New Orleans Eats Cake: Desserts Then and Now


JAN C. BRADFORD  

Bread pudding souffle from Commander's Palace. Photo from Flickr via Google Advanced Image Search

Bread pudding souffle from Commander’s Palace. Photo from Flickr via Google Advanced Image Search

According to succession records and other documents, French cookbooks were used in New Orleans as early as the 18th century – not surprising given the city’s history. Cookbooks used in New Orleans, as well as later cookbooks originating in the city, are testimony to a long tradition of sweets, pastry and confectionery that has evolved through two centuries. With the competitive spirit of the culinary arts in New Orleans, the desserts have gotten more experimental, fantastical, and sometimes ridiculous over the years. From the famous “mile high pie” created at the old Ponchartrain Hotel to the beloved “bread pudding soufflé” at Commander’s Palace, New Orleans continues to delight residents and tourists with its inventive desserts.

By 1840, a popular cookbook, La Petite Cuisinier Habile (The Clever Little Cook), emerged. It had originated in France, but was reprinted by booksellers in New Orleans. It contains several iconic New Orleans pastries such as beignets (a square of fried choux pastry sprinkled with powdered sugar) and calas (rice cakes). Other desserts listed in this early cook book include Apple Charlotte, various flavored creams, apple fritters, crepes and madeleines. (1)

The French tradition for an elaborate dessert course (as seen in 18th century illustrations), indicates that although the custom had been greatly simplified by 1840, the emphasis on sweets was still evident both in France and New Orleans. A St. Charles Hotel banquet menu in 1843 reveals that dessert was still an important and decorative part of the meal. The pastry course for this dinner listed the following: vases of nougat garnished with cream meringues, Parisian, Italian and Venetian confectionery, Charlotte Russe, blancmange, rum jelly, raspberry tartlettes, lemon and vanilla ice cream, and boiled chestnuts. (2)

frenchcookbook

From their French heritage and environment, contemporary residents of New Orleans are familiar with desserts and terms like croquembouche, buche de noel, and brioche. We see croquembouche , the towers of cream puffs stiff with caramel tracings, at weddings or formal banquets. The buche de Noel (yule logs) are available in New Orleans bakeries at Christmas. These rolled cakes are filled with cream and covered with chocolate icing replicating bark. Often, holly leaves made of almond paste are added for realism. After Twelfth Night on January 6th, the city acknowledges the king cake tradition. Every New Orleanian is familiar with king cakes  which, however decorated or filled, begin with a sweet brioche dough.

Whatever the influence might be, local cookbooks indicate that desserts were always plentiful in the city. In contrast to The Clever Little Cook’s modest number of simple desserts, two cookbooks published in New Orleans in the late 19th century reveal a huge diversity of cakes, pies, cookies and candies, both plain and fancy.  Lafcadio Hearn’s La Cuisine Creole and the Christian Woman’s Exchange publication, Creole Cookery, both coincidentally printed in 1885, reveal that New Orleanians apparently had an insatiable love of sweets. (Both books are still available in the original text.)

The 1885 Christian Woman’s Exchange publication, Creole Cookery, offers approximately 50 cake recipes. In addition to cakes, there are cookie recipes referred to in the era as “cakes”. The “Ices” section of the book includes puddings, custards, ice cream and sherbets; “Preserves” includes syrups, jellies and compotes of all kinds. (3)

Photo from channel4.com, via Google Advanced Image Search.

Photo from channel4.com, via Google Advanced Image Search.

Lafcadio Hearn’s cookbook, La Cuisine Creole, had an equal emphasis on sweets. This cookbook, by the way, includes “a nice molasses cake”. (4)  The syrup or molasses cake is such a standard in statewide Louisiana culture that a version can be found in dozens of 19th, 20th, and 21st century cookbooks. An “Old Fashioned Syrup Cake” was listed in The Top Ten Cajun Recipes of All Time in 2005. (5) Although most recipes don’t specify a particular type of syrup, New Orleanians are seriously dedicated to Steen’s 100% Pure Cane Syrup, and one former local chef was well-known for his gateau de sirop made with Steen’s.

The Picayune Creole Cookbook, published by the Times-Picayune newspaper, was a great favorite with New Orleanians. It was originally printed in 1900 and reprinted many times during the 20th century. There was little change in the emphasis on sweets between the two 1885 cookbooks and the early 20th century Picayune recipes.  For example, in the 1922 (6th edition) of the The Picayune Creole Cookbook, there were over 60 cake recipes plus 14 layer cakes. The entire dessert section of the cookbook adds an amazing number and variety of sweets (Creole candies, puddings, creams, ice creams, sherbets, jellies, custards, etc.) to the large number of cake recipes. (6)  (When searching early cookbooks today  it’s a temptation to look into what ingredients make up forgotten recipes like “archangel cake” or “motley cake”.)

In 2011 The Southern Food and Beverage Museum began organizing an exhibit and oral history project on Leah Richard. The exhibit, “Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV”, which opened in March of 2012, was a tribute to Mrs. Richard’s multiple culinary contributions. Aside from gaining a national reputation as a superb cook, she was the first African-American in New Orleans to publish a cookbook (New Orleans Cookbook), as well as host her own local TV cooking program. (7)

Lena Richard. Image from Newcomb Archives at Tulane University

Lena Richard. Image from Newcomb Archives at Tulane University

The dessert section of New Orleans Cookbook was divided into multiple sections as in earlier times, (puddings and sauces, desserts, cakes and icings, cookies, doughnuts, and small cakes, pastry and pies, candies, ice cream and sherbets). However, compared with earlier cookbooks the recipes are far less numerous. For example, the number of cakes had dwindled to only 11. (8). One old-fashioned Southern dessert in Richard’s cookbook, floating island, can still be found on a few local menus.  Chateau du Lac Bistro in Metairie, a suburb adjacent to New Orleans, often has this rich custard dessert with meringues drifting on top. (Call to check if available on the daily menu.)

By the time Mary Land’s classic cookbook, Louisiana Cookery, was published in 1954, cake recipes were no longer a special section, but became a part of the “dessert” portion of the  cookbook.  In the preface to Mrs. Land’s cookbook, Owen Brennan called her “an advocate for Creole living and cooking.”(9) Ms. Land’s interesting background incorporates her rural upbringing, as well as her broad range of interests, which include conservation and hunting. Her recipes reflect this Creole (urban) and Cajun (rural) duality. Her game recipes are more plentiful than her dessert recipes. Desserts include “redneck fried pies”, “Choctaw spoon bread” and “sweet tater pone” along with the more typical “brandy brioche”. (10)

Cookbooks are not the only testament to the local sweet tooth. Early on there were ice cream, praline and calas vendors in the city, as well as shops which specialized in confectionery. In Southwest By a Yankee, Joseph Holt Ingraham reported that in the French Quarter there were “many confectioners and fancy stores clustered around that nucleus of pleasure, the French (Orleans) Theater”. (11)

A Marchande des Calas. Calas vendor, New Orleans, 1886 Source: Illustration in "Century Magazine", 1886, via Wikimedia Commons

A Marchande des Calas. Calas vendor, New Orleans, 1886
Source: Illustration in “Century Magazine”, 1886, via Wikimedia Commons

New Orleans has garnered years of worldwide attention from the 1951 creation of a very special dessert – Bananas Foster. The Brennan’s history on the restaurant’s website reviews the story of how Owen Brennan, founder of the first Brennan’s Restaurant, encouraged his chef, Paul Blange´, to find a use for the enormous number of bananas available in the port city.  Blange´, using rum, butter, brown sugar and spices came up with an immediate success. (12) Mr. Brennan might have realized this dessert would become a restaurant favorite, but could he have guessed that it would become “the most requested item on the menu”… “an international favorite”(13), and in addition generate commercial success for other businesses?  Currently the New Orleans Ice Cream Company, Haagen-Daz, and Ben & Jerry all produce Bananas Foster Ice Cream. There are also dozens of Bananas Foster inspired cakes, sundaes, bread pudding, milk shakes, coffee and French toast dishes at restaurants all over the country.

Pralines, the world famous confection identified so strongly with New Orleans, originated in France, but the iconic candy, sold on the street in antebellum times, is so representative of the city that recently the Historic New Orleans Collection and Dillard University sponsored a day-long seminar on the subject. Jessica Harris, culinary historian and author, was keynote speaker and moderator. Along with other panelists, Ms. Harris recounted the long history and evolution of the famous treat. (14)

In New Orleans when a favorite restaurant or grocery closes, its loss is mourned long after its departure. Locals frequently reminisce about defunct New Orleans institutions, for example, Solari’s Grocery. This cherished Royal Street establishment lasted from 1863-1961 and is still a familiar topic of conversation. Carolyn Kolb’s article about Solari’s in New Orleans Magazine, quoted The New Yorker description of it as “a grocery like no other in the world.” (15)  In addition to having any number of imported and gourmet items as well as a popular lunch counter, their bakery was legendary. Kolb reports that, “Trained women bakers… patiently fuss over each cake” (16) to get it just right The list of these perfect cakes included layer cakes with orange or lemon custard fillings, caramel cakes, maple pecan cakes, jelly cakes, and devil’s food cakes.

Making Bananas Foster tableside at the now shuttered Brennan's Restaurant. Photo by Bob Jagendorf , via Wikimedia Commons. www.jagendorf.com

Making Bananas Foster tableside at the now shuttered Brennan’s Restaurant. Photo by Bob Jagendorf , via Wikimedia Commons. http://www.jagendorf.com

In addition to their fond memories of Solari’s, the current New Orleans population also finds comfort in reminiscing about the treats once sold at McKenzie’s bakery, which closed in the 1990s.  Judy Walker, of The Times Picayune reports that one of the consolations for locals is Jamie Santopadre’s Tastee Bakery on Harrison Road.  (17) Ms. Santopadre bought out all the McKenzie’s recipes and has been dedicated to researching and producing as many as possible.  Ms. Walker writes about the revival of these New Orleans favorites, which include red-sugared jelly rolls, buttermilk drops and turtles. (Turtles are butter cookies with a dollop of rich chocolate on top; these generally sell out by 3:00, Walker reports.) Customers continue to request more of the lost McKenzie sweets, but Ms. Santopadre will never be able to reproduce all of the original bakery’s recipes since many of the manufacturers of necessary ingredients have now gone out of business. (18)  Dedicated McKenzie fans must take comfort in the enterprising spirit of people like Ms. Santopadre and her family for bringing back the popular desserts to which many New Orleanians are dedicated.

The attention to desserts in the city today follows the 21st century trend towards lighter foods, the popularity of smaller plates at restaurants and gastrobars, etc. House-made fruit sorbets became popular at fine restaurants as an alternative to rich desserts in the ‘80s and have gotten more complex since then (with the addition of exotica like dragon root, lychee nuts, as well as unconventional liqueurs).  Rich desserts may not be as numerous as in earlier times in either cookbooks or restaurants, but there are still plenty to enjoy – from the eye-popping Baked Alaska at Antoine’s to the tiramisu gelato at Angelo Brocato’s. And if you plan to visit the city in the summer, don’t leave home without first locating the snowball stand nearest your hotel.

www.hnoc.org

Old-Fashioned Syrup Cake Recipe

  • ½ cup sugar
  • ½ cup butter or oleo
  • 2 cups syrup
  • 2 eggs
  • 2 cups flour
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • ½ tsp. soda
  • ½ c. buttermilk
  • 2 tsps. vanilla

1. Mix sugar, butter and syrup together; add eggs and mix well.

2. Add flour, salt and soda, alternating with buttermilk; add vanilla

3. Bake in a greased and floured tube pan at 350 degrees for 45 minutes to one hour.

Source: Top 100 Cajun Recipes of All Time. Acadian House Publishing, Inc. Lafayette, La. 2005

Brennan’s Bananas Foster Recipe

  • ¼ cup ( ½  stick) butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ cup banana liqueur
  • 4 bananas, cut in half
  • Lengthwise, then halved
  • ¼ cup dark rum
  • 4 scoops, vanilla ice cream

Combine the butter, sugar and cinnamon in a flambé pan or skillet. Place the pan over low heat either on an alcohol burner or on top of the stove, stirring, until the sugar dissolves. Stir in the banana liqueur, then place the bananas in the pan. When the banana sections soften and begin to brown, carefully add the rum. Continue to cook the sauce until the rum is hot, then tip the pan slightly to ignite the rum. When the flames subside, lift the bananas out of the pan and place four pieces over each portion of ice cream. Generously spoon warm sauce over the top of the ice cream and serve immediately.

Source: Brennan’s Website http://www.BrennansNewOrleans.com

……….

FOOTNOTES:

  1. Friedel, Louise Beate-Augustine, La Petite Cuisiner Habile. (New York: William H. Graham, 1846 reprint titled The French Cook.)  http://www.archive.org/stream/FrenchCookFullli00Frie (Internet Archive: Digital library of free books, etc.), recipes- 71-77

  2. St. Charles Exchange Hotel Menu for The New England Society of Louisiana Second Anniversary Dinner, Dec. 22, 1843. Historic New Orleans Collection Research Center.

  3. Christian Woman’s Exchange, The Creole Cookery Book (New Orleans: T.H. Thomas, Printer,  1885), Google Books, http://books.google.co, recipes 105-193

  4. Hearn, Lafcadio. La Cuisine Creole. Google Books. http://books.google.com , p. 157

  5. Trent Angers, ed., The Top 100 Cajun Recipes of All Times . ( Lafayette, La: Acadian House Publishing, Inc., 2005),123

  6. The  Picayune Creole  Cook Book, 6th edition,  (New Orleans, Louisiana: The Times-Picayune publishing company. 1922), recipes 237-310 http:///www.archive.org/stream/picayune

  7. Southern Museum of Food and Beverage, “Lena Richard Exhibit and Oral History Project” and “Exhibit Opening Party”, Lena Richard: Pioneer in Food TV. http://SouthernFood.org

  8. Lena Richard, New Orleans Cookbook (New York, Dover Publications, Inc. ,reprint 1985), recipes 89-112; 119-121

  9. Mary Land. Mary Land’s Louisiana Cookery,(Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University  Press, 1954), Foreward

  10. Land, Ibid, recipes. 277,287,288

  11. Ingraham, Joseph. Southwest by a Yankee, Amazon Digital’s Kindle edition, Vol. 1, Chapter X.

  12. Brennan’s Restaurant, last modified as “temporarily closed”, July 2013. http://www.BrennansNewOrleans.com

  13. Ibid

  14. “Creole Sweet: The Praline and Its World.” Day-long forum, sponsored by the Historic New Orleans Collection and Dillard University’s Ray Charles Program and Institute for the Study of Culinary Cultures, Spring, 2012

  15. Carolyn Kolb, “Shopping at Solari’s; A Grocery Like None Other”, New Orleans Magazine, July 1, 2004, 24-25.

  16. Ibid

  17. Judy Walker,“New Orleans Bakery Brings Back McKenzie’s Buttermilk Drops”, Nola.com, April 28, 2009.

  18. Ibid

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2 thoughts on “New Orleans Eats Cake: Desserts Then and Now

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