THE DAYMichelle Polzine received the first bound copy of her book, “Baking at the 20th Century Cafe” (Artisan), she celebrated by donning a purple 1930s ballgown to sit at her dining room table and thumb through the culmination of a decade’s work.
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She specializes in baked goods from across the former Austro-Hungarian Empire, rendered in Northern California flavors. Until the pandemic hit this spring, lucky diners at the marble-topped tables of her 20th Century Cafe in San Francisco would watch Ms. Polzine stretch strudel dough until it was translucent. Nearly six feet tall, she wears her vividly orange hair in a classical Hollywood coif, with clothes sewn nearly a century ago. She’s a 1980s punk kid possessed by the spirit of a screwball-comedy actress, incisive and smart.
She earned her first James Beard Award nomination at the San Francisco bistro Range, where her desserts centered on seasonal fruit. Curious about Central European pastries, she traveled to Prague, Vienna and Budapest with the goal of dressing up to eat fancy cake.
First stop: Café Imperial in Prague, where she ate apple strudel off gold-rimmed china in a magnificent Art Nouveau room. She tasted her way through the region’s classics—Linzer torte, Kókusz torta, Esterházy schnitten—wearing a different vintage outfit to each cafe.
“Everything was dense and intensely flavored, but with all these different textures,” she said. Pastry chefs in the U.S. were separating each flavor into its own component, with swirls and dollops on the plate. Bakers of Central European cakes and tortes layered all that complexity into each glorious forkful.
The classic pastries matched her own approach: Underpromise and overdeliver. “A dish should look unassuming, and then when you eat it, you ask yourself: Why is this so good? What is happening here?” she said. Ms. Polzine accumulated old cookbooks and played with recipes dozens of times to adapt traditional pastries to her palate, with Northern California ingredients and less sugar. “I’m a food listener,” she said. “I just pay attention and do what the dish tells me to do.”
Aided by friends and family, Ms. Polizine renovated a former laundromat to open 20th Century Cafe. Her bagels were among the city’s best. Her strudel crackled on the tongue. Her honey cake, whose 10 slim layers alternate with a mixture of whipped cream, burnt honey and dulce de leche, became one of San Francisco’s most celebrated desserts. For the book, she partnered with author Jessica Battilana to translate what the chef jokingly calls “the patented Michelle Polzine secret fanciness” into recipes for home cooks.
The book’s publication this month is a bright spot in a year of almost unbearable disasters. Ms. Polzine had surgery for ovarian cancer this spring; she was barely out of the hospital when the pandemic shut down San Francisco’s economy. Her husband’s younger brother died in an accident two months later. Though the cafe has reopened for takeout a few days a week, its future is overshadowed by anxiety. “This business isn’t you,” she is learning to tell herself.
Recipes in “Baking at the 20th Century Cafe” range from Ashkenazi Jewish cookies to Californian puddings, preserves, savory and sweet tarts and enough varieties of whipped cream to wear out a whisk. The instructions are descriptive and exact, heavy on butter and cornball jokes. Ms. Polzine swears the pastries are only hard to make the first time. You can stagger the steps over a few days.
Like the Linzer torte here, most of her cakes only want for a dollop of whipped cream to serve at a party. Or why wait for the party? When Ms. Polzine spots a gorgeous 1930s dress, she comes up with a reason to show it off. “Make the cake you want,” she writes in the book, “and the occasion will happen!”
Cranberry-pomegranate jam is Ms. Polzine’s clever Californian substitute for European red currant.
- 2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries
- 1⅓ cups sugar
- 1⅓ cups unsweetened pomegranate juice
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour
- 1½ teaspoons cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- ½ teaspoon kosher salt
- ½ cup almond flour
- 18 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus more for greasing pan
- ⅔ cup plus 1 tablespoon sugar
- Grated zest of 1 lemon
- 2 large eggs, hard-boiled
- 1 large egg, beaten, for egg wash
- 2 teaspoons sugar for dusting
For the faux red currant jam:
For the torte:
- Make the faux red currant jam: In a medium saucepan, combine berries, sugar and pomegranate juice. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, skimming foam from surface. Reduce heat and simmer until cranberries pop. Whisk vigorously to break up berries.
- Cook jam until bubbles on top are small and glossy or mixture registers 221 degrees on a thermometer, 10-15 minutes. Remove from oven, pour into a heat-proof bowl and let cool.
- Make the crust: Generously butter a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom.
- In a medium bowl, sift together flour, cocoa powder, cinnamon and salt. Stir in almond flour.
- Use an electric mixer to cream butter, sugar and lemon zest on medium-high until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Remove yolks from hard-boiled eggs and press through a fine-mesh sieve. (Save whites for another use.) Add yolks to butter and mix on medium-high 30 seconds. Add dry ingredients all at once and pulse until dough is homogeneous.
- Divide dough into 2 uneven pieces. The smaller one should weigh 6 ounces. Wrap each piece tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 20 minutes.
- Roll larger piece of dough between two sheets of plastic wrap into a 12-inch circle. Peel off top piece of plastic. Pick up dough, invert into tart pan and peel off remaining plastic. Fold excess dough into sides, then use your thumb to smooth top edge of dough. Freeze or chill pan 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, roll smaller piece of dough between two sheets of parchment into an oval ⅛ inch thick and 10 inches across. Transfer dough in parchment to a sheet pan and refrigerate until cold, 10 minutes.
- Peel top piece of parchment from oval of dough and use a sharp knife or pastry wheel to cut dough into strips ½ inch wide. Return to fridge.
- Assemble and bake: Preheat oven to 325 degrees and set a rack in lower third. Remove tart pan from freezer or refrigerator and spoon in 2 cups jam, spreading evenly.
- Brush each dough strip with egg wash. Carefully lay strips, egg-washed side up, across top of tart to create a lattice. (Don’t bother weaving. Dough will melt together.)
- Sprinkle top of torte with sugar. Set pan on a sheet pan and pop into oven on bottom rack. Bake until filling bubbles in center and lattice colors, 45-50 minutes. Let cool on a wire rack. Unmold and transfer to a serving plate.
Michelle Polzine developed this unique variation on a Linzer torte as a gluten-free Thanksgiving dessert. Chestnut flour, available at many gourmet stores as well as from nuts.com, produces an earthy-sweet crust whose chocolate notes she accentuates with cocoa powder and counterbalances with lemon zest. The “apple butter” filling is lighter than Pennsylvania Dutch jams but denser and richer than applesauce. The recipe makes enough dough for a 12-inch tart; if you make a 10-inch version you’ll have enough dough left over for a few cookies. Heads up: You’ll have far better luck with this recipe measuring the dry ingredients by weight, not volume. The dough is delicate, so keep it chilled, always rolling it between parchment or plastic.
- 1 ¼ pounds (550 grams) apples, cored and cut into eighths
- 1 ½ cups apple juice
- ¾ cups (150 grams) granulated sugar
- Juice of ½ lemon
- Pinch of kosher salt
- 3 ½ cups (385 grams) chestnut flour, plus more for dusting
- 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon cocoa powder
- 3 large eggs, hard-boiled
- 15 ounces (3 sticks plus 6 tablespoons) unsalted butter, soft but still cool, plus more for greasing the pan
- ¾ cup (150 grams) granulated sugar
- ¾ teaspoon baking powder
- ¾ teaspoon kosher salt
- Grated zest of 2 lemons
- 1 large egg, beaten, for egg wash
- 2 teaspoons turbinado sugar for sprinkling (optional)
For the apple butter:
For the dough:
- Make the apple butter: Place apples in a nonreactive saucepan, pour juice over, and bring to a boil. Reduce heat so liquid is simmering. Simmer until apples are soft but not mushy, about 15 minutes.
- Place a food mill fitted with a fine disk over a bowl and pour apples in, allowing juice to flow through. Transfer juice back to saucepan, add granulated sugar and lemon juice, and bring to a boil. Boil until liquid reduces by half, about 10 minutes.
- Mill apple solids into reduced juice. Discard skin and seeds left behind in mill. Add salt, bring to a simmer, and simmer, stirring frequently, until apple mixture is thickened and reduced, about 20 minutes. You should end up with about 2 ½ cups. Transfer to a bowl and refrigerate, up to one week.
- Make the dough: Sift together chestnut flour, cinnamon and cocoa powder into a medium bowl.
- Remove yolks from hard-boiled eggs, and press them through a fine-mesh sieve into a small bowl. (Save the whites for another use.) Use an electric mixer fitted with paddle attachment to cream butter, granulated sugar, baking powder, salt, lemon zest, and sieved egg yolks on high speed until very pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add dry ingredients in 2 additions, mixing as little as possible to incorporate. Then divide dough into 2 pieces of uneven size. The smaller piece should weigh 8 ounces (225g). Wrap each piece tightly in plastic wrap and refrigerate 20 minutes.
- Generously butter a 10-inch fluted tart pan with a removable bottom. Remove larger piece of dough from the refrigerator and roll between two sheets of parchment paper into a 12-inch circle. Carefully peel off top piece of parchment. Pick up dough, still on parchment, and carefully invert it into tart pan, then remove remaining paper. Fold excess dough into sides, then use your thumb to smooth top edge. Freeze or refrigerate dough until firm, about 1 hour.
- Meanwhile, dust smaller piece of dough with chestnut flour and roll between two sheets of parchment paper into an oval ⅛ inch thick and 10 inches across at its widest point. Transfer dough, still between sheets of parchment, to a sheet pan and refrigerate until cold, about 20 minutes. Remove dough oval from refrigerator, carefully peel off top piece of parchment, and with a sharp knife or pastry wheel, cut dough into strips ½ inch wide. Return to refrigerator until ready to bake.
- Bake the torte: Preheat oven to 325 degrees and arrange a rack in lower third of oven.
- Remove tart pan from refrigerator and spoon in apple butter, spreading it in an even layer. Remove dough strips from refrigerator and brush with egg wash. Carefully lift each strip of dough, using an offset spatula to help you, and gently lay strips across top of tart to create a lattice, with half the strips running vertically and half at an angle. Don’t worry about weaving it; the dough is too sticky and delicate.
- Sprinkle top of torte with turbinado sugar, if using. Set tart pan on a sheet pan and pop it into the oven. Bake for 35 minutes, then cover edges of tart with foil. Continue baking until filling bubbles in center and lattice has colored, 15-20 minutes more. Let cool on a wire rack, then unmold and transfer to a serving plate.
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Appeared in the October 24, 2020, print edition as ‘Queen of Tortes.’