Claire Ptak Is in Love (with a Pink Cake) | Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street

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Episode 711
May 12, 2023

Claire Ptak Is in Love (with a Pink Cake)

Claire Ptak Is in Love (with a Pink Cake)

We’re joined by baker Claire Ptak, whose desserts are a winning combination of California flavor and London style—and even royalty agrees. She shares her favorite recipes and reveals the behind-the-scenes details of being chosen to bake the cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle’s wedding. Plus, Rowan Jacobsen crash-lands into the Amazon for an up-close look at wild cacao harvesting; Adam Gopnik revisits his mother’s sourdough bread; Cheryl Day answers your toughest baking questions; and we make a Hot Milk Sponge Cake just in time for spring.

Questions in this episode:

"I’m attempting to bake my grandmother’s blackberry jam cake, but it keeps coming out dry. Can you help me?"

"I’m trying to venture into French baking. Do you have suggestions for baking cannelés de Bordeaux?"


Christopher Kimball: This is Milk Street radio from PRX. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. When Claire Ptak baked the cake for Prince Harry and Megan Merkel's wedding. There was no room for error.

Claire Ptak: Well, I think when something like that, you know, is obviously so high profile and there's so many eyes on it. I wanted to make sure we had a backup plan for the backup plan.

CK: How Claire Ptak baked cake for 1000 wedding guests plus, she gives tips on making desserts with California style and London sensibility that's coming up later in the show. But first, we're traveling to the Amazon joining me now is Rowan Jacobson, host of the podcast series, obsessions wild chocolate. Rowan, welcome to Milk Street.

Rowan Jacobson: Thanks, Chris. Great to be here.

CK: Just when I thought I knew something about chocolate and cacao, you show up. I realized I don't know very much. So, let's start with the current state of big chocolate. I think you said, and it was hard to believe that Hershey's doesn't actually make chocolate per se anymore. Is that right?

RJ: Yeah, there's sort of a handful of actual chocolate companies that make the bulk of the world's chocolate. And you know, chocolate can just be melted down and reformed. And so most chocolate companies just buy ready-made chocolate and then mold it into their own needs.

CK: So, at the other end of this process are the small growers, the small producers, you talk a lot about something called wild chocolate. What is wild chocolate,

RJ: It is literally wild cacao. So, for centuries, cacao has been grown on plantations and farms like any other, you know, big agricultural crop, but it originated in the rainforest as this little tree that grows in the understory and the Maya, even earlier ancestors of the Maya learn to make chocolate out of these beans from the wild trees. And then, you know, chocolate became a big industry that was all farmed, and everyone forgot there was such a thing as the wild ancestors. And then they've sort of been rediscovered and re-embraced over the past 10 to 20 years. So, we're starting to see really, really interesting, really high flavor varieties of cacao becoming available on the market.

CK: So, you actually went down to Bolivia, and the Amazon saw wild cacao harvesting for yourself. Yeah, so just take me through the process, you harvest a cacao pod, you take out the seeds, you ferment it, how does that work?

RJ: Yeah, so a typical pod it looks it's like a nerf football in both like shape, size, and color, almost like a delicata squash, you could say. And then just like a delicata, you open it up, and it's got almond size seeds inside, surrounded by this pulp of this sticky sweet pulp. Of course, it's the seeds that we want. But to get the flavors of chocolate, you have to ferment those seeds. And so, the pulp is key for that fermentation process. So, you basically you open up all the pods, pile up all the pulp with the seeds in it, that immediately start to ferment because you know, it's 95 degrees, high humidity, so the fermentation is just natural and spontaneous. And that's all key to transforming the flavor precursors in the beans. And one of the amazing things about chocolate is almost all of the fermentation is still handled by small farmers in the developing world. So, 70% of the world's chocolate comes from West Africa, from Ivory Coast, and Ghana, all the chocolate in typical, you know, industrial scale level product is coming from those two countries. And those farmers tend to be incredibly poor. And for years, there's been a push to get the chocolate industry, the big guys to straighten out the situation, both to improve the quality of the chocolate and to improve the quality of the labor conditions. But they haven't made much progress yet. The part of the why the the craft chocolate industry is so different is that they're not participating in that system at all. They are trying to work directly with farmers. So, it's a completely different model where you actually can start to you have this two-way connection with the farmers where you can say, hey, how about this kind of fermentation? And the farmers would be like, sure, I'll you know, I'll need this much money to do it that way. So that's what you're seeing now is these direct relationships and completely different chocolate evolving because of that.

CK: You mentioned the Mast brothers who were chocolate tears. And I sort of remember this, but I think at one point they were making some of their chocolate but not all of it. Eventually they were making all of it. But that story got out that they weren't producing everything themselves. And I think that's what destroyed the company, right?

RJ: Yeah, these guys were two brothers, who were kind of like the first big break out of this new craft chocolate industry that was forming in the early 2000s. And they were in Brooklyn, and they had the look, they both had these crazy beards. And they talked a lot about authenticity and sourcing. And then it turned out that in the early days of the company, they were actually not sourcing their own chocolate. They were buying Valrhona and remelting it sounds like I mean, at least you know Valrhona good chocolate so it's not like they're eating bad chocolate. But but that was it once it turned out that the poster children of authenticity were buying Valrhona that, that that was it for them.

CK: So where do we stand today with these small producers, sourcing wild chocolates. Are there other strains and varieties that are also being sourced now that are high quality?

RJ: There are quite a few. And there's a whole organization called the Heirloom Cacao Preservation Fund, which is a joint venture between the fine chocolate industry and the USDA to try to preserve these heirloom varieties. So yeah, there's there's dozens of varieties, mostly in the Americas and there are more craft chocolate makers working with them than than ever before. So, we really are in kind of this, like, golden era of chocolate right now.

CK: Are people still finding new undiscovered cacao trees in areas or is that discovery process pretty much over at this point?

RJ: No, I It seems to just be starting really, the woman I was working with Brazil, Louisa Abram keeps getting contacted by new people living in remote areas saying like, you know, we have some cacao here, and we could use some income. So, would you be interested in coming and checking it out? And a group in Peru reached out to me, it's a collection of eight indigenous communities in a very remote part of Peru. And they have wild cacao. And they're at the very early stages of trying to turn it into a product.

CK: Well, the two hopeful things are they're still our remote areas, which if you read the news, you kind of think, you know, nine tenths of the Amazon rainforest has been turned into ranches. So that's good. And two maybe it's a way for keeping those areas the way they are because they will be income producing.

RJ: And that's the beauty of cacao which is kind of unique in that it's a shade loving tree, it it thrives in the understory. So, it's very rare it like I can't think of many other food products that you can grow beneath a forest right. So, it really does have a unique role to play in preserving rainforest.

CK: So, let's assume you had everyday Hershey bar, whatever and then you had one of these much, much better bars. Just take us through the comparison.

RJ: Well, I'll start by saying like I actually went back and just bought myself a regular Hershey's Bar, because I wanted to make sure I wasn't just like, believing my own smoke and mirrors. And it was, I don't know if you've had one lately, but it was shockingly bad. I didn't expect it to be as bad as it was. It didn't even taste like chocolate. It had like a, like a burning electrical smell to it.

CK: It has a sort of not plastic (yeah) but it has a texture in the mouth that reminds you of something that maybe was petroleum based at some time. Maybe that's a little harsh, but it had has that odd off. texture and flavor, right?

RJ: Yeah, I totally agree. And then I tasted like an 85% Lindt, which is supposedly, you know, a higher end supermarket bar. And it was just very stringent. But so, then you go to you taste one of these craft bars and the flavor really keeps evolving in your mouth, you'll often get spicy notes, and floral. A few of the cacaos like the Ecuador one, and one of the ones from Brazil really has a floral quality, almost like, like Jasmine. But then what I really noticed is the depth, like there's just a richness that sort of keeps going in your mouth and keeps lingering for a long time.

CK: So, 5 -10 years from now, do you see the chocolate business changing, or you think the big guys will still be doing what they do because it's all about price.

RJ: I think because of the labor issues, they're just not going to be able to keep doing what they're doing. And even see the countries in Africa. Right now, they're trying to add an extra $400 a ton charge to their beans, purely to make it sustainable. And there was a lot of resistance from the big guys, but now they're pretty much signing on to that. But what's going to happen is I think you're going to see more and more people shifting towards these other sources of chocolate, which is going to just speed up the change in the rest of the industry. I hope at least.

CK: Rowan thank you so much. Wild chocolate specialty chocolates heirloom chocolates. Something to investigate. Thank you.

RJ: Thanks, Chris. Great to be here.

CK: That was Rowan Jacobson. He hosts the limited podcast series, Obsessions Wild Chocolate. Now it's time to answer some of your baking questions with Cheryl Day. Cheryl is the owner of Back in the Day Bakery in Savannah, Georgia. She's also author of Cheryl Day’s Treasury of Southern Baking. So, springs here, asparagus is really the harbinger of spring, I think. People have done 1000s of things with asparagus. They've made pesto out of it, they grill it. They boil it, the stir fry it. Do you have any ideas for asparagus this year?

Cheryl Day: Those all sound great to me. But being the baker, I'm going to do asparagus in a quiche.

CK: Good idea

CD: or in a little hand pie with maybe some sort of cheesy deliciousness on the bottom. I love asparagus, and you don't have to do a lot to it.

CK: I'm obsessed with hand pies. (You are?) It's a southern thing. It's not a northern thing. Are they still really popular I love just them. I love them yeah.

CD: Yes, I do sweet and savory hand pies. And it's just the perfect amount of pie you know, in your hands. And that's why they're to all different kinds. But I think asparagus would be a delicious hand pie.

CK: Oh, man.

CD: I want a hand pie.

CK: Sometimes a great notion. All right, Cheryl, time for call.

CD: Yeah, let's do it.

CK: Welcome to milk street who's calling?

Caller: This is Florence in Burlington, Vermont. Hi, Florence.

CD: Hi, Florence.

CK How can we help you?

Caller: I have a recipe that was in the Wurlitzer Centennial cookbook when my dad worked for Wurlitzer. But apparently, they solicited recipes from family members, because my grandmother submitted her grandmother's blackberry jam cake. I made it a long time ago. It's kind of a dense cake, but very nice. The recipe calls for it emphasizes thick, sour cream and thick blackberry jam. Well, of course, we don't have as much control over that because we're getting most of it from the store. But I did have some blackberry jam from a farmers’ market, and I made it and it came out okay, but it was dry.

CK: Just run down the key ingredients really quickly for me.

Caller: Blackberry jam, sour cream, flour, spices,

CD: sugar, probably in butter.

Caller: Yeah, sure. Nothing exotic at all.

CK: How much sour cream and did it have buttermilk or some other liquid in it?

Caller: It did not have any other liquid in it.

CD: Is it a layer cake or a Bundt cake

Caller: It’s a layer cake.

CK: So, the liquid is really in a way coming from the blackberry jam. Because (right) and how much sour cream?

Caller: Three tablespoons thick sour cream.

CD: Not very much at all. How much butter?

Caller: Butter is three quarter’s cup, three eggs. Baking soda.

CD: It needs more liquid

CK; Yeah, you need more liquid in it, I think.

Caller: Yeah, I think so too.

CK: Now there's one other trick you know, chiffon cakes were made famous back in the I think the 1920s, but they used vegetable oil instead of butter. That makes a moister cake. You could substitute some of the butter with vegetable oil. I think you just don't have enough liquid in this. The blackberry jam in a way is kind of acting like a liquid but it calls for thick jam so

Caller: Well, this would predate the 1920s

CD: Okay, how many eggs Florence? Four?

Caller: Three.

CD: Maybe the eggs were bigger. So, you're asking how you can make it less dry? I would say more liquid I would add a cup of butter an extra egg maybe and then some more sour cream Don't you think Chris?

CK: Yeah, absolutely.

CD: I mean how bad can that be? And then what size cake pans?

Caller: Is eight inch the standard?

CK: Yeah, eight or nine

CD: but it would be important to know because if you're using a nine inch and she calls for an eight inch

Caller: I'll check the pan size but I'm quite sure they're eight

CD: Okay,

Caller: This sounds like a great idea and I this time I know in my family it was made with boiled icing, but I used caramel icing, and it was great with that.

CD: That sounds delicious.

CK: Yeah, I think add more fat add more sour cream and give that a try.

Caller: Okay. That sounds great.

CD: Let us know how that works out for you.

Caller: I definitely will. Thanks so much.

CK: Thanks, Lauren. Bye.

CD: Thank you Lauren. Bye.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio. Cheryl and I are here to answer your baking questions. Give us a ring anytime that number is 855-426-9843 that's 855-426-9843 or email us at questions at Milk Street

CD: Welcome to Milk Street who’s calling?

Caller: This is Sandra, and I'm calling from Montreal, Canada.

CD: Hi, Sandra, how can we help you today?

Caller: I have been baking for over 15 years. And lately I really wanted to experiment with French pastries. And I stumbled upon canelés de Bordeaux, which are these really interesting little cakes. Yes, I really have a hard time making them perfect.

CD: Chris, have you ever had a canelé?

CK: You know I have, but I've never they’re certain things in baking I find beyond my reach. Homemade puffed pastry. I've done like three times one of them worked. But this will be even beyond that. This is really hard.

CD: You've picked something that is very tricky. Even for professional bakers. It's got a crunchy exterior. It's very rich. It's made with cream and eggs, rum, vanilla. Very simple. Almost so simple. That it's just you know, how could this be so difficult, but it has an incredible. Flan custardy like texture. Wouldn't you agree, Sandra?

Caller: Absolutely.

CD: To make canelés properly, it's a lesson in the secret ingredients, which is patience, and experience. The batter is similar to like a popover or a crepe, but it has like this very effervescent holds inside, they can't be too big, you can't over mix it. There’re all sorts of things that can go wrong when you make them.

CK: And it's baked in what kind of pan?

CD: A copper mold is what most people say there are silicone molds but everyone that I've ever talked to has said the copper mold, which has to be treated a certain way you have to prepare it. There's all these kinds of things that you have to do to season it. So, I guess Sandra, what were some of the issues that you had, because just the fact that you're making these I'm impressed.

Caller: Thank you. So, I did buy the copper molds.

CD: How did you season them?

Caller: With beeswax

CD: Beeswax, right

Caller: I know that some people do a mix of 5050 of beeswax and butter.

CD: Correct

CK: Okay, you guys are way beyond me. What are you doing with beeswax is because it sticks so much.

CD: They will stick if you don't see some of these molds properly and you have to do it quite frequently. How many times have you seasoned?

Caller: I think I seasoned them maybe twice. Okay, now before my first bake,

CD: Okay, five or six minimum, (okay) And then potentially, if it's not something that you do all the time, you will need to do this again and again. And then I have some other tricks for you. But I'm just curious to know how yours turned out.

Caller: The taste was really good. I actually used Grand Marnier instead of rum. (Oh) and really loved the taste. They do stick. And the inside to me seems still a bit raw.

CD: Did you have any issues with the shape?

Caller: they do puff up. But then I noticed that when I take them out, they do fall a little flat. They don't hold their shape. In the recipe, it says that you have to chill the batter overnight, I think it's 12 hours minimum or something like that.

CD: Correct. You definitely need to rest the batter overnight, at least 12 to 24 hours. Another trick that I was told is after you've seasoned the molds, if you put those in the freezer, that helps keep the shape, (oh okay) but then they have to bake in a hot oven on a sheet pan, which you need to rotate about halfway through when they're starting to puff up. And if they start to kind of crawl out of the pan, you'll want to pull them out just for a few seconds so that it can kind of lower into the molds and then rotate them but before you even get there. Another trick is that when you make the batter you want to make sure that you're not getting too many air bubbles in the batter. It's a very slow mix.

CK: There's a reason they're professional bakers who do this every day.

CD: There definitely is. I mean that hats off to you Sandra.

CK: Yeah, good for you.

CD: I mean it is definitely it's a journey. Take notes. Another thing is as far as them not cooking all the way in the middle, you're going to definitely want to make sure that your oven is calibrated to the right temperature. If you have an oven thermometer, you can check that, and they just need to cook until they're almost burnt. Not burned, but super, super dark.

CK: I think you should start a YouTube channel. Every day you bake a new batch. And after about a year, you'll still be learning something about how to do this right?

CD: Listen, seriously. I talked to several friends’ professional bakers who make these every day and they said it's a whole thing. It's like a process. So

CK: You obviously have more confidence than I do. So good for you.

CD: I hope that helps. And just so you know, Sandra that rest overnight, that is what builds up just enough gluten so that they're kind of rise straight up. So that is a very important step. You cannot skimp on any of these steps when you're making canelés. Wow.

Caller: I'm excited.

CD: Yeah, I'm excited. Please keep us informed.

CK: Sandra. Thanks so much.

Caller: Thank you.

CD: Thank you.

CK: Take care.

Caller: Bye bye.

CD: Bye bye

CK: I haven't thought about those 10 years. And I'm not going to think about it for another 10 years either.

CD: Yeah.

CK: This is Milk Street Radio coming up its cakes for all occasions. I sit down with Baker Claire Ptak right after the break. This is Milk Street Radio. I'm your host Christopher Kimball. Right now, it's my conversation with Baker Claire Ptak. She's the owner of Violet bakery in London. Her latest book is Love is a Pink Cake. Claire, welcome back to Milk Street.

Claire Ptak: Thank you. It's great to be here.

CK: Let me just start by saying you've had an amazing few years. You know, I got to visit Violet Cakes in East London recently. And it's just lovely. You also have a new cookbook out. And of course, you were asked a few years ago to make the royal wedding cake for Harry and Megan. So first of all, how did you get that gig? What was that? Like?

CP: Yeah, I think they were really into the whole idea of organic and seasonal ingredients. So, I think that was one of the reasons why they really wanted to go with our cakes. I think they probably asked many baker's to come down to Kensington Palace and we will I was like I can't just go with like a slice of cake for them to taste I have to bring whole cakes but then I can't bring one flavor I have to bring six so I brought six whole cakes to Kensington Palace for Megan and Harry to try it was it was a lot to carry. But it was I think it was the right obviously it was the right decision.

CK: You also explained to me from an insider's perspective how this works. And you had two huge receptions to do so take me into the kitchen. Like how many cakes were made. How does this whole thing work?

CP: Yeah, well, I think when something like that, you know is obviously so high profile and there's so many eyes on it that I wanted to make sure we had a backup plan for the backup plan. The wedding cake was actually four cakes on three separate beautiful gilt stands from the Royal Collection. And that was those were they were it was a huge sort of like setup with just the one and but then we made two of those in case anything happened to those So that's eight cakes there and then we had to make cake that would be cut and served as a bite for, they said between 607 and 700 guests for the reception. And so, I was like, well, we better make enough for 1000 Because you know, and those had to be served sort of instantly. So, we had to have them all sliced and ready to go is bite sized pieces which were passed around on trays. And yeah, and then we did two of those as well.

CK: So, what was the cake? What was the flavor of the cake?

CP: I made a lemon and elderflower cake. The cake itself was soaked in an elderflower syrup. This is like a, I think it's become now really popular in America too. But in England, it's something that is very traditional. It's this sort of cordial take a syrup made from these flowers from the elder tree. And the Sandringham estate has like a huge collection of elder trees. And so, they every year make this beautiful, delicious cordial, which they gave us to use for the cake.

CK: You grew up, I didn't know as you grew up, north of San Francisco, your parents founded a small theatre company, your mother made costumes, your dad wrote scripts and directed plays. As you write, they thrived in this wild, free loving community. That's explains a lot about you. I've never understood. I mean, and your book, you actually go back to California a lot, a lot of the photography's there. So, this is really in your bones, right?

CP: Yeah, absolutely. I think there's definitely a time in my life where I wasn't so like, understanding of that kind of upbringing. And then there was times where, you know, I remember my childhood was amazing. And now again, I've kind of come full circle and really appreciate my parents and the community that I grew up in. Yeah, for being so free and, and open and supportive.

CK: You were the one who introduced me years ago to this idea of, you know, plain white flowers, okay. But other flowers actually have flavor and rye flour in particular, I know you use a lot is a good partner with with sweet because it's slightly bitter. So, you do your chocolate chip cookies the same way we do, which is using some rye flour, and brown butter. I think they're the best chocolate chip cookies in the world because you get that contrast. I think most of them are too sweet. So how do you make yours?

CP: Yes, I love I love love love rye flour. And I think for so long I mean it really did have this like bad rap. It's like just being a sort of very wholesome kind of, you know, very hard bread. And when you mix it like you say when you mix it in sweet with a bit of salt as well. Salt really helps bring out rye, it becomes something else entirely and I love it with chocolate. I think it's such a great partner with chocolate. So, I have a vegan cookie in the book, which has some rye flour and also some oats in it, which is another favorite. I love oats like a whole, but I also like to grind them up and use them as a flour too. But yeah, it's it's it's delish.

CK: I came across slab pies I think it was in a Romanian baking book. But slab pies, do you want to talk about them, because that's really a cool concept. I love it.

CP: I love these slab pies. And I have to give credit here to Martha Stewart because she taught me a lot about pies. Not only slab pies, but also about this idea of a grape pie, which I have this recipe for. And it's just baked in a big cookie sheet basically. And so, it's super great for big parties because you can slice it up.

CK: So, you want to just describe what it actually is.

CP: Yeah, so a slap pie is a pie that is a rectangle that sort of flat. And so, you basically bake it in a deep cookie sheet, and you put a bottom crust and then fill it with your pie filling and then a top crust and bake it off like that. So, it's probably like what like an inch thick and it's the most delicious thing. Yeah, because I love pie pastry like it makes me crazy. So, I feel like you get more you know, the fruit pie pastry ratio is perfect.

CK: We may have discussed this before, but when you make pie pastry, are you using lard or using butter using vegetable shortening?

CP: All of the above. I have a few recipes in the book for pastry. My most favorite I'm not going to lie is with lard for texture, so the lard gives it this incredible flakiness that's just you can't get any other way. But I have to mix it with a little butter for flavor. 100% lard crust is just I don't I don't feel like it tastes like anything. But and same with vegetable shortening. So, you could definitely use vegetable shortening for a vegan version. But personally, I really love the way the lard behaves. It’s my fave.

CK: Okay, so let's assume someone listening is a decent baker, not an expert. You do a lot of cakes. Are there one or two basic cakes that should be someone's go to cake because they're, you know, foolproof and delicious.

CP: Yeah, totally. I mean, I think actually probably, for me, the one that I would recommend for a not as confident baker is the Victoria sponge. This version that I've written for this book is with brown sugar. So that also it makes it so delicious. It just gives it that like, you know, that nutty caramelly flavor of brown sugar, molasses, he kind of notes and it's, it's just the easiest thing. It's pretty much equal parts butter, sugar, flour. And then you don't have to do any fancy icing, you just put some delicious jam. And everybody's always got like a jar of jam kicking around that they need to use up right. And then some whipped cream and top it with a little icing sugar. That's one of my favorite favorite things. It’s very British.

CK: Let's talk about puddings and old-fashioned English desserts, obviously. That was not your starting point for baking. With Alice Waters, you came to London, you opened a stall. What is a pudding? And is there I know you have some of the book? Is there one that's particularly English, like Yves pudding? Or is there something that would really be a good standing as the world's best pudding?

CP: Yeah, puddings I love. It's so interesting, because this English American lexicon, you know, it's like pudding in America is associated with Jell-O, I think of chocolate pudding in a tub, you know. And in the UK, it's the word for dessert and it's the term that people use for dessert. But it really does come from a tradition of a particular type of puddings, which are usually steamed or baked in a way that they're in one dish, basically. And the Yves pudding is one of my most favorites, because they're super easy to make. And it’s sort of like what you would do if you're going to make a crumble or a crisp you have your apples or your pears in the bottom of the tin. And then you would put on top of it this sort of almost like a sponge cake that you pour over the top and bake it and then it kind of all combines together and you serve it warm with cream. And it's just super delicious.

CK: You talk about afternoons, and I've noticed traveling a lot that sweets usually are not served after dinner. That's usually an afternoon late afternoon event with tea or coffee.

CP: Best time of day.

CK: Well, what could be better than four o'clock and have a slice of cake (Yeah) Is that something that's also true in Britain now or was that something you just picked up from your travels?

CP: No, definitely. I mean, I always say like, there's a fourth meal here. It's like teatime. They have breakfast, lunch, tea, and dinner. And I love it. Because I think generally in the UK, I find the dinner happens a little bit later than in the US. So, you're a little hungrier at eight o'clock than you are at six o'clock or seven o'clock. So generally, you have like a little something to keep it going in the afternoon. And that's like something sweet cake and a cup of tea. Yeah, it's the I love it. I always want to eat cake in the afternoon. After dinner, I find it's a bit heavy. So, I'd rather have it at four or five

CK: Flavored sugars. You know, a lot of people put lime or lemon zest or orange zest in a food processor with sugar. But you do that with basil, which was kind of interesting.

CP: Thank you. Yes, this is actually I have to give credit to my friend, Talia who has written a cookbook as well and she's from Australia. And she always makes the most beautiful things. And she talked about doing this basil sugar and I just was obsessed with it and I started making it. And what I love is that you really get the anise-y flavor of basil when you'd put it with the sugar. And it just is kind of bright and green and anise-y fennelly kind of vibes and it just is my favorite new favorites. My favorite thing.

CK: You have a sticky toffee day pudding a classic, but you talk about making caramel. And you said you were taught to create caramel with sugar and then then you add the cold cream. But you said the English way of making toffee caramelized the cream with the sugar. How does that work?

CP: Yeah, it's really interesting. So, you would add the sugar straight to the cream and slowly slowly cook that so that you're also caramelizing the dairy at the same time. It's really interesting and the flavors much richer and deeper. I love both I actually love both it gets a kind of fudgy flavor. And it also actually reminds me of the Mexican method of making ___ where you take the goat's milk, and you basically cook down the goat's milk with sugar over a long period of time and I love those flavors. I love how every region has like a slightly different method but it's like still caramel, but it just has really different flavors.

CK: Summer pudding I love summer pudding. It's just one of my favorite things to make in the summer. And but you said I don't love the soggy bread. And I kind of, I don't know, the bread almost becomes custardy over time. I kind of like it. But but you have a totally different approach. What's your approach?

CP: Yeah, I think if you have the perfect bread, you can make it just really have that right texture. But too often I find that it sometimes gets a little like gummy, the flavors of the pudding. The fruit is like, it's like none other. It's so delicious and Moorish. And so, I decided that I wanted to kind of deconstruct it, and I made the fruit, which is like, you know, raspberries and red currents and black currents. And you can kind of put anything you want in there really. We put a little geranium in ours, vanilla, and and then you take that and rather than soaking the bread in that I just made some brioche buns and kind of pour it into a brioche bun with some whipped cream. And it's really nice.

CK: Yes, I have to try that. So, you've been in London? Was it 18 years now? Or a long time. (Yeah. 18). I have two questions. How has London or your clientele changed in that time, and two do the US and Britain getting closer in terms of food or not?

CP: For sure, I've noticed so many changes, you know, even just things like cookies, like everybody would call a cookie a biscuit when I moved here. And now people look for cookies. That's kind of always seems like a really good indicator to me, you know, but then also where I am, there was not a lot to offer in terms of restaurants or cafes. I tell the story. I used to go to the hospital to get a coffee when I first moved here because inside the hospital there was like, sort of a chain like a Starbucks, but it was called ____ here, but it was like this chain you you could get a latte or like, you know, cappuccino and it was so funny, we would go there like that was our destination for a coffee. So now there's an amazing coffee on every corner. And then also incredible restaurants.

CK: So, what's your life like now? And do you love it? Or what would you change about it? Because obviously, running a bakery, a famous bakery is very different than what you might have thought 15 years ago.

CP: Yeah, you know what I? I am a really annoyingly happy person like I've, I really love what I do. I of course find it stressful to run a business that's got 25 employees and make sure that we can pay all the bills and do everything when there's pandemics. And so that yeah, of course, it's hard and stressful. But I think by finding something to do, that I really truly love to do, and then turning it into a business. I'm just really lucky. I mean, you know, obviously I worked at it but I do feel like I encourage people to try to make work from what they love, because then you love to go to work.

CK: How about in terms of family, like with your daughter I know she's grown up at the bakery to some (Yeah, totally) is that when she gets older, she's going to go like, I was so lucky to grow up in mom's bakery. Or she could say, you know, God, I had to grow up in mom's bakery. Which one is it?

CP: Well, I think so. Francis’s okay, so here's the, you know, the karma. She doesn't like cake she tells me all the time. And so, it's really funny of course, I have a child that doesn't like cake. But she does. I know love hanging out at the bakery and she loves. Oh, my God. Well, I just got my very first copy of the book. And I read the introduction to her. It's like a bedtime story last night didn't take her long to fall asleep. But in the beginning, I talked about her, and I could just see how she was so excited that she was in the book. And so, I think she does understand that that's kind of a cool thing. And it's really a joy for me to be able to like share it with her on that level. It's super fun.

CK: Claire, thank you so much. It's it's always great to talk to you and I just love love your food is just amazing. Thanks.

CP: Thank you Chris. It's such a joy always talk to you too. I really appreciate it.

CK: That was Claire Ptak. She's the owner of Violent bakery in London, also author of Love is a Pink Cake. You can find her recipe for grape slab pie at Milk Street My visit with Claire Ptak at or East London bakery got me thinking a bit about the business of food to be sure restaurants and bakeries or businesses but some of them put Business before pleasure. McDonald's, for example, put the fast into fast food with disposable paper packaging, and a production line that even Henry Ford admired. Here in America the tyranny of profit often outweighs pleasure. But in Violet Bakery pleasure You're always comes first. And to quote sportscaster John Miller, business is about profit. But at its best, it's about expanding the possibilities of humanity. This is Milk Street Radio coming up Adam Gopnik finds the beauty in sourdough starter and schmutz that's right up after the break. I'm Christopher Kimball, you're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now let's head into the kitchen with Lynn Clark to talk about this week's recipe. Hot milk sponge cake. Lynn, how are you?

Lynn Clark: I'm doing well, Chris.

CK: As you know, we recently did a new TV show called My Family Recipe. We find folks who have family recipes that need some help some loving attention. And my favorite one, it was absolutely stunning, was from Pennsylvania, from Linda White. And it was hot milk sponge cake. Now, I think of genoise, right, because you add milk and butter to it (scary) genoise never works ever. So, we went into this one. And two things, the milk really was hot. And too. This is a recipe that's impossible to mess up. I mean, it really works. It's so amazing. So, what did we do to help her with the recipe?

LC: So, Linda had an old recipe book from her grandmother that had a bunch of ingredients and like literally no instructions whatsoever. So, we kind of started at ground zero. But obviously the most intriguing part of the recipe was this hot milk. And I guess hot milk sponge cakes happened in the late 1800s because people needed to pasteurize their milk. So, we assumed when we went in to help redevelop this recipe for Linda that the milk temperature wouldn't really make a difference, right? And in fact, it did. It made a much more airy and tender cake. It was so obvious a difference. So, turns out that when you heat the milk, it denatures the milk protein, and that would affect the gluten development, so it makes for a more tender cake.

CK: Yeah, you also get a texture that sadly, it's a little like Devil's Food Cake. (Yeah) It's hard to describe it. It's much more interesting than a regular sponge cake. It's sort of Angel foods, sponge cake, devils wood all rolled into one. It just has an amazing texture.

LC: Yeah, it's kind of an interesting cake because I don't think many of us had ever seen it before. And the texture like you said is hard to pinpoint kind of draws the line between like a layer cake or a devil's food cake and a traditional sponge cake. It does have baking powder in it for leavening not just eggs as would be typical in a sponge cake. And it's really simple to put together. It's like you said it's almost impossible to mess it up. You just whip egg yolks and sugar together, heat the milk just until its scalding, drizzle that in really slowly so you don't cook the eggs. And then add in your dry ingredients with the egg whites just until they're kind of droopy peaks, you definitely don't want to over whip the egg whites. That's maybe the only tricky part. Fold it in, put it in a two pan it bakes for about 50 minutes or so. Linda's family doesn't even use utensils when they eat this. They just pick it up with their hand. It has great flavor. There's a little bit of orange zest in there. This cake has been called the little black dress of cakes, which I think perfectly fits because it can be dressed up or it can go simple. But it's just perfect as it is.

CK: Yeah, I've made this five or six times and every single time I've been asked for the recipe which does not always happen when I cook.

LC: Man that's a good one when you have that happen.

CK: Lynn, thank you something old something new, just phenomenal recipe hot milk sponge cake.

LC: You're welcome. You can get the recipe for hot melted sponge cake at Milk Street

CK: You're listening to Milk Street Radio. Now it's time for some culinary wisdom from one of our listeners.

Caller: Hi, my name is Josh Mandel and here's my tip for baking multiple batches of cookies. You never want to put your cookie dough on a cookie sheet that's still warm from the oven. But if you run the cookie sheet under cold water for literally like three seconds, it will chill the sheet down perfectly. And what's more, if you only run the water on the underside of the cookie sheet, you don't even have to dry it off before you put it back in the oven.

CK: If you'd like to share your own cooking tip right here on Milk Street Radio, please go to 177 Milk tips now it's time to chat with Adam Gopnik. Adam, how are you?

Adam Gopnik: I am very well Chris, how are you today?

CK: I'm good.

AG: I've been thinking a lot lately about the question of aging. I think it's something that hits us all. But I was thinking a little more pointedly and specifically about my mom, because my mom is a fascinating woman. She was an early scientist of neuro linguistics, but she also was a fantastic cook. And she taught me to cook making everything from tuna au poivre to a souffle. But what I'm not good at is baking. And my mom is a fantastic baker, and I went north to rural Canada to bake with her a few years ago. And she showed me this huge range of things that she's mastered. Bagels, she makes Montreal style bagels, the kind you boil first and then bake a she makes a thing of her own invention called the boissant, which is a cross between a brioche and a croissant, which if I ever had the presence of mind to commercialize it, to monetize it, so we would have them moms-gops boissant on every street corner in New York, that that's my missing million dollars, Chris. But one of the things we did is we dug our hands deep into her sourdough starter, which is I'm sure as you know, is always called the mother in a good baker's kitchen. (Yes) And as she's gotten older, of course, she's able to bake less and less often and less broadly. And my mom really began to focus on her sourdoughs on on baking her sourdoughs. And she would do it in a very kind of single-minded way. And it made me happy and sad. At the same time. You know how that is with a beloved family recipe of any conquest, that its continuity, its perpetuity is simultaneously happy because the thing is going on. And sad because you realize that it won't go on forever in the same hands that began it.

CK: Yeah, that's true. I think it also brings you back in time. And there are certain things like homemade peach ice cream, for example, for me, we used to make when I was six or seven in a cabin or Vermont and you know, it has all those memories, even though we still make it today, but it's not the same.

AG: No. And when we try to recreate a lost family recipe, it's never the same is it?

CK: Well, because it's not just about the food. Of course, it's about the context.

AG: It's always about the context. But I began thinking very hard and as I say with a certain kind of poignance. And then I read a remarkable thing about the nature of sourdough. It came from actually from an experiment done by predictably French biochemist studying the chemistry, the biology of baking. And you know what they discovered that the hands, the schmutz on the baker's hands, penetrates the sourdough starter the mother and leaves its residue there. So, you when you are baking in a French bakery someplace in the south of France or Normandy, you are literally in contact as you dig your hands into the starter with the hands of a baker who may have been dead for two centuries, the microbes linger even after the baker is gone. And that turns out to be true. Chris and I have known this over a broad range of, of biological cooking, you know those things that have mold and microbes and that get part of their greatness from it. The residue from the hands of the cook the hands of the baker, the hands of the cheesemaker remain. So, my mother's mother, my, the sourdough starter that my mother has been working on for all those years will remain even after our mothers have gone.

CK: The problem with this fact is that the now responsibility for keeping your mother's sourdough starter alive, month after month, you better not let that go down because there's a whole lot there's an entire legacy. Right?

AG: Absolutely. And you know what, it's also so fascinating for me that that's not an illusion, our sense that the deepest continuities we know in life are the continuities of the gut and the palate. That's true. When we taste cheese, we are truly in dialogue with cheesemakers hundreds years gone when we eat good sourdough bread, we're actually engaged with microbes that long predated Napoleon. I find that to be beautiful in its humility. You know, we we try sometimes to dignify food and the art of cooking by making it a Grand High thing. But in truth, part of its joy is that it is a low available thing, and yet it's exactly in its lowness, its availability, its schmutz-ness, if you like the Yiddish Word that ensures its immortality.

CK: Well, we live in a world that is distinguished by its total lack of continuity from one generation to the next. So now schmutz to the rescue. It turns out we really aren't connected.

AG: Absolutely some I once was this a wonderful famous delicatessen in Montreal, where I grew up, as you know, called Schwartz's where they do the great Montreal smoked meat, and they made the terrible mistake once of cleaning out the smoke room because it had been left untouched for a hundred years and was exactly you know, where was all of that flavor coming from? It was coming from the schmutz in the smoke room. It's, it's a valuable lesson.

CK: Adam thank you an ode to schmutz.

AG: That may be the title of my next book.

CK: That was Adam Gopnik, staff writer at The New Yorker. His latest book is The Real Work on the Mystery of Mastery. That's it for today. You can find all of our episodes at Milk Street or wherever you get your podcasts. You can learn more about Milk Street at 177 Milk There you can become a member and get full access to every recipe, access to our live stream cooking classes, and free standard shipping from the Milk Street store. You can also find us on Facebook at Christopher Kimball's milk street on Instagram and Twitter at 177 Milk Street. We'll be back next week with more food stories and kitchen questions. And thanks, as always for listening.

Christopher Kimball’s Milk Street Radio is produced by Milk Street in association with GBH co-founder Melissa Baldino, executive producer Annie Sensabaugh, senior editor Melissa Alison, producer Sarah Clapp, Associate Producer Caroline Davis with production help from Debby Paddock, additional editing by Sidney Lewis audio mixing by Jay Allison and Atlantic Public Media and Woods Hole Massachusetts. The music by Toubab Krewe, additional music by George Brandl Egloff, Christopher Kimball's Milk Street Radio is distributed by PRX.