ArchiveJuly 18, 2009

Claire Ptak Bakes

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.


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


Chocolate Devil’s Food Cake with Chocolate Ganache


There are devil’s food cakes made with butter and ones made with oil. Both are delicious and good used in different ways, but this one is especially good filled and covered with dark chocolate ganache and decorated with cake crumbs and a blob of chocolate. If you have some rose petals, use those for additional decoration.


200 g dark chocolate (64-70%)     

250 g butter, softened

200 g sugar

200 g light brown sugar

4 (about 206ml) eggs

225 g milk

25 g lemon juice

1 teaspoon vanilla                           

300 g self-raising flour

½ teaspoon bicarbonate of soda     

25 g cocoa powder                        

1 teaspoon salt


Dark Chocolate Ganache to fill and cover

A garden rose

Gold leaf (optional)



1.      Preheat the oven to 150°C, fan. Butter and line a 10”x 3” round cake tin with parchment paper.

2.      Chop up the chocolate and put it into a heat-proof bowl placed over, a pot of barely simmering water. Stir occasionally to aid the melting process.

3.      Cream the butter and sugars until very light and fluffy in a stand mixer.

4.      Add the eggs and beat until emulsified.

5.      Remove the melted chocolate from the pot and wipe any water off the bottom of the bowl. Give it a gentle stir to release a little steam and add it to the butter and egg mixture.

6.      Measure the milk and add the lemon juice to it. It will curdle slightly but that is the intention. If you have fresh buttermilk, you could use that instead.

7.      Add the vanilla to the milk and lemon and set aside.

8.      Sift together the flour, soda, cocoa powder and salt.

9.      Add half of the flour mixture to the butter and chocolate and mix for a couple of minutes until incorporated.

10.  Add the milk mixture and beat until incorporated.

11.  Add the remainder of the flour mixture and mix to make a smooth batter. Pour into the prepared tins and bake for about 45-50 minutes, or until a skewer inserted comes out clean.


Dark Chocolate Ganache


For filing and icing a very rich cake.


224 ml double cream

200 g golden syrup

1 vanilla bean, split

600 g dark chocolate (66-70%)

100 g unsalted butter, very very soft


1.      Stir the cream and golden syrup together in a heavy saucepan and scrape the vanilla seeds into it. Add the pod as well and gently heat. Bring to just below the boil (a foamy layer of milk should just be starting to form) Transfer to a bowl, cover with cling film and chill. You can chill this overnight for optimum vanilla flavour.

2.      Place your chocolate in a medium stainless steel bowl and set over a barely simmering pot of water on the stovetop. Using a chocolate thermometer, heat to just below 115°F.

3.      At this point, re-heat your cream to 115°F as well. When the bowl of chocolate reaches 115°F, remove it from the pot.

4.      Pour the melted chocolate and the heated cream into a vessel such as a liquid measuring jug and using an immersion blender, blend well. Blend until it is thick and creamy. Add the very soft butter, bit by bit.

5.      Stir very gently from time to time until it reaches the desired consistency for spreading on a cake.


To ice and decorate:


1.      Once the cake has cooled, start by evening off the top with a serrated knife. Reserve the scraps for the decoration.

2.      Now split the cake into three layers with a serrated knife. Set the top and middle layers onto rounds of card or tart tin bottoms, or plates. The bottom layer should go onto the serving plate you intend to use.

3.      If the trimmings are still very soft, you can pop them into the oven for about 10 minutes to dry them out. Then place them in your food processor and pulse to a fine crumb. Set aside.

4.      Spread a thinnish layer of about a ½ centimeter of ganache over the bottom layer of the cake. Place the center layer over that and agin spread with ganache. Place the top layer on and then use your hands to evenly shape the cake into a symmetrical and even stack of layers.

5.      Take a generous scoop of ganache and pile it on top of the cake. Spread it out over the top and leave a little hanging over the sides.

6.      Now using a palette knife or offset spatula, cover the sides with heaps of ganache trying to avoid pulling any crumbs up into the ganache.

7.      Smooth the sides, removing any excess ganache. Smooth the top once again and make a nice swirl. Reserve a little ganache for the decoration.

8.      Sprinkle the top and sides with the cake crumbs and finish with a dollop of remaining ganache. If you have gold leaf, it makes a very elegant finish on the top of the blob of ganache. If you don’t, sprinkle with a rose petal or two. Keep in the fridge in an airtight container but be sure to bring it out of the fridge about an hour before serving or the butter in the ganache and the cake will be too hard.


Tip: If you think you might make a mess, a good trick is to slip pieces of parchment paper under the cake around the edge. Then after you cover it in the ganache, you can remove the paper and have a nicely clean serving dish.


Claire Ptak’s Mexican Wedding Cookies


225g soft butter

70g caster sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

310g plain flour

1 tablespoon brandy

100g pecans, roughly chopped

icing sugar (about 500 g)


1.      Cream together the butter, sugar, and salt.

2.      Add the flour and mix until the dough comes together, but no longer.

3.      Add the brandy and the chopped pecans

4.      Scoop into little balls and arrange on a cookie sheet. If you have a mini ice cream or truffle scoop this works very well. Alternatively you can use a teaspoon and roll the dough into little balls between your palms. You are going to freeze them before baking so you can cram them together on the sheet to put in the deep freeze and separate them later for baking.

5.      Bake at 170°C for about 20 minutes. They should be set but have barely any colour. They should just scoot if nudged with a finger.

6.      Toss in icing sugar while warm. This layer will melt a little. Let cool completely. Then sift with a LOT of sugar. You can sift out the biscuit bits from the first toss in sugar and use that to coat them the second time.

7.      Store in an airtight container in the fridge. They are delicious served cold with coffee or ice cream.



Claire Ptak’s Salted Caramel Cupcakes


125 g butter, very soft

200 g caster sugar

3 eggs

1/2 teaspoon salt

280 g self-raising flour

1 tablespoon lemon zest

80 ml lemon juice

80 ml milk


1.      Heat the oven to 160°C, fan.

2.      Cream the very soft butter and sugar until almost white and fluffy.

3.      Add the eggs and salt and mix until fully incorporated.

4.      Add half the flour until just combined.

5.      Add the zest, juice and milk and mix until combined.

6.      Add the remaining flour.

7.      Scoop into paper baking cup-lined cupcake tins.

8.      Bake for about 20 minutes.

9.      Remove from the tin and set on a wire rack to cool completely. Meanwhile, make the icing.


Salted Caramel Icing


The caramel:


115 ml double cream

½ vanilla pod, split down the side and scraped

60 g golden syrup

100 g caster or granulated sugar

15 g unsalted butter

½ teaspoon fluer de sel or other sea salt such as Maldon


  1. In a heavy-bottomed pan, heat the cream. Scrape the seeds from the vanilla pod and add them along with the pod, to the cream. Bring the cream and vanilla to just under a boil. Try not to scorch the cream. When it is ready, it will start to exude wisps of steam and have a thin layer of frothy foam beginning to form at the edges of the pan.
  2. While the cream is heating, boil the golden syrup and sugar in another heavy-bottomed pot until it reaches about 290-300°F/140°C
  3. Add the butter and salt, and strain the cream mixture into the sugar mixture. Stir to combine.


For the icing:


50g butter

200g icing sugar

25 ml caramel (reserve the rest for something else. It freezes very well)                 

1 tablespoon milk                                                                                

¼ teaspoon vanilla extract                                 

pinch of Maldon salt                                         


1.      Cream the butter on a low speed with some sugar and gradually add the caramel, milk, vanilla and sea salt.

2.      Add the remaining icing sugar. The speed must be kept slow as to not incorporate too much air into the buttercream.

3.      Once all of the ingredients are added, beat the mixture for about 2 minutes, to get to the proper texture and to allow the sugar to dissolve. At this point you can add more sugar if appropriate. This varies with the air temperature and the darkness of the caramel.


Claire Ptak’s Chocolate Wafer Cookies


These are like Oreo cookies


Makes 6 logs – this is for a big quantity – you can scale it down yourself if you like

– icing quantities would need to be adjusted also.




12ozs (350g) butter

1lb 2ozs (500g) caster sugar

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 free-range organic eggs

5ozs (150g) cocoa powder

13ozs (375g) plain flour

2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1/4 teaspoon salt


Vanilla Icing


2 1/2 fl ozs (65ml) milk

4ozs (110g) unsalted butter

1lbs 1ozs (475g) icing sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

1/4 scraped vanilla bean


Violet Icing


7fl ozs (200ml) milk

13ozs (375g) unsalted butter

1.5kg – 2kg (3lbs 5ozs – 4 1/2lbs) icing sugar

6 teaspoons violet essence


Espresso Icing


3 3/4 fl ozs (112ml) cold coffee

1 1/4 fl ozs (38ml) milk

10ozs (280g) butter

1.5kg (3lbs 5ozs) icing sugar

1 1/2 teaspoons Armagnac brandy

2 1/4 teaspoons fresh coffee grounds

2 1/4 teaspoons vanilla extract


First make the logs.

Cream together the butter and the sugar together very well.  Add the vanilla extract and eggs.  Sift together the cocoa powder, flour, baking powder and salt.  Roll into logs and freeze.


Slice the log into 1/2cm (1/4 inch) thick and bake at 170°C/325°F/Gas Mark 3 for 8-10 minutes – let cool on parchment paper.


For the icing.

Cream the butter and half the icing sugar.  Add the liquid.  Then cream in the rest of the icing sugar on a low speed – about 3 minutes until creamy.


Pipe a blob of icing in the centre of one biscuit, then press another on top so you can just see the icing coming through.


Hazelnut Praline Truffles


150 g hazelnuts

50 ml cold water

200 g sugar

¼ teaspoon cream of tartar (optional)

225 g double cream

50 g unsalted butter

425 g dark chocolate, finely chopped and placed in a large bowl

cocoa powder for dusting



1.      Butter and line a 20 cm baking tin with cling film. The butter is to help hold the cling film in place. Set aside

2.      Toast the hazelnuts on a parchment lined baking sheet.

3.      Place the water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and cover with the sugar. Add the cream of tartar and heat gently to dissolve. Stirring occasionally is ok. Once the sugar has dissolved, turn the heat up to high and bring to the boil. Make a caramel. It can be as light or as dark as you like.

4.      When you have reached the desired colour for your caramel, pour it over the toasted hazelnuts and let it set. Once it has set, break into pieces and then blitz to a fine powder in a food processor.

5.      Warm the cream, but do not let it come to the boil. Pour it over the chocolate and whisk gently until smooth and melted. Fold in the praline. Pour into your prepared tin.

6.      Chill the mixture in the fridge until set. This will take about an hour.

7.      When set, turn the chocolate block out onto a marble or other cold hard surface.  Remove the plastic and using a clean knife dipped in hot water (and then wiped dry) slice the block of caramel chocolate into 2 cm squares. Place back in the fridge to chill.

8.      Dip the squares of ganache into cocoa powder



Fool Proof Food

Claire Ptak’s Candied Flowers


A bouquet of fresh, edible flowers such as pansies, violets or garden roses.


free-range egg whites

caster sugar




A soft bristled painting brush or pastry brush


Dip the brush in the whites and then pat out on a paper towel to get excess white off of the brush. You don’t want to saturate the petals, only get them just damp enough to hold the caster sugar.


Sprinkle the petals with a generous amount of castor sugar and leave in a warm place to dry.



Ponaire Coffee Limerick

Ponaire (Irish for bean) import their own raw coffee beans from around the world and roast, blend and package them in their roastery in Annacotty, Co Limerick. They serve this excellent coffee in their Deli Coffee shop and also supply numerous restaurants listed in Georgina Campbell’s Top 100 Restaurants in Ireland. They have won three Bridgestone Awards for their coffee, a classic artisan product. Jennifer and Thomas Ryan can be contacted on (061) 339801, (087) 9095242) email,



Stuffed Olive Gourmet Store

in Bantry, Co Cork have a good selection of freshly made salads to eat in, sitting on a high stool by the window or to take away, a delicious, crunchy alternative to a heavy pub lunch. They also serve very good coffee and bake cakes daily. Their shelves are stocked with a very tempting array of locally produced goodies…jams and preserves from Gingergirl, Seaweed Sausages from Lo Tide (098) 42616, handmade artisan chocolates from Skellig and Cocoa Bean Chocolates Margie Kelly and Trish Messom opened this little gem of a shop in December 2006 and can be contacted on (027) 55883 or email Bantry Middle Eastern Barbeque

today at Mannings Emporium in Bantry at 2:00pm.Barbeque Festival

in Bantry starts on Friday 31st July to Monday 3rd August. There is a Food Fair and Barbeques on the town square with cookery demonstrations by local chefs on Saturday with the Hot House Flowers performing a free concert later. On Sunday and Monday, sample food from the barbeques outside seven pubs free of charge . Contact Danny Collins 087 2956225 for more information.



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