The other day I was chatting with my friend, the fabulous food blogger Shauna of Piece of Cake, when the topic of food bloggers came up (no surprise). We started comparing food bloggers (in a strictly non-catty way, if you can believe it) and how each food blogger had his or her own sensibility and style. Shauna viewed Blogger A as a photographer first and foremost. Even though her blog has wonderful recipes, it was really the photography that makes her standout above everything else. We both decided that Blogger B is a writer who crafts evocative stories that made us laugh at his wit and wisdom, all the while investing us, his readers, in his emotional journey through food and life. We were both thrilled to see that he was getting the accolades and pieces published outside of his blog. Blogger C definitely was a food pro, someone who focused on the recipe and food above all else, though she was a very competent photographer and writer as well, really her brilliant food was what made her shine. It was obvious that her cookbook would be fantastic. Which led me wonder, what did Shauna think of me? Where did I fall in the spectrum of food blogger categories? Shauna paused for a moment, thought about it and said emphatically “You know what you are? You are bon vivant! I go to your blog because I want to know what you have been up to. I want to see things through your eyes, and experience what you experienced in that way that only you can tell it.” Perhaps it was a polite way to say that I am neither photographer, writer or food pro; instead a jack-of-all-trade and master of none. But I’ll take it as a compliment. In fact, it was the fabulous life that I lead as a bon vivant that lead me to create this inspired Sweet Cherry Rhubarb Semolina Cake with Candied Clementines.
Friends have asked me where I get my baking inspiration from, especially when it comes to how I develop my recipes. I could write a whole slew of blog posts on inspiration (heck I could fill a whole other blog about inspiration – and no most of my inspiration does not come from Pinterest), but this particular cake has an easy point-of-origin. I took a photography workshop with New York Times photographer Andrew Scrivani at the wonderful Contigo restaurant and during that time I photographed a similar gorgeous cake. Simple as that. I went to the workshop hoping to invigorate my photography (which lately I’ve been rather bored with) and came away inspired to not only make a cake, but to look at the world ever-so-slightly different, as if I were a photographer, and not just a regular everyday bon vivant.
If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been trying to play around with the photography on this blog. When I started this blog, I had my partner AJ take the photographs – an easy solution as AJ is a trained photographer, and I am a lazy sort of person. But about six months into the blog, I found myself become obsessive compulsive about art directing him as he took the photos. Suddenly it was just easier for me to take the photo than to stand next to him and tell him how I wanted the photo to look. This is just as well, since AJ prefers to take photos of people than of food. Of course, this meant I had to step up to the plate in terms of technical skills, but thankfully AJ was there to refresh my memory. I used to be quite adept at photography, shooting with my old 1960s manual SLR and working in the dark room, but that was a lifetime ago, and I had long since given it up.
Instead of actively pursuing my photography, I took a couple of elective photo classes in high school and college, and then went and majored in Painting and English Lit. A few years later I drifted back to school to study graphic design and photography got relegated to me taking photos as a support tool to my design work. I was too poor to buy stock photography for my design projects, so I just took photos for my projects. It seemed to do the job and was significantly cheaper than buying stock photographs, but what it meant was that I started viewing photography from an Art Director perspective and not a Photographer perspective and there’s a bit of a difference (remind to write a post about those differences). Even Andrew touched upon that in the workshop (I believe when I said that I was an Art Director he said “And that’s why I hate you.” But I might be paraphrasing.). It was the start of this blog that had me rethinking my photography and how it helps with telling a story.
Andrew, of course, is the master of the little details. Just as important, he paints his photos with gorgeous light. If I were to categorize his style in broad brushstrokes, I would even go so far as to say that he has a masculine way of shooting food. Just contrast his dark moody work to someone like Aran of Canelle et Vanille. Both gorgeous work, but far different from each other. Not that I’m sure they couldn’t shoot in each other styles, but that’s not their inherent sensibility. Neither is better than the other, just different.
The driving force behind this blog has always been me wanting to tell stories. Sure those stories revolve around food, but my life seems to focus more and more on food so it only made sense to start a food blog. I’ve tried in the past to write shorter, more concise blog posts, but in the end, I realize that’s just not who I am. If I don’t get the heavy traffic, that’s OK, I can live with it. I’m a storyteller by nature, whether it’s through words, through photographs, through food, or even through design. One of the first things I always do when I meet a new design client, especially if I am working on their branding, is to ask them what their message it, what is their story that they want to tell? Companies, like people, have stories too, and often it’s the stories that help drive the brand and company forward. There’s always a history and always a story to tell, just lurking beneath the surface.
So it’s no wonder at the photography workshop, I ended up taking just as many pictures of people taking photographs, and of the restaurant, than I did of the food itself. It was a food photography workshop, but ultimately I was more interested in the story behind the people and the story behind the food than just the food itself. The woman who wanted to be a food stylist. The blogger who is also a poet. The man who was more comfortable shooting video than still photography. The former food blogger turned restauranteur. Everyone had a story to tell. Even our teacher Andrew, had a story to tell. A former teacher, his very first paid photography assignment was for the New York Times. Luck, timing, and the fact that he was friends with someone at The Gray Lady all worked out for him. It’s a great story. Have him tell it to you someday.
The food at the workshop was pretty gorgeous. I was secretly hoping for more challenging food to photograph, as most of my food on this blog is fairly easy to work with. Baked goods, inherently, are easy to shoot, and don’t have the same issues that a lot of food bloggers do – where the photo has to be taken immediately or the food starts to look stale and unappealing. Cookies can sit around for a day and still look just baked to the lens. Cakes can stay frosted for a few days and when you slice out a piece it will still look fresh. You can’t say the same thing about lasagna, Indian curry or beef stew. But I can fully blame Contigo for providing us with food that was both delightful to the palette and to the eye.
For me, the biggest take away from the workshop was to break outside my comfort zone. I have a habit of setting up my photos in the same place, with the same light, in the same set up. You (the reader) might not notice me (the writer, photographer and recipe developer) falling into a rut, but I know it, especially when I start getting too comfortable with what I am doing. Working in the restaurant had me putting food on piles of wood, on the floor, against a window, outside on the patio, on a chair, against the leg tables. It had me looking for the little details in the food to highlight; it’s the details that make a photo sparkle. The gleam of the glaze of a cake. The dramatic curl of a pepper. The jagged flakes of Maldon salt carelessly sprinkled on the chocolate chip cookie. The ooze of the yellow yolk dripping off the egg white. Capture the detail, find the focal point of the image and all of sudden you have a great photo. The technical aspects are important, but it’s the details that separates the good photo from the great.
In the end, despite all the technical details shooting photography can entail, the chance to work with others, shoot outside of my apartment box and to look at our photos critically reinvigorated me. Having a professional working photographer not only point out the differences between a good photo and a great photo was invaluable. More importantly having a chance to see how other people saw the same food in such different ways was had me thinking about different perspectives and different ways to approach storytelling through photographs. It also made me realize how much I miss art school, specifically the critiques, where I learned from my peers. It’s too easy to look at people’s photographs and say “That look delicious” and to not cast a critical eye and say “Hmm… That would be a better photo if you had cropped in more, or given it a bigger depth of field.” Or “I love that photo, but I wish you had cleaned that spoon off just a bit. It looks too used and dirty.” How else are all going to learn and grow if we don’t get constructive criticism about our work?
Andrew will be giving a workshop in Seattle sometime in the near future (follow him on Twitter for announcements on his workshops), and will also be doing a hands-on workshop at the IFBC Portland, in August. If you have a chance, go and take his workshop. Seriously. In the meanwhile, I’m going to be taking more and more photos that are outside my comfort zone in the hopes of pushing me to places where I haven’t been. Don’t worry though, I don’t plan on giving up my life as a bon vivant anytime soon!
Sweet Cherry Rhubarb Semolina Cake with Candied Clementines
By Irvin Lin
The combination of sweet cherries (I used the commonly found Bing but feel free to use whatever sweet cherries you have on hand) along with tart rhubarb really makes this unusual cake shine. Poaching the cherry and rhubarb in gin gives it a subtle herbal note that most people won’t notice, but adds an allusive sophistication to the cake. The addition of the semolina flour create both a wonderful texture to the cake and a dense, moist cake. Finally, don’t skip the candied Clementines though they may seem fussy. They are quite easy to make, add a dramatic flair to the cake and an additional dimension with their sweet acidity.
The unusual method for making this cake (you initially use your hands to blend in the butter, almost like making a pie crust dough) comes from Ripe by Nigel Slater, a cookbook filled with truly inspiring photographs and recipes.
5 to 6 medium Clementines
100 g (1/2 cup) white granulated sugar
450 g (1 lb or 16 oz) rhubarb
450 g (1 lb or 16 oz) pitted sweet cherries
55 g (1/4 cup) dark brown sugar
1/4 cup gin
200 g (1 cup) Semolina flour
280 g (2 cups) all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/4 teaspoon cinnamon
225 g (1 packed cup + 1 tablespoon) dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
zest of two Clementines
300 g (1 cup + 6 tablespoons or 2 3/4 sticks) cold unsalted butter
2 large eggs
6 tablespoon whole milk
2 tablespoons Clementine juice (roughly the juice of two Clementines)
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
Reserve fruit juice from fruit topping
2 tablespoon gin (plus an extra tablespoon or two if you like your cake boozy)
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1. Preheat the oven to 300˚F. Line a rimmed baking sheet with a silpat for easy cleanup (if you don’t have a silpat, you can try using parchment paper, but try to use a little heavier parchment paper, as thin parchment paper might stick to the final candied Clementine). Make the candied Clementines by cutting the Clementines into 1/4 inch thick slices (you should get about 3 or 4 slices from the middle, discard the ends). Coat each side of the slice of Clementine with sugar by placing the slice in a shallow bowl filled with the sugar and flipping and repeating for the other side. Place on the lined baking sheet and continue with the rest of the Clementine slices, making sure each slice is an inch apart. Bake in the oven for 10 minutes or until the slices start to look dry and slightly golden brown around the edges. Let cool on the baking sheet while you make the rest of the cake.
2. Turn the oven up to 350˚F and make the poached fruit topping by slicing the rhubarb into 1/2 to 3/4 inch slices. Place the rhubarb and cherries in a medium saucepan with brown sugar and 1/4 cup of gin. Cook for 8 to 10 minutes on medium heat or until the rhubarb just starts to soften.
3. Generously spray the sides and bottom of a 10 inch springform pan with cooking spray and then line the bottom with a round piece of parchment paper. Scoop out the rhubarb and cherries using a slotted spoon and distribute the fruit on the bottom of the springform pan with the fruit as evenly as possible in one layer, reserving as much of the fruit juices in the saucepan as possible.
4. Make the cake batter by placing the flours, baking powder, cinnamon, dark brown sugar, salt and zest in a large mixing bowl. Cut the butter into 1/4 inch cubes and sprinkle over the dry ingredients. Using your hands, blend the butter by first tossing the chunks in the mixture, coating them and then flattening and smashing them with your fingertips into smaller and smaller flakes of butter. Work the butter and dry ingredients together until it starts to look like chunky cornmeal or pebbly sand. Add the eggs, milk, juice and vanilla extract into the batter and fold and stir the batter with large spatula or wooden spoon. The batter will look thick, like the consistency of brownie batter. Spoon the batter carefully over the fruit in the springform pan. Smooth the batter out evenly carefully, tapping the pan on the counter a couple of times to get the batter to settle. Place the pan on a rimmed baking sheet or pizza pan and bake in the 350˚F oven for 50 minutes or until a toothpick inserted in the center of the cake comes out clean with a few crumbs sticking to it.
5. Remove the cake and let it cool on a wire rack for 15 to 20 minutes. The cake should still be warm, but the pan should be cool enogh to handle. Release the springform pan sides and remove. Invert the cake on the platter that you plan on serving it, by first placing the platter upside down on the cake, then flipping it and removing the bottom of the springform pan. The parchment paper should keep the fruit from sticking to the bottom of the pan.
6. Make the top glaze by mixing the two tablespoons of gin with the cornstarch until it dissolves. Add the cloudy liquid to the reserve fruit juice in the saucepan. Cook on medium heat, whisking constantly, until the glaze becomes translucent and thickens (this should be pretty fast, maybe a minute or two). Immediately brush the glaze over the fruit and serve.
Makes one 10 inch cake, serves 12 people.
Note: If you want your cake to be extra boozy, brush the top of the fruit with the extra tablespoon or two of gin before you brush it with the glaze.