Monthly Archives: February 2012

How To Tuesday: Photography Lighting Part II.

I’m going to pick up where I left off with my photography tutorials from months ago. I was talking about lighting and white balance last time. This week I’ll discuss lighting directions and the importance of bouncing or reflecting light.

For food photography in particular, lighting couldn’t be more of a challenge. Highlight here, shadow there, shine here, contrast there all with the goal to make your dish look appetizing. Lighting can mean the difference between a monotonous meal and a gourmet masterpiece.

Understanding light and how to manipulate it is key to taking a good photo. Too much or too little can be disastrous. It’s all about control. In order to battle light you should always have two weapons in your arsenal: diffuser and reflector.

The diffuser could be anything from a expensive professional photography light diffuser to an old thin white sheet to a semi-sheer window curtain. It just needs to be sheer enough to let the light in and opaque enough to soften shadows. I use the simple Ikea curtains already installed in my kitchen. Before that I used a thin white tablecloth from the dollar store. It doesn’t have to be fancy. It just has to work.

The reflector could be a professional photography scrim or a piece of white foam core board from an office supply store or even aluminum foil found in any kitchen. I use foam core board to bounce light onto my subject because its rigidity makes it easy to prop up without a lot of fussing. Your reflector doesn’t need to be shiny, but it does need to be light in colour in order to bounce your light source back effectively doubling the light and minimizing shadows.

Depending on the mood you’re trying to convey, your own personal style and the quality of natural light, your diffusing and reflecting choices may change. High contrast, highlights and shadows convey a bold, dynamic, even mysterious feeling like in the photo of the egg shells. You can increase this effect by choosing not to diffuse the light. Low contrast minimized shadows and soft light convey a sweet and airy feeling like in the photo of the strawberries.

Side lighting is my personal favourite lighting direction because it’s easy, highlights texture, creates beautiful definition and casts lovely shadows. Conveniently it also happens to be the direction in which the sunlight streams through my south-facing window and onto my kitchen table. With these two photos of the Banana Bread you can see the different effects created by the simple choice of bouncing the light or not bouncing the light.

In the first photo the colours appear less saturated and almost washed out while the shadows are nearly non-existent. The subject also appears to be floating in space because the light seems to be coming from everywhere at once. In the second photo the pronounced shadows and highlights add shape and definition to the slices. The higher contrast make the colours pop and anchor the subject on the backdrop.

Back lighting is not a lighting direction I use often because it presents a whole new set of challenges for exposure and reflecting. It feels kind of wrong because all amateur photographers have been told not to shoot the subject directly in front of the light source. If the light isn’t properly bounced it can cause harsh highlights and formless silhouettes. It is an excellent choice when your goal is to accentuate shine because it exaggerates highlights and shadows.

In the photo of the Chocolate Hazelnut Cherry Tart the ripples of smooth ganache are given prominence due to the soft highlights of back lighting. In the photo of the Caramel Apple Cupcakes the eye is drawn to the gleam of the velvety frosting as the light hits the peaks and misses the valleys of the piped roses.

The next two photos of the Banana Bread exemplify the importance of reflecting. In the first photo the light is bounced using a foam core board. There is obvious contrast between the background and the subject, but not so much that the bread appears dark and undefined. In the second photo no attempts were made to reflect the harsh back light. Because the light is coming from behind, part of the Banana Bread blocks the light from the slices leaving them dull, flat, unclear and almost burnt looking.

I’m not going to tell you what is right and what is wrong when it comes to diffusing, reflecting and lighting directions. It’s all relative and, ultimately, up to you. The only thing I will encourage is for you to step outside your comfort zone. Walk around, crouch down to different angles and analyze how the light hits or doesn’t hit your subject. Don’t be afraid of the light!

How To Tuesday: Pantry Envy.

Have you ever caught an episode or two of Chef at Home on Food Network? Chef Michael Smith has the single most amazing walk-in pantry I have ever seen. It’s like heaven. Funny how my idea of heaven includes rows upon rows of alphabetized mason jars on back-lit shelves. I have a major case of pantry envy. Not unlike my envy of Carrie’s closet in the Sex and the City movie. It also included back-lit shelves and rows upon rows of, not dried pasta and walnuts but, shoes.

My pantry is far smaller than a fabulous closet and houses less designer shoes. It’s cluttered, it’s disorganized, it probably looks a lot like your pantry. It makes me die a little bit inside each time I open it and an avalanche of dried pasta and spices hit me. Upon further inspection I realized I had three bags of peanuts, two of pecans, two open bags of pene pasta and a really old mickey of Bailey’s Irish Cream.

I decided it was time for a serious overhaul. Forty-seven preserve jars, six pasta containers, two Ikea boxes, six Tupperware containers, sixty hand-punched labels and one wall decal later my pantry is born again. She may not be the biggest, most impressive pantry out there, she may not be back-lit or able to accommodate a sports car, but she keeps my spices safe and warm.

To help you organize your own pantry, I’ve made a list of simple rules to live by.

1. De-clutter and de-stress.

If you don’t know what that dusty old labeless can is in that’s been in the back of your pantry since the War of 1812 then I think it’s safe to get rid of it. Nobody is going to thank you for your cream of botulism soup. You’d be surprised what you might find once you start digging in there. Stale potato chips and desiccated mini marshmallows are just taking up precious real estate. Check expiry dates! Probably half the junk you have in there is either stuff you’re never going to use or stuff that never should be used for the sake of public health.

2. Bigger isn’t better.

One of the most common mistakes people make when analyzing any cluttered space is that they need more. Instead of seeing a space for its potential they are blinded by the mess. Even if your pantry is busting at the seams like mine was, after an inventory of its contents and a new organizational system you will be surprised how much space you really have. When I started organizing my pantry I didn’t even store all my different sugars and flours in there. There just wasn’t room! After getting rid of expired or forgotten stock and organized the rest, I found I had freed up an entire shelf for my sugars and flours.

3. Think in 3D.

Many people think of a pantry as a series of shelves and simply line those surfaces with things. This isn’t wrong, just very one-dimensional. You need to utilize all three dimensional space. Vertical space is the most underutilized dimension. The best way to go about doing this is to categorize everything in order of size. If, like me, you have a plethora of short spice jars try to put them all on one shelf. If your pantry has shelves that can be moved up or down that’s even better! Why waste all that space above the jars when you can move the shelf up to store taller canisters below?

4. One of these things is not like the other.

While categorizing by size you should also organize things by type. Keep all the boxes together, all the cans together, all the pasta together and so on. This will make it far easier to find everything. You don’t want to stumble downstairs in the wee hours of the morning only to fix yourself a big bowl of fusilli flakes and milk. Choose a system that feels natural and allows you to find things blindfolded. Consider how often you use things and keep them accessible, either brought to the front or on a higher shelf.

5. Fronting and facing.

Breezing through a supermarket that’s clean, well-lit and organized with all the products within reach and easy to read is a joy. Think of your pantry as your own personal store. If, to save space and keep the product fresh, you decide to store things is jars or other containers you need to make sure to label them. You don’t want to waste time fumbling through your unmarked spices wondering if that reddish-brown stuff is chili powder or cayenne pepper while your home fries are burning. Make a system! Either organize your spices alphabetically or by frequency of use.

6. Seal in the freshness.

Make sure to maintain, not just the organizational system but also, the freshness of your pantry. A good rule of thumb for dried spices is if you don’t remember when you bought them or the last time you used them it’s time to throw them out. Generally they last six months to a year and then start to lose their potency. I’d suggest shopping for spices from a bulk store, not the grocery store. You can buy as much as you need instead of being stuck with a big bag you’ll never use and it’s way cheaper. As a side note, it’s best to store spices in a cool dry place and not above the stove. Light, heat and humidity cause spices to loose their flavour faster. For that reason, the pantry is the best choice.

7. Pretty personalized pantry.

Sometimes it’s not enough just to organize a space, you also have to make it your own. While a series of identical spice jars and colourful rows of perfectly lined up boxes are enough to make the OCD maniac inside me squeal with joy, I also feel the need to make it pretty. You could make labels with a paper punch like I did, paint chalkboard labels, cut labels out of frosted vinyl, print your own colour coded labels, or stick waterslide decals on there. The possibilities are endless! There’s also a whole world of contact paper and decals out there. I adore my chandelier decal! It add a little whimsy and makes the pantry fancy. You can even accessorize the top of your pantry with a lovely painting, a collection of milk bottles or some simple boxes for extra storage. The bottom line is, you shouldn’t cringe when you open your pantry, you should smile. You shouldn’t be met with a mass of confusion and disarray, but a prime example of modern organization and, above all, a reflection of who you are. A happy cook is a good cook!

How To Tuesday: Double Word Score.

Other couples exchange cards. Other couples give flowers. Other couples share chocolates.

We’re not other couples.

Being avid readers and generally big fans of the English language, my sweetie, Lee and I like to play Words With Friends. We’re pretty evenly matched and the games get rather interesting.

So, being the clever girlfriend that I am, I decided that I was going to give Lee a unique gift this Valentine’s Day. A quirky little love token that showcased our weakness for words, the most important words. I saw the idea on Pinterest a while ago and I knew it was perfect.

After a few fruitless weekends spent scouring the city for spare scrabble tiles I was beginning to get discouraged. I discovered that Lee was having a hard time finding a key piece to my present as well. Guess what it was? Scrabble tiles!

For fear that we were giving each other the exact same present we were forced to ruin the surprise and have out with it. Though our ideas were similar they were also different, much like we are. Instead of being disappointed that we had to reveal our romantic plans, we decided that it would be even more romantic if we made them together.

While other couples were enjoying candlelit dinners and Barry White we spent our Valentine’s Day crafting at the kitchen table. In my opinion it was far more romantic than a bouquet of roses or heart shaped boxes.

Happy Valentine’s Day Lee! You never stop surprising me.

You’ll need…

Scrabble tiles
Scrabble board (optional)
Matting (optional)
Scrapbooking paper (optional)
Hot glue gun
Shadowbox frame

Note: I would suggest trying to find pre-loved Scrabble games or replacement tiles at your local flea markets and thrift stores. You can also buy replacement tiles from Hasbro provided that you live in the USA or Amazon for everyone else. If all else fails you can always buy a new game for just 16 bucks at Wal-Mart.

Once you know what message you want to make, lay out your tiles on the scrapbooking paper framed in the intended matting. Using the hot glue gun, carefully glue down each tile making sure to space them evenly. Center it in the shadowbox frame and voila!

Lee chose to write a longer message and cleverly utilized the Scrabble board that came with the game. Spacing the tiles evenly is far easier with this approach since all you need to do is follow the lines of the board.

Dessert For Breakfast.

I think breakfast gets the short end of the stick. Everyone is under the impression that dinner is the romantic meal. Juicy steak, buttery lobster, saucy spaghetti. Then, naturally, dinner is followed by dessert. Dripping with chocolate, sticky sugar, warm and spicy, sweet berries.

What if you could have dessert for breakfast? Forget breakfast for dinner, dessert for breakfast is where it’s at. It’s cake for breakfast. Do you need further convincing? A stack of fluffy pancakes and melted chocolate chips all drizzled with thick and sugary strawberry syrup.

If you really want to impress your sweetheart this Valentine’s Day, make them breakfast. There’s nothing better than waking up to the smell of unsolicited bacon. Or being served breakfast in bed complete with a bird of paradise folded napkin. Or a steaming latte topped with the perfect rosetta poured with barista skill. Or sitting down to a plate of perfectly formed heart-shaped pancakes. It’s easy to make pancakes from a mix and slather some off-brand table syrup on them but, to show you really mean it, make them both from scratch this year.

It’s the little things.

Chocolate Chip Pancakes with Strawberry Syrup

Makes about 8 medium pancakes.

Source: My imagination.

1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup water
3 cup strawberries, hulled and chopped

1 3/4 cup flour
3 tsp baking powder
2 tbsp granulated sugar
1 tsp salt
1 1/4 cup milk
1 vanilla bean
1 egg
2 tbsp olive oil
3/4 cup chocolate chips

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In a medium sauce pan bring the sugar and water to a boil on medium heat. Reduce the heat and add the chopped strawberries. Let it simmer for 15 – 20 minutes or until the mixture is thickened and the strawberries are soft. Strain the syrup through a fine mesh strainer and let it cool to room temperature before serving on the pancakes.

Heat a large frying pan on medium heat.

In a large bowl whisk together the flour, baking powder, salt and sugar. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds. Add the milk, vanilla seeds, egg and oil then combine it until it’s smooth. To ensure there are no lumps, add half the milk at first and whisk it vigorously then add the rest. Finally fold in the chocolate chips.

Grease the prepared pan and spoon in about a 1/2 cup of batter for each pancake. Flip the pancake when bubbles start to form and let it bake about 3 minutes on each side. Serve them hot with your fresh Strawberry Syrup. Enjoy!

Another Year Of Pink, Pretty, Play.

Today is a very special day! Today Hot Polka Dot turns two and yours truly turns twenty-six. To mark the occasion I have precisely twenty-six grey hairs sprouting from my right temple. I also had two pieces of this impressive specimen of pink sweetness.

I thought long and hard about what sort of cake to make to celebrate Hot Polka Dot’s second birthday. I wanted it to be a symbol. I wanted it to be the embodiment of everything Hot Polka Dot stands for.

It’s cute and pink, but also classy and understated. It’s fashionable, sporting a trendy ombre outfit and bunting accessories. It’s speckled with vanilla bean, sweetened with strawberry and enrobed in luscious white chocolate. She’s a little messy, a little out there, but she’s able to pull it together for the big day, not unlike myself.

I feel like this day is made extra special by you. You might be new to my blog, but many of you have stuck by me from the beginning and I’m very thankful for that. You’ve seen how my little corner of the internet and I have grown up and matured into something I’m not ashamed to say I’m very proud of. I’ve experienced so much and learned so much more. It really is a joy to share it with all of you. Thank you for your patience, your kindness and your friendship.

Here’s to another year of pink, pretty and, most importantly, playing with your food!

White Chocolate Covered Strawberry Ombre Cake

Source: My imagination.

1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 eggs
1 vanilla bean
1 3/4 cup flour
1/2 tbsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 cup milk (and/or 1/2 cup strawberry puree**)
2 tbsp vegetable oil

16 ounces white chocolate, chopped
1 1/2 cup heavy cream
4 tbsp unsalted butter

1 1/2 cup strawberry jam

Note: This recipe is for one cake layer. I left it this way so you could make as many as you like and be sure to get the measurement of the strawberry puree right for more ombre fun.

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center. Butter a 9 inch cake pan then line it with a round of parchment paper and set it aside.

In a large bowl an electric mixer cream together the butter and sugar until it’s light and fluffy. Blend in the eggs one at a time, mixing until each is incorporated. Split open the vanilla bean then scrape out all the seeds and add them to the bowl.

Whisk together the flour, baking powder and salt then add it in thirds alternating between the milk, strawberry puree and oil.

**Since we’re trying to achieve an ombre effect, each cake layer needs to have a different amount of strawberry puree. To do this you need to replace some of the milk with the strawberry puree to get that nice pink colour. From whitest to pinkest: layer one is 1/2 cup milk, layer two is 1/3 cup milk and 3 tbsp strawberry puree, layer three is 1/4 cup milk and 1/4 cup strawberry puree, layer four is 1/2 cup strawberry puree. You can add a few drops of red food colouring to boost the colour as well.

Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan then bake it for 25 – 30 minutes until it’s golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Transfer it to a cooling rack and let it cool completely before frosting.

To make the Whipped White Chocolate Ganache Frosting put the chopped chocolate in a heatproof bowl and set it aside. Combine the cream and butter in a small sauce pan and heat it on medium heat until the butter melts and the cream just reaches a boil. Pour it over the chocolate and let it sit covered for a few minutes before stirring it until it’s smooth.

Let the ganache cool before whipping it with an electric mixer until it lightens in colour and becomes light and fluffy. Fill a small pastry bag fitted with a round tip with about a cup of the frosting.

To assemble the cake place the bottom layer on a cake plate. Pipe a circle of frosting around the inside edge of the cake to act as a dam to keep the strawberry jam in. Fill that ring with a generous helping of jam and place the other cake layer on top. Repeat these steps for all but the top layer. Liberally frost the cake with the rest of the Whipped Chocolate Ganache and enjoy!

How To Tuesday: Break Out The Bunting.

This friday is a very special day. Can you guess what day it is? It’s my twenty-sixth birthday and Hot Polka Dot’s second birthday! I do so enjoy sharing my birthday with my blog. Makes the celebration that much more memorable. I can’t believe it’s been two years already. It’s been so much fun!

So you might have guessed there’s going to be cake. Of course there’s going to be cake! You’re not going to be able to guess what kind of cake though. I’m not telling! Rest assured it’ll be sweet and pink and cute and the embodiment of everything Hot Polka Dot stands for. I will, however, give you a teensy little sneak peak.

All pretty cakes need pretty toppers and this one is no slouch. I’ve seen so many cakes out there with the most adorable bunting banners. Naturally I had to try one for myself and naturally I had to share it with you. I didn’t want to you miss out on the easiest and cutest way to jazz up your cake.

You’ll need…

Wooden skewers

Fold a strip of your fabric in half and cut out isosceles triangles with the short side of the triangle running along the folded edge. Depending on what size you want your bunting, cut out 10 – 15 triangles. When you unfold each tiny triangle you should have a bunch of diamonds.

With the pattern of the fabric facing out, fold the diamonds around the length of ribbon and glue them in place side by side. Make sure to keep the ribbon flat while your gluing to keep it from twisting and causing your bunting to sway all wonky.

When you’re satisfied with the length of your bunting, tie each end of the ribbon to the top of a wooden skewer. Make sure to leave enough slack in the ribbon so your finished bunting banner falls in a pleasing arc.

The Last Cookie.

When you bake cookies it’s like some kind of earth-shattering domestic phenomenon. The house fills with the intoxicating scent of fresh baked love all gooey with melted chocolate chips, chewy with oats and sweetly studded with dried cranberries.

Suddenly people from all corners of the home come out of hiding and follow their noses to the source of their mutual adoration. Like hounds who’ve caught the trail of prey, noses to the ground, tails wagging.

In the course of the next few days, hours, or in some cases minutes, the cookies are greedily devoured. No crumb is safe, no chocolate chip left behind. Gradually the batch is thinned out, the plumpest cookies picked off one by one like lambs to the slaughter. What was once twelve becomes eight, then six, then four and finally one. One lonely cookie sits in what now seems like an immense jar. Once stuffed with its brothers and sisters, the jar is now empty save one survivor.

Days pass and there it remains. The relief of being spared the all too recent massacre wears off and he’s left wondering why he wasn’t chosen. Was he too small? Was he over-baked? Was he lacking in chocolate or cranberries? No, this isn’t fourth grade kickball.

No one wants the last cookie because no one can bear to put an end to the deliciousness. No one wants to be the one responsible for depriving the others of all that sugar and love. Once the last cookie is reduced to crumbs you know it will never fill that void inside when you crave another and realize that’s it.

White Chocolate Cranberry Oatmeal Cookies

Makes about 4 dozen cookies.

Source: My imagination.

1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup granulated sugar
1 vanilla bean
2 eggs
2 cup flour
2 tsp baking soda
1 tsp salt
2 cup oats
3/4 cup cranberries
3/4 cup white chocolate chips

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Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and position a rack in the center. Line your baking sheets with parchment paper and set them aside.

In a large bowl with an electric mixer, cream together the butter and sugars. Split the vanilla bean lengthwise and scrape out the seeds with the edge of the knife. Add the vanilla seeds and eggs then mix until they’re just barely blended.

In a separate bowl whisk together the flour, baking soda and salt then combine it into the butter mixture. Lastly fold in the oats, cranberries and chocolate chips until you have a thick luscious dough.

For each cookie, scoop a heaping tbsp of dough and roll it into a ball. Bake them for about 10 minutes until they turn a light golden brown. Transfer them to a cooling rack and enjoy!