Almost as soon as Claire Ptak got into Kuala Lumpur, she headed to Petaling Street.
“I like to go straight to the street food first to find out what’s happening there,” she says.
Stopping at the first busy eatery she came to, she met “a very nice man… who could tell that I didn’t know what I was doing”.
“He asked me if I ate pork, and ordered something for me. Then he left and said, ‘have a nice lunch’,” she laughs.
I know what the dish was even before she tells me, having checked out her Instagram feed the morning of this interview and seen a good looking wonton mee.
“I had this beautiful, beautiful sweet barbecued pork and some little dumplings with the broth. So good. I took a picture of it,” she says.
Ptak, who was in Kuala Lumpur for the KL Big Kitchen festival in May, is a pastry chef and owner of The Violet Bakery in East London. She is also the author of The Violet Bakery Cookbook, which reproduces many of the recipes from her shop.
“People have been asking for recipes for years and I wanted to give them something,” she says, unconcerned that someone, a rival bakery perhaps, might pinch her recipes and make them their own. Not anymore, anyway.
“I used to think that way. There were always secret recipes when I was growing up.
“But it’s really about the baker,” Ptak says, pointing to the participants of a baking workshop she had just conducted at the festival whose batches of walnut cupcakes were all different despite using the same recipe.
“I think giving out the recipe is only going to encourage people to do better. It’s about generosity.”
Ptak took two years to write the book, taking her time as she “didn’t just want to rattle on”. The result is an instruction manual that looks like a thick hardback novel instead of a glossy coffee-table book, filled with recipes that the home cook will find accessible and with just enough of her personal story to inform, unlike the insufferable ramblings of many a food blogger-turned-author.
“I taught myself how to cook through cookbooks. I didn’t go to school so I really wanted to teach young budding cooks or people who have cooked a long time that one little trick,” she says of the objective of her cookbook, the fourth she has written.
Ptak’s recipes have a timeless appeal to them – think banana cake and bread pudding – but with a modern approach to flavour. She has some surprising pairings in her baked goods – buckwheat and citrus, for example, are meshed into a cookie, while rye and chocolate are incorporated into a brownie. I have tried this recipe, by the way, and it turns out a dense, gooey brownie that will keep any chocolate fanatic happy.
Originally from California, Ptak worked as a pastry chef for the renowned Alice Waters at Chez Panisse in Berkeley before moving to London with her husband. In her baking, you’ll find some of the characteristic easy-going Californian vibe and preference for whole foods.
“It’s laid-back, not too refined, or too …” and here she pauses before saying, almost under her breath, “French.”
This cool attitude towards baking also shows up in a freer, non-traditional style – no smoothly iced cakes or pastries with perfect angles here.
In The Violet Bakery Cookbook, Ptak has made baking fun.
“I like the fact that in England, people really eat a lot of cake – because I love it and I love to make it. Everybody, even fashionable, skinny people eat it. That’s so cool.”
Two recipes from The Violet Bakery Cookbook
Recipes and photos reproduced with the kind permission of the publisher.
COFFEE CARDAMOM WALNUT CAKES
Makes 12 individual cakes
For the sponge
210g plain flour
3/4 tsp baking powder
3/4 tsp bicarbonate of soda
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon
1/8 tsp ground cloves
1 tsp ground cardamom
1 tsp ground pink peppercorns
180g unsalted butter, softened
150g caster sugar
1½ tsp vanilla extract
210g crème fraiche
butter, for greasing the tins
For the icing
200g icing sugar
2 tbsp freshly brewed strong coffee or espresso
Preheat the oven to 170°C. Brush a 12-hole cupcake tin with butter.
First, warm the walnuts through on a baking tray in the oven. Do not toast them, you just want to bring out the fragrant oils. This should take less than 5 minutes. Let the nuts cool slightly then chop fine. Set aside.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, bicarbonate of soda, salt and spices, then whisk this mixture through the chopped nuts. Set aside.
In an electric mixer, whisk the butter and caster sugar until light and fluffy.
Add the eggs one at a time, mixing until each one is fully incorporated, then add the vanilla extract. Mix in the flour and nut mixture and then the crème fraiche.
Divide the batter between the 12 tins and bake for 20 minutes until the cakes spring back to the touch.
Watch: Claire Ptak demonstrates the glazing process using cakes and icing made by participants of her workshop at KL Big Kitchen.
Let the cakes cool in their tins for about 10 minutes, then gently pop them out (you may need to run a small paring knife around the inside of the tins to ease the cakes out).
Place the cooled cakes upside down on a wire rack.
Whisk together the ingredients for the icing and spoon it over the cakes. Use the back of a spoon to gently guide it to the edges so that it willingly drips down the sides.
This recipe can also be made ahead and then frozen in the muffin tray until ready to bake.
Makes 12 buns
250g light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
560g plain flour, plus more for rolling
2 tbsp baking powder
2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
240g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
300g cold milk
75g unsalted butter, softened
caster sugar, for dipping
butter, for greasing the tin
First, make the cinnamon sugar. Mix the sugar and cinnamon until no lumps remain; set aside.
To make dough
In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine all the dry ingredients with the cubes of butter and mix until you have a coarse meal.
Slowly pour in cold milk while the mixer is running, until the dough forms into a ball and comes away from the bowl.
Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and leave to rest for a few minutes. Fold the dough gently over itself once or twice to pull it all together.
Let the dough rest a second time, for 10 minutes.
To make cinnamon buns
Preheat the oven to 200°C. Butter a 12-cup deep muffin tray.
Lightly dust worktop with flour and roll out the dough into a large rectangle about 5mm thick.
Brush the surface of the dough with the softened butter and sprinkle the cinnamon sugar onto the butter. You want a good, slightly thick layer.
Now roll the dough up, starting at the long side, keeping it neat and tight. Gently squeeze the roll to ensure it’s the same thickness throughout.
Use a sharp knife to cut the roll crossways into 12 even slices.
Take a slice of the cinnamon roll, peel back about 5cm of the loose end of the pastry and fold it in back under the roll to loosely cover the bottom of the roll.
Place in the muffin tray, flap-side down. Repeat with the remaining slices.
Bake the buns for 25 minutes. As soon as they’re out of the oven, flip them over onto a wire cooling rack.
Dip each cinnamon bun into a bowl of caster sugar and serve straight away.