Claire Ptak worked at Chez Panisse before starting her bakery, Violet Cakes, in East London.
When baker Claire Ptak auditioned to make the cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding, she was invited to Kensington Palace for a royal taste test. Upon arrival, she was confronted with an unexpected long walk over cobblestones while wearing stilettos and carrying six fully decorated cakes.
For many, this would have ended in disaster, but Ptak accepted the challenge and was hired on the spot. This reveals a lot about Ptak. She is a perfectionist (she probably was the only baker who showed up with six full cakes, not just slices), she is adventurous, and she is mostly carefree, her enthusiasm for confections trumping almost everything except the love for her daughter, Frances, who, oddly enough, is not crazy about cake.
Ptak appears to be a throw-together cook, but that offhand charm belies her attention to detail and years of expertise, some of which was garnered as pastry chef at Alice Waters’ Chez Panisse and as a food stylist for Yotam Ottolenghi, Nigella Lawson and Jamie Oliver.
The other major influence is her free-for-all childhood north of San Francisco, where her actor parents hung with a decidedly creative crowd. This may account for the 100-watt smile and intimate, laid-back delivery, but her culinary foundation is on solid ground.
I visited Ptak at her East London bakery, Violet Cakes, which had been transformed during the COVID pandemic into a jam-packed working kitchen, a far cry from the former retail bakery decorated with cupcakes, cookies, loaves and cakes—a place that would have delighted Roald Dahl. The tiny walk-in area is now overshadowed by Hobart mixers, stainless worktables and a wall of revolving convection ovens.
The day’s task was making three different loaf cakes using Ptak’s signature approach—simplicity meets innovation. She baked three desserts: a fresh fig upside-down cake with a caramel sauce, a teacake with caraway seeds and, finally, the simplest of all, a chocolate loaf cake.
Chocolate cakes always are dicey—they easily turn dry, they can be bitter and too chocolatey, or they are too light on chocolate flavor. Ptak’s recipe was spot-on, thanks to a combination of cocoa powder and dark chocolate. We adjusted only the oven temperature and baking time (likely due to differences in pan dimensions).
Butter and chocolate are melted gently and cooled. Three eggs are stirred in, followed by the dry ingredients (sugar, all-purpose flour, cocoa powder, baking powder and salt) and then a cup of boiling water. The mixture is then poured into a loaf pan lined with parchment to make removal easy and baked at 350°F for about an hour.
On the first bite, one tastes a plush, velvety crumb that is smack in the middle between gooey and dry, with deep chocolate flavor. It begs for a partner—crème fraîche is ideal since it adds tang, but whipped cream or ice cream will do nicely.
So the next time you crave a simple chocolate cake, this loaf cake fits the bill. I would bet it’s even good enough for the royals.
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