After I tasted the Russian honey cake at this little café in San Francisco last year, I tweeted “This is the best cake I have ever eaten.” Its creator, Michelle Polzine, is a pastry chef whose exquisite sense of vintage style is only slightly less remarkable than her baking skills. For a long time Polzine made the desserts at a restaurant called Range, where she applied exacting technique to the kinds of sweets you could love without having to pay homage to her exacting technique. You just sank into them. That’s what I love about the Russian honey cake at Polzine’s year-old 20th Century Café: It offers hedonism without complexity, even though the making of it is a rather complex undertaking. (Polzine calls the process, in which 10 to 12 cake layers are baked separately then built up into a honey-cream tower, “a little athletic.”)
For 20th Century, Polzine took inspiration from the cafés and pastry shops of Central Europe. She tasted something like it in Prague, and came home to try to duplicate it. She looked through Czech, Hungarian, and Viennese cookbooks, and asked at a Russian deli and bakery: nothing (nothing that matched her vision, anyway). In the end, after 14 attempts and an unusual process that calls for caramelizing some of the honey and making the cake batter over a double boiler, she created what you’re looking at, in these animated GIFs and photos by CHOW’s Chris Rochelle: The best cake I have ever eaten—monumental, tender, and with gorgeously toasty aromas you can’t quite place.
By the way, the cake’s alternate name—Krasinki Torte—is payback for Nicole Krasinski of SF’s State Bird Provisions, a supporter who pledged big for 20th Century’s pre-opening Kickstarter. So jealous. –John Birdsall
Michelle Polzine's Russian honey cake starts as a batter she whisks over a double boiler.
She spreads the batter into circles on baking parchment.
Polzine slides the batter-covered parchment onto oven pans and bakes the cakes.
Now the fun part. On a rotating stand, she builds the cake out of pastry layers and honey-cream frosting.
The final layer goes on!
She spreads a thick layer of honey-cream frosting around the sides.
Polzine smooths the frosting and flocks the sides with toasted cake crumbs.
The result: 12 golden, honey-cream-insulated layers. Dobrou chuť! (That's Czech for bon appétit. Just so you know.)
Photos and animated GIFs by Chris Rochelle