November 26, 2015

As we all know, the holiday season is the one time of year where over-indulgence is whole-heartedly accepted. Embraced. Actively encouraged. And what’s more fitting for a cold wintery morning than a batch of warm, delicious cinnamon buns hot out the oven?

Former pastry chef at Alice Walters’ Chez Panisse and author of The Violet Bakery, Claire Ptak moved to London from California 10 years ago to launch one of the city’s most loved bakeries. Having set up a stall at Broadway Market, she quickly found an army of loyal cake-loving followers and opened the doors to the bakery in 2010. We catch up with her about setting up your own business, hero ingredients and recipe disasters. Claire also shares with us the recipe for her mouth-watering cinnamon buns.

UO: Can you tell us a bit about your story? How did you come to start Violet?

I moved to London from California just as Broadway Market reopened. At the time it was quiet and definitely undiscovered, but I was really taken with it and decided that I would start my own business.

Violet started as a small stall where I sold cakes that I baked in my home kitchen, but local trade and word of mouth helped us to grown and five years later, we opened the bakery nearby on Wilton Way.

UO: Walk us through a day in your life.

Fortunately or unfortunately, no two days are the same in this industry. I try to begin my day by walking my whippet, Shuggie-Dog. Next I’ll check in with the bakery and with my assistant to plan the day ahead. This will consist of either a food styling job, recipe writing, consultancy or meetings with my bakers and shop staff at Violet to make menu changes according to the season.

I often eat lunch at Violet, or take it back to the office to eat as I catch up on emails – I never get tired of our quiche and salad. I often use this time to check Instagram and Twitter, and try my best to reply to any comments or questions that have come through.

At the end of the day I’ll either cook at home or check out a new restaurant in London that I’ve been wanted to go to. Finally, I always try to read before bed – although I’m often too exhausted!

UO: What is your hero ingredient?

Any fruit that’s in season – it’s what we base everything around at Violet, and I only like to bake with ingredients when they are at their best.

UO: Where does your passion for cooking come from?

My passion for eating!

UO: If you could only eat one type of cake for the rest of eternity, which one would it be?

Probably Violet’s ginger molasses. I love that cake.

UO: What’s been your worst recipe disaster?

Many years ago I made a rose geranium pound cake which was really not a success. My husband will never let me live it down.

UO: What’s the creative process in putting together new recipes?

I’ll usually start with a craving, and then think about how best to go about satisfying it. Once I have an idea in my head, I gather together the appropriate ingredients and just go for it. You have to be brave, although I’ll always test each recipe two or three times to make tweaks.

UO: What’s the most important thing to know about running your own business, and do you have any advice to pass on?

I think the most important thing is to understand your business, your industry, and what it is that you are trying to achieve. Unfortunately passion alone is not a strong enough foundation for a successful, sustainable business.

I really recommend working in the industry first to learn how it ticks, and to help you understand your customers.

Finally, establish a vision, hold on to it, and always trust your gut. So many businesses lose sight of their core values and that is when things fall apart.

UO: Do you have any foodie bugbears?

I’m sorry, but the word foodie is probably my biggest!

UO: Tell us a little more about your cookbook, The Violet Bakery Cookbook?

The Violet Bakery Cookbook was such an exciting project for me, as it grew out of the business that I’d built and love. It’s full of recipes that we use everyday at Violet, in addition to a few other favourites that I come back to time and time again.

I’d written several books before, but this was extra special as I had such a strong say in the design, layout, feel and tone. I worked with brilliant photographers and designers who were already close friends of mine, and I really think that that shared vision comes through in the end result.

UO: What’s exciting you in the food world right now?

Social media and the internet means that more than ever, the industry is open to hearing from and nurturing new voices. There are a lot of exciting cooks and bakers coming through at the moment, and I love that that grass-roots approach is a viable way in. It’s exciting.

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


75g unsalted butter
250g light brown sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon


560g plain flour, plus more for rolling
2 tablespoons baking powder
2 teaspoons fine sea salt
2 teaspoons ground cardamom
240g cold unsalted butter, cut into small cubes
300g cold milk
caster sugar, for dipping
butter, for greasing the tin

1. Preheat the oven to 200°C (180°C fan)/gas 6.

2. Butter a 12-cup deep muffin tray.

3. First, prepare the filling. Melt the butter and leave in a warm place so that it remains liquid. Mix together the light brown sugar and 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 cold milk while the mixer is running, until the dough forms into a ball and comes away from the bowl. Turn the dough out on to a lightly floured surface and leave to 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.

4. 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.

5. 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.

6. 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.