This March, we're taking you on a tour of the Old World, with a focus on how traditional European dishes are influencing modern cuisine.
"I always wish I had a classic," Claire Ptak says over a slightly static-y Skype call. She coos to little Frances, her nearly two-month-old daughter.
She's referring to style, something enduring like the elegant pearled look Coco Chanel pulled off. But for Ptak, the Chez Panisse-bred baker working smack-dab in London's newly hip Hackney neighborhood at Violet Bakery, there's just too much to be inspired by (see her style picks below).
"I always envy those people who have a uniform, a look. They wore the same thing all the time, and it was their signature. It seems so attractive to me," Ptak laments. "But I always fail at classic. I'm far too excited by new looks. I love mixing it up and trying new things. Oh well."
A lot has happened in the past year for Ptak: She published her first cookbook, The Violet Bakery Cookbook, in the U.S. last fall to much fanfare (and you must make her coriander-sprinkled gingersnaps); she just landed her new Baking the Seasons column in The Guardian; and she added a new member to her family. So, naturally, her own style has evolved—and that's just been the Violet Bakery way.
Growing up in Point Reyes, California, she baked "experiment cakes," throwing whatever she fancied into a bowl and nuking it in the oven, and helped her mother put together seasonal pies, fruits yanked from the family's trees. And even after a brief intermission working in films in Hollywood, she found herself back in the kitchen: the legendary Chez Panisse, where she helped Alan Tangren in the pastry department and impressed Alice Waters with her rose-geranium cream. Pies were her mom's thing, but cakes are all Ptak's.
"My mom was always nervous making cakes, while pastry didn't intimidate her in the slightest," Ptak remembers. "So I suppose I had to find out what she was talking about and then solve the cake riddle. They became a real obsession for me. I love how the butter, sugar, eggs and flour amalgamate in such differing ways depending on how you mix them together and at what temperature the ingredients are. It's so interesting to me."
She's made a business out of the cakes at her nearly six-year-old bakery, off in Hackney—"People used to joke in London that you needed a passport to get to Hackney, but now those same people are taking cabs," she says with a laugh. Ptak started off peddling cupcakes at a small stand in Broadway Market, which she still operates, but Hackney is home. The spare white stucco building looks straight out of Le Corbusier's dream with a final retro touch of a mint-green VIOLET sign. And her fluffy, generously iced cakes continue to bring a steady slew of customers.
"My recipes are a hybrid of California and British tradition," Ptak explains. "So I use a more delicate, Chez Panisse approach to things, and I think there is a nice little balance I've found. It feels familiar but a little bit lighter."
When she takes on more classic British baked goods like scones, she's ruffled a few feathers as chronicled in Saveur. However, that's what she's trying to get at, prodding at that sense of nostalgia and tinkering enough to make it her own.
"For some people, it feels like, 'Oh, this is how my mother used to make it.' But really it's probably a little bit different," Ptak says. "That memory, that taste memory. That's what people want, and that's what is most familiar. Or that's what I want anyways."
Looks like Ptak's found her own enduring look.
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