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Aug 4, 2011 03:54 PM

Looking for a cake

After posting to "What is SF missing" thread and recalling some old time goodies, I thought about the favorite cake from my youth. It's something I don't see much in NY anymore and have never seen in San Francisco.

In fact, I realized that I seldom eat cake anymore (probably a good thing). When I moved here, I noticed that bakeries sell different items and most have a very different small (I once walked into a place on Van Ness that had the smell I grew up with and it brought the memory back). When I first moved to the South Bay, I was surprised by the highly sweet and very dense cakes.

I now realize that there are plenty of high quality bakeries here serving all kinds of excellent treats (and great bread).

The cake that I'm looking for was sold at Ashkenazi Jewish bakeries. I don't know if it was unique to those bakeries, but certainly didn't exist at Italian bakeries (those where the two most common types in the neighborhoods).

The cake I miss is a three layer cake that is very similar to the 7-Layer Cake. If I recall correctly, it was a yellow, buttery cake (fairly light and dry). Between layers was a mocha buttercream. Outside of cake was a hardened chocolate shell. There must be a name of the cake batter that I can't recall just now (is it a sponge cake?)

I've tasted bad versions of the cake, but when it's good, it's really nice.

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      1. re: myst

        Dobos Torte has five layers and is topped with caramel.

        1. re: Robert Lauriston

          It's possibly related in the sense that the Dobos Torte is related to the seven layer cake. But, there are enough differences so that a Dobos Torte won't satisfy my desire to find such a cake.

          However, there is probably a Central / Eastern European origin to the cake. In that sense, pointing me at a baker who does a good Dobos Torte may be a useful lead. Ideas?

          1. re: jman1

            Crixa does a great job with Eastern European cakes.


            Crixa Cakes
            2748 Adeline St, Berkeley, CA 94703

            1. re: Robert Lauriston

              Thanks. Been looking for a reason to go there. I don't see the cake I am looking for on their web page, but would still like to visit. Any Jewish connection there?

              The only hit for Dobos Torte on Yelp was Tartine, and I know they're not the right place for my search.

              1. re: jman1

                Try Grand Bakery. Make that 50.

                PS: Chowhound on Dobos Torte

                Grand Bakery
                3264 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610

                1. re: jman1

                  "Any Jewish connection there?"

                  Not directly, but Crixa is a take on Hungarian-Eastern European, and they specialize in similar cakes to what you're describing. You can also try Schubert's which has some spongier cakes, and the Russian bakeries in the Richmond, but they're usually comically dense. Cinderella Bakery might have it. Grand Bakery is really the only old Jewish bakery left.

                  Do you recall which bakeries had it in New York?

                  Grand Bakery
                  3264 Grand Ave, Oakland, CA 94610

                  Cinderella Bakery
                  436 Balboa St, San Francisco, CA 94118

                  1. re: sugartoof

                    I find Crixa under-flavorful in general, except maybe the ginger cake.

                    1. re: sugartoof

                      "Do you recall which bakeries had it in New York?"

                      I believe that the bakery we used to buy it from was called Belle Harbor Bakery; as you might guess, in Belle Harbor, Queens. Was always good there until the owner retired and sold it to "the Russians". I believe that it went out of business after that.

                      Lords, on Nostrand near Flatbush did a version. I once tried it after after the Belle Harbor version was no longer available and did not find it to be good.

                      1. re: jman1

                        I did stop in at Crixa today. I was impressed. I wound up enjoying a slice of Sour Cherry Pie and a coffee. The pie was very good. I didn't need/enjoy the whipped cream that was suggested by the cashier, but that didn't detract.

                        I talked to a man who seemed like he could be the owner about the cake I was trying to find. When I mentioned 7 Layer, he said that it's really the Dobos Torte. OK. When asked, he said it was something that they didn't do as it was too labor intensive.

                        He did have an idea about the sort of cake that I wanted and made a few suggestions among the cakes that they made (although they had none at the time). My memory and ability to understand the names fails me a bit (I can't seem to locate the two cakes on their online menu).

                        The one that he thought most similar was something like a "Stefani Cake". He suggested another that was different, but thought I might like based on my description. I believe it had some chocolate layers and might have include marzipan or almonds (could have been Rigo Jancsi). Oh, and he also mentioned the Magda Torta as well.

                        Seems that they do different cakes on different days; although most seem to be available by advance order.

                        Oh, and they seemed kind of serious about their business, which is good.

                        1. re: jman1

                          The owners of Crixa are nothing if not serious. Good luck trying to coax a smile!

                          In any case, I usually stick to their excellent pies and buns, so have little experience with the cake selection. But it's a quality place.

          2. My grandparents had an Ashkenazi bakery but it was maybe too far east as my grandfather came from outside Odessa and concentrated on bread and yeast-driven baked goods. But my grandmother came from further west and made some Viennese-inspired desserts on occasion, though usually dessert was not a big thing after a meat meal, like at dinner. Probably because we were too stuffed from the heavy, often fat-laden food and because, aside from honey cake and twice-cooked almond zweibach (basically biscotti) and sponge cake, frosting was believed best made with butter or cream cheese and that couldn't be eaten after a meat meal.

            She made Dobos torte from time to time and it ALWAYS had 7 layers--fewer layers were the sign of a not-so-competent baker who couldn't handle the delicate layers! It was covered all over in chocolate and then had caramel arranged atop that. And she made a killer carrot cake stuffed with carrots. But what you are talking about might be what is basically a 1-2-3-4 cake (1 cup butter, 2 cups sugar, 3 cups flour, 4 eggs and then leavening, salt, vanilla, etc.), which is traditionally 3 layers. It can be frosted with whatever flavors you like but if there's a fragrance you can't find when looking for this cake, it might be that walnuts or almonds were ground and baked in the cake or put into the frosting between the layers. Nuts were so commonly used in Eastern European baking that it was almost "goyische" to have a cake without nuts.

            You might approach a bakery or wedding cake baker to make you a cake like this if you don't want to bake yourself.

            10 Replies
            1. re: rccola

              The Dobos I used to get from the Hungarian baker behind LA Childrens Hospital had more than 5 layers but Robert says 5, no doubt because Wikipedia says 5 and Wikipedia is never wrong. You say zweibach and I say mandelbrot?

              1. re: wolfe

                My grandmother said both but I forgot mandelbrot! Mein kopf is nisht mehr Idish. You are absolutely right about Dobos(h) tortes. And I'm not sure she always put caramel on top, possibly because I loathe caramel.

                Mandelbrot (as you obviously know) only means "almond bread" and zweibach is "twice-baked," a bow to the fact that you bake a flattish cake first, then slice and re-bake the slices. Can break a tooth on some of them. (Info for non-baker-types.)

                But then she used to speak a lot of Yinglish: keekumber, gehackte haigplan...

                1. re: wolfe

                  It's a game with some bakers to see how many layers they can stack into a Dobos Torte, but there have to be at least five.

                  1. re: Robert Lauriston

                    Not a game, a tradition. At least 7. 5 is for babies.

                    1. re: rccola

                      My mandelbrot comes with a warning to dunk before eating.

                      1. re: wolfe

                        Do you personally bake mandelbrot?

                        1. re: rccola

                          Sometimes purposely and some times by accident. My Italian bread concoction didn't rise so I sliced it diagonally and baked it again. Also Larrabaru style sour dough and several other breads.

                          1. re: wolfe


                            I shall go look up Larrabaru style sour dough. I quit making bread-bread when we moved from high Rockies to the Bay Area. No good bread there and when we moved all I thought was Thank God!

                2. re: rccola

                  I was thinking these cakes sounded more Viennese than anything.

                3. jman1, I have to thank you for posting this. It reminded me that my grandfather made a cake I have thought of fondly for decades. it had a topping of butter and sugar that melted together and then cracked so that it looked like a map of a river delta. I don't remember what the cake underneath was like except it was only about 1-2" high and I don't know if I even liked the cake as I prefer bread but it was a childhood memory with meaning. (It must have been good as it sold out quickly.) I couldn't remember or find out what the cake was called but somehow your post led me to remember enough that I found that my grandfather was making a Blechkuchen (sheet cake) variant Zuckerkuchen (sugar cake). (I also discovered I can now translate very little German. Thank God Google can!)

                  Doubt I'll make one as no one in my house would even try the cake but I do feel all warm and fuzzy inside.

                  2 Replies
                  1. re: rccola

                    Thanks. Your cake description earlier sounds about right. Could be that it was just a lazy version of a 7-layer or Dobos. I'll have to order one or the other when next given the opportunity.

                    Relatives on my mother's side used to own a bread bakery on the NY area. One of her grandfathers was also a baker; we have a copy of an old trade article when he was one of the first to add electric lights to his bakery.

                    My dad recalls that his mother used to bake cakes for the family multiple times a week. Seems a bit much. ;-)

                    1. re: jman1

                      Many years ago I babysat for an Estonian family - on a rare occasion they made Dobos- with seven layers, but it seemed a task. So commercial baker may well make something similar, but less delicate and time-consuming......

                      Good Luck finding something close!

                      BTW I love Crixa's Lemon cake......

                  2. There is something similar at Saul's Deli in Berkeley, although I can't say I would recommend it. I wanted chocolate cake and what they had was the mocha cake. The mocha layers were very whipped and not at all as good as the chocolate layer cake I had there a year previously.

                    Saul's Deli
                    1475 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley, CA 94709

                    1. Have you been to Schubert's? I can't speak to a dobos torte, and I don't see one on their website, but they have wonderful old-fashioned Eastern European cream cakes.

                      They're also friendly, not expensive, and at worst you'd end up with a slice of kremeschnitte or Princess cake.

                      Schubert's Bakery
                      521 Clement St, San Francisco, CA 94118

                      4 Replies
                      1. re: Windy

                        I did in the past, but not recently. When I tried it before, I did not find the style of baked good on offer to be similar to what I experienced.

                        I had to look up the website to see what cream cakes where. I see, like a strawberry shortcake.

                        1. re: jman1

                          I was referring to the Viennese cakes and pastries.

                          A lot of the traditional Jewish pastries are better in memory than actuality. The rugelah at Crixa or Cinderella is better than the "famous" ones my great aunt Ruthie used to make.

                          1. re: Windy

                            Possibly better ingredients but not more love than Tante Ruthie's.

                            1. re: Windy

                              La Farine's are pretty damn good.

                              Nothing was better than my bubbeh's knishes. Or her blintzes.

                              La Farine
                              6323 College Ave, Oakland, CA 94618