Baker for a Prince

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

A Victoria Sponge Cake from Violet Bakery 

In 2016, I interviewed Claire Ptak of Violet Bakery in East London as part of my Cooks in the Kitchen series. Her recipes intrigued me, and I spent many hours in the kitchen working my way through her acclaimed cookbook, The Violet Bakery Cookbook, where I tried my hand on anything from Victoria sponges and  Cardamom Buns to quiche and scones. The story of her bakery's early years at the Broadway Market in Hackney and the eventual opening of her tiny brick and mortar, Violet, remained an inspiration.

Encouraged by the story of Claire, I started my own bakery in 2017, Lavender and Honey Kitchen, where my daughter and I now work as seasonal bakers partnering with local farms and small businesses to bring heirloom recipes to dinner tables. Violet Bakery has remained a strong source of inspiration and a model for our business.

So it was with great joy I read the news of Claire Ptak being chosen to bake the cake for the Royal Wedding of HRH Prince Harry and Meghan Markle on May 19!  I decided to run this post again in honor of this joyous event.  Read on below for the original interview with Claire...

Claire Ptak with husband, Damian, on market day in London.

"Taste is paramount," says Claire Ptak in the introduction of her newest release, The Violet Bakery Cookbook, a collection of recipes featuring exquisite cakes, pastries, jams and "toasties" she offers in her bakery and cafe in east London. She adds, "If we're going to treat ourselves, it had better be good." This philosophy has won acclaim for Violet's sweets around London and beyond as a steady stream of loyal customers make their way to her tiny bakeryin search of the delectable goods she offers, which are prepared with lesser amounts of sugar and only the purest ingredients available.

Claire, a former Californian with a degree in film-making, figured out she was more interested in food than films after spending a year in the Hollywood industry. Encouraged by her friends and family, she made the brave decision to follow her dream and attended a one-day internship at Chez Panisse in 2001.  A year later, she was hired on as a pastry chef.  What followed became an intricate training ground for the future of her own bakery as she "lived and breathed nothing but preparing, tasting, and reading about food and how to make it as good as possible."

Three years later, Claire moved to London to join her boyfriend, Damian, and to plan their future together.  After several years of staging in a handful of London's elite restaurants, Claire started her fledgling business in 2010, baking in the kitchen of the one-bedroom flat she shared with her now-husband, selling her cakes at a stall at the Broadway Market in Hackney.  Now her shop, Violet is a bustling cafe where customers enjoy the view of an open kitchen where music is playing, bakers are hard at work and the most enticing cakes and pastries show off their delectable beauty against the smooth wood grain of an antique case.

Read on for my interview with Claire...

A mocha cake for a special birthday.

Tell me about your life now - where you live, your husband (and baby!), what you do, etc.
I live in Hackney in East London with my husband Damian, our baby daughter and my beautiful whippet Shuggie Dog. Our house is just down the road from my bakery, Violet, where I can often be found writing new recipes. I also work as a freelance food stylist and write a column for The Guardian, so I have plenty to keep me busy!

Classic Chocolate Devil's Food with salted caramel icing and a garnish of flowers.

Where did you grow up?  Give me some brief details about your family.
 I grew up in Inverness, California, which is just north of San Francisco. It’s a rural part of the world, and we were lucky enough to have wild blackberries and apple trees in our back yard. There was always a strong emphasis on seasonality, and that’s where everything started for me.

A Chiffon Sponge with Damson jam and a Josterberry Swiss buttercream icing.

Where did your passion for cooking come from?  Was there a particular person who inspired you?
My grandmother was a fantastic baker, and I remember her being very patient with me when I wanted to help her as a small child. Baking was a way of life for me growing up, and my own passion for taste and ingredients led me to develop my own skills and recipes.

A Red Velvet wedding cake with cream cheese filling and vanilla Swiss buttercream icing.

What advice would you give to others wanting to start their own small business?
I think the most important thing is to understand your business, your industry, and what it is that you are trying to achieve. Unfortunately passion alone is not a strong enough foundation for a successful, sustainable business.

I really recommend working in the industry first to learn how it ticks, and to help you understand your customers.

Finally, establish a vision, hold on to it, and always trust your gut. So many businesses lose sight of their core values and that is when things fall apart.

Devil's Food with Salted Caramel icing.

What do you love about your life?
I feel very fortunate to do what I love and love what I do. It doesn't feel like work. Sure I hate a deadline as much as the next person but thank God for deadlines! I love to set my mind to something and then make it happen. Anything is possible. 

And another gorgeous wedding cake with that famous salted caramel icing.

What is your favorite thing to cook/bake?
Any fruit that’s in season – it’s what we base everything around at Violet, and I only like to bake with ingredients when they are at their best. 

Rose water Madeleines.

What inspires you?
The weather, good or bad. I love paying attention to it. I love being out in the elements. It reminds you what is real. 

A scene during the Violet and the Vicarage, a styling and photography workshop.

Do you have hobbies?
Erm, baking! I still feel like it's a hobby because I love it.

Inside Violet.

What is one thing you hope to achieve in 2016?
I'd like to just get through the next month! Motherhood is magical and challenging!


Cream Scones, featured on the cover of Saveur Magazine in February, 2016.

Cream Scones
Makes 12 scones

700g (5 cups) all-purpose flour plus more for rolling
2 tablespoons baking powder
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
200g (3/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons) unsalted butter, chilled
600g (2 1/2 cups) heavy cream
1 egg, slightly beaten, for the egg wash
good quality jam and freshly whipped or clotted cream, to serve

Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.

In a bowl, sift together the flour and baking powder and stir in the sugar and salt.

Cut the butter into small pieces and using a stand mixer or food processor mix until you get a course, crumbly result. Pour the cream over the top and stir with a wooden spoon until just combined.

Turn the scone mixture out onto a lightly floured surface and press it together into a block. Let the dough rest for 5 minutes.

After it has rested, fold the dough in half, lifting and turning the dough over itself just the once. Press together and let it rest for another 5 minutes.

When ready, roll the dough out to 2.5 cm (1 inch) thick and use a round cutter to stamp out even rounds, but try not to handle the dough too much.

Transfer the scones to the lined baking sheet, cover with plastic wrap and place the tray in the fridge or freezer for 10 to 20 minutes to rest. This will help the scones to keep their shapes while baking.

While the scones are in the freezer, preheat the oven to 200 degrees C or 400 degrees F.

Brush the scones with the egg wash and bake for 18 - 25 minutes, depending on their size.

Remove from the oven and transfer to a wire rack to cool completely. To serve, split scones in half, spread with jam and fill with cream.

Cardamom Buns

Cardamom Buns
Makes 12 buns

For the filling:
75g (1/3 cup) unsalted butter
250g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

For the buns:
560g 1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more for rolling*
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
240g (1 cup plus 1 tablespoon) cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
300g (1 1/4 cups cold milk)
sugar, for dipping
butter, for greasing pan

Preheat oven to 200 degrees C or 390 degrees F

Butter a 12-cup muffin tin.

First, prepare the filling. Melt the butter and leave in a warm place so that it remains liquid. Mix together the light brown sugar and cinnamon until no lumps remain, then set aside.

Now make the dough. In the bowl of a stand mixer with a paddle attachment, combine all dry ingredients with the cubes of butter and mix until you have a coarse meal. Slowly pour the milk while the mixer is running, until the dough forms into a ball and comes away from the bowl. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and leave to rest for a few minutes. Fold the dough gently over itself once or twice to pull it all together. Let the dough rest a second time, for 10 minutes. 

Clear a large surface, dust lightly with more flour, and roll out the dough into a large rectangle until about 5mm (1/8 inch) thick. Brush the surface of the dough with the melted butter and, before the butter hardens, sprinkle the cinnamon sugar onto the butter. You want a good, slightly thick layer.

Now roll the dough up, starting at the long side, keeping it neat and tight. Gently tug the dough toward you to get a taut roll while rolling away from you into a spiral. Once it's all rolled up, gently squeeze the roll to ensure it's the same thickness throughout. Use a sharp knife to cut the roll crosswise into 12 even slices. Take a slice of the cinnamon roll, peel back about 5 cm (2 inches) of the loose end of the pastry and fold it in back under the roll to loosely cover the bottom of the roll. Place in the muffin pan, flap side down. Repeat with remaining slices. 

Bake the buns for 25 minutes. As soon as they are out of the oven, invert them onto a cooling rack so that they don't stick to the tray. Dip each cinnamon bun into a bowl of sugar and serve straight away.

*Note:  When I made these buns, I used 3 cups of flour. I think there may be a mistake in the translation from grams to American measurements.

All photos courtesy of Violet Cakes and used with permission.


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