The art of pastry certainly requires following rules, but there’s something to be said about transforming classic desserts into something new and exciting—while still, of course, respectfully paying homage to that original wedge of cake or sugar-dusted cookie.
Related Reading: If You Cut Cake in Wedges, You’re Doing It All Wrong
That’s the goal of San Francisco-baker Michelle Polzine, who operates the 20th Century Cafe, a retro-style bakery in Hayes Valley that turns out tortes, layered cakes, and cookies inspired by the pastries endemic to Budapest, Vienna, and Prague. These cities, where she has extensively traveled, are home to an assortment of sweet and savory pastries, which Michelle has made readily available for the home baker in her debut cookbook: “Baking at the 20th Century Cafe.”
Baking at the 20th Century Cafe: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake, $27.54 on Amazon
The book is divided up into a number of sections, covering all the Central European bases: fruit desserts, traditional cakes and tortes, puddings, custards & ice cream, cookies and candies, strudel, savory pastries, and compound creams and sauces. You’ll move from preparing honey cakes to sweet cheese strudels and crackly brown butter toffee shortbread, all in the span of a few pages. Some of these pastries are entirely traditional—Michelle doesn’t diverge from the classic—while others are riffed upon, boasting novel ingredients and techniques that make it entirely her own.
Scattered throughout the text are a handful of guides for the budding pastry chef. For example, Michelle will walk you through an Eggs 101 course—how to make meringue, how to fold eggs into batter, etc.—and showcase, with step-by-step images, how to prep and stretch strudel dough, illustrating how the dough should transform and evolve with each tuck and fold.
For the uninitiated, start with Michelle’s recipe for a sacher torte. The origin of this popular cake is a bit foggy—as is the case with many of these old-world pastries—but Michelle tells the legend as thus: One Franz Sacher, a confectioner on a mission to create a dessert for Prince Klemens von Metternich, crafted the first edition of this cake in the early 19th century. As the story goes, Franz did manage to please the prince’s guests, but it wasn’t until years later that Franz’s son perfected the torte at Demel bakery in Vienna, before it became a staple at Hotel Sacher in 1876.
Nowadays, the Austrian chocolate torte is ubiquitous in Vienna. But if you don’t happen to call this part of Central Europe home, replicating it in your own kitchen certainly won’t be as difficult a task as a 19th century baker attempting to please a prince. Michelle’s version takes inspiration from the cake found at Hotel Sacher, but hers is a little more moist, a bit more chocolatey, but still boasts the essential apricot filling. The finished product is painted with a glossy chocolate glaze, then carved into wedges and served with a dollop of whipped cream.
Excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Café by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Aya Brackett.
Sacher Torte Recipe
I’ve heard many differing accounts of the origins of this cake, which is probably the most well known among all the cakes of central Europe. But I’ll tell you the one I like best: In 1832, sixteen-year-old Franz Sacher, charged with the task of creating a special dessert for the distinguished guests of his employer, Prince Klemens von Metternich, developed the first iteration of this famous cake. Although the cake was purported to have delighted the guests, it wasn’t until decades later that Franz’s son, Eduard, perfected his father’s recipe while completing his own pastry training at Demel bakery in Vienna. The cake was first served at Demel, and then later at the Hotel Sacher, established by Eduard Sacher in Vienna in 1876.
On my first trip to the Hotel Sacher, I was accompanied by the brilliant, fascinating Aimee Pavey, a fixture at the Castro Theater during San Francisco’s Silent Film and Film Noir Festivals. To have Aimee as my real-life traveling companion on a trip centered around dressing up and eating cake in beautiful, grand rooms was a dream. She is not a chef or even a “foodie,” but her innate curiosity about all things made her a most ideal dining companion, not to mention that she’s blessed with a metabolism that makes it possible to have several meals of cake every day.
At the Hotel Sacher, we ordered, of course, two slices of the eponymous torte. Our immaculate slices arrived, and in perfect synchronicity, we picked up our forks and took our first bite. We looked at each other in confusion. We looked at the cake. We each took another bite. Aimee said, “It’s dry?” I said, “I think it’s supposed to be?”
The version here is more like what I dreamed a Sacher torte to be: a little more moist and a bit more chocolatey, but with the signature apricot filling in the center. A beautiful chocolate glaze finishes the cake.
I use the technique of heating the eggs and sugar together before whipping to yield maximum volume, then a slightly strange technique of folding the eggs into the melted chocolate, alternating with the dry ingredients. You may feel like you’re doing it wrong, but the first addition of eggs is to loosen the chocolate, while the rest is to incorporate the dry ingredients.
This cake is very dark, and the top forms a strange, bumpy crust during baking, so traditional methods for testing doneness are no good here. A trick I learned from a great baker, Julia Stockton, is to listen to the cake: The bubbles popping in the batter make a sound, and the cake will be silent when it is done. But please be careful not to burn your face as you hold the cake close to your ear, listening for doneness.
- 2½ cups (225 grams) almond meal
- ¼ cup plus ¼ teaspoon (30 grams) Dutch-process cocoa powder, such as Valrhona
- ¼ cup (35 grams) tapioca flour
- 8 large eggs
- 1½ cups plus 2 tablespoons (324 grams) sugar
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- 6.4 ounces (183 grams) 72% cacao chocolate, such as Valrhona Araguani, chopped and melted over a bainmarie in a large folding bowl (see page 23) and kept warm enough to stay melted
- 1 recipe Chocolate Glaze (page 111), warmed until pourable
- 1 cup (237 milliliters) apricot jam, homemade or store-bought, finely chopped or blitzed in a food processor (see Note)
- Whipped Cream for serving (optional)
- Make the cake: Preheat the oven to 325°F (165°C). Grease the bottom of two 9-inch (23-centimeter) round cake pans and line with parchment.
- With a tamis or sifter, sift the almond meal, cocoa powder, and tapioca flour into a medium bowl.
- Combine the eggs, sugar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer (or in a large heatproof bowl). Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water, and whisk until the mixture is hot (like a hot bath, not a vat of molten lava) to the touch.
- Attach the bowl to the mixer stand, fitted with the whisk attachment (or use the large bowl and a handheld mixer), and whip on high speed until the eggs are pale and tripled in volume, about 6 minutes. Fold the egg mixture into the chocolate in 3 additions, alternating with the dry ingredients, folding gently but quickly so the mixture stays warm. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared pans.
- Bake the cake for 45 minutes. Remove one layer from the oven and listen; you may hear the sound of bubbles popping. If so, return the pan to the oven and continue baking, removing and listening every 5 minutes, until the cake is quiet. This can take as long as an hour, so don’t fret if it does! Let the layers cool in their pans on a wire rack.
- Once the layers are cool, run a small offset spatula, with the front of it facing outward, around the edges of each one, pressing the spatula against the pan so you don’t cut into the cake, then turn out onto the cooling rack and flip top side up. With a large serrated knife, cut off the crispy top of each cake layer; reserve the trimmings.
- Crumble the cake trimmings into fine crumbs. In a small bowl, combine a few handfuls of the crumbs with enough of the chocolate glaze to make a thick paste.
- To assemble the cake: Place one cake layer (top side up) on a wire rack and top with the apricot jam, spreading it in an even layer all the way to the edges. Top with the second cake layer, bottom side up. Use the crumb paste to spackle the gap between the two layers, smoothing it out with an offset spatula. Don’t fret if you need to make a smidgen more paste; you may need a little or a lot, depending on how wide the gap is, so don’t start snacking on your crumbs until the sides of the cake are smooth.
- Set the cake, still on its wire rack, over a sheet pan and pour the warm glaze evenly over it, letting the excess drip down the sides of the cake and onto the sheet pan.
- When the cake is covered with the glaze, use a large spatula (or two!) to transfer it to a serving platter and refrigerate until the glaze is set, about 30 minutes. With a rubber spatula, scrape up the glaze that pooled on the baking sheet and transfer to a lidded container. It will keep, refrigerated, for many months. (The cake can be refrigerated for up to a week.)
- To serve, cut the cake into wedges and garnish each slice with a generous dollop of whipped cream, if desired.
- Note: To provide a sneak peek at the filling within, I sometimes garnish each slice of cake with a piece of apricot that I’ve fished out of my jar of homemade jam. You can do the same, or just serve the slices unadorned.
Chocolate Glaze Recipe
- 10 ounces (285 grams) 72% cacao chocolate, such as Valrhona Araguani, chopped
- 2 ounces (58 grams) 80% cacao chocolate, such as Valrhona Coeur de Guanaja, chopped
- ½ pound (224 grams) unsalted butter
- 3 tablespoons (45 milliliters) honey
- Pinch of salt
- Combine the chocolate, butter, honey, and salt in a large heatproof bowl. Set the bowl over a saucepan of simmering water, making sure the bottom of the bowl does not touch the water. Heat, stirring, until the chocolate and butter are about 80 percent melted, then remove from the heat and whisk until completely melted and smooth.
- If using right away, set the bowl of glaze in a warm place to keep it fluid; I hold mine on top of the oven with a towel under it. Otherwise, let cool, then transfer to a lidded container and refrigerate until ready to use. The glaze will keep, refrigerated, for months; rewarm gently until fluid before using.
Whipped Cream Recipe
This most basic whipped cream (aka Schlag), just as plain as can be, can accompany any cake you bake and myriad other desserts. You can make it a few hours ahead, and rewhip it right before serving.
- 1 cup (237 milliliters) heavy cream
- 1½ teaspoons sugar
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk attachment (or in a large bowl, using a balloon whisk), combine the cream and sugar and beat on medium-high speed until the cream holds soft peaks. Use immediately, or cover and refrigerate for up to 2 days; rewhip before serving.
Header image by Aya Brackett.