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Behind the Scenes of the Genius Recipes Cookbook Cover

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Today: Look, a Genius Recipes cookbook! Go behind the scenes on the cover shoot, and get to know how we shoot food at Food52.

All of our styling at Food52 is a little different from what you might see at other food editorial shoots. Because we have a home-style kitchen with just one oven and 4 burners, we rarely make more than a single batch of any recipe we're shooting -- and even halve them when we can. This means a number of things: We don't waste a lot of food on "swaps"; what you see is what you get; and it needs to look good! Because we don't roll with a backup plan.

For the cover shot of the Genius Recipes cookbook (available for preorder now, and coming to stores near you April 2015!), we considered some excellent chicken recipes and other favorites from the book, but settled on the be-all, end-all of genius recipes: Marcella Hazan's Tomato Sauce with Onion and Butter. I sometimes think it's the reason we launched the column, plus it's something both the meatless and meat-lovers can enjoy, and it's a looker. Or, it has potential to be -- but for some reason, it wasn't always easy to photograph.


We've shot and reshot this recipe for the site a few times over the years, and were never totally happy with the results. The first time, back in 2011, we were still working with a variety of photographers and figuring out our style. The second, we were rushing and only had a batch of sauce in a jar -- no onion, no pasta. (What were we thinking?)

The third time, we were getting closer -- pasta, onions, a pleasant amount of saucy mess. But Amanda and Merrill still thought that the Genius cover needed to have more warmth, more home-like elements -- since this is a cookbook that will be full of recipes you want to keep within arm's reach, not a cheffy tome that you admire from afar, whose spine you never crack. Our editors and designer at Ten Speed were fans of test shots with a lower angle, and the clean white plate against a modern-looking, gray-blue linen and backdrop. We were too.

Behind the scenes Genius Recipes cookbook photo shoot

So, with our mission clear, James Ransom and I set out to play. (James is the brilliant, superhuman photographer behind Food52 and Provisions, and he also shot everything in the Genius Recipes book.) I had only prepared a single batch of the sauce with half a large onion in it (it's the little saucepan resting on the crates below the surface in the Instagram above). Because we all know the best stylists like to throw caution straight off a cliff. 

More: Get 5 essential tips from the man behind the camera and never shoot a dull, underlit food photo again.

James and I fussed over props to find the proper coziness factor (check out the pile we accumulated on the right side of the surface above). Then I boiled some bucatini, tossed it in sauce, and piled it on the plate. If you're wondering about my pasta styling "technique", it involves picking up small tongfuls of sauced pasta (usually 2 or 3 in succession), holding them high, then inelegantly draping and swirling them on the plate, till the pasta piles above the rim and looks like it would feed a hungry person. Critical ingredients (here: onions), if they don't naturally fall into eyeline, are nudged into place. If the pasta starts to look dry, I paint on more sauce with a basting brush, a Q-tip, or a paintbrush if I am prepared; in low moments, I use a finger. That's it. There were versions with and without cheese -- guess which one we all liked best.

Pre-order Food52 Genius Recipes: 100 Recipes That Will Change the Way You Cook on AmazonBarnes and Noble, and Powell's -- and tell us: what recipes have changed the way you cook?

Tags: Genius Recipes, Photography & Styling, Food52 Works, DIY Food, Books, How-To & Diy, Cookbooks, Behind The Scenes