Baking at the 20th Century Cafe: Iconic European Desserts from Linzer Torte to Honey Cake Michelle Polzin

by Nick Harman - Tuesday November 10, 2020 12:11 pm

Last lockdown many of us went baking mad. Well now you can take those hard learned skills and go to the next level with this glorious book.

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So you mastered the basics back in Spring - baking banana bread, sourdough loaves and similar treats (when you could find any flour, that is).Are you ready, as Jamie relentlessly says, to ‘kick it up a notch’? Then this book is for you.

Michelle Polzine is the owner and head pastry honcho of the 20th Century Cafe in San Francisco, an achingly trendy place where the classic pastries of the Austro Hungarian Empire are brought to life and celebrated shamelessly.

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She herself though fits the 21st Century mould, or baking tin. Granny glasses? Check. Oxfam chic? Check. Tattoos? Double check.

But she’s no Hoxton clone. She has done her time in the kitchen, working all over the Bay area in the best places and learning all the time.

And all the time it was the pastry cooking of the grand cafes of places like Vienna, Prague that drew her, Those temples to sugar, cool hands and civilised afternoons.

None of the recipes in this book are exactly easy, but they are by no means impossible. Polzine has been scrupulous in simplifying where she can and never leaving you with sticky hands wondering what to do next (and how to turn the page).

And she has also lightened many recipes. These days we are not quite as sanguine about loading up on the cream and sugar as they are in Vienna, where they still routinely sit down on an afternoon to pastry served on proper china and with real silverware. Bliss.

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Polzine is famous for her Honey Cake. I’ve never tried it, I doubt you have either, but those that have are rapturous.It’s a ten-layer cake made with caramelized honey and stuck together with Dulce de Leche.

The recipe takes time, but the instructions are not daunting. And you can cheat and buy the Dulce de Leche rather than make it yourself.

There are not just sweet pastries here, think fruit desserts, tortes, puddings, custards, ice creams, cookies and candies, strudels as well as savoury pastries too like pierogi and even potato knishes.

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Unlike many books at this level, which are really a chet’s show off legacy rather than a useful guide, this one is very practical.

Sure, there are lots of beautifully edible photos of finished items by Aya Bracket, but there are also scores of clear, non arty, stage by stage photos too that are invaluable.

It’s a Haynes Manual of fancy cakes in fact, with pages you’ll make sticky with sugar, not oil.

Measurements are in cups and grams, so that’s okay, and while we Brits might find the injunction to use Kosher salt a bit odd, you don’t actually have to be Jewish; Kosher salt is just what Americans call coarse salt with no iodine.

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There are excellent sections on ingredients - what’s good and what’s not - as well as tools and equipment to buy.You don’t need them all, but Pozin quite rightly points out that the one thing you cannot do without in this kind of baking is a set of good digital scales.

A stand mixer is less crucial, but very useful.

It’s really a lovely book, inspiring even. It makes our Mary Berry baking look very tame and dull.

Who knows how long it will be before we can visit the tea rooms of Mittel Europe? Time to bring it all home.

Available from Amazon 

Published by Artisan Books

ISBN  978-1579658984

Try the delicious recipe for Date-­Pistachio Torte here.

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