For royal watchers, Claire Ptak will forever be known as the London-based California ex-pat who made the Duke and Duchess of Sussex’s wedding cake: an Amalfi lemon and Sandringham elderflower confection adorned with clusters of peonies. And yet the Violet Cakes founder had established a reputation in food circles for revolutionizing the world of baking with her seasonal approach to ingredients long before 2018. As she prepares to release her latest cookbook, Love Is A Pink Cake, Vogue caught up with Ptak about cutting her teeth at Chez Panisse, falling for British baked goods, and why she takes a West Coast mentality with her wherever she goes.
As a child growing up in Inverness, California—a town just north of San Francisco whose population hovers around the 1,500 mark—Claire Ptak would spend her August afternoons foraging for huckleberries to turn into pies. “It’s the sort of place where, if you have apples and your neighbor has blackberries, you exchange them,” the Violet Cakes founder recalls now of the free-love community where her parents moved in the ’70s, known for its hippie mentality and rugged Pacific coastline. “I grew up with the idea that fruits were only available at certain points in the year, and it always seemed natural to me that you baked with what you had available.”
After leaving home to pursue a degree in film, Ptak ended up joining the team at Chez Panisse in 2002, where the grande dame of American cuisine Alice Waters instilled her seasonal philosophy into the budding pastry chef. In those days, locals would turn up at the back door of the kitchen with baskets of fragrant Bearss limes in exchange for dinner, such was the restaurant’s commitment to using whatever was available outside its front door. “At that point, no one considered being a chef a fashionable profession, and it’s not what I had envisioned myself doing,” Ptak admits. “I had always enjoyed baking, but I never thought I would make a career out of it. There was just something about Chez Panisse, though. No one was shouting or throwing pans; the way that people moved around that kitchen was almost balletic. It had intentionally been designed to be a beautiful space in which to cook, and that translated to the food. The moment I stepped inside, I never wanted to leave.”
Ptak might well have stayed at Chez Panisse long-term, were it not for the fact that she met and fell in love with an Englishman—decamping to London to live with him full-time in 2005, years before the British capital’s food revolution got underway. “I moved straight to Hackney from the Bay Area, and there was nowhere to even get a coffee near us at that point; we would have to go to a concession stand inside Homerton Hospital for cappuccinos.” A degree of homesickness was inevitable. And yet, while navigating the contents of her local corner shop and reading her way through out-of-print cookbooks in her spare time, she gradually became enamored with the British baking tradition—treacle tarts and Victoria sponges, lemon possets and mince pies—despite its relative fussiness. The U.K., she is now convinced, has the best cream in the world, and she’s currently planning a pilgrimage between tea rooms across the north of England.
Armed with her newfound knowledge of angel cakes and Bakewell tarts, she opened Violet Cakes in Hackney in 2010, intending it to represent “a marriage of two worlds: pairing English ingredients with a Californian sensibility”—and, on a more practical level, provide a place where locals could get a perfect cup of coffee. Inside the light-filled space—painted in a colour palette lifted from artist Richard Diebenkorn’s ’70s California landscapes—dozens of cupcakes frosted with violet buttercream are lined up neatly behind an old glass display case, while the team tops made-to-order cakes with flowers from The London Flower Farmer near Walthamstow Marshes in the open-plan kitchen. “I definitely referenced Chez Panisse a lot when building it,” Ptak, who has an eye for design, notes. “It is intended to be a place where you actually want to linger, want to create, whether you’re working there or you’ve just dropped in for a pastry.”
Now, she’s distilled everything she’s learned over the years at Violet Cakes into Love Is A Pink Cake, named after a series of early Andy Warhol lithographs about the nature of love. As she writes in the introduction to the volume, “We bake for love. Whether it’s for ourselves, to show love for a child, friend, or partner, or to celebrate a rite of passage, there is no denying the incredible effect cakes have.” Ptak had originally conceived of the book divided by seasons—think Anna Jones’s A Modern Cook’s Year, only baking-focused—but pandemic restrictions scuppered her plans. Instead, she found herself spending more and more time meditating on the meaning and nature of home, ultimately deciding to devote the first half of the book to recipes inspired by her native California, and the latter half to treats typical of Britain.
For Part I, Ptak returned to Inverness, taking up residence in the late craftsman JB Blunk’s Marin County redwood cabin, built entirely by hand in a wooded glade overlooking Tomales Bay. Over the course of one sun-drenched week, she and her team photographed treats made with peaches from Frog Hollow Farm and Seckel pears gathered in wire baskets from a friend’s garden at dusk. It’s a slightly less conventional recipe, though, that she counts as her favorite from the California section: tequila pumpkin pie. “Frances McDormand once told me that after a certain age, wine is tricky to process for some women,” she writes in the introduction. “‘Stick to tequila,’ she told me. I’ve never looked back, and in the process, I’ve discovered some really beautiful tequilas. I especially love the caramel notes in a good Añejo, which is perfect with pumpkin pie.”
Back in Britain, meanwhile, Ptak drove out to Fern Verrow, the biodynamic Herefordshire farm where Jane Scotter cultivates everything from loganberries to sweetpeas. The overwhelming majority of the produce from her 16-acre holding in the foothills of the Black Mountains is now dispatched to Skye Gyngell and her team at Spring, but Ptak has known Scotter since the pair worked together at Spa Terminus in Bermondsey, often building her recipes around the literal fruits of Scotter’s labors: take the latter’s jostaberries, a mix between a gooseberry and a blackcurrant, which tart up Ptak’s moreish matcha cake.
Beyond the recipes proper, though, it’s the transferable wisdom that makes Love Is A Pink Cake invaluable. You will learn how to grow geraniums on your windowsill and bake with their leaves; discover that soaking poppy seeds in black tea brings out their flavor; and come to realize that it’s worth deseeding Fragola grapes for their deep purple color and incredible sweetness. And you will find that even the classics—yellow sheet cake with chocolate frosting, treacle tart with whipped cream—can be improved upon by following Ptak’s advice. Below, a recipe for Violet Cakes’s much-loved Bakewell Bars to whip up while you wait for your copy to arrive.
Makes 12 bars
For the base:
250g (1¾ cups) plain flour
100g (¾ cup) icing sugar
½ tsp salt
200g (¾ cup + 2 tbsp) unsalted butter, cold, cubed
200g (7oz) good-quality cherry jam
For the topping:
200g (¾ cup + 2 tbsp) unsalted butter, softened
200g (1 cup) golden caster sugar
¼ tsp almond extract
½ tsp vanilla extract
¼ tsp fine sea salt
2 eggs + 1 egg white
150g (¾ cup) whole almonds (skin on), roughly chopped
50g (⅓ cup) plain flour
1½ tsp baking powder
Preheat the oven to 180°C fan/200°C/400°F/ gas mark 6. Butter and line an 18×30cm (7×12in) baking tin with baking paper.
For the shortbread base, combine the flour, icing sugar, salt and butter 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, then remove from the oven and reduce the temperature to 160°C fan/180°C/350°F/ gas mark 4. Let the base cool for 10 minutes before spreading the jam gently over the top.
For the topping, beat the butter and sugar together until creamy but not fluffy. Add the extracts, salt, eggs and egg white, then beat well.
Stir in the chopped almonds, flour and baking powder just to combine. Dollop this over the jam—don’t worry about spreading it evenly as it will melt into place in the oven and spreading it can cause the jam to get mixed in rather than remaining its own layer. Return to the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until golden and set. Allow to cool for 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, whisk together the lemon juice and icing sugar until smooth. Spread this glaze over the cooled Bakewell, then slice into fingers. Decorate each slice with a preserved cherry.
These will keep well in an airtight container for up to five days.
Love Is A Pink Cake by Claire Ptak is published by Square Peg on April 6.
Originally Appeared on Vogue
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