In a country renowned for its beautiful baked goods, the glistening and golden-tinted Dobos torta is arguably Hungary’s most famous layer cake. The iconic torta consists of six thin buttery-sponge cake layers, five layers of chocolate butter cream, and a layer of hardened caramel covering the top. The cake is most often round, though historic recipes often call for it to be made in a rectangular shape. The sides are usually dusted with ground hazelnuts. But it’s not the flavors that make the cake so special—after all, it’s just chocolate, vanilla, and caramel, a traditional combination found in many desserts. It’s the distinctive presentation that has made the cake so famous.
The hard caramel top is cut into individual slices (with a special Dobos torta knife) before it hardens, so each slice has a piece of caramel garnish. The pieces are either laid flat on top of the cake (so the slices can be separated easily), or else artfully arranged so they are standing on their sides. Dobos torta is served in nearly every cukrászda in the country, though many bakeries don’t make their Dobos torta in-house. Those that do—such as Auguszt, Gerbeaud, Daubner, Frőhlich, Szamos, and Centrál in Budapest—are treasures worth patronizing until you’ve had your fill of sweets.
Although Dobos torta is often mistranslated as “drum cake” (in Hungarian dob means “drum”), it is actually named after its inventor, József Dobos (1847-1924), a baker, chef, prolific cookbook author, caterer, and culinary entrepreneur who came from a family of cooks going back generations. He was already a well-known and influential chef by 1876 when he opened a specialty gourmet shop in central Pest which sold an array of high-quality local foods and imported delicacies such as cheese, wine, caviar, and spices. The shop was known for its elaborate window displays and house-made products, including his namesake cake (and his most important creation).
The Dobos torta debuted in 1885 at the National General Exhibition in Budapest, where Dobos presided over an elegant pavilion created to showcase the torta, staffed by more than 100 people. Queen Elisabeth and Emperor Franz Joseph were among the crowd who visited his pavilion. “Those present cheered the royal couple, who were served personally by Dobos himself, writes Tibor Éliás in his book Dobos and 19th Century Confectionery in Hungary. “They of course also tasted the latest novelty, after which another royal cheer erupted—this time in honor of the creator of the cake.” Afterwards, Dobos was made a purveyor to the Imperial and Royal Court.
The Dobos torta “was born as a result of continuous experimentation on the part of the ever creative Dobos,” writes Éliás. The cake became such a sensation not only in Budapest, but throughout much of Europe, for several reasons. Compared with the tall, intricately-decorated cakes of the time, the Dobos torta, which was simply flat with a smooth caramel top, looked downright minimalistic. The chocolate butter cream spread on the cake layers was also a new concept, and it became Dobos’ signature (and secret) ingredient. The butter cream combined with the hard caramel were innovations which gave the cake a significantly longer shelf-life, without the need for refrigeration (which was a problem at that time, especially for entrepreneurial bakers who wanted to make their products widely available). Dobos brought his cakes with him during his frequent travels in Europe, and shipping the cakes throughout the continent became an important part of his business. He designed special wooden boxes to keep the cakes cool and perfectly intact during their journey, and the Dobos torta was regularly served at social events throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
During Dobos’ time, his cake was much imitated by other patisseries in Budapest, but never successfully. Bakers did not figure out that cocoa butter was the secret ingredient in his smooth chocolate butter cream. Tired of all of the bad imitations of his cake, Dobos donated his recipe to the Pastry and Honey-bread Makers’ Guild in 1906 so that all pastry chefs would have access to the true recipe. Soon afterwards, Dobos closed his shop. Despite his success, Dobos did not have a happy ending to his life. He lost most of his fortune, which he had invested in war bonds, during World War One.
The Dobos torta is still popular in Hungary today—and also in Austria and other countries which were part of the Empire—but is not usually prepared at home because it is so labor-intensive (and really easy to buy a beautifully-prepared whole cake). The Dobos torta (which is often written phonetically as Dobosh torte outside of Hungary) has also inspired layered cakes as far away as America. In New Orleans the Doberge cake is a layered cake usually filled with chocolate and lemon pudding and covered in butter cream or fondant. In Hawaii the popular Dobash cake is a chocolate chiffon cake with a chocolate pudding or Chantilly cream filling.
Though many Hungarian patisseries prepare the Dobos in its classic form, modern bakeries also experiment and create versions that would have been unrecognizable to József Dobos. In Hungary, however, no matter how experimental a pastry chef gets with his Dobos torta, chocolate and caramel are always present. And even today it feels like a little luxury to sit down at an opulent coffeehouse with a slice of elegant Dobos torta.
Once you have that lovely slice of Dobos on a plate in front of you, that raises the question of how you actually eat the cake, as it’s not easy to slice into the hard caramel top. It’s always a messy process—either involving violently poking the caramel slice with your knife, or just giving in and eating it with your fingers. But it’s also at this point that you might realize that the Dobos has another amazing quality. It involves two separate eating experiences: the cake itself, and the caramel topping. At least the way I enjoy my Dobos, eating the caramel slice is actually a sort of separate experience from eating the rest of the cake. I wonder how József Dobos did it?
Several years ago we had the pleasure and honor to assist Caroline Ragsdale Reutter, owner of Caroline’s Cakes, on her personal quest to learn about and honor József Dobos by traveling to Budapest and making a film about him and his cake. This is the film she made.