kind of young, endearingly single-minded food entrepreneurs commonly spotted in Brooklyn and Portland, Ore., who carry a torch for tradition but yearn to express their creative urges.
Arthur Brocato, who runs the ice cream and pastry business started by his grandfather Angelo Brocato in 1905, is a keeper of the Sicilian flame. In his Mid-City shop, he still makes spumoni, lemon granita, gelati and cannoli as Angelo did in Palermo, where he apprenticed as a teenager and became a master gelataio. (Arthur used to make marzipan, too, but Hurricane Katrina’s floodwaters ruined the plaster-of-paris molds that Angelo used.) St. Joseph, the patron saint of Sicily, is also the patron saint of confectioners, and St. Joseph’s Day, March 19, is a citywide holiday here, with home altars holding sweets like Mr. Brocato’s cucidati, fig cookies sprinkled with rainbow nonpareils, and biscotti regina, coated with sesame seeds.
Variations on fried dough are beloved here. According to local legend (and Krispy Kreme official history), the yeast-raised beignets of New Orleans are the likely source for the “secret” Krispy Kreme doughnut recipe.
At Mr. Henry’s bakery in the Seventh Ward, the main trade is in yeast-raised doughnuts and buttermilk drops, cake doughnuts the size of a baby’s fist, fried to a tobacco brown and sugar-glazed. He also makes an old-school shoe sole (a flat piece of cinnamon dough the size of a piece of paper), and he’ll even deep-fry an entire king cake to order, a style that has become popular around the city.
Recently, Mr. Henry has been forced to leave his bakery occasionally — under protest, he says — to hit the film awards circuit, because of his starring role as Wink in “Beasts of the Southern Wild.” (The filmmakers became regulars at the Buttermilk Drop when shooting was under way and eventually cast him in the role, for which he won the Los Angeles Film Critics Association prize for best supporting actor.) Through the movie business, Mr. Henry met the New York City restaurateur Richard Notar, who plans to reopen the much-mourned Lenox Lounge in Harlem this spring; if all goes according to plan, Mr. Henry will open a branch of his bakery next door.
So for New Yorkers and other novices, here are some king cake basics: It is a sweet ring of brioche dough streaked with cinnamon, like a coffeecake. (A note for pastry nerds; it is not descended from the buttery northern French galette des rois, but more likely from the colorful southern French gâteau des rois.)
King cake is popular all over this region, but in New Orleans it is always striped with green, gold and purple sugar — the colors that represent faith, power and justice in the complex symbolism of the Mardi Gras, decreed by parade clubs or “krewes” here in the 19th century. The most traditional cakes are braided, but they can be filled with cream cheese, fruit filling, pudding or all of the above. (A local actor, Lawrence Beron, stars in a series of YouTube videos mocking the competitive excess of king cake bakeries.)
Since almost no one bakes king cake at home, bakers say a solid annual trade has helped keep them going after Katrina.
Today, the city has a host of variations. At Sucré, the chef Tariq Hanna has tamed the cake’s undeniable gaudiness, draping it in pastel shades of spray sugar; his filling is also one of the best in town. At Cochon Butcher in the Warehouse district, Ms. Ruckman makes fat individual cakes filled with a fresh apple compote and house-made Creole cream cheese — a fluffy, farmer-style local specialty. This year one of the largest krewes, Zulu, has designated an official king cake of its own, filled with coconut.
Most important, each king cake conceals a bite-size figurine, usually of a baby that traditionally represents Jesus. (The year after Katrina, Haydel’s Bakery made them in the shape of a FEMA trailer.) Whoever finds the baby in his slice has to hold the next party and buy the next cake — thus, the continuity of king cake season is preserved. “My mama would get so mad at us if we got the baby,” Mr. Henry said, smiling as he remembered his childhood in the Lower Ninth Ward. “King cake was expensive back then.”
These places, all in the New Orleans area, are good for king cakes and other sweet treats:
Angelo Brocato Ice Cream and Confectionery, 214 North Carrollton Avenue, (504) 486-0078, angelobrocatoicecream.com
Buttermilk Drop Bakery and Cafe, 1781 North Dorgenois Street, (504) 252-4538, buttermilkdrop.com
Camellia Grill (French Quarter), 540 Chartres Street, (504) 522-1800
Cochon Butcher, 930 Tchoupitoulas Street, (504) 588-7675, cochonbutcher.com
Domenica, 123 Baronne Street, (504) 648-6020, domenicarestaurant.com
Gambino’s, 4821 Veterans Memorial Boulevard, (504) 885-7500, gambinos.com
Haydel’s Bakery, 4037 Jefferson Highway, (800) 442-1342, haydelbakery.com
Sucré, 3025 Magazine Street, (504) 520-8311, shopsucre.com