The Book: The Violet Bakery Cookbook, $40
Chef Claire Ptak was recently chosen to create the royal wedding cake for Meghan Markle and Prince Harry’s May nuptials, and since I may not get a bite of said cake (wedding crashing plans still being tweaked), I decided to revisit Ptak’s charming 2015 cookbook to get a taste of what makes her popular bakery, Violet, so special.
The book itself is not only a testament to the joys of baking, but also to following your heart. In 2003, California native Ptak turned down a job offer at the iconic Chez Panisse to move to England with her boyfriend (now husband). She started fresh, running a small stall at the Broadway Market in Hackney that evolved into her now-famous bakery.
There’s a storybook quality to her writing. In the cookbook’s introduction, Ptak describes the pleasures of walking her dogs while eating warm cinnamon buns in the wild fields where she forages (wow, we’re so not similar!). But I ate it all up, eager to create spectacular baked goods that I’d enjoy on the couch while dissecting the latest royal rumours.
Ptak uses the British expression “more-ish” to describe some of her favourite recipes (those which make you want more) and that’s how I felt as I flipped through the book. Similar to my first foray into the Smitten Kitchen cookbook, I was bookmarking pages like the mad dessert lover I am. The book is divided into sections: Morning (muffins, buns), Midday (quiche, tarts), Afternoon (cookies, loaf cakes), Evening (ice creams and desserts) and Party Party (cakes and icing). Some of the recipes are more ambitious than you may normally whip up on a weekend, but they still seem doable in an average home kitchen (unlike the more aspirational recipes in Ottolenghi’s Sweet). I imagined myself charmingly dusted in flour, delivering baked goods from the oven straight into the hands of family and friends, who might even suggest I open my own shop! Blush.
After recovering from the the initial rush, I picked recipes that seemed manageable in terms of time and ingredients. As can be common with baking, there is resting (or freezer) time to take into account, so read the whole recipe before tackling it. Here’s what I tried (click on the links below for the recipes).
Do The Violet Bakery Recipes Actually Work?How To Make a Perfect Cake and Fix Your Baking Mistakes
I loved that this cookbook includes measurements by cups and by weight; for for the best results I always use my scale when baking. It’s worth reading the Mise En Place chapter in the book (page 30), as Ptak takes you through some prep basics, including explaining how much to aerate butter and sugar when creaming them together (more for a cake, less for cookies). It’s a quick read, and will stop you from wondering what exactly she means by whipping something till less fluffy than a layer cake in the middle of a recipe.
My first test run was Ptak’s Lemon Drizzle Loaf, because any dessert that includes a pound a butter is my perfect starting point. Ultimately, I ended up with a dense, lemony fresh classic loaf that was devoured by everyone I served it to. I had to muddle through some of the instructions, becoming a bit confused as to when to infuse the loaf with lemon drizzle (before removing from pan and while still warm? That’s what I did) and when to add the final icing flourish (when cooled? That’s what I assumed). All’s well that ends well, but I did encounter this type of vagueness in a few recipes.
Next I tackled chocolate chip cookies. As with banana bread, I feel like I’m always searching for the Holy Grail of this classic recipe and The Violet Bakery Cookbook‘s Egg Yolk Chocolate Chip Cookies sounded like it could be “the one.” Ptak describes the cookies as “somewhere between crisp and gooey, made with plenty of dark chocolate and with just enough salt to to bring out the flavour.” They’re made with three egg yolks creating a richer cookie with a decadent texture (save the egg whites for the macaroons, which are quick to make and wonderfully chewy). For starters, I’ll tell you that this was one of the most delicious raw cookies doughs I’ve ever eaten waaaaay too much of.
The method was simple, and aside from some wait time (you portion the dough and put it in the freezer for an hour), they came together quickly. The chilling keeps the cookie from becoming too flat from heat when baking. I ended up with 22 medium cookies (vs Ptak’s 16 large), and since they were smaller, I baked them for less than the 18 minutes the recipe required. Results? These are my new forever cookies! Crisp around the edges, chewy in the middle and, yep, the perfect combo of chocolate and salt — all test subjects were in agreement to their extreme more-ish qualities. (I must confess I subbed in half white chocolate chips, and I think it made them even better.)
Once I mastered the ultimate chocolate chip cookie, I moved onto attempting what I hoped would be the prettiest cupcakes I could pipe. The Violet Icing recipe is a basic buttercream (if you haven’t yet made buttercream icing yourself, you’ll be shocked at how easy and delicious it is). Ptak’s recipe incorporates violet syrup, but I swapped in elderflower syrup (the flavour of the royal cake). Everything came together as promised but I couldn’t taste the elderflower in the recipe (and probably should have stuck with violet). Whatever syrup you use, make sure you add all the icing sugar required (the amount will seem slightly insane) or you’ll end up with drippy frosting when trying to spread it.
Finally, I couldn’t quit the book until I made the mouth-watering Ham, Cheese and Leek Scones, which had been calling to me. Fair warning, these do require a bit of prep and wait time. You need to grate the Parmesan Reggiano, wash and sauté the leeks and then cool 20 minutes before continuing, and the finished scones need to chill in the fridge for an hour before baking. You can prep the ingredients in advance and then assemble later or (best plan) you can also fully make these, freeze and bake a few at a time. Again, some confusion in the instructions on how to portion these — basically create a loaf shape with the final dough, then slice as you would bread, then cut that slice in half to make a triangle. (See above image.)
There’s going to be fresh novelty around this book as it’s now inextricably tied to the royal nuptials, but like the vibe of the young royal couple (themselves very more-ish), the recipes deliver unfussy and sensational all-in-one.
Keep in mind, this is still a true baking book (not many five-ingredient recipes here) and so the recipes require time, patience and, yes, a passion for baking helps. As someone who loves to bake (even more than I love to cook), it was a joy to ramp up my recipe output beyond the usual weekly banana bread or pancakes.
An added bonus is that Ptak is interested in using alternatives to refined sugars and is sensitive to her customer’s food intolerances so though some recipes may require a trip to stock up on items like whole grain rye or spelt flour, this book allows you to choose menu items to accommodate all your guests.
If you’re just getting into baking, you may become a little frustrated with certain assumptions of technique (have patience, baking newbies). At least in this case, any mistakes will still probably be utterly delicious.
Ease Of Use
Effort: Medium Skill Level: Medium
Who To Buy It For
- Royal watchers: It’s something for Meghan Markle to sign when you run into her on Toronto’s Bloor Street
- Friends who love to bake: They will delight in the charm of this book, plus the results are worth the effort
- Friends who aspire to bake: This book is worth flipping through (while wearing a knit cardi and UGG slippers) and imagining you’re going to bake up some scones
Where It Will Live
You’ll pull out your favourite recipes (like the chocolate chip cookies, macaroons and lemon loaf) to add to the repertoire and then pop it on the cookbook shelf for the next tea party or Prince George’s wedding.