EyeSwoon

One a recent rainy day in the West Village of NYC, three women bound by a love of TASTE came together to indulge their love of baking at The Little Owl event space. I gathered with Christine Muhlke, executive editor at Bon Appétit magazine and Clair Ptak, owner of Violet Bakery in London, to celebrate Clair’s newly released cookbook, The Violet Bakery. When I heard Christine was set to interview Clair about the cookbook’s release (and to talk baking, of course), I figured I would pitch the brilliant idea of us all to baking together. The afternoon was even more swoona-licious than I had dreamed…

I had only known Clair on the page, through her swoony recipes, and I was incredibly excited to have the opportunity to bake with this pastry goddess from across the Altantic. Violet Bakery in the Eastside of London is an institution—a charming and unique bakery where Clair seamlessly fused her Californian roots with London polish, and built a cult following. With a creative background in film, fashion and art, she felt drawn to baking, and later found herself working with the legendary Alice Waters of Chez Panisse. She shared, “I learned how to taste at Chez Panisse”—the experience offered an indelible education. Clair was inspired to think more deeply about our relationship to food, farming, education, and especially taste and flavor. It is a sensibility she has brought to Violet Bakery and London’s taste buds are all the better for it.

Enter Christine Muhlke, executive editor at Bon Appétit magazine, who tastes every dish from those swoony BA pages to ensure the content stays true to their mission. Christine is the baker of the family and her go-to specialty is “mint chimp” ice cream, utilizing the mint from her garden and a lemon chocolate tart. And while her palate is highly-evolved—her ideal breakfast is Miso butter toast at Chalait in NYC and she snacks on fresh-plucked figs with yogurt while shooting on location in Greece—she also admits to an unwavering obsession with extra-cheesy Chicago deep-dish pizza. Juxtaposition is always necessary!

I found my way to Eyeswoon, and ultimately to myself, through baking. Baking offered me methodical precision when I did not quite have creative confidence in the kitchen yet—it almost became a meditation as I was learning, growing, expanding. Of course, baking led to a deep passion for cooking, culinary creativity and developing a side of myself I didn’t yet know existed—photographing, styling and propping food to create stories on my site.

All three of us ladies have found ourselves in a space where food, and capturing its beauty, has become a large part of our day-to-day existence. While it is always about the food and the taste, it is also much more for us. It is the story attached, the visions, the creativity in displaying—making sure the aesthetic is as appealing as the bites themselves. This is not at all to say it is about perfectionism—we certainly have our quirks. As we baked the swooniest chocolate croissant bread pudding together (a recipe straight from Clair’s cookbook), I found our creative process fascinating. We made due, figured it out, dealt with mishaps—oven temps were off, baking racks were janky, and Clair admitted that even as a baker, she’s too impatient to be overly precise, and skips sifting flour! (Swoon tip: whisk dry ingredients instead to save time J.)

Yes, we all make it up as we go: growing, expanding and overlapping into various disciplines like fashion, food, art, style, photography. We are all many things making up the sum of our parts: a baker who is a visual artist who enjoys food styling as much as baking. An editor who is a baker who thrives on her job being different everyday, and always learning. An interior designer who has suddenly become a cook, a baker, and a blogger. We are all so multi-faceted, yet bound together simply by taste, for taste is paramount.

TASTE what I mean in Clair’s cookbook, The Violet Bakery.

Violet Bakery

  • Clair Ptak

    • What inspired your career in baking and what was the genesis to where you are today?

      The career part it two-fold. I love baking and cooking and I also love film and photography, fashion and art. So because I started baking from the time I could hold a wooden spoon, that part was fairly well ingrained in me. 

      The visual part of what I do is something I have sought out more actively. In the last couple of years it has all come together so well. I’m delighted.  

      Can you tell us about your experience from working with Alice Waters?  What was the most significant take away that you learned from that time?

      Working with Alice and all the cooks at Chez Panisse has truly been a gift. To work and be inspired and challenged is all one could really hope for. Alice is like no one else I have ever worked for in her dedication and focus. She is unwavering in her ethos and can inspire just about anyone to think more deeply about our relationship to food, farming, education and especially taste and flavor. I learned how to taste at chez panisse. Or at least how to articulate it. I have been lucky to have been born with a good and accurate palate and chez gave me more of a vocabulary for it all.  

      Did you bake as a child?  Can you recall any early baking experience?

      Oh yes. 

      Baking red velvet cake with my grandmother in Illinois. I couldn’t believe how many bottles of food coloring went in, but man did it taste good! And I remember the reaction of all of her friends and family to her baking. She was legendary. Everyone waited for Betty’s cakes and cookies to arrive at a picnic or pot luck. They were the best. 

      Baking makes you feel……

       Calm, centered, happy. 

      How would you describe the desserts you create at Violet Bakery?  What is the core value represented?

      Ingredient-based baking that is accessible and delicious. Taste is paramount. Quality of ingredients goes without saying, and a simple everyday aesthetic is what I like. 

      Your favorite dessert to create at Violet?  Most popular? 

      Most popular are the blondies for sure. My favorite has got to be either the cinnamon buns or the almond polenta muffins. 

      What sets Violet Bakery apart?

      I think we just try to do a really good job and take good care of our customers and give back a bit to the community that has really embraced us. It’s like a small town vibe around there. It’s special to have that in a city. 

      Are many of the recipes in the cookbook classics from the bakery or did you develop new ones exclusively for the book?

      Most are classic but I developed about a third just for the book. I love developing new recipes but felt that people wanted to know how to make the classic cakes they associate with violet. 

      What are your 5 baking essentials every baker should have in their kitchen

      • A good large bowl
      • A good whisk
      • A good heat-proof rubber spatula
      • A good micro-plane zester
      • A sharp knife

      What is the recipe testing process like?  Is that the fun?

      Oh it’s fun for sure but you have to take good notes! Otherwise you can really get into trouble. You always think you’ll remember what you did and then you inevitably forget something. So you must be organized!

      Any hilarious baking mishaps to share?

      Erm, in my first job as a baker I remember the owner of the bakery loosing one of her fake nails. When the bear claws came out of the oven, covered in toasted sliced almonds,  one of them had a pink “almond” on top. We all laughed hysterically then made a rule that no nail polish or fake nails were allowed in the kitchen!

      Baking trick for home bakers that is guaranteed to deliver success?

      Whisk dry ingredients rather than sifting them for a great shortcut. Sifting is so tedious. It is necessary for Genoise, angel food and chiffon cakes, but not much else. 

      Do you have a different approach to cooking or baking at home than at work?

      Everything is smaller scale at home. So sometimes you don’t need as much equipment. Whipping a cup of cream with a hand held whisk is best but when whipping a gallon of cream, you need a mixer. 

      Your go-to dessert you create for friends at home?

      Fruit galette

      Oddest ingredient you have ever infused into you baking creations?

      Pineapple sage. I love it. It’s in the book in the jam section. Smells so tropical and fresh. 

      How has living in London influenced your baking style?

      I like raisins now! 

      5 restaurants in London you swoon and frequent often?

      Raw Duck: for the atmosphere and the ferments. We go a few times a month. Plus Shuggie Dog is allowed in. Xxxx

      The River Cafe: for Italian cooking at its best and good chic design. It’s always such a great meal and experience. 

      The Rochelle Canteen: for delicious British fare with some Italian influence (the chef is former River Cafe) and I love the space, set inside an old school. 

      Vietnamese 999: on Mare street in hackney. It’s walking distance from our flat and it is so authentic and delicious. We eat there at least once a week. 

      Leila’s Shop and Cafe: Leila is a green grocer and also has one of my favorite cafes. She supplies us with our perfect prunes for our famous prune and spelt scones and also lots of local produce. The next door cafe makes my favorite coffee and sells the best Portuguese custard tarts.  Her chef makes a vegetable pie that I rank amongst my favorite lunch foods of all time. 

  • Christine Muhlke

    • Can you briefly describe your role and day to day at Bon Appétit?

      As the executive editor, my job is to make sure that the magazine’s content stays true to our mission (luckily that includes nonstop food) while looking for ways to expand the brand and deepen the content across emerging platforms. My day-to-day is never the same, which is why I love magazines so much: It’s never repetitive, and I’m always learning. My one and favorite constant is that I attend a tasting every day to try and talk about recipes that are going into the magazine.

      Last life-changing, swoon-worthy food experience? (at a restaurant, someone’s kitchen, etc)

      In late August, I was on an island in Greece, working on a story. Our breakfasts consisted of thick yogurt with figs that we picked from a tree in front of the house, pomegranates that we found growing out of an abandoned house, hazelnuts that I bought at a magical 5-table restaurant inside a bodega, and wild thistle honey. We all cried—every day.
      You recently interviewed Claire for the release of the Violet Bakery Book.  What fascinating bit of information did you learn?
      She admitted that as a baker, she’s too impatient to be precise. She skips sifting flour and other steps. Very inspiring!
      Go-to meal or dessert you love to create for family + friends at home?
      I make a lot of “mint chimp” ice cream, which is basically Humphry Slocombe’s recipe made with mint from my garden. I also love making Suzanne Goin’s Meyer Lemon and Chocolate Tart so much that all of my friends make it, too.
      Cooking or baking?
      My husband is such an incredible cook. I’m on pastry and front of house. So gendered!
      Kitchen tool you’d be lost without?
      Why do people fight the digital scale? It’s a game-changer—and not just because there are so many fewer things to wash.
      Any tried and true kitchen trick to share?
      The most mundane: At night I bring steel-cut oats to a boil for a few minutes, then turn it off. By morning, I have oatmeal.
      Five ingredients you currently couldn’t live without?
      Lemon zest, farro, Bordier butter, olive oil from La Tête dans les Olives in Paris (we buy it by the jerry can), Jacobsen salt
      A childhood or college day’s snack your mildly embarrassed you still love?
      In high school, I would eat a box of Kraft Macaroni & Cheese every day after school. I recently started making Annie’s for my son; let’s just say I’m glad he doesn’t eat much.
      5 new Restaurants that make you swoon?
      What’s always in your fridge?
      Milk, homemade kombucha, Maple Hill maple yogurt, Bordier butter + pretentious jam, a bottle of Moussamoussettes sparkling wine, homemade harissa from David Tanis’ recipe, Parmesan
      Favorite city for food outside NYC and why?
      Paris, however obvious. Because the classics are still relevant and the new energy is so exciting (especially the natural wine bars). Because the bakery scene is booming. Because the street food – Lebanese flatbreads, crepes, ham-and-cheese sandwiches — is always such a treat. And because wherever you go, the people-watching is half the fun.
      Local neighborhood spot for coffee and breakfast?
      Chalait. Miso butter toast forever.
      You are what you eat…..what are you?
      Don’t tell anyone, but probably Chicago deep-dish pizza: Cheesy, meaty, and too much to finish in one sitting.
      Food trend you partake in?  One you wish would go away?
      I am a matcha freak who also gets excited about any and all Australian breakfast trends.
      Cupcakes have been made illegal, right?
      If you were to choose anyone person or chef to cook together with in their kitchen, who would it be?
      I’ve been lucky to cook with many of my heroes, such as Judith Jones, Eric Ripert, Rene Redzepi, David Kinch, and David Tanis. After interviewing Alain Passard this summer, I would really love to be in a kitchen with him. He’s a poet, an artist, and a dreamer. It would be incredible to watch him put together a dish.

Chocolate Croissant Bread Pudding

Violet Bakery

  • Ingredients

    • Serves 8

      • 4 chocolate croissants
      • 300g (1¼ cups) heavy cream
      • 900g (3¾ cups) whole milk
      • a pinch of salt
      • 1 vanilla pod, seeds scraped out
      • 230g (1 cup plus 2 tablespoons) sugar
      • 7 eggs
      • 2 tablespoons cocoa powder
      • 50g (⅓ cup) dark chocolate (70 percent cocoa solids), broken into bite-size pieces
  • The Prep

      • Preheat the oven to 180°C/355°F (160°C/320°F convection) and butter a deep 20 by 30-cm (8 by 12-inch) baking dish. Find another baking dish that is large enough to hold your baking dish (you will be making a bain-marie later to gently cook the custard).
      • Tear the croissants into pieces and place loosely on a baking sheet. Toast in the oven for 10 minutes, turning the pieces halfway through, until crunchy.
      • Put the cream and milk into a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Add a pinch of salt and the seeds scraped from the vanilla pod along with the pod itself. Place over medium-low heat and just before the mixture starts to simmer, or when it starts to “shiver,” remove from the heat.
      • Meanwhile, in a clean bowl, whisk your sugar and eggs into frothy ribbons.
      • When the milk is ready, pour a third of it into the sugar and egg mixture, whisking constantly.
      • Add the remaining milk and whisk in the cocoa powder. Strain the mixture into a bowl or jug.
      • Save the vanilla pod, rinsing it well under cool water and laying it out to dry before adding it to your homemade Vanilla Extract.
      • Put the toasted bread into your buttered baking dish, then pour the chocolate custard over it, so that the bread is covered in custard (you will have some custard left over), and let it soak for 30 minutes. Save the rest of the custard for later.
      • After 30 minutes, add the remaining custard and scatter the chocolate pieces on top. Place the baking dish inside the larger dish and place in the oven. At this point, use a jug to pour water into your bain-marie so that it comes at least halfway up the side of the dish. Check the custard after 30 minutes. Bake until just set.

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