Thursday, November 20, 2014

Quick Look: Zakarian's 'My Perfect Pantry' is a creative primer for turning ingredients into a 'meal worth eating'


I have long professed the benefit of having a well-stocked pantry. That’s not to say it’s filled with exotic condiments and spices. I’m talking basics here like a couple of different kinds of vinegars, a few different kinds of canned or dry beans, at least two different kinds of oils (one for frying; one for finishing and dressings), canned tomato products, canned tuna, evaporated milk, a good variety of flours, nuts, pastas, etc. I've lost track of how many times friends have stopped by for coffee in the morning and stayed well into the evening which meant having to come up with a satisfying dinner using whatever I had in the refrigerator and pantry. With a few basics, I never had trouble coming up with something tasty and satisfying. It's an ability to improvise in the kitchen that stems from a father who once made his living cooking and a mother charged with coming up with creative meals on a tight budget for a large family.



“I have a strong belief in the basics. I like natural ingredients prepared in ways that enhance their inherent flavors. I don’t like masking foods or manipulating them so they taste like something completely different." 





But not everyone has the instinctual or learned knack for pulling together a collection of pantry items to create a meal on the fly. Which is why I was looking forward to getting my hands on Chef Geoffrey Zakarian’s “My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients” to review here for those of you interested in growing your own instincts for pairing ingredients and experimenting in the kitchen.


Zakarian is a successful restauranteur but he is probably most well known to anyone who has watched the Food Network as he regularly sits at the judge’s table on Chopped, won The Next Iron Chef: Super Chefs, competes on Iron Chef America and is one of four co-hosts on the weekend talk show, The Kitchen.

“The pantry is the backbone of a kitchen–the place on which every meal hinges,” states Geoffrey in the opening pages of this, his second cookbook since “Geoffrey Zakarian’s Town/Country: 150 Recipes for Life Around the Table” which was published in 2006.


With “Pantry,” the Food Network star has written a highly accessible book for the home cook. First he lays out the foundation, explaining in short nuggets 19 essential staples of spices and spice blends to keep on hand. Then onto the main event, 50 numbered pantry items from Almonds to Yeast. Each pantry item serves as it’s own “chapter" with a photograph of the item accompanied by an explanation or history of it and at least two tips for working with it (did you know you should periodically test your baking soda for freshness by adding 1 teaspoon of it to ¼ cup of vinegar and if it doesn’t bubble up furiously, it’s time to replace it?). Each chapter contains three recipes and a color photograph with all three dishes so the home cook knows what the finished dish should look like.



I don’t keep an overly stocked refrigerator and freezer, and I try to get to the grocery a few times a week for anything fresh. Then I keep my pantry filled with moderate quantities of the purest ingredients I can get my hands on." 




The majority of the recipes take up just one page so most are short and sweet. From history to technique, each of the recipe’s headnotes impart more understanding of the recipe and shouldn’t be skipped over. The recipes have a clear hierarchy with good font choices making it easy to follow along in the kitchen while preparing the dish. However, I do wish that the recipes included nutritional analysis.


Recipes are creative without being too “gourmet” which sometimes can be the case with celebrity cookbooks. Some examples:
  • Barley — Barley with Green Tahini Vinaigrette; Beef Barley Bisque; Duck and Barley Salad
  • Cocoa powder — Chocolate Smoothie; Chocolate Sorbet; Chocolate Meringues
  • Olive oil — Olive Oil Poached Cod; Warm Tuna Salad; Pizza Margherita with Olives and Arugula
  • Peanut Butter — Spicy Peanut Butter Slaw; Peanut Brittle Ice Cream; Bananas Foster Smoothie
  • Rice, Long-Grain Brown — Brown Rice Pilaf; Brown Rice Crab Cakes; Creamy Rice and Mushroom Casserole
  • Tomatoes, canned — Quick Tomato Sauce; Braised Green Beans with Tomatoes; Summer Tomato Soup with Cucumber-Dill Yogurt
This book would make a great housewarming gift for anyone just setting up their first kitchen pantry but I feel it would be just as comfortable and fitting for any level cook who just wants a little creative kick to get out of a cooking rut. With this book in hand, you’ll be able to whip up a meal from your very own “perfect pantry” for unexpected guests all the while gaining the confidence to create your own recipes the more you use this cookbook.



 You can definitely cook without a refrigerator, but it is nearly possible to create a meal worth eating without a pantry." 




“My Perfect Pantry: 150 Easy Recipes From 50 Essential Ingredients”

Author: Geoffrey Zakarian
Publisher: Clarkson Potter
Details: 304 pages, color photographs, 150 recipes, hardback and e-book
List price: $30.00
Current Amazon price: $22.68


Disclosure
I received this book from the Blogging for Books program in exchange for this review. I was not otherwise compensated and was under no obligation for the tone or contents of my review. All opinions expressed are 100% my own. This post contains affiliate links. By purchasing your book through my link, I receive a small stipend which helps cover costs of groceries for this site's recipe development. 

About Quick Look reviews

Unlike a full review, Quick Look's are not recipe tested often due to my dietary restrictions. 
My reviews for Quick Look's are based on as thorough an examination of the recipes, photographs, and design as time allows as well as my expertise as a recipe developer, home cook, baker, art director, photographer, and designer.

Read more here:




Monday, November 17, 2014

California Walnut Cake + {Giveaway} One Month of Free NestFresh Eggs


Memories of childhood cakes run the gamut: from Betty Crocker box cake mixes to cakes shaped like Mickey Mouse or Barbie, from marble sheet cakes to rich and buttery pound cakes, and to Dad's favorite German chocolate. But there are three cakes that hold a special place in my heart, all made from scratch by mom: carrot cake with cream cheese frosting (which I often requested as a teenager after outgrowing cakes shaped like Disney characters), red Christmas cake (that's what her recipe calls it and it wasn't until adulthood that I came to know it as red velvet cake) with an old fashioned milk frosting , and California walnut cake with a fluffy white frosting that would often make an appearance around Thanksgiving or Christmas.

Last year, I volunteered to make the desserts for our family's Christmas Eve dinner and as an homage to mom, I decided to make both her red Christmas cake and her walnut cake after my sister gave me a Xerox copy of Mom's original small, well-worn and, sadly, falling apart cookbook. When I told Mom what I was doing, she was super excited, especially for the walnut cake because she hadn't made it since we were all kids.

I've mentioned this cookbook before. It was printed sometime in the late 50s or early 60s. It calls this cake a California Walnut Cake and I find the headnote amusing:
"Make this cake especially for diet-worriers, even though they will probably never believe it does not contain flour, leavening or shortening. For that matter, serve it to all your friends … this light, yummy-nutty-flavored cake is one you'll want to make again and again." 
"… especially for diet-worriers …" is what cracks me up! The cake itself isn't too sweet, containing ¾ cup of white sugar. What kills me though is the ingredients for the frosting which include "1 envelope whipped topping mix" which I had to Google because I had no clue what it was. (It's a product called Dream Whip and once I saw the box, memories of seeing it in our cupboards came back to me.) Plus it has a pound of confectioner's sugar. Not too surprising since the majority of frosting recipes these days have that much and more. For Christmas last year – before my medical wake-up call – I made it exactly as written. It was a hit with everyone who tried it, one of my brothers-in-law even asking for more the next day.


This cake is super simple, starting off with processing walnut meats to the consistency of couscous. The original recipe was written pre-food processor days and says to use a meat grinder (really?) or a blender to pulverize nutmeats." Obviously, that wasn't too successful because it says to sieve the resulting flour, removing the coarser bits for decorating. My food processor gave me a nice even grind – no need to sieve. Be careful, though, not to go too far or you'll wind up with walnut butter. Of course, if you don't have a food processor, you can use a blender working the nutmeats a little at a time. 


My next deviation from the original recipe: it had no added flavorings. This time around, I wanted to give it some earthiness and warmth, giving it that distinctly holiday taste. I don't buy a lot of pre-made seasoning or spice  mixes because I prefer to control the ratio of herbs and spices. Here, to warm up the cake, I added cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg and ginger. However, if you already have pumpkin pie spice, you can easily replace my suggested spices with 1½ teaspoons of it instead. 


Mixing the spices into the walnut and sugar mixture instantly made the kitchen smell just like the holidays. As for the sugar, I used a granulated sugar cup for cup replacement that is zero calorie with a glycemic index less than one so it's diabetic and low carb diet friendly.


This cake has no leavening meaning it contains no baking powder or baking soda and receives its structure and lift from eggs. Because this cake contains such few ingredients, it's really important to use good quality ones. I use NestFresh Cage Free eggs whenever possible. And here, they, along with the walnuts, are the highlight of this recipe.


The eggs are separated; look at the color of those yolks. Gorgeous! The yolks are whisked  until frothy. I wanted the cake's flavor profile brightened up a bit so I added my homemade orange extract to the yolks as I whisked  them.


Then the yolks got mixed into the walnut mixture. The batter will be thick and sticky. 


Then the whites are whipped to stiff peaks. 


Bit by bit, the whites are folded into the walnut mixture. This first addition is about a cups worth of whipped egg whites. I am not terribly gentle with this first addition. I always consider this the "sacrificial" step as the purpose of this first addition is to lighten up the mixture making the incorporation of the rest of the egg whites easier.


The trick to folding is not to rush it. Place the new addition of egg whites to be folded in directly in the center. Using a rubber spatula, run the spatula along the bottom and edges of the bowl starting at the 9 o'clock position and as you near the 6 o'clock position you lift the batter from below up and over the center, covering the egg whites. Give the bowl a quarter turn towards you and repeat this procedure until most of the egg whites are incorporated before adding more. In this picture I've added about half of the whites. You can see the batter is getting lighter and you can see surface bubbles. Be careful to not be too rough with the folding (don't stir or beat) so as to not deflate the egg whites.


Here, all the egg has now been folded in. You can see I still have a few scattered lumps but I'm satisfied, not wanting to deflate my batter by overworking it. At this point, it gets placed into a 9-inch cake pan that has had the bottom lined with wax paper or kitchen parchment and has been coated with cooking spray.


The cake is baked slowly in a 325 degree Fahrenheit oven until the cake springs back when gently pressed (about 40-50 minutes). After five minutes of cooling in the pan, the cake will pull away from the sides. At this point, turn it out onto a wire rack to cool completely.


While the cake is cooling, you'll make the frosting. I've completely changed up the frosting from the original recipe and am really happy I did. But first  let me say, I am not generally a fan of cream cheese frosting. Wait. Rewind. I'm not generally a fan of frosting period. With the exception of Mom's Old Fashioned Frosting and of meringue-style frostings (French, Italian, Swiss), I find most frostings to be sickeningly sweet and I inevitably wind up scrapping most - or all - of it off.


This cream cheese frosting, however, was born out of my love of cream cheese itself and wanting to use it as a frosting without getting bogged down by sweetness. Again, I'm using a stable sugar replacement for the confectioner's sugar made by the same manufacturer of the granulated sugar replacement I used in the cake. It's also zero calorie and will not affect blood sugar and like the granulated variety, has no aftertaste. The addition of the orange zest balances out the sweetness of the sugar and the tang from the cheese. Besides, seeing the little orange flecks in the frosting makes me happy. This recipe is just enough to cover the top of this cake so there is none leftover to worry about (but it can easily be doubled for use with your favorite layer cake recipe).


Decorate the top of the cake with however many orange segments you'd like left over from the orange that was zested. Due to the cream cheese, this cake will need to be stored in the refrigerator.


I hope you consider making this light, nutty cake for your holidays. Your friends and family, especially those that are gluten sensitive, low carbers and diabetics, will love it.


Ready to make it? Scroll down for the recipe. And just after that, you'll have a chance to enter to win one month of free NestFresh eggs, just in time for holiday baking!


CALIFORNIA WALNUT CAKE WITH ORANGE CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
Because there are so few ingredients, use the best: freshly bought walnuts and good quality eggs, such as NestFresh Cage Free Eggs will definitely make this cake sing. If sugar isn't an issue for you, feel free to use regular white sugar in the cake and regular powdered sugar for the frosting. If you don't have all of the individual spices but you do have pumpkin pie spice, use 1 ½ teaspoons of it in place of my suggested spices. 

Yield: 12 servings

INGREDIENTS
_______________________________

265g walnut pieces (about 2 ¼ cups)
140g Swerve granulated (¾ cup) or other cup for cup sugar replacement or regular white sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground cloves
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
¼ teaspoon ground ginger
7 NestFresh eggs, room temperature, separated
1 tablespoon orange extract (or orange juice)
Cooking spray 

CREAM CHEESE FROSTING
4 ounces whipped cream cheese (½ a tub)
90g Swerve confectioner's sugar or regular powdered sugar (¼ cup)
2 tablespoons orange zest (about 1 medium orange)
¼ cup whipping cream, plus 2-3 tablespoons more, if needed (can substitute regular milk)

peeled orange segments for garnish (optional)

DIRECTIONS
_______________________________

1. Grind walnut pieces in a food processor with the blade attachment until walnuts resemble couscous in texture, abut 3-5 minutes, scrapping down the sides with a rubber spatula as needed. Alternately, working in batches, pulse in a blender to finely grind. Remove flour to a large mixing bowl. Whisk in the sugar, salt and spices. 

2. Separate the eggs, placing yolks into a small bowl and whites into a large bowl. Set aside the whites. Beat the yolks with the orange extract until light and frothy. Add the yolks to the walnut mixture; stir well to incorporate. Set aside. 

3. Preheat oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Trace the bottom of a 9-inch cake pan on wax paper or kitchen parchment. Cut out circle. Lightly coat the bottom of the pan with cooking spray and place the paper circle on the bottom of the pan. Coat the paper and sides of pan with cooking spray. Set aside.

4. Whip the egg whites with electric hand beaters or a stand mixer on low until egg whites are light and frothy. Increase speed to high and whip until firm peaks are achieved. Scoop out about 1 cup of egg whites and gently fold into the walnut mixture, turning the bowl a quarter turn after every fold. Continue folding in the egg whites, in thirds until all the whites have been added, careful not to over mix as this will deflate the egg whites. 

5. Pour batter into prepared pan. Bake until the cake springs back when gently touched, about 40-50 minutes. Remove cake and cool in pan for 5 minutes before turning out onto a cooling rack, removing paper from bottom of cake. Let cool completely before frosting.

For the frosting
1. Beat cream cheese, sugar, zest and ¼ cup of the whipping cream until smooth. Add more cream, a tablespoon at a time, until desired consistency is reached.

2. Place cake on cake stand. Frost just the top of the cake. Decorate with orange segments. Store cake covered with plastic wrap in refrigerator until ready to serve, allowing cake to rest at room temperature for 15 minutes before slicing.

Calories 207   Total fat 17.4g    Saturated fat 2.8g    Cholesterol 103mg    Sodium 140mg Potassium 173mg   Total Carbohydrates 11.5g    Dietary Fiber 1.7g    Sugars 1.6g    Sugar Alcohol 7g    Protein 10g 


DISCLOSURE: NestFresh provided me with coupons to purchase eggs for this recipe and are sponsoring the giveaway. I was not otherwise compensated and all opinions are 100% my own. This post contains affiliate links.

Until next time, friends! Good luck with the NestFresh Eggs Giveaway!
XO, Ani

ENTER TO WIN ONE MONTH OF FREE NESTFRESH EGGS
To enter the giveaway, follow the instructions in the Rafflecopter widget below. You must use the Rafflecopter widget to be eligible to win. You can earn up to 8 entries today and receive an additional entry once per day if you tweet about the giveaway. Contest ends at 12:00 a.m. on Monday, November 24. Winner will be randomly selected by Rafflecopter. I will email winner who will then have 24 hours respond and claim their prize. If no response is made by the time indicated in the announcement email, a new winner will be selected. Winner will be announced here and on my other social media platforms. Prize will be fulfilled directly by NestFresh Eggs in the form of 4 coupons for one dozen free NestFresh Eggs. Open to U.S. Residents only.

Good luck! Happy holiday baking!


Other holiday treats: (click on photos for recipes)




Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Dark Chocolate Espresso Madeleines from "Madeleines: Elegant French Tea Cakes to Bake and Share" by Barbara Feldman Morse {Cookbook Review}


I wish my recounting of my first taste of a madeleine included some fantastical story of Parisian cafes and cases of pastries where the little shell-shaped cakelets catch my attention. But I’ve never been to Europe and the truth is that it was Starbucks that introduced me to this, my favorite little buttery, melt-in-my-mouth treat, some ten or so years ago.

Since then, making madeleines at home has been on my recipe bucket list. But the more I read about them, the more intimidated I was to try. I read about how delicate they were — being very easily ruined. I also read that they often stuck to the pans, that ingredients had to be mixed just so, and that the butter needed to be melted first and added at just the right time.

So on my bucket list they remained.

Nevertheless, I wound up getting myself authentic French-made pans and, not long afterwards, accidentally on purpose turning a baking flop into my own version of a madeleine. Which, considering there was no butter in the batter, was actually just a light airy cookie that I happened to bake in a molded pan. Don’t get me wrong, they were delicious. They just weren’t, in the strictest definition, a madeleine.


"Madeleines: Elegant French Tea Cakes to Bake and Share” 

Author: Barbara Feldman Morse
Publisher: Quirk Books, October 21, 2014 
Details: 74 recipes, 179 pages, hardback with ribbon book marker 
List price: $19.95 
Current Amazon price: $14.36 

"Madeleines: Elegant French Tea Cakes to Bake and Share" by Barbara Feldman Morse, is the second madeleine cookbook to come across my desk and the first to inspire me to attempt making a bonafide madeleine recipe. The reason for this is simple: Morse demystifies the process, sharing her time-saving technique that was born out of her need to pump out hundreds of madeleines a day when she operated a bakery. She's spent the past 30 years perfecting this method.

_________________________________________________________________________________

"I've had plenty of years of trial and error, which is why I want to share all the tips and tricks I've learned along the way." 
Barbara Feldman Morse
_________________________________________________________________________________


Madeleines that could be made in a single bowl, hand-whisked and with a seemingly endless amount of flavor combinations? Why, yes, please!


Within the 179 pages of this sweet little volume, you’ll find a collection of 74 recipes divided into seven chapters (my favorites noted):
  1. Not Just Plain Vanilla (Classic French, Lemon Poppy Seed, Dulce de Leche)
  2. Morning Madeleines (Pumpkin Spice, Sunshine [carrot cake-like], Cheese Danish)
  3. Dark and Deluxe Chocolate Madeleines (Dark Chocolate Espresso, Chocolate Dipped Peanut Butter, Kahlúa)
  4. Fruits and Nuts (Peaches and Cream, Fresh Lemon Drop, Browned Butter Pecan)
  5. Savory and Appetizer (Gruyère and Rosemary, Caramelized Onion and Asiago)
  6. Indulgent Madeleines (Dark and Minty, Bananas Foster)
  7. All in the Presentation (This chapter focuses on recipes for sides and dips as well as serving suggestions)
In addition to the the chapters on recipes, Morse shares her in-depth knowledge of ingredients, equipment, and technique including step-by-step pictorial processes of both the French style madeleine and her own madeleine-making style. All recipes include a headnote that either shares a history of a particular recipe, provides suggestions for variations, or explains a particular technique.


The design of this little hardback is elegant, even including a yellow ribbon to mark your spot. A minor note: I would have liked the font size one point larger but at least the font for the recipe body is a nicely weighted serif. Though not every recipe is presented with a photograph, there are plenty of beautifully styled color photos to provide the reader with plenty of enticement to get into the kitchen and bake.


Speaking of getting into the kitchen to bake, considering that it’s nearly Thanksgiving, I thought I’d finally jump on the pumpkin bandwagon and chose the Pumpkin Spice Madeleine recipe to test and wouldn’t you know it? I found the only typo I came across: The recipe does not list the amount of the essential ingredient — pumpkin! — because the volume is listed as just a partial fraction (1/). So I guessed, making it the first time with ½ cup and the second time with ⅓ of cup because the ½ cup batter seemed loose. However, the batch with the ½ cup did have a more pronounced pumpkin flavor. I enjoyed the results of both (just having one from each batch due to dietary restriction) although I found them a bit on the sweet side and more dense than the madeleine I’ve become accustomed to. As Morse explains early on in the book, her technique mostly calls for hand-whisking, which arguably makes for an easy clean up and spontaneous late-night madeleine-making sessions but the technique sacrifices the lighter, cake-like results one gets from using a stand mixer or electric hand mixer which can beat in much more air into the batter.

After making both batches of the pumpkin recipe and photographing it, I contacted the rep handling the marketing for the book and asked for permission to reprint the pumpkin recipe here for this review only to find out that it wasn’t on the list of available recipes to excerpt. He offered up the Dark Chocolate Espresso as an alternative.

Darn! That meant I had to test out another recipe. Poor me!

Just like the Pumpkin Spice recipe, this Dark Chocolate Espresso one came together very quickly using standard pantry items so, again, there was no need for a grocery run. They were rich, decadent, and definitely a chocolate lover’s dream. As Morse says in her headnote for the recipe, “From the moment I bought my first madeleine pan and started creating my own recipes, I tried to pack as much chocolate into the batter as I could.”

I think she was definitely successful with that quest.

Until next time … Happy baking! 
xo, Ani 



DARK CHOCOLATE ESPRESSO MADELEINES


From the moment I bought my first madeleine pans and started creating my own recipes, I tried to pack as much chocolate into the batter as I could. This trait served me well when I entered the Ghirardelli Chocolate Company Great American Chocolate Cookie Contest at the San Francisco Fair in 1980 and won the top prize for my “San Francisco Fudge Foggies,” a mix between brownies, fudge, and dense chocolate cake. My recipe went on to win the Grand COCO Award for best overall recipe in Chocolatier magazine’s first Great Chocolate Challenge, and I’ve adapted it to create these dark chocolate espresso madeleines. I love serving them warm with a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

Yield : 24 madeleines

INGREDIENTS
__________________

1 ½ sticks (12 tablespoons) unsalted butter
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup semisweet or bittersweet chocolate chips (or 4 ounces chopped semisweet chocolate)
1 tbsp instant espresso powder dissolved in ⅓ cup warm water (or ⅓ cup strong black coffee, or 2 tablespoons instant coffee crystals dissolved in ⅓ cup warm water)
2 large eggs, room temperature
1 cup all-purpose flour
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder, either Dutch-processed or natural

Chocolate Glaze
2 cups semisweet chocolate chips

DIRECTIONS
__________________

For the madeleines

1. Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat oven to 325°F. Coat two 12-shell pans with baking spray, or melt an additional 4 tablespoons butter and brush a little in each mold.

2. Place butter, sugar, chocolate, and espresso in a 2-quart microwavable glass bowl or measuring cup. Microwave on low power for 1 to 2 minutes and then stir mixture with a whisk until smooth. If butter is not melted, microwave for 15-second intervals, stirring after each, until smooth. (Alternatively, you can combine these ingredients in the top of a double boiler over simmering water and stir with a whisk until smooth. Remove from heat.)

3. Let mixture cool for about 3 to 4 minutes and then add eggs, one at a time, whisking well after each addition until completely blended. Add the flour and cocoa, whisking thoroughly. The mixture should be very dark, thick, and shiny.

4. Using a 1 ½ -inch-diameter scoop or a teaspoon, fill shell molds with batter until almost full. Gently press batter to distribute it evenly.

5. Bake for 10 to 13 minutes, until madeleines puff up and no shiny spots remain in the centers. Small cracks may appear, but be careful not to over bake.

6. Remove pans from oven and let cool on a wire rack for 2 to 3 minutes, then invert and tap madeleines onto the rack. You may also use a small offset spatula to remove each one individually. Let cool completely.

For the glaze

1. Place chocolate in a 2-quart microwavable glass bowl or measuring cup. Microwave on low power for 1 to 2 minutes and then stir with a whisk until smooth. If chocolate is not melted, microwave for 15-second intervals, stirring after each, until smooth.

2. Place a piece of waxed paper on a cookie sheet or large wire rack. Hold each madeleine by its narrow end and dip one-third of it in the warm chocolate glaze. Lift the madeleine and scrape the flat side along the side of the bowl to remove excess. Place madeleines on the waxed paper and let glaze set, 30 to 60 minutes.

Recipe by Barbara Feldman Morse. Used with permission of Quirk Books.


Disclosure: Quirk Books provided me with a review copy for editorial consideration. I was not otherwise compensated. All opinions are my own. This post contains affiliate links.


Browse the book on Amazon:




Friday, November 7, 2014

{Photo Friday} When following your passion turns into a business: Q&A with Ginny and Doug of Erickson Wood Works

Ginny & Doug Erickson. Photos on this post without my watermark are courtesy of Erickson Wood Works.
I find inspiration around me all the time and I have found that the more open I am to it, the more varied that inspiration is. Sometimes it’s as simple as stepping out of the building at work around dusk and seeing a spectacular display of wispy clouds and a Big Stick colored sky. Other times, it’s talking over the spark of an idea with someone and watching that spark ignite into a full-blown lightbulb moment, literally taking my breath away.

Then there are those days when I find myself on sites like Etsy and get lost reading their "quit your day job" profiles about creative folks who follow their passion and are making a living at it. If you’re like me and those stories inspire you to follow a dream, I have a treat for you today because I have one of those kinds of stories to share with you.

Back in early September, I received an email from Ginny Erickson, one half of the husband and wife team behind the Orange County-based Erickson Wood Works. She wanted to introduce me to their product line of custom wood photo backgrounds.

At first I thought, well, why would I buy boards when I have made my own on several occasions, even posting a how-to here on the blog for other bloggers to do the same?

But then I followed her link to their Pinterest account which lead me to their Etsy store and that was it. I knew then I needed a board. From them. Now. No paint stains on my hands, jeans or floor, thankyouverymuch.

Their work is stunningly beautiful. Since that introductory email, I’ve worked with Ginny to create two different custom boards (and will soon be ordering a third). These are double-sided folks so I actually have four new surfaces to play with. Now to be clear, I’m not being compensated for this post nor was this post their idea. It was completely my idea because once I saw their work, I knew I had many blogging readers and photographer friends who would fall in love with these boards as much as I have. And let me repeat, I absolutely love them. Just take a look:


These chocolate madeleines are shot on my latest board with this dark turquoise finish on one side and a black and mottled gold/red/yellow on the other side which I'll be shooting on this weekend. In the meantime, you can see an example of it here. I really like the slight distressing that Ginny added to this side. (Psst. I'll be posting a review of the new cookbook, Madeleines, that these chocolate lovelies came from next week so stay tuned!)

Here is my first board with a Kona finish on one side which you've all ready seen on my kale salad post. However, here it's shown straight out of camera with no post-processing filter:


In this shot, I used the Kona side as a backdrop. I love how you can still see the texture even through the in-camera bokeh (blurring).


The Dark Gray finish is on the flip side of the Kona board (actually, more of a dark charcoal, which I love!). These boards are finished beautifully with so much attention to detail. A far cry from my hastily painted planks with uneven paint and rough edges that give me splinters every other time I use them.

So, without further ado, I’m going to let them tell you a little bit about themselves: (Now, do read all the way to the end and you’ll find a special gift for you from Ginny & Doug!)

Q: Names and ages? 

Gin: Doug & Ginny Erickson, both 35

Q: How long have you been married? 

Gin: We just celebrated our 11-year anniversary this summer!

Q: Eleven years? Congratulations! So, is this the first time you guys have teamed up professionally? 

Gin: Yes, definitely, haha.

Q: I'm curious, especially because this is such a niche market, are your backgrounds in photography or art? 

Gin: Neither of us have backgrounds in photography or art, although it’s something both of us have played around with in the past – Doug on the photography side and me on the artistic side. This new venture has definitely taken on a life of it’s own though!

Doug: I took a introduction to photography class in middle school and learned the process of developing film with chemicals. I can still remember the smell of dektol and the feeling I had successfully rolling film in pitch black darkness. Photography was certainly more of a technical art prior to digital, but I am still really impressed when I see a truly spectacular photograph. I have recently become interested in food photography in particular and I am completely blown away by the sheer number of people who photograph food. The community is quite connected and I am really enjoying getting to know really artistic foodie’s.

Q: I know what you mean, Doug. I'm still blown away over how connected and supportive this food blogging community is after seven years of blogging myself. So, tell me, how did you get into making these gorgeous boards? 

Gin: It was kind of a fluke! Doug had been making and selling headboards on Etsy, and was contacted by a portrait photographer to build a large 6’x6’ double-sided platform for her photo shoots. He posted those images on Etsy and we were then contacted by a local food blogger who asked us for some smaller scale boards and mentioned that she thought a lot of bloggers would be interested in our boards. Doug and I looked at each other and said, “huh?”. That’s an idea! And it kind of grew from there. The first blogger referred another blogger to us, and she referred another. And then we started reaching out to a few food bloggers on our own and were really excited by the responses we were getting. I keep telling people that ask, this is the first time in my adult life where I am doing something I love, being creative, and (bonus) getting paid for it!

Doug: It has been a challenge balancing craftsmanship, functionality, and affordability. I believe that food photographers are more concerned with a great finish that can be easily cleaned than having a museum piece. Using affordable and easily accessible materials makes it easier for us to offer double sided real wood backgrounds at a reasonable price.

Q: Well, as I've already stated, I love the craftsmanship and how easy the surface cleans up. So you've been doing this about a year now, is this a full-time job for you both or are you hoping to make it into full-time in the future?

Gin: Doug works full-time in education and really started all this as a hobby. This has become my full-time job. I’ve worked for the past 12 years in the real estate industry, going to part-time after our kids were born, and was laid off this past November. I started helping Doug in the garage with the headboards but it wasn’t cutting it, and as we got into summer and thought ahead to the fall, with both kids in school for the first time, I would need to find a real job. Yikes! I asked Doug how many boards I needed to sell per month in order to continue working from home and being available for our kids. Doug gave me the bottom line and I went to work to make it happen. And then the most amazing thing happened – I did it! And, I found out in the process that I loved it!

Q: I know you’re currently running Erickson Wood Works from a home workshop. Has that been difficult? How are you coping with balancing home life and work life?

Gin: Now that the kids are both in school during the week, it’s become a lot easier to balance working and being available for the kids. During school hours, I work. When I pick them up, I go into mommy mode. It’s the best of both worlds.

Q: What does a typical day look like?

Gin: I try to get the boards packaged up the night before I want to ship them so I can make a Fedex run right after school dropoff. Then back home where I work on emails and customer communication. I figure out which boards I need to work on that day and then head out to the workshop to do that. I have to be really disciplined with the email portion of my day – the thing I’ve found in communicating with food bloggers is that they are such an amazing group of kind, funny, interesting people, and I easily get wrapped up in the “fun” part of talking with them! In the evening, Doug and I usually head back out to the workshop and put our boards together and figure out how many we will need that week and how many we have ready to go.

Doug: I put in a 40-50 hours a week at the office, but really enjoy coming home to express my creative side. Working with my wife has been a really rewarding experience.

Gin: Aw, babe! That’s so sweet!

Q: Speaking of the packaging, I love it. It feels like Christmas when I open my boxes! My boards have been so well protected for shipment. Ok, so I've tried working with friends before and inevitably, it hasn't worked out because we tend to both want to do the same thing. Given that this is a husband and wife team, do your skills and/or interests overlap or do you find one of you gravitating towards the hands on creative side and the other towards the business?

Gin: Doug is very much the practical, make a spreadsheet and figure out all the details kind of guy. Which is very helpful for me, because I’m not! He helps balance me out that way. But what’s been really cool for me is seeing him being so creative and artistic as he thinks up new boards. It’s really a new side of him – I love it!

Q: I've spoken in the past about finding and keeping inspiration at the ready to combat creative lulls. Where does your inspiration come from?

Gin: Well, basically, I have an actual excuse now to spend hours on Pinterest :) There are just so many beautiful ideas out there and that’s a great way to see them all.

Doug: My main concern is creating great backgrounds to meet customer needs. Giving them the tools they need to make their inspiration a reality. My greatest excitement comes when we get positive feedback and see our work online.

Q: What’s your design process like?

Gin: We’ve gone through several changes with our boards, seeing which is the most effective and efficient to mock up our boards. We’ve settled on a process now that we think works well, but I feel like it’s constantly evolving as we learn more. As far as the finish techniques, we have our Signature finishes that are pretty popular (Shabby Chic, Distressed White, Antique Turquoise, and Dark Walnut) and then we have some unique, custom finishes that are just a blast to experiment with and see what evolves.

Doug: We try to keep our focus on craftsmanship, affordability, and functionality. It is easy to go on Instagram and be overwhelmed by the amazing work that is being done, so keeping a positive attitude about your skills and your place in the market is important.

Q: Oh, I love that, Doug! What's the feedback been like from photographers? Your family?

Gin: We’ve had great feedback from photographers. One of my favorites was a very sweet blogger whose posts and photos noticeably improved after she got our boards. We complimented her on them and she said that her new boards had re-inspired her and motivated her to work on her photography. Whoa! So rad.

Our family is super supportive as well. It’s funny because my sister and her business partner have been refinishing and refurbishing furniture for years, using a lot of the techniques that we have started using. I go to her with loads of questions, she’s basically my finish consultant. And one of my little brothers also does a lot of reclaimed wood installations in people’s homes and for remodeling projects. It’s funny to see how we’ve all gravitated this way!

Doug: The feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. One of our highest priorities is to give customers a different kind of experience in terms of communication. No matter how big we get, this isn’t going to change.

Q: What do you feel is your biggest challenge?

Gin: So, of all the things I love about running our small business, being a part of the food blogger community, and getting to be creative, there is one major downside: No high heels. It’s seriously a tragedy. All these cute heels in my closet that are sadly not sawdust-friendly!

Doug: Logistics and shipping.

Q: Hahaha. That's funny, Ginny. Looking ahead, where do you see Erickson Wood Works in say, five years?

Gin: I hope that in five years Erickson Wood Works has become a well known and respectable business with return clients that are involved in many different fields of photography- food bloggers and stylists, restaurants, fashion photographers, and product photographers.

Doug: We are still a very small business, but we see a need in the market. If people are still photographing food in five years, we will be here!

Q: Any non-Erickson Wood Works related hobbies or interests you'd like to share?

Gin: I’m an avid runner and so grateful to live where there are great trails and beautiful neighborhoods all around!

Doug: Woodworking

Thank you, Doug and Ginny for answering questions and sharing your inspiring work with us today!


So here’s the skinny on the boards

They are 100% hand-crafted custom photo panels. Their standard photo backdrops are 22” x 34” and are not individual planks but are securely fashioned as full on boards with metal brackets on the short sides to reinforce them so they don’t warp with use (the brackets can be easily removed if needed). When you order, you can order a finish on one side and a different finish on the other, essentially getting two backgrounds in one.

And now for the gift part of this post

I’m super stoked to announce that Erickson Wood Works are giving Confessions of a Foodie readers a discount code to apply at their Etsy store for 10% off any custom board!

Head on over to their Pinterest board to see various options, then head on over to their Etsy store and see what’s available. Feel free to send them an email through the “Contact the seller” form on Etsy if you have any questions or want to create a custom board with some of the finishes you saw on their Pinterest board. When you’re ready to buy, enter this code during checkout:

CONFOFAFOODIE10

Erickson Wood Works on Etsy
Erickson Wood Works examples on Pinterest

Well guys, I hope you found this post inspiring. I love hearing about creative folks making a living at what they love best. Here’s to following our dreams, wherever they might take us!

Until next time…
xo, Ani