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 cakes. And instead of relying on sour cream for tang, she did her signature move: “I’m a sugar burner.” By caramelizing the honey, she could introduce some toffee notes, bitterness and even acidity without sacrificing the floral honey flavor. “It took me 23 tries to nail it,” Polzine said, “but I figured out the cake that same day.”
The answer to the frosting lay in a slightly less conventional place: a promotional internet video for a Czech honey cake that she clicked on randomly. “I couldn’t understand a thing, but I spotted a baker opening an unlabeled can of brown gooey stuff, and it hit me!” Polzine said. “Dulce de leche!” The sugars in the burned honey and dulce de leche keep the frosting shiny and stable without butter. “This recipe, it wasn’t an easy win. That’s why I’ve waited so long to share it.”
Before I headed into my own kitchen, I asked Polzine if she really thought this cake was achievable for home bakers. “Definitely. It’s not hard, just time-consuming.” It’s true. You’ll reach a point when you’ll wonder why you ever set out to do this. You’ll end up sticky with honey and dulce de leche, and probably curse my name and Polzine’s. And then you’ll have to summon all your patience and wait, because after hours of baking, you still don’t get to taste it. But the next day, all your favorite people will come over to eat this glorious thing you made by yourself, and you’ll forget about the stickiness, the harried dance in and out of the oven. All you’ll be left with are a few honey-flavored crumbs.