When Michelle Polzine opened 20th Century Cafe, a tiny pastry shop in San Francisco in 2013, her majestic Russian honey cake enchanted sweet tooths everywhere. Food writers and pastry chefs flew in from across the country to marvel at the gravity-defying stack of airy cake layers slathered with glossy honey-cream frosting. With just two components, the cake seems simple, but those components unite to release a wave of malty, bittersweet and delightfully tangy notes with each bite.
Though I’d heard repeatedly that Polzine was adamant about keeping the recipe to herself, I began frequenting the bakery and sending friends to buy slices for me, determined to decode the cake myself by tasting it over and over again. I suspect my constant presence wore Polzine down, because she eventually offered to teach me to make the cake. I accepted and scheduled a lesson before she could change her mind. So one morning this summer I visited the bakery, notebook in hand. Scanning the ingredient list for anything out of the ordinary, I was surprised: Though the recipe was full of lively writing to “quit your kvetching” or that the batter will “smell a little weird,” there was no secret ingredient — only a few brilliant twists that came as a result of years of baking, tasting and obsession.
Polzine first encountered her honey cake’s progenitor, the medovik torte — seven or eight cookielike layers alternating with sour-cream frosting — on a cake-tasting tour of Vienna, Prague and Budapest, where she visited dozens of traditional coffeehouses. Building upon a nearly two-decade-long career as a pastry chef, Polzine immersed herself in medovik research, poring exhaustively over vintage cookbooks and making multiple visits to San Francisco’s traditional Russian bakeries in an effort to wheedle out secrets from suspicious babushkas. She developed a vision of her dream cake — light, airy, not too sweet and 10 layers tall. “After a dozen tests, I felt like I was close to nailing it,” she recalled. “Then, one morning I woke up and realized it was all wrong. I knew what I needed to do.”
First, Polzine added more butter to the batter, transforming the cookie-crisp layers into thin, spongy…