QUEEN OF PUDDINGS
Claire Ptak, the baker for the Royal wedding of the year, shares her recipe for a delicious Christmas cake
Claire Ptak, who won the baking commission of the year when Prince Harry and Meghan Markle chose her for their wedding, shares her recipe for the perfect Christmas cake. By Frances Hedges
Stepping inside Claire Ptak’s small but perfectly formed east-london flat, we are greeted by the spicy scent of warm baked figs. ‘I roast a different fruit practically every month, so you can tell what time of year it is by what’s on top of my cakes,’ she says, laughing. ‘I’m a real stickler for seasonality.’
No wonder Prince Harry – like his father, a proud advocate of sustainable, organic growing – and Meghan Markle picked Ptak to make their wedding cake in May. ‘Naturally, I was curious when I received a cryptic email from Kensington Palace asking me to come in and run a tasting,’ she recalls. ‘I offered the couple six options and was delighted when they picked the lemon and elderflower – it was so English, and ideal for spring.’
Since the Royal assignment, Ptak has seen a spike in the number of visitors making pilgrimages to her Hackney cake shop, Violet, which she founded in 2010 as a permanent adjunct to her Broadway Market stall. Born in California, she inherited her culinary passion from her mother and grandmother, and spent many years working in bakeries as a weekend job before training at Alice Waters’ acclaimed restaurant Chez Panisse. ‘The dishes there are rustic yet refined, prepared with a light touch, and that’s the philosophy I bring to my cakes,’ she explains. ‘I’ll take a classic recipe but instead of making the icing with food colouring I’ll use fresh ingredients – right now I’m getting a lovely pink shade from quince poached in a vanilla syrup.’
In the run-up to Christmas, Ptak is bringing her creative flair to seasonal favourites such as fruit cake, which she has reinterpreted with lighter, zestier notes. ‘At Violet, we make all kinds of candied peel, from orange and lemon to grapefruit, clementine, mandarin and bergamot,’ she says. ‘I’ve combined these flavours with grappa – which is brighter and fruitier than brandy, but just as boozy – and vanilla to create a Christmas Bundt cake.’ Unlike the traditional version, which has to be prepared months in advance, it can be baked fresh (‘Just give yourself 24 hours to soak the fruit in the grappa’) and decorated straight away. ‘Here I’ve used candied grapefruit and freeze-dried cherries, but you can have as much fun as you want,’ says Ptak.
As you might expect, she makes sure her pantry is always
well-stocked during the festive season, in case friends pop round for an impromptu tea party. ‘All you need is a good fizz, savoury scones, a nice ham and something salty, like toasted almonds or my homemade cheese biscuits,’ she says. ‘Then I’ll serve my Bundt cake alongside mince pies, ginger snaps or Mexican wedding cookies – nutty shortbread dusted in layers of sugar.’
While Ptak is generally wary of trend-led baking, she enjoys experimenting with new ingredients – her turmeric pumpkin cake, for instance, has been popular – and is happy to cater for special requests. ‘There are always some people who don’t like Christmas pudding, so instead I’ll make a Black Forest gateau with cherries in kirsch or brandy – winter is the time for cooking with preserved fruits,’ she says.
As our shoot draws to a close, Ptak urges us to take home boxes of mince pies, asking only that we leave one for her daughter, Frances, to have as a treat after nursery. ‘Everyone has such happy childhood memories of cakes,’ she says fondly, ‘so it’s worth making the effort to bake something truly delicious.’ We wholeheartedly agree. www.violetcakes.com
claire ptak at home in london
ptak’s christmas bundt cake