Royal wed­ding cake baker likes to switch it up

Ptak has a knack for giv­ing Cal­i­for­nia recipes a hint of Eng­land

Ottawa Citizen - - YOU - LUCY HYSLOP

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.


Claire Ptak

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