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200 Recipes and 1000 Photos Later, The Fearless Baker Is Born

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I’ve been working on cookbook photo shoots as a food stylist for nearly 10 years. The only thing I can definitively say about the process of shooting a cookbook is that no shoot is ever the same. I’ve shot cookbooks on loading docks surrounded by trash bins; authors' home kitchens; Brooklyn lofts with no ovens, for which I had to run two flights of stairs every time something needed to be baked; outdoors in a snowstorm. I’ve even used an out-of-service elevator with a hot plate as my "kitchen."

That’s because shooting a cookbook can be tough—between budgets for both time and money, it’s always a bit of a race. As I approached the photo shoot for my first cookbook, The Fearless Baker, the questions I always ask my clients started zooming through my own brain. How much can I fit into each day—and how many days do I need? How do you begin to organize everything you need for each shot, each spread—how do you make sure the book looks cohesive, but nothing looks too alike? As a food stylist, I knew all the right questions to ask, but as an author, I was just beginning to find the answers.

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Erin decorates pie crusts for the camera.
Erin decorates pie crusts for the camera. Photo by Jennifer May

At the time, I lived in a pretty itty bitty apartment, and I knew I needed more space to pull off the shoot smoothly. I decided to rent a house in New York’s Hudson Valley, where I lived for many years. I knew the grocery stores and farmers up there, so I knew sourcing ingredients would be almost as easy as it is in NYC, without the heftier big city rental price tag. As a bonus, renting a house meant everyone coming from out of town had a place to stay. The house we selected was an awesome old house just outside the adorable town of Woodstock, New York. Somewhat by coincidence, this was within walking distance—well, country-style walking distance—to my photographer’s house.

Space was at a premium, even at a country house, and the staircases regularly housed trays of baked goods. In fact, the pie on the right is sitting on a staircase (!). Photos by Jennifer May

The crew included my fabulous photographer Jennifer May, who I have had the pleasure of working a lot with in the past few years. I also ended up with three sets of amazing helping hands in the kitchen. My incredible fiancé (and former Food52 Test Kitchen Manager), Derek, who is no stranger to photo shoots, oversaw the kitchen and (most incredibly) made delicious lunches for everyone every day so we could all eat at least a couple bites of something not sugar-laden. My other kitchen assistants included Mandy Maxwell, a talented friend from my pastry school days, and Kaitlin Wayne, an awesome Toronto-based food stylist I magically met via Instagram. Jen’s husband, Chris, and their daughter, Robin, were also incredibly helpful—running errands, doing all sorts of odd jobs, and being enthusiastic taste testers (of course)!

Brimley was always underfoot, eagerly awaiting dropped crumbs.
Brimley was always underfoot, eagerly awaiting dropped crumbs. Photo by Jennifer May

Derek and I began referring to the shoot as “Camp Cookbook” because we scheduled it for two weeks in August, and it began to feel a lot like summer camp. The house was a renovated stable-turned-carriage-house-turned-vacation-home. It had three bedrooms, but only one of them had full doors. We were basically all living and working in what felt like one giant room. We could talk easily (without shouting) between levels and rooms. I would wake up very early in the morning to start prep as quietly as possible; then, whether they liked it or not, my dog Brimley would wake everyone up, one by one, shortly after. There were two bathrooms in the house, but only one had a shower; it was over a claw-foot tub that you simultaneously had to climb into while ducking so as not to hit your head on the low exposed beams. We’d spend our days baking, and our nights exploring the nearby spots in the Hudson Valley, eating lovely dinners in nearby Woodstock or Kingston, including two fabulous meals at Jen and Chris’ nearby house, where Chris had just built an incredible pizza oven we made excellent use of.

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Left: Erin pretties up cakes for their glam shots in a room with perfect light. Right: The crew celebrates with pizza (outdoors!). Photos by Jennifer May

I was excited about shooting the book with an emphasis on naturally occurring shadows and features of the house (like windows, bare wood walls, funky antique furniture)—so Jen and I would move around the house all day long, following the light and the shadows as the sun moved outside. We moved almost every piece of furniture in the house to make room for our extra equipment—five folding tables squeezed in anywhere we could manage with props covering every surface. We rented an extra refrigerator, too, which we found only fit through one (strange) side door to the house (OOPS).

In the morning, everyone would grab the recipes they wanted to make that day and get to work.
In the morning, everyone would grab the recipes they wanted to make that day and get to work. Photo by Jennifer May

The kitchen was itty-bitty by most standards, but seemed just fine to the four of us, who are all used to working in tiny NYC kitchens. We wedged ourselves in, staggered into makeshift stations as best we could. Sometimes you could find us working in other areas of the house—a staircase or inside the walk-in pantry. We’d eat lunch on the tiny screened porch if it wasn’t too hot. At the end of each day, we’d divvy up our desired desserts from the insanely large selection (dessert was something you had three times a day on this shoot, at least). We donated a ton of baked goods at the end of each day to several nearby shelters. Several friends from the area popped in to see the action and take their share of desserts, too (including Julia Turshen, who brilliantly brought us a juicy watermelon and took a bunch of sweets, some of which found homes in her brilliant quest to Feed the Resistance). And of course, we Instagrammed the whole thing; you can retroactively follow our adventures at #campcookbook and #thefearlessbaker.

In the end, we made over 200 recipes and shot over 1,000 photos. We hung our selects each night on a wall right by the front door. We used over 100 pounds of butter and 40 vanilla beans. One day, we each carried two pies through the woods to photograph at a secondary location. We spent all day covered in flour, usually on a serious sugar high. After each day wrapped, we’d cool off by wading in nearby streams, hit local farm stands for fresh summer fruit, pick flowers to use as props in the next day’s images.

The pie parade through the woods!
The pie parade through the woods! Photo by Jennifer May

No cookbook photo shoot is ever the same, and Camp Cookbook was no exception. While there are about a dozen things I would do differently, I’ll always remember the crazy, delicious, exhausting, exhilarating two weeks I spent last summer. Learn more about The Fearless Baker here. The book will be released on October 24, 2017, available in the Food52 Shop on of October 23.

In the meantime, make this variation of one of my favorite recipes in the book, the Tomato Upside-Down Cake (don't knock it 'til you've tried it!). This Concord grape version is more fitting for our current season. It's juicy and delicious in an entirely different way but shows just how flexible this cake base is. It works with all kinds of fruit or jam to make perfect upside-down cakes.

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Concord Grape Upside-Down Cake

0fecd8f8 6ef1 4649 9f57 83bf4668f3d0  3572 Erin McDowell
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Makes one 9-inch cake

Topping

  • 1 pound concord grapes
  • 1/2 cup (99 g) granulated sugar
  • 3 tablespoons (43 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 1/3 cup light brown sugar

Cake

  • 1 cup (227 g) unsalted butter, at room temperature
  • 3/4 cup (159 g) light brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (99 g) granulated sugar
  • 2 large (113 g) eggs
  • 1 teaspoon (5 g) vanilla extract
  • 1 cup (120 g) all purpose flour
  • 1 cup (113 g) graham flour (or whole wheat pastry flour)
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons (6 g) baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon (3 g) baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon (2 g) ground cinnamon
  • 3/4 teaspoon (3 g) fine sea salt
  • 1 cup (227 g) creme fraiche
Go to Recipe

Psst: Join us in celebrating this fearless baker’s first cookbook at our HQ in New York on Thursday, October 26th. Enjoy rose petit fours, chocolate palmiers, and jammy hand pies (savory bites and drinks, too!) while Erin demos fancy pie tricks and signs books. You'll even get to decorate a cake! For tickets and more info, head here.

Tags: grapes, cookbooks