"...and then shag Paris which I'm fine with"
Everyone enjoyed cheery conversation, a splash of bubbles and treats from both Ptak's cookbook Love is a Pink Cake and Saffitz's newest cookbook What's For Dessert?
Claire, your background as a pastry chef is quite impressive. Can you share with us what initially drew you to the world of baking and pastry?
I think what always drew me to baking was that I love creating things with my hands. Before I appreciated the technical and creative side of creating flavour profiles I just loved making stuff. I would do box mixes. I loved assembly of things and I loved putting together a layer cake and it was just fun and satisfying. As I got older I came to appreciate it in a more 360-degree kind of way and I always loved to eat so it just felt like the perfect convergence of all these things that I really loved to do. It’s like then you get to eat the thing you make and that felt like the greatest thing in the world.
As a pastry chef, how do you find a balance between following traditional recipes and being creative and innovative with your baking?
I think as far as balancing tradition and technique and things you’ve seen before and doing something new, my general belief is you’re never really making anything new and I like to exist in that space of familiarity and the things that people love and the comforting flavours that we know. If it’s been around for a long time it's for a good reason, so like apples & cinnamon, caramel & salt, but I always try to find ways to be creative within that sort of comforting, familiar space.
Outside of baking and cooking, what are some of your other interests or hobbies that help you unwind and find inspiration?
I definitely got into gardening and growing food. It’s so fun and so magical, it makes me feel like a child again to have that child-like wonder of growing something and seeing a zucchini that literally wasn’t there the day before. I’ve also gotten into doing a little bit of pottery which I love because I miss creating. I found a pottery studio near my house where the artist opens up her studio two nights a month for a couple of hours and then you can make something and she’ll fire it and glaze it and then you pick it up the next month, it’s so fun so I’ve gotten really into that.
"I can’t just show up with like a couple of slices or like cupcakes, like what do you take to Kensington Palace."
Claire, you founded Violet Cakes in London, which gained international acclaim. Can you tell us about the inspiration behind starting your bakery?
Well, I had moved to London and was never gonna open a bakery. I always said I would never open a bakery and after working here for a little while I realised that I had a point of view and I wanted to express it. The food scene was just really burgeoning here after many years of London having a bad reputation for food and it was having a real renaissance. There was this amazing market that had just reopened and I was like I’m going to start a market stall, it was kind of like an art project and then it kinda snowballed and I was like ok I've got to do this.
Creating the cake for the royal wedding of Prince Harry and Meghan Markle was a momentous occasion. Can you take us through the creative process and the experience of such a high-profile commission?
Well, I got this email which I almost missed because I’m so sh*t with emails and my assistant at the time was like you need to read this email and I was like ok. I read the email and it was from Meghan’s secretary at the time and she said we’d love to invite you to Kensington Palace to talk to you about perhaps being involved in Meghan Markle and Harry’s wedding. And I was like What!? Like this is crazy.
I was very excited and was like I’ve got to really impress them because I can’t just show up with like a couple of slices or like cupcakes, like what do you take to Kensington Palace, so I was like I’m gonna design six cakes, six different flavours and bring the whole cakes, fully decorated and with flowers. I just wanted to show them what we could do, like let's do this the right way, this is not something that you just like kinda roll out of bed and go to, you don’t phone this in.
It was really funny because I was also like I wanna look amazing, so I wore these stilettos, so weird, I don’t know why. I wore these like really high shoes and I got there and I had to walk for like a mile to get in, with six whole cakes. When I got in there it was so cool because she’s actually really down to earth, she was like, "We already know that we want you to make the cake we just wanna know what cake you’re gonna make." It was just very easy, I think because it’s such a well-oiled machine, it was so organised, there’s no room for f*ck ups, nothing was rushed. It was just like “This is what we need, you can make it in Buckingham Palace with our kitchens" support and it was like a dream. It was literally a dream.
The culinary world is ever-evolving. Are there any current food or baking trends that you find particularly exciting or intriguing?
I don’t really follow trends and not because of some ant-trend thing, but because I don’t have time and I think that I’m really just interested in going back and looking at old books and cookbooks and I have a really nice cookbook collection there are still so many books that I own that I haven’t really delved into as much as I’d like to so I’m always kinda going back and looking back and I find that that’s the most inspirational thing to do.
As two Americans, how do you think the culinary scene in London compares to the one in the United States?
Claire Ptak: Over the 18 years that I’ve lived here I feel like it’s really gone back and forth and right now I feel like London is 100% having a moment. I just feel like the restaurants are amazing and think part of that is that its still affordable for a chef to open a restaurant. In America it’s really difficult to do it on your own, you have to get investment and you have to be part of a group and you have to do the whole thing, it’s harder to get started, but I think that creates a really amazing restaurant scene here.
Claire Saffitz: To say that I haven’t spent much time in London is an understatement so coming here from NY I think that what I love about the dining scene and the spectrum of restaurants is how rooted in tradition it is. Because in NY you can get any type of food, you know there’s thousands of different cultures in NY and of course, there’s tradition in NY, there’s like the Jewish deli tradition and the Italian-American tradition but I think having a so much longer food history in a place like London is really great. I love all the meat pies and the baking traditions that go back so much further than they do in the US. So when I come there that’s kind of what I want to explore. In NY I love the variety, but I love the sense of tradition here.What’s your favourite city for pastries & baked goods?
Claire Saffitz: Paris. I spent culinary school time there and I just love French pastry and I love the classics. What I love about France is that they only do the traditional stuff in some sense, it’s very purist. Actually, Mexico City has incredible bakeries.Claire Ptak: I was gonna say Vienna but second would be Mexico City. Vienna’s cakes are incredible, the tradition of Austro-Hungarian baking is very fantastic and the fact that it’s still happening is so exciting.
Savoury food is good too. What’s your go-to savoury dish?
Claire Saffitz: I love anything that’s based in dough, like pizza is a good example. This is one of the points that I’m trying to make in my books, that there’s not so much of a difference between cooking and baking, that they’re not really different disciplines, I mean they’re kind of on opposite sides but there’s so much crossover and if you’re making a savoury pie, that’s baking and it’s cooking. I love anything where I can flex my baking muscles a little bit. Pizza’s a big one. I’m building an outdoor wood-burning oven in our house in the Hudson Valley. I’ve been watching a lot of YouTube videos about how to mix mortar and lay brick and IT’S JUST LIKE FROSTING A CAKE. I was doing it and was just like this feels very familiar. I’m weirdly good at this.Claire Ptak: Also pastry, Pissaladière, anchovy, olive and red onion tart. I made this actually last year for Thanksgiving and it doesn’t look like much, it’s brown, but once I cut it up, no one moved from the butcher block and they just inhaled it. My daughter also loves anchovies as well so I love to make it.
Shag, Marry, Kill: New York, London, Paris
Claire Ptak: Kill New York, Marry Paris, Shag London
Claire Saffitz: Kill New York, I just have a lot of problems with the subway and I’ve lived there for a long time and sometimes it gets to be a lot. The older you get the more difficult it is to take the onslaught that is living in New York. I would say maybe marry London because more of a long-term possibility there and there’s no language barrier. It feels very liveable in so many ways and then shag Paris which I'm fine with.