Looking back, it was a pretty good 2008. Still shooting mostly with the Rebel XT and 28-105 that I got two years ago. Here’s my assessment of last year’s goals:
Get better at post-processing. I feel a lot more comfortable tweaking white balance and curves. One tip that I picked up from friend is to take multiple passes through a set of photos since your sense of the right white balance can slowly evolve as you go from photo to photo.
Work on composition. Definitely getting better at seeing things in 2D, and I’ve been active in repositioning distractions or myself to get a better shot.
Be more creative. Haven’t done anything too crazy lately, unfortunately.
Shoot more photos. The camera comes along with me everywhere, and having a bag that allows easy access to it makes a big difference.
Be in more pictures. When people offer to take a picture of me, I’m more likely to agree to it.
So, onto goals for this year.
Play around with lighting. It’s fun to read Strobist but hard to acquire all of the equipment. Also, as far as busting out extra flashes to shoot photos, it’s probably not something that’s going to happen all that regularly. Nevertheless, it would be fun to learn more and play around with my extra flash.
Get out more. The town scenery here isn’t as photo-worthy as Cambridge and Boston, but that’s no excuse. Hopefully I’ll find some favorite local spots to take photos.
Spend more time post-processing my best photos. All photos currently get about the same post-processing treatment; I’d like to spend more time with the best ones to make them really pop.
Read some books. I’ve been able to learn a good deal on my own from reading blogs and other online resources, but at this point I’d like to start learning more theory. To start down this path (and my first goal), my sister gave me Light: Science and Magic.
Get more involved in communities. Will try to blog more regularly, participate in photo contests, leave more comments, and encourage my friends (since a ton of them just got DSLRs) to post their pictures somewhere public.
I have a love-hate relationship with making apple pie. With this crust recipe I feel like I’m killing the people who are eating the pie (8 tbsp shortening + 12 tbsp butter per pie). It’s also pretty labor intensive since each layer of crust needs to be prepped ahead of time and rolled out delicately, and all those apples need to be peeled, cored, and sliced. I think I get annoyed because there isn’t really any way to scale this recipe up easily. The worst part is that you can pick up a frozen supermarket pie for $3, which is completely demoralizing. On the plus side, these guys look amazing and everyone’s impressed when you tell them that you made it yourself. The flavor of the pie is very good, though I’m still working to make the filling a little less wet. I always end up with leftover apples at the end too.
I’ve made three of these so far, only for my family, and only over the holidays.
Foolproof Pie Dough
from Cook’s Illustrated
Note that this makes a single crust. For the apple pie, double the recipe and split the dough in half before refrigerating.
1 1/4 cups unbleached all-purpose flour (6 1/4 ounces)
1/2 teaspoon table salt
1 tablespoon sugar
6 tablespoons cold unsalted butter (3/4 stick), cut into 1/4-inch slices
1/4 cup chilled solid vegetable shortening , cut into 2 pieces
2 tablespoons vodka , cold
2 tablespoons cold water
1. Process 3/4 cups flour, salt, and sugar together in food processor until combined, about 2 one-second pulses. Add butter and shortening and process until homogenous dough just starts to collect in uneven clumps, about 10 seconds (dough will resemble cottage cheese curds with some very small pieces of butter remaining, but there should be no uncoated flour). Scrape down sides and bottom of bowl with rubber spatula and redistribute dough evenly around processor blade. Add remaining 1/2 cup flour and pulse until mixture is evenly distributed around bowl and mass of dough has been broken up, 4 to 6 quick pulses. Empty mixture into medium bowl.
2. Sprinkle vodka and water over mixture. With rubber spatula, use folding motion to mix, pressing down on dough until dough is slightly tacky and sticks together. Flatten dough into 4-inch disk. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate at least 45 minutes or up to 2 days.
3. Adjust oven rack to lowest position, place rimmed baking sheet on oven rack, and heat oven to 425 degrees. Remove dough from refrigerator and roll out on generously floured (up to ¼ cup) work surface to 12-inch circle about 1/8 inch thick. Roll dough loosely around rolling pin and unroll into pie plate, leaving at least 1-inch overhang on each side. Working around circumference, ease dough into plate by gently lifting edge of dough with one hand while pressing into plate bottom with other hand. Leave overhanging dough in place; refrigerate until dough is firm, about 30 minutes.
Classic Apple Pie
from Cook’s Illustrated
2 pounds Granny Smith apples (4 medium)
2 pounds McIntosh apples (4 medium)
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 teaspoon lemon zest from 1 medium lemon
1/4 teaspoon table salt
1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon ground allspice
1 egg white , beaten lightly
1 tablespoon granulated sugar , for topping
1. Adjust oven rack to center position and heat oven to 425 degrees.
2. Peel, core, and cut apples into 1/2-to-3/4-inch slices and toss with 3/4 cup sugar and lemon juice and zest through allspice. Turn fruit mixture, including juices, into chilled pie shell and mound slightly in center. Roll out other dough round and place over filling. Trim top and bottom edges to 1/2 inch beyond pan lip. Tuck this rim of dough underneath itself so that folded edge is flush with pan lip. Flute edging or press with fork tines to seal. Cut four slits at right angles on dough top. Brush egg white onto top of crust and sprinkle evenly with remaining 1 tablespoon sugar, (omit if freezing unbaked pie, see below).
3. Bake until top crust is golden, about 25 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375 degrees; continue baking until juices bubble and crust is deep golden brown, 30 to 35 minutes longer. Transfer pie to wire rack; cool to almost room temperature, at least 4 hours.
4. Do-Ahead: Freeze the unbaked pie for two to three hours, then cover it with a double layer of plastic wrap, and return it to the freezer for no more than two weeks. To bake, remove the pie from the freezer, brush it with the egg wash, sprinkle with sugar, and place directly into a preheated 425 degree oven. After baking it for the usual fifty-five minutes, reduce the oven to 325 degrees, cover the pie with foil so as not to overcook the crust, and bake for an additional twenty to twenty-five minutes.
In theory steak should be really easy – salt and pepper, sear on both sides, and you’re done. In reality, it’s tough to get it just right, especially if your steaks don’t have a lot of time to hang out after coming out of the fridge. Made this tonight (for the second time) with Costco ribeyes, and it was awesome. No guesswork, and perfectly cooked steaks. Sure it’s a bit more trouble to put it into a low-heat oven first, but it’s totally worth it to look over at your guests’ plates to see that they turned out just the way you intended.
Served with a red wine mushroom sauce, roasted red potatoes, spinach salad with apple and walnuts, and light wheat bread, with apple turnovers and vanilla ice cream for dessert (the photo is from a previous meal).
Pan-seared thick-cut steaks
from Cook’s Illustrated
2 boneless strip steaks (1 1/2 to 1 3/4 inches thick (about 1 pound each)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
1 tablespoon vegetable oil
1. Adjust oven rack to middle position and heat oven to 275 degrees. Pat steaks dry with paper towel. Cut each steak in half vertically to create four 8-ounce steaks. Season entire surface of steaks liberally with salt and pepper; gently press sides of steaks until uniform 1 1/2 inches thick. Place steaks on wire rack set in rimmed baking sheet; transfer baking sheet to oven. Cook until instant-read thermometer inserted in center of steak registers 90 to 95 degrees for rare to medium-rare, 20 to 25 minutes, or 100 to 105 degrees for medium, 25 to 30 minutes.
2. Heat oil in 12-inch heavy-bottomed skillet over high heat until smoking. Place steaks in skillet and sear steaks until well-browned and crusty, about 1 1/2 to 2 minutes, lifting once halfway through to redistribute fat underneath each steak. (Reduce heat if fond begins to burn.) Using tongs, turn steaks and cook until well browned on second side, 2 to 2 1/2 minutes. Transfer all steaks to wire cooling rack and reduce heat under pan to medium. Use tongs to stand 2 steaks on their sides. Holding steaks together, return to skillet and sear on all sides until browned, about 1 1/2 minutes. Repeat with remaining 2 steaks.
3. Transfer steaks to wire cooling rack and let rest, loosely tented with foil, for 10 minutes while preparing pan sauce. Arrange steaks on individual plates and spoon sauce over steaks; serve immediately.
This recipe is a convergence of two trends in our household: more greens and more bread. The home made croutons are incredible and totally unlike store-bought ones – flavored with olive oil, crispy on the outside, and slightly chewy on the inside. The only thing to watch out for while making this salad is making sure that enough croutons make it into the salad since it is incredibly tempting to eat them right after they come out of the pan.
Spinach Salad with Mushrooms, Croutons, and Warm Lemon Dressing
from Cook’s Illustrated
1 1/2 pounds flat-leaf spinach , stemmed, washed, dried, and torn into large pieces (about 9 cups, tightly packed)
1/2 pound cremini mushrooms or white mushrooms, cleaned, stems trimmed, sliced thin
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
3 cups stale French or Italian-style bread cut into 3/4-inch cubes
2 medium cloves garlic , minced
1/4 cup lemon juice from 2 medium lemons
Table salt and ground black pepper
1. Place spinach and mushrooms in large bowl; set aside.
2. Heat oil in large skillet over medium-high heat until shimmering. Add bread; fry, turning several times with slotted spoon, until crisp and golden, about 3 minutes. Transfer to paper towel–lined plate. Off heat, let remaining oil cool slightly, about 1 minute. Add garlic; cook until lightly colored, about 2 minutes. Whisk in lemon juice and salt and pepper to taste. Pour warm dressing over salad; toss. Add croutons; toss again. Serve immediately.
I’ve never been thrilled by our waffle recipes. The one that came with our waffle maker is a bit on the yeasty side, and I didn’t love the one in The New Best Recipe, which calls for a bit of cornmeal to add crunch (haven’t tried their Cook’s Illustrated yeasted waffle recipe yet).
This is Mark Bittman’s recipe. The waffles were crisp and delicious. Topped them with strawberries and whipped cream. Most importantly, I ordered Jen and our guests to quarter and devour them as soon as they came out of the iron; few things that come out of our kitchen degrade as quickly and dramatically as fresh waffles. I think this ended up making 5 waffles.
Overnight Waffles from How to Cook Everything
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
2 cups (10 oz) all-purpose flour
1 tbsp sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
8 tbsps (1 stick) butter, melted and cooled
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract (optional)
neutral oil for brushing the iron
1. The night before, combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Stir in the milk, then butter and vanilla. Cover with plastic wrap and set aside overnight at room temperature.
2. When ready to cook, brush the waffle iron lightly with oil and heat it. Separate the eggs and stir the yolks into the batter. Beat the whites until they hold soft peaks. Fold them gently into the batter.
3. Spread enough batter onto the iron to barely cover it; bake until the waffle is done, usually 3-5 minutes, depending on your iron. Serve immediately or keep warm for a few minutes in a 200 deg F oven.
This was dinner tonight. The sauce was pretty straightforward, a nice creamy (though not overly heavy) alternative to marinara sauce. The red pepper flakes add some punch to the sauce; the pancetta, basil, and parmesan add some nice accents.
Penne Alla Vodka with Pancetta from Cook’s Illustrated
1 (28 ounce) can whole tomatoes , drained, liquid reserved
1 tablespoon olive oil
3 ounces pancetta , thinly sliced, and cut into 1/2-inch pieces (about 1/2 cup)
1/2 small onion , minced (about 1/4 cup)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
2 medium cloves garlic , minced or pressed through garlic press (about 2 teaspoons)
1/4-1/2 teaspoon hot red pepper flakes
1/3 cup vodka
1/2 cup heavy cream
1 pound penne pasta
2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
Grated Parmesan cheese , for serving
1. Puree half of tomatoes in food processor until smooth. Dice remaining tomatoes into 1/2-inch pieces, discarding cores. Combine pureed and diced tomatoes in liquid measuring cup (you should have about 1 2/3 cups). Add reserved liquid to equal 2 cups.
2. Heat oil in large saucepan over medium heat until shimmering, add pancetta and cook until crisp, 6 to 8 minutes. Using slotted spoon, transfer pancetta to small bowl and set aside. Pour off all but 2 tablespoons fat from the pan. Add onion and tomato paste and cook, stirring occasionally, until onions are light golden around edges, about 3 minutes. Add garlic and pepper flakes; cook, stirring constantly, until fragrant, about 30 seconds.
3. Stir in tomatoes and pinch of salt. Remove pan from heat and add vodka. Return pan to medium-high heat and simmer briskly until alcohol flavor is cooked off, 8 to 10 minutes; stir frequently and lower heat to medium if simmering becomes too vigorous. Stir in cream and cook until hot, about 1 minute.
4. Meanwhile, bring 4 quarts water to boil in large Dutch oven over high heat. Add 1 tablespoon salt and pasta. Cook until just shy of al dente, then drain pasta, reserving 1/4 cup cooking water, and transfer pasta back to Dutch oven. Add sauce to pasta and toss over medium heat until pasta absorbs some of sauce, 1 to 2 minutes, adding reserved cooking water if sauce is too thick. Stir in basil and reserved pancetta and adjust seasoning with salt. Divide among pasta bowls and serve immediately, passing Parmesan separately.
Jen found this little guy on our kitchen table. I snapped a few photos (handheld) with my macro before letting him loose in the backyard. Hopefully he’ll be back soon.
Bread doesn’t get any simpler than this*. I don’t even need to look it up in the recipe book. When I’m working from home I’ll sometimes bake a loaf and snack on it throughout the day – plain when it’s a few hours old, lightly toasted with jam or cheese or butter/cinnamon/sugar the next morning. Fantastic stuff, and a real crowd-pleaser, especially since most people think that fresh bread is a labor-intensive ordeal.
3 cups lukewarm (105 deg F) water (colder is better than warmer because too warm will kill the yeast, too cold will just take longer to rise)
1 1/2 tbsp active dry yeast
1 1/2 tbsp kosher salt
6 1/2 cups unbleached flower (32.5 oz)
In a large, non-airtight container, mix water, yeast, and salt together. Using your hands or some other strong mixing tool (I use a wooden spatula), mix the flour in until the dough is nearly uniform (you may need to use your hands to incorporate stubborn bits of flour). Cover (not-airtight) and let sit at room temperature for two hours. Put it into the fridge for up to 14 days.
When you’re ready to bake, sprinkle some flour onto the surface of the dough. The first few times you do this, lightly flour a work surface and your hands (do it enough times and eventually you won’t need a large work surface anymore). Prep your peel by putting some cornmeal onto it. Grab a grapefruit-sized chunk of dough. Hold it in both hands, and use your fingertips to push the middle of the dough up while rotating the dough so that you start to get a nice dome shape. If the dough starts to stick to you, get a little bit more flour, but try not to use too much. Put the dough on the peel and let it sit for 40 minutes to rise.
About 20 minutes before baking, Set up your baking stone and an empty broiler tray. Heat the oven to 450 deg F. Right before baking, dust the top of the bread with flour and use a serrated bread knife to cut 1/4 inch slashes through the surface of the dough (cross, tic-tac-toe, whatever you like). Slide the bread onto the stone and add a cup of hot water to the broiler tray (Mark Bittman recommends a cast iron pan full of rocks, but I’ll have to try that some other time) and quickly close the door to trap the steam. Take a look at the bread in about 30 minutes, it should be golden brown. I’ve never managed to “overcook” the bread yet, but I’ve been experimenting with leaving it in for a few more minutes to get an even deeper brown crust.
Take the bread out and put it on a wire cooling rack. Resist the urge to cut and serve it hot.
As mentioned before, one variation is to swap out 1/4 cup of water for 1/4 cup of olive oil. Another one is to swap in 1 cup of whole wheat flower for 1 cup of white flour. I’ve also been following the advice to keep mixing new batches of dough in the same container without washing to develop interesting sourdough flavors. I’m all for doing fewer dishes in the name of good food.
*It does help a lot to have the right equipment – kitchen scale, baking stone and peel.