BitterSweet

An Obsession with All Things Handmade and Home-Cooked


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Fun with Fondant

For someone who loves making layer cakes, my decorating skills are fairly deplorable. Sloppy, crumb-flecked swaths of frosting make up the base of every creation, a veritable ocean of sugary waves caught in a tsunami, leaping higher and rougher with every turn of the lazy Susan. Carefully fitted piping bags save me from utter embarrassment, covering up the worst of my frosting offenses, but even then my ability to create edible art is severely limited. Seashell borders? Simple rosettes? Done and done. Anything fancier and you’re out of luck. I can’t begin to recall how many grand plans for grand, sky-high layer cakes have turned into plain little cupcakes because of these shortcomings. The basic swirl is one technique I’ve managed to master after eight years of practice.


Naked Mint-Chocolate Chip Cupcakes (The “Before” Shot)

Considering my difficulty in this edible art form, I don’t know why I didn’t investigate different options sooner. Fondant has seen a huge rise in popularity over the years thanks to reality TV; every bakery special enough to get a slot in prime time seems to specialize in the stuff, peddling what seems to be more fondant than actual cake. Now it’s a startling rarity to find a wholly buttercream-covered confection, especially on the large scale. That said, it needn’t be as intimidating, as difficult, or as tasteless as detractors [myself included] frequently grouse.

Thanks to the kindness of Yolli, I was granted the gift of a few goodies to play with. Instantly, I was drawn to the enigma that is ready-to-roll fondant. Some contain gelatin, but those featured in the shop clearly list ingredients and even go so far as to label themselves as “suitable for vegetarians.” Though homemade vegan fondant is certainly possible, I wouldn’t venture to say that it’s either quick or easy. These colored rectangles of sugar dough take a huge amount of hassle out of the equation.

Even with the aide of meticulously designed fondant cutters, my first few flowers were laughably bad. I can’t say that practice made perfect, but I quickly saw the results improve with every additional petal. Most surprising of all was the flavor: Not dreadful! Sure, it’s mostly sweet and bland, but not nearly as loathsome as so many pastry aficionados claim, and quite enjoyable once dry and crunchy. Consider me a convert.

I would hardly consider myself an expert after just one attempt at sculpting, but there were a few tips that stood out in my mind as helpful hints to share with prospective sugar crafters…

  • Start small, stay small. Especially when you’re modeling individual pieces, rather than working on a big sheet to cover a cake, the key to fondant success is to only work with as much material as you can fit in your hand at one time. For all six flowers I created, including all of their multiple layers, a scant marble-sized piece was more than enough to do the job. Excess fondant dries out quickly, especially once rolled thin, making it crackle when re-worked and generally difficult to manage. After about 3 – 4 hours in a dry place, the pieces will completely harden like air-drying modeling clay.
  • There is definitely such a thing as being too thin. Roll out the sheets of fondant to perhaps a millimeter or two thicker than you’d like the final piece to be, because you’ll be stretching it subtly as you shape it. It may not sound like a lot on paper, but when you’re dealing with such fragile pieces, it makes a world of difference. This is especially true of bigger sheets that are used to blanket an entire cake. Corners and edges put a lot of stress on the plasticized sugar, so allow those pieces much greater girth than you would want for finer, smaller ornamentation.
  • Allow yourself plenty of time. Estimate that it will take at least an hour longer than you’d prefer, and then you might make a closer estimate of what sort of time is require to complete the job. Patience is critical; rushed sculpting is guaranteed to look sloppy, no matter how experienced the sugar artist is.
  • Be liberal with your use of confectioner’s sugar. Rather than flouring your counters before rolling out, it’s vital that the fondant is rolled out in confectioner’s sugar to prevent it from sticking to the counter. Excess sugar is easily absorbed into the dough, leaving no trace of the white powder in the end. Going too lightly on the application will lead to a sticky, frustrating mess. Don’t forget to dust the top of your fondant rounds, the rolling pin, and any cutting tools, too.
  • Toothpicks are your best tools. Keep plenty of them on hand to help punch out shapes that cling to the insides of cutters, carve out subtle impressions on leaves, and poke indentations or holes, depending on what you want to craft. They’re cheap, accessible, and helpful in any project. You don’t need to go out and buy a whole arsenal of specialty stamps and cutters; small cookie cutters work just as well, and provide a greater range of shapes in general.
  • Just try it! I’m terrible at sculpting, no two ways about it, but practice, sticking with simple shapes, and not over-thinking the process can create some sweet results.


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Brown Out

Of all the food styling challenges to darken any visual artists’ day, the exasperated complaint that a particular dish is “too brown” to photograph nicely comes up more often than the average eater might imagine. Considering how many edibles are naturally brown, not to mention that the act of browning through high heat is what makes scores of culinary creations truly delicious, that’s one huge stumbling block to overcome. Banish those old prejudices- Brown really can be beautiful! With just a little bit of planning and attention to detail, there are many ways to prevent a photographic brown out.

When scheming up the overall color palate for any shot, always first consider the color of the food itself. To allow the “hero” to stand out, you want something contrasting, but not jarring.

Think about the occasion you’re making the recipe for. Holidays often come with their own distinctive sets of hues, but try to go beyond the cliched green-and-red for Christmas or orange-and-black for Halloween. Try to picture the mood instead; shimmering white snow around the winter holidays for a more sophisticated palate, or earthy greens and coppery gold for the changing autumnal leaves.

Take the mood you’re trying to set into consideration, too. Fun, whimsical kid’s birthday cake on display? Go bold, bright, and vibrant with those shades! Cozy breakfast in bed with pancakes? Stick with soft, warm tones that echo the soothing morning glow instead.

If you’re still stuck for the perfect accent colors, consider the individual ingredients in your featured dish. Chocolate-cherry cookies bake up a muddy brown, but a vibrant red-violet background would get the point across quite nicely.

There are no hard and fast rules when it comes to art, but when all else fails, go back to basics. Simple white plates are invaluable for keeping the focus on the food, brightening up those darker shades, and preventing visual fatigue brought on by busy patterns. The same principle applies to white backgrounds as well. Subtle textures like stone, fabric, and wood prevent the food from “floating” in the frame, without fighting for attention.

Emphasize texture so it doesn’t appear flat, shapeless, and quite simply boring. Raking the light across the subject, rather than shining it directly into it, shows off all the nooks and crannies of a cake’s crumb, no matter how dark and plain.

Don’t forget about the garnishes! Nothing perks up a boring, bland-looking stew like a sprinkling of fresh herbs. That bright green color tells viewers, “Look, this is fresh!” no matter how long it’s been simmering on the stove. Depending on the flavors being featured, consider reaching for crushed red pepper flakes, chili threads, salsa, edible flowers, berries; anything that makes sense with the dish and breaks up that sea of flat brown color.

Although these are my most commonly employed tricks for managing a photographic brown-out, that’s just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to creative solutions. Every composition will demand something different, which is where the artistry of food styling and prop styling comes into play. When you have a brown situation on your hands, what’s your favorite fix?


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Smoke and Mirrors

ISO 100, f/3.5 @ 1/125 second

Canon Digital Rebel XTi
Canon EF50mm f/1.2L USM
Calumet Genesis 200 strobe with rectangular softbox

Steam rising from a dish tells a powerful and immediately understood story: This food is hot, freshly prepared, and waiting for you to dig in right away. Few elements can elicit an appetite response as readily, even when the viewer is far removed from the scene itself. Let’s not forget what an elegant, dreamlike quality it can add to an image, thinking of it purely as an artistic element. No wonder why the above image garnered so many comments and questions! Capturing that natural steam, rather than Photoshopping it in after the fact, is so difficult that most professionals don’t even attempt it. It’s simply easier and yields more consistent results to hire a post-processing genius and paint in a smokey plume exactly as desired. However for the creative photographer up for a challenge, it’s completely possible and well worth experimenting with.

There are a few key elements for successfully photographing something as elusive as steam:

  • Use a dark background so that the smoke or steam stands out. Sadly, you will never be successful with this technique shooting on white. Think high contrast, high drama!
  • Arrange the set so that you have a bright back light or side light. Don’t use too much fill light, because you’ll flatten out all the detail, rather than show off the textures.
  • Most critical of all, have everything on the set arranged as you want it before you start cooking, so that you don’t have to fiddle around with the composition when the food is ready. That also means getting the right exposure (or at least, dialing it in as closely as possible) so you can just pick up the camera and start shooting. That is very important because…
  • You must shoot the food IMMEDIATELY! Don’t give it a chance to cool, don’t fuss around styling it for ages; just plate it and shoot it. A more casual approach works well for most steam shots, because they look like “a slice of life,” being served just as you might see it at home.
  • Don’t over-think it, and don’t psych yourself out. Yes, you must work quickly, but that’s no reason to freak out. If it doesn’t work, you’ll still get delicious images, just without the steam.

Perhaps the biggest secret of all, though, is that the food or drink doesn’t actually have to be hot or steaming. Yep, it’s true, I did cheat on the above photo. That coffee was about room temperature through and through. The trouble with faking it is the risk that your results won’t look as natural, but it’s a fun technique worth playing with at least once. Now, you’ll have to suspend your doubts for a moment and listen with an open mind, because that steam that seems to be rising from the coffee cup? … It came from a tampon, nuked in the microwave.

An unused, brand new tampon, of course! Soaked in water for a minute and then microwaved for 60 – 90 seconds until steaming, I hid it as well as possible just behind the mug and snapped away. As I circled in white above, you can see the tiny shadow that I couldn’t quite avoid, and then what it looked like on the set. (I placed the tampon in a jar lid so that it didn’t get the decorative paper wet.)

Adding steam separately like this gives you the advantage of working with food prepared in advance, and shooting multiple times without reheating and over-cooking the food itself. Plus, you won’t get any condensation on the rim of bowls or glasses. Just be sure to hide that tampon very well- It might be somewhat tricky to explain to the casual viewer.

Spelling out the setup here: I used a large softbox for the key light to the back-left of the set, a white board to bounce light back into the side, and then sunlight was the main light that came in through the window at the back-right corner. No mirrors were used to avoid strange circular highlights on the glass.

Trust me, it’s not nearly as tricky or complicated as it may seem at first!  Have you successfully photographed steam? Do you think you’d try it now?


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Food Styling 101: Burritos

When I put out the call for your food styling stumbling blocks after a quick primer on ugly foods, the responses were greatly varied, but a few particular dishes stood out from the pack.  Burritos caught my eye first, as more than one or two people named them as particularly uncooperative photography subjects. For good reason, these tortilla torpedoes are notoriously difficult to photograph in an appealing light; Packed with generally brown, red, and maybe yellow components, they’re not exactly bright rainbows of fresh ingredients. It’s easy for them to look tired, droopy, sloppy, or just plain greasy.

The good news is, there’s no need for them to ever appear that way through the lens! Although I would never suggest that I compose burritos like this for an everyday meal, special considerations do need to be made when they’re the “hero” of a shot.

As I was styling and photographing this particular specimen, I tried to think of tips and tricks that helped bring it into the world looking like a glamorous movie star, and not a second rate stand-in. Here’s what I came up with so that others might be able to fix their burrito blemishes…

  • Bear in mind which side you want to be “up” as you build a burrito. If you want the top to be smooth tortilla, then What you lay down first will end up on top. If you don’t mind a “flap” from the tortilla edges on top, then you can build it right-side up.
  • Try to keep mushier components to the bottom, so that when you slice it, they don’t smear through all of the following layers. This means guacamole, re-fried beans, hummus, and the like are better placed near the base of your assembly.
  • Include a good number of greatly varied layers, but don’t go overboard. 4 – 5 different things is about the maximum before it starts to just look like a mess of everything you had leftover in the fridge.
  • Be generous, but don’t over-stuff. A burrito blow out is never attractive.
  • Make sure you include something green, somewhere. Herbs, grilled zucchini, avocado chunks, anything! Green evokes the feeling of freshness, which helps to prevent the burrito from looking like a sad, reheated gas station offering. It also adds pops of contrasting color to create interest.
  • Strain salsa and other “wet” condiments to prevent a watery, mushy mess. Likewise, dab sliced tomatoes on a paper towel to remove some of the excess liquid before adding them to a burrito (or sandwich, for that matter.)
  • Save small amounts of every ingredient, to “fluff up” filling later. This is most noticeable in the beans- I like to show half of the sliced pieces to give it a more realistic look, but add in a few more whole ones to give it more texture and variety. Be sure to toss those whole beans in just a dab of oil to keep them shiny, or brush on a very thin layer with a clean paintbrush once they’re in place.
  • Use toothpicks to keep the roll intact. I usually start with one at each end, and break off the excess so that they’re not sticking out and visible. Then, as I cut and rearrange the pieces, I may add more in as needed. Just don’t forget that they’re there when you go to eat it later!
  • To cut your burrito, use a sharp knife, and apply gentle pressure while using a sawing motion. Don’t just smash the blade down and crush the fragile ingredients within.

Then, when it comes to capturing your burrito masterpiece…

  • Think about the “meal” as a whole to fill out the rest of the set. Consider including a beverage, sliced citrus, chips, dip, fresh herb garnish, and other simple, colorful, or graphic elements to add interest surrounding the subject.
  • Keep the colors light, bright, and clean. A burrito tends to look heavy by nature, so you want to balance that out with contrasting elements.
  • Use a mirror to direct a “spotlight” right onto the filling. Since I prefer a back light for most of my photos (just place the plate in front of the window, easy as that), the cut sides have a tendency to go dark unless otherwise highlighted.
  • Shoot from a low angle so you can see all of that glorious filling!

That concludes this class on burrito styling. Are there any more questions before we move on to the next? Raise your hand, speak up, and I’d be happy to go on! Don’t be afraid to suggest the next subject either, because if everyone enjoyed this, you can count on the Food Styling 101 series to become a regular feature here!

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