Royal wedding cake baker likes to switch it up
Ptak has a knack for giving California recipes a hint of England
Just one bite of her scrumptious cakes and you can see why Chez Panisse owner Alice Waters reportedly begged Claire Ptak not to leave.
Ptak, a California native, worked at the vaunted Berkeley, Calif., restaurant as a pastry chef until moving to London 13 years ago. It’s undoubtedly the U.K.’s — and now the Royal Family’s — gain.
Long before Ptak was chosen to create Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding cake for May 19, the epicurean wizard of Londonbased The Violet Bakery (bricks and mortar came only after selling her cookies and cupcakes fresh out of a stove at an East London market) was in hot demand.
Her knack of switching up something undoubtedly Californian with a whiff of Englishness (the organic lemon-and-elderflower creation, for example, that the royal couple have chosen) made seasonal-baking aficionados salivate countrywide and every food festival organizer virtually beg, borrow and steal to bring her to perform at their events.
Luckily for me, for three years, Ptak set up shop at the Port Eliot Festival in Cornwall, England. All her popular demos oozed in beautiful flavours that, as Waters says in her foreword to The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed Press), showcased her “unerring sense of balance.”
In an industry of enormous ego, Ptak focuses on the love that’s whisked, stirred and folded into her food. Beyond her organic baking talent (no “soggy bottoms” in her cake tins), she’s one of the most knowledgeable, witty and gracious chefs.
With great patter against the backdrop thrum of a nearby music tent, Ptak treated the crowd to mastering a batch of apricot and almond muffins, as well as her gooey rye chocolate brownies, butterscotch blondies, cinnamon rolls and a deconstructed meringue roulade. (“It’s a shame to roll it up.”)
Last year, she brought in her café employees to set up a special breakfast club, embracing the wonderful, albeit challenging, nature of kitchen-in-a-field festival life.
And she was always in perfect style. Ptak, after all, is a presentation pro, having styled culinary creations for Yotam Ottolenghi, Kinfolk, Vogue and other notable delights such as the books of biodynamic farmer Fern Verrow and chef Blanche Vaughan.
As the aroma of her baking wafted to the festival tent’s back rows, Ptak happily gave away her trade secrets (use a bit of vinegar and corn flour to give a cake-y texture to a meringue; try soaking Blenheim apricots — one of her favourite fruits — in camomile tea, cinnamon and vanilla; and as a cocktail twist, why not put vanilla pods into vodka?)
Ptak waxed lyrical about the finest combinations (lemon verbena with strawberries; geranium with blackberries) and ingredients: from the joy of thick, unctuous cream in the U.K. compared to the “fluffy” North American version, to her love of Cornish Sea Salt.
“You can really play around in the kitchen,” enthused Ptak, who immigrated to the U.K. after a long-distance relationship with her British boyfriend (now husband). “I’m always a great advocate of trying different things.”
Fast forward a few months, and it seems like “royal baker” is just one such different thing she’ll be trying.
Recipes reprinted with permission from The Violet Bakery Cookbook by Claire Ptak, published by Ten Speed Press, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.