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Star Pastry Chef Calls The Thompson Home

Amanda Rockman loves the sweet life—she’s helped open a three star Michelin restaurant, she’s been a contestant on Bravo’s Top Chef: Just Desserts, and she’s been awarded the Chicago Tribune Pastry Chef of the Year (2013)—yet that’s only a few of her culinary accomplishments.

Now, she brings her passion for pastry (and her famous Nico Torte) to Nico Osteria at Thompson Chicago. If you’ve been lucky enough to devour the dessert, relishing the burst of confit apple, rosemary, candied pecans with a smidge of burnt vanilla gelato, you’ll know that it’s worth coming all the way to Chicago for the pleasure.

If you’ve not yet been so lucky (and live a million miles away) we have a surprise for you. Rockman has generously shared her recipe for her insanely coveted dish so you can recreate it at home. Check out her story and how to make her Nico Torte below.

How would you describe the kitchen of your childhood? What role did cooking play in your family?
The kitchen was the focal point in our house—when my mom cooked, or if people were over, we always found ourselves around the kitchen island.

What was the first dish you cooked by yourself?
I’m fairly sure it was brownies!

What drew you to pastry and baking as opposed to other forms of cooking?
There was never a doubt. I was always obsessed with sweets—it was in my blood.

Do the flavors and traditions of your home state of Texas influence your cooking? If so, how?
I have moments of “Southern” inspiration, usually that means I use more butter. I can’t say that I make traditional Texan fare (I CAN say a make a mean chili!!) However, being a Texan is a mindset- we don’t take any bull….

How do you handle the high pressure of the kitchen environment?
Taking a deep breath. I remember all the moments I messed up as a cook so when I see something going wrong I take it step by step.

Can you reveal a funny/awkward behind-the-scenes moment that we might not have seen when you competed on Top Chef?
Hmmm, we had this game where we would secretly put a banana on someone’s shoulder and they wouldn’t know…then we would take it to a new level and hide them in peoples bed.  Everyone was into it and it was hilarious when we would get someone really good.

What’s unique about the Chicago food scene? Does the competition push you to be more inventive?
The culinary community is really close here. I pretty much grew up here as a cook, so all the people I worked with 12 years ago are chefs. It’s interesting to see everyone move up, but we all support each other.

What’s been your most successful desert to date? What made it such a hit?
I would say Nico Torte. Everyone went nuts when I first put it on the Bristol dessert menu.  It was a bit insane.  I think people like it because it has that salty, sweet, creamy, cakey thing going for it. I think I have made over 1,000,000,000 in my life.  By hand…

When cooking at home, what’s the most important thing to remember when trying to pair flavors and textures?
I don’t over think it, just make it taste good! Also, always listen to good music when you are cooking. I don’t look to make things complex, have fun and don’t be too critical.

What ingredient do you love most right now and how are you using it in your dishes?
I currently love anything potato (for savory) pretty sure I haven’t met a potato I didn’t love.  For pastry-salt and more salt- it really makes it pop.

What’s your go-to comfort food dish?
Cheeseburger, every 6 weeks on the dot I must have one.

What’s your favorite pastry you make for Nico Osteria?
I love all of them! So much time and thought go into what we do at Nico that I couldn’t just pick one (its like your children, really).

Could you share a simple recipe that we could whip up at home?
I would love to share the Nico Torte. I did a piece with Lottie and Doof and they documented with pictures on how to make it- it really is the best and easiest explanation. Recipe is below, or you can see step-by-step documentation here.

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.

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