Every time a major holiday event comes around, I am not afraid to experiment. I hold on to the philosophy that if the dish doesn’t come out awesome, my family will still love me, and if it comes out great, everyone will be pleasantly surprised with a new taste to try. So I never view making a dish for the first time as a risky endeavor, and often see the holidays as an exciting time to see what new traditions I might be able to create.
This Thanksgiving was no different, as I decided to use our family event to create a totally brand-new-to-me dessert, gluten free dumplings. These dumplings were the feature recipe for Simone’s Donna Hay Styling and Photography Challenge (DHSPC) #3 – as is tradition with these challenges, the goal is to take an image chosen from the lovely Donna Hay magazine and recreate it. This rendition of the challenge was a cover photo by the ever talented William Meppem, of apple and caramel dumplings – perfect for the Autumn season! While I am usually all about making new foods, I have to admit after some of the other participants’ experiences I was a little hesitant! It seems there were a few errors in this recipe, and so it had the extra challenge of figuring out how to make it work – no matter, I’m usually improvising as I go anyways, we’ll just see what happens and hopefully there is an edible result at the end.
The first time I participated in Simone’s challenge, I had a bit of a philosophical challenge with the task of recreating an image. This time I decided to go for a more interpretation based approach, and as always had a few extra challenges to go with it
One such challenge was interpreting the recipe to get the desired result for the caramel sauce, since the published proportions seemed to be a bit off. Two, I made mine into a gluten free version on the fly on my favorite holiday of the year to serve to family, and three I was home visiting my parents so had to just hunt around their house for props and lighting modifiers, and as I was with my parents, I was also completely reliant on whatever weather/light was shining through our dark forest into the house that day.
Actually converting the recipe to gluten free was not so difficult. I simply substituted an all purpose gluten free flour mix for the conventional all purpose wheat-based flour (to which I then added salt and baking powder so that it would be “self rising”) and the dumplings held up really well and had a nice light and fluffy texture. The tricky culinary issue was in the caramel sauce – others who had made the recipe earlier had all stated that there was simply too much volume, and to bake the dumplings in that much liquid resulted in them being a bit soggy. So, I altered the recipe a little bit – the original recipe said to add the sugar water and butter all together, bring to a boil and then set aside.
Instead, I started with the original amounts of ingredients, but at first only combined the sugar and water together, and let them simmer/reduce a little bit before removing from the heat and then stirring in the butter. So my total volume was slightly less. And then to keep the dumplings from sitting in too much liquid as they baked, I lined the bottom of the pan with large apple pieces and placed the dumplings on top. As it turns out the springform pan was leaky anyways so I had set the springform inside another baking pan, and then at times “basted” the dumplings with caramel that had dripped out the bottom. This resulted in a thicker caramel, maybe because of the reduced volume or maybe because of some of it baking out from under the pan, or maybe because I simply had to bake the dish a bit longer in order for the dumplings to cook through, I’m not sure. Maybe it was a combination of both.
Whew! Now that we got the cooking part out of the way, onto the styling and photography, the main purpose of the challenge!
Before I even started cooking the dish, I studied the image, and noticed things about the image that might not have been included in the recipe. For example, the dumplings looked like they had some texture to them. So I decided to roll mine in cinnamon sugar to give them a bit of texture too. Also, the apples had to be very small (or the dumplings huge) given their proportions in the image, so when we went to my brother-in-law’s local family apple orchard, I made sure to choose apples off the trees with the dish in mind and how I wanted to style it, and selected small apples. I also noticed that the apples were wrinkly, as if they had been roasted, and was afraid that by the way I was incorporating them they would look more poached. So I set aside some of the apples and roasted them separately until they were quite soft and caramelized in their own juices. Maybe they cooked a tad too long, but they certainly did a better job at achieving the right look than if I had just baked them on top with the dumplings.
For the props, I just had to hunt around my parents’ house. They had no off-white surfaces like in the original photo, so we got creative and ended up using a pillowcase. Also there were no red striped towels or napkins, so I found a green snowman patterned Christmas dishtowel and said - ok, we’ll make this work. The original image featured the dumplings baked in a sort of spring form pan, and my dad found the perfect looking dish to use, along with this awesome scalloped metal plate to go underneath. A bit old and dusty, but I preferred it that way – sometimes everything clean and shiny ends up making the food look too sterile to me – and since the food wasn’t actually going to come into contact with it anyways, it didn’t matter so much.
Because I had no time to iron the pillowcase since we were serving dessert soon, I added in a couple apples in the background to help disguise the crease haha.
Next came the lighting. I suspected the source was natural light, but more importantly it was obvious that it was coming from about 8:00 relative to the camera. I set everything up by the one window that let in the most light (which isn’t much given the forest my parents’ home is located in) and did a test shot, quickly realizing that I needed my husband’s help to hold a cookie sheet and bounce light back in to help the shadows – see the difference?
I decided just for kicks to also try incorporating some flash light, but without a setup to take the flash off camera, there just wasn’t a good large surface available to bounce light off of to help the look – pretty much my only option was to bounce light off of the ceiling, which just does not create the same mood. So natural light it was.
As for the settings themselves, well they don’t really matter so much do they? Once you understand your camera to get exposure and the aperture of your choosing in manual mode, the settings become much less of a headache than when first starting out. I will walk through my process though, because it may be helpful – I always choose my aperture first – because I usually want a certain depth of field – i.e. how much of the image I want to be in focus. I chose f/4 here because I wanted most of the image to be recognizable and not just a blur, and it was as wide open as I felt comfortable without compromising the depth of field too much (the wider open the faster shutter speed you can get away with, and in limited light I needed to push my limits as much as possible). For the shutter speed, I was at 1/50, which 99% of people (including myself) will tell you is way too slow to do without a tripod, which I did not take over the ocean with me. And in fact this image would’ve been sharper (I focused on the dumpling in the middle of the pan) had I been able to push it up to even 1/80 of a second.
When I’m taking photos that are too slow like this, I hold the camera in close to myself, elbows tucked in, one hand supporting the lens, one on the camera and pushing the shutter. I have it set to continuous high speed so when I press the shutter the camera takes photos in a row as long as the shutter is held down. I press my face up against the viewfinder, breathe in, and then as I slowly exhale (not unlike one would in a yoga class) I press down on the shutter until about 5 images are taken – because I know the first couple will be a blurry mess, but by the end I should’ve steadied myself enough to hopefully get one decently in focus. Again, I will reiterate the importance of using a tripod in these low lighting cases. Seriously, if you have a tripod, use it. If you don’t, do everything you can to find ways to support and steady your camera, and you may want to consider purchasing a tripod. But when I can’t and gotta fake it, that’s what I do. Then to adjust the exposure, I upped the ISO to 800 (checking the histogram to make sure it was properly exposed, as at high ISO underexposing creates a lot of excess noise). My angle was slightly different from the original and a bit closer to the food, but I liked it for what I had to work with. I purposely chose a cool white balance setting because I felt it helped keep the mood I was going for.
And that’s it! About 10 minutes after they came out of the oven they were completely photographed and done and ready to dish up and serve, and everyone loved them! The caramel sauce came out well, the apples were delicious (I served the dumplings with the apple pieces I had baked in the bottom of the dish), and it was all gluten free – another holiday experiment, turned success!
For the original recipe as written in Donna Hay, check out Simone’s challenge post.
For more tips in the Amateur’s Food Photography Series, please see the previous posts -
Look at photos with a critical eye (and making fun of one of my early ones!)
Food photography is about celebrating light
Take your time and find your “zen place”
Angles of Light
Pay Attention to Props
It’s Not the Camera, It’s the Lighting
Exploring New Directions
Plate to Page Workshop Summary
Building an Image
Shades of Gray
White Bean and Ricotta Salad