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Would you drop everything, move to another country, and open a bakery?
When we visited Claire Ptak at home in East London one overcast Thursday, we weren’t surprised by her answer to our first question: What does she miss most about California? “The sun, of course!” She laughs, looking out over her patio garden where the leaves were shivering in the wind. Claire made herself an honorary Londoner ten years ago, migrating from the West Coast to East London to pursue her two great loves: an Englishman and baking. A decade later, that Englishman is now her husband, and her baking has made her a star of the British food scene.
“I guess you can reinvent yourself when you come to a new place,” she tells us. “Of course, It was harder than anything to leave my family and friends. But I think coming somewhere that I didn’t know anyone made me a lot more motivated to start my business straight away. I didn’t have any distractions.”
Back in California, the self-taught cook worked as the pastry chef at Chez Panisse, Alice Waters’ pioneering Berkeley restaurant. Leaving that nest, Claire tells us, was a tough decision. “The best piece of advice Alice ever gave me was to follow my heart.” Claire says, “When I was telling her that I needed to move to London, I didn’t feel like I was fully ready. Alice told me that I had to do what felt right, and I’ll always remember that. We still talk. The other day, I called her to tell her I was pregnant—she’s so excited!”
Not surprisingly, Claire was always drawn to England’s unshakable tea and cake culture—which “just doesn’t happen in California.” After successful spells at Moro and St. John, Claire set up a stall at East London’s Broadway Market. She named it “Violet” in celebration of her favorite flower and the fleeting pleasure it brings. In 2010, Violet Bakery opened in Hackney.
The café is small, rectangular, and white; it looks like a country cottage on an otherwise nondescript Hackney street. It is here that Claire’s celebrated baking techniques come into play. She is a lover of light, balanced treats. The cakes, tarts, and pastries that come from the little open kitchen are perfectly sweet, but never sickly; delicate and rustic, but not flawless. “I never wanted the cakes at Violet to be too fiddly or girly—that’s not me.”
So naturally, we were intrigued to see Claire’s real home. We were greeted by her brown Whippet Shuggie, who came bounding through the hallway and was almost as excitable as us.
Claire’s kitchen, like most professional cooks’, is bursting with pots and pans. There are ceramic bowls, mismatched vintage plates, and a 1960s tea set that could have been snatched straight from Betty Draper’s living room. Above the sink hangs a giant copper jam pot, which Claire picked up on a trip around the South of France, where she filled a van with kitchen collectables.
“When I moved to London, I filled my whole bakery with antiques from London markets and vintage shops. I like picking up good quality cookware from all over the place. Nothing fancy though,” she says. “I like using old-fashioned, simple things to cook with. Just things like a good pot. And I love my round Le Creuset!”
She pulls open a deep drawer filled with plates and platters from Japan, Paris, and Devon. “I have so many dishes. It’s kind of a problem…” She says, “I really do think food tastes better in a nice dish!”
Claire’s kitchen opens out onto a little garden filled with greenery, with a little Meyer lemon tree studded with fruit. It feels more than an extension of the kitchen than anything else. “I think it’s important to be surrounded by nice things. I really think it makes a difference.” It was in this home that she wrote The Violet Bakery Cookbook, and where she continues to write and test her latest recipes.
Like a true Englishwoman, Claire whipped up a pot of Yorkshire tea while we got to work snooping through her cookbook shelf—which is sorted according to color, no less. “I love the way it looks but it’s actually horrible for finding what you’re looking for!”
So what are the cookbooks worth rummaging for? “I read a lot of books on baking. I like cookery books with a lot of text that teach you something. I always go for recipe books you can learn from.”
Claire runs her finger along a shelf of stiff looking hardbacks, a collection of 1980s The Good Cook books edited by Richard Olney. She pulls down one called Offal/Variety Meats. The photos are depressingly dark and unappetizing. “I know: It’s so different than what we’re used to with cookbooks now,” she laughs. “But this stuff is really delicious! A lot of Alice Waters’ cooking is influenced by Olney. It’s serious cooking.”
As we finish moseying around her house and planning our theft of Shuggie, Claire gets to work on some of her favorite chocolate chip cookies. She throws giant chunks of thick dark chocolate into a mix of ancient grains and grated jiggery, letting it all clunk together in her trusty KitchenAid mixer.
We edge forward to lick the bowl as she rolls the mix into balls, sprinkles each with sea salt, and slides them into the oven. She offers up the leftovers without a blink. “I try not to eat as I go along myself,” she says as we dive in. “I learned the hard way after years of just feeling sick.”
We ask if she pictures baking with her child when she is born. “I am kind of excited by the idea of my daughter baking with me,” she says. “That’s what I grew up doing, watching my mum in the kitchen. That’s how I started.”
The cookies come out of the oven in chunky golden brown discs, which Claire finishes with another scattering of sea salt. She brings them outside onto the patio, where we devour the plateful with a creamy glass of cold milk.
You can take the woman out of America, but you can’t talk the milk and cookies out of the woman.
Makes about 12 large cookies
125 grams (1/2 cup) unsalted butter, softened
125 grams (4 1/2 ounces) coconut palm sugar, grated if solid
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 plump Tahitian vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
180 grams (1 1/2 cups) Kamut flour
3/4 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon xanthan gum
100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) milk chocolate, broken into pieces
100 grams (3 1/2 ounces) dark chocolate, broken into pieces
Flaky sea salt, for sprinkling on top
Photos by Issy Croker