New res­i­dent colum­nist Claire Ptak’s gluten-free brown­ies

Like her rows of cook­books, th­ese gluten-free choco­late brown­ies by the Vi­o­let Bak­ery’s Claire Ptak are a com­fort: sooth­ing to gaze upon, yet dis­tinct, with blue­ber­ries and al­monds

The Guardian - Cook - - Front Page - Claire Ptak is chef owner of the Vi­o­let Bak­ery in Lon­don’s Dal­ston. Her new book, The Vi­o­let Bak­ery Cook­book (Square Peg), is out now

In my 10 years in Lon­don, I have amassed a col­lec­tion of more than 450 cook­books. There are al­most as many again, boxed up in a stor­age unit some­where in Cal­i­for­nia. I am an avid cook­book col­lec­tor. They are com­fort­ing places to visit, whether cooking from them or not.

It was late last year, af­ter a frus­trat­ing battle with a par­tic­u­larly slim vol­ume that had slid be­hind the ra­di­a­tor in the space un­der­neath my stairs, that I de­cided to in­stall proper shelv­ing for my col­lec­tion. I so­licited the help of my designer friend Max, and the re­sult is strong and solid. The shelf has clean lines that ap­pear to float in the space in front of the wall, sus­pend­ing the books in mid-air. Your eye goes mainly to the books, which are ar­ranged now by colour, but then it picks up a sub­tle edge of oak or a line of birch ply in-be­tween the yel­lows, blues, greens and blacks.

I made the aes­thetic choice to colour co-or­di­nate my cook­books when Max in­stalled the beau­ti­ful shelf, be­cause, well, the shelf de­served it. At the time I was also designing the cover of my own cook­book, which I wanted both to blend in and stand out. Hav­ing fin­ished the writ­ing, I was now in­ter­ested in how it would sit on the shelf. This was the acid test.

It is sooth­ing to look at a shelf of colour-coded books, even when you can’t quite re­mem­ber what colour the par­tic­u­lar book that you are look­ing for is. In the past I had or­gan­ised them by au­thor in some sec­tions, and by cui­sine in oth­ers. Not to men­tion my own idio­syn­cratic rea­sons for putting Pa­tience Gray’s Honey From a Weed next to Ste­vie Parle’s Real Food From Near and Far, or Sally Clarke’s book next to my Chez Panisse col­lec­tion. Over the years, th­ese books have formed their own kin­ship or as­so­ci­a­tion in my mind. Switch­ing

I like what ‘al­ter­na­tive’ in­gre­di­ents have to of­fer in their own right

over to colour-cod­ing has taken some get­ting used to.

Colour is in­trin­sic to cooking and bak­ing. At the Vi­o­let Bak­ery, our cakes need to stand out to our cus­tomers vis­ually be­fore they are eaten (and bliss­fully en­joyed). I know that mak­ing what they want is why I am in busi­ness, and this in turn cre­ates a won­der­ful sym­bio­sis: I make recipes to taste de­li­cious and sat­isfy my crav­ings while mak­ing what my cus­tomers want. I am al­ways lis­ten­ing, ob­serv­ing and tast­ing for in­spi­ra­tion.

One recipe that crops up time and again in cook­books is that of the hum­ble choco­late brownie. In fact, there are so many recipes for choco­late brown­ies in the world that they strug­gle to stand out. I alone have writ­ten nearly a dozen recipes for them my­self, and re­cently spent an af­ter­noon look­ing at what my books had to say on the sub­ject. This kind of re­search makes you hun­gry, and in my line of work, that in­spires new recipes.

I set out to cre­ate an in­tensely choco­latey brownie that would meet the ba­sic re­quire­ments –a rich bake, with crunch and com­plex­ity – but also have a char­ac­ter of its very own.

In the spirit of lis­ten­ing to what my cus­tomers want, I’ve no­ticed a real swing to­wards health­ier eat­ing in the last year. That suits me down to the ground, be­cause while I ob­vi­ously love cakes, I also like to feel good. Though I am not al­ler­gic to gluten, I do no­tice when I eat too much of it. For the times in be­tween in­dul­gences of clas­si­cally pre­pared dough­nuts or cream puffs, I am in­ter­ested in cre­at­ing sweets with al­ter­na­tive flours and sug­ars.

Af­ter much testing and many fail­ures, what I re­ally found was that I liked what “al­ter­na­tive” in­gre­di­ents – such as buck­wheat, mil­let flour and po­lenta – had to of­fer in their own right. The sub­tle dif­fer­ences, I re­alised, should be cel­e­brated and used as the point of de­par­ture in my recipes, rather than think­ing of them as sub­sti­tu­tions for what we re­ally wanted – and there­fore as in­fe­rior or dis­ap­point­ing. This is also why I like to high­light the in­gre­di­ent in the name of the dish.

And so I ex­per­i­mented with us­ing rice flour in my new brownie recipe, for a gluten-free ver­sion of this clas­sic treat. Finer than po­lenta or semolina, but with a coarser tex­ture than plain flour, rice flour is suited to brown­ies be­cause it pro­duces a rich body in bakes. It also com­ple­ments the flavour and tex­ture of al­monds, which we al­ready know are great with choco­late.

The re­sult of this brownie ex­plo­ration is strong and solid with­out be­ing heavy. Once cooled and sliced, it has clean lines with sliv­ers of al­monds and dried blue­ber­ries suspended mid­choco­late. Your eye goes mainly to the fact that it’s a brownie, which we all know we like, but then bit­ing into it, you no­tice the lay­ers of tex­ture and flavour and it be­comes some­thing else. Much like my book­shelf, I think, they are a com­fort: sooth­ing to look at, yet re­ally stand out.


A home­made Cad­bury’s Fruit and Nut!

Makes 12 brown­ies 200g whole al­monds 225g un­salted but­ter 375g choco­late (70% co­coa) 3 eggs 375g golden caster sugar 75g rice flour ¾ tsp fine sea salt 75g dried blue­ber­ries

1 Heat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4. But­ter and line a 20 x 30cm bak­ing dish with parch­ment. Toast the al­monds in the oven for about 7-8 min­utes, or un­til golden.

2 Put the but­ter and choco­late in a heat­proof bowl. Place it over a saucepan of sim­mer­ing wa­ter to melt the but­ter and choco­late, stir­ring oc­ca­sion­ally. Do not let the wa­ter boil or it can burn the choco­late. If it does boil, turn off the heat and the wa­ter will most likely be hot enough to melt the but­ter and choco­late. Stir oc­ca­sion­ally. If there are still lumps in 10 min­utes, turn the heat back on briefly. Re­move the bowl from the bain marie and al­low it to cool .

3 In an­other bowl whisk to­gether the eggs, sugar, rice flour and salt just to com­bine and break up the eggs. Do not whisk them into a fluffy mass. Fold the melted choco­late into this, along with the al­monds and dried blue­ber­ries.

4 Pour into your pre­pared bak­ing tray and smooth the top. Bake for 25 min­utes only. Re­move from the oven (it will seem un­der-baked in the cen­tre but set around the sides). Rest for 2 hours at room tem­per­a­ture or one hour in the fridge be­fore cut­ting.

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