Tuesday, March 5, 2013

A Day In the Life

I've noticed many people in my life think that working in the food media world is exciting and slightly glamorous and super fun. OK...there may be days just like that but other days it really is like a lot of other jobs filled with deadlines, salary negotiations, office conflict and work that you are just not in the mood to do!

When I am writing and editing, it's just me, my computer and something snackable near by. Sometimes I talk out loud. Sometimes I talk to the errant spider I somehow always seem to find lurking in a corner. It's far from glamorous. If I'm really focused I will treat myself to some music while I work.

When I am developing recipes away from home, it can be a fun and busy environment. I am mostly on my feet, hopping from a computer where I write and research the recipes, to the kitchen itself where I gather and cook ingredients, to the tasting room where I sample too much of everyone's delicious work that day. The days fly by and I always finish the day feeling full and tired.

The wild card day is when I am working as a food stylist. As a food stylist, it is your job to do whatever needs to be done to make the food look captivating, mouth watering and casually perfect. This can mean anything from doing some on-camera hand modeling, to stuffing pies with reconstituted mashed potatoes (so they hold their shape) to gently arranging a pile of vegetables with a pair of tweezers so they lay just so for the camera. It can take some practice to understand that what might look nice to the naked eye might not look right from behind the camera. Common food styling tools include: q-tips, wooden skewers, distilled white vinegar, tweezers, straight pins, assorted sizes of paint brushes, vegetable oil, Windex and paper towels. Keep in mind these are just the basics and this list has whittled down over the last decade as the trend in food styling has veered towards a more natural perfectly imperfect look.

I'm not normally this red...those lights were hot!
In this lovely candid shot, I was tasked to climb on the counter to garnish a dish for a video shot. The lighting was so perfect on the dish, we didn't want to move it. So that I meant I had to go to the dish! Since all you saw was the tips of my fingers sprinkling some breadcrumbs and parsley, it looked totally natural and pretty, even though I was clearly not feeling overly natural or pretty. It even had my colleague giggling.

So there you have a brief glimpse into what some of my days are like. It can be fun, challenging, boring, exhausting, creative or redundant. Just like your job, right?

Thursday, February 14, 2013

Chocolate: my first love

I can link chocolate to many of my childhood memories. My uncle giving me a Cadbury hollow Easter egg filled with chocolate roses for Easter. Helping my mom decorate her infamous gingerbread houses (an excuse to sneak tastes of the decorations) and patiently laying the chocolate mint "shingles" for the roof. Sorting through Godiva gift boxes my dad would receive as gifts at work for the best flavors. And, of course, baking up cookies and cakes in the kitchen for special desserts.

Before working with food became my career, I never thought about chocolate on a deeper level. I liked it. I ate it. Simple. Once I started developing recipes, especially sweets, I started to realize just how tricky chocolate can be. For example, I've tasted brownies with tons of chocolate in the batter that somehow manage to bake up more sugary than chocolaty and I've had more than my share of underbaked greasy treats claiming to be gooey or fudgy. They really just give you a stomachache. Too much cocoa powder can feel like you are biting into bitter dust and too much milk chocolate can make your back teeth ache without really satisfying. And that is just the flavor side of things. The technical side of chocolate can be even more challenging.

When my older sister and I would help our mom bake desserts for Christmas, one of our favorites were Nanaimo bars. A no-bake Canadian classic layered bar cookie that is topped with a mixture of melted chocolate and butter. One year my older sister was tasked to make the final layer. For some reason, her chocolate completely seized on her and turned into a mess of unspreadable chocolate instead of the intended smooth glossy product. Much teasing ensued...I'm talking for the next 3 or 4 Christmas's she was not allowed near the chocolate. [I'd like to pause and shout out to my sister Jen who is a great baker and note that this story is not a representation of her skills.] The truth of the matter is that it could have happened to any of us. Maybe the bowl wasn't properly cleaned. Maybe she accidentally dripped a drop of water in the mixture or it was on her spatula. It is easier to have a glitch with chocolate than without sometimes.

I learned how true that statement is when I was assigned to develop a chocolate bark recipe at work last year. After much work, failure and research, I finally came up with a method that takes patience, but not a candy thermometer. This might help my family understand why they all got the gift of chocolate bark this year!

So here is a step-by-step to help you make some chocolate bark: perfect for a holiday, gift or just because you love chocolate!


You can start with any amount of good quality chocolate (no chips - no checkout candy bars) but the important thing is to chop it finely and make sure the pieces are uniform so it melts at a consistent rate.

Keep the rest of the chocolate near by and heat a few inches of water in a pot until steaming. Only steaming, no bubbles. Put a kitchen towel a few layers of paper towels on the counter next to the stove.


Put the bowl over the steaming water and start melting the chocolate, stirring often with a rubber spatula so you can scrape the bottoms and sides of the bowl. Every few minutes, pick up the bowl and make sure the water in the pot is not bubbling. The goal is to melt the chocolate very slowly so that it melts without ever getting hot. If you remove the bowl from the pot, set it down on your towels next to the stove so the condensation of the bottom of your bowl does not drip into the chocolate.


As the chocolate starts to melt, add a few pieces at a time of the reserved chocolate. This helps keep the temperature of the melting chocolate from getting too hot. The mixture should always look like a mixture of chunky and smooth textures. If it's looking too smooth and you still have reserved chocolate, get that bowl off the pot and add some chocolate!



Once you have added all the reserved chocolate and your mixture looks like the above photo, remove it from the pot of steaming water (onto your towel) and continue to stir as it melts. You can return the bowl to the heat from time to time for about 10 second intervals until, finally, it's all melted. If you want to add an extract, such as vanilla, peppermint, raspberry or coffee, add it now and stir just to combine it.


Pour your chocolate into a foil lined baking sheet or dish (shiny side up) or, if you like free form, right onto a flat piece of foil and gently spread to however thick you like. Top your bark with any crunchy toppings or sprinkles you like. I topped mine with some chopped cookies in this batch, but nuts, coconut, dried fruit are all great. Just don't pick anything that will get really stale or melt.


Let the chocolate harden at room temperature. If you didn't rush the melting process and your chocolate stayed "in temper" it will harden pretty quickly. It will lose the wet shiny look and become mat. Let it sit at least an hour to make sure it has hardened through the center. Then, the fun part, peel back the foil and start breaking into fun pieces. If you have extras, store at room temperature in an airtight container. It can last a few weeks but I doubt there will be any left by then.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


As a freelancer, the beginning of a new year is a patternable slow time of year for assignments so I try to take this pocket of time to set new goals and evaluate where I am professionally and where I want to go. Every year it seems there will be plenty of time to network and plan, but once the pace of the year picks up again, I find myself running at full steam just to manage work, home, friends and the semi-regular workout.

While things are slow I also take advantage of the extra time by preparing slightly more involved meals such as long simmering stews and braises. I absolutely adore braising and stewing. Paired with grilling they are my favorite ways to cook. They are a great way to produce big flavors with minimal  hands-on time.

Some people may not think of a stew or braised pot roast or brisket as being a dish with big flavors, but, in my opinion, that is all in the execution of the dish and not the technique itself. Braising and stewing are both wet cooking techniques in which ingredients are either partially or fully covered with liquid and slowly cooked. The idea of slow cooking meats, vegetables or beans is to bring out all of the natural flavors of the ingredients and have them blend with and absorb the flavors you are cooking them in. Flavor osmosis, if you will. A finished stew or braise is way more than the sum of its parts. Instead of having a dish of individual flavors that are compatible, you have a dish of mixed ingredients that have an identity of their own while still tasting a bit like everything else in the pot.

the building blocks...
The key to a tender braise or stew is to allow yourself plenty of time and to keep it simmering low and slow, resisting the urge to turn up the heat the closer it gets to dinner time. One day a piece of beef chuck might be meltingly tender in 2 hours and another day it could take 3 hours. The key to good flavor is all about seasoning. I season my raw ingredients generously, I reseason about halfway through the cooking time and I season again before serving. Also, I don't just season with salt and pepper. Fresh herbs benefit from being added at the beginning of the dish to start building layers of flavor, but also at the end so they are bright and more pronounced. I will also often add a dash of soy sauce, Worcestershire sauce and/or vinegar to the sauce at the beginning and the end. They have an umami quality that is all at once sweet, savory, salty and pungent. Start by adding a teaspoon at a time to your dish at the end and tasting. You will find that you don't taste the soy, Worcestershire or vinegar itself, but the dish somehow just tastes like a better version of itself. For a big pot, sometimes a teaspoon or two is all it takes. 

It might not look pretty but it sure tastes good...
There is no magic or forced rules about what ingredients you should use, but at the end of the simmering you will have a warm pot full of rich full flavors.                           

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Sunday Supper

Here we are in a new year. Some people feel let down after all the excitement and indulgence of the last month or so and some people feel excited and recharged to make a new start of things, whether it is with diet, exercise or career goals.

Regardless of which way you lean, having a hearty Sunday supper is a great tradition to refuel, relax and enjoy as one week winds down and a new one gears up. The beauty of a Sunday supper is that it doesn't have to be anything you don't want it to be, other than a tasty meal that gives you a chance to pause in your week and relax. It can be about entertaining if you miss all the gatherings of the holidays, not getting out of your pj's if you need time to regroup and reevaluate or making an old family recipe that needs a bit more time than you can spare during the week.

One of my favorite things to make for a Sunday supper is roast chicken. It's easy, inexpensive and very comforting. Although there are many ways to roast a chicken, my favorite way is to roast pieces rather than a whole bird. Although you lose the ritual of carving the bird, I find cooking pieces produces a very crispy* skin and evenly cooked meat in less time.

Start by seasoning the pieces (I cut the breasts in half crosswise) very very generously with salt and pepper. Don't just sprinkle the top, really cover it well. I promise it will not be too salty. Dig out your biggest oven-proof skillet and get it nice and hot over medium-high heat and then add just a touch of olive oil since the chicken skin will render plenty more fat as it browns.

Add about half your pieces, skin side down, and let them cook undisturbed for about 5 minutes. Sometimes I have to leave the room for a minute to resist the urge to poke, prod or peak. I recommend this if you are fidgety like me. When the skin is beautifully golden brown and easily releases from the pan you can turn and brown the second side. This side doesn't take quite as long and will not get as crispy without the skin, except for the legs which is skin on all sides. Take an extra minute or two with the legs to get as many sides brown as possible. Transfer the chicken to a plate and repeat with the rest of the pieces, turning the heat down under your pan if you feel like it is going to burn rather than brown.

At this point it is important to look at the amount of fat in your pan. You really only need a few tablespoons for the leeks or onions and as delicious as all those drippings are, you don't want the end result to be greasy. Spoon off any excess so you have a few tablespoons left behind. Now add either one bunch of trimmed, washed and sliced leeks (white and light green only) or two large sliced onions. It will seem like more than you want, but it will cook down by more than half. Toss them well in the pan and add a pinch more salt and pepper and a sprinkling of your favorite herb (thyme, rosemary or sage all work great). Fresh is best but dried works well too. Sometimes I'll sneak in a touch of ground chipotle chili powder here for a bit of smoky heat, but that's just the culinary mutt in me barking.

When the leeks/onions are wilted, nestle the chicken pieces, skin side up, over top. It will be a little cozy but that's ok at this point. Put in a hot oven (425 will do) and let it all roast together. The leeks/onions will melt down and take on all the chickeny juices from the pieces sitting over top and will also keep the meat moist and the chicken will roast up very crispy on the outside and juicy on the inside.

I like to have some steamed rice or basic mashed potatoes to round out the plate but a piece of crusty bread would also be delicious. A homey meal like this can lift your spirits or steady your resolve. At the least, it will fill your tummy and put some leftovers in the fridge.

*Disclaimer: I may have used the word crisp a bit excessively to describe the chicken skin but I simply cannot take rubbery, flaccid, undercooked chicken skin. It utterly skeeves me out.

Wednesday, November 7, 2012


For anyone living in the northeast, comfort is very important right now. For the millions of people who lost power, something as simple as a hot cup of coffee became a bright spot in an otherwise gloomy day. As soon as power returned, the supermarkets were packed with people looking to restock refrigerators and freezers, so they could provide some level of comfort for friends and family in the form of a hot meal.

Watching other people load up their shopping carts with everything from ramen noodles to canned Vienna sausages reminded me why comfort food is one of my least favorite categories of cuisine to develop. I love a hearty soup or a rich chocolate confection but I find the category itself to be a bit limiting and impersonal. The main reason people find comfort in a certain dish is not because it is rich, cheesy or crispy but because it hits a nerve and resonates with a certain memory and feeling. It takes them to a place and time where they felt happy and safe and, in my opinion, nothing could be more personal and subjective.

My own go-to comfort foods are a good example of this because of how varied and, some may feel, out of place they are. Scones, sweet milky tea, oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (coconut-no nuts), heavily buttered crusty toast (sometimes with peanut butter as well), ice cream (any flavor will do - no nuts), spicy rice and beans (black beans - with shredded Cheddar cheese melted on top) and all potato and corn chips/snacks, to name a few. These foods instantly take me back to my childhood home, my grandmother's kitchen table, a sunny carefree day at the beach, my dorm room in college or my first apartment living in New York.

When it comes time to develop comfort food recipes, I feel like I'm stepping out of bounds. What if my readers hate peanut butter, think rice and beans are mush and could leave a steaming mug of tea to get cold without batting an eye? Not to mention that someone's idea of a comfort food can evolve through life. I used to loathe eggplant but just last night made a rich Thai curry with chicken and eggplant. The silky coconut milk and eggplant backed by bright ginger and spice from the curry paste warmed me from the tips of my toes through my satisfied belly.

As I watch the snow begin to fall on the next storm blowing through the northeast, I guess my take away is to realize that the content or recipes I create for those looking for comfort in their food will not resonate with everyone, but hopefully will resonate with someone.

On that note, I'm off to bake some oatmeal chocolate chip cookies (coconut - no nuts) to enjoy later with a hot cup of tea to help ease me through this next messy storm.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012


I have never really minded doing homework. I think it comes from the part of me that likes to see things through, from beginning to end. In school, that meant working on math problems until the formulas made sense or writing a paper for English that peeled apart the delicate layers of prose to reveal a greater meaning.

Whatever the exact reason for seeking a sense of closure or finality, it has extended into my work life. When I am tasked to brainstorm a project, research a story or develop a tricky recipe, I can not accept any result but the one that leaves me with a mental A+. It's kind of annoying.

The downside of working as a freelancer is that sometimes your time on a project runs out before you have reached the final stages and you have to leave the last bits of the puzzle to someone else. Although I have come to accept that, I often find myself continuing to mull it over in the days following. I may research why a quick bread didn't rise consistently, the origins of an ingredient that was new to me or if another method there was no time to try would have produced a better result. One colleague has, affectionately, referred to me as a bulldog when I get stuck on an issue. Somewhat stubborn and not willing to easily let go of the proverbial bone. What can I say? I can be stubborn and have a strong sense of intellectual curiosity. I have always wanted to know the why and not just the what.

One of the most frustrating things for someone like me to develop is a French macaron and this was one of my more recent challenges. The macaron is a crispy shelled chewy cookie made from egg whites, sugar and ground nuts. Although you could eat them plain, they are usually sandwiched with a creamy, chocolaty or fruity filling. They are currently enjoying fame in bakeries all around the country and have flavors ranging from basic vanilla to exotic rose, lemongrass, yuzu and licorice. They are cute, colorful 2 to 3 bite treats and I figured, how hard could they be?

Well.....that is an unusual question. It's not that the macaron is hard, it is that it is fickle and unpredictable. I read, in one of the many articles I plowed through about the subject, that even professional bakers end up discarding 20% of their macarons due to cracking, hollow centers or the lack of proper feet on the cookie. For those who have not yet been driven nuts (no pun intended) by the macaron, the foot refers to the signature crack that runs around the cookie, just above the base. Although a footless macaron can still be delicious, it just doesn't quite look right in my eyes. Like a cupcake without frosting or a meatloaf without a glaze.

It seemed as if for every problem there were two opposing solutions. For example, I read that if a macaron does not develop proper feet it could be that the piped cookies did not rest for long enough to create a skin on the outside. Or it could be that they rested too long and became firmly attached to the baking sheet. I read that if the macaron crack on top, your oven could be too hot. Or it could be too cold. Or it could have hot and/or cold spots. Seeing as how I didn't have a month to try every possible combination, I took my best educated guesses and continued on.

After much trial and error and sincere bewilderment I thought I had finally worked out a great recipe with helpful instructions, until the crosstest of the recipe failed. Although the issues in the recipe ultimately got worked out, my mind was still churning and I decided I had to make them at home just one more time for my own closure.

While I can't really share with you the recipe yet (I will update after it has been published) I thought I could at least share a few tips that I learned through the process:

1. Do some research. But not too much!
I found watching a video of the talented Joanne Chang making macarons to be very helpful. She is knowledgeable and approachable and made me feel like I, too, could make these cookies successfully. Do not follow up watching that video with hours of reading conflicting recipes, tips and claims of no-fail methods! You will be confused. Trust me. Try making them yourself and then if it doesn't go quite right, research from there.

2. Do not be fooled into folding your batter into a runny mess:
I read great deal about how to know when you have the correct texture of the batter which is essential for a successful cookie. Although the whipped egg whites are the structure of the cookie, when you fold in the ground nuts and confectioners' sugar, you need to deflate the egg whites to loosen the batter. Many people described the texture of the batter to be that of molten lava. But if you fold the batter to get to that point, by the time you actually get the batter into a pastry bag and piped out, it will be too runny and the cookies will be hollow inside and cracked on top. Err on the side of a stiffer batter because it will loosen as you work with it.

3. Don't expect perfection. It is how this cookie crumbles!
There are so many factors to a perfect macaron that are entirely dependent on an individual. For your oven and equipment, you may find better results if you use two baking sheets stacked on top of one another. You may want to adjust your oven temperature by 10 degrees up or down, or leave the oven cracked open with a wooden spoon. You may live in a humid environment and find you need to let them sit out for an hour instead of 20 minutes to let the skin develop. In the process of figuring this out , you will have imperfect macarons. It's ok. They are still cute and tasty and impressive. Enjoy the imperfections and chalk it up to experience!

Friday, February 17, 2012

From my oven of lovin'

Love is the buzz word of the week. It's ok. Valentine's Day can be a spectacle but it can also just be a day to take a pause and give an extra long hug to the ones you love from your sweetie to your friends to your family.

For those of us still sporting a few extra holiday pounds (ahem....), it can also be a tricky time with lavish displays of chocolate in every store and delicious looking chocolate recipes on every website. This year I decided to focus on the meal and enjoyed tasty dry aged rib eye steaks and a nice bottle of red wine instead of baking up a chocolate explosion. The problem is that I'm still feeling a nagging ache from my sweet tooth. And no, it's not a cavity...this time. I just realized that it has been a while since I have baked so why not extend the week of love and bake something tasty but not quite so decadent.

When I'm in the mood for a dessert that satisfies without bringing too much guilt I immediately go to a recipe for biscotti from my culinary school classes. A great deal of the recipes from the pastry and baking part of the curriculum are from the talented cookbook author and teacher Nick Malgieri as is this recipe for Biscotti Napoletani. It has no eggs, butter or oil. The only fat comes from the almonds in the dough which is lightly flavored with honey and ground cinnamon. Anyone who knows me knows how I feel about honey. Some of the almonds are finely ground while the remainder are left whole so the end result is a nubbly, crunchy treat.

Chocolate shavings get mixed in

Although the recipe is perfect the way it is, I sometimes change a few things and today was no exception. I added a few handfuls of finely chopped good bittersweet chocolate to the dry ingredients. I then mixed in the honey and water from the recipe and was ready to divide the dough into the two logs for baking when I had a second thought.

Since you have to divide the dough in half anyway, why not add one more ingredient to half the dough and end up with two flavors from the one batch. I poked around my cupboard and used tongs to get to the back of the top cabinet where I stash all my baking goodies and found some dried cherries I forgot I had. Perfect. I chopped up a handful of dried cherries and kneaded them into the second log of dough.

Ready for the first baking. Cherries on the left.
 After baking up golden brown and firm, the logs cool slightly and then get sliced and baked a second time until the cut sides feel dry and firm. As a disclaimer, I realize they are not really biscotti until they are baked the second time but they sure are tasty as a soft cookie after a single baking.

yummy. Ready for the second baking. Except for that little piece on the end...
*Note: This recipe was provided to us with the measurements in weight. It's the most precise way to bake as it does not allow for different ways of measuring flour and sugar and placing the bowl on a scale is actually faster then getting out your set of measuring cups. If you do not have a scale (you should get one) you can find services online to convert the weight to cups but there may be some change to the texture of the dough.

Biscotti Napoletani
Recipe courtesy of Nick Malgieri

10 ounces unbleached all-purpose flour
6 ounces granulated sugar
8 ounces unblanched almonds, 4 ounces finely ground and 4 ounces left whole
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
3 fluid ounces honey
3 fluid ounces water

1. Combine all the ingredients except the honey and water in a mixing bowl and stir 1 minute or 2 to mix. Add the honey and water and stir until a firm dough forms.

2. Remove the dough from the bowl and divide in half. Roll each half into a log about 15 inches long. Put both logs, spaced well apart, on a sheet pan lined with parchment paper. Bake at 350 degrees for about 30 minutes, or until well-risen, firm, and a dark gold.

3. Remove from the oven, cool the logs slightly, and place on a cutting board. Sliced the logs diagonally and at 1/2-inch intervals with a serrated knife. Return the cut biscotti to the pan, cut side down, and bake an additional 15 minutes, or until lightly colored and dry. Cool on the pan.