An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


Ugly but Tasty

It’s a conundrum that anyone who’s cooked even the bare minimum of meals has undoubtedly run into; the tastiest dishes are often the messiest, homeliest, and downright most unattractive of foods. Not an issue for the eater, who can simply close their eyes and take that first tentative taste, to realize the potential concealed by such an unassuming first impression. For a photographer, however, the added difficulty stems from the fact that viewers can only eat with their eyes. No matter how delicious you think your recipe for chili casserole is, without proper styling and propping, it will never look like anything more than muddy beans in a dish. Some foods are naturally photogenic and need little if any makeup before making their photographic debut, but others need a bit of love, and a whole lot of finesse.

Oatmeal is one particularly tricky food to capture in an appealing way. Lumpy, beige mush that goes on forever. It’s all about the toppings in this situation. Sparingly sprinkle berries (always lovely and great for color), nuts, or even chocolate chips if you want to give it a more decadent feel around the edges of the bowl. Make sure you leave enough of the actual oatmeal exposed so that it doesn’t end up looking like a bowl of fruit salad, though- If need be, add more of those beautifying ingredients around the bowl itself, as if there were so many extras, they’re simply overflowing. Move them into the background to reinforce what went into the oatmeal, sort of like a subconscious reminder.

Soups, stews, and other lumpy, semi-liquid meals share many of the same difficulties as oatmeal. You have more options here though, as any colorful veggie will instantly brighten up the picture. Green peas are my go-to addition whenever possible. Take frozen peas out of the freezer and simply thaw them under warm water. Add them after the dish is completely finished cooking so that they don’t turn brown, and leave a few out until the final plating. Insert your last few peas individually to make sure that they’re visible, but try to blend them in with a thin layer of sauce, so they don’t actually look like they’ve been placed there after the fact.

Everyone always loves seeing chocolate, but it can pose a few problems for a photographer. It’s one of the items I get many questions about, as chocolate bars in particular often give others trouble, looking more like dog droppings than candy. Isolation is key here, so that the brown-ness doesn’t just continue to blend into the background and look like a crappy smudge (pun intended.) No wood grain backgrounds for me, thanks! Go with a light, bright color or simply white to provide contrast, and most certainly a white plate if you plan to use one. Cut-away photos are always a big hit if possible, so that you can let viewers see inside the chocolates and understand the contents (and thus flavors) better. A grouping of a few chocolates can also be effective, but be careful not to overcrowd the scene.

Ice cream is a legendary troublemaker on the set, but I have to say, I don’t find it to be such a pain to work with.  Though most people wouldn’t categorize it as “ugly food,” it goes from lovely and all made up to a droopy, gloppy, and unappetizing mess in mere minutes.  The key is speed and efficiency; Have your set all assembled and ready to go, white balance and exposure adjusted, and bowls empty and waiting before you take the ice cream out of the freezer. Limit yourself to a maximum of two bowls or scoops in the beginning, because it takes too much time to get that “perfect” sphere so many times over. As soon as the ice cream hits the set, snap like the wind; take as many photos as you can, from as many different angles, so that you can have a large number of greatly varied shots to choose from. Ideally, this should give you a better likelihood of getting that winning photo in one go. And don’t worry if the scoops don’t look perfect- They shouldn’t look dry and immaculate like colored mashed potatoes! A bit of melting or dripping fudge sauce makes for a mouthwatering effect.

Food in jars, no matter what the main ingredient, has the odds stacked against it. Typically long-simmered or preserved to a mummified state, they lack the brightness that fresh produce could offer. The key is to bring light, and plenty of it, into the frame. Try to shine light directly through the glass jars from behind, to give it a warm “glow.” Add fresh ingredients around the jars, to give viewers an idea of what vibrant produce went into making those pickles or jam. Remove some of the contents of the jars, and style them as you would expect to eat them; on toast, in a sandwich, etc.

The list can go on until the end of time, but these are the top five that come to my mind first. What are your ugliest dishes, and most difficult foods to photograph? If I get enough suggestions, perhaps there can be a part two for styling tips and tricks for these unphotogenic edibles!


Picture This

Change comes slowly, incrementally building while no one’s looking, until suddenly the vast difference can no longer be ignored. That fact had never been more clear while going over the raw manuscript of Vegan Desserts, and giving the photos their final assessment. Though all of the recipes already had photos taken about a year ago, some of them showed their age, and in the most unflattering way. Blurry focus, poor lighting, bizarre styling decisions plagued almost all; it was hard to believe that these images might have made it to print previously. Pictures speak louder than words, however, so I’ll let you see for yourself…

No decisions were easy here, and the originals weren’t bad enough for me to delete altogether, but it’s a curious thing to see the contrast between two (or three) photos of the same thing, taken with a good bit of time between them.  (The following photos are arranged with the first attempt(s) on the left, the final, printed photos on the right.)

This one was a particularly tough photo to ultimately reject, because the cute-factor is a whole new category not even touched in most food photos. Perhaps for a reason, though. Isis was so excited about her treat, she wouldn’t stay still, and thus is one blur of a puppy on film. Yes, my dad had to assist on this shot, both in holding the biscuit, and holding Isis back so that she didn’t wolf down the biscuit before I could snap a shot! Also note that the original version of the Canine Cookies were carob-coated, but that ended up smearing on the rug beautifully, so I switched to chips mixed in.

The Grasshopper Cake was really something else; a slightly intimidating multi-layer cake that could feed an army for a month. Or at least it felt that way, when I found myself redoing the photo not once, but twice to make three separate attempts altogether. Beginning life as a 4-layer, square cake, it became clear after that first failed shot that it was simply too much cake for any sensible person to bake up at once. Then, somehow, it turned neon-green on film, and looked downright radioactive. The final photo that went to print still could use some work in the lighting department, but at least the frosting doesn’t look like I mixed in day-glow wall paint as an ingredient.

My blood oranges may not have been such a luscious shade of crimson red the second time around, but the effect of seeing them arranged on the whole Blood Orange Upside-Down Cake was worth the effort of a full redo. Simply from an instructional view, it made more sense to show how the orange slices were laid out on the cake, to make it easier to replicate for the casual recipe reader. Plus, any excuse to break out the antique milk glass cake stand is one I want to use!

And the humiliating examples could go on, but I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. Have you ever taken a glance back at old photos and wondering what you were thinking? How this could have ever been acceptable? Give it a try, take a stroll down a photographic memory lane; It’s more entertaining than you may think!


April Showers Bring May Berries

Though April may feel like a thing of the distant past, long gone and almost entirely forgotten, it was indeed a rainy one. Gloomy, grey, and wet, it teased mercilessly of a lingering winter, a chill that could not be shaken embedded deep within the core of every moment. Finishing with hurricanes and floods, April sure did go out like a lion this year. But May, oh, lovely little May, did she ever make up for the previous month’s cruelty. Literally overnight, buds on trees appeared and exploded in a flourish of aromatic petals and vibrant green leaves. A forecast filled with nothing but sun for a full week, paired with temperatures around the mid-60’s? I think I can manage with that.

For all the anguish and strife caused by the nature of April, it always feels worth it once we emerge on the other side, into the glorious warmth that is inseparable from spring. Little did I know, there is even more reason to rejoice at the arrival of May; Apparently, it’s also National Strawberry Month. Though this declaration strikes me as being a bit premature, since local strawberries aren’t quite ready for the picking for another week or two, I’m happy to take the opportunity to enjoy one of my favorite fruits even more than usual.

Keeping things sweet and simple, all I wanted was a comforting, classic, strawberry cupcake. Bolstered by a base of strawberry puree in the cake, and topped off with a fresh strawberry frosting, these straight-forward but satisfying treats allow the berries to truly shine. Nothing fancy, no unexpected ingredients or big surprises, but a dessert that quite nearly flew off the kitchen counter as soon as my hungry family laid eyes on it.

What’s worth noting here is the topper- My new favorite means of decoration, as demonstrated by a little red heart this time around. Can you guess what it’s made of, and how?

Yes, it’s strawberry fruit leather! Provided by Stretch Island, I knew I wanted to do something different with these natural fruit snacks, other than just devouring them on the go. Since I have yet to taste fondant worth eating, I’m thrilled to find that fruit leather make for an excellent substitute when it comes to cutting out simple flat shapes like this. All you need are small cookie cutter that fit the size of the leather, and any fruit-flavored confetti or sprinkle you desire is at your fingertips. Although I usually purchase Trader Joe’s fruit leather based merely on the price point, I must admit, the splurge for Stretch Island would be worth it… It struck me how much softer and more flavorful it was!

Since I’ve been very disappointed by various strawberry frostings in the past, most of which are either bland or watery, this topping seemed noteworthy, despite its simplicity. If you’re still feeling stuck for the cake, simply take your favorite recipe for vanilla cupcakes, and swap out the non-dairy milk for fresh strawberry puree. Try throwing in a few chopped berries for added texture, too!

Strawberry Frosting

1/2 Cup Strawberry Puree Reduction*
1 Tablespoon Cornstarch
Pinch Salt
1/2 Cup Non-Dairy Margarine
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

*The strawberry puree reduction is ultra simple to make, but you must have patience. Just take fresh strawberries (at least 1/2 pound, but it’s easier to work with if you start with more berries and make extra puree) and thoroughly puree them in your blender or food processor, until completely smooth. If you prefer your frosting to be seedless, go ahead and strain your puree before proceeding. Transfer the berry goo into a medium sauce pan, and set over medium-low heat. Allow it to simmer gently until reduced by half; the amount of time will vary depending on the size and shape of your pot, so make sure you keep an eye on it and stir occasionally. Let cool completely, and measure out 1/2 cup for the frosting.

Place the 1/2 cup of strawberry puree reduction into a medium sauce pan, along with the cornstarch and salt. Whisk vigorously to dissipate any lumps of starch before turning on the heat to medium. Continue whisking gently until the mixture thickens and large bubbles begin to break on the surface. This won’t take very long since it’s a small amount of liquid, so don’t walk away! It takes mere seconds for it to scorch miserably on the bottom. Let cool to room temperature, and then place a piece of plastic wrap directly on the surface. Move the whole pot into your fridge to chill thoroughly- This should take about 1 – 2 hours.

Once the thickened strawberry mixture is completely chilled, place the margarine and sugar (yes, granulated! Do not try using confectioner’s here) in the bowl of your stand mixer, and cream together until homogenous. Don’t rush this step, as thorough creaming ensures that the sugar granules actually dissolve into the frosting; Allow a solid 3 – 5 minutes here, depending on how cold the margarine is. Finally, add the cooled strawberry mix into the bowl, along with the vanilla. Scrape down the sides as needed, and whip on high speed until the frosting is smooth, creamy, and fluffy. Again, patience is key, so give it time and you will be rewarded!

Makes Enough to Frost 1 Dozen Cupcakes Generously

Printable Recipe


Happy Tofurky Day!

Deeply mired in our collective culture and the butt of many a joke, the original Tofurky roast produced by Turtle Island Foods has managed to survive the infancy of veganism, if you will. Even at a time when your Aunt Betsy might that vegans still eat butter and cream, Tofurky was there to save the family dinner, for well over a decade now. Slowly evolving over the years from a modest main meant to serve four, paired with dubious-sounding dumpling “drumsticks,” the contents of a Vegetarian Feast finally deserve such a generous title. Though I had never before considered trying any of those previous incarnations, I can now vouch for the current 3 1/2 pound, all-inclusive Thanksgiving in a box, and let me tell you, it’s worth a taste.

Given the opportunity to review the Feast, it was an offer I couldn’t refuse. A vegan who hasn’t tried Tofurky? This was a situation in need of remedying before yet another holiday season came to pass. Made to serve six, the tofu-based roast is filled with wild rice stuffing, and is accompanied by “giblet” gravy, Wishstix, and my favorite part of any meal: Dessert. Amy’s Chocolate Cake, to be precise, which I already knew was a killer little loaf. Designed with the non-cook in mind, it takes only a little planning ahead and some rudimentary knife skills to serve up this celebratory meal in style. Roasted as instructed with a handful of vegetables that were already kicking about the kitchen, the most difficult part of serving a Tofurky is waiting the prescribed hour and half for it to cook to golden perfection, or two and half hours if you forgot to thaw it.

Emerging from its shrink-wrapped tomb looking about as enticing as an overinflated football, it requires a small leap of faith to overcome the lack of visual appeal. Given proper garnishing and a nice wide platter, it becomes quite the impressive entree once sliced thin and ready to serve.

And slice thin you must, as the instructions strongly admonish. Thankfully robust, this request is easily fulfilled, with no worry of tearing apart the roast inadvertently, even if your clumsy Cousin Louie takes over carving duties. Smelling unnervingly like actual poultry, some vegans may very well be turned off by such realism, but I don’t think that this meatless roast will really fool anyone. However, that’s not to say that it falls down in the taste department- Hardly! Surprisingly meaty, the texture was pleasantly chewy yet still tender with a somewhat generic but agreeable savory flavor. If you’re not sure about taking the plunge with a whole roast on Thanksgiving day, just try out the Oven Roasted Deli Slices first; They’re made of exactly the same stuff, but packaged in a more sandwich-friendly format.

Easily my favorite part, the wild rice stuffing provided a much needed textural contrast to the roast, along with adding a hearty starch to this festive meal. If only more could have been packed inside that small cavity! Fairly traditional with a gently herbaceous undertone, it stayed wonderfully moist despite the extended cooking time.

Starting life as a slightly disturbing separated mess in a plastic bag, I was quite leery of the “giblet” gravy from the start. Happily reconstituting with ease after just a minute or two of nuking in the microwave, things improved considerably once it finally hit the table. Although I personally prefer a slightly smoother gravy, the viscosity fits the bill quite nicely, clinging richly to each thin tofu slice while avoiding a gummy mouth feel. Falling on the saltier side of the tracks, the flavor is greatly improved with a very small dose of fresh chopped herbs, but few will object to it served as is.

Eventually, the meal nears a close, stomachs comfortably full, and the question of the Wishstix remains. How should this strange item be served? Literally made of two short pieces of Tofurky Jerky arranged as an “X,” I was somewhat as a loss with what to do with it, especially since there’s no way it could have accommodated six eaters like the rest of the meal was designed for. Ultimately opting to save them as a snack for later, I could have very happily done without this extra item. Does anyone actually serve a real wish bone anymore in the first place? Perhaps the nostalgia is simply lost on me, and other families will get a kick out of it.

Finally, the cake, simply defrosted and sliced, is a perfect ending to a memorable meal. Rich, chocolaty, and impossibly moist, it remains the best vegan chocolate cake available in mainstream stores, in my opinion. Even if all else fails and close-minded family members refuse to taste the festive roast, you will likely have to fight off the hordes to claim your slice of cake.

In case you find yourself at a loss this Thanksgiving or Holiday season, the Tofurky Vegetarian Feast is a safe bet to satisfy veggie guests. Even if you haven’t given a second thought to tomorrow’s holiday up until this point, Turtle Island Foods has made it possible to save the day and still pull out a remarkable meal with close to no effort. Truly, the snide comments and crude cracks about the classic Tofurky are uncalled for; if only those jokers would give it a taste!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,098 other followers