Icing on the cake

CLAIRE PTAK makes wonderful cakes. It all started when she was little girl in Point Reyes, California – every time her Irish grandmother visited they baked cakes together all day long.

At Christmas granny would send 15 different types of cookies – bliss. Claire couldn’t wait to open the parcel; all she wanted to do was cook. Once she took all the spices from the kitchen cupboard out to the sandbox to ‘make cakes’.

As soon as she could legally work – at 15 – she got a weekend job at a local bakery. While her pals were bebopping around the local mall she was learning how to make croissants.

This was followed by a three year stint at a cowboy dude ranch in Wyoming. There was a big rambling ranch house kitchen – Margie who ran it was interested in food, she encouraged the youngster’s interests. Claire, always desperate to learn more, bought a “bunch of books” and pored over them. At some point she decided that she should have a “proper career” so she studied Film Theory at Mills College in Oakland, but every time she baked a cake everyone asked “why aren’t you baking?”

Out of the blue a dream came true – an opportunity came up to be an intern and then work at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’s iconic restaurant in Berkley, California. Claire said the three-year experience in the pastry section changed her life. She honed her palette, was taught how to taste, how to combine flavours and a whole new philosophy about food. All the cooks and chefs at Chez Panisse ate the same beautiful fresh seasonal food as the guests.

She added to her baking repertoire, fell in love with a British chap and moved to London. A stint with Sam and Samantha Clarke at Moro, Fergus Henderson’s St John and Anchor & Hope followed. In 2005, she managed to get a stall at the hip and vibrant Broadway Farmers Market in Hackney. Claire couldn’t wait to start her business which she called Violet Cakes, she baked all her favourite cakes and tarts; many were time consuming and too complicated to make. She baked a few little coconut cup cakes too as a filler. They flew off the stall while the far more elaborate confections failed to sell, an interesting lesson in business. Now she sells about 1,000 cup cakes on her Violet stall on a Saturday mornings. Nine different flavours, five favourites – chocolate, vanilla, lemon, salted caramel, coconut and three seasonal ones – that changes with the seasons. This week it was elderflower, raspberry and strawberry, all made from beautiful organic ingredients, fine butter and free range eggs. She also makes many cupcake wedding cakes, provides lots of party pieces and every week Claire does the food styling for the Ottolenghi article in the Guardian. Her latest project is her first book on Boiled Sweets and Choccies. She also writes a food blog. All this because she loves baking…

If you are in London on a Saturday morning look her up at the Broadway Market in Hackney from 10am. Email: claire@violetcakes.com

Claire came to the cookery school to teach a class last week for us. Here are some of the delicious things she cooked.

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