by Tanya Henry
“Violet [Bakery] is a little corner of Northern California in East London,” writes Alice Waters in the foreword of pastry chef Claire Ptak’s stunning new cookbook.
Born and raised between Point Reyes Station and Inverness, Ptak recalls summers picking wild huckleberries and having access to lots of fruit trees year-round. “My mother is a great cook and she encouraged me to experiment wildly,” explains Ptak, whose journey to owning a bakery in London and writing a cookbook began with early stints at the Bovine Bakery, catering jobs and three years in the pastry department at Berkeley’s venerable Chez Panisse.
Ptak describes how she once responded to an ad in the Point Reyes Light for catering work. She recalls the shock on the woman’s face when she discovered that Ptak was only 12 years old. However, Ptak proved herself capable by preparing a salmon mousse, and she was allowed to stay on the job. At the ripe age of 15, Ptak eagerly knocked on the doors of the Bovine Bakery before it had opened and convinced the owners to hire her. Initially she would only serve coffee, but before long she was back in the kitchen (in the early morning hours) learning the ropes.
Still, Ptak says that she never intended to be a professional baker. She went off to college and studied film, but always found herself in the kitchen baking for friends, family and colleagues. It wasn’t until she finished her studies and was back in the Bay Area that she began thinking about cooking full-time. She landed a coveted internship at Chez Panisse and was offered a job in pastry a year later. After three years of learning as much as she could, or as she writes in her book, “I lived and breathed nothing but preparing, tasting and reading about food and how to make it taste as good as possible,” Ptak followed her now-husband to London, where eventually she would open Violet Bakery. And last month, Ptak’s new cookbook, The Violet Bakery Cookbook (Ten Speed Press) was published.
With its leisurely pace (chapters are denoted by morning, midday, afternoon and evening), the cookbook takes us on a culinary adventure that weaves together Ptak’s deep Bay Area roots with her newfound, more formal English home. Recipes for a Squash, Brown Butter and Sage Quiche and a Rhubarb Galette share space with a Coconut Cream Trifle Cake and Comté and Chutney Toasties. Puddings, scones, tarts and cakes get equal play in this thoughtful collection of sweet and savory offerings. Much like Alice Waters applauds Ptak for having a keen sense of balance with flavors, so too does her book—both a Northern California and London sensibility permeate its 269 pages—in just the right amounts.
On Saturday, Oct. 17 at 2pm, Point Reyes Books will present Claire Ptak for a talk, tasting and book signing at Sir & Star’s historic Olema Schoolhouse. $40; reservations required; ptreyesbooks.com.
Pistachio, hazelnut, and raspberry friands
Recipe by Claire Ptak
Friands are little French almond cakes, which we love at Violet because they are moist and tasty and also so easy to make. In this version, I substituted hazelnuts and pistachios for some of the almonds because I had a few left over that I wanted to use up. I really like the way these turned out, because the hazelnut has a lovely light flavor and the pistachio gives them a pretty pop of color. It is another recipe that we can have fun with at Violet, as the nutty base lends itself to a variety of seasonal fruit toppings. Here I’ve used raspberries, but you could use any berries you like, or slices of peaches, nectarines, plums, figs or whatever.
Makes 12 to 16 friands
115g (½ cup) butter, melted, plus more for greasing the molds
90g (⅔ cup) all-purpose flour
¾ teaspoon baking powder
50g (7 tablespoons) ground almonds
40g (6 tablespoons) ground hazelnuts
40g (6 tablespoons) ground pistachios
190g (1⅓ cup) confectioners’ sugar
5 egg whites, slightly whisked
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
200g (7 ounces; about 40 to 50) fresh raspberries
50g (1¾ cups) slivered pistachios
confectioners’ sugar, for dusting
Preheat the oven to 160°C/320°F (140°C/285°F convection). Butter 12 to 16 friand molds or muffin cups.
Combine all the ingredients (except the raspberries and slivered pistachios) in the bowl of a food processor and process until foamy (about 1 minute).
Spoon the mixture into the molds, filling them to about three-quarters full, then top each mold with 2 or 3 raspberries and sprinkle with the slivered pistachios.
Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until the tops of the cakes are springy to the touch.
Leave the cakes to cool slightly in their molds, then remove and dust with confectioners’ sugar. They will keep well in an airtight container for a few days.