20th Century Cafe, that retro-fabulous corner bakery in Hayes Valley, is publishing its first and definitive cookbook today. The cafe is known for its old-world European pastries, inspired by the grand cafe tradition in Vienna, Budapest, and Prague. Baking at the 20th Century Cafe is not for the faint of heart. It’s an advanced baking book, from a professional pastry chef, assiduously detailing methods for assembling ten-layer tortes and stretching strudel. But for cake diehards, it’s a rare treat, digging into the details of sachertorte, dobos torta, and of course, honey cake, while presenting them all on gold-rimmed china and a silver stand.
Pastry chef, owner, and now author Michelle Polzine cuts a tall figure around town, already known and loved for her sharp spectacles and tart smirk. And if you thought she was a kick in the pants behind the bar at her charming cafe, that style also comes through on the page, with plenty of references to 1930s couture and Hollywood glamour, if perhaps an overabundance of exclamation points. She’s also joined by Jessica Battilana, an award-winning columnist for the SF Chronicle and veteran recipe tester, who will have quietly ensured that those cakes work for home cooks.
Chapters roll through fruit, custards, cakes, cookies, and strudel, a few savory additions, and jams and sauces. But fans will head straight for the cakes. The recipe for the iconic Russian honey cake includes instructions on how to burn honey, whip in dulce de leche, bake off ten layers, and elegantly stack them tall. Vienna’s sachertorte is chocolate cake royalty, while Hungarian dobos torta is crowned in caramel. There’s an entire chapter dedicated to strudel, for those up for the challenge of stretching dough thin enough to cover an entire tabletop, before tucking and rolling apples. As well as recipes for all of the cafe favorites, including the chewy sourdough bagels and ruffled potato pierogis.
These are not quick and easy recipes — many are multi-day projects. Polzine enthusiastically calls it “high-stakes baking,” and warns cooks to arm themselves with a kitchen scale and an instant-read thermometer, and be prepared to read through recipes a couple of times. But for the more ambitious home baker, they’re a serious treat: career-tested recipes from a delightful pastry chef, who specializes in a very particular old cake tradition.
Photographs are from Aya Brackett, the Oakland photographer (who incidentally happens to be part of the Rintaro restaurant family). The images capture big spreads of cakes and cookies, on gold-trimmed china and silver stands, as well as cakes and tarts mid-process, revealing the graphic designs of layers, lattices, and centrifugal strawberries spiraling on a tart. And of course, Polzine’s style serves up big personality, with her signature vintage dresses and cat-eye spectacles, as she pulls layer after layer out of an impossibly cute old stove, and stretches pages and pages of paper-thin pastry across the table.
All photos excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Aya Brackett.