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Balena pastry chef Amanda Rockman talks dessert

February 15, 2012|By Lisa Arnett | RedEye

Pastry chef Amanda Rockman is known around town for her addictive Basque cake at Bucktown restaurant The Bristol, but last year she took a turn in the national spotlight on Bravo’s “Top Chef: Just Desserts.” While she was away taping the show, she found out that The Bristol team was teaming up with Boka Restaurant Group to open a new restaurant called Balena. The Italian-inspired spot will showcase chef Chris Pandel’s pasta, pizza and wood-fired meats and is expected to open in late February or early March.

Fresh off a Jean Banchet Award for Pastry Chef of the Year, Rockman took a break from organizing her pastry work space at coming-soon Balena (“I’m currently P-Touching the entire kitchen, labeling everything,” she said) to chat about the seriously big dessert menu.

 “Currently on the opening [dessert] menu, I’ve got 10 items,” she said. “I’d kind of like to start big and see if we can handle it. I don’t know if that’s a death wish.” The menu features four plated desserts and six sundaes. “In Chicago there’s not really a restaurant that has really good composed sundaes. You can argue Margie’s, but that’s a little more Americana, where ours is going to be definitely focused on Italian gelatos and sorbettis.”

Watch the video above to get a glimpse Rockman preparing four of Balena’s desserts, and then continue below for more of her comments on each one.

“What’s really great about Balena is that it's Italian-inspired, key word ‘inspired.’” Rockman says. “We’re not trying to transport you back to Italy.” So when it came to creating her own version of tiramisu, a classic Italian dessert made from espresso-soaked ladyfingers layered with mascarpone cream, she wanted to take some liberties. “This isn’t like your old grandma’s tiramisu recipe.” Rockman’s version combines three layers of ladyfingers (aged as opposed to fresh so that they can hold up to the soaking) with a mixture of zabaione (marsala wine-spiked custard), whipped cream and mascarpone cheese in between. “We build it, we layer it, we freeze it, we take it out and we cut it, and that’s when you have these beautiful little slabs of tiramisu,” she says. “I’m really hoping that this dessert is kind of like the crown jewel. I really would like it to rival the Basque cake [at The Bristol]. I would like to show another dessert that’s just as addictive as that.” Each slice is plated with a crème fraiche-chocolate sauce, coffee-almond streusel and the cutest little pear you’ve ever seen, which Rockman roasts with sugar and coffee grounds. It adds a fresh, slightly bitter flavor to a seriously rich dish, she says.

Rockman takes affogato, a simple Italian dessert created by pouring espresso over vanilla gelato, and spins it into something more American by adding fried-to-order yeasted doughnuts dusted with cinnamon sugar. “I like to call this the cops’ special because it's coffee and doughnuts. America runs on Dunkin’, right?” It’s up to the diner how exactly they want to approach digging into the doughnuts. “You can kind of dip it into the affogato, you can eat it separately, you can mash it in there,” she says. “My personal favorite is to kind of let the hot espresso melt away a little of the vanilla gelato and then to dip my doughnut in there.”

Rockman loves tarts and confesses that she’s dreamed of opening a shop (called Queen of Tarts, of course) that served nothing but tarts. “There’s something to be said about a really beautiful hand-crafted tart shell, which we’re making all in house,” she says, adding that she prefers individually sized tart shells over larger cake-sized ones that you cut into slices. “It’s just a little more special than just a floppy piece of tart, sliced away.” Inside, there’s a filling of honey caramel and pine nuts, and it’s served with a vanilla custard sauce, vanilla gelato and fried rosemary. “The earthiness of the rosemary really brings out the honey and the pine nut flavor.”

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