Sweet Dreams and Chocolate Cake

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Autumn Martin brings Hot Cakes to Capitol Hill

 

STORY BY CHELSEA LIN
PHOTOS BY ANNE LIVINGSTON

 

In Hot Cakes’ Ballard kitchen, the day starts and ends with cookies—salted peanut butter, s’mores, snickerdoodles, and perhaps the city’s best chocolate chip. They’re the first baked goods into the oven every morning, and a popular order during the evening rush, particularly when topped with vanilla ice cream.

Owner Autumn Martin has built an empire on these cookies—and caramel sauce, and boozy milkshakes, and particularly her signature molten chocolate cakes in tiny jars. Launched in 2008, Hot Cakes was first this humble take-and-bake dessert, then a successful farmers market stand, and finally, in 2012, a brick-and-mortar “cakery” in Ballard—one that now goes through some 350 pounds of organic Theo Chocolate and Italian-made Agostoni chips a week.

In the next few months, Martin will be opening her second location, a 50-seat cafe in a new complex on the previous site of B&O Espresso in Capitol Hill. There, guests can expect much of the same, plus an all-weather patio with fire pit for roasting marshmallows, ice cream made in-house, event space for private parties, and expanded cocktail program to suit the neighborhood’s nightlife scene.

It’s a move the fourth-generation Washingtonian has set her sights on since the beginning, though she says she wanted to see the business expand in an organic way. “I’ve had this dream since I was 19 that I would someday have my own business in the restaurant world,” says Martin, a former pastry chef at Canlis and head chocolatier for Theo Chocolate.

 

“I see the potential for Hot Cakes, because I see the excitement in customers when they come here,” she says. “The business is not fully realized yet, but part of my dream is seeing it to its fullest potential. I think that means spreading the Hot Cakes love. I don’t know exactly what that looks like yet, but I know it’s something we have to keep doing and the shape of it will manifest over time.”

 

So far, time has proven that Martin’s dream is one worth pursuing. Hot Cakes’ take-home products are now sold in 100 stores nationwide; the Ballard shop sees more than 3,000 visitors per week on average. Yet despite this aggressive popularity, the quality of every item produced remains unchanged. Martin is an ardent, active supporter of local farmers and organic ingredients, something she first learned about in culinary school at Edmonds Community College.

“I hadn’t really thought about where my food came from before culinary school,” she says. “I was so blown away by learning about pesticides and herbicides and all the harm they can do to the ecosystem. I became so passionate about getting the word out—because if I didn’t have any idea, I was sure other people didn’t either.” Many of Hot Cakes’ wholesale products are certified organic, and though the cafe’s menu items are not, many of the same standards needed for organic certification are followed throughout the kitchen.

How exactly does one grow a profitable business—one where the average order is only about $10—and still adhere to such a strict code of ethics? Having a diversified income stream helps, she says, as Hot Cakes’ retail, wholesale, web, and catering orders are all filled in a single (for now) location. But Martin admits if they were to purchase conventional ingredients, the business would be far more profitable. “It’s really challenging to do the right thing. It’s hard, and it’s expensive,” she says. “But it is a point of non-negotiation for me. I just wouldn’t be in business.”

This unwavering love of the land is a cornerstone for the Hot Cakes brand, but it’s also what drives Martin’s own inspiration in the kitchen. “I just love pulling the natural, wild world into the sweet confection kitchen,” she says. “When I’m creating flavor profiles, I like to think about what combinations occur because of a specific place. If I’m putting figs together with fennel seed, that’s very Mediterranean, so what else grows along there? Almonds and citrus. It kind of ties into my dreaming up what nature can provide for us. I just love the natural world so much, and I think we’re so beyond comprehending how perfect the system works on its own.”

Martin’s deep roots in the Pacific Northwest have instilled a particular fondness for local ingredients: she loves nettles and last year foraged her own to work into a seasonal dry-burned caramel sauce. One of her proudest achievements was figuring out how to smoke chocolate chips so they impart a woodsy essence without having to actually set foot near a campfire.

But it’s not only Mother Nature influencing Martin in the kitchen. It’s Father Time, as well. “People love those classic treats that take them back to their childhood,” she says. “That’s where things like s’mores come in, and flavor combinations like milk chocolate and peanut butter. We want to serve memory in a really delicious, inspired way.”

It’s ultimately unfair, then, that Martin can’t freely indulge the delicious memories of her own childhood—she realized in culinary school that she was allergic to dairy, and a diet of predominantly coffee and cacao during her years at Theo left her with an extreme sensitivity to chocolate as well. Talk about ironic.

“It is my life’s biggest challenge. It’s been a constant struggle to be allergic to dairy and, I don’t know, write a milkshake book,” she says, in reference to her 2013 publication Malts & Milkshakes. “But this is what I want to pursue. If you’re a coal miner, and you love what you do, but you know it’s screwing up your lungs, you do it anyway. It’s just what I do at this point. I have to be very mindful and watch myself and not make myself too sick.”

She admits, though, that while she always tastes as she’s developing new flavors in the kitchen, she’s figured out how to keep her body happy through healthy habits at home. “Now I only have dairy at work,” Martin says. “And usually only when I need, need, need a cookie. Sometimes you have to just go for it.”

 

Chelsea Lin is a Seattle-based freelance writer who has spent the last five years writing about the city’s food scene both in print and online. An enthusiastic baker, she did a three-month internship in the Hot Cakes kitchen—but won’t be quitting her day job just yet. 

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