To answer a challenge from the Raleigh Downtowner, Hammer dipped into her stash of frozen local strawberries to create a Passover-friendly treat. She used them to whip up her signature buttercream frosting, which top flawless flourless chocolate cupcakes.
“I called a friend in New York for advice because she has a sweet tooth and always tells me how hard it is to find something really delicious during Passover,” said Hammer, who may well qualify for honorary member-of-the-tribe status for her efforts. “It’s not really kosher, and I was fighting my inner Slow-Food Movement to use frozen berries, but it’s as close as I could get.”
Though they would not pass rabbinical review, these delights are sure to satisfy moderately observant Jews and anyone else who swoons to think about the luscious marriage of chocolate and strawberries. While she graciously provided her recipe, she warned that they are technically tricky and a bit costly, given the fine chocolate and other ingredients.
“I enjoy making these, and we’ll have them at Helios during Passover,” she said. “But for just $3 a cupcake, honestly, it’s easier to just stop by and get some.”
The Raleigh native, who bears an old-school heart tattoo that proclaims her love of butter on one shoulder and a lush trail of strawberries on the other, is not a product of culinary school. Her innate love of baking was little more than a hobby before the arrival eight years ago of her son, Max.
“I started thinking about every bite of food I fed him, and it completely changed the way I look at things,” she said earnestly. “If realized that if I really wanted to feed him all natural, seasonal food, I had to do it myself.
“Also, baking is my Zen. It teaches me patience,” she added. “There’s something about the quiet simpleness of it all. If more than a day goes by and I don’t bake, my hands get itchy. I’m miserable.”
With the help of a small business loan, Hammer created bittycakes and started selling her baked goods four years ago at the Carrboro Farmer’s Market. Max practically grew up there, she said, and she still relies of many growers for her organic ingredients.
bittycakes originally focused exclusively on, well, itty-bitty cakes, but Hammer said customers having been trending toward pie, scones and other confections. “I love pie, so that’s fine with me,” said she, noting her Nutty-as-Your-Ex-Sweet-as-Your-Grandma Pecan Pie is among her most requested slices.
“The only ones who are sad about pie are my kids, because I can’t deliver a pie missing a slice,” she said, adding that 3-year-old Evie Jo has mastered turning her sweet face into a mask of pity when she learns mom is baking for work. “Their favorite, and mine, really, are Whoopie Pies. I always make a few extra for them.”
Helios customers can follow her at www.twitter.com/bittycakes to get advance notice of what she’s baking for delivery to the shop. Fans also can place catering or special orders there.
Hammer credits the time she spent living in New York City for opening her eyes to extraordinary flavors and fueling her commitment to use only the best ingredients.
“One month I chose to not pay my phone bill because I just had to have this lobster sandwich,” she said, a dreamy look in her eye. “It was $35 and worth every bite.”
Hammer applies this same logic to the ingredients she bakes with today. About the only exception to her requirement of locally-sourced, just-picked goods is her treasured 10-pound slabs of Valrhona chocolate.
“A lot of bakers bend the rule for Valrhona,” she said. “It’s the only thing I’d consider for something as chocolate-dependent as a flourless chocolate cupcake.”
bittycakes flourless chocolate cupcakes
Makes one dozen
12 tbsp. butter (1½ sticks)
5 oz. bittersweet chocolate, at least 60% dark
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
Pinch of cream of tartar
¾ cup sugar
2 tbp. Dutch-process cocoa powder, sifted
1 tbsp. coffee liqueur
1/3 cup almond flour, or ½ cup blanched almonds
Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
Place paper baking cups in muffin pan. If using blanched almonds instead of flour, use a food processor to grind them to a powder; set aside. Combined the butter and chocolate in a double boiler, or stainless steel bowl set over a saucepan of simmering water. Stir until the mixture has almost completely melted, remove from the heat and stir until smooth. Set aside to cool.
Using a standing mixer with whisk attachment, beat the egg yolks and ¼ cup of sugar on high speed for about 8 minutes. The eggs should become paler in color and build to about four times their original size. With a rubber spatula, gently fold the egg yolk mixture into the chocolate mixture. Once these are incorporated, slowly fold in the cocoa and coffee liqueur until combined smoothly. Next, sprinkle almond flour (or ground almonds) over the mixture and again slowly fold in until fully incorporated.
Using a clean bowl in your standing mixer, beat egg whites with cream of tartar for about one minute, or until soft peaks form. Add the remaining ½ cup sugar and beat for one minute more until medium peaks form. Stir 1/3 of egg white mixture into chocolate mixture to lighten the batter. Then fold in the remainder of egg whites until just barely incorporated. Do not over-mix.
Spoon the batter into cups. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating once, after 15 minutes. These cupcakes will be loose in the middle when hot, so a toothpick inserted in the middle to check doneness will not come out clean. Let cupcakes cool in pan for 10 minutes, then remove and allow to cool completely on a rack.
This cake can be topped with buttercream frosting, but is also delicious simply dusted with powdered sugar, cocoa or a dollop of whipped cream.