Over 50 years ago, when other pioneers of the American food revolution were making their mark on beef Bourguignon, country terrine, coq au vin and chocolate soufflés, my grandmother was perfecting her recipe for classic Linzer torte.
Though lesser known than her peers James Beard, Craig Claiborne or Julia Child, my late grandmother, Paula Peck, taught at Beard’s cooking school and he wrote the foreword to her acclaimed The Art of Fine Baking. Claiborne often wrote about her cooking in the Times. Known for her versatile recipes and what back then was considered a minimalist style, her mastery of baking brought her work into the limelight. As Beard wrote, “She is an outstanding juggler with rolling pin and mixing bowl.”
This Linzer torte arose from my grandmother’s quest to conquer Austrian desserts. Her baking book is filled with recipes for strudel, Danish pastries and mocha torte — her take on the famous Sacher torte that she once had shipped from Vienna to her Harlem home to dissect and reverse engineer. With recipes dating back to 1653 and a reputation as the oldest known cake in the world, the famous Christmas dessert Linzer torte is said to have been named after the city of Linz, Austria, though Germany and now North America have created similar versions, often in cookie form. The Harlem apartment where my grandmother did so much cooking and baking was home to many parties, but in the Peck household, the holidays were not celebrated. Or rather, they were celebrated watching fireworks and listening to mariachi bands in Mexico. My grandfather, Jim Peck, a strong-willed civil rights activist, wanted nothing to do with Christmas or Hanukkah and each December piled the family into a car to drive all the way to Mexico. This explains why, out of the hundreds of recipes my grandmother wrote, so few are holiday related. But then there’s the Linzer torte. With its jewel-like jam layer peeping through the crumbly almond crust, the torte shone like a crown on her kitchen countertop. My grandfather knew about its relation to Christmas but happily gobbled down a slice or ate it alongside his odd favorite dessert of liquor-drenched canned peaches.
Now, every December when I make this tart-like dessert, I think of my grandmother’s thoughtful guidance. It’s a perfect example of her advice, still relevant today during these chaotic festivities: “Sit back, relax and prepare to enjoy watching others marvel at the results of your well-organized baking.”
There might not have been a Christmas tree in the background while she was rolling out this cocoa-scented dough for her latest dinner party. But as the torte baked, the apartment would fill with merry laughter of New York’s mid-century culinary royalty, mingling with the sweet smell of roasted almonds, a hint of the cocoa and warm raspberry preserves.
Pump up the raspberry jam. Find Paula Peck’s recipe for Linzer torte here.
Photo credit: Sharon Radisch