Thursday, May 31, 2012

A Day at Simon's Pottery Barn

As is the case with all craft books, the time comes when it must be photographed. In most cases, the process of organizing a photo shoot is the most anxiety-filled part of making a book. I think it has something to do with how quickly it must be done. And how this is your "one shot" to get it right. And there are so many things that can go wrong, like bad weather, or clothes that don't fit, or models that have totally different hair than they had in their head shots (or models that just don't show up). Thankfully, the photo shoot for the pottery book I am editing for STC Craft--Simon Leach's Pottery Handbook--had none of these problems. In fact, it was one of the most serene and lovely photo shoots I have ever attended. And that's really saying something.

Here's why:
1) I hired Jared Flood (aka Brooklyn Tweed) to shoot the book and Karen Schaupeter to style it. Aside from being insanely talented, both of these people are professional when needed, and a total hoot the rest of the time. Plus, they are excellent road trip buddies!

2) There were no models, no make-up or hair stylists, no assistants, no wardrobe, no props, nothing. Just simple, guerrilla shooting at its finest.

3) Simon lives way out in the middle of nowhere Pennsylvania (on what I cannot stop referring to as a Pottery Barn). There were green growing things and old stone houses, handmade bridges and abandoned refineries, wildflowers and rain. It was lush and lovely.

4) There were pots....lots and lots of pots...strewn about, sitting in rows, stacked one atop the other, some glazed, some freshly thrown, some bisqued. All of them, absolutely gorgeous. Even after two days, I was still finding new treasures on the shelves.
When we first arrived, Jared had barely parked the car before he leapt out and started snapping pictures. It was all so picturesque that I think we all worried it was going to evaporate into the mist like Brigadoon. After Jared snapped some environmental pics and got it out of his system, Simon brewed us a pot of coffee (served in his homemade mugs, of course) and we turned our attention to the shoot list.
Karen got to work creating still-life arrangements.
And when Simon wasn't busy throwing pots for us to photograph (very much like a short-order cook), and when Bruce wasn't busy answering my many questions about what we actually included in the manuscript, they busied themselves with bocci on the front lawn.  
Jared, I would say, had the roughest job of all. Not only did he have to hold up that camera for two days straight (no tripods here!), he also had to get in real close when we were removing pots from the raku kiln, nearly choking to death on the smoke. Luckily, he found a respirator right fast. Safety first! 
As for me? Once everything was rolling, I mostly played with this cat. After the first few shots, Jared and Karen got into a groove, so it was just a matter of approving shots and crossing items off a list, all of which can be done from a grassy spot on the lawn with a cat on your lap.
And of course, I also tried to pick up tips for my own pottery making where I could. Like studying these tutorials of the various phases of making a cylinder.
And admiring the perfect thinness of this porcelain bowl, wondering if my walls will ever look so peacefully uniform. As Simon would recommend, I shall "keep practicing."

(If you, too, need to keep practicing, you should really check out Simon's YouTube videos, which are mesmerizing.)

Sunday, May 20, 2012

An Apple Tree Grows in Brooklyn

Admittedly, we have the sorriest looking apple tree in all of Brooklyn. The feral cats like to jump up onto that brick wall, and then down they hop onto our side, stepping on the weak little sappling branches that were once on the right side of the tree. (Now that all of the branches have broken off, they use the trellis.) Its trunk is far from mighty, rivaling maybe a broomstick for girth. In fact, a rope attached to the fence keeps the thing from blowing over on a windy day. Its one long central stem reaches awkwardly up up up (yay!), and then over (wah wah). Between the top and the bottom, the foliage hasn't even thought about filling out, though the bottom section tries to put on a brave show, puffing out its sorry chest. 

Despite its scrawny ways--and despite all odds really--this tree is actually growing fruit. At last count, in fact, 26 apples!! Amazing, right?
Last year we were shocked to discover that it was growing a few little apples--right about this size--but a gust of wind blew them off. Or perhaps a feral cat sneezed and away they went. But I don't know, this year seems a bit more promising. 26 apples! And they keep growing and becoming more apple-like every day! And yes, I do go outside and look at them every single day. But just because things are looking promising this year, I know better than to get my hopes up. You see, in a garden, you never know what funky shit is gonna go down. See those tiny red spots on the leaves above? Who's to say those aren't the eggs of tiny red spiders and that when I come home from our Memorial Day road trip next week, the whole tree won't be encased in a spider cocoon? Do spider cocoons actually exist? Nope! But every single year, something happens to at least one of my crops that I had no idea even existed. Case in point: a bacteria that gets in your dirt and cuts off the vascular system of tomato plants so that water can't reach the leaves, killing the plant right as the fruit starts to ripen. And then the bacteria stays in your soil for five years. What kind of asshole bacteria is that? (Needless to say, the tomato plants will be in containers this year. Don't worry, the containers are cute! More on that soon...)
So, while I am excited and keeping vigilant watch over my sorry ass fruit-bearing apple tree, I refuse to count my apples until they are, well, in my belly. Sliced and cinnamoned. Smothered in a rich brie. Eaten like the hand-fruit that they are. Let us now pray for the apples, shall we?
Another thing that needs prayers in our garden is, well, the entire garden. This is our first year gardening with a dog! A dog, I might add, whose sole purpose in life is to walk with his nose to the ground and his butt in the air, sniffing every last thing on God's green earth. We have TV to entertain us--this dog has his nose. And one of his favorite things to do is take laps of our yard, sidestepping (or not) whatever new plant has popped up.
That being said, we have taken some protective measures. Exhibit A: Flower Jail. Within one minute of these flowers going in the ground last weekend, he had already stepped on one of the dahlias. Nah ah, we said. And upon realizing that the flower bed was the exact size of our defunct fire pit stand, we picked it up and placed it over the flowers. And...STAY OUT.
Is it a little sad to have to put your flowers in flower jail? Well, yeah. But it would be a lot sadder if they all got trampled. Or pooped on. Or both. As I said, this is the year of the vigilant garden. I absolutely cannot control whatever mother nature has in store--and she's got some ideas, let me tell you--but I can try. I can watch my apples, and I can soap down the tree at the first sign of a red spider infestation. And I am not too proud to barricade my dahlias until they grow strong strong strong. Then, one day, be they apple tree or flower bush, they will be big and burly enough to stand on their own. And I will be over there, in the chaise lounge, hopefully sipping a cold, delicious beer.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Big Winner: Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

When I was a kid, caramel popcorn was the ultimate decadent treat my mom would make. I know this doesn't sound very fancy, but you have to go with me here. It was the era of the air-popper--that contraption that most assuredly removes all flavor and joy from popcorn--and my family was pretty big into popcorn. So to have a big bowl of air-popped popcorn smothered in homemade goopy salty caramel was pretty special. This was Saturday night stuff, if you know what I mean. I have fond memories of my mom standing at the stove doing something mysterious with sugar. It involved no measuring cups and a wooden spoon, and suddenly, there was caramel, ready to be poured over the popcorn. After she laid out newspaper on the floor of the family room, Erin and I were invited to sit on the papers and enjoy our popcorn while watching some movie (probably Meatballs). We were advised to touch NOTHING. And over the course of about three minutes, Erin and I worked our way through the bowl, first picking out the especially goopy pieces, and then the moderately goopy pieces, and finally the sad pieces that didn't get any goop at all.

It wasn't until just a couple of years ago that I realized how odd it was that my mom made us sit on newspapers. As though we were DOGS being POTTY TRAINED. But as long as I got to eat caramel corn, I didn't care.

So when it came time to decide what to make for last week's bake-off, I knew it had to be something caramel. As I perused my cookbooks and various sites for inspiration, I knew I'd hit the jackpot  when I found the Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars on good ole Martha Stewart's site.
The recipe has shockingly few ingredients and really doesn't take that long to make. If you know how to make caramel. Which I didn't. (That was my mom's job!!) While the super-simple shortbread is in the oven, you're supposed to get started on your caramel. But before I got started, I read through all of the comments from users on Martha's site, and the common theme seemed to be this: the caramel is easy to eff up. Uh oh, I thought. I'm pretty good at effing up baked goods, so these comments seem likely to apply to me. Cautiously, I combined my sugar and 1/4 cup water in a small pot and I got to whisking. They say to use a pastry brush to occasionally wet the sides of the pot with water, which will keep sugar crystals from forming. It also says that your sugar is supposed to turn a deep golden brown after about ten minutes. Let it be known: neither of these things happened. In fact, ten minutes into it my sugar had turned completely clear and was the consistency of water. I knew something was wrong, so I dumped the contents of the pot into the trash can. When it hardened up over the scraps from that night's dinner, I realized what had happened: I had made rock candy! So I moved on to Plan B: Just put the sugar in the pan with no water and heat it slowly over medium. I could feel the wisdom from my mother wash over me...that's what she was doing at the stove! That's why there were no measuring cups and no recipe! That's really easy.

After about 5 minutes of occasional stirring, the sugar starts to turn light and fluffy and a little bit tan, and then another 5 minutes later, it starts to melt and get sticky, and 5 minutes after that, you have caramel. Done! Fold in your butter, cream, and chocolate and you have the flavor of happiness in your house.
So I admit, I felt a bit like a cheat because the competition had a cookie theme and these cookies are more like candy. Or bars. Or Twix Bars, to be more accurate. And I had considered doing a more traditional cookie for the bake about a lovely ranger cookie? (Seriously, coconut, chocolate chips, and krispy cereal are a delicious combination.) But if I wanted to win, I knew I needed to bring the goop. And damn it, this was my fifth bake-off! I wanted to win already!
Unfortunately, I had a headache on the day of the bake-off (probably from eating too much caramel), so I didn't get to try anyone else's cookies except for these cute little cream wafers cuz they were so cute I could not resist. (And they were delish!) So when my name was announced as the FIRST PRIZE WINNER, I must admit that I did not know if mine were actually better, because I tried no one else's. But I don't really care because I WON. FINALLY!

And now you can be a winner, too. Here's the recipe:

Martha Stewart's Chocolate Caramel Cookie Bars

For the Crust:
 9 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temp, plus more for parchment
1/4 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon salt

For the Chocolate Caramel:
10 1/2 ounces semisweet chocolate chips (about 2 cups)
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup heavy cream
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon kosher salt

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Make the crust: Line a 9-inch square baking pan with parchment, leaving an overhang on all sides; butter parchment, excluding overhang. Beat butter and brown sugar on medium speed until pale and fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add flour and table salt, and beat until just combined. Press dough evenly into pan, and bake until lightly browned, about 30 minutes.

To make the chocolate caramel, place chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat granulated sugar a in a small saucepan over medium heat, stirring now and then, until amber, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove from heat. Add butter, cream, and salt. Bring to a boil, stirring until smooth. Pour over chocolate. Let stand for 2 minutes. Stir to combine, and let stand until cool, about 10 minutes.

Pour mixture over crust. Refrigerate at least 4 hours, or overnight. Run a knife around edges; lift parchment to remove whole bar from pan. Sprinkle with kosher salt. Trim edges, and cut into tiny bite-size bars so you don't eat too much and get a tummy ache.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Instagram Meets the Animal Kingdom

A couple nights ago, I was stuck waiting for the G Train at Court Square. Robb and I had just come back from the city and we ran into a couple of his friends who were also on their way back to Greenpoint. While we waited for MTA to clear the body off the tracks (ok, ok...they just called it a "medical emergency," which really could be anything...let's assume some woman had a miracle baby at the Flushing stop!), me and this girl started talking about Instagram. She was all dolled up and had just come from an event where the most popular Instagram photographers in New York City were being honored. One of them was her friend. But that didn't stop me from saying something fairy uncouth, like, "But doesn't Instagram require no talent whatsoever?" OK, I didn't say it like that. I think I said, "Huh, I didn't realize that people could have careers taking Instagram photos. How interesting!" Yes, it was definitely something nicer like that. 

Out of curiosity, I asked if her friend had any photography background. Maybe he is an expert in composition? Lighting? Nope, the guy has had no photography training at all. He just got really into taking Instagram photos and lots of people started following him and now his work is lauded at champagne events. Fascinating!

Truth be told, I had just the week before caught up with the 21st century and downloaded the app on my phone. (And just a month before that, I buried my Blackberry and got an Iphone.) I am pretty far behind the times and I still don't understand half of the functions on my phone. But I must confess this: I not only understand Instagram....I LOVE it.

My photos--like, the kind I take on a real camera--are not great. My husband, who went to school for photography, has probably explained the concept of ISO to me 32 times. I have retained none of what he has taught me. I like to shoot things really really really close up, so you don't even know what they are. The horizon is often iffy. My sense of lighting is deplorable. The adjective I would first choose to describe my photos is "grainy." The second would be "underwater." So, it is fairly amazing to me that a device exists where I can take a mediocre photo and then make it look interesting. Give me your filters, give me your frames. Lighting schmiting...I'll Instagram it! 
So this last weekend, I went out to take photos of some bags I made. They have little whales on them! Isn't that cute? And after Robb took a whole bunch on the camera, I had him take a few on the phone. Once I Instagrammed them, the photos were suddenly transformed! They had personality. The daylight had depth. The bag had a shape and a story. A quick trip to the park had suddenly turned into what looked, on my screen anyway, like a memorable day.

This shit is magic.

So...I'm late, it's a fad, and I'm not really convinced that there is much talent involved other than picking an interesting subject matter to photograph and a filter that flatters the shot. But I'm a fan. And now you know how I feel about Instagram.
Incidentally, I put up photos of the two blue bags on Etsy and they both sold that night! (The red one, above, is still available...if red corduroy whales are your thing. And you know they totally are.) But I'm thinking that I may have finally found the winning formula: make animal-themed bags, take photos on the phone, and then transform them on Instagram.

Speaking of which, what has four legs, a trunk, and feathers? Possibly the new HeyAllday Handmade palette.