The Violet Bakery Cookbook
Like so many people forging their own inspiring creative paths today, Claire Ptak is navigating uniquely varied terrain: an in-demand food stylist; a relentless food columnist for the Guardian; a guiding force for young women with big ideas. First and foremost though she is undoubtedly a baker, and over the course of our conversation, Claire goes to great lengths to articulate just what it is she finds so special about the craft.
The most illuminating moment comes unexpectedly, about mid-way through a chat about her worldly travels. For a few seconds, everything just drops away and the particular allure of baking suddenly becomes crystal clear. Claire disappears into the memory of a coconut cake she once ate on a near-deserted island near Honduras many years ago. “This island had nothing but sand and shacks and coconut trees basically, which meant that everything was made from the coconut tree,” she says dreamily, drifting in and out of the memory as other senses take over. “Their homes were made from the wood and their roofs were made from the leaves… Dried coconut shells provided the fuel for their fires… And I found this little old woman who was making these coconut buns that were just… Well, I ate them every morning, every morning you’d find me outside just waiting for her…!”
Somehow the combination of evocative imagery and luxurious pauses comes close to capturing the joy of biting into unexpectedly exciting and perfectly realised food. It jolts you from everything you thought you knew about the things you consume. You might try to proclaim its greatness with words but ultimately you get lost in the silent enjoyment of simply eating. Just as the island coconut cake had that effect on Claire (“it’s amazing, even in these places that supposedly don’t have a culture of baking, you can find something”), it’s safe to say that the cakes she conjures in her East London bakery have a similar effect on her ever-growing and reverent audience. This writer can vouch for that personally: as an evangelically ‘savoury-not-sweet’ person, the salted caramel and chocolate sponge cake that appeared from Violet one unexpected birthday has become an annual treat ever since.
Make no mistake, Claire’s goods are indulgences: her signature buttercream icings cloak her cakes entirely and burst from her biscuits and pies as you bite into them. There is something that is also oddly wholesome about them. Living in Britain, 2016 – the most self-absorbed and bizarrely baking-obsessed of places - it’s easy to attribute that to memories (real or imagined) of Old Fashioned Afternoon Tea Culture Back In The Good Old Days. Yet that doesn’t quite hold true with Claire’s creations. In the realest terms, it is her focus on fresh, seasonal ingredients - particularly the fruits at the centre of her work - that brings a certain authenticity to the fore of the palette.
Everything is sourced meticulously, from the polenta flour direct from Italy to fresh produce from the same Herefordshire farm that her friend (and former Semaine tastemaker) Skye Gyngell uses exclusively for her Spring restaurant. “You won’t get something with strawberries in the middle of winter,” Claire says matter of factly. This comes not from some whimsical, tent-based television contrivance but more so from Claire’s own upbringing amongst a ranching community in Inverness, California (an hour or so from San Francisco). “I was baking from such a young age!” Claire says. “It was pretty rural, so we’d be foraging for berries, and making pies, that kind of thing.” There’s a pause before Claire adds, “I just loved it. I even had my first cookbook from a pretty young age as well!”
In the past few years, Claire has published no less than four of her own cookbooks, all of which bear the unmistakable flavour of Violet Cakes. It’s almost too easy to say that there is a certain filmic quality to the books, because it was in the world of filmmaking that Claire initially harboured ambitions. Yet there does seem to be some truth in that, as she talks about how important it is to offer more than mere instructive, unembellished recipes. Like all the best movies, her books don’t just move the plot along to the inevitable conclusion: they summon an entirely immersive world around the narrative act of baking. They feel intimate and expansive and the perfect place to find a cake to follow raw oysters all at once.
After a refreshing period spent travelling the world, filmmaking morphed into baking by way of a role at Chez Panisse, the cult Berkeley eatery founded by seasonal ingredient pioneer and Ptak’s mentor, Alice Waters. “I’d worked in kitchens before and it certainly wasn’t a glamorous thing back in 2002 - it was very ‘male’ as well. But when I walked in to Chez Panisse I was so blown away by the artistry and everyone just looked so happy and content.” says Claire. “Nobody was talking, and I realised that it was because everybody was just so happy in their concentration. It was like an amazing ballet, the way they were moving around the room. I was like: oh my God, this is what I want to do!”
After three inspiring years, Claire and her English boyfriend-now-husband moved back to his homeland, where she took “the most natural” plunge in the world and started her own business, Violet Cakes. It started life as a modest market stall on Broadway Market, which grew from an almost-empty handful of stalls (“real tumbleweed.. just fifty pounds in taking some Saturdays”) to the bustling ground zero of East London regeneration it has become today. Now, Violet thrives in its own perfectly pitched location a stones throw from that original market stall on the other side of London Fields. When she’s not concocting new delights for the counter (“I used to bake in silence but now I get through a lot of Radio 4!”), she is working frantically on never-ending recipes for her Guardian food column.
Claire has also found herself increasingly at the forefront of a new generation of female entrepreneurs determined to support each other as they attempt to bring their ambitions to fruition. She regularly appears on panels, speaks to teenage girls at seminars and has her own podcast in which she interviews a different female entrepreneur each month. It started when she herself was interviewed on the subject for an ASOS podcast, but she acknowledges that the seeds were surely sown when she began working with Waters, a true icon whose own path cut right across the male-dominated restaurant industry. “You know, I meet all these young women - teenagers even - who have the most amazing ideas, the most amazing websites,” says Claire. “But they have no idea how to monetise it - they don’t even know what ‘monetise’ means! To be able to potentially help with that…” And here, Claire momentarily drifts off again because, just like with the coconut cakes on that island, she’s reached a point where the actual thought of something becomes so much more expressive - delicious even - than actual words ever can be.
By James Darton for Semaine.
The Violet Bakery Cookbook
Linen apron - vintage pink
White marble rolling pin
Women's metallic bracelet
Indra Coil Basket
Mint green thermos
Orange karoto sharpener and peeler
Terra Cotto Conical Saucepot
Porcelain bowl set
Jumper woman no19 oversized
When asked about her kitchen essentials Claire begins to talk about having good quality knives and a good whip before admitting that “I also like to have a really pretty apron! I have a really over the top collection of linen aprons.”
Petrol blue washed linen plain apron
Free range eggs
The Basics White Plastic Sieve
12" wooden handle flat whisk
Terracotta one dozen egg rack
Inside Violet Bakery
When it came to moving Violet from the market to an actual building, Claire decided to let the cakes do the talking: “I wanted to keep the inside as simple as possible, but I wanted it to feel warm and a nice place to work.” The only decoration are artful photographs of flowers against white walls, whilst a vintage mixer from 1949 in chipping green provides the perfect centrepiece.
Violet Bakery's Bakewell Tart
Claire’s favourite recipes aren’t just about the ‘how’, they’re about the ‘why’ too: “why you would cream the butter and the sugar to a certain point or why you would mix oil and sugar together to get a different result… It’s about the whole idea of it.”
For the base
For the topping
Heat the oven to 200C/400F/gas mark 6. Butter and line an 18cm x 30cm x 5cm tin with parchment.
For the shortbread base, combine all the ingredients, except the jams, in a food processor and blitz until the mixture has just come together into a ball. Press the pastry evenly into the prepared tin. Bake for 20 minutes until golden brown. Remove from the oven. Turn the temperature down to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. Let the base cool for 10 minutes. Gently spread both jams over the pastry.
For the topping, beat the butter and sugar well. Once creamy, add the extracts and eggs, then beat well.
Add the ground almonds, flour and baking powder just to combine. Spread this over the jam evenly and sprinkle with flaked almonds. Return to the oven for 30-40 minutes or until golden and set. Cool for 20 minutes before slicing into fingers. Will keep well in an airtight container for up to five days.
KVC8300S chef titanium xl stand mixer
Organic ground almonds
Organic plain white flour
Organic raspberry jam
Claire's Baking Tips
Above all else, Claire says, “don’t be afraid to taste as you go along, think: oh, it’s a little bland - maybe if I add a little more lemon juice it would bring the flavour out, or a little more sugar… Those things can really make a difference in a positive way. It’s something people don’t do as much as when they’re making, say, a tomato sauce, I think because people have a lot more fear around baking. They think it’s so scientific, they get nervous, lay everything out, get really tense… But I’m pretty lazy and relaxed!” She shrugs. “And I bake pretty well… So relax. Take a different approach.”
Photography by Kristin Perers
"This tends to give you a tough cake, and nobody likes tough cake!"
"Baking at a lower temperature for a longer baking time (as opposed for a shorter time at a hotter temperature) helps to give an even rise. This makes your cakes easier to ice, and means that less sponge is wasted through trimming and leveling."
"Read your recipe twice before you start, and measure everything out before you begin mixing. This is the best way to ensure that you have everything you need, and that you don’t neglect to add anything while you are baking."
"Melt your butter first, then use a pastry brush to get to those hard to reach spots! I also always line my tins with parchment paper."
“My favourite books are the old cookery books that don’t actually have any photography in! These are all first edition books that are really to be read, and when I was writing my books I really wanted them to be the sort that you would take to bed. I like recipe books that talk about baking.”
Around the World with Claire
Travel is a constant inspiration for Claire and her baking, no matter where she happens to be exploring. “Even if a country isn’t totally known for its pastry, there’s always something that people make, and I love to seek it out and see what they’re doing with their ingredients.”
Fred blanket-striped patch-pocket jacket
Sleep well - red
Where Chef's Eat app
Instant wide victoria peak
Hat with pom
Étoile Bryce low-top leather trainers