Violet Cakes and California Stars

In 2009, I fell in love with an Englishman whilst on a vintage car rally in Sicily.  We got married and in 2010 I moved from Los Angeles to London. Enter Claire Ptak into my life.  Perhaps not immediately, but almost.

The change of location was a total shock.  The gray skies, the constant damp, the absence of an ocean or the year round availability of ripe exotic fruit.  I had trouble coping.  Within a few months, I’d lost a stone(14 lbs.) and was told for the first time in my life I had high blood pressure.  Then there was the incident at the grocery store.

Desperate for the flavors of home, I decided to make buttermilk fried chicken one day.  But I couldn’t find buttermilk.  Nor could I find peanut oil (because it’s called groundnut oil in the UK).  I also couldn’t find my favorite hot sauce.  My meal had failed before anyone had even taken a bite.

So I went home and did what any homesick California girl with Southern roots and empty shopping bags would do.  I listened to Wilco, wiped the tears from my eyes, and Googled “American bakery East London.”  And that is exactly when Claire Ptak entered my life.

Equipped with my husband’s James Smith umbrella, I braved the inclement weather and walked up Broadway Market, across London Fields, past the lido, down Greenwood Road, and finally found myself on Wilton Way.  Outside the door of Violet, I stood a soggy pilgrim (English rain blows in all directions.  Don’t be a fool and think a brolly will keep you dry).  Inside, I found my Promised Land.

Desserts were displayed in glass cases like gems at a jeweller’s.  The scent of fresh coffee (Coffee!  The drink of cowboys.), homemade vanilla extract and flower cordials filled the air.  I bought a box of cupcakes-red velvet, candied violet and Valrhona chocolate.  When I got back to the flat, I cut into my cakes.  Each one tasted like home.  Unlike the other American-style baked goods I’d had in London, these were perfect.  They weren’t too sweet.  They weren’t topped with too much frosting.  And most of all, they were moist.  I could tell there was buttermilk in them just like there was in the old country.  That afternoon, I fell in love.

A few weeks later, my husband surprised me with a chocolate birthday cake from Violet.  It came with a little banner that read “Happy Birthday Skwirl!” (Squirrel being my nickname, Skwirl being how I pronounce it as an American).  Then on Saturdays when strolling the market, I started treating myself to a macaroon.  Not a fussy French macaron in some lurid shade, but a good old fashioned coconut macaroon.  When I was pregnant in 2011, Mrs. Ptak’s chewy ginger snaps got me through.  In 2012 when my daughter turned one, we celebrated with a ginger molasses cake.  And whenever I’d meet friends for coffee at Violet, it was the banana buttermilk bread that I’d order.  Then in 2013, my family moved from East London.  I still make my pilgrimage to Violet, but only for very special occasions.  Which is why I am so thankful for The Violet Bakery Cookbook which is available as of today.

It’s a beautiful book full of gorgeous sweets and mouth-watering savories that provides practical instructions like “TASTE.”  Mrs. Ptak reminds us to taste everything we make, especially when using fresh fruit and vegetables.  As the piquancy of what grows in the garden changes from harvest to harvest, we as cooks, must make adjustments to our recipes accordingly.  The book is also full of helpful how-tos like how to make one’s own vanilla extract, candied angelica, citrus peel or jams.  She also tells us how to use smashed apricot kernels to intensify a bitter almond taste.

Mrs. Ptak’s final note is on foraging.  I was completely charmed by this. Not only because I too have been brambling at Hackney Marshes, but because like the many ingredients Mrs. Ptak uses in her recipes, this section felt organic.  Mindful consumerism is more de rigeur than ever, but many writers express their views in a way that feels like a political tirade or middle-class one-upmanship.  Mrs. Ptak writes about foraging in a way that feels so intrinsic to her recipes.  There is nothing contrived about her ingredients or the way she uses them to conjure cake magic.  It just feels like a way of life that has always been hers, a way of life she imported to England from California when she came over(like I did, for love) in 2005.

The Violet Bakery Cookbook is going to be a classic. While the photos in it, much like Mrs. Ptak’s shop, are full of vintage china plates and ditsy rose tablecloths, it avoids that Twee for Two feeling I have come to associate with bakeries and tea rooms across Britain.  The book is beautiful, the recipes seasonal and delicious, and more than anything representative of the flavors that got me through my first few really homesick years.  I look forward to raising my daughter on all of Mrs. Ptak’s recipes (particularly the strawberry, ginger, and poppy seed scones and the cinnamon buns).  I urge you to do the same.

happy birthday skwirlseptember 2010december 2012 ginger molasses cake helena's 1st january 2013 cinnamon buns scones cooling scones strawberry and ginger scones 2015-03-11 16.19.28

 

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4 thoughts on “Violet Cakes and California Stars

  1. Made me cry, reading this. I remember that terrible homesickness and loss of sense of place when I moved back here as a kid after living in Mexico. Homesickness really is the worst feeling. When I moved to London as a young woman, I remember looking up at the high ceiling of my Victorian groundfloor flat and feeling myself shrink to nothing underneath it. I had always lived in bijou cottages where one dipped ones head to cross a threshold-and I am only five foot one! It took ages to get used to the contrast between the lack of space outside and the vastness of those ceilings inside, the total opposite to Suffolk, in fact.

    • Homesickness is horrible. Mine was the worst the first year I was here then again when I had my daughter in 2011. I never anticipated how much I’d miss having my best and oldest friends, not to mention my female relatives, especially my mother, to attend pre-natal appointments with me or go for cakes and coffee afterward. The fact that I started writing Chagrinnamon Toast a year after Helena was born was no coincidence. I was desperate for home and the flavors that reminded me of it. With each recipe and story, my homesickness eased a bit. These days I don’t ache quite the same way and have absolutely come to think of England as home. It’s funny how that happens.

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