Ptak's purple Reign - Meet London's hippest cake maker
Our reporter meets London's hippest cake maker, Violet Bakery's Claire Ptak
Published 08/05/2016 | 02:30
"Darina came to visit recently," says Violet Bakery's Claire Ptak, the northern Californian expat who swapped a job as pastry chef in Alice Waters' seminal Chez Panisse kitchen for life in Hackney, where she's now widely known as London's hippest baker and Jamie Oliver's "favourite cake maker".
The Darina in question is of course our own Ms Allen of Ballymaloe fame. "She said 'oh let's share one of those muffins'," Ptak continues. "And then she took a bite and said: 'actually, I'm gonna eat this whole one myself'."
The almond polenta muffin in question is one of several impossible-to-share treats served in the East London cafe-bakery where Ptak has built a cult following for her seasonally inspired baking. As she explains in The Violet Bakery Cookbook (published last year by Square Peg and with a foreword by the ground-breaking restaurateur and food activist, Alice Waters) those muffins might be adorned with roasted apricots, plums, quinces or figs depending on the time of year. Or indeed, with rhubarb straight from the Ballymaloe garden, as they will be at next weekend's Kerrygold Ballymaloe Literary Festival of Food and Wine, where Ptak will give a three-hour baking demonstration in the world-famous cookery school on Sunday afternoon.
While there, she'll whizz up other classic indulgences with a contemporary twist, such as her kamut, vanilla and chocolate chip cookies which replaces ordinary flour with an ancient low-gluten wheat flour. Ptak recommends eating the cookies warm with a glass of whole, soy or almond milk, depending on just how East London you happen to be feeling.
And she'll demonstrate some recipes from her baking column in The Guardian, such as her rhubarb meringue roulade which she elevates from gorgeous to sublime by swapping out the vanilla for a few handfuls of cherry blossom petals, when in season. "Violet bakery," she writes, "has a row of cherry trees lining its path that cast the sweetest dappled shadows on its stark white architecture." You can take the girl out of northern California, but there's undoubtedly more than a little Californian soul filtering the lens through which this expat experiences London life.
Although her weekly #bakingtheseasons column is new this year, Ptak's food styling work has featured in The Guardian for many years, where she regularly styles celebrated chef Yotam Ottolenghi's Middle-Eastern inspired dishes.
Like Ptak herself, Ottolenghi is a familiar face at Ballymaloe's intimate Litfest and will return again this year. "I'm excited to see Yotam," Ptak says. "I've worked on his food for many years but we're so rarely in the same place together." She's also looking forward to catching Joseph Trivelli, who is co-head chef (with Sian Owen) at London's iconic River Café, which Ptak counts as one of her all-time favourite restaurants. "He's such a wonderful cook."
Ptak's talent for making great food look naturally beautiful proved a useful source of income while building up her reputation as one of London's most original bakers. In 2005 she followed her then-boyfriend, now-husband and co-parent, Damien Thomas back to London from sunny California, where she had been working for three years in the hallowed kitchens of Chez Panisse in Berkeley. "I had been working in film before that and decided to change careers," Ptak says. A life-long baker with a knack for making things delicious, her friends kept asking why she wasn't baking professionally. When the opportunity of an internship in Chez Panisse came up, it proved life-changing. "I fell in love with the kitchen," she says. "I grew up doing a lot of foraging and it just made sense to me to cook the way that they do," which is seasonally and with an emphasis on using the best local, organic ingredients available.
"It's really hard to make something taste good if the core ingredient isn't of very good quality. It's a lot nicer to have really great ingredients and not have to do too much to them," Ptak says before adding, "although sometimes simple cooking is actually quite labour intensive."
The greatest lesson she took from her three years in Chez Panisse was how to taste properly. "I was lucky to have been born with a pretty good palate but I learned how to understand it so that I could use it in my work really intentionally and not just sort of by chance." Still today, Ptak takes that approach considerably further than most bakers would, tasting even the raw flour itself.
Her approach remains very much ingredient-led. "It's about bringing out the true flavour of whatever we're cooking with, so trying to make rhubarb taste like the best rhubarb you've ever had, or making apples taste more like apples." By learning how to analyse flavour, Ptak picked up what might seem like counter-intuitive tricks for drawing out those true flavours. Sometimes, loading up on processed sugar is not the best way to enhance inherent sweetness. Instead ingredients that are naturally salty, bitter and sour can achieve better balance of flavour. (In Violet Bakery's cafe, for example, grapefruit halves served as a winter breakfast are sprinkled with salt rather than sugar to offset the grapefruit's natural sweetness.)
On her arrival in London over a decade ago, Ptak put those lessons to good use. She set up a stall at Broadway Market where her famous butterscotch blondies and miniature organic cupcakes iced with bitter Valrhona chocolate, salted caramel or sweet-sour seasonal fruit purées still sell out every week.
Initially, she says, "I did the market one day a week and one day cooking, and then the rest of the week I was doing food styling." It helped to have clients such as Jamie Oliver, who Ptak had connected with in California. Broadway Market proved a great base for her new London life. "It started lovely and small - which is not great for business necessarily but really great in terms of camaraderie and meeting local people," she says. "Now a lot of those people are our friends. Ten years ago, the food scene here was really different. People were really hungry for something new - literally! - and they were really supportive. It was a really nice way to start up a business." That loyal customer base followed Ptak when she opened her cafe-bakery in Hackney's Willow Way in 2010. Indeed, two sisters who were regular market customers at the ages of eight and nine now work as part of the Violet team.
Those ingredient-led foundations of natural, seasonal, quality and organic where possible still hold fast in Violet Bakery. All of Ptak's cakes are baked with organic flour, sugar, milk and eggs and many of the other ingredients are organic as well, like their Madagascan vanilla pods and pure cane molasses. The limited edition buttercream icings that top cupcakes and fill her famous whoopie pies change with the seasons. She might use elderflowers, gooseberries and Alphonso Mango in springtime; Kentish cherries and Dorset blueberries in the summer; figs or Fragola grapes from Italy in autumn, along with local apples and quinces; and blood oranges, clementines and grapefruit in winter.
With her passion for seasonal ingredients, it's little surprise that Ptak has a warm place in her heart for Ballymaloe, which has built its reputation on a similar approach to and respect for a natural style of food. "I love going to Ballymaloe," she enthuses. "The audiences always seem so enthusiastic and really genuinely there to learn which is a treat.
"It always feels like such a privilege to be there - you feel very much taken care of in a very simple way. It's that nice Irish hospitality."
If you're one of the 3,000 festival goers expected at Litfest, look out for Ptak in the kitchen garden which she says she "can't wait to walk through". You'll find her in the rhubarb patch, with muffins on her mind.
Claire Ptak gives a talk at Litfest on May 21 at 11.30am and a cooking demonstration on May 22 at 2.30pm.
Claire's top cookbook picks
Chez Panisse Fruit by Alice Waters
"I flick through it to remind myself of where I started and why I'm doing what I'm doing. Sometimes you doubt yourself. I find it nice and grounding."
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture by Harold McGee
While Ptak's approach to baking is more art than science, she has a place on her bookshelf for the man who brought kitchen science to the masses, Harold McGee.
Leon: Baking & Cooking
Co-written by Claire with Henry Dimbleby, one of the founders of the chain of cafes that helped revolutionise our idea of fast food.
Heart of the Artichoke and other kitchen journeys, by David Tanis
One of several beloved cookbooks by the former Executive Chef at Chez Panisse where he headed the kitchen for several decades.
All of Nigel Slater's cookbooks
"He's such a great home cook. Being from a restaurant background, it's good to remember that people do cook at home and they don't always have these restaurant skills."
The Whoopie Pie Book
Penned by Claire herself as "an ode to those pillow-y soft cake sandwiches I love".