Arriving at Claire Ptak's front door I am instantly, and without introduction, given a near-cervical inspection by her whippet. It's 10 AM and, to be honest, what with the warm prune and oat scone I've just picked up from the bakery and the threshold vag action, this is turning out to be a pretty great morning.
Claire Ptak is the founder of Violet Bakery, author of The Violet Bakery Cookbook, and recently appointed Guardian food columnist. She also trained under Alice Waters at Chez Panisse. In short, this is a woman who knows her sugar. And I, in this first week of Advent—this first week of Mariah Carey in every pound shop and novelty jumpers on every dickhead—am here to learn how to bake her super-festive ginger molasses cookies.
In Ptak's new book, the biscuits look like perfectly round slabs of dried-out riverbed—cracked and crystallised, with a thick ooze of chewy biscuit running through the centre. Talking of tomes, the first thing I notice on walking into Ptak's kitchen isn't just that her entire wall of bookshelves is covered in cookery books (including a copy of Betty Crocker's astounding Foods Men Like) but that all the books have been arranged by colour.
"I suppose I am quite a visual person," she laughs, Sellotaping a handwritten label marked "cloves" to the top of a small screw-top pot. And I, I think, am quite a digestive one.
"This is, like, a classic American cookie," says Ptak, smoothing her hand down the spine of the book to better see the recipe. "We only sell them in the shop at Christmas time. I wanted to make something soft and chewy—I'm usually going for texture. It's a big thing for me."
She may be the one who invented the biscuit but, it seems, even inventors have to refer to an instruction manual from time to time.
I'm a little surprised to see, among the cloves, ginger, and cardamon, two small pots of pimento and coriander. Either Ptak has had a stroke, pregnancy has kicked her sense of smell off-kilter, or I have vastly underestimated the breadth of spice that should be included in a biscuit.
"In America, we have a thing called Mixed Spice and they all have coriander in," says Ptak, spooning in circles of spices using a beautiful set of copper measuring spoons.
"When you smell coriander," she adds, wafting the pot under my nose, "there's a sourness and a freshness that works really well in sweet stuff."
After the powdered spices, Ptak grates in a little nutmeg using something that looks a lot like the kind of tool old-time baddies would use to file iron bars to break out of prison.
Once the spices are mixed into the sugar, it's time to add butter. Ah butter. My mother, my brother, and my lover. Ptak cuts a block into perfect cubes before combining them both together with her electric mixer. Does she eat like this every day, I wonder?
"I have a one cake a day: routine," says Ptak, wiping her hands on a teatowel. "Usually about 4 or 4.30 in the afternoon, with a cup of tea."
No wonder she ended up in the UK. In fact, her journey to Britain is less surprising than her journey into cookery. After a few years working in film ("Psychos") she moved into retail, making wedding cakes ("More psychos") before realising that baking—in all its flour-y glory—wasn't just what was keeping her sane, but it was what she was meant to be doing.
"I had thought, 'My parents sent me to college—I can't be a cook,'" laughs Ptak. Well, look who's laughing now.
As we chat, Ptak starts to pour a thick, glistening stream of molasses into the bowl. It moves like a snake and smells headier than Medusa.
"Molasses is basically a by-product—it's what they extract from making sugar," she explains. "It's used a lot in Southern cooking, for sure."
As the molasses gets stirred, Ptak adds the flour until finally the whole mixture is the colour of sand. It is now ready to hit the baking tray. I am surprised to see her pull an ice cream scoop out of her perfectly ordered, immaculate kitchen drawer. Are we having a break for some raspberry ripple?
"Using a scoop makes it look pro," she explains. "They all come out perfectly round and all look the same."
This, dear readers, is what we in the trade call "a top tip." Ptak then rolls each globe of dough in sugar and pushes them down a little flatter with the palm of her hand before popping the tray into the oven. The whippet is starting to do circles in front of me. I'm tempted to join in and break into a pre-biscuit dinner dance of anticipation.
If she eats cake every day—and experiments all the time coming up with new bakes to accompany the almond polenta muffins, carrot pecan slices, cinnamon buns, banana cakes, and oat scones at home—how, I wonder, is Ptak not the size of a house? I mean, sure, she's got a baby in there right now, but even so, this doesn't look like a woman who feasts on fat and flour.
"Oh God, when I was a teenager, we'd go back to my friend's house after school and make a huge bowl of popcorn with a whole stick of butter in there. And then we'd make a huge bowl of cookie dough and we'd just eat the whole thing. Both of them. And that would be, like, twice a week at least," says Ptak, as I scream with laughter, shock, and admiration.
There's just about time to boil the kettle and do a little washing up (by which I mean flick through Foods Men Like and play with the dog) before the cookies are ready. Ptak shuffles them onto a white and blue plate and stands back. I last about 15 seconds before greed overwhelms grace and I pick one up and start eating.
It is delicious. I mean, of course it is. And, while I can't necessarily taste the coriander, it's just nice to know it's there.
All photos by Liz Seabrook.