Claire Ptak – baker to the Royals, as one of our current 12 Week students put it, shared her magic with us at the Ballymaloe Cookery School recently. Claire, who loves to bake, started her career at Chez Panisse in Berkley in California, baking delicious, simple pastries, cookies and galettes with beautiful ingredients. Beautiful butter, beautiful fresh eggs, beautiful, seasonal fresh currants, cherries and organic flowers and herbs to embellish the cakes.
In 2005, she moved to London and set up a stall in Broadway Market in Hackney selling cupcakes. There was a queue from the very first day for Claire’s beautiful but sometimes not picture perfect looking creations.
Somehow, people’s gut feeling told them that this was real and much more likely to taste delicious than the perfect looking fondant iced confections so prevalent nowadays.
Violet Café and Bakery was started and word spread fast. Both royalty and celebrities snuck in or sent along quietly for a goodie box of Claire’s treats from Violet Café, Claire never divulged their names or very personal cravings.
Her style is Anglo-American – her scones are long triangles with sugar tops and many delicious additions peach, raspberry, white chocolate…
Her buttery ‘biscuits’ which we would call scones are made with lots of sour cream and occasionally butter, are split in half and sold as breakfast ‘biscuits’ with bacon, egg and hot sauce inside.
Among the celebrities we now know who were her fans, was a fellow American girl with style, called Megan Markle which lead to Claire being asked to make ‘the wedding cake’ for Harry and Megan’s wedding. When the story broke, Claire was suddenly catapulted onto the international stage – her Instagram followers went from 69,000 to 205,000 in a few days.
There are now plans to open a second Violet Café next year and all because of cake….
Claire is passionate about the importance of using quality ingredients for baking delicious cakes, breads and pastries. She told us about a fast emerging trend for ‘seasonal cakes’. The wedding cake was an Amalfi lemon and elderflower perfumed cake because the wedding was in the midst of the elderflower season in May.
I love the idea of cakes reflecting the seasons, so easy as we come into the summer with an abundance of summer fruit, berries and currants around the corner. Claire also used lots of spelt, sorghum, kamut, rice and rye, khorasan flour and soft cane sugars for her cakes and has many gluten free and accidentally vegan confections – something for everyone to enjoy.
The chocolate devil’s food cake was the vehicle to show us how to ice the cake with frothy American butter icing and decorate it with organic, fresh flowers in the nonchalant Violet way, a stunning creation for a celebration. The rhubarb, strawberry and sweet cicely pie was perfect for a family meal, sweet cicely is a herb worth growing, it’s perennial so it comes back year after year, it’s fern like leaves have a sweet, slightly anise flavor so one can reduce the amount of sugar used to sweeten the rhubarb. The tart is still delicious without it or Claire loves to use a little fresh tarragon if that’s available. The sesame and tahini cookies were a terrific find – mixed in minutes and cooked to a soft, chewy texture, they are destined to become one of our staples here at the Ballymaloe Cookery School and have the bonus of being gluten free.
The honey shortcakes were fragile and tender but so delicious, Claire pairs them with a fresh apricot and chamomile compote and a dollop of whipped cream but I can imagine enjoying them with berries and cream or just a gorgeous homemade jam or Amalfi lemon curd.
Terrific response to Vera’s column on 11th May so here’s another recipe from Vera’s wish list – Light, tender and delicious, this carrot cake is lovely for afternoon tea, not quite as worthy as any of the traditional carrot cake recipes.
Carrot and Cardamom Cake
Light, tender and delicious, this carrot cake is lovely for afternoon tea, but has also been much enjoyed for dessert. It will also keep really well for a week or more in an airtight tin.
50ml (2fl.oz) vegetable oil (we use sunflower oil)
150g (5oz) plain white flour
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda
½ teaspoon ground cardamom (seeds about 10 pods)
2 large eggs, preferably organic and free range
100g (3½oz) castor sugar
55g (2¼oz) soft brown sugar
50ml (2fl.oz) natural yogurt
175g (6oz) finely grated carrot (1 large or 2 medium carrots approx.)
225g (8oz) icing sugar
2 tablesp freshly squeezed lemon juice
Dried rose petals (optional)
25g (1oz) pistachio nuts (optional)
20.5cm (8in) round spring-form cake tin
Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/gas mark 4.
Brush the tin with oil and pop a round of parchment paper in the base.
Put the flour, bicarbonate of soda, cardamom and salt into a bowl. Whisk the eggs, sugars, yogurt and oil together until smooth. Gently mix the egg mixture into the dry ingredients, add the carrots and pour the mixture into the tin. Bake for 40 minutes, or until a skewer comes clean. Turn out onto a wire rack and allow to cool completely while you make the icing.
Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl, add enough sieved freshly squeezed lemon juice to make a thickish icing. Pour onto the top of the cold cake. Spread quickly with a palette knife so it begins to dribble down over the sides of the cake. Sprinkle the surface with dried rose petals and coarsely chopped pistachio nuts if available.
Claire Ptak’s Apricot, Camomile and Honey Shortcakes
makes 4 large shortcakes
For the compote
makes 1 jar
1kg just-ripe apricots, halved and pitted
½ vanilla pod
1 tbsp dried camomile flowers
½ cinnamon stick
150g caster sugar
Add all the ingredients into a large bowl and toss. Macerate for one hour to dissolve the sugar and draw the juices out of the fruit.
Turn out into a heavy saucepan or jam pot, cover with a lid. Cook over a low heat for 15 minutes, or until the apricots break down a bit.
Let the mixture cool slightly before transferring to an airtight container.
For the shortcakes
280g plain flour
1 tbsp baking powder
2 tbsp caster sugar, plus 50g more for sprinkling
½ tsp fine sea salt
100g unsalted butter, cold and cut into 1cm cubes
200g single cream
¼ batch apricot compote (from above)
300g double cream, gently whipped
A drizzle of honey
Heat the oven to 190C/375F/170Fan/gas mark 5. Line a baking tray with baking parchment.
In a food processor, combine the dry ingredients. Add the cold butter, blitzing until it resembles a coarse meal texture (or do this by hand with a pastry cutter).
Quickly add the cream, mixing until it just comes together. Be careful not to overmix.
Turn out on to a lightly floured surface, and pat into a cube shape. Rest for 10 minutes.
Once rested, roll to a 2cm thickness, then cut into hexagons, using a 7cm hexagon cutter. Sprinkle with caster sugar. Rest for 10 minutes, then bake for 15-20 minutes until springy and golden at the edges.
To assemble, cut the shortcakes in half, spoon over the compote and a dollop of whipped cream, then drizzle with honey.
Claire Ptak’s Battenburg
6 ozs (170g) butter
6 ozs (170g) castor sugar
1.5 teaspoon of vanilla extract
3 eggs, preferably free range
6 ozs (170g) self raising flour
Red and yellow food colouring
Lemon zest (optional)
½ teaspoon rosewater (optional)
150g apricot jam
Icing sugar, for rolling
500g golden marzipan (almond paste, see recipe)
Preheat the oven to 170°C/335°F/gas mark 3½. Butter and line a 25cm x 30cm battenberg tin.
Beat together the butter and sugar until fluffy. Divide the mixture between two bowls, and dye each with different food colouring. The amount to use varies greatly depending on the quality of your colouring. Start with a small amount and go from there until you have the desired colour intensity.
Beat the eggs together with the vanilla in separate bowl. Divide this between the yellow and pink mixtures. If using, add lemon zest to the yellow mixture and rosewater to the pink mixture, beating to combine.
Sift the flour twice. Divide the flour between the bowls and fold it into the mixtures.
Spread the mixture into the prepared tin or tins accordingly. Bake for 40-50 minutes or until the cakes spring back to the touch. Remove from the oven and allow them to cool in the tin(s).
Remove the cakes from the tin. If you’re using a battenberg tin, simply remove the four pieces and trim, if needed, to make four even bars. If you’re using two loaf tins, slice each slab in half lengthways and trim likewise to make four neat bars.
Heat the apricot jam in a small pan. Brush all the long sides of the cake pieces with jam, then press them together in a checkerboard fashion.
Lightly dust a work surface with the icing sugar. Roll the block of marzipan out and trim to 25cm x 30cm. With a clean, dry pastry brush, dust away as much icing sugar from the marzipan as you can. Then check for the smoothest side (it may be the underneath side) and have that facing down.
Brush the top of the marzipan with melted apricot jam. Place the block of cake on the left-hand side of the marzipan and roll to the right until it is encased. Rest for 30 minutes for the jam to set and glue it all together, then slice and serve. This keeps well in a tin for up to a week.
450g (1lb) castor sugar
450g (1lb) ground almonds
2 small eggs
a drop of pure almond extract
2 tablespoons Irish whiskey
Sieve the castor sugar and mix with the ground almonds. Beat the eggs, add the whiskey and 1 drop of pure almond extract, then add to the other ingredients and mix to a stiff paste. (You may not need all the egg). Sprinkle the work top with icing sugar, turn out the almond paste and work lightly until smooth.
Claire Ptak’s Chocolate Devils Food Cake with Violet Icing
220g plain flour
100g cocoa powder
1 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1tsp baking powder
450g caster sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract
200g buttermilk or plain yoghurt
100g vegetable oil
225g hot water
Preheat the oven to 160°C/140°C(fan)/gas mark 3. Butter and line a 23cm (9 inch) cake tin with paper.
Measure the dry ingredients, including the caster sugar, into a large mixing bowl and whisk with a balloon whisk to distribute the salt, bicarbonate of soda and baking powder evenly throughout the other dry ingredients.
In another bowl, whisk together the wet ingredients (except for the hot water). Once they are well mixed together, slowly whisk in the hot water.
Make a well in the centre of the dry ingredients and pour in half of the wet mixture. Starting in the middle of the bowl, whisk in a clockwise, circular motion. Resist the temptation to switch direction or you’ll end up with lumps of dry ingredients. Gradually add the remaining wet ingredients until you have a smooth, liquid batter.
Pour the batter into your tin right away and bake for 40 – 50 minutes until the top is springy to the touch and an inserted skewer comes out clean.
Remove the cake from its tin by running a small paring knife along the inside of the tin to release the cake. Or, if you have used a loose bottom tin, set the base of the tin on top of a tin of tomatoes, or similar, and gently push the sides of the cake tin down. Wash and dry your cake tin well, then line with cling film with plenty lapping over the sides and set aside.
Using a serrated bread knife (the longest one you have), score a horizontal line half of the way up the side of the cake and then slowly cut the cake into three layers.
Slide the bottom layer of sponge into the lined cake tin. Pipe a border of icing around the edges of the sponge, and then fill the center with a little more icing. Add the next layer of cake and continue to ice as before. Top with the remaining sponge, then pull up the sides of cling film and wrap up the cake tightly. You may want to cover with another layer of cling film to ensure it’s airtight. Place in the fridge and chill for at least 2 hours or overnight. Leave any remaining icing at room temperature.
If you have left the cake to chill overnight, you may want to re-whip the icing. The icing will naturally deflate ever so slightly and benefits from a second whipping.
Once you have taken the cake out of the fridge remove it from its tin, set on a cake stand and peel off the cling film. Use a palette knife to ice the sides and top of the cake. Scatter flowers over the top, and serve.
(Tip: the cake batter can hold in the fridge for days and can be used for cupcakes)
100g whole milk
1 tbsp violet syrup
190g unsalted butter, softened
750g icing sugar very well sieved (divide into 3 x 250g portions)
1 tsp fresh lemon juice
Measure out the whole milk into a bowl and stir in the violet syrup.
In the bowl of an electric mixer, beat the butter and 250g of the icing sugar until smooth. Gradually add the milk mixture, scraping the bottom of the bowl as needed, this is an important step. Add another 250g of icing sugar and mix on a low speed for at least 3 minutes (set your timer). Add the lemon juice, if required, adding the remaining icing sugar and beat on medium- high for 3 minutes.
Claire Ptak’s Sesame Halva Cookies
100g tahini paste
125g unsalted butter, softened
125g golden caster sugar
½ tsp fine sea salt
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
250g rice flour
¾ tsp baking powder
¼ tsp bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)
200g halva, broken into pieces
150g white chocolate, broken into pieces
2 tablespoon sesame seeds, for topping
1 teaspoon of flaky sea salt for topping
Preheat the oven to 180°C/160°Fan/350F/gas mark 4. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment paper.
In a large mixing bowl, cream together the tahini, butter and sugar until fluffy. Add the salt and vanilla extract, and then beat in the egg. Add the flour, baking powder and bicarbonate of soda (bread soda)
Add the halva and white chocolate pieces, and mix these through the dough. Using an ice-cream scoop, portion on to your prepared trays and sprinkle with sesame seeds and sea salt. Bake in the oven for 15‑18 minutes.
(Tip: These can be made as far as placing the mixture on the baking tray and frozen (uncooked) and then removed and cooked from frozen when needed)
Claire Ptak’s Slab Pie
560g plain flour, sifted
2 tsp fine sea salt
340g unsalted butter, cold
8 tablespoons iced water
4 tablespoons cream, for brushing
4 tablespoons caster sugar, for sprinkling
For the filling:
500g rhubarb cut into 1cm pieces
600g strawberries (quartered)
½ teaspoon salt
1 vanilla bean, scraped for vanilla beans
Zest and juice of 1 lemon
150g light, soft brown sugar
50g castor sugar
5 tablespoons cornflour
20g Sweet Cicely chopped
Whisk together the flour and salt. Add half the butter. Combine well using a cutting motion. Add the second half of the butter and rub in until your mix forms roughly pea-sized pieces.
Sprinkle over the iced water (holding back the ice) and toss it through the mix as you go. The dough should start to become raggedy and eventually, when all the water is added, it will come together into a ball. Divide the ball in half, wrapping each piece in cling film. Flatten them into squares and rest in the fridge for at least 20 minutes or up to 24 hours – any longer than this, put it in the freezer.
Next make your fruit filling. Mix all the ingredients together well and set aside.
Preheat the oven to 190°CFan. Butter, flour and line with parchment paper the base a baking sheet that measures 23 x 33cm.
Roll out one square of pastry on a lightly floured surface to roughly 28 x 38cm, pastry needs to be larger than the tin. Press the pastry down into the prepared sheet, then chill in the fridge while you roll out the other piece. The second pastry sheet (which will form the top of the pie) can be rolled out to 23 x 33cm.
Remove the chilled pastry and carefully fill it with the fillingmixture. It can come right up to about 2mm shy of the top of the tin but don’t let it overflow. Roll the top layer of pastry over the pie. Brush the pastry with cream. Fold or roll over the excess pastry and pinch to seal. Use a knife to pierce the top of the pie a few times. Put in your freezer or fridge for 20 minutes.
Brush the edge of the pie with the cream and sprinkle with caster sugar. Place some parchment paper underneath to catch the drips, and bake for about 25 minutes. Reduce the heat to 160°CFan/180°C/350F/gas mark 4 for another 35-45 minutes or until golden and the bubbles of filling coming through are thick. Cool for at least 3 hours before slicing.