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Scones in the Time of Agita

Claire Ptak’s “Love Is a Pink Cake” and “Mary Berry’s Baking Bible” provoke differing views of the state of British baking — and Britain itself

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The covers of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible and Love Is a Pink Cake superimposed over a big swirl of pink frosting. Lille Allen/Eater

Britain is in turmoil. It’s been weird since last fall, when the pound fell to a dramatic low and Prime Minister Liz Truss was ousted from power amid the demise of the country’s longest-reigning monarch. Or maybe it’s been weird since last summer, when the previous prime minister was felled by his own corruption and electoral disappointments. Or maybe it was 2020, when the country tumbled out of the European Union and into a series of grossly mismanaged pandemic lockdowns, oft-flouted by their authors. Or the summer of 2016, when the electorate decided to abandon the EU and plunged the populace into unabating existential angst. Or perhaps as far back as 2010, when the Conservatives came to power and implemented a national spendthrift that has left the country and many of its residents impoverished and not thriving in a cozzie livs crisis.

The U.S., I’m aware, is not doing so hot either, and it’s generally a turbulent time globally — yet things in Britain are so dire that the “wow, the U.K. seems fuckedessay is an emergent genre. Add to that all the imperialism and so on, and we may have to take a moment to remember what we all liked about Britain in the first place. The cultural products, it seems. Its YA literature? Maybe not. I guess the baking? Why, that, I assure you, is exceptional.

It is auspicious (if not intentional) timing that both Claire Ptak’s Love Is a Pink Cake and a revised and updated reissue of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible are now out in the U.S., right on the heels of the coronation of the earnest if stilted King Charles III. The two books, published within a week of each other, are authored by ambassadors of British baking, representative perhaps more so of the idea of it than individual recipes — although they both have some great ones, and Pink Cake in particular is indispensable.

Ptak, a Northern Californian who was a pastry chef at Chez Panisse before moving to London, started off selling cakes from an East London market stall and opened her cafe, Violet, in 2010. In key ways, Ptak and her bakery typify an East London style that I’ve been describing to my friends for the past year. It’s a post-industrial space softened by the memory of a country house you’ve never been to: a little gingham and a lot of linen; terra-cotta pottery; dried flowers; sponge painting; enamelware; natural wine; white-washing; candlelight. The food in this paradigm, especially as shot for Love Is a Pink Cake, is unfussy, neutrally and pastel-colored, and showcases big, ripe hunks of whichever fruit’s now in season, all arrayed in rustic interiors nobody’s swept up before the shoot.

At the same time, Violet is unique among London’s, and especially East London’s, bakeries, many of which have proliferated in a standard mode of sourdough loaves and, for the most part, viennoiserie. Violet is different. It makes little yeasted dough, if any. Even Ptak’s cinnamon rolls are a quickbread, dense and barely yielding. She makes crumbly U.S.-style scones and serves cupcakes and slices of buttercream-filled and frosted layer cakes that someone like me raised in Chicago wants for their birthday. It was on the merit of those cakes that Ptak came to notoriety: Without the frilly piping, fondant, or stiff sponge of British celebration cakes, hers are neat, intentional messes in the style of the time, with dramatic swoops of icing and arranged with flowers.

Love Is a Pink Cake is Ptak’s fifth cookbook. It is also a thoughtful personal treatise on what baking means and how it’s a conduit for the geographies and people that compose Ptak’s self. The key player in Pink Cake is her daughter, Frances, whose walks to school past the bakery and after-school snacks have become springboards to recipes. Also, enmeshed as Ptak is in the zeitgeist, she knows a lot of celebrities. Alice Waters is mentioned repeatedly, including in the acknowledgments. Fitting, since Ptak worked for Waters at Chez Panisse before relocating to London in 2005; the relationships Ptak has with farmers evoke the local and seasonal ethos that Waters popularized. We also hear of “my friend Ruthie Rogers” of the esteemed River Café, Roger’s late business partner, Rose Gray, and Waters’s daughter Fanny Singer, along with mentions of Skye Gyngell and Jeremy Lee. This is a rich text for the restaurant fan.

Then there’s a casual comment in a tequila pumpkin pie headnote that “Frances McDormand once told me that after a certain age, wine is difficult to process for some women.” Just an aside from four-time Academy Award-winner Frances McDormand, you know how it is. Also, maybe you heard, Ptak made a lemon-elderflower wedding cake for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle in 2018, and another for their daughter Lilibet’s first birthday in 2022. Ptak and Markle connected when the baker sent the actress a copy of the Violet Bakery Cookbook for consideration on the latter’s now-defunct website, the Tig, in 2015, so if there’s social climbing happening, it’s the banal variety that chefs and influencers trade back and forth regularly. The titular pink cake is a nod to both Lilibet’s last June, and a drawing of Andy Warhol’s from a lithograph series of the same title, reprinted on the book’s endsheet. In a way, it’s another celebrity cameo.

It might sound like I’m down on this, but on the contrary: There’s an intellectual honesty in this book. As a sort-of celebrity baker Ptak is webbed across continents and industries; what seems like name-dropping can also be true to the author’s experience. As she writes in the introduction, “Take the experience of your life and let it shape your baking. Bake more often. Bake for those you love. Love is a pink cake.”

Now, this is beyond corny. Dividing the book into two sections, California and England, is a little facile. Ptak is making sticky toffee pudding in the former and frying doughnuts in the latter; point taken about the interior life of a baker drawn across oceans. Some people really do make Edna Lewis’s stone fruit lard pie with Scott Peacock at Alice Waters’s house for the Chez Panisse 40th-anniversary bash. What can you say? That’s Claire Ptak’s life. And this book is so good that, even though I had a PDF for this review, I walked over to Violet to buy a physical copy the day it came out in Britain.

Because not only is Ptak’s book compelling — her baking is excellent. Violet sells the best birthday cake in London, at least to a Chicagoan born in July with a raspberry buttercream preference; the rye brownies in her last book have become my go-to, along with its flourless chocolate cake. What’s in Pink Cake is more specific, less twist-on-a-staple and more out-there (for a given value of “there”): Find not one but two riffs on traditional British summer pudding, or a standard coffee-walnut with Fernet in both the cake and the frosting.

Yet I sense this isn’t an ideal book for the novice. Ingredients and equipment can be obscure, and Ptak doesn’t always suggest alternatives. A beautiful marbled cake, for example, is baked in a 10-by-4-inch loaf pan. Conversions to other pan sizes aren’t given. Most loaf pans on the shelf come in 9-by-5; I couldn’t manage to find a 10-by-4 tin online, or at any specialist shops I tried in London. Finally, I tracked one down at Duikelman, in Amsterdam. (I happened to be there; they don’t ship to the U.K.) The recipe says to cream butter and sugar, “but not as fluffy as you would for a layer cake.” As an experienced home baker who’s executed more complex projects than a marble loaf cake, I struggled to imagine what that meant. How much less creamed? If you under- or over-cream, what happens? Ptak doesn’t say. In baking books, recipes written to a stand mixer will sometimes give setting and timing, “cream on medium for two minutes.” This book doesn’t. Then there are vegan and gluten-free recipes that ask, for example, for flaxseeds, ground almonds, brown rice, sorghum, and tapioca flours, and xanthan gum. (That’s one recipe.) Others rest upon niche items like violet liqueur, peach leaf, or whitecurrants, only briefly and intermittently available in the States. With limited exception, don’t come here for pantry recipes.

Not to say this undermines the book. For a hobby baker wanting to sharpen my skills, the challenge is part of the allure. Meanwhile, other recipes offer failsafe reliability. A Big Sur cookie uses up leftover granola; it’s not only a great cookie, but an exciting paradigm: Any recipe using up the dregs of my cupboard is a winner, and the final product will vary greatly by granola. Ptak’s bakewell bars are buttery, nutty, and laced with tart jam. They cut beautifully, look great on a stand, and make a traybake out of the most British possible tart. It was Violet that first opened my eyes to the potential of bakewell, a U.K. bakery case staple that can be stodgy, gummy, or bland. These, on the other hand, are now on my roster, along with those rye brownies.

Because the book is so her, it’s important to note that Ptak represents a vision of Britain that, for a certain kind of urbane consumer, is way more palatable than the reality of living in most of the country. It’s faithful to a part of London, and perhaps its restaurant industry writ large. Here we have an immigrant woman, albeit a pretty blond one from an English-speaking country, who’s fused her place of origin with a Best of British outlook into a deeply personal and contemporary-seeming enterprise that positions what’s most outwardly appealing about the U.K. as accessible to anyone who just has people to love and Hachiya persimmons. It’s arcadian without being pastoral, and expansive while remaining individualistic. It’s gently multicultural, with ras el hanout snickerdoodles and pandan coconut cake with strawberries — a very English fruit, eaten at both Eton and Wimbledon.

Which brings me to the new, revised edition of Mary Berry’s Baking Bible. As a judge on The Great British Bake Off, Berry became a representative of a kind of British baking for many in the U.S. when the competition began airing on PBS in 2014 as The Great British Baking Show. Berry has written a baking encyclopedia that is the polar opposite of Love Is a Pink Cake. Every British baked good you want, along with many non-British entries, is represented. Berry herself is basically absent from the text. It’s a generalist’s almanac, for anyone who wants the bog-standard version of a dish. Berry’s recipes absolutely turn out, or even slap. If you want a stacked, biscuity British scone rather than a triangular teacake, hers are proper. A treacle tart recipe didn’t say to pre-bake the shell, and I presumed it was a misprint. Seemingly not; it was one of the best pastry shells I’ve ever executed.

Held up to Ptak and Pink Cake, Berry’s project — not just her book, but her genteel anonymity — speaks to a mostly white middle-class British commonality that may never have really existed, but fixation on protecting it has driven the U.K. to anxious disarray. Ptak’s book is suffused with perspective and ethos; alongside tricky-fun recipes for things I want to eat, its glory is how clearly related those recipes are to its position. Berry is less outwardly political than other Bakers Off, but in a culture where politeness and complacency is establishmentarian, that is itself political; moreover, Bake Off and the culture it fosters are well-known ornaments of nostalgia for a mythic green and pleasant land. The Baking Bible invokes the sacred in its title and in its first recipe deems Victoria sandwich the “best known and loved of all family cakes.” I’m not wondering what a “family cake” is because I can imagine what Berry means. In 2017 Grace Dent wrote that “Berry and Bake Off both abide in a cosy cloud-cuckoo land – indeed that could be seen as responsible for their meteoric rise in popularity.”

Of course, Berry’s cookbook is good; just to be sure about that tart shell, I remade it for a quiche, and it remained an unassailable tart shell, one I’ll make again. To say that the book suffers in comparison to Ptak’s would be incorrect; they are different, with divergent goals, and as a hobbyist I need a completist tome as much as I enjoy reveling in Ptak’s meadowy sensibilities and artistic sympathy. But as both books are being issued around a great national inflection point, it makes sense to note that, just as they illustrate two very different kinds of baking books, they each also represent how baking can explain two confections of Britain’s national character, the cool multicultural East London and the white upper-middle-class English countryside.

It’s not incidental that Ptak’s book draws on Warhol, the king of fusing celebrity with artistic practice. It was photographed at the California home of sculptor J.B. Blunk, the father of one of Ptak’s childhood friends. Blunk was himself friends with Isamu Noguchi, and appeared in a video Ptak saw at the 2021 retrospective Noguchi at the Barbican back in London. “I found myself thinking about ... the fact that cooking, like sculpture, is about taking a natural shape, material or ingredient and making it better by making it more itself,” Ptak writes. They’re both transformative, but her point is deepened by how networked and integrated are the worlds of art, dining, and fashion, the bourgeois cultural sphere that draws people like her, and me, to London. It’s a rarefied place that spurs further cultural blending; its approachable coolness makes the capital impenetrably expensive, deepening the crises of inequality and xenophobia feeding policies that, at their end, mean Britain has closed its doors to future Claire Ptaks.

If their work is as strong as Love Is a Pink Cake, that’s a real shame. Or perhaps it’s just a shame, full stop.