Sometimes it’s all about the aesthetics.
It’s the time of year for it. Does your Christmas cake need to match your wrapping scheme? (No, hell no, this is madness and I’m well clear of it). But is it nice if it does? Sure.
Confession: my visual standards are slipping a little at the moment. I’m not the only one. Anyone who had a passing interest in Martha Stewart’s rather unpalatable food tweets will have had a field day a few weeks back. Martha, Martha Martha.
Over here, the mucky state of affairs might have something to do with carting around a 6 kg parcel of squidge and bones who somehow goes through four outfits a day. Luckily most of his sartorial options are a derivation of blue/ grey and white and a stripe or two; so they mix and match quite well- up to a point.
It might also have something to do with this steamy Sydney summer. Shvitzy is the term I’ve now dubbed for the sheen you acquire while walking up a steep hill of Surry Hills, shopping in tow under the beating glare of the 2 pm sun. This clime is meaning I spend more and more time dashing to the air conditioned oasis of a Westfield; Will and I walking laps like the old dears do in packs.
And it might have something to do with the time crunch currently in operation.
In the past I had wide, floating glaciers of afternoons in which to get dressed, tidy the flat, potter in the kitchen and then take photos of the process. It was easy- there was natural light that came in the window right next to the sink. I’d just shuffle a plate over to the ledge, snap, and it was done. A passable shot; secured.
(Nb, photography has never been something I’ve rated myself on -and when I look back at some of the earlier shots on this blog, it’s enough to make an infant cry. For me it’s a crutch like necessity in this very visual medium, rather than a comfort spot. As will be patently obvious to anyone who visits this site, I do not take photos in RAW. I do not use lightroom. And in our current flat there is no natural light in the kitchen. Which invites a perilous totter through the lounge, over activity mats and bumbo chairs to the window. There hasn’t been a spill- yet. Once there I do not spend a great deal of time propping and de propping. There are people who have great talents for that. They’re terrific bloggers and the sort of food stylists and photographers who have helped make Martha Stewart the success that she is).
All of this is helps explain why it’s even more of a challenge that things have to be hastier now. You see, the little one has woken up. He’s much less keen on just lying there, looking up at me while I get on with things. He wants to be involved. Well, largely he just wants to be supported under the armpits so he can squat and collapse, like a puppet gone slack. And then do the same thing, ad nauseum, for hours.
If I find myself with a 30 minute window in which to cook unencumbered (one of the littlest Hungry One’s latest nicknames being ‘Captain Catnap’), then it’s sheer efficiency which has to come to the fore. Ingredients out, into bowls, and snap- if that.
So when an invitation arrives for you to go and learn some tips of the trade from one of Australia’s most glamorous food writers and stylists, the sublime Kate Gibbs, at the very same Westfield where you find yourself strolling laps just earlier that week, you jump at the chance. On slip the wedge heels. And out you go to discover a shiny new dining precinct tucked away in what was once a fairly glum shopping centre. And you learn some hints and tricks.
What follows are a few nuggets on styling gleaned from the night; both for those interested in their own sites and others who just want their own instagram shots to avoid the ‘urghs’ that plagued Martha.
‘A lump of meat is hard to shoot. Either scatter with herbs or cut into it with a few slices so there is space, to loosen it up a bit Instead of shooting a rack of ribs on a board, pull off a few ribs and lay them on the board. It’s more appealing seeing how the meat will be carved and eaten’.
An excellent bit of advice. And not a bad rack of ribs either.
Other pieces of gold;
‘De-prop: Style the shot, take a photo and then remove one prop or part of the dish and reshoot. It’s a stylist trick.’
And then there’s the “crumage” (this has always been a point of minor, entertaining tension between me and the stylists on set at the shoots for both books. My instinct for cleanliness often rubs up against their desire to leave artful drips, smears, traces and scatterings of food residue around a dish. It usually gets to a point where with each shot we have a little dance of ‘can we clean this up a bit?’ and there’s a little bit of eye rolling when I leave to go back to the kitchen). But, it’s a stylistic choice for a reason. It makes food look more accessible.
So yesterday, when I finally got around to the next step in my festive baking, I took some of the recent advice to hand. I did it quickly, but I tried for some de propping. I inadvertently left some crummage. I was pleased.
And when I realised that the dark cocoa and plum-ish reds of the fruits in my chocolate fruit and nut cake perfectly echoed the warm tones of my neutral paper, crimson and black ribbon Christmas wrapping scheme nestled under the tree, I was down right chuffed.
Sure, the following cake tastes terrific- the pedestrian rectangles of a loaf format hiding the fact that the interior crumb thanks to the yoghurt is moist and fluffy, with roasted nuts and booze-steeped fruit provide crunch and squish. The mixture is sturdy enough to divide into two and bake simultaneously, making one to gift and one to scoff. This is a Christmas cake for those who don’t adore fruit cake and for others who think that most things are improved with a little bit of chocolate.
But it’s also beguilingly elegant when sliced and served with either a nip of brandy at the end of a meal, or an espresso for afternoon tea (and it photographs just fine). Hand over a present, cut a piece of cake and breath a calming sigh.
Standards? Potentially saved. Phew.
Chocolate Fruit and Nut Loaf
Makes 2 loaves
300 g dried fruit (I use a mix of dried figs, sour cherries, cranberries, currants, raisins and mixed peel)
1/4 cup/60 ml brandy (you could substitute other booze)
1 1/3 or 170 g plain flour
1/2 cup/50 g cocoa
1/2 tsp bicarb soda
1/2 tsp baking powder
1 tsp allspice
pinch of salt
140 g butter, at room temperature
200 g caster sugar
180 g yoghurt
150 g mixed nuts
Here’s how we roll
1) Up to a day or two before you bake combine the dried fruits with the brandy and cover. Allow the booze to absorb into the fruit. Otherwise, just do this first and then preheat the oven to 180 C.
2) Grease and line to 21 x 7 cm loaf pans with baking paper.
3) Sift together all of the dry ingredients into a bowl. Set aside.
4) Beat together the sugar and the butter until fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time and beat well to combine.
5) Fold in 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then 1/2 of the yoghurt.
6) Fold in the second 1/3 of the dry ingredients, then the remainder of the yoghurt.
9) Portion the batter into the two prepared loaf tins.
10) Bake for 45 minutes, until a skewer comes out clean and allow to rest in the tins for 10 minutes before turning out to cool.
* Nb, thanks to Liquid Ideas and Westfield Eastgardens for inviting me to their Table for 20 Masterclass and letting us loose on the new dining precinct #FoodonBanks- and to Kate Gibbs for the inspiration (those interested should follow her instagram. It’s just gorgeous).