Lottie + Doof + Amanda Rockman

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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).

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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.

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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:

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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?

  • Tripe.

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.

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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.

Pastry Cream

  • 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.

Some notes:

* 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.

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48 comments to “Lottie + Doof + Amanda Rockman”

  1. Hi, just to check, that is 1 pound of butter and 1 pound of sugar only for the crust of the cake? i’m used to seeing measurements more in the range of half that for a cake of this size…. so, it really is 2 pounds total of butter and sugar then, just for the crust?

  2. Gorgeous! Thanks for sharing.

  3. Yes, Lisa! It is! (but depending on the size of your pan, you might not use it all). But indeed, it is a lot of sugar and butter. NOT for the faint of heart (or people with heart disease).

  4. I’m so glad to know that I’m not the only person on earth who asks to look at the dessert menu first so I can plan my meal around it. I’ve gotten some weird looks, but who cares. Dessert is the most important part of the meal!

  5. THIS IS AWESOME. Definitely looking forward to more posts in this series!!

  6. Yes! I’m looking forward to more glory for pastry chefs. I grew up in a family that decidedly did not order dessert, so in my adulthood I’ve rebelled and order dessert (for myself and sometimes for others if they’re being shy), and when I’m eating at home, I always make dessert. We have one short life! Why not dessert!

    This cake looks like a whole new level to an angel food cake meets pound cake. I can’t wait to try it!

  7. Your musings on dessert describe me perfectly. When someone passes on the dessert menu, I too wonder if they are ill. I mean dessert?!

  8. Ahh! This is one of the few desserts I still think about from years ago! I can’t wait to make this at home!

  9. I love this post so much. Dessert is DEFINITELY the most important! It’s what I always get excited for, and we definitely need pastry chefs! Also, this cake is fabulous!

  10. This is amazing! It is on my “to bake list” for this weekend. I am really looking forward to more interviews with your favourite pastry chefs. Thank you

  11. This looks wonderful but are there a few steps missing in the pastry cream? Like when to add the butter and vanilla?

  12. i WILL be making this saturday afternoon. i can’t wait!!!

  13. Carol!- Thanks! Yes, that step was missing- sorry, I saved the wrong draft. Are there additional steps missing? Am I missing what else is missing? I hope not! Thanks for catching that before anyone got baking. : )

  14. Well, this is gorgeous. I love your celebration and defense of the pastry chef :) xo

  15. Question about the building of the cake… I can’t tell from the photo/illustration, is there a layer of batter underneath that layer of pastry cream in addition to a second layer of batter along the perimeter? Or, with the pastry cream indicator, are you pointing out where the pastry cream should be placed (in one of those troughs between where the rings of batter line up)? I can’t visualize how you did that with the trough description.

  16. What a beautiful cake, although a lot of butter and sugar. An argument for dessert first, or invite some folks over to share – I’m sure a small piece will likely fill you up. Oh, and…nice interview!

  17. Hi Matt- Yes, the pastry cream is surrounded by batter. You start (bottom) with an inch(ish) thick layer of batter, as indicated. The layer photographed is the second/middle layer (though they look similar, if you look more closely the ring at the edge is batter and all of the rings in the middle of that layer are pastry cream). The third/top layer is the same as the first–just batter.

  18. Tim, I cannot thank you enough! I am so obsessed with Basque Cake that I’ve scoured the internet for recipes and even wrote into Bon Appetit to see if they’d publish Amanda’s excellent recipe from the Bristol.

    For those looking to chomp, Floriole’s is pretty darn delicious, too! Let the baking begin!

  19. Anna- Yay! Glad I could help out!

  20. A full dozen yolks. Yow. It sounds/looks spectacular. Although my favorite gateau Basque had some almond meal/paste in it…

  21. Hey Deena! Yes, butbutbutbutbut you’re only actually using a fraction of that pastry cream. I would guess only 6-8 yolks actually make it into the cake. And you may think your favorite basque cake has almond paste, but that is only because you haven’t had one that Amanda made. ; )

  22. Thank you for reading my mind. So excited about this.

  23. *runs out to buy a springform pan*

    *runs back in*

    Thanks! :)

    *runs back out*

  24. You’re killing me this week. I was just about to make pain d’épices and now you’ve gone and given me the recipe for Basque Cake. I may spend the whole weekend in the kitchen!

    And, yes, always say yes to dessert!

  25. I’ve put off buying a kitchen scale for too long. IT IS TIME!!

  26. So glad Matt asked about assembling the cake — I get it, now! I’ll be tackling this tomorrow after I get a piping bag and a tip … Love your blog! I bought the Hoosier Mama and Four & Twenty Blackbirds books after reading your entries. They are perfect in every way (kinda like your blog!)

  27. What is the recommended baking time if smaller pans are used? I have some mini (4in. dia.) springform pans that would be perfect for this!

  28. Hi Lauren- I’m not sure, I didn’t test this in 4-inch pans. There are too many variables for me to be able to offer accurate cooking times for other sizes of pans. In addition to the smaller diameter, I assume your pans are not 3-inches tall, so the height will also be different. You’re going to need to experiment to figure out best practices for your pans. I would start by setting timer for 30-35 minutes and then check every 5 minutes after that? Also, you’re probably only going to be able to use a very thin layer of pastry cream, assuming your pan height is closer to 2-inches. It’s definitely not a fool-proof recipe, so it’s going to require some experimentation. Good luck!

  29. I’m another one who asks to hear the desserts before placing my dinner order. And, while I love desserts, if the offering doesn’t sound interesting, I pass on dessert rather than eating something that just wasn’t worth it. … This recipe looks and sounds delicious.

  30. Hi, I just love your food blog :)
    Is English cup and U.S. cup away?
    English muffins-
    says-
    First portion of water: 1 1/3 cups (11 ounces) of water to 68 ° F (cool tap water)
    I wonder if it is 20 degrees cold water!

    and here-
    Second portion of water 1/3 cup (2 1/2 ounces) of water to 68 ° F
    I reckon it’s 20 degrees cold water! the same as above!
    sorry I’m not so good at English, hoping di understand what I mean :)))

  31. Hey Tim, just wanted to say this was a really great post. I agree with you completely about dessert – it’s a little sad how I’m probably in the minority by thinking dessert is as essential to a meal as the right drink or good sides. Haha, and I loved your “are they ill?” comment.

    And great-looking treat you’ve got here, can’t wait to try it out. You definitely sold me on Amanda Rockman.

  32. Ha! I never eat dessert after dinner. It makes me feel totally ill! But I would eat the hell out of this any other time.

  33. Charlotte says:

    April 7th, 2014 at 6:10 am

    I can NOT believe you have this recipe! We ate at the Bristol last summer and I had this cake for dessert. I was insanely over the top delicious! I asked for the recipe with no luck. I have actually been considering contacting you to see if you could get it! When we got home I started searching for recipes online and made one of them. It just wasn’t the same. My husband, seeing my disappointment, said “you didn’t really expect to get it right the first time did you?” Of course I did! Thank you, thank you for this! Yesterday our connecting plane in Atlanta was boarding as we landed; right next to our arrival gate and we made our connection. Today, you have given me a coveted recipe. I need to play the lotto, that’s how lucky I feel!

  34. Love the photos here

  35. This cake — minus the pastry cream — sounds as if it might be what my grandmother made many years ago. She called it Butter Cake and it was amazing. Soft buttery cake inside, salty, crusty crunchy top. She was a “plain cook,” so I doubt she would ever have taken the time to make the pastry cream (although she did make her own strudel.) Do you think the batter could be baked just as a cake by itself? Has anyone tried?

  36. Hi ChezMom- I haven’t tried, but there is no reason you could not bake cake without pastry cream. I bet it will be delicious!

  37. I’m visiting my sister in Germany, and we have this in the oven right now! It’s looking very promising, but we’re not sure how to tell when it’s done. We swapped some cocoa powder for flour and used chocolate pastry cream, so. It’s hoarded to go by color. It’s still quite a bit wobbly, but I assume it will be because of the pastry cream. Any thoughts or tips would be appreciated.

  38. Hi Emily- It should not be wobbly, the cake needs to be set before you remove it from the oven.

  39. Wow! I feel blessed to be able to peek into this recipe. I’m going to bake this and pair it with some jam.

  40. I just made this last night! So amazing and delicious. For anyone who only has a 9 in. springform pan (*ahem* me), a half batch of the pastry cream with all of the cake batter. I know Tim says you might not need all of it, but in the big pan, it’s just the right amount. The whole thing rose up to just under the lip of the pan, and after 70ish minutes it was good to go.

    I also put a drop (literally a DROP) of lemon extract in the cake batter, and I really love the subtle lemon aroma with all the vanilla flavor.

    Amazing amazing amazing amazing amazing…

    Thank you for sharing this gem!

  41. Hi Jenny! Thanks for checking in, I am glad to hear you like the recipe. And thanks for the information on the other size of pan, that is so helpful (to me, too).

  42. schneiderluvsdoof says:

    April 17th, 2014 at 2:58 pm

    This looks like what I would consider to be the perfect cake. Nice job getting the secret recipe and thank you for sharing it with us (pedestrians)!

  43. Annabella says:

    May 10th, 2014 at 1:17 am

    I have one of these in the oven right now! I almost ran out of batter for the top layer, maybe my first layer was too thick. It’s been in the oven for 75min and still wobbly so I’m going to keep baking until it’s done.

  44. Beatiful says:

    May 11th, 2014 at 9:02 pm

    Thanks for this gorgeous cake recipe. Do you have any idea if you could make this Gluten Free? It’s that 13 oz of cake flour that is holding me back. Any creative thoughts?

  45. Hi Beatiful- I don’t imagine that this recipe would easily convert to gluten-free, but if you give it a try, let us know.

  46. I’ve made this cake twice now (the pastry cream recipe probably yields enough for at least one more…), but I’ve had a bit of trouble with the cake collapsing on me both times. By the time the first cake cooled, it looked like someone had stepped in it! I suspect that I just need to bake the cake for longer. I thought 80 minutes would be long enough, but I will try for longer next time. The middle of the cake did have a slight wobble… But everyone loved the cake. Multiple people told me it was the best cake they’d ever had!

  47. Thanks for checking in, Katie! I made this 3 times when I was testing it. The first time I had some structural problems. The other two times I was okay, but was very careful about the creaming of the butter and sugar and let it bake long, until there was no more jiggle. All of that said, I suspect we’d all have an easier time with the recipe if we were to bake smaller, individual cakes. I just haven’t gotten around to testing those yet. I really want to try in a muffin or popover tin. I think the main issues will be making sure they don’t stick. It just has so much butter that the structure is a little unstable so any little variable that is off can cause trouble. But yeah, even the cakes with issues are amazing!

  48. Thank you so much for this gift!! I had this cake at The Bristol two years ago on the hottest summer vacation of my life. She served it with a champagne sabayon and fresh strawberries. I’ve been thinking of it ever since.

What do you think?