QUEEN OF PUD­DINGS

Town & Country (UK) - - CONTENTS — WINTER 2018 - PHO­TO­GRAPHS BY SASHA HITCH­COCK STYLED BY TILLY WHEATING

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

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