It wouldn’t be an overstretch to say that Claire Ptak has been obsessed with baking her whole life. Growing up in Point Reyes, California her first job was in a local bakery at age 14 and, by 27, Ptak had impressed the pioneering and spirited Alice Waters so much that she was offered […]
It wouldn’t be an overstretch to say that Claire Ptak has been obsessed with baking her whole life. Growing up in Point Reyes, California her first job was in a local bakery at age 14 and, by 27, Ptak had impressed the pioneering and spirited Alice Waters so much that she was offered a job on the spot. The former Chez Panisse pastry chef moved to London in 2005 where she started selling cakes on the ever-popular Broadway Market before opening Violet Cakes in Hackney in 2010. Touted as the hip baker in the city, Ptak uses organic ingredients where possible, mixing seasonal buttercream icings, fresh fruit purees and home-made flower cordials. We caught up with Claire before a busy weekend of bacon and egg buttermilk biscuits and Summer spelt cake to discover what her secret to the perfect cake is along with a new Violet recipe, created especially for Gather. ANDIE CUSICK
What first compelled you to cook?
I wouldn’t say I was forced into it, but I didn’t have a choice in the matter. It was so obvious from an early age that it was where I belonged. A sure way to feel like I had accomplished something was to bake a cake and decorate it and then give it to my friends and family.
What is the starting point for your recipes?
The ingredients are at the core. When I worked at Chez Panisse I was blown away by the variety of peaches and berries and five different types of limes, or the difference between a Tahitian and Mexican vanilla bean’s perfume. Those nuanced flavours are what help me put a recipe together. But I am also lucky because I am not a creature of habit. I change my mind all the time and crave different flavors and textures so I like to experiment and come up with ideas all the time. Also, it helps that I want to eat cake every day.
What’s involved in your creative process?
I am inspired by everything around me. London gives me so much inspiration. But when I travel and get out of my thinking space and just do… that is when the ideas start to flow. I take lots of notes and have a little box filled with scraps of ribbon or a grease-stained bakery paper from a cake box in Palermo. I look at magazines and websites for ideas too. I gather ideas about what I might want to create and then choose an ingredient and get into the kitchen. I live in a small flat a few doors down the road from my bakery where I do all of my writing and testing. I get coffee deliveries from the lovely crew that works with me and just bake.
Would you say you have a signature style or is it ever-changing?
My style evolves, but I think you can see my work and know that it came from me. It is rustic but modern, feminine but not girly. Like I said before, my tastes change a lot, both aesthetically and culinarily.
What are your favourite flavor combinations?
Dark berries and buckwheat, vanilla and apricot, brown sugar and banana, chocolate and sour cream. Simple, simple, simple. Of course making something simple is never easy.
Who inspires you?
My husband. He is almost always hungry and Alice Waters is a continual source of inspiration because she just turned 70 and has twice as much energy and patience as I do.
What experiences have guided you?
Moving to London was an experience that taught me to just go for it. Working in kitchens that were dungeons made me create Violet that was the answer to no windows. We have all of the doors and windows open all the time and it is so nice to work in that kind of space.
Tell us about the food you cook at home.
I make mostly vegetarian food with grains and pulses. I am guilty of making pasta once a week but try to use spelt or Kamut. Lots of things on toast.
What are your favorite ingredients to cook with?
Vegetables. I love to cook with vegetables and make their characters come out. Vegetables can be so funny! Seriously though, salt and sugar. Because they bring out the right flavors in everything.
What do you miss most about California?
The beach and the way your skin feels after swimming in saltwater. Also I miss driving around in cars. I drive here, but it’s different. I miss hanging out in cars. Parking with the door open, playing your music and talking with friends. Driving to a taco truck and eating in your car. The car is a big part of life in California.
What produce do you enjoy most in England?
The cream. It is the best in the world. So luxurious.
And miss most from California?
Meyer lemons and Chad’s bread.
Describe where you live now and how long you’ve lived there.
I live on the same street as my bakery. I have lived in this neighborhood for four years. It is my favorite street in London. I have a brilliant Costcutter (corner shop) that sells the world’s best avocados, great friends within walking distance, a great park for our dog and they keep planting more trees on our street. I love it.
What are your favorite places to eat in London?
At the homes of my chef friends
What kind of cookware could you not live without?
A spider for frying donuts or poaching peaches. It’s like a slotted spoon but made of a web of twisted wire attached to a bamboo handle. From Chinatown.
What is key to a really great cake?
A light touch.
What staples do you keep in your pantry?
Homemade vanilla extract, unrefined sugar, buckwheat and spelt flours, and like ten different salts.
What is your favorite cake to eat?
Check back next week for an exclusive summer sweets recipe that Claire dreamt up especially for Gather.
For more information, see violetcakes.com