Key Ingredient: pu-erh tea | Key Ingredient | Chicago Reader

Key Ingredient: pu-erh tea 

In this week's chef challenge, Balena's Amanda Rockman hits the sweet spot with a Yunnanese brew

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Buttermilk and pu-erh panna cotta with raspberry-tea jus

Buttermilk and pu-erh panna cotta with raspberry-tea jus

Julia Thiel

The Chef: Amanda Rockman (Balena, the Bristol)
The Challenger: Meg Colleran Sahs (Terzo Piano)
The Ingredient: Pu-erh tea

"I'm an avid tea drinker," Amanda Rockman said. "I feel like people are either coffee or tea drinkers, kind of like cat and dog people."

So she was "quite excited" to be assigned pu-erh tea to work with, though she'd never tried it before—Rockman is a fan of oolongs and Darjeelings. There are two types of pu-erh, a type of fermented tea produced mainly in the Yunnan province of China: "ripe," which goes through a controlled fermentation immediately after being dried, and "raw," which ferments more slowly over time. Because of the slow fermentation process, pu-erh is often aged for years or decades, developing in flavor the way wine does.

The tea is known for its earthy taste, and at first Rockman was worried it would be "nasty and herbaceous." But she got a 2003 oak-barrel-aged pu-erh mixed with wild rose petals that she described as "delicate, but kind of funky . . . not superfloral, like eating potpourri. It was really pleasant."

Video by Michael Gebert/Sky Full of Bacon

Panna cotta is one of Rockman's favorite things in the world, she said, and as soon as she got the rose pu-erh she knew that was what she was going to make with it. "I think a lot of times it gets a bad rap because people think it's just, like, milk jello. But there's a real art to making a good panna cotta."

Given her slight obsession with the dessert, Rockman said, "I've done panna cotta a million and one ways. I'm doing one at the Bristol this summer that's like a peach bellini, where we pour prosecco on top of it." She decided to use the same treatment for the pu-erh panna cotta, making a sort of raspberry juice that she poured over the top. "I paired it with raspberries and spiced hazelnuts and a little bit of basil to bring out the herbaceousness of [the tea]," she said. "Raspberries go really well with rose and the black tea."

Rockman cold-steeped both the buttermilk panna cotta base and the raspberry juice—obtained by steaming fresh raspberries with a little sugar and then straining them gently to get a clear, bright red liquid—with the tea. The more traditional hot steeping of tea, she explained, can make it bitter if it's done for too long or the water is too hot. Cold-steeping takes longer but eliminates the possibility of bitterness.

click to enlarge ingredient_image.jpg

Along with fresh raspberries, raspberry juice, and strawberry sorbet, Rockman served the panna cotta with microbasil and lightly candied spiced hazelnuts. The tea flavor of the finished dish was very mild, she said. "If I was to do it a second time around, I'd maybe get a little bit more aggressive. Or maybe I would steep it into the sorbet. But is it how much tea I can put into it, or is it just using it as a nice little nuance? And I wanted it to be a vibrant dish. I really didn't want it to be this musty tea dessert."

Who's Next:

Toni Roberts of the Wit (Roof, State & Lake), working with sheep's milk. Rockman said she was trying to be nice because she'd gotten an easy challenge, and didn't think that Roberts, who's a pastry chef, would have any trouble with it—especially because she already makes an excellent tres leches cake. "I'm going to say right now that she can't do her tres leches," Rockman said.

Buttermilk panna cotta with raspberry-tea jus and strawberry sorbet

Buttermilk panna cotta

3 c cream
1 qt buttermilk
1 c sugar
6 sheets gelatin, bloomed in cold water
2 T rose pu-erh tea

Bring cream to a boil, remove from heat, then add tea. Allow to steep for six minutes. Strain. Add sugar to cream and bring to boil. Add gelatin to mixture and dissolve. Remove from heat, add buttermilk, and whisk till combined. Pour into ring molds lined with plastic on the bottom to ensure the liquid doesn't spill out. Refrigerate for two hours or until set.

Raspberry-tea jus

500 g raspberries
10 g sugar
1 T rose pu-erh tea

Place raspberries and sugar in a heat-proof bowl, wrap in plastic, and place over hot water bath for 65 minutes. Remove from heat and allow to cool before you take off the plastic. Strain into a chinois, being careful not to agitate. Add one tablespoon of rose pu-erh tea to the strained liquid and steep overnight in the fridge. Strain out the tea the next day.

Strawberry sorbet

500 g strawberry puree
65 g glucose powder
15 g dextrose powder
145 g water
105 g sugar

Bring water, glucose, dextrose, and sugar to a boil. Cool down and add puree. Spin in ice cream maker and freeze.

Spiced hazelnuts

1 c sugar
1 c water
1 cinnamon stick
1 dried guajillo pepper
1 c hazelnuts

Boil water, sugar, and spices. Add hazelnuts and boil till nuts have a soft interior. Remove from heat and strain. Deep-fry nuts at 325 degrees F till golden brown.


Unmold panna cotta into a shallow bowl. Garnish plate with cut fresh raspberries, chop nuts and sprinkle on top, and place small sprigs of microbasil on top of raspberries. Quenelle sorbet and place on top of panna cotta. Flood area around panna cotta with raspberry-tea jus.

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