A Strong Arm Baking regular heads to the farmers market to buy a chocolate chess tart, but by the time she arrives they're gone. Julia Blaine, who started the micro-bakery in 2014, just donated the last one to an auction for Farmer Foodshare. So the regular books it to the auction and begins bidding. She wins the tart—for $100.
If you're early enough to the Eno River or Wake Forest Farmers Market—both on Saturdays from 10 a.m. to noon—you can win one yourself for way less. An eight-inch tart sells for twenty-four dollars. The petite, personal size goes for six.
Strong Arm's selection mirrors the seasons—from blackberry turnovers and tomato pies in the summer to brandied apple cakes and butternut-sage pastries in the fall—but the chocolate chess tarts are evergreen. Blaine says she adjusted the schedule because customers kept coming back for them. Now they're available at the markets every week, as well as via special order and Strong Arm's Thanksgiving menu, both online.
What's not available is the recipe. That, Blaine says, is a family secret.
"It was my mother-in-law Jean's recipe to start. Then it got churched up." In other words? "Booze," she laughs.
Blaine and her husband, Thomas, were childhood best friends before falling in love and becoming each other's "partner in everything." Thomas built his wife the wood-fired masonry oven that sparked the breads and pastries to eventually launch Strong Arm. And Blaine's passion for baking—honed by her years at La Farm in Cary and Scratch in Durham—turned her husband into a baker himself. He previously served as a U.S. Marine and wildland firefighter before realizing his knack for croissants.
Both are now full-time with Strong Arm, which means their house is as much a home as it is a bakery. Convection ovens share space with colossal mixers, fridges are stuffed with butter blocks, and speed racks are stacked with tart shells. Amid it all, on a floury work bench, Blaine keeps her tattered, splattered recipe notebook tucked away.
Press her enough at a farmers market and she will confess a few ingredients: sunny-yolked eggs from pasture-raised chickens, sourced from her sister-in-law. Thick, local cream. Sixty-percent dark chocolate. Lots of bourbon. The effect is something like a drunk brownie, or devouring a brownie while drunk: gooey, fudgy, crackly, happy.
According to Blaine, the recipe bloomed through many versions until, one day, her mother-in-law tried a bite and blurted, "That's it! No more. This is it."
Even as the tart builds a following, Blaine always remembers its first fan.
"We very, very rarely have one left," she says. "But if we do? It goes to Jean."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Heavy Lifting."