Recipes like gingerbread scones and cheese-and-ale pie explain why London’s Violet Bakery has such a fanatical following.
When Claire Ptak moved to England from California a decade ago to join her boyfriend, she was unprepared for the wet and the cold. That didn’t stop the former Chez Panisse pastry chef from opening a stall at the outdoor Broadway Market in East London. Locals were happy to wait in the rain and hail for her American-style coconut cupcakes and the ginger-molasses cake she makes, inspired by one at Chez Panisse. “I had a lot of loyal customers: fashion designers, artists and journalists who got what I was doing,” says Ptak, who also counts Nigella Lawson and David and Victoria Beckham among her fans.
Although California-born Ptak still hasn’t adjusted to the raw London winters, she has embraced teatime and the British love of Christmas. “In California, I’d take a day off for Christmas,” she says. “Here in England, they celebrate for weeks.” This holiday season, she’s also celebrating the release of the American edition of The Violet Bakery Cookbook with a lunch inside the cozy brick-and-mortar spot she opened five years ago, Violet Bakery. The business is located in a cottage-like white building on a residential street in Hackney. It has a little open kitchen where young women with colorful head scarves cook: cutting golden dough studded with candied ginger into giant triangles for scones; assembling savory pies of crushed potatoes in a rich, ale-spiked cheese sauce; topping fudgy brownies with colorful bits of candy cane.
For her cookbook lunch, Ptak invited friends like Fiona Burgess, the lead singer of one of her favorite bands, Woman’s Hour. Also there to show her support was Fanny Singer, an art writer living in Cornwall who is the daughter of Chez Panisse’s owner, Alice Waters.
Ptak now oversees the baking and the selection at the Violet Bakery stall at Broadway Market; her staff runs the stall. “I miss the people,” Ptak says, “but not the cold.”