Martha’s Cookie Of The Day: Matt’s Alfajores

Last night Evita was on television. It reminded me of our past few visits to Argentina which made me hop on the computer to find a particular image of a street in Buenos Aires. Then this morning I woke up to find that my alfajores are Martha’s Cookie Of The Day.  It’s like all this Argentine love is surrounding me and that makes me very happy. Except Evita was a British creation with an Italian-American actress and my cookies are made by a Mexican-American with cookies heavily influenced by a little old lady from Illinois. Oh god I have a headache now.

Check out the cookies here. Thanks, Martha!

Book Reviews: Food Styling!

This weekend I’ll be teaching part of a Food Styling and Photography workshop at my studio. It promises to be lots of fun and I really look forward to meeting so many great new people. And since many of you have asked I may actually take my workshop on the road so stayed tuned! This is also the perfect time to review a few new titles on the subject of Food Styling. To say it’s a hot topic right now would be an understatement; just look at all the abundance of titles coming out. In this week’s book reviews the ever-so-wonderful Kristina Gill reviews a few titles as well as mentions some she couldn’t get her hands on just yet. The information in these reviews is invaluable I tell you! Take it away, Kristina! — Matt

My sixth grade math teacher, Mrs. Sweeney, used to get mad at us when we didn’t show our work.  She’d always say, “I’m from Missouri.  You have to SHOW ME.”  And that has kind of stuck in my character ever since.  When I started fooling around with food photography, I had many questions of Matt to ask. Sometimes he’d draw me diagrams, sometimes he’d explain it.  But then one day, I just bought a plane ticket and flew to Long Beach to work with him and Adam in person.  Matt and I have had long conversations about food styling books also.  Despite Matt’s compelling arguments on the utility of food styling books, I am still a firm believer that it’s the kind of thing I prefer to learn in three dimensions because there is a physicality to it that you can’t get from a book.  So if you have the time and resources to take a food styling class, I really recommend the experience, or if you have the opportunity to observe/assist in a photo shoot, you can learn a tremendous amount from that as well. However, I also believe in reference books, and especially in food styling, I believe in defining my work and identifying potential pitfalls before I embark on photographing.  Sometimes I photograph something and think “there’s something missing here.  This isn’t convincing.”  That’s where these two books come in.

Food Styling:  The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera by Delores Custer (Wiley 2010).   This, because of its enormous size and weight, will probably be called the food styling bible.  It is a comprehensive book on food styling.  Like every good food stylist, Delores is very methodical, and everything follows in a perfect logical order.  It is explained in clear concise English, and there are no doubts or what-ifs left trailing.  She goes from the choice of becoming a food stylist, through setting up your business, and concludes with a review of the transformation of food styling over the past 50 years.  There are technique and prop photos, recipes for successful on camera food (think fake ice cream, moist cake, perfect pumpkin pie).  Why do I like Delores’ book?  Because she has written it in a Problem – Solution format.  I’m not going to sit down and read this book cover to cover.  However, when I am tasked with shooting a cookie recipe, for example, I am going to look up the cookie section, learn where I may encounter difficulties and how to overcome/avoid them, and I will also learn how to make the best presentation.  You will flip through Delores’ book and think “Well I don’t do advertising photography, all of this is that perfect, slick, highly polished food.”  That’s true.  But how to represent melting cheese convincingly for the camera is a useful skill to know, whether it’s for a Lean Cuisine ad or for your blog post on images of your Nonna’s pasticcio.  In other words, this is a very useful reference book from which you can learn how to be better organized and how to improve your work.  You can also get an idea of what the life of a food stylist is like.

Food Styling for Photographers: A Guide to Creating Your Own Appetizing Art by Linda Bellingham and jean Ann Bybee (Focal Press 2010)  This book is considerably smaller and lighter (and paperback!) than the bible.  But its size does not diminish its utility.  Bellingham focused pretty tightly on the task at hand, starting first with very practical advice on how to approach each food styling session, so there is not the same level of detail in defining each food item or circumstance.  Bellingham begins with a bit about choosing props and prepping the surface on which you will shoot, all very useful when you’re doing this alone at home.  She explains what questions you should be asking yourself as you style. Bellingham’s following chapters include text boxes which highlight “Tricks of the Trade” and each set of food photography is followed by an explanation by Bybee of how the photographic effect was achieved, including a photograph of the lighting set up.  This book is therefore quite useful for the food blogger who is both styling and shooting their own recipes.  The clarity of writing is the same as Custer’s book, and it is just as organized and logical.  I have also compared notes on different techniques– such as preparing glasses for cold beverages or shooting ice cream, and their techniques are virtually identical!  Again, food styling is dealt with in this book in the context of making “perfect” food for the camera.  It doesn’t deal with how to make the imperfect perfect food that is so popular today.  All the same, I believe that you have to learn how to make something look perfect before you are able to make it look imperfect, if of course that’s the look you’re going for.  And still, many of you may decide that you are doing just fine without needing to separate your cake layers with cardboard to ensure that you space them evenly for a perfect look of the cake with a slice out of it.  You may be right.  But with either of these books, you are not only learning how to do that, you are learning what visual qualities are desired when representing types of cooking and different foods.

There was a third book on food styling released this year called Food Presentation Secrets: Styling Techniques of Professionals by Cara Hobday and Jo Denbury, which I was unable to get my hands on in time for this, which you may want to also explore.

And lastly, there’s The Food Stylist’s Handbook by Denise Vivaldo (Gibbs Smith 2010). This book isn’t out until fall so I wasn’t able to review it. However, I wanted to include it in this review so that you are aware of it and can check it out when it hits the bookstores. Matt will be teaching his workshop this weekend with Denise and he’s also a contributor to this book.

Behind the Scenes: Good Bite Cookbook

Well hello there my friends! This week I’ve started a new cookbook project and thought it’d be fun to share a bit of it.  Called Good Bite’s Weeknight Meals: Delicious Made Easy, this cookbook will be published by Wiley & Sons in 2011. My friends at Good Bite and Wiley were cool with me posting some behind-the-scenes images from the shoot — thank you! Of course you’ll have to wait for the book which features some deliciously simple recipes from the Good Bite roster which includes Jaden of Steamy Kitchen, my pals White On Rice Couple and Elise of Simply Recipes. In the meantime I can tell you that it was a great day photographing some great dishes thanks to the team.

Wanna meet them?


This is the amazing Emily Henson. She is the prop stylist on this book and brings a wonderful aesthetic to the images. Formerly a display coordinator for Anthropologie, her creativity knows no bounds. I love working with Emily because it’s definitely a collaborative effort and she’s adept at patterns and mixing styles. Plus I admire her approach to creativity and style and believe that all tabletop and prop stylists should have British accents. In fact I think I just made it a new rule at my studio, justthisverysecond. It just makes sense. But don’t take my word for it, you should definitely check out her feature on Design*Sponge as well as her portfolio.

Asking Emily to describe her style and what inspires her, she says “I suppose it’s Modern Ecelectic. And I’m always inspired by fabric. Often it’s a really good starting point. I look at it, pull colors from it and take it from there.”  You’ll see this in action when the book is out next year. The images are gorgeous.

Consider this a shameless plug. No, there are no kickbacks coming my way from Rowenta but I’d do very bad things for them if they asked. I am head over heels with the DG5030 and love it so much that we had to buy one for home. Iron once with it and your life is forever changed. Remind me to tell you about the time I ran through the house looking for things to press. It’s that good.

I can’t stress how important it is to enjoy the people you are working with on a cookbook shoot. When everyone gets along it flows smoothly and makes for better images. When attitudes show up on set (and trust me, they do) it ruins the vibe and makes things harder. And why would anyone want that? Producing cookbook shoots can be stressful enough without added drama. Here Adam and Emily discuss the next shot and don’t they just look adorable? Emily has pulled some set-ups and they discuss the plating and size of food. She’ll give Adam a few options and once they decide on propping it’s off to the kitchen to work on the food. Behind Adam you can see a bit of the cabinet that houses our Mud Australia ceramics. I’m surprised I don’t lug it home every night and keep it next to my bed. I love it so very much.

This is Adam and Jenny.  They really are the heart and soul of the entire operation. As food stylists they create every bit of food seen inside the book. They take the recipes and craft them for camera, balancing what the home cook will do with what will make the best photograph. I’m happy to report that the food in Good Bite’s Weeknight Meals: Delicious Made Easy is completely real. Adam believes that real food looks best and doesn’t need all the tricks you may have read about. He says “I like organic, natural, messy styling. I call it organized chaos.” Adam says the best part of his job is working with food as well as with his assistant Jenny Park. (what, I don’t get a shout-out? damn. –matt)

I have two words for you: Jenny Rocks. I asked Jenny why she enjoys food styling and she said “It’s something different every day. It stays exciting because it changes. And I love food, the different cultures behind the food and I love cooking.” And we love Jenny.

Some plates and bowls ready for their close up.

Beautiful patterns and colors.

Adam puts some finishing touches on skewers with a torch and makes a pizza.  Unfortunately I didn’t get to eat the pizza!

Here’s a set-up of a shot from the book. I must wait for the book’s release before I can share any of the beautiful food that Adam and Jenny created hence the pink square.  I shoot with natural light which means nice, soft diffused coverage but sometimes I need to create shape and shadow. By simply placing a black flag above the food I’m able to remove some light and create the shadow that I want. Scrims and flags are essential!

More to come later!

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This weekend I’ll be teaching a Food Styling and Photography Workshop at my studio in Long Beach where I’ll be showing you some tips and tricks like above.  To kick off all things styling I’ll also be posting food styling book reviews from Kristina this Friday so keep an eye out for them!

(and Sepi, don’t think you are quite off the hook just yet…)

Book Reviews: Baking

I’ve had many jobs over the years and can wear many hats. One thing I will never be is a baker. Ever. At this point in my life I have accepted that it’s something I will never perfect, and really, why should I? So many of my friends are excellent bakers and authors on the subject, and I can just coast along with my sad baking skills and enjoy their expertise. But that doesn’t mean I don’t love reading about baking and eating whatever I can get my hands on.  Because I really really do. And I love photographing baked things because they are just naturally pretty. Unless I made it. Then it’s a trainwreck. Anyway, this week Kristina gives us baking reviews and I’m jazzed about it. There are some amazing book titles here and a word to the wise: stay away from Kristina when she’s mixing dough. It ain’t pretty.

Kristina: One summer, when I was living in Washington DC, I happened in a gourmet shop.  While talking to the Shop Guy, one of the nicest people I’ve ever met, my new found interest in bread baking came up.  When his father had started the Marvelous Market, Carol Field had provided invaluable bread baking tips to help him out.  The Shop Guy recommended I use her book, The Italian Baker, to learn more about bread.  The next time I came back to the shop, he had special ordered a copy for me and gave it to me as a gift.  I methodically went through the book and worked on quite a few recipes until I learned to produce very good bread.  From there, I bought Nancy Silverton’s book, the Breads of La Brea Bakery, and started my own starter which stayed with me for two years until a subletter “threw away the foul nasty stuff” he found in my refrigerator.

This week’s books are about learning to bake, and represent a bibliography for all levels of interest.  I don’t get road rage, I wait til I get home and get kitchen counter rage and pretend that the dough is someone’s face I want to box in, as I develop the gluten.  I find that kneading to be quite therapeutic.  If you bake, or once you start to learn, you’ll know what I mean.  If you’re serious about baking and bread isn’t your thing though, don’t miss the last book.

Amy’s Bread revised and updated by Amy Scherber and Toy Kim Dupree (Wiley books 2010; photography by Aimée Herring) This book, the book of Amy’s Bread bakery in New York, provides a good introduction to baking with useful photographs of the different stages of the proofing and kneading process so you can tell if you’re on track.  Because it is a bread bakery book, that’s all you get here.  The chapter on starters offers a range of them, some to be used within a few hours (poolish), and others which need a bit more lead time (biga), up to the sourdough starter.  This is a book for someone who wants to focus on a range of breads from white to sourdough, flavored, breads and doesn’t want anything too scientific or too technical.  Each recipe has tips and techniques as well, also quite useful as you’re learning.

Bread Matters:  Why and How to Make Your Own by Andrew Whitley (Fourth Estate 2006; photography by Jeff Cottenden, illustrations by Richard Bravery) I was first put on to the British artisanal bread movement by an article in Jamie Magazine (July/Aug 09) beautifully photographed by Chris Terry.  I wanted to know more, so when I took a trip to London later last year, I picked up this book.  It’s all about the evolution of the bread industry and the ingredients which go into industrial loaves and why you should prefer artisanal breads and even try making your own at home.  Whitley owned and ran a bakery from 1976-2002, and this comprehensive work, grew out of his experiences during that time.  I like the book because it thoroughly explains every aspect of bread making and its ingredients, what techniques and ingredients are necessary and which aren’t (‘debunking’ other bread book instructions), provides troubleshooting advice, and provides recipes for all great British baked goods.  The recipes uses quite a range of flours, and many of the recipes build on each other, so once you’ve learned the basics, you’re unstoppable.  For a beginner, this is a perfect book, and is not as technical as the Bourke Street Bakery.  What it lacks in terms of photographs of technique, it more than makes up for in clarity of text.  The images in the book are also quite beautiful.  Whitley offers “Bread Matters” courses at Macbiehill Farmhouse, Lamancha, West Linton in the Scottish Borders

Artisan Breads by Eric Kastel (part of the Culinary Institute of America At Home series; Wiley 2010; photography by Ben Fink) This is the technical and scientific book that Amy’s Bread is not.  It is practically a baking text book for the home baker.  This is the type of book you should have at least one of if you’re going to get into baking, and you should read through the notes in the beginning to have a thorough understanding of all of the elements of bread baking (environmental factors, wheat qualities, tools, temperatures, moisture, etc).  It is a comprehensive baking book, and one of the things I like most about it– something I missed in my own self-taught baking odyssey– are the photographs of the correct level of proofing, kneading, how to fold and so on.  This book, unlike Amy’s, is not limited to artisan breads however, and includes many many yeasted desserts like cinnamon rolls and sticky buns, cream cheese and pecan coffee cake, almond stollen, and there is a section on dips and spreads as well.   There is a professional version of this one as well, with larger quantities and more hard core specifications.  Also a useful reference for the knowledge hungry.

Bourke Street Bakery by Paul Allam and David McGuinness (Murdoch Books 2009; photography by Alan Benson). Ok, I saved best for last again.  And not just because Alan Benson photographed the book, but because when I read through this book, it makes me want to (a) book a flight to Australia tomorrow; (b) make my own pain au chocolat; (c) book a flight to Australia tomorrow.  Did I already say that?  As its ‘by-line’ suggests, this really is the ultimate baking companion.  In my line of business, I’ve learned a little bit about wheat, and a lot about Australians.  Enough to know that they know good bread (they have great wheat) and they know good baked goods.  Bourke Street Bakery cookbook takes you from savory to sweet dreams by way of conversational explanations, useful photography of techniques, and great stories to accompany the super range of recipes offered in the book (rye bread, Mr. Potato Bread, sourdough, semi-sourdough, empanadas, croissants, sausage rolls, meat pies, brownies, chocolate cake, custard tarts, bear claws, banana cake with caramel sauce…).  This isn’t really a book to take lightly though, as you will need to be disciplined in following the recipes.  Never fear, each recipe points out where the home baker may have a pitfall, and suggests how to avoid it/compensate for lack of industrial equipment. This replaces my King Arthur Flour baker’s companion book as my go to baking compendium because I find it a nicer read, a bit more sophisticated, and feel a better connection with the bakers.  It goes in front of, but doesn’t replace, my Baking With Julia because it offers more instruction, better photography, and more varied recipes.  Allam and McGuinness really did a fantastic job of putting their knowledge onto these pages, and Murdoch knocked it out of the park in the design and layout.

A final note for beginners, if you are intimidated by kneading, there is a book called “Kneadlessly Simple” by one of my favorite authors, Nancy Baggett which you may want to research and perhaps try as a way to build up to these other books.

Singapore

Hello everyone! I’m in Singapore for a few days, trying not to melt in the heat while lugging camera bags throughout town with the world’s best guide from the Singapore Tourism Board.  I’m thissssssss close to having my mail forwarded here and just not coming back except, well, I’d miss my family more than anything. But the food! The food! The food! I’ll have upcoming posts about this magical place that has stolen my heart in ways I never expected. Yea, I knew the food would be good but this place is off the chain, y’all. I mean that. And Mom? Call me when I get back so I can explain what off the chain means. It’s nothing bad. It’s just how we do.

My gosh I love this place.