Malika Ameen

F&W Star Chef

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Top Chef Just Desserts competitor Malika Ameen runs ByMDesserts, a made-to-order online sweets shop. Here, she shares where to find the best doughnuts in Chicago, the secret ingredient in her famous chocolate truffle cookies and why searing is so important when making pastries. 

What’s your most requested recipe, the one dish you’re most known for?
My chocolate truffle cookies and my sticky toffee pudding.

I started doing the cookies at Chateau Marmont when I lived in California; the recipe has since evolved. It’s got a ton of chocolate: melted chocolate in the dough, and it’s studded with dark, milk and white chocolate. It’s also got a surprise twist of some Vietnamese cinnamon which I think people like because it’s a little mysterious. People don’t always recognize it as cinnamon because it’s not strong or pungent, it’s just a whisper.

The sticky toffee pudding might be so popular because of the toffee sauce—and because the cake itself is so moist. I have a real fixation about flavor and moisture when it comes to baking cakes: Those are my big number one priorities, then I worry about how it looks. When I moved to L.A., I discovered Bautista Farms dates. Their Khadrawy dates are like butter, melt-in-your-mouth. I’d only ever had Medjool dates, which are perfectly nice. But when I found those, that’s when I started working on sticky toffee pudding, using market dates, Plugrá butter and—for the toffee sauce—rum, brown sugar, a potent amount of vanilla bean and extract, and some good crème fraîche to balance the sweetness. The sauce also needs to be aged a little bit for maximum taste. To let those flavors get acquainted, to start that marriage off on the right foot, it helps to give them a couple of days together.

What’s your favorite cookbook of all time?
Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers’s River Cafe Cookbook Green. When I look at their books, I think maybe I should have done savory food. I want to eat everything. I admire the simplicity so much. The green book is organized by seasons. It has this apricot almond tart that’s spectacular, then a roasted raspberry jam that’s out of this world.

For pastry, I always go to Claudia Fleming’s The Last Course and Lindsey Shere’s Chez Panisse Desserts. Claudia’s crisps are amazing, and that maple flan she does? Oh, my god. Her Concord grape sorbet is so good and so simple. And her chocolate caramel tart with the salt on top, that’s been replicated everywhere. That and her panna cotta. I remember when the book first came out, I was living in New York, and suddenly every chef and their mother had panna cotta on their menus. But her desserts are timeless. Food trends come and go but her desserts fit in anywhere.

I go to the Chez Panisse books for ice creams and how to treat fruit—how to coax out the maximum flavor with minimum manipulation. Like figs, maybe they’ll say to roast them with x amount of y liqueur and a little sprinkling of this or that. And then they’ll suggest serving it with a certain cookie or a glass of dessert wine. Or if I see kumquats coming into season, I’ll go to almost any of Alice Waters’s books and search for kumquats to see what they’ve done. A lot of the books have both sweet and savory recipes alongside each other, so often I’ll go looking for a sweet recipe and get distracted by the savory.

What’s one technique everyone should know?
How to sear. With protein, you want your pan really hot, your protein should be at room temperature and not cold from the fridge, the oil should just be at that point where it’s almost smoking. And you want an oil like canola or grapeseed, one with a high smoking point. Then you’ve got to let the protein sit: Once you put the meat in the pan, give it some time to color. One other little trick, once the meat starts to color and sear, add a little pat of butter to the pan and give the pan a little shake. The butter should melt underneath the meat all on its own, to give it the most beautiful crust and even better caramelization. For even more flavor, just add more than a pat of butter and baste the meat while it cooks.

It’s the same in pastry. When I’m roasting fruit, I start with a nice, hot oven—or pan, or grill—then maybe brush the fruit with a little butter, and sprinkle it with a tiny bit of sugar depending on how sweet the fruit is already, since the sugar helps with the caramel and draws out the juices. Then I sear it just until it’s brown, and not overcooked. You never want to roast fruit for a very long time or else it falls apart.

Sometimes I’ll roast fruit in caramel, but I want to get the caramel nice and dark first. There’s this flavor in between caramel and burnt that I love—a dark amber where you get this lovely bitterness that shows up across all my cooking, from sweet to savory. That’s why caramel ice cream tastes so good—if someone really knows how to make it, they take the caramel to a very dark stage, where it’s just about to taste burnt but it’s not. It’s not just sweet—it tastes much more complex.

What are the top places not to miss on a trip to Chicago?

  1. The Dose Market is a weekly food and fashion market in the River East Art Center. They get chefs from restaurants in Chicago, doing everything from tacos to fried chicken, chocolate and baked goods. Then cool fashion vendors from Chicago sell clothing and furniture, and someone’s usually selling vintage records, it’s very cool. As part of your ticket you get a free cocktail, so you sip and walk around.
  2. The Peninsula hotel also has a Chinese restaurant downstairs called Shanghai Terrace, and they have amazing dim sum. It’s not Chinese American food, their chefs are all Chinese, so it’s much more interesting—they have amazing crisp duck, wonderful dumplings, just good, fresh food. It’s a little more high-end, but it’s a great lunch or dinner in a cool space.
  3. Grant Achatz and Nick Kokonas’s The Aviary, right next to Next restaurant, is don’t-miss for cocktails. 
  4. Great Lake makes outstanding artisan pizzas. It’s owned by a husband and wife, the husband makes all the pizzas; they have only four or six tables so there’s nowhere to sit. They open at 4 o’clock and only serve pizzas for that evening. They’re not deep-dish, they’re more Neapolitan-style. The dough is made with a starter, so it’s flavorful, nicely charred, with simple, beautiful toppings.
  5. You cannot miss Do-Rite Donuts’ glazed buttermilk or Valrhona chocolate doughnuts. Those are both cake doughnuts; they also have yeasted ones like a killer coconut doughnut with a custard filling. The owners used to work at L20, and one used to work for François Payard, so they both know their flavors and technique.
  6. For a lunchtime sandwich, Publican Quality Meats is a butcher shop with food, owned by Paul Kahan who also has Blackbird and Avec. They have such good meat, and their sandwiches are so well balanced: the crusty bread, the right mix of fillings, and the people making them are so passionate about what they’re putting in them.
  7. Sunday Dinner Club is an underground supper club; you have to get on their email list, but anyone coming to Chicago should get on it. The owners, Josh Kulp and Christine Cikowski, host these wonderful, themed BYOB dinners in Christine’s house in Logan Square. They’re perfectly legal, and they’re not just on Sundays. They set up these beautiful farm tables in her living room, and host about 20 people for each one. They’re accommodating to dietary restrictions—they send out the menu ahead of time so you can let them know if there’s anything you can’t eat. The dinners started out with fried chicken—they do this amazing, ridiculous fried chicken, and hope to open a fried chicken restaurant in this coming year. I just went to one last week all about pizza, so we had one pizza with hand-dipped ricotta, grapes, thyme and caramelized onions, another with local lamb sausage and a charred heirloom tomato sauce. Between the courses they came out and talked to us about the food, how it’s made, where the ingredients came from. At the end I didn’t want to leave.
  8. The Pump Room is in an Ian Schrager hotel but Jean-Georges Vongerichten does the food. I love to go there for lunch, because it’s not as packed so you can hear your conversation. It’s very farm-to-table, like ABC Kitchen in New York. They just started some new flatbread pizzas, like one with smoked salmon and a lovely green dill cream underneath, another with black truffles and Fontina cheese. I also love their tuna and avocado with soy emulsion. Their soba noodle salad with pulled chicken I liked so much I just tried to do my own version for my kids last night. Their chicken is so moist, I assume it is done sous vide. But it’s also wonderfully dressed; I think they put a lot of toasted Japanese sesame seeds in a mortar and pestle, grind them and toss them into a light vinaigrette. That’s what I did for the kids, with vegetables and chicken. Of course, it wasn’t like Jean-Georges’s, but it was pretty good.