Ten years ago, I hated following recipes. I prided myself on my intuitive abilities in the kitchen, but they were pretty limited: veggie-filled pastas, semi-okay soups, stir fries. But I loved to cook, and I loved to eat with my friends. I was a little burned out on the uber-conceptual, precision to-the-1/64th of-an-inch focus of the furniture design program that I was in, and cooking felt like a soft place to land. Food was so forgiving. It didn’t exist in the rarefied world of $15,000 one-off furniture pieces. It felt really accessible. And it was. I love that I was such a mediocre cook, but I persisted anyway. It brought me some kind of deep, unnamed joy. I was looking for something grounded and nourishing, and I found it in food.
So in 2007 I started a blog. Since I loved photography, and writing, and food, it felt like the perfect synthesis of these things. The project was more idea-driven: 52 Dinners, one meal a week with friends, family and strangers. I was more interested in capturing the dynamic, and the mess on the table, then I was in recipes. I never made it through 52 dinners. In fact, I probably only made it through five. My biggest snag was, of course, those pesky recipes: writing down the things my friends casually threw together, or trying to remember after the fact and construct something a person could follow. That didn’t really work out so well.
But this is how we learn. Somehow through that I found my way to recipes. I began to follow them, and I began to experiment with developing my own. I began to challenge myself to be a little more serious and rigorous in my photography. I left my job as a massage therapist with a long list of overuse injuries, and I used that in between time to try to figure out how I could make a living following my passions in food and photography. People often suggested working in restaurants, and I bristled at the idea. As a quiet creative person, that environment would have destroyed me, and I intuitively knew that. Home cooking is sometimes relegated to a second-class status, perhaps because it is the domain of women, and its purpose is practical: to feed and sustain us. But I am so glad that I have anchored myself firmly in the home kitchen.
People began to ask me to do work: photography, blog posts, and recipe development, before I even felt confident calling myself any of these things. But I knew that I wanted to make a book. Originally, I wanted to make a book that indulged the creative process, one that celebrated 52 meals over a year. That idea evolved into a different kind of creative exploration and celebration: one that was rooted in the colors of produce. It started as a fun project right here, called Color Studies, after my blog had evolved from 52 Dinners to The Year in Food. And Color Studies is what grew into Vibrant Food.
While I was so flattered by the validation of my work by way of a book deal, the process wound up being daunting, stressful, and overwhelming. Creating a book is not easy; couple that with all of your insecurities, and a tendency towards perfectionism, and it takes some of (a lot of) the joy out of the work. But, again, this is how we learn. I was insecure about my abilities, so I nitpicked the hell out of the recipes. Instead of embracing that early intuitive approach, I doubted it. And that backfired. If I were to make a book again, I know that I would approach it differently, and perhaps that’s a confidence that can only come with time and experience.
That said, though, I am still enamored with colorful produce, celebrating the seasons, and capturing it all, and I am still anchored by the act of cooking. It is such a beautiful thing to return to, and to return to for renewed inspiration. I sort of envisioned myself following an academic life by way of art institutions. Instead I am doing this. And for all of its challenges, I am glad that I still find joy and inspiration doing all of this. What a wild ride.
\\ GIVEAWAY!!! //// In honor of Vibrant Food turning 3 years old, I am giving away 4 copies of the book on Instagram!!
•Head over to my Instagram account and give the cake image a like.
•Tell me about your biggest, funniest, or most memorable cooking fail.
•Tag a friend.
Contest open to US residents, and will close next Thursday, June 29th.
ALMOND CAKE WITH SUMMER BERRIES
Yield: 8 servings
I made a version of this cake for my book. It’s in the fall section, partnered with quince and sweetened honey. I tweaked that recipe into a winter version, the Winter Spice Cake you can find on this site. And now, here is a summer version, one that is a little bit fancier with the frosting, and an explosion of the glory that is summer by way of berries. It’s pretty perfect for any summer celebration.
1 cup almond flour
1 cup brown rice flour
2/3 cup natural cane sugar
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3 eggs, room temperature, beaten
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup sliced almonds
Coconut oil for greasing
2 1/2 cups mixed berries
1 tablespoon cane sugar
1 tablespoon lemon juice
1 can full-fat coconut milk, refrigerated upside down (or coconut cream, if you can find it)
1 1/2 cups powdered sugar
Edible flowers, optional, for serving
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.
In a large mixing bowl, combine the almond flour, brown rice flour, sugar, cardamom, cinnamon, baking powder, and sea salt.
In a smaller mixing bowl, whisk together the beaten eggs with the olive oil. Combine the wet ingredients with the dry, mixing just until everything is thoroughly incorporated.
Thoroughly grease and then flour a round 9-inch baking pan or well-seasoned cast iron skillet. Pour the batter into the pan. Sprinkle the sliced almonds over the batter. Bake at 325 degrees for 35-40 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Allow to cool to room temperature in the skillet, then carefully slice around the edges. If your skillet is well-seasoned, it should release pretty easily.
While the cake bakes, mix together the two cups of berries with the lemon juice and sugar. Set aside to macerate.
To make the frosting, open the bottom of the can of chilled coconut milk, and scoop out the thick coconut cream. Reserve and chill or freeze the rest of the liquid for other uses. (Smoothie?) In a medium mixing bowl, combine the coconut cream and the sugar. Whip with an electric mixer on high until light and fluffy and whipped. Chill in the fridge until ready to use.
Once the cake is cooled, use a spatula to smooth the frosting over the top. Use a slotted spoon to transfer the berries to the cake. Finish with edible flowers, if desired. Serve!