Something few people realize about Dobos torte is that its debut didn’t just mark a milestone in the pastry arts, but a milestone in the product packaging arts as well. For Dobos was a canny fellow. He realized very early on, perhaps as earlier as the formulation stages of this cake, that there was money to be made (possibly very big money) in the burgeoning packaged foods market. Sure a talented baker could always make money in his or her particular locality, but what about beyond that? Might there also be a market for Dobos torte in, say, London? Very possibly.
The problem of course was how to get his product from point A to point B unspoiled and in one piece. There was no FedX in 1885. A cake could take weeks to arrive at its destination. It thus needs a “shelf life.” Dobos solved that problem by conceiving a torte made of many thin, rich layers, all of which were very sugary. They therefore held moisture well and were resistant to staling or spoiling. On top of that, each one was enrobed in a velvety butter-and-chocolate icing which would further help to keep moisture in and unwelcome microbes out. (Indeed preventing rot and moisture loss is the reason icings were invented in the first place).
The next step was to create a package that would ensure that regardless of the amount of jostling, the cake would arrive intact. To that end Dobos created his own special Dobos torte box. As far as I’m aware there are no surviving examples, but speaking for myself I would be quite curious to see one, since that would give clues to how elaborate the original topping might have been.
Was it caramel? Perhaps. That certainly would have added to the cake’s durability. That is, as long as it was a flat plate of caramel on the top. The “fan blade” presentations that are so popular today would simply have fallen apart during shipping.
I believe the cake itself would have very easily fallen apart during shipping were it filled and frosted with a fluffy meringue-style buttercream, which is why I’m convinced that the denser, ganache-like fillings/frostings that you find in many of the older recipes are most likely closest to the original (they also would have had a much longer shelf life). To travel well, these cakes had to be dense and sturdy. They were popular — and well-traveled — tortes.