Ten Questions with Claire Ptak + Cinnamon Buns
If there’s one thing that my friend Claire Ptak understands, it’s that a really good slice of cake is a thing of beauty. Her bakery is one of my favourite places, a sanctuary of cake – little rows of the flakiest hundred layer pastries, buckwheat and fruit studded scones in generous triangles, muted pastel coloured cup cakes cakes, blondies, brownies, and my favourite of all her ginger molasses cake. Claire pays attention to layering flavour and texture like no other baker I have ever known.
What sets Claire and Violet apart are the ingredients they use, the bakery is always filled with crates of the soils of the season, be it bergamots, blood oranges or the first sweet French strawberries, she is a cook and baker who has great respect for ingredients and doing things the right way, even if it’s much more complicated.
I can testify that a slice of her ginger molasses cake will make any bad day better, and I find any excuse to have a meeting upstairs in her butter-scented bakery. The good news for those of you who can’t get to her place in London is that her book The Violet Bakery, is full of fail-safe recipes to follow for the same results at home. It’s nothing short of my baking bible and her buttermilk banana bread gets cooked on repeat in our house. She also has a regular column alongside mine in Guardian Cook, of which I am an avid follower and fan, her recent chocolate honey cake is next on my baking list.
What did you have for breakfast this morning?
What was your very first job in food?
At a bakery when I was 15. Actually no. As a catering assistant when I was 12. I lied and said I was a teenager to get the job. When I showed up she took one look at me and said, how old are you? I said, “I’m 12 but I can do a lot and I work hard.”
What’s been your worst kitchen disaster to date?
Making 500 cupcakes with icing that tasted of washing powder. We had to start over. We had bought the icing sugar from a cash and carry in the first year of the market stall. It turned out it was stored in the same aisle as the laundry detergent. It absorbed the flavour. I learned to always taste everything EARLIER.
Do you listen to anything while you’re baking?
Radio 4 or audio books. Or jazz. Anything else disrupts my concentration.
Where do you find inspiration for new cakes?
All around me. But mostly when I see art. Visiting a gallery always inspires me.
Where is your favourite place? (A shop, a beach, a village, a café …)
Inverness, CA. Swimming in the bay and walking on the trails.
What’s your most used cookbook/ food reference book?
I go through phases. At the moment I’m re-reading Judy Rodger’s Zuni cafe Cookbook. It’s so full of information.
What sets an amazing cake or dish apart from a good one?
When the cook understands exactly where they are in the world at that particular time of year and makes the most of that moment.
Who would you most like to cook for?
Hilary Clinton. And all the hard-working, over-qualified women who don’t get the job.
What do you want people to take away from your books/ what would you like them to feel when using them?
A sense of freedom in the kitchen. To not be afraid of baking or feeling that they need to impress or show off. I want them to learn how to be a better cook and mostly to enjoy the process.
VIOLET’S CINNAMON BUNS
Of course a soft yeasty bun can be a wonderful thing, but at Violet we have never had enough space to work with yeasted bread doughs. They take up more room and need larger machines. I came up with these yeast-free buns in my home kitchen by looking back through the cookbooks of the 1950s when everything was about how to make things more quickly. Quick breads, as breads leavened with baking powder or baking soda are called, were an alternative to time-consuming yeast or sourdough breads. Truly, they are something altogether different. They both have their place on the table. This recipe can also be made ahead and then frozen in the muffin tray until ready to bake.
MAKES 12 BUNS
FOR THE FILLING
250g light brown sugar
1 tbsp ground cinnamon
75g unsalted butter, melted
FOR THE BUNS
560g plain flour, plus more for rolling
2tbsp baking powder
2 tsp fine sea salt
2 tsp ground cardamom
240g cold, unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
300g cold milk
caster sugar, for dipping
butter, for greasing the tin
Preheat the oven to 200C (180C fan, gas 6)
Butter a 12 cup deep muffin tray.
First, prepare the filling. Melt the butter and leave it in a warm place so that it remains liquid. Mix together the light brown sugar an cinnamon until no lumps remain, then set aside.
Now make the 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 the cold milk with the mixer running, until the dough forms into a ball and comes away from the sides of the mixer. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and leave to a 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.
Clear a large surface, dust lightly with more flour and roll out the dough into a large rectangle until about 5mm thick. Brush the surface of the dough with the melted butter and before the butter hardens, sprinkle the cinnamon sugar on to 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 tug the dough towards you to get a taut roll whilst rolling away from you into a spiral. Once it’s all rolled up, 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 on to a wire cooling rack, so that they don’t stick to the tray. Dip each cinnamon bun into a bowl of caster sugar and serve straight away.
Recipe and images from The Violet Bakery Cookbook, published by Square Peg, copyright © Claire Ptak, photographer © Kristin Perers
Author image: Issy Croker