When you get something right, there’s no need trying to improve it. That’s why the recipe for Monarch Cakes’ Polish cheesecake has stayed the same for a century.
It was Pearl Levine and her family who brought the famous recipe from Poland to Melbourne. “She was a Jewish woman from Poland who came to Australia as a refugee. She had a cake shop in Poland in the 1920s, and she had a shop in Carlton, [called] Monaco, until 1934, until Jimmy Watson’s family bought her up,” explains Gideon Markham, the current owner of Monarch Cakes.
Later that year, Levine re-opened her deli and cake shop in St Kilda under the name Monarch. “When she came to St Kilda, she concentrated more on cakes, and eventually, the deli got removed fully,” he says.
Also from Poland, Markham came to Australia in 1963 to study and work as an architect. He was a Monarch Cakes customer for decades before deciding he needed a “hobby” for his retirement. In 1996, he took over from other Polish owners. Soon enough, his wife, daughter and son got involved, too.
Many customers make a beeline for the famous baked cheesecake when they get to Monarch Cakes. “For the Polish cheesecake, we don't use ricotta – just quark cheese, a German-Polish style cheese, which has been supplied to us by the same people for many years. It’s mixed with a little lemon and a few things I can’t reveal, it’s a secret, but no additives. Then, it’s baked into a tin,” he says.
But it’s the kougelhopf, a yeast-based Bundt cake marbled with chocolate, which is the shop's bestseller. It comes in several sizes; the baby one makes for a perfect snack.
Another big hit is the plum cake, a flat butter-based cake with plums pressed into the top. The bakery has been using a specific type of local plum for more than 20 years, which it started stockpiling after a shortage a few years back.
Other than the cheesecake, Markham says it’s hard to know exactly where each recipe comes from or when they’ve been added to Monarch’s repertoire. “We had a German chef for 25 years and we inherited some of his recipes, but we also had a Croatian chef and Hungarian chef,” he explains.
He was a Monarch customer for decades before deciding he needed a “hobby” for his retirement. In 1996, he took over from other Polish owners. Soon enough, his wife, daughter and son got involved, too.
In the windows and behind glass, you’ll find a good selection of cakes from Eastern and Central Europe, but also new trendy additions. Since 2004, the bakery has started serving coffee, and is now offering a few gluten-free and vegan cakes. “The original customers of the shop were Polish and Hungarian people, but we’ve lost a lot of them because of age. We’ve introduced gluten-free cakes and vegan cakes because there was a big demand from the younger generation,” says Markham.
Despite small changes over the years, Monarch still has the heart and soul of its beginnings. Stepping inside the bakery feels like travelling back a few decades.
“We’ve been successful because we use the best product we can and we do things with love. It’s not done by machines, it’s done by chefs who’ve been doing it for many years and love doing it. We also have a certain ambience that people like,” says Markham.
There’s something comforting about sitting down at Monarch to enjoy a cup of coffee and a piece of old-school cake.
“Many places open around here and close down after six months. Acland Street [where the bakery is located] doesn’t like the glitz, it likes authenticity,” says Markham.
103 Acland St, St Kilda
Mon – Sat 8 am – 10 pm
Sun 8 am – 9 pm
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