I am a tiramisu purist. To me this means the quintessential Italian dessert is made with aged ladyfingers dipped in espresso, softened between layers of mascarpone that has been lightened with a Marsala sabayon. A proper tiramisu should contain nothing more, save a light dusting of bitter cocoa powder to finish. If I’m feeling really frisky, I’ll add a dash of the anise flavored Sambuca to the espresso before each lady finger is baptized in the bitter liquid, or swap the Marsala for Madeira depending on what’s around, but even those simple variations are stretching it.
I was shocked, upon a recent trip to Nico to taste Amanda Rockman’s desserts, that her tiramisu broke every one of these rules. Even more surprising to me was how much I loved it.
“Loved it” isn’t quite the right turn of phrase. If I’m being honest, obsessed better describes the amount of time I thought about her tiramisu in the days after eating my first one. I pondered what the crispy element was, hidden from sight between layers of Valrhona Caramelia mousse and mascarpone. The cake layer mystified me, soft with a bitter whisper from what I envisioned to be an ever so brief encounter with espresso, yet it was clearly added a la minute. Floating over the top of the variegated dessert was an unearthly light whipped cream, pure white yet scented like coffee. Or was it whipped mascarpone? And seriously, what on earth is that crispy crunchy layer?!
I bombarded Amanda with so many questions via text messages, she finally stopped answering and just snapped a picture of a recipe.
So naturally, I put her tiramisu on my menu.
Well, not quite. Rather, we set ourselves to task creating a dish that embodied all the components of Amanda’s gripping tiramisu. To hear Amanda put it, she adores this kind of “collective collaboration”, an incubated creative process fueled by open sharing between like minds, much like the ghost stories written in closed competition by Mary Shelley and her contemporaries that begat Shelley’s Frankenstein.
The most gripping part of the tiramisu Amanda created for the dessert menu at Nico, the Italian seafood restaurant recently opened in Chicago’s Gold Coast neighborhood, is the inclusion of crispy textures. After being questioned for what seemed like hours, she admitted the crispy layers included crushed aged lady fingers. These cookies, called Savoiardi, are found in every tiramisu. They are hard through and through, and are made soft with a short dunk in espresso, quick enough to soak just the surface of the cookie, and a long period of time absorbing the moisture from the layers of mascarpone mousse they sit between. The fate of these cookies changes drastically in Amandas hands.
Nico is the third Italian restaurant on Amanda’s resume, so tiramisu has long been a cornerstone of her dessert menus. In Austin, Texas at a restaurant called Asti, genesis came in classic form, as Amanda produced a tiramisu per her bosses instruction, daily for the dessert menu. Years later, and over 1000 miles north, Amanda set up shop at Balena here in chicago with this recipe in tow. She tweaked it here and there, included more mascarpone, and layered her tiramisu in a narrow pulman pan. Once unmolded, Balena’s tirimisu was sliced like a terrine, the distinct layers laid flat, running across the plate over a streak of dark chocolate sauce. Here, an evolutionary leap was made; a crispy espresso streusel was sprinkled atop, and a petite coffee roasted pear flanked the reinvented classic Italian dessert.
When Amanda was tapped to open Nico last fall, it was made clear to her she needed to put a tiramisu on the menu, and it needed to be the best in the city. No small task, but one gladly accepted by a girl so admittedly in love with tiramisu she would gladly eat one found in the rear of a 7-11 freezer 2 years after it was stocked.
It was quickly decided that Nico’s tiramisu would be constructed individually as a Verine, layered to order in a tall glass. Amanda wanted the dessert to look deceptively simple, holding all of it’s textural secrets out of sight, a surprise in each spoonful. A cremeux made from Valrhona’s , Caramelia, a caramel-y milk chocolate, is cast in the base of a rocks glass. Left to settle into it’s pudding like texture over night, the cremeux is the only pre-set component in this dessert. Upon order, the cremeux is scattered with a combination of crushed lady fingers and espresso streusel. The mascarpone mousse, in it’s 3rd variation from it’s Texan origins, is piped into the glass. A piece of moist, vanilla scented olive oil cake is dipped quickly in espresso, then inserted deep into the billowy mousse. Crackly praline crunch, made with fuilletine and praline grains bound by praline paste is nestled on top of the cake before the glass is filled to the brim with a cold infused coffee cream lightened with the charge of an ISI cannister. To finish this contemporary tiramisu, Amanda opted to dust the top with atomized chocolate rather than cocoa powder.
After I sampled this dessert for the first time, I came into work and told tale of the deceptive layers, of the tiramisu that broke all the rules. The team at blackbird discussed what a tiramisu would look like in our dining room, reconceived in the modern, minimal style we work in. It was quickly decided that however it was created, it was to be constructed directly on our large flat plates. We made cakes, butter creams, chocolate mousses aerated in the vacuum chamber, the mascarpone layer from both Avec’s recipe book and Amanda’s. Crumbles, crunches, chocolates, and nuts were broken apart, mixed together, and tasted.
We began editing the dish, talking about the dessert as a haiku, including as few components as we get away with. Harry suggested that just a dollop of mascarpone misted with madiera and a bitter espresso streusel would exemplify the core of the dish. We tried it, making our own mascarpone from kilgus cream and tartaric acid, and agreed that yes, it possessed the core values of tiramisu, and yes, we could add a couple more things for the dining room at blackbird.
What finally came of our Amanda Rockman inspired wanderings through flavors and textures of tiramisu is a dish simply titled Chocolate Pudding, which does indeed describe the main component on the plate. The chocolate pudding, made in classic american stovetop style is deepened with espresso and a dose of sambuca. Piped in a large disk, the chocolate pudding obscures a smaller dome of mascarpone cream, lightly sweetened with madiera. Dropped from a 12 inch distance, 5 textures rain over the pudding, clinging to it’s surface and scattering towards the edge of the plate. First falls a texture directly lifted from the aforementioned tiramisu, a crispy streusel with freshly ground espresso folded in with the flour. Next, salty butter roasted hickory nut pieces are scattered, followed by flecks of coffee toffee, and paper thin shavings of morello cherry flavored chocolate. In finale, the dark powdery dusting on our tirimisu inspired dish comes in the form of a chocolate cookie, ground fine enough to resemble the espresso responsible for the core flavor in the namesake dessert.
On more than one occasion, I’ve delivered this dessert to a table and shared the story of our inspiration only to hear that the guests had enjoyed Amanda’s tiramisu recently as well. I hope they too can see her brilliance shining through the dessert she inspired here at Blackbird.