Recently there has been some discussion about pastry chefs and their importance in restaurant kitchens. You know by now that I consider dessert to be the most important part of any meal, and I stand in solidarity with pastry chefs and their kin. I want to spend some time this year highlighting my favorite pastry makers and bakers in Chicago, because they are amazing and have a lot to teach home bakers.
I’m always shocked when people don’t order dessert—are they ill? is this a sign of mental illness? do they not understand what dessert is? I order dessert. Sometimes I ask to see the dessert menu first so that I can plan my meal based on that final course. Occasionally Bryan and I even order second desserts. We once, famously, order four plated desserts at a fancy restaurant in town. They undoubtedly assumed we were restaurant critics, but we just wanted to try all of the options. Pastry chefs are among the only chefs whose names I remember, I even follow some on social media, and I’ll tell you what—they tend to be kind, generous, and usually have a good sense of humor (if you will permit me to generalize).
One of the chefs that I have followed for quite a while is Chicago’s Amanda Rockman. She’s become a bit of an iconic Chicago restaurant character. Within our household, Bryan has taken to calling her A-Rock (which may, or may not annoy her). I’ve followed her from The Bristol, to Balena, and now to Nico Osteria, where she currently works. These are three of Chicago’s best restaurants—she ain’t no fool (and neither are they). Over the past few years I have grown to believe she is baking just for me. She gets me. It’s similar to how I feel about my favorite musicians. If Amanda Rockman is making dessert, you better believe I will be there. Her sweets manage to be totally comforting and satisfying without ever being pedestrian. This is in part because of her attention to detail and impeccable craftsmanship. But she also knows how far to push things before they start to get weird, and I think that is an important skill in a pastry chef. I want to be challenged by dessert, but not so challenged that I can’t relax and enjoy it. Her version of tiramisu at Balena (and indeed at Nico) was a perfect example of her genius. Elements were familiar to anyone who had eaten tiramisu in the past (which is 100% of the population?), but she threw in a streusel and a perfect little pear roasted in coffee. It was insanely delicious. At Nico she has made so many beautiful dishes, from an affogato made with Chinotto and fior di latte gelato to a walnut flan tart.
The most famous dessert Amanda has served in Chicago was the Basque cake she made for The Bristol a few years ago. Everyone freaked out about it (I’ve heard reports of tears of joy), and with good cause—it was one of the best plates of food I have ever eaten. It became the stuff of legend, and since then versions of the simple buttery cake have shown up on menus and in pastry cases across town. She even brought a version of the cake to Nico in the form of the Nico Torte (aka Basque Cake 2.0).
You can imagine my excitement when Amanda agreed to share this most-coveted of her recipes with all of us. Actually, you probably can’t imagine my excitement. For the uninitiated, Amanda’s version of Basque cake is a salty and buttery cake with a crisp crust that is filled with a custardy layer of vanilla pastry cream. She always pairs it with thoughtful accompaniments (sabayons, candied nuts or fruits), but it is delicious on its own, or with fresh fruit or jam. It doesn’t matter. However you choose to serve it—it’s a game changer. The recipe is below, with notes from me. But first, lets get to know Amanda a little better:
LOTTIE + DOOF FOOD QUIZ with AMANDA ROCKMAN
Sweet or salty?
- Both….I know, lame.
Chocolate or vanilla?
- Vanilla milkshake but chocolate cake….why are you asking me to chose sides!!!!!???
Hot (spicy) or mild?
- Mild. Very, very mild
What won’t you eat?
Most memorable meal?
- So many really- one of recent was Boucherie in New Orleans. The prawn dish alone made me want to move there.
Favorite object in your kitchen?
- A well-written recipe.
What are you scared of in the kitchen?
- Someone turning my timer off without letting me know- I have nightmares about it.
Do you prefer to cook alone or with others?
- With others- I like to laugh while I work, brings soul to the food.
Where would you like to travel to for the food?
- Italy, Greece, Nashville, Portland, Austin, my mom’s house, THE MOON! I will travel to the ends of the universe to find tasty food- especially if it’s pastries.
If you were a fruit or vegetable, what would you be?
- Passionfruit- tart and sweet.
If you were not a pastry chef, what would you be doing?
- I would be a writer…..or work for the CIA.
What are some of your favorite places to eat dessert in Chicago?
- Molly’s Cupcakes, Hot Chocolate, The Publican, Floriole.
If you have never baked anything before, this might not be the best place to start. It requires some Technique. You need to make pastry cream, properly cream butter and sugar, and pipe batter. But really, it isn’t so hard. And I am convinced that even the most unsuccessful of these cakes is still totally delicious. In fact, I dropped one of my test cakes and it broke into pieces but I scooped it into bowls and it was perfection. So, don’t get too stressed out and you’ll be fine. That being said, read through the entire recipe, including my notes at the end before beginning. Happy baking!
Amanda Rockman’s Basque Cake
Yield: 1 8-inch cake, serves 8-10
- 16 ounces unsalted butter, room temperature (60-65°F)
- 16 ounces granulated sugar
- 2 teaspoons vanilla paste
- 3 large eggs, room temperature
- 13 ounces cake flour
- 2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 tablespoon kosher salt (yes, tablespoon)
- Pastry Cream (see recipe below)
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter an 8-inch springform pan (it should be at least 2.5-3 inches tall), line the bottom with parchment and then butter the parchment. Flour the pan and set aside.
In a medium bowl, sift together the cake flour, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.
In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping the bowl thoroughly every minute or so. Add the vanilla paste and mix to incorporate. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping the bowl and beating well after each addition. Add the sifted dry ingredients to the mixer and beat on low speed until just until combined.
Building the Cake:
Using a pastry/piping bag (or a ziplock bag with the corner snipped off) pipe an inch-thick disc of batter at the bottom of your cake pan. Then, pipe a ring of batter on top of that layer, along the inside perimeter of the pan. You are creating a small trough to hold the pastry cream. Pipe pastry cream into the space you’ve created (use as much pastry cream as you need to fill hole, it seemed like 1-1.5 cups), keeping it level with the ring of batter (see photo for illustration of this step). Pipe another disk of batter on top the whole thing, sealing the pastry cream into the cake (you might not use all of the batter, just use what you need for your pan). Use damp hands to gently smooth down the top of the batter.
Bake the cake until it is a deep golden brown and thoroughly set. This will probably take around an hour, though mine stayed in for 75 minutes or so. If the top is getting too dark, you can cover it loosely with a piece of aluminum foil. There is so much fat in this recipe, that you do not need to worry about it drying out, err on the side of a longer cooking time.
Remove from oven and allow to cool to room temperature.
- 4 cups whole milk
- 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar, divided
- kosher salt
- 1/4 cup (60g) cornstarch
- 9 large egg yolks
- 2 oz (56g) butter- cubed
- 3 tablespoons vanilla paste
Set up a medium bowl in an ice bath, set aside. In a medium saucepan, heat the milk, 1/4 cup (50 g) of granulated sugar, and a pinch of kosher salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together the cornstarch and remaining 1/4 cup of granulated sugar. Once the milk has come to a boil, reduce heat to low. Add the egg yolks to the sugar/cornstarch mixture and whisk thoroughly to combine. Slowly whisk some of the hot milk mixture into the egg yolks to temper them. Whisking constantly, pour the the tempered egg yolks into the hot milk mixture and cook over low heat until thickened. Remove from heat and whisk in the butter and vanilla paste. Transfer the pastry cream to ice bath and immediately press a piece of plastic wrap touching the top of the pastry cream to prevent a skin from forming. Allow to cool for a bit in the ice bath before transferring pastry cream to the refrigerator. You can make this in advance. This recipe makes more pastry cream than you need for the cake, you can cut the recipe in half or use the rest as you like.
* You can make smaller versions of these, like the ones served at The Bristol. Basically the same process on a smaller scale—and the baking time will be greatly reduced. Likewise, if you only have a 7-inch, or 6-inch pan–just make it work. That being said, amount of batter and pastry cream will vary based on the pan you are using, as will cooking times. You’re going to need to experiment to find best practices for your pans.
* I have several cakes pans that all claim to be 8-inches. I measured them and they range from 7.5-8.25. That being said, you may use more or less batter depending on the size of your pan. Just make sure you give yourself at least 1/2-inch of room at the top of the pan because this cake is a riser.
**Do not open your oven door while this is baking, at least not for the first 50 minutes. I wrapped the bottom of my springform pan in foil, to catch any butter that might try to escape.
* If you haven’t made pastry cream before, read up on it. There are plenty of tutorials and even videos online.
* Bake this dark! Don’t pull the cake too soon!
* The cake keeps well, I was still happily eating slices a few days later. Keep it in the fridge and bring to room temperature, or warm it up slightly, before serving.