CONCORD — Though it has been just over a decade since she danced professionally, the years of classical training are evident in the way pastry chef Katie Hamilburg gracefully weaves her way around the line cooks in the small open kitchen at 80 Thoreau. Something in her perfectly erect posture sets her apart. As she leans over her sunny work station to plate the sticky toffee cake that has been wildly popular this winter, hair pulled back into a long blonde braid with a wide black headband controlling a few unruly wisps, a couple of burn marks on her arm attest to her career change.
Hamilburg came to 80 Thoreau in 2012 from Bergamot, in Somerville, where she was the pastry assistant. She says she is finding her voice in her first position as pastry chef. Though she admits to always having had a sweet tooth — even baking incessantly during her dancing days in Florida — Hamilburg finds herself increasingly incorporating savory ingredients into her creations, such as caraway seeds in tuiles that are a play on pumpernickel bread, or basil as a garnish to her tropical semifreddo.
Arriving every morning at 6, the pastry chef has the kitchen to herself for about three hours. Initially, she says, she was concerned about working alone for such a long time. "I have a corps de ballet mentality. I like to feel the energy of other people," she says. "But now I love it." She dances around the space, blasting whatever music fits her mood, prepping ingredients until the rest of the cooks arrive.
Hamilburg, 35, grew up in Wayland and began lessons at the Boston Ballet School when she was 5. She danced with the Boston Ballet for four years, two while a student and two as a member of the ballet's second company. She moved to Sarasota, Fla., to dance with the Sarasota Ballet for a year and a half, then decided to go to college.
In high school Hamilburg had been accepted to Wellesley College and deferred admission. At 24, she entered the school's Davis Degree Program for women starting at what Wellesley calls a "nontraditional" age. An art history major, Hamilburg interned at Skinner Auctioneers. But she graduated into a recession, in 2008, and could not find a job in the field.
In college, she worked as a host and server at a local restaurant, where she met Tony Messina, now executive chef at Uni Sashimi Bar. She credits Messina with giving her the "nudge" to attend culinary school. While still working at the Wellesley restaurant she and Messina, by then her significant other, attended Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. Messina took the Professional Chef's Program, Hamilburg the Professional Pastry Program.
"Ballet is perfect for people who like discipline and structure," says Hamilburg. The same can be said for pastry, which she says calls for "precision and fussiness." That can have a negative connotation which she doesn't mean. While always conscious of diners' preferences and making sure the end of the meal flows naturally from what preceded it, she likes to push the envelope. A bit of the art historian still resonates and she loves the research involved in pastry. "It's not enough for me to make something," she says. She also wants to know why a recipe works (or doesn't) and why it tastes good.
Hamilburg calls 80 Thoreau's sticky toffee cake "one of my less cerebral" desserts, but believes it has been selling especially well because diners are looking for the comforts of traditional treats as an antidote to a particularly brutal winter. It is a play on the British sticky toffee pudding, a steamed cake made with dates and covered with toffee sauce. In the wrong hands, it can be cloying. Hamilburg's Grand Marnier caramel sauce and bourbon ice cream balance the sweetness beautifully, making the dessert irresistible.
Though she rarely drinks, Hamilburg says she has found herself using alcohol in several desserts this season, drawn by its warming properties. Her coconut semifreddo features rum and ginger liqueur, along with poached pineapple, vanilla bean, hibiscus gel, and toasted coconut shortbread crumbled into a "soil." It is garnished with basil. Winter is the only time of year Hamilburg allows herself to indulge in the tropical flavors she loves because, she says, it's the time when "we all need a little getaway."
At the opposite end of the spectrum from the sticky toffee cake is Hamilburg's Taza chocolate pave. "I feel like there are so few chocolate main components," she says. "The pave is so perfect; it's pure chocolate." It is a sentimental favorite because it was one of the first restaurant desserts she learned to make at Bergamot. And, she says, it is one of her "more cerebral" desserts, with its combination of sweet and savory ingredients. Currently she is serving the rich block of chocolate that she makes with salt and pepper, with olive oil ice cream, balsamic gastrique, and the rye tuile. She makes variations for different seasons.
Warmer weather will bring chocolate pave with raspberries. We can all look forward to that.
Andrea Pyenson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.