Homemade talks to the owner of the justly popular Violet Cakes, who has changed the east London baking scene and given cupcakes a good name. Sweet
If you haven’t heard of the Violet bakery, then you clearly haven’t been to Broadway Market in London (where people queue at her stall every Saturday for slices of dark ginger molasses cake or cupcakes iced with seasonal fruit) or spoken to anyone who lives in Hackney for that matter (you’ll struggle to get a seat in her bustling bakery where we'd fight you for a cinnamon bun).
Claire Ptak is a freewheeling sort of pastry chef. She goes about baking with a freer hand than a traditional pâtissier, which makes those cakes look even more enticing.
We caught up with the West Coast chef and food stylist, whose new book The Violet Bakery is out this month, about talking her way into catering at 12 years old, how she built the Violet Cakes empire and why you should never put olives in her dessert.
When did you start baking?
“As soon as I could get in the kitchen, my mum let me experiment with stuff and there were some disgusting things that came from it, which she was very kind about.
"I started making things that people wanted to eat at about eight or nine years old. This is really embarrassing but because I wanted to work so badly in catering, I put an ad in the paper saying I was a teenager but really I was 12 and I wanted to help out on catering jobs. I got this call but when I arrived she was like: “You’re not a teenager, you’re a little kid.” She was shocked but really kind and I stayed for the whole day and worked hard.
"When I was at high school, I got a weekend job at a bakery and I started in the front making coffee and then I worked in the kitchen. For some reason, I never thought it was a viable profession and I thought my parents would prefer me to doing a more professional job."
Are your cakes influenced by the food you were brought up on?
"For sure. Growing up in California, there was so much wild produce, so we did a lot of foraging as kids.
"My parents wanted to raise us eating healthily. They’re from the midwest and grew up eating differently, lots of processed foods. Their families cooked but it was more white bread or meat and potatoes. They moved to California and then raised us on broccoli and wholegrains and stuff."
What made you move to London?
I met my husband in San Francisco, and he was travelling with some friends. He was there for a few years and I was going to come back earlier but then just as I was going to move I was offered a position at Chez Panisse so I ended up staying in San Francisco and we did the long distance thing for a couple of years which was crazy but it worked out.
"In 2005 the food scene here was really taking off and changing, I would visit him a couple of times a year in London and we just changed our plan."
How did the bakery come about?
"Broadway Market had just restarted and I would go there when I came to visit Damian. It was teeny but I thought 'why I don’t just do that?' I was kind of ready for a change from restaurants because three years of hardcore five to six days a week doing that … I really wanted to do something on my own.
"It was only one day a week [working on Broadway market] though so I had to do something else, so that’s when I started doing a lot of food styling which was great. I really liked that balance. Then I got crazy and opened a bakery. I don’t know what I was thinking."
What’s the biggest fail people make with cake?
"Not having read through the recipe from start to finish, weighing everything and making sure you have everything. There’s nothing worse than starting baking and then realising you have one egg when you need four. That messes you up, you get stressed and your cakes get stressed. You need all your ducks in a row.
"Probably rushing it too, not giving it enough time to get the butter and sugar fluffy enough, having things at the right temperature is important. If some things are room temperature and some cold, they’re not going to go together very well. Simple mistakes that you don’t think matter really do."
The bakery has turned into a real neighbourhood joint, was that the intention?
"We found this place as a solution to me working from home. My husband was suffering from my business growing so he helped me find this. We were driving around the neighbourhood and we came past this place and it was really run down and weird … not good. It had a lot of bars on the windows and it looked like a little prison.
"We were going to make it our kitchen and have an office upstairs but the response from the local neighbourhood was amazing. A lot of our Broadway market customers lived around here and so it made sense to make it into a café."
Why do you think your cakes are so popular?
"They taste really good, that’s the thing. The taste is key and it’s often the second thought when people are trying to make something look really great. For me, it’s the other way round."
What 3 ingredients could you not cook without?
"I always have eggs, too many eggs, cream and whatever fruits are in season. I love to bake with fruits."
What kitchen gadgets couldn’t you cook without?
"I definitely think you need a mixer, it makes life so much easier and better, unless you’re a weightlifter. It hurts without one.
"I also love my knives. I have one that we call a ‘bird's beak’ in America. It’s curved and great for coring apples and pears. I use that a lot. I have a lot of funny things like a vintage melon baller which does pea-sized melon balls. I collect them."
Tea or coffee?
Where do you go for good cake?
What would your last supper be?
"A salad. I love lettuce. I have so much sweetness in my life, so a perfectly dressed salad."
"Olives in sweet things, I can’t deal with that. There are macaroons with olives in and I think that is totally disgusting. A lot of that savoury-sweet fusion is really hard for me and, this will upset a lot of my chef friends, but I don’t like wood sorrel either.
"When I’m at a Scandi restaurant and my pudding comes, I’m normally really annoyed because it has herbs on it and it’s weird. I’ve tried to be open-minded about it but I don’t like it."
Elizabeth David’s French Provincial Cooking.
"James Lowe at Lyle’s (although he would go for wood sorrel he’s a wonderful forager), also Skye Gyngell because she really understands about making something really satisfying that doesn’t make you feel bad. I hate going to dinner and it feels like a job to eat all that food, it’s a waste. I really appreciate when a chef has self-control."
Earliest food memory?
"Fruit pies that my mum would make from our fruit trees in the garden."
Best piece of cooking advice you’ve been given?
"To taste as you go and balance the flavour – it changed my cooking and changed my baking. People just follow a recipe because there is science involved but really you need to taste what you’re using.
"Getting more comfortable with sweet cooking and not being intimidated into following the recipes is something I want to encourage people to do."
Spring, Lyle’s, Raw Duck, Duck Soup, Chez Panisse.
Favourite comfort food dish?
"We have something called 'coming home pasta'. Whenever we’ve been travelling, or have people visiting from out of town, the first thing you want when you get off the plane is to deal with the jet lag and then have a bowl of pasta with tomato sauce and parmesan cheese."