Five minutes with Claire Ptak

Claire Ptak is a baker, food writer, and owner of Violet, a California-style bakery in Hackney, London. The American baker grew up in California, and honed her trade as a pastry chef at Chez Panisse before moving to the UK. She has also written a number of acclaimed cookbooks, and made the wedding cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle.

Claire talks to Kerry Fowler about lifting weights, her mother’s fruit pies and the importance of speaking out…

Five minutes with Claire Ptak

Do you get nervous when you’re working on an important cake?

I don’t get anxious making cakes for special occasions. I’m a fan of being prepared. For Meghan and Prince Harry’s wedding cake, we had a replica in case anything happened to it. I hate waste, so any cake left over was donated.

What are some of your creative influences?

There’s a great tradition of plein air [outdoor] painting in Los Angeles, where I grew up. I loved seeing artists on the side of the road with an easel and palette. My daughter enjoys painting and maybe, when I retire, I’ll pick up my paintbrush again!

Tell us about working at Chez Panisse…

Working with Alice Waters at Chez Panisse [Waters’ legendary restaurant in Berkeley, California], I learned how to taste. Every day we’d taste everything we made and discuss each item; it taught me how to tweak and balance things. Alan Tangren, the pastry chef, would always wait for you to offer up your thoughts before commenting. I loved that and do it with my team now.

What are  your favourite food memories from childhood?

My mom is a great pie maker. I revisited a lot of pie recipes for my new book, which took me back. In one place we lived, there were wild blackberries, huckleberries and apple trees to harvest. Mom would make little ‘cinnamon buns. with the pastry scraps. The smell of pastry baking is childhood for me.

What makes you angry?

I get frustrated with complacency. Rights are slipping through our fingers and we need to be careful. Raising a daughter has made that apparent to me. Laws are changing without people noticing because they’re being distracted by social media – which I love but also fear. We shouldn’t be afraid to believe in something and talk about it – like all the strikes this year. When my daughter’s teachers were on strike, we took them banana cake. My father is a teacher and I used to see him strike when I was a kid. It frustrates me that we still don’t value teaching enough.

How do you manage your busy schedule?

I’m a better boss, mum and friend if I exercise. I like the gym and have started to do weights. I never thought I’d be a fan of pumping iron, but I love it! When I was younger, I’d sometimes be ready to drop after cooking. I’m in better shape now. You need to be strong in the kitchen.

What’s your ideal way to spend a spring Bank Holiday?

I like to invite friends round for pie. I’m a fan of seasonal baking, so at this time of year I’d search the market for outdoor rhubarb – and it would be great to add elderflower cordial. My favourite cocktail is an aviation – a gin drink made with lemon juice, maraschino liqueur and crème de violette. So pretty and refreshing.

Claire’s book Love Is A Pink Cake (Square Peg £27) is out now

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