Give Us Princess Cake or Give Us Nothing
Hannah Ziskin shares her pastry secrets, plus a recipe for frangipane crostata.
Attention cake lovers,
Despite the fact that I’m the founder/co-editor of a magazine with “cake” in the title, I must confess: I secretly prefer pie. So it’s particularly noteworthy that I can’t stop thinking about the fluffy slice of princess cake I devoured at Quarter Sheets last month. It turns out that I actually like marzipan—especially when it’s homemade, thinly rolled, and blanketing layers of olive oil chiffon cake, tangy raspberry jam, and creamy custard.
The small Los Angeles restaurant (which began as a pandemic era pop-up) is a temple to Detroit-style pizza and cake, all made on the titular quarter sheet trays beloved by cooks. Aaron Lindell’s pizza was delicious, but of course, we’re here to talk about dessert—and pastry chef Hannah Ziskin (a.k.a. House of Gluten) makes confections worth discussing.
Hannah raids California’s lush fruit basket for slab cakes like polenta-olive oil chiffon slathered with ricotta-buckwheat honey mousse and topped with slow-roasted peaches, or a grown-up take on the cheeky chocolate “dirt cakes” you may have had as a kid, featuring crumbled dark chocolate sablé “dirt” and Meyer lemon “worms.” Her cakes are always joyful—and never too sweet. Read on for her Just a Bite interview, featuring her recipe for frangipane crostata. —Aliza Abarbanel
You’re making dessert. What is it?
I love to serve a dessert that looks deceptively simple, but really hits with perfect individual components, so I often go for a fruit crostata/galette with nutty frangipane and the flakiest pastry. I made hundreds of these in my years at Chez Panisse & Cotogna, and I always find myself going back to them. My favorite fruit for this is perfectly in-season, tart, aromatic red pluots but fruit from every season works beautifully. Choose poached quince in fall, Pink Lady apples & citrus in winter, rhubarb for spring, cherries in early summer, and nectarines and peaches in late summer. Frangipane can be made with any nut, but almond is my favorite. Serve your galette with whipped creme fraiche, or for something a little fancier infuse your cream with a complimentary flavor like bay laurel, toasted black peppercorns, fig leaf, noyaux, or vanilla bean.
Someone is making you a dessert. What do you ask for?
I’m at the window at Foster’s Freeze. The sixteen-year-old behind the scratched plexiglass window asks me “what do you want?” I order a vanilla soft serve in a cake cone, dipped. The “chocolate” shell springs leaks immediately. Melted vanilla ice cream dripping down my hand, it’s a delicious race against time.
You’ve transformed into a pastry. What are you and how are you consumed?
A cream puff. All in one bite.
What’s a fictional dessert scene you’ll never forget?
Oh there are so many! A formative one was probably the White Witch seducing sad little Edmund with Turkish Delight in the 1988 BBC adaption of Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe. My sister and I were absolutely obsessed with it, we rented it over and over. The Witch hands Edmund this fancy silver tin tied with a ribbon, filled with an enchanted version of his favorite treat, and he just goes for it. Powdered sugar on his hands and face, just voraciously consuming like only a kid can. I think he is wearing a fur coat? It’s perfect.
Share with us a baking hack you can’t live without?
Citric and malic acid. My chef at Bar Tartine, Courtney Burns, introduced me to both and I’ve been hooked since. Citric acid is like, “lemon sour” while malic has more of a “green apple sour” quality. I use them in nearly every baking recipe, and they are especially useful when trying to add a little tartness but not additional liquid, like in a mandarin curd recipe or a peach pie.
Talk to us about the desserts at Quarter Sheets Pizza. What’s the process of creating the menu? Where do you find your inspiration?
So my background is as a sort of “classic” restaurant pastry chef. Plated desserts, mignardise, etc. I’m not a cake maker, historically. When we started our pop up (out of our house), everything was takeaway, so obviously I was not able to plate fancy desserts! Instead, I started conceptualizing layer cakes the way I would a plated dessert, thinking about texture, flavor, complexity, seasonality, and balance.
A strawberry layer cake can be elevated in many ways, while still paying homage to the classic strawberry shortcake we all grew up with. Maybe we throw some handfuls of rose geranium into our jam, or add fresh bay leaf to our vanilla bean infusion for the custard. Olive oil chiffon cake is pillowy and soft, like angel food cake, but we want a little bit of texture so we add cornmeal. It gives the cake a beautiful yellow hue, and the perfect amount of crunch. We soak the cake with wildflower honey milk, and finish with salted whipped mascarpone and lime zest. You eat it, you remember childhood, but we’ve challenged you (in a pleasant way!) a bit.
Follow Hannah on Instagram: @hannahziskin
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