A glorious confection of ten airy layers, flavoured with burnt honey and topped with a light dulce de leche cream frosting. It’s an impressive cake, but there’s so much more. Wait until you try the Dobos Torta or Plum Kuchen or Vanilla Cheesecake.
Throughout her baking career, Michelle Polzine of San Francisco’s celebrated 20th Century Cafe has been obsessed with the tortes, strudels, Kipferl, rugelach, pierogi, blini, and other famous delicacies you might find in a grand cafe of Vienna or Prague.
Now she shares her passion in a book that doubles as a master class, with over 75 no-fail recipes, dozens of innovative techniques that bakers of every skill level will find indispensable (no more cold butter for a perfect tart shell), and a revelation of ingredients, from lemon verbena to peach leaves.
Many recipes are lightened for contemporary tastes, and are presented through a California lens—think Nectarine Strudel or Date-Pistachio Torte. A surprising number are gluten-free. And all are written with the author’s enthusiastic and singular voice, describing a cake as so good it “will knock your socks off, and wash and fold them too.”
Makes one 12-inch (30.5-centimeter) tart; serves 8
Cooked strawberries can be mushy, but in this tart, the long exposure to the oven heat pulls out the moisture and concentrates the juices, making the berries instead slightly chewy and intense. There is a good deal of knife work and arranging involved for this tart, so give yourself plenty of time to make it (the almond cream can be made well in advance and refrigerated or frozen until you’re ready to bake the tart). If you’ve got the space, put your tart shell in the freezer while you prep the berries so the dough doesn’t get droopy while you fuss over your berry slices.
For this tart, use very small strawberries, halved. If yours are larger, quarter or slice them. You may need to carefully deflate the tart shell as it bakes; if you see a puff beginning, first attempt to deflate it by carefully lifting up the crust, near the offending bubble, with your offset spatula, and then, if that doesn’t have any effect, even more carefully poke a hole with your paring knife, just deep enough into the dough to release the air, being sure not to go all the way through to the bottom of the crust. You may need to hover over your tart for a few minutes, lifting or stabbing, but once the crust sets, you can ignore it and leave it to bake in peace.
1 recipe Crunch Dough (Sede below)
For the Filling
¼ cup (28 grams) dry cookie or cake crumbs (see Crumbs, below)
2 tablespoons (15 grams) all-purpose flour
¾ cup (170 grams) Almond Cream (recipe follows), at room temperature
1½ pounds (680 grams) small strawberries, halved (see Note)
1 tablespoon (14 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
¼ cup (50 grams) sugar
On a lightly floured work surface, with a lightly floured rolling pin, roll the tart dough to a 12-inch (30.5 centimetres) circle, then roll the outer ¾ inch (2 centimetres) of the circle a little thinner, until the dough is 13 inches (33 centimetres) in diameter. Transfer to a parchment-lined cookie sheet or round pizza pan big enough to hold the tart and refrigerate until very firm, about 45 minutes.
Arrange an oven rack in the bottom third of the oven, place a pizza stone on it, if using, and preheat the oven to 425°F (220°C).
Make the filling: In a small bowl, combine the crumbs and flour. Remove the chilled dough from the refrigerator and, with an offset spatula, spread the almond cream all over the dough, leaving a ½-inch (1.5-centimeter) border. Sprinkle the crumb-flour mixture over evenly and pat gently so it sticks to the almond cream. Fold the border of the tart over, twisting it loosely under itself to form a rope-shaped edge. Return the dough to the refrigerator while you prepare the berries.
To keep the natural heart shape of the strawberries, hull them by first removing the stem from each one and then, with the tiniest paring knife (I have a stack of these; they cost $1.99 and are among the most valuable tools in my arsenal), cutting straight down into the berry and around the stem, removing the core but leaving the berry’s nice shoulders. Halve the hulled berries, or quarter them if yours are large.
Remove the dough from the refrigerator and, working as quickly as possible, arrange the halved strawberries on it in concentric circles, beginning at the outer edge of the dough and orienting the strawberry halves, cut sides up, with the berry tips pointing out. Brush the edges of the crust with the melted butter and drizzle any remaining butter over the strawberries. Sprinkle the berries and crust with the sugar.
Transfer the pan to the bottom oven rack (or to the floor of the oven), reduce the temperature to 400°F (205°C), and bake for about 10 minutes. Then take a peek: If large bubbles are forming in the crust, this is the time to deflate them (see headnote). Continue baking, checking every 10 minutes or so to ensure that the crust isn’t getting too dark (if it is, move it off the pizza stone, if using, and onto a higher rack), until the strawberries are jammy and the crust is a dark golden brown, 35 to 40 minutes. Remove the tart from the oven and let cool for a moment, then grab the edges of the parchment and, in one swift motion, slide the whole thing off the pan onto a wire rack to cool. This is scary, but you can do it! Let cool completely.
Cut the tart into wedges and serve with Whipped Cream, Rose Geranium Cream, Meyer Lemon Cream, Coconut Cream, Cardamom Ice Cream, or Poppy Seed Ice Cream. This tart is best eaten the same day it’s made.
Note: If you can’t find small strawberries, larger ones will also work for this; don’t pass up perfect berries just because they aren’t the size specified in the recipe.
Makes enough for one 12-inch (30.5-centimetre) tart
By the time I started working at Chez Panisse, I had baked a goodly number of pies and tarts, but I had never seen a dough like this. Demonstrated to the Chez cooks many generations before my time by chef Jacques Pépin, it was the dough we used every single day in our tarts for the cafe. As a budding baker, I’d had it drilled into me since day one that a flaky dough can only be achieved by using cold fat. Au contraire, ma soeur! For this dough, you use soft butter; not as soft as when making cookies, but soft enough so that when you squeeze the cubes of butter gently, they feel elastic and don’t crack when you pinch their sides. If making this dough on a hot day, you might have to take your butter in and out of the fridge a few times to get that perfect moment when the butter is slightly yielding but not overly complacent. You’ll know your butter has missed the mark if it starts to look a little oily. Pop the cubes back into the fridge for a minute or two, and you’ll be back in business. This dough is light, flaky, crispy, and, well, crunchy!
8 tablespoons (113 grams) cold unsalted butter
1 cup (120 grams) all-purpose flour
½ teaspoon sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ cup (59 millilitres) ice-cold water
Cut the butter into 16 equal cubes, set aside on parchment or waxed paper, and let come to cool room temperature. In a medium deep bowl (such as the bowl of a stand mixer), combine the flour, sugar, and salt.
When a cube of butter feels somewhat plasticky but doesn’t crack when you squeeze it, throw all the pieces into the bowl with the dry ingredients and toss them in the flour to coat. Using your hands, toss the butter and flour around to knock the corners off the butter cubes (this step coats the flour with a little bit of butter, just enough to keep the dough tender). Next, push all the chunks to one side of the bowl and, working methodically but quickly, flatten each piece between your fingertips into a “tongue” and toss it to the other side of the bowl. Toss again to distribute the butter throughout the flour.
Splay the fingers of your dominant hand out, fingers pointed down over the bowl, and pour the ice water down the back of your hand, creating a little fountain. (Yes, it’s really cold.) Then bend your fingers until your hand resembles a claw and rake the dough, moving back and forth very quickly to distribute the water throughout the dough and work the butter in.
Once the dough is shaggy but with no dry spots, continue raking to pull it together into a ball (if the dough still seems dry, sprinkle over additional ice water, up to 1 tablespoon, until it’s a shaggy mass), then transfer to a sheet of plastic wrap. Pull two opposite sides of the plastic wrap over the dough and use the plastic to push the sides of the dough in toward the center, then rotate the dough 180 degrees and repeat six more times, to get that wonderful marbled texture. Pull the plastic wrap tightly around the dough and flatten it into a disk ¾ to 1 inch (2 to 2.5 centimetres) thick. Chill for at least an hour before rolling, or wrap well and freeze for up to 2 months; thaw overnight in the refrigerator or at room temperature until defrosted but still cool before using.
Makes 24 cups (550 grams)
1/3 cups (125 grams) almond meal
2 cup (99 grams) sugar
Pinch of salt
4 ounces (115 grams) almond paste
10 tablespoons (143 grams) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces, at room temperature
2 large eggs
Not really a cream at all, this is similar to almond frangipane. It’s used as a base for tarts like the Strawberry Tart on the preceding pages and the Rhubarb Tart on page 33, and as a moisture barrier for the Rhubarb Strudel (page 259); it’s also mixed with meringue as a component of the Plum Kuchen (page 55). To avoid chunks of almond paste in your finished almond cream, be sure you’ve beaten the paste until smooth before adding the second half of the butter. If you still end up with chunks of almond paste you don’t wish to contend with, pass the cream through a tamis or fine-mesh sieve before using it.
- In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a large bowl, using a handheld mixer), beat the almond meal, sugar, salt, and almond paste on medium speed until the mixture has the texture of fine sand. Increase the speed slightly and add the butter in 2 additions, beating until smooth after each addition. Scrape down the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula, then add the eggs one at a time, mixing until combined.
- Use right away, or transfer to a lidded container and refrigerate until ready to use. The almond cream will keep for a week in the refrigerator or can be frozen for up to 2 months. Let come to room temperature before using.
A number of recipes in this book call for crumbs, which act as a moisture barrier, preventing juicy fillings from making your pastry soggy. What you use for these crumbs depends on what you have around—you really can use almost anything, including cookies, cake scraps, stale bread, even leftover unfilled cream puffs. Simply dry out your whatever-you-have-on-hand in a low oven, then blitz in a food processor or crush with a rolling pin. Store-bought graham crackers, amaretti, or shortbread cookies can also be used. If crumbs are called for in a savoury recipe, use dry bread or cracker crumbs.
Although weights are given for the crumbs in these recipes, note that exact weights are not possible. Size, composition, and humidity are all factors here! So I will ask you to use your own judgment. And if your fruit is very juicy, or your filling seems wet, use an extra scattering of crumbs. Leftover crumbs can be stored in the freezer.
Excerpted from Baking at the 20th Century Cafe by Michelle Polzine (Artisan Books). Copyright © 2020. Photographs by Aya Brackett.