ISSUE 43  |  Spring Forward 2016

Expert Advice: 10 Tips for Baking on the Wild Side with Claire Ptak of Violet Bakery

October 28, 2015 3:00 PM

BY Meredith Swinehart

A gluten-free cookbook is not one I would buy. Nor is one on vegan baking, alternative sugars, foraged ingredients, or whole-grain pastry. Why? Because putting time and money into a recipe–and eating the calories–is a waste if the end product doesn’t taste very good. 

Sadly, that’s been my experience so far with “philosophy-first” cookbooks. That’s why I found Claire Ptak’s new book, The Violet Bakery Cookbook, to be a breath of fresh air. Claire’s philosophy? Flavor first, without exception. Yes, she offers recipes that are gluten-free, vegan, and made with foraged ingredients, but her book doesn’t fit any one of these schools of thought. Claire bakes for flavor.

Claire is an American in London, the owner of Violet bakery and cafe in Hackney. We recently had the chance to chat while she was visiting the US, and came away with her top 10 tips for developing a more experimental style of baking, a deeper appreciation for foraging, and recipes that range widely on the “healthy” scale–all of which put flavor first. 

Book photography by Kristin Perers

Above: Who knew fig leaves are edible (or that they’d taste any good)? They’re the star ingredient in Violet’s fig leaf ice cream.

1. Scared of foraging? Go for a walk.

If you’re as clueless about foraging for ingredients as I was before talking to Claire, here’s where to start: go for a walk around your neighborhood, and pay attention. Bring along a book to help you identify what’s edible in your region. “Once you’re focusing on what’s edible,” says Claire, “you’ll start to see you’re surrounded; you’ll find ingredients all over the place.” Skeptical, I went for a walk around my San Francisco neighborhood after chatting with Claire. Lo and behold, I found fig trees not 50 yards from me. 

Take care to note whom the plants belong to, then knock on the door and ask nicely. Claire usually finds this to be a win-win situation: “We have a pear tree behind us at the bakery, and we come by and pick the pears and give some to the owner. Usually people find it helpful to have someone to harvest,” she says. “We get some fruit, they get some fruit, and it keeps the pears from falling to the ground and rotting.”

2. Forage for the joy of foraging. 

If foraging for ingredients sounds like a lot of work for questionable return, shift your thinking: Claire suggests that the foraging itself is a joy worth pursuing. “Foraging is really about the experience,” she says. “There’s something wonderful about going out and picking berries with your friends or family, and there are fewer and fewer of these interactive outdoor activities these days.” She also cites the immense pride you’ll get from baking with the ingredients you worked so hard to pick.

Above: Claire forages for wild blackberries in the Hackney Marshes in London for her wild blackberry crumble tart.

3. Try new “old-fashioned” flavors. 

Another benefit to seeking out ingredients in nature is that you’ll expand your library of ingredients. Claire cites fig leaves and angelica as members of this foragers-only flavor club–ingredients you can’t buy as produce, and which “have that kind of old-fashioned flavor that people have forgotten about.” 

4. Bake for flavor first.

Claire delights in using alternative flours for their flavor potential, not because they’re healthy (or healthier). Think of a typical white-flour cake made with whole wheat flour: it’s heavy, dry, and slightly bitter–not a recipe likely developed for flavor.

Claire believes that everything she bakes should taste good on its own. In the book, you’ll find rye, spelt, oat, kamut, and buckwheat flours, plus millet and flaxseed, all used for best flavor and texture. When using alternative grains, says Claire, “you’re playing with the flavors of the grains themselves.” The same goes for sugar and dairy alternatives, also used throughout the book.

Above: Claire encourages home bakers to use any summer fruit in her summer spelt almond cake. 

5. Make star ingredients shine. 

Claire develops her recipes to “make things taste more like themselves,” rather than compensating with loads of sugar and fat for flavor. It’s a fascinating principle, and one she learned as a young pastry chef at Chez Panisse. Salt makes food taste less bitter, she says–a concept she used in her coconut milk icing: “If you taste coconut milk, you kind of get a hint of coconut–but then you add salt and rum, and you’re suddenly aware of its coconut flavor.” It is a sweet icing, she says, “but it shows how much alcohol and salt can aid in sugar transformation.” 

Above: Claire distinguishes between two palates for sweet: caramel/toffee sweet, and fruit/pastry sweet. Though there’s a good dose of fruit-based recipes here, the caramel lovers are not neglected; take this recipe for butterscotch blondies as proof. 

6. Understand sugar for what it is. 

Sugar is firmly in the crosshairs of the health police, perhaps second only to gluten. Claire herself recalls eating so much sugar while developing her first cookbook–on homemade candy–that she became sick. Rather than thinking of sugar as the great downfall of baked goods, understand that “sugar is a wonderful way to heighten flavor.” Says Claire, “I am never trying to make something sweet–in fact I much prefer cakes that are less sweet–but I am trying to bring out the flavors inherent in the cakes.”

When I asked for a low-sugar recipe in the book, she pointed to her chocolate oat agave cookies. “I really wanted an oaty, chocolate chip-like cookie but didn’t want that much sugar in it at all. I used a little bit of sweetener with the agave, but it has a little bit of apple in it as well to sweeten and for texture. I really love that recipe. If you’re craving a sweet treat, it’s great, but will not wipe you out with sugar.”

7. Be real. 

Claire’s baking doesn’t subscribe to one school of thought; in her quest for best flavor, she admirably refuses to force a “healthy” ingredient where it doesn’t belong. Take, for example, her grandmother’s recipe for red velvet cake–a favorite of Claire’s since childhood. It calls for food coloring–the only recipe in the book that does–but that’s as it should be, says Claire. “You can make a red cake with beetroot,” she says, “but it will taste like a beetroot cake.” 

Above: Another food you probably didn’t know you could eat: peach leaves. “They have an almond-scented quality that lends complexity to these juicy summer fruits,” Claire writes in the book. She uses the leaves in her peach and peach leaf jam. 

8. Bask in the joys of seasonality. 

“It’s kind of wonderful right now, with the changing of the seasons,” says Claire, “you have pumpkins, quince, the apples are crisp and perfect.” Seasonal produce matches seasonal moods, she notes, as do their colors. At Violet, she uses the bright yellow of pureed mangoes in spring; pinks and deep purples in summer and early fall; and white icings and coconut in winter. “Nothing is more disappointing than getting a pale and frigid strawberry on top of a dessert in winter, when you know how wonderful an apple or orange or strawberry can be,” says Claire. “There’s not really any other way to eat.”

9. Prunes are not (just) for old people. 

Earlier this month, Violet held a pop-up collaboration with Gjusta bakery in LA. They baked 15 recipes for two days and filled the entire bakery case. “Everything flew out the door,” she said, “except our spelt and prune scone, which is a top-seller in London. Everything else was gone and we had six of these scones still here.”

She laughs and attributes the rejected prune scones to a bad reputation for dried fruits in the US. In the UK, she says, dried and candied fruits have always been seen as a delicacy–any fruit flavor is a treat in the dead of winter. In the US, dried fruits have a fuddy-duddy connotation. Keep in mind that if you’re baking seasonally, the flavors you want won’t always be available fresh–so embrace the humble dried fruit.

Above: Apricot and pineapple sage jam makes use of an herb that’s easy to grow. 

10. Relax in the baking kitchen. 

Most of us consider ourselves to be either bakers or cooks; we may do both, but rarely do we love them equally. To the cooks, Claire says, relax. “People have such anxieties about baked goods not turning out,” she says. She wants to encourage an experimental, cooking-style mindset in the baking kitchen. To get the hang of it, start simply–by making small flavor adjustments in sugar or salt. Taste the batter as you go, and tweak to your liking. But of course, she says, “I also have to advise caution a little bit”–overzealous substitutions may not turn out. Claire’s book is a good place to start; some recipes call for strict obedience, while others are good opportunities for experimentation.

Above: The Violet Bakery Cookbook is $16.83 on Amazon. 

For more on foraging, see: