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On Food Porn. I Mean, Food Photography

25 Aug

I’ve mentioned before that I don’t have the time to learn how to shoot food in the way that food’s shot these days. You know, expensive camera aside, I don’t have time for retouching and selective focus and that perfectly perfect mess on the plate. Plus, I want to show that food can be made to look as good as it does in those retouched photos. So with me, you get the shots you get.

But according to this Wall Street Journal article, I’m either way ahead of my time, or so far behind it I’ll never have more than nine readers. As food stylist Alison Attenborough says in the article, “people are interested in small butchers, artisan producers, farmer’s markets—a more handmade look.”  See, I just don’t think that’s enough.  Think about it: You remember those shots from old issues of Gourmet? The Julia Child Menu Cookbook? Do you think Martha Stewart serves lopsided cake?  I mean, really.

I’ll give you an example of the problem.  I was in a local bakery recently to find pastries clearly made by someone who has the right touch for it. But the baker stopped short, and I don’t know why: She obviously handled the dough perfectly, but left it looking hamfisted, as though it was destined for a bake sale for the blind.  I understand that this is the trend, but why wouldn’t you want to do more?

So when you’re that close, people, don’t stop. Then you won’t have to touch up your food shots like a Playboy centerfold, and you can save all that Photoshop time for something more important: Making people happy with your bakery–and being the one who can do the very best.

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Margarine, AKA Vomit.

18 Jul

There have been times in the world’s history when butter substitutes like margarine made sense.  Here is a list of those times, none of which have anything to do with our lives today:

  1. The unrefrigerated 19th century (but only the latter half)
  2. Feeding the lower classes in France
  3. World War I
  4. World War II

Before starting this essay, I really must tell you that according to Wikipedia—wait, sorry, I have to finish laughing—so as to avoid confusion, one could not actually buy yellow-colored margarine in Quebec until July, 2008.  What does this mean?  While the unwashed masses in France used margarine to slather their croissants, and probably gladly, the French in Canada could not be trusted over the last 160 years or so to discern the difference between real butter and the shit in a tub that’s one carbon-chain away from plastic.  Which proves my theory:  Canada is dumb, and isn’t a real country anyway.

Anyway, Canadian futility aside, the reality here is that in the Western world, there’s really no need for margarine.  We don’t need to worry about how to keep food without refrigeration, and I’m quite certain that the lower classes in France today have far better benefits available than all of us combined.  So who cares how they butter their bread?

Now.  Margarine–and this is key–is disgusting. I hate it nearly as much as I hate popcorn, and that’s fucking fat lot of hate, people.  In fact, I’m sure my room in Hell is going to be filled with movie popcorn soaked in that nasty butter-flavored ooze.  Man!  I swear I’ve been around wet spots more appetizing than any tub of margarine.

What’s curious to me, then, is how margarine persists.  To say that margarine’s health claims are debatable is putting it mildly, considering its high level of industrial processing.  I mean, how much healthier is a chocolate-chip cookie made with margarine when that cookie also includes refined flour, a cup or two of brown sugar, and a bag of chocolate chips?  How is making those cookies with a half-cup of solid, manmade processed oil product somehow better for you than those same cookies made with two sticks of naturally occurring butterfat?

So I guess I understand its practicality.  It’s spreadable and will keep well during nuclear winder.  But the flavor is so horrifying, and the color so foul, I can’t understand why you wouldn’t just plan ahead and leave some butter on the counter, available there for all your spreading needs.  Honestly, margarine can’t be that practical when it’s also that gross.  But I do understand that some of you grew up on margarine, and continue to use it for that reason.  I suppose I can see why some will still spread it on toast, or a muffin. But for cooking?  Baking?  This should be a crime.

The main reason is this:  Like butter—like most foods, actually—when margarine is heated, its character will change drastically, and in this case, for the worse.  Its utility, its flavor…all of it.  Particularly when melted, all of margarine’s flaws, which are too numerous to be counted, will be amplified and unavoidable.  The artificial butter flavor that might’ve been palatable straight from the fridge will, when melted, fill your nose with the essence of hot paper.  And its consistency will be a bit like… well, this is a family show, so nevermind.

See, most margarines are made from emulsions of either corn oil or soybean oil, and some other ingredients with a half-life of about five million years, plus the added bonus of heavy food coloring.  Heated and melted margarine will behave and taste more like the oil it actually is; and its emulsifiers, things such as lecithin, will produce results that are sticky and will remain unincorporated with the rest of your recipe.  Have you ever seen, and worse yet smelled, a cookie made with margarine?  It’s simply impossible to produce great bakery with the stuff.  The best bakery uses butter, period.

In the final analysis, if you don’t lick the butter tray, at least not daily, you’ll be fine.  I swear.  But continue to eat margarine, and you will turn into some Pleistocene creature that sheds its oily shell every spring and fall.  Not sexy, that.  Not sexy at all.

A Note on the Crowd

22 Jun

You will be admonished by many, many authors, particularly the more famous ones, to use the “best ingredients.”  And look, once you’ve got the techniques down pat, by all means, spend on ingredients like you’re dying tomorrow.  In the meantime, though, it’s best not to buy a $25 block of baking chocolate if you still tend to ruin things.

I mean, I know you want to use the fancy shit, but here’s something you can take to bed with you every night.  Very few people will actually appreciate that $25 block of baking chocolate you used for that cake.  It’s not that your friends and family are philistines, not at all.  But there’s a reason why Hershey’s as popular as it is: No one likes to eat a challenge.

I’ll give you an example.  I developed an amazing, super-rich (and super-complicated, now that I think about) brownie recipe a while back.  While in development, I typically made this with Hershey’s Special Dark baking chocolate, plus Special Dark cocoa.  It’s priced well for mistakes.

Anyway, a baby shower for a coworker was coming up, and since everyone likes brownies, I thought these would be perfect.  And, since I’ve been told that babies are special, I decided to make them with 70% Ghiardelli chocolate which is, as you know, a bit more expensive than Hershey’s.  That’s special, right?  You bring out the good stuff for the good times, right?  Plus, I have a great appreciation for fine and interesting flavors, so by extension, everybody else must love them, too.  How could this be anything but perfect?

My brownies turned out stupendously, they really did.  Best batch yet.  But my coworkers did not have much of an appreciation for the fancy, uncommon chocolate and so there sat my frankly awesome fucking brownies while they devoured instead the crap box brownies that were presented, amateurishly, still in the pan.  I thought I would die.

What did I do wrong?  Technically, nothing.  Except that I didn’t consider the crowd, which is just about the most important thing you can’t miss.  See, you, my friends, deserve a return on your investment.  You deserve to have people love the food you made with them in mind.  But those people–your crowd–also deserve something they’ll geniunely enjoy.  And hey, they like what they know.  They just do.  So give it to them.

Reasons Why Your Bakery Sucks #3: Your equipment is not very good.

20 Jun

Now, by this, I don’t mean you should toss that the dented aluminum bread pan you found in your last apartment, stashed in the back that useless cabinet above the fridge.  No, no, keep the drug money that was stuffed in it and, more importantly, keep that crappy pan.  It’s fine.

Your oven, however, may be clotted with hot spots and perpetually 42 degrees too hot.  Find out.  Or, your flour containers may not be airtight.  Your fridge might be too warm.  Turn it up.  Your bowls might have too wide of a bottom, which will, for example, allow your whipped cream to warm too fast; and yes, this will all be a lot easier on you if you get a Kitchenaid.

Reasons Why Your Bakery Sucks #2: Your ingredients are not very good.

20 Jun

Your ingredients are crap.  Or are just wrong.  Baking isn’t like cooking, where you can substitute whatever you have handy, a pinch here and a splash there, until it works well enough.  You also won’t get good results if your ingredients are exceedingly cheap. Baking requires ingredients that will perform well, and well together.

That said, you don’t have to break the bank to make great bakery, and don’t let some Audi-driving food douche tell you otherwise.  Trust me: No matter what that asshole says, what everyone really loves is a Little Debbie cake, so for the love of good, do not spend on the ingredients Thomas Keller tells you to buy.  No one will notice.  Use this to your advantage, people, and accept that no one has the great good taste you do.

Reasons Why Your Bakery Sucks #1: You are not very good.

20 Jun

Yeah. You’re no good.  Baking takes practice, people.  It takes ready knowledge, a desire for research, and good technique.  And it all takes time, time you probably don’t have.  Now, listen: There’s no crying in the kitchen, so just stop that shit right now.  There are things you can do to speed your progress, and there’ll be more on that later.  But first, a bit more on everything’s that’s wrong with you.

Reasons Why Your Bakery Sucks #4: Your recipe is not very good.

20 Jun

A good portion of the time, the recipe you’ve chosen is just shit.  Only thing is that you have no reason to believe such a thing would ever happen, such is our belief in the credentialled qualifications of the professionally published.  Well, a good portion of the time, here’s what actually happens.

An experienced baker has written a book containinf this fantastic recipe for say, pumpkins fritters with Amazon pine nuts and organic arugula and locavore lemongrass and special magic sugar processed only by mystical artisan 120-year-old dwarves in Lebanon.  How could that possibly be anything but amazing?  I’ll tell you why: It is more likely that the editor of this book was told by her boss, who happens to have a friend who runs the little shop that sells the magic sugar and the pine nuts, that she had to then tell the author to include a magic-sugar-pine-nut recipe, the latter of which is pretty trendy besides. Win-win.  The author, who really is a baker, can put together a recipe with the proper proportions, but she’ll be goddamned if she’s got the time to test it.  I mean, seriously.  I’m sure the author has a real job.

Now, it’ll turn out okay.  (It was, after all, written by a pro; if it’s an utter failure, that’s 100 percent your fault.)

But you don’t want just okay, do you?