Baking fever has arrived. The Great British Bake Off is back with another season of thrilling adventures in the kitchen with everything from panettone to pavlovas being mastered in homes from Ballycotton to Brighton. Everyone appreciates a good homemade cake, but how about a great cake? That challenge has been laid down, much to the delight of our friends and families who get plate after plate of our experiments. As you search for inspiration, scouring cook books, Instagram and Pinterest oohing and ahhing at beautiful creations you find yourself wondering with fret and awe: ‘How do they do that?’
What is it that the pro’s do differently to the home cook? I spent two weeks behind the scenes at one of London’s most loved institutions, Violet Bakery, finding out the answer to that eternal question. Violet is the creation of Claire Ptak, where her ethos of simple deliciousness reigns. The influence of the Californian’s origins from the stunning natural coastline of Point Reyes (think sea-spray, verdant hills, little villages) and home to California’s organic food movement is clear. But it was at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse in Berkeley where she learned from one of the most influential figures in food today.
I was lucky enough to meet Alice Waters once and though I could barely put a sentence together in her presence, she squeezed my arm as she moved on and said ‘Be empowered’. What a woman! Ptak’s bakery reflects this well proven ethos of excellent ingredients and simple, balanced dishes. This kind of integrity pays off; thank you notes from customers adorn the walls like silk tapestries, paying testament to the Violet journey over the years from cake stall at Broadway Market to fully fledged bakery.
On my fist day of my two week ‘stage’ Ptak warned me with a smile “we’ll work you hard!” True to any kitchen I’ve worked in, I wouldn’t expect anything less. Doing a stage or short apprenticship is a great way to get a peek inside the workings of a kitchen with an ethos you admire. In fact many well established cooks undertake short stages during off peak times as a form of professional development…Certainly not yet an established cook, I was here to learn and soak up as much as possible from a kitchen that I have long admired and have read the cookbook of cover to cover. For me, this hands on experience is invaluable and having done a few stages over the last year, can certainly say I have taken many lessons and skills along with me.
Add some of these simple tips and tricks I picked up at Violet to your culinary repertoire and youwon’t look back!
Cook with the Seasons
This is of the essence at Violet. All of the beautiful sweet bakes and savoury lunches on the menu are based around what is in season. From wild garlic quiches in spring to lusciously silken buttercreams tinged with the pastel hues of puréed strawberries in summer, everything tastes and looks better at its rightful time.
Great Things can Happen in Small Spaces
While it is tempting to dream of a huge kitchen with every gadget imaginable, it is all completely disproportionate to producing quality food. This is true of Violet where the kitchen (and the entire premises itself) is teeny tiny, taking up no more than a sliver of the entire ground floor. There is a joy in this as it sees you all pull together and use what resources you have within your small station. The equipment itself is equally unassuming: a 1949 Hobart mixer and an enamel gas range which Ptak repurposed from an old hospital, form the backbone of the kitchen reaffirming the idea that much can be done with little.
Have you ever bought some vanilla pods for a particular recipe and found yourself abandoning them for ever more to the depths of your cupboard? Used vanilla pods are still extremely flavoursome and are a shame to waste. Simply pop the scraped pod into a sterilized jar and top with vodka, wait a week or so for the flavour to develop and just like that you have your own vanilla extract. Keep adding vanillas pods and vodka over time to enhance the flavour further. Economical, practical and oddly satisfying!
A Dash Here, a Pinch There
Seasoning can be so much more than a mere dash of table salt. A generous crushing of good quality sea salt and a couple of twists of black pepper can lift a dish out of bland territory, and into memorable feast terrain. I found myself in charge of lunch prep on many of my days in the bakery and to miss the seasoning step in a quiche for example, would seriously undermine the flavours. It lifted my heart in the late mornings to see strips of comte dotted with speckles of pepper as it simply seemed to accentuate its savoury character and make it taste ‘more like comte’. This sentiment rings true across the board in Violet towards seasoning: tweaking until ingredients taste more like themselves.
The Art of Simplicity
The emphasis in Violet is not on complicated techniques and fumbling around with sugar thermometers, but rather on putting this energy into the ingredients themselves. The very best flours are used, the fruit is meticulously sourced and many of the herbs are grown on site. High quality, well chosen ingredients separate a good dish from a sensational one.
Whisk Instead of Sieve
Ah, one trick that has made all my home baking that bit smoother! One of my pet hates is standing over a bowl sieving flour or, even worse, icing sugar. Not only is it one of those thankless tasks but often results in a fit of sneezing as clouds of powder erupt. Problem solved. Simply measure the ingredients into a bowl and run a whisk through them. Unless you have been unfortunate enough to acquire a particularly lumpy batch of icing sugar, this trick should work every time.
Read the Recipe
I used to often make the mistake of launching right into a task with only a quick read through the recipe (sometimes even less). In the professional kitchen, I have found it often said to me to simply read the recipe over a few times before so much as reaching for a bowl. As a novice, I have found myself feeling overwhelmed by the new surroundings, remembering where everything is and often just incredibly nervous- all perfect conditions for mistakes (plain flour instead of self-raising anybody?) Taking a breath and simply going through the steps can make all the difference.
Mise en place
I saw this repeated again and again in some of the handwritten notes in the kitchen recipe book. The French term translates to having everything in its place in the kitchen, measured and ready to go. It is the crucial second step after reading through the recipe in full. Since adapting this mindset at home for even the most simple of recipes, it ensures faster work and crucially, less mess at the end!
How else are you going to know if a recipe is going well or not?! Tasting as you go means you can sense what needs to be added to create the perfect balance of flavours. I have learned over time to trust my own judgement here rather than always relying on what a recipe tells me. This sentiment is paramount at Violet, where taste is always king.
Sarah is among many Irish people living in London, where she delights in exploring its exciting food scene. She is passionate about food markets, spending her weekends trawling around Borough market grazing, chatting and stocking up on all things edible.
She dedicates a blog to her adventures in the markets, from her local farmers market to those she happens upon on her travels. Writing for TheTaste allows her to share tales from the food front line with fellow eager eaters.