BitterSweet

Sweet Musings with a Bitterly Sharp Wit


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Illuminating Secrets to Mouth-Watering Photography

Contrary to popular belief, the key factor in achieving enticing images of food is not the camera you use and how many megapixels it has, but how you choose to light the scene.  For many professional photographers, this means buying numerous pricey studio lights, not to mention the never ending list of accessories, tools, and toys needed to properly manipulate the quality of that light. As more hobbyists have discovered a passion for food photography and food blogs became ubiquitous, however, this industry standard is rapidly changing. Preferring a softer, more “realistic” look as you might find the food in your own home, natural light is frequently the best choice for creating the most appealing shots, and one that I typically go with as well, despite easy access strobe lights. Knowing a few tips and tricks, put to use with plenty of practice, can enable anyone to capture luscious food photos worth drooling over.

The list of essential equipment is very short: A serviceable digital camera or camera phone, a dish you’d like to capture, and light are the only absolutely essential ingredients. For best effect, it’s highly recommended that you save your photo sessions for bright, sunny days, and aim to start shooting any time from late morning until sunset, for the best intensity of light to work with. Taking photos at different times of the day will yield varying results and some interesting, more atmospheric or moody effects, due to the higher or lower positions of the sun, so don’t be afraid to try different hours to see which you like best.

Though you’re always looking to use bright sunlight, avoid placing the dish in direct sunlight, as this will cast harsh shadows and highlights, making it difficult to properly expose. Make sure that all indoor tungsten lights are turned off so that subject doesn’t cast two shadows, giving the scene a clearly staged, unnatural look. Additionally, be aware of any ambient lighting inside that might cast confusing colors or shadows over the set. Tungsten bulbs, the most common type found in household lamps, can give off a slightly yellow-tinted light, as they range from 2500 – 3500 degrees Kelvin, so they’re never a good choice when photographing food.

It’s generally a good idea to arrange your food with the window light shining in behind it, to act as a back light. This tends to be most flattering, as it gently showers soft shadows evenly over the front, from the angle which you’ll be capturing it. The sunlight can also work nicely at either side, but if the light is too bright, it will give the food an overly-dramatic feeling, much like split lighting for portrait photography. As a rule, I never place the food so that sunlight hits it from the front, for the same reason that I would suggest never using the flash built into your camera: It flattens out the subject, giving a “deer in headlights” appearance. Font-flash is as unflattering on inanimate objects as it is on people!

If you find that the shadows are too dark, there’s still no need to bring out a secondary source of light; carefully placed mirrors can be just as effective, not to mention the fact that they’re far more budget-friendly.  By adjusting the mirrors so that they bounce the sunlight back into the darkest areas of the subject, you’ll be able to keep the same natural, soft lighting all over, but bring out more detail in the textures that would otherwise become lost due to low light. In a pinch, you can fashion a close facsimile with aluminum foil covering a piece of cardboard, folded and propped up at your desired angle. The same technique can be used with white poster board, or even gold fabric reflectors, to lend a warmer hue to  the image.

On the other hand, should you find that your window light is too “hot,” meaning that it’s blowing out the detail in the highlights, you can very easily diffuse it with everyday household items. Taping a large sheet of white parchment paper over the entire window will soften the light very effectively, as long as you ensure that there are no gaps where the light can escape and create a dappled look on your subject.  If there’s just one small area of your food that’s too bright, you can use the opposite tack as you would with mirrors; Use a black card, or piece of cardboard covered in black construction paper, angled to block the offending highlights. These cards can be cut to any size needed, so they’re very versatile.

With experience, the proper lighting setup will become second nature. With just a bit of creativity and a willingness to experiment, you’ll be able to create food photos that look every bit as delicious as the pros. Once you learn to master the light already at your disposal, the only thing you’ll need is a sumptuous dish to feature, and you’ll be well on your way!

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Dip, Dip, Hooray

In the battle for snack supremacy, the competition is fierce, but a few front runners have emerged from the pack. Potential winners are obvious from any vantage point in the bleachers, if you just take a moment to look at the odds. Think back and try to remember the last time you attended a decent party that didn’t have a bottomless bowlful of hummus on display, for starters. And what would Taco Tuesday be without nacho cheese in ample supply- Maybe just Tortilla Tuesday? All bets are off when it comes to picking a winner between the two, but I think I have a solution that neither side would see as a compromise.

Nacho hummus, bearing all the cheesy, spicy decadence of a good queso dip with the more substantial heft of a chickpea spread. The two rivals complement and contrast one another with surprising ease, a natural union that has been long overdue.

Whether you smear it in a pita, thin it out to drizzle on corn chips, or just set it out with cut vegetable crudites and let the crowd go wild, it’s a fool-proof formula deserving of a gold medal.

Nacho Hummus

1 14-Ounce Can (or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained and Rinsed
1/2 Red Pepper, Seeded and Roasted, Chopped
1/3 Cup Nutritional Yeast
1 Tablespoon Tomato Paste
1 Chipotle Pepper Packed in Adobo Sauce
1 Clove Garlic, Chopped
1/4 Cup Lemon Juice
3 Tablespoons Tahini
1 Teaspoon Dijon Mustard
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
3/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Smoked Paprika
1/4 – 3/4 Teaspoon Cayenne Pepper
1/4 – 1/3 Cup Olive Oil
Thinly Sliced Scallions, to Garnish (Optional)

Like any other hummus variant, this dip couldn’t be easier or quicker to prepare. Toss the chickpeas, roasted red pepper, tomato paste, chipotle, and garlic, and lemon juice into your food processor. Pulse to being breaking down the ingredients and pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add in the tahini, mustard, and all the seasonings and spices, starting with just 1/4 teaspoon of cayenne.

Puree, and while the motor is running, slowly drizzle in the olive oil, until the mixture is silky-smooth and it reaches your desired consistency. If you’d like it to be more of a sauce than a spread, follow that with water or vegetable stock, as needed. Adjust the spice level to taste.

Top with sliced scallions and dip the day away!

Makes 6 – 10 Servings as an Appetizer

Printable Recipe


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Scary Good Sweets

’tis time! ’tis time!
Round about the caldron go;
Double, double toil and trouble;
Fire burn, and caldron bubble.

Fear not, dear readers. The bubbling hell broth on my stove on this crisp October evening is not poison, nor calls for such unpleasant inclusions as eye of newt or baboon’s blood. Quite the contrary, the glowing orange brew cooking away on my fire lands distinctly on the opposite end of that spectrum, farm from poison, or similarly tricky “treats.”

Forget the laundry list of obscure magical inclusions. Candy is possible not only with simple everyday ingredients, but wholesome staples that wouldn’t spook the healthiest of goblins- Or their parents.

Pumpkin spice, straight to the point, possesses these gummy morsels with more than a merely haunting flavor. Spirited seasonal sweetness rings true in each chewy bite, casting an impossibly enchanting spell. Quantities may look small, but each batch produces a bountiful harvest of tiny pumpkin pieces, so there should be plenty to appease any hungry apparitions that arrive as the witching hour approaches. That said, they’re so quick and effortless to whip up, it may not be such a bad idea to stock up, before those charming costumed creatures turn into ravenous monsters.

This fearfully addictive snack was inspired and made possible by the devilish Pumpkin Spice Extract by Rodelle.

Pumpkin Spice Gummies

1/2 Cup Pumpkin Puree
1 Cup Apple Juice Concentrate
1 1/2 Tablespoons Agar Powder
1 Teaspoon Pumpkin Spice Extract or Pumpkin Spice Blend

Have four mini pumpkin candy molds at the ready, or a comparable shape. Alternately, you can line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with foil and plan to simply cut out gummy squares. Just be sure to lightly grease the foil before proceeding.

Whisk all of the ingredients in a small saucepan until smooth and set over medium heat. Stir gently but consistently; you should start to feel the mixture thicken almost instantly. Continue scraping the bottom and sides of the pan as you stir to prevent sticking or burning, until the mixture is sticky but spoonable. It will be so dense that it doesn’t quite come to a boil, but should bubble up around the edges quite a bit.

Smooth the mixture into your molds as quickly as possible, is the candy sets up very quickly. Let stand at room temperature until fully set; at least 20 – 30 minutes. Pop the pumpkins out of the molds and trim away any excess, if necessary. Store in an air-tight container in the fridge for 5 – 7 days… If they don’t mysteriously disappear first…

Makes About 60 Mini Pumpkin Gummies

Printable Recipe


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Bae Goals

It must be something in the water. Perhaps it’s something in the air. Surely, there’s some secret ingredient that separates true bagels from merely ring-shaped buns. What else could explain the mystique behind “authentic” New York bagels, impossible to replicate beyond city borders? Defined more by texture than flavor, burnished crusts lacquered with any variety of seeds and salt give way to distinctive density and chew that enthusiasts laud. A quick dip in a boiling vat of malt-enriched alkaline water is the key factor that makes a bagel more than mere bread, much like soft pretzels.

Simple enough in concept, but intimidating in execution. Traditional recipes call for lye, in all its caustic glory, which is threatening enough to send me straight to the bakery, rather than the kitchen. Bagels were longtime residents on my list of baking goals, growing longer and less likely to be accomplished with every passing year. That was until I joined forces with chef Philip Gelb and lucked into one of his infamous bagel baking classes.

Demystifying the yeasted rings with a no-nonsense approach that anyone with even a passing culinary curiosity could happily jump right into, all fears of failure evaporated along with the rising steam.

Baking soda stands in for the deadly lye, reducing the risk of severe bodily harm right off the bat. Believe it or not, all the rest is fairly standard procedure; a vigorous mixing, resting and rising, shaping, and baking are all that separate you from savory satisfaction. No satanic incantations, obscure tinctures, nor acts of God need apply.

Bagels can take shape either by punching out the centers with a quick jab of the fingers, or rolled into snakes and connected at the ends. Personally, I prefer to poke out the middles as there’s less danger of them coming undone in the bubbling water bath.

Though technically optional, it’s hard to beat the classic “everything” topping, a melange that can include almost a full shelf out of the average pantry, which can make up for almost any other shortcomings. Instantly evoking that classic deli flavor, it’s actually the onion flakes that I find most essential to the combination. All else is flexible, but if you’re truly flummoxed by the proper ratios, you can even buy ready-made blends. Such shortcuts are completely acceptable when you go through the trouble of baking the bagels from scratch, if you ask me.

Purists will argue until they’re blue in the face about what makes for the best bagels, but this much I know is true: Nothing beats the ones coming out of your own oven, hot and fresh, just barely cool enough to slice. Such beauty needs no further toasting to perfect (perish the thought!) but a thick schmear of hummus or cream cheese never hurts.

World Bread Day, October 16, 2017

I’m delighted to finally share such a delicious victory today for the 11th annual World Bread Day. After so much agita, it’s a joy to finally take this project off my list of lofty goals, and move it onto the list of everyday staples. Don’t buy into the hype- Or the sad, stale carb bombs sold in most grocery stores. Even if you’re not a bagel-fanatic, baking is believing!

Bagels
By Chef Philip Gelb of Sound & Savor

1 Teaspoon Active Dry Yeast
4 Tablespoons Rice Malt, Barley Malt, or Agave, Divided
2 Cups Warm Water (105 Degrees Fahrenheit)
1 Teaspoon Salt
2 Cups Whole Wheat Flour
3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Soda
Dried Garlic, Dried Onion, Sesame Seeds, Poppy Seeds, and/or Coarse Salt (Optional)

In a large bowl, combine the yeast, 1 tablespoon of malt, and the warm water. Let the yeast proof until the surface becomes foamy; about 5 minutes. Whisk in the salt. Add the whole wheat flour and 2 cups of the all-purpose flour, stirring with a wooden spoon until incorporated.

Place the dough on a sturdy, clean surface and slowly work in the rest of the all-purpose flour. Knead for 10 minutes or until smooth and elastic. Coat the dough with olive oil, place in a bowl, and cover tightly with a clean dish towel.

Let rise until the dough has doubled in volume; about 1 hour, though time may vary greatly due to temperature and altitude.

After the dough has doubled, knead it lightly for 1 minute. Divide the dough into 12 equal parts. Roll each piece into log and then fold it into a circle, firmly pressing the seam together. Place each bagel on a lightly floured surface, cover with a clean towel, and let rise until doubled; about 1 hour.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 500 degrees and place a baking stone inside, if using. Otherwise, the bagels can be baked on a standard sheet pan. In a large pot, bring 3 quarts of water to a boil and add the baking soda along with the remaining 3 tablespoons of malt. The baking soda is necessary to properly texture and brown the bagels.

After the bagels finish their second rise, boil each bagel for 1 minute on each side, keeping the water at a consistent, rapid boil.

Now your bagels are ready to bake. If you want, you can top them with any or all of the seasonings your heart desires, patting them gently into the top to make sure they adhere. Transfer carefully to your baking stone or sheet pan, and bake for about 15 minutes.

The bagels are best served within 15 minutes of emerging from the oven!

Makes 12 Bagels

Printable Recipe


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Son of a Butcher

Snaking past the illuminated case of thin-sliced meats and artisan cheeses, spilling out the door and onto the sidewalk, the line is already at least 15 deep, and it’s not even noon yet. Any respectable food establishment in downtown Berkeley will inevitably experience the usual lunch rush on any given day, but The Butcher’s Son is guaranteed to be more or less a mob scene no matter the hour. After a year and a half of slinging sandwiches to these hungry hordes, their popularity shows no sign of waning, nor the excitement from dying down. Eavesdrop on the masses already tucking into their oversized sandwiches for encouragement to endure the wait; exclamations of deep, primal joy echo off the walls, speaking louder than any formal review.

Salads and fried snacks round out the menu, but make no mistake, it’s all about the sandwiches here. Overstuffed with plant-based meats and dairy-free cheeses, these generous assemblages transcend the boundaries separating vegans and omnivores. Scores of staunch meat eaters have been shocked to discover that this old school deli is entirely flesh-free, even after devouring a full meal. There’s a certain finesse to the casual fare that reveals dedication to the craft that can only come from passion and attention to detail.

Each towering creation is a feat of culinary architecture. The Fried Mozzarella & Meatball could comfortably satisfy two diners, and the Roast Beef Reuben piles on thinly shaved beefless slices and sauerkraut with the same enthusiasm.

Bestsellers include the BLAT, a classic combination of bacon, lettuce, avocado, and tomato, straight to the point and sure to satisfy any nostalgic cravings. It’s tough to leave without ordering the Pulled Pork though, a saucy, smoky barbecue sensation that’s crowned with tender strings of caramelized onions and creamy coleslaw.

Groaning, straining within the confines of one’s previously well-fitting pants, it would behoove the average diner to reach for a takeout box early on. Resist the temptation of cleaning the plate, no matter how strongly the urge strikes. Besides, there’s still dessert to consider. Don’t overlook the pastry case, stocked with a rotating selection of pies, cheesecakes, cookies, doughnuts, cannoli, flaky croissants, and all variety of other sweet surprises. Just in case you need a meaty fix throughout the week, cold cuts and cheese are sold by the pound, right alongside house-made sour pickles.

Come hungry and early to secure a table, especially for the epic weekend bunch menu. This isn’t your average delicatessen, but the overall experience wouldn’t lead you to think it was any different.

The Butcher’s Son
1941 University Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704


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A Very Merry Unbirthday to You!

Birthdays come and birthdays go. Some are occasions to rejoice, some are best forgotten. Ready or not, they happen to the best of us, and we find a way to struggle through, as it sure beats the alternative. For the remaining 364 days a year, we tend to gloss over the fact that we’re still getting older, still surviving to see another morning; why shouldn’t we celebrate that too? Treat yourself to a nice dinner because it’s Monday. Splurge on some fancy olive oil because you answered all your emails. Throw yourself a party because you damn well feel like it. Most importantly of all, eat cake simply because it’s delicious.

Birthday cake is the first thing that came to mind upon cracking open a bottle of baker’s extract, my new favorite secret ingredient. Primarily vanilla but so much more, Rodelle describes it as having notes of chocolate, caramel, cream and oak mingling within the dark emulsion. If you ask me, it’s like vanilla with the dial turned up to 11. Robust and smooth, just a few drops add incredible richness and complexity to any sweet treat, which is why I’ve been reaching for this bottle more often than not. Blend it into pancakes for legitimate cakes made in a pan. Add a splash to a protein drink transform it into a cake batter milkshake. In the case of today’s recipe, mix things up with simple cereal bars, and create an everyday birthday treat.

The much beloved childhood cereal bar morphs into a convincing cookie and cake hybrid with just a few small tweaks. Crunchy, chewy squares of crisp rice are bound together with a simple sticky syrup, bolstered by that extraordinary baker’s extract and just a touch of cake flour to really cement the theme. White chocolate stands in for frosting, keeping these snacks packable, portable, and perfectly suited for whipping up on every unbirthday you please. Speaking of which, don’t you have one coming up soon, too? Maybe you should start planning your next batch right now.

Though technically optional, I would argue that it’s really not a birthday without sprinkles, so err on the side of whimsy and let it rain. If you really insist on being an adult about it, chopped nuts could be an acceptable topping as well… Albeit considerably less fancy-free.

This post was made possible thanks to Rodelle and their sweet contributions.

Birthday Cake Crispy Rice Treats

5 Cups Crispy Brown Rice Cereal
3 Tablespoons Cake Flour
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter
1/2 Cup Light Agave Nectar
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1 Teaspoon Rodelle Baker’s Extract

6 Ounces (About 1 Cup) Chopped Vegan White Chocolate, Homemade or Store-Bought
1 – 3 Tablespoons Assorted Sprinkles

Line an 8 x 8-inch square baking pan with aluminum foil and lightly grease. Combine the cereal and flour in a large bowl; set aside.

Set a medium saucepan over low heat and begin by melting the butter. Once liquefied, add in the agave, sugar, and salt, stirring as needed until the sugar crystals dissolve. Bring the mixture to a steady boil and then cook for an additional 3 – 5 minutes, until it appears to have thickened slightly. Remove from the heat and quickly stir in the both extracts.

Pour the contents of your saucepan over the dry mix and fold it in carefully but briskly with a wide non-stick spatula, being careful not to crush the cereal.

Transfer the sticky mixture into your prepared pan and gently press it out into an even layer. It’s easiest if you grease the bottom of a flat measuring cup and use that to smooth it down, applying firm downward strokes across the full pan of cereal.

Seal the deal by melting down the white chocolate and pouring it on top. Distribute the sprinkles equally across the top, and let the chocolate cool until set. Slice and celebrate!

Makes 10 – 12 Bars

Printable Recipe