Tucked away on a quiet street in East London, Claire Ptak’s Violet Cakes is a little bijou of a bakery loved for virtuous, simple and exquisitely delicious baked goods.
Founded in 2010 by Californian, Claire Ptak (ex-pastry chef of cult restaurant Chez Panisse), Violet is not dissimilar to a Sofia Coppola film - unassumingly feminine, a counter top of soft pastel hued cakes, daylight streaming, the odd bunch of homegrown flowers. All the baking is done in-house in their open kitchen using whole ingredients, often placing modern twists on classic cakes and allowing the various flours and seasonal, fresh produce to shine.
In addition to founding Violet, Claire has released several cookbooks, contributes recipes regularly to The Guardian and works as a food stylist. We met Claire over a coffee, late morning while the weather was still cheery in the few remaining days of the English Summer. The air is thick with browning butter, and cupcakes look woozy with thick pastel butter icing, decorated with fresh Dahlia blooms. She’s about to jet to America for her own Summer vacation, and as you’d expect, she’s just as lovely as the cakes she bakes.
You’re a Californian in London - where are you from in CA, how did this shape you and how did you find your path to baking?
Yes, I moved to London from the Bay Area 12 years ago. I grew up in a small town called Inverness an hour from San Francisco and did a lot of foraging for wild food. Spending so much time outside really informs the way I cook. I baked at home with my mother and grandmother and had weekend jobs and summer jobs in kitchens so it was a natural progression.
As you’re in California right now on holidays writing to us, tell us what you’re spending your days doing and catching up on - what do you get to do, that you miss out on in London?
I'm visiting LA as I write this. I love going to LA because it is so different from San Francisco. The weather is hotter, the food is healthier and the place has a different energy. My favourite bakery is Gjusta in Venice. I spend as much time there as possible. Then looking at vintage clothing. There is so much good stuff there. One of my favourite places for that is The General Store.
What brought you to London and what have you found special about living in London?
I came to London with my husband and fell in love with the city. It's changed a lot since then. I'm sad about Brexit in particular. But I love Londoners and the tide will change again.
When did you open Violet - and what experiences have been most valuable in opening your own business?
I started the market stall at the tail end of 2005 and opened the bakery in 2010. I love being the sore proprietor of my business. I can do it the way I want to. It's a blessing.
Violet has such a wonderful energy - homely and feminine without the frippery - where do you look for inspiration aesthetically or does this come organically?
Thank you! I loved creating the vibe at Violet and in fact it's something that is always evolving. The space is an expression of me and how I'm feeling at that moment. It's my taste in every nook and cranny. I made a look book before I opened with magazine cuttings, colour inspiration and even some literary references. A photo of the Prada Marfa installation in Texas was in there. So was a quote of Andy Warhol's and Tennessee Williams'. Cake comes up a lot in art. It shows how much it evokes emotion and defines culture.
And how do you approach personal style?
The first thing I think about is how I feel when I'm wearing something. It's all about confidence to me. You know instantly whether or not you feel good in something. Get rid of those clothes that you try on over and over again but keep hanging back up.
Do you have a daily uniform?
I love tight stretchy jeans with a big top or cozy jumper. I have a large collection of suede boots and mostly wear those or my tan suede Birkenstocks. I wear some variation of that every day. At night I like a sexy jumpsuit and in warm weather I love a floaty dress. I like jewellery. I wear jewellery too.
Back to food! Your ingredients and recipes seem based on seasonality, is this the starting point when coming up with ideas?
It's natural for me to cook that way. It's the way to get the best ingredients and it's also fun to have something when it's at it's peak rather than all year long.
What ingredients are you obsessed with at the moment?
Sorghum flour and figs.
Your all-time favourite dessert:
A cream puff.
What do you eat when at home?
A lot of pasta at the moment. Cooking is time consuming and with a toddler even more so. So I always have a few things for making good pasta at home. Bottarga and lemon or tomato with chilli and garlic.
What basic ingredients do you always have in your kitchen?
Also really good olive oil. And chocolate. And good vanilla.
You run a wonderful bakery, you write for The Guardian, you work as a food-stylist and you’ve written several cookbooks. What do you do to unwind, and how do you keep day to day balance (or just sanity)?
I love crime dramas. I watch a lot of those. I also have a podcast and researching the people that I am going to interview is really interesting and fun. It inspires me.
Recent trends encourage wellness-warriors, and gluten-dairy-sugar-salt free diets are on the rise (and instagram!) What are your thoughts on the clean-eating movement, being a bakery offering all these delightful things?
I am a fan of anything that tastes good. So, I mean that I love some of the clean eating bakes because they are made with some of my favourite ingredients like almonds, cashews, dates, chocolate and fruits. I have always cared about my health too so I often eat in the lighter side.
Finally - what exciting projects are on the boil for you and Violet?
Claire wears the Nancy Silk Georgette Dress in Natural