Although I have not succeeded in reducing my pile of recipes to try – on the contrary, it seems to grow longer all the time – sometimes it’s nice to revisit an old recipe and remember what you loved so much about it (Not to mention all the times my friends and family get fixated on one of my desserts and insist on it over and over again, despite all attempts to entice them with new creations). This vanilla bean lemon cake is from a recipe by the Barefoot Contessa and is one of my favorites – I’ve made and devoured it happily many a time. It is a gorgeous example of pound cake: a moist, velvety crumb under a soft golden crust, with a rich, tangy-sweet lemon flavor (it smells so fabulous straight out of the oven). I added some raspberries this time to celebrate summer – not only do they add some pretty color, they make the cake even moister, and the raspberries pair quite well with the lemon. A perfect bite for tea-time.
In trying to shoot pictures of the cake, I was inspired by a talk I attended the night before at the Apple Store – a very fortuitous last-minute discovery of a presentation on food photography! As the Apple Store is but a short walk from where I live, and I had no plans for that hour, it was perfect timing all around.
The store was packed – although I should not be surprised that San Francisco would have an abundance of photography enthusiasts, foodies, and/or both! I was lucky enough to sit near the front and watch a food photography session with food photography Caren Alpert and food stylist Basil Friedman. They had a basic setup with a Canon EOS 30D, a backdrop and a light with diffuser, and proceeded to take a picture of a bowl of pasta. Of course the camera was hooked up to an Apple laptop so all the shots could be instantly projected onto a screen for the audience to see:)
A shot of the setup. You can tell from the poor quality that the lighting really wasn’t that good in that part of the store! Unfortunately, I could not get a copy of the final shot, but go to Alpert’s and Friedman’s websites for some beautiful, mouthwatering examples of their work.
It was fascinating to watch the progress of the shoot, as Alpert and Friedman discussed props, angle, and placement. While Alpert has the photographer’s background and Friedman the chef’s training, the shoot was clearly a collaborative effort as they discussed whether the colors of the napkins went with the food or how the pasta should be arranged.
It was also interesting to hear their insights into professional food photography – for example, how Alpert will often shoot photos for with deliberate blank areas, so that text can be placed there. She stated how she always shoots "full-page", because if she shoots a picture that can be shrunken and put on a corner of the page, that’s what will happen many times! Alpert also said that many magazines have not gone to digital photos yet, which was a surprise to me. Responding to a question from the audience about depth of field, Alpert indicated that many magazines are moving away from the shallower DOF that is so popular now and towards shots with more of the background/surroundings in focus. She did note that she still prefers the shallower DOF, but will shoot both ways for clients for them to choose.
Friedman shared some funny stories and tricks about how to make food look good – when asked about the dilemma of shooting steam, he replied that a classic trick was to have someone smoking a cigarette on set who would blow smoke into the shot! He also remembered a shoot involving coffee where they made the room as cold as possible and brought in a very hot cup of coffee- which created visible steam for about 30 seconds. Perhaps not the most comfortable of shoots!
In attending the talk, I actually came away impressed with the quality of photography to be found on blogs these days. Professional food photography shoots have oodles of technical equipment and gadgets, a warehouse worth of props, and team of artists – the photographer, the food stylist, the prop stylist, and all the assistants – to create those gorgeous pictures you see on magazine covers. But I look at what Bea, Nicky, J, and so many others I don’t have room to list have done all on their own and I think those shots are just as wonderful. In the end, if you have a passion for what you do, it will show through!
Vanilla Bean Lemon Cake with Raspberries
adapted from the Barefoot Contessa
1 3/4 sticks butter, room temperature
2 cups sugar
Zest from 4 lemons
4 large eggs, room temperature
3 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 cup lemon juice
3/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
1 teaspoon vanilla bean paste
1-2 cups raspberries, depending on how many you want
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Mix the butter and sugar together in a mixer until light colored and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time. Add in the lemon zest.
Sift the flour, baking powder, baking soda, and salt together. Combine the lemon juice, buttermilk, and vanilla in a small bowl.
Add the dry and liquid mixtures to the mixing bowl alternately, beginning and ending with the dry mixture. Mix just until everything is combined.
Pour batter into pans. This batter with fill two 8 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 2 1/2 loaf pans, or about (24) 3 1/2 x 2 x 1/2 mini loaves, or about (16) 3 1/2 diameter mini bundt pans as pictured – it’s a lot of batter!
Place raspberries on top of the batter, and using a spoon or spatula, gently swirl them into the batter. I’ve found that if I fold them into the batter sooner, they tend to sink to the bottom of the cake. This method allows for a more even distribution.
Bake until a tester comes out clean -about 45 minutes for a large loaf, 25-30 minutes for minis. Let cool on wire rack.