Sunday, December 30, 2012


Hi Marg,

I made crappy muffins for breakfast and after eating about half a dozen decided it was a good opportunity to practice some of the photography tips I've been reading about. Amos gave me a great book on photographing food for Christmas - Plate to Pixel by Helene Dujardin. So far I've read the chapter on natural light so that's what I was thinking about. You'll see that I haven't gotten to the Food Styling chapter yet. 

I started with this. In the pan, showing the action of cooking. Natural light, from the side, not directly on the subject.

Then moved on to the muffins themselves. I started by diffusing the light by hanging a white sheet over the window where the sun was streaming in. The shadows were still stronger than I wanted to I bounced some light back on to them from an aluminum cookie sheet held just off screen on the right. But... brown on brown. Doesn't make me want to eat them.

Tried a fabric background. Made me dizzy.

Ok, simple background, focus on the lighting. Boring. 

Experimented with props. Maybe I over-compensated. Pretty busy.  Muffins seem insignificant.

I thought I was done so I took down the sheet and found the strong light of the direct sun was pretty interesting so I played around with using it for side lighting. 

Finally, just to see what happened I used it for backlighting. I like how the muffins really stand out in these images, but they aren't boring like the other one that only had muffins in it.

I like the strength of the backlighting a lot. I also like the strong side lighting but think it's a bit harsh. Seems like there might be a way to get the strong shadows of the direct sun but somehow soften it a bit. Not sure, but maybe the next chapter will give me a clue.

Love, Elise

Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Pud

                Twas the week before Christmas and all through the dwelling
                Recipes for desserts were daunting and compelling
                Buche de Noel, that old frosted wood?
                Or the drunken conflagration of Christmas Pud?  

                I chose drunken conflagration. I made this decision for two reasons;
1)      I was interested in it with all that history and ritual, tradition and lore
2)      No one expects it to actually taste good, so when it was inedible, my skills wouldn’t be blamed. (though my decision-making skills might be severely questioned)

               I read quite a few recipes, and narrowed it down to The Domestic Goddess/Devil’s Spawn, Nigella’s and Julia Childs’. I finally decided on Nigella’s because it has more stuff in it. I followed her recipe for the traditional one sans the suet. Butter is plenty traditional for me. Her Newfangled Christmas Pud wants dried blueberries and figs, yuck and double yuck!

               Simmer and then soak the fruit in bourbon. Mix together some flour, bread crumbs, ground almonds, toss in an egg or two, some brown sugar, a mess of spices, a couple of finely chopped apples and some sour cream. Fold in all the lovely bourbon saturated fruit with the bourbon that remains. 
               Then fold in your coins or charms.
               You are thinking, “You put coins, grubby, nasty coins, Who-knows-where-they-have-been, never mind who-has-touched-them coins, in the pud?”
               I did. But first I soaked them over night in Coke-cola. They come out as sparkly as newly minted.  Go figure. Then I scrubbed them with dish soap and rinsed them with boiling water. 
               I poured all this into a tall-ish Bundt pan, many people call it a Kugelhopf pan, that I had saturated with Pam. I sealed it with three layers of heavy duty foil, secured with twine. I poked out the center and then sealed all around the inner edge and I steamed it with water half way up the side for 4 hours.  

              At this point, the pudding is heavy and removing it from the pot of boiling water is not for the tired of body or weak of spirit. (Nigella probably has some stage hand do it for her.) After a few minutes of cooling, I turned it out of the pan, let it cool completely and then wrapped it and left it on the counter for 3 days. There is supposed to be some regular “feeding” with more Bourbon, but I think that is if you make it in November. Which is, of course, when I should have made it. But never mind, Never Mind!
               The night of, I resaturated the pan in Pam, popped the pud back in its pan and went through the little OCD sealing ritual and steamed it for another 3 hours.
               Once again it toppled right out of its pan, held its shape, and Bob’s your Uncle! The Armagnac (I didn’t have Brandy) was heated and set afire with that scary little whumpf! I poured the liquid blue flame over the whole thing and presented it. I was so worried about setting the house on fire that the presentation went more like a fire drill than a dessert course. 

               Hard sauce on the side. I thought it was amazing. I noticed a few people didn’t finish theirs, but I have to chalk that up to individual tastes. I would have liked it even if I hadn’t made it myself.  I got a dime and a nickel, which I guess is auspicious.

               Love, Margaret

Friday, December 28, 2012

Simple Salad Dressing

Hi Marg,

I made a great salad dressing to go with a holiday salad of butter lettuce, toasted pine nuts and dried cranberries.

2T fresh orange juice
1 t balsamic
1 t whole grain mustard
1/2 T plain yoghurt
S & P

Mix up OJ, balsamic and mustard and then drizzle in the EVOO while whisking to emulsify it. Whisk in the yoghurt (you could leave this out but I like how it smooths out the bite of the vinegar). A little salt and pepper to taste and there you are.

Love, Elise

Saturday, December 22, 2012


Bakasbord, Bakacopia, Whole lotta bakin' goin' on.


Here it is, the week before Christmas and let the baking begin. In my first concentrated weekend of baking I made; Chocolate Sandwich cookies from Baked, Brown Sugar Malt Sandwich cookies from the internet, Dorie's Chocolate Chunkers,
Pecan Slices (disappointing), OMG Brownies, 2 batches of Carmelitas, 3 batches of Chocolate Fudge sauce, 2 double batches of Mrs. Bentley's Butterscotch sauce,
2 Fruit Cakes from Regan Daly's Sweet Kitchen
and some Sugar Spiced Pecans.

I ruined 2 batches of caramel

 and used 8 pounds of butter.

By Monday, I had given it all away.

By Wednesday I had made another pan of Carmelitas and 2 batches of Spice Cookies.

On Thursday I was completely sick of baking and then came Friday and your post about the truffles. It was all the inspiration I needed.

But first, I should probably do a bike workout,

or walk the dogs.


Love, Margaret


2 cups flour
2 cups old fashioned rolled oats
1 1/2 cups brown sugar, firmly packed
1 teaspoon baking soda
1teaspoon salt
1 ½  cups butter, melted (3 Sticks)
1 ½  cups chocolate chips
2 cup toasted pecans, chopped
2 cups caramel sauce (make your own)
4 tablespoons flour


Preheat oven to 350 degrees
Grease a 10 x 13-inch baking dish
Combine the first 6 ingredients until crumbly
Press ½ of crumb mixture into pan and bake for 15 minutes
Sprinkle the chocolate chips and pecans over the baked crust
Mix together the caramel and the flour and drizzle over all, make sure everything is spread to the edge Sprinkle remaining crumbs over caramel topping, again go to the edges 
 Bake for 25-30 minutes until golden brown 
 Allow to cool completely before cutting

Caramel Sauce

2 C sugar
1 ½ C cream
Put the sugar in a heavy, wide bottomed pot, set over low heat and watch it. It will start to melt and then brown around the edges. Stir. Because this is the dry method, you can stir to your heart’s content. Keep stirring and then let it sit so more sugar can melt and caramelize. You should end up w a melted, browned and mostly smooth pot of caramelized sugar. You want it to be brown, and to smell caramelized and very nearly burnt, but not all the way black and burned. If you don’t go far enough, it is insipid. I occasionally see a wisp of smoke rise off it. At this point, add the cream. It will boil like crazy, don’t get burned and don’t let it boil over. Return to the low heat and stir until all smooth and combined. I usually end up with a few hard pieces that just won’t melt. This probably makes about 2 cups, enough for the Caramelitas. 

Butterscotch Sauce from Bentley Farm Cookbook

Friday, December 21, 2012


Dear Marg,

I am in orbit. I just made David L's Port Chocolate Truffles. Well, the base anyway. It's chilling in preparation for being woman-handled into misshapen balls tomorrow. But HOLY CRAP IT IS GOOD!

I researched a number of recipes all of which said essentially the same thing. Equal parts excellent chocolate and heavy cream. But David L adds butter and he went to chocolate school at Valhrona so I went with his version. It's in Ready for Dessert (aren't you proud that you finally taught me how to spell it right? Out of the desert in time for dessert.).

I used a combination of Valhrona 61%, Caillebaut 64% and some Felchin Grand Cru that Jamie gave me an embarrassingly long time ago. I made a double batch and only put port in half because it was so damn good without it.

It was bliss. Ecstasy. Out of this world. It might just be the rush after a long period of abstinence. I'll have to eat a great many more sweets before I'll know for sure. And in the mean time I'm just glad I had the presence of mind to unplug the immersion blender before licking it.

Love and Grand Cru,


PS So out of it I didn't even take pictures!

Monday, December 17, 2012

Week 3 Still Sugar Free

Hi Marg,

Today is Day 21. I have proven (to myself, bc really, who else cares?) I can go three weeks without sugar. It started as you probably remember with a Ted Talk.

Basically, this guy says you can do anything for 30 days and that recognizing that has enabled him to try all sorts of things. As I thought about it, I could either choose some thing additive - do yoga every day for a month - or subtractive - no dairy, no sugar. For some reason all the No's I could think of involved food. Why it didn't occur to me to bake a cake a day I don't know.

It took many months of internal debate before I made the commitment. And luckily by then there weren't 30 days before Christmas. I wasn't about to be sugar free on Christmas. 21 days seemed like plenty. And it was. I know I can do it and I don't need another 9 days to prove it.

My observations for this week are:
  • it gets easier and easier. Now when Amos gets out a pint of Hagen Daz and a spoon after dinner it doesn't even look good. I don't miss sugar for sugar's sake.
  • we got a box of cookies from a friend of Amos' this week. He sends them every year and they are goo-ood. I was worried that A would eat them all before my 21 days were over. I didn't mind not eating them that night or any of the other nights, but I didn't want to NEVER eat them.
  • your holiday cookie baking marathon last weekend was very impressive. I wished that I could make cookies too. But then when you texted me how sick you were of baking I remembered that feeling, and I didn't feel deprived.
  • still, I miss baking. I've been looking at dessert recipes for Christmas Eve in case the fruitcake is a flop. I'm making Alton Brown's fruitcake which sounds really good, but you never know. I'm ready to get back to baking.
  • if you have a good dinner, you miss dessert much less than if you have a mediocre dinner. 
Overall, I'm glad I did it and I would do it again. I like not feeling like I have to have dessert. I like the different way I appreciate fresh fruit. I like knowing that I can.

I missed baking, and I missed the "special treat" moments in the late afternoon or coming home late. Herbal tea is a substitute but not a great one. Maybe if it had honey in it.

Tomorrow the baking begins!

Love, Elise

Monday, December 10, 2012

Still Blue Week Two

Dear Margaret,

I'm assuming from your silence on the subject that you are treating me like you would a friend who won't leave a really bad boy friend.
  1. Don't bring it up unless she does. 
  2. Be sympathetic but supportive. 
  3. Try to disguise your horror. 
  4. And when you can't, repeat step 1.
Week 2 went faster than week 1. I had a rough day somewhere around day 9 when I resorted to eating dates. Dates always look like cockroaches to me. Even though I don't even like them I had some on hand from prior plans to make a date and raisin cake. Fortunately they were de-pitted so the holes in the middle dispelled the cockroach similarity enough to get a few down.

There was a close call on Saturday night when after a glass of wine with dinner I poured myself a small glass of port. Totally legal as it has no refined sugar (more of that arbitrariness). Then I remembered the block of dark chocolate Andrea gave me for my birthday. It is specifically designed to go with port and I almost went to the closet and got a hunk of it. My brain couldn't get around the idea that port was okay but chocolate wasn't when really the port probably tastes sweeter. I don't know for sure because I resisted. Narrowly.

The other thing that's come up this week as we've been out celebrating the holidays is specialty cocktails. I ordered a Lemon Drop forgetting that they are rimmed with sugar. Fortunately the bartender only rimmed one side so I could avoid it. Well, most of it.

Overall, this week I learned that I am not really addicted to sugar. I'm getting along ok without it and really don't miss it most of the time. However, I really miss the cozy ending that it brings to a meal. I miss the "treat-ness" of a cookie in the afternoon. I miss baking a lot.

I think it's not the sugar itself as much as the baked goods. If I thought there was any point I'd experiment with baking without sugar, using agave or other substitutes. But basically, I don't think sugar's that bad for you.

Which reminds me, don't you eschew sugar for months at a time when you are training hard? Hmmm?

Love, Elise

Monday, December 3, 2012

Sugar Blues

Dear Margaret,

I made it through the first week. That is, assuming I don't break down and have a pint of ice cream in the hour before bed. This morning I found myself rationalizing. I'd made it a week, no problem. Why not do one week instead of three? I could do three weeks, if I wanted to. I just don't want to. And I recognized the voice of every addict - I can quit any time, I just don't want to.

A big part of this is proving to myself that I can do it, that I can go 21 days without sugar. I believe I can, but can I really, when it comes right down to it? Amos says of course I can, if only because I'm way too stubborn to quit. I've only recently stopped finishing books I don't like.

I've run into a few problems though. The first is the completely arbitrariness of it. For example, I often make a fruit smoothie for breakfast. Really just fruit and some juice whirred to death in the Vitamix. This time of year I like to use apples, pears, cider and a piece of crystallized ginger for spice. Oh yeah, and flax seeds and fish oil for health. The crystallized ginger was out because it had sugar on it so I tossed in 2 dates instead and the smoothie was so sweet I could barely finish it. But dried fruit is okay and white sugar isn't. I made the rules myself. The next day I rinsed off the crystallized ginger and used it. So there, self.

And the idea that I can have honey in my tea in the morning but not at night? Arbitrary with an A. Alcohol is okay, even though it's all sugar? Arbitrary with a capital A.

The other problem is boredom. What's for dessert? Well, you want dried mangoes or raisins? Bore-ing. I've realized that what gets me excited about cooking is desserts. I'm not moved by stews and braises, exotic ways to prepare salmon or tilapia, or pasta con funghi. I'll do it, I even like it, but it doesn't bring me pleasure the way that baking does. It's not a replacement for baking, it's a complement to it.

I'm hoping that I will learn more things about myself through the process. I'm curious to see how I will feel about sugar at the end. I don't anticipate losing weight or feeling physically different because I don't think I eat that much sugar (and I can quit anytime I want).

It's an emotional and psychological challenge. And I'm sticking with it!

Love, Elise

Saturday, December 1, 2012


Dear Marg,

I hate you.

Love, Elise

Friday, November 30, 2012

Happy Accident

                Perhaps apocryphal, but the story is that chocolate chip cookies were the result of an accident. Not a “fell in the toaster and burnt up dead” accident, but an unintended consequence, a failed experiment.
                Maybe there is something to this, or maybe, as you have suggested, anything made with butter, sugar and chocolate chips is going to be good.
                Last night, I set out to make the oatmeal cookies from Baked. Happily puttering along, wondering if I would chill the batter as directed or just bake them then, I came to the “add the rolled oats” step. No rolled oats. I usually have a big bag of them, so I hadn’t checked and now that I couldn’t find any I remembered thinking, -those things get stale, I’ll wait until I am actually going to use them before I buy another bag.
                The lesson here? Don’t be a sensible shopper.
                The batter looked very like chocolate chip cookie batter, so I tossed in some chocolate chips, some toasted pecans and some dried cherries.  I baked them on parchment in a 350 oven. When I peeked in the oven they had turned into little melted puddles. Real chocolate chip cookies have 2 or more cups of flour. This recipe has 1 ½ cups. I hadn’t focused on that and now it seemed the entire batch really was ruined.
                But I had nothing for dessert so I went ahead and baked the rest of them, let them cool and Wow! They were good.
                By today, they are even better. Very like David’s cookies. Remember David’s cookies? I think only available in Boston sometime in the 80’s. Barely baked, lots of chocolate, sweet, oily and addictive.  These aren’t as greasy or as crumbly as David’s but they have that same soft, dense texture, nary an air bubble in there.
                I know you are spending 21 days without sugar and I feel a little like an oenophile waxing rhapsodic on some vintage to her alcoholic sister with 4 days sobriety.  Sorry about that. They weren’t really that good. Not nearly as good as a pear or a nice bowl of unsweetened applesauce. 
                Love, Margaret