The most anticipated baking book of 2015 has just been published, it’s called The Violet Bakery Cookbook by Claire Ptak, whom Jamie Oliver described as “my favourite cake maker in the world”. This book is really significant for a variety of reasons, it’s written by someone who never set out to be a baker, Claire who is Californian went to university to study film making but she was forever darting in and out of the kitchen between classes and films to bake cakes. She even borrowed an oven on an island in Lake Atitlán in Guatemala to make a pie. A year working as an assistant to a Hollywood director still didn’t satisfy nor did a stint in a fancy San Francisco fashion boutique. Eventually in 2001 she landed a one day internship at Chez Panisse in California which led to her dream job. Under the direction of pastry chef Alan Tangren, Claire learned how to taste and tweak.
Once again life intervened, Claire’s English boyfriend, (now husband) Damien, moved back to London – after three years they could no longer bear to be apart – Alice Waters who once told me that Claire was one of the most talented pastry chefs she ever had, tried hard to dissuade Claire from leaving but then wished her well on her new adventure and reminded her – “you can always come back to Chez Panisse” – they have remained firm friends and Alice wrote the forward to The Violet Bakery Cookbook.
In London, Claire “did stages” in many of my favourite restaurants, St John, Moro, River Café, Anchor and Hope…..
Jamie Oliver, whom she’d met through friends in California was also supportive and she did food styling for him and many others including Yotam Ottolenghi for his weekly column in the Guardian.
By now Claire was longing to open a bakery. Her first foray into business was selling her favourite cakes and cupcakes at the newly resurrected Broadway Market in Hackney – she used beautiful ingredients. The word spread like wildfire and she couldn’t keep up with the demand, so she and Damien found tiny premises in an unassuming residential street on Wilton Way near London Fields Park in Hackney in East London, they gave it a lick of paint and just planned to use the place as a commercial kitchen but locals kept knocking on the door and asking whether they were planning to open a Violet Bakery, now 5 years later the tiny space is a bustling bakery and super chic café with a cult following. Damien makes the playlists which the customers love almost as much as the cakes.
The other reason why this book is interesting is that Claire’s baking does not necessarily look picture perfect but always tastes sublime. Interestingly this coincides with a general loss of faith among the general public in confectionary that looks super-professional but inadvertently ranges from disappointing to dire.
Something that has a homemade quality tends to inspire more confidence, funny how things come full circle in the end.
Claire has also become increasingly interested in alternatives to processed wheat and sugar and dairy free. She’s experimented a lot with wholegrains, unrefined sugar and fruit based alternatives. The results are wholesome and indulgent. Eating cake involves a certain degree of guilt so it’s really important to Claire that a cake “be worth it” so taste is paramount.
The Violet Bakery Cookbook was published by Square Peg – here’s a taste to whet your appetite.
Violet Bakery Cavalo Nero, Leek and Ricotta Bread Pudding
This savoury bread pudding was inspired by one of my favourite pasta sauces.
900g (about 1 loaf) stale white sourdough bread, crusts removed and thinly sliced
butter for greasing the tin
For the Braise
2 large leeks
2 tablespoons olive oil, for frying
2 tablespoons chopped fresh Summer savory or rosemary
400g Cavalo Nero or other kale
1 tablespoon good-quality olive oil
½ teaspoon chilli flakes (I use the Turkish ones)
150g Gruyère, grated
100g ricotta cheese
salt and pepper, to taste
For the custard
5 tablespoons double cream
500g double cream
360g whole milk
salt and pepper, to taste
a grate of nutmeg
Butter a 20cm x 30cm baking tin.
First, prepare the leeks. Trim the roots and the tough green stalks and outer layer from the leeks and discard. Cut the leeks in half lengthways and run under cool water to rinse, peeling back the layers to get inside where the grit is lodged. Slice the leeks crossways into 4mm slices and drop into a bowl of cold water for about 10 minutes. All the dirt will fall to the bottom. Scoop the leeks out (rather than pouring them out with the water) and place in a colander to drain. Pat dry.
In a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium-low heat, heat the oil. Add the leeks, savory or rosemary and salt and pepper to taste, and sauté for about 10-15 minutes until soft but without colour.
Bring a large pan of water to the boil and add enough salt to make it taste of the sea. Usually I add about 2-3 teaspoonful’s to a large pan of water. Strip the leaves of the kale away from the tough inner core and discard the core. Roughly chop the leaves into 2cm strips and drop into the boiling water for about 3-5 minutes, or until tender. Do this in batches if your pan is not large enough, then remove from the pan with a slotted spoon and place in a large bowl. Season with salt and pepper and toss with the tablespoon of olive oil, the chilli flakes and sautéed leeks. Set aside.
Grate the Gruyere and weigh out the ricotta, then set these aside as well.
In a bowl, whisk together the custard ingredients and then strain through a fine sieve into a jug.
In your prepared baking tin, layer the bread, kale mixture and half the Gruyère, then dot with the ricotta. Pout two-thirds of the custard over the cheese, then sprinkle with salt, pepper and nutmeg. Let the pudding rest for at least 30 minutes to absorb the custard.
Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 180°C/160°C (fan)/ gas 4. Cover the pudding with the remaining Gruyère and pour the remaining custard over the top.
Bake for 1 hour until golden. Cut into portions and serve warm or at room temperature.
Violet Bakery Hazelnut Toffee Cake
Hazelnuts and toffee are good companions and the dates bring the whole thing together. The golden hue of this fruit cake reminds me of the falling leaves of Autumn and it’s ideal for serving at Christmas. I’ve made the recipe for two small cakes partly because it is rich and also the second makes a lovely gift, wrapped in baking paper sealed with a snazzy sticker or patterned tape. It’s fun to make personalised potato prints to decorate the paper before wrapping it.
Makes two 18cm cakes, serving 12-16
For the Sponge
350g dates, pitted and chopped
150g hazelnuts, toasted and chopped medium fine (like polenta with a few bigger pieces)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
50g caster sugar
50g brown sugar
140g plain flour
1½ teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
100g plain yoghurt
butter for greasing the tin
For the Toffee Topping
50g toasted hazelnuts, skins sloughed off
200g caster sugar
For the Icing
4 tablespoons water
300g icing sugar
Preheat the oven to 170°C/150°C(fan)/gas3. Butter two 18cm cake tins and line with parchment paper.
First, prepare the sponge. Combine the dates and the toasted nuts in a bowl and set aside.
Using an electric mixture, whisk together the eggs, vanilla and sugars until light and fluffy. Continue to whisk as you slowly drizzle in the oil.
In another bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt. Add this to the egg mixture and whisk for a few seconds to combine. Add the yoghurt and whisk to combine then fold in the dates and hazelnuts.
Divide the mixture between your prepared tins and bake for about 35-45 minutes, until the cakes are baked through and set, but not dry. The tops of the cakes will not spring back as much as other cakes do because the dates make the mixture moist and dense in the best possible way. Leave the cakes to cool in their tins while you make the topping.
Line a baking try with parchment paper and spread your toasted hazelnuts on the tray. Place the tray on your worktop, near the hob. Have your icing ingredients nearby, as they will be needed as soon as the caramel is ready.
Put the 50g water in a small, heavy-bottomed pan and sprinkle in the caster sugar. Bring to the boil and just as the sugar starts to caramelise watch it very closely, then as soon as it starts to burn, pour half of the hot caramel over the hazelnuts. Leave to cool and harden and then break into shards.
To make the icing, add the 4 tablespoons of water to the remaining caramel in the pan. Pour the runny caramel from the pan into the icing sugar and whisk to a smooth paste. Add more water or icing sugar until it has the consistency of soft buttercream.
TASTE. Does the icing taste too sweet? It might need a splash of brandy or cognac to mellow it out. The cake itself is not too sweet so it can handle a fairly sweet icing, but cutting it with a little booze can work well here.
To finish, spread the icing on the cooled cakes and top with the shards of praline.
Violet Bakery Rhubarb and Angelica Jam
Angelica is a great pairing with tart rhubarb. It can downplay the tartness of the rhubarb without you having to add too much sugar.
Makes 2 large jars
375g granulated sugar
2 small angelica stalks
juice of 1 lemon
1 teaspoon Chartreuse (optional)
Slice the rhubarb into small pieces. Put them in a heavy bottomed saucepan with half the sugar and leave to macerate for 1 hour.
Add the remaining ingredients to the saucepan except the Chartreuse (don’t forget the remaining sugar). Place over a medium heat and bring to the boil slowly, stirring with a wooden spoon until the sugar has dissolved. Once it has dissolved, stop stirring and boil rapidly for 15 minutes. Add the Chartreuse and boil for a further 5 minutes.
The jam is ready when most of the rhubarb is nearly translucent and the consistency has thickened.
At this point you spoon the jam, including the angelica stalks, into warm sterilised jars and seal, or simply put the jam into a suitable container (with a tight-fitting lid) and keep in the fridge for daily use for up to a month.
Discover Irish Farmhouse Cheese
Farmhouse Cheeses are some of the most bespoke, hand-made foods in the entire world! Buy a farmhouse cheese and you get the rarest of things – each cheese has a narrative, each one is telling the story of the cheese maker and of the farm where it was made. The cheeses speak quietly about the good things, about pure food, about fine milk, and content animals, about sharing and hospitality, and the creativity of a determined individual on a small farm, stamping every cheese with the signature of their personality. If you like to meet the cheesemakers and see the process check out www.discoverfarmhousecheese.ie. There are open days coming up at
7th May 2015 : Bellingham Blue in Castlebellingham Co. Louth.
16th May 2015: Killeen Cheese near Portumna in Co. Louth.
26th May 2015, 29th June: St. Tola Organic Goat Cheese, near Ennistymon, Co. Clare.
13th May 2015: Cooleeney Farmhouse Cheese, near Moyne, Co. Tipperary.
15th May 2015: Cashel Blue near Fethard, Co. Tipperary.
15th May 2015: Coolea Cheese, Coolea Co. Cork.
Bring your kids along too, to reconnect them with how beautiful food is produced.
Smoked Butter: have you discovered Mr Hederman’s smoked butter yet? It’s not widely available but you’ll find it at his stall at the Midleton Farmer’s Market alongside his warm and cold smoked fish, fishcakes and addictive smoked mussels. www.frankhederman.com.
Midleton Farmer’s Market will soon be celebrating 15 years, watch this space for events, www.midletonfarmersmarket.com.
The Happy Pear Café in Greystones is owned by a happy pair of twins called David and Stephen Flynn. After ten years their fans range from young parents to pensioners, ladies-who-lunch to teens-on-the-run, Electric Picnickers to Hollywood stars.
They’ve always wowed their clientele on great vegetarian food and now they’ve shared their secrets in “The Happy Pear” Cookbook published by Penguin. Fresh and gorgeous tasting food, bursting with goodness, www.thehappypear.ie.