If you're not familiar with Elizabeth Chambers Hammer, the founder and CEO of BIRD Bakery, do yourself a favor and get yourself to one of BIRD Bakery's locations in San Antonio or Dallas, Texas ASAP. From delicious granola to life-changing sugar cookies, the bakery is not only a staple in the San Antonio community, but also in the culinary world as a whole. Hammer is largely responsible for the bakery's success, thanks to her commitment to the brand and to perfecting unique takes on classic recipes. The one thing she'd be lost without at BIRD? Hammer's favorite ingredient, almond extract.
So, it’s an unusual ingredient. It’s not something I feel most people would come up with or even use on a day-to-day basis, which is why it’s so special. It is the key ingredient in BIRD Bakery's sugar cookies, and so many other things that we do: Almond extract.
It’s the fancier version of vanilla, and it adds another layer of flavor, depth, and warmth to so many recipes. It’s my favorite, and also BIRD Bakery's secret, secret ingredient. People always always ask us, "How do you make the best sugar cookies in town?" We make them with love from a family recipe that was my grandmother's, but also, almond extract is a huge part of it.
It's A Family Secret
So many sugar cookies are beautiful and hand-painted, and I love when they're used as place settings or favors at parties — but they never tasted good. I realized the only sugar cookies I’ve ever had that I loved were my grandmother’s. I have so many memories of making them with my mom. So I always asked myself, "Why are our sugar cookies the only ones that taste good?" Even before I had BIRD Bakery! Later, I realized that it wasn’t just that we put almond extract in the cookies, but also in the icing. It just makes a huge difference.
My first memory of almond extract is really special. My grandmother had a catering company in San Antonio, Texas (which is actually why I decided to open BIRD Bakery in San Antonio). In her big commercial kitchen, she had giant walk-in refrigerators, and they always had these little sugar boat tarts — basically a sugar cookie in a boat shape — that she would serve with lemon curd in the center that was made with almond extract. When I was four years old, I would go in there and steal the boats to scoop out the lemon curd and eat them in the refrigerator. I would genuinely think I was getting away with it and that she had no idea, too. I’m sure I never even closed the door! But I’d be freezing cold and just continue eating them in the fridge (which by the way, is probably also a health code nightmare, but I don’t think anyone was checking in the '80s).
Those little butter boats were made with almond extract, and that’s my first memory of it. Maybe that’s why I feel so strongly about almond extract — because to me so much about cooking and baking is nostalgic and reminds me of those times with these amazing women in my life. My grandmother started a very successful company, and my mom did too. I have so much respect for everything they’ve done in business, but also these really vivid memories of the first things I tasted with them.
It's The Best Secret Weapon For Any Sweet Treats
People use almond extract in things like almond croissants and spongecake, but it’s the best secret weapon for so many other things. It’s so much less obvious, but really good. I use it in my whipped cream as well — whenever I make homemade whipped cream, I use heavy whipping cream, confectioners' sugar, and almond extract. It’s really nice when you pair it with vanilla, because it brings out both flavors. I just think it makes everything better! Even in a banana pudding, if you put a little bit of almond extract in your whipped cream that goes on top, it’ll tie it all together.
I learned about almond extract from my grandmother and my mother. My mom is the most incredible cook I’ve ever known. She’s taught me these basic things, like whipping your own whipping cream. That’s something you learn at home, not in culinary school. My mom even put almond extract in our French toast. I now make French toast at least three times a week with almond extract. When my husband makes it for our kids, he doesn’t use almond extract and he always thinks his is better — but mine is just clearly better. We’re always asking the kids, and they always choose mine. We’ll even put it in front of my one-and-a-half-year-old, who can’t talk, and he’ll always just eat all of my French toast and one little piece of my husband's. I’m telling you: almond extract. (He’s too stubborn to start using almond extract, though. Instead, he wins the steak grill-off: Our kids always choose his steak over mine because he uses a stick of butter... but whatever. He can have the steak, and I’ll take my almond extract French toast.)
It Inspired Me To Start BIRD Bakery
My mom opened the first health food store ever in San Antonio, Texas. From BIRD Bakery's current location, I could throw a rock to where her store used to be. She opened it when she was only 24 years old, and it was before people were doing health food stuff. My grandmother also had her catering company really close by. So, I always knew I wanted to open a bakery, because they inspired me.
I’ve also baked compulsively for as long as I can remember. I come from a television background, so I would come home after 14 hours on air and just therapeutically bake chocolate chip cookies. You’d know it was a good day if I had 100 cookies, you’d know it was a bad day if I had 200! Some people garden, some people clean their houses, and I just bake cookies. So, I really honed my cookie recipes. I started with my grandmother's and my mom's recipes, and then I created my own by just experimenting every single day. BIRD Bakery's chocolate chip cookie recipe took me nine years to perfect!
I also knew I wanted to do it in San Antonio, because it was right next to where my mom had her store, and two blocks from my grandmother’s kitchen and headquarters for her catering company. With BIRD Bakery being so close, I knew that no matter what I would always have my mom's and my grandmother's customers. In fact, I've had people for years call and ask for my mom’s recipes!
It’s wonderful — I have customers that tell me that my grandmother catered their baptisms or weddings. It’s a community affair, and it has everything nostalgic and magical that you want out of a small town. They’ll come to my bakery, and take a bite out of something that reminds them of their past. Even when we opened, people would bring me pictures of my grandmother that I had never seen before! She’s my best friend, but if I hadn’t opened this bakery, I wouldn’t have, like, up to 20 memories and photographs of her that I now really cherish. So it’s really been an incredible journey, and an homage to her and my mom.
As told to Bustle Associate Lifestyle Editor Tanya Ghahremani
Bustle's series 'My Favorite Meal' asks famous chefs, bloggers, and tastemakers to describe the one dish, recipe, or ingredient they can't live without — and why.