Wednesday, November 27, 2013

'Tis the Season... for Baking

“It’s baking season.”

I’ve heard that at least a dozen times a day in the past couple of weeks. Often it’s in e-mails from vendors with special offers or catalogs that still come in the mail, but not always.

There’s a part of me that wants to say, “Yes! bring the baking on!” and another part of me that wants to shout, “Who decided we can only bake around the holidays?”

For some of us – especially those of us who need baked goods without wheat, dairy, eggs, and nuts – baking season is all year long. We can’t all rely on processed food from the grocery store for our daily bread and snacks.

What’s your take? Do you bake just around the holidays? Or are you a year-long baker?

Happy Thanksgiving!

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Which Camera and Lens Should I Buy for Food Photography?

At the recent Food Allergy Bloggers Conference, I had the opportunity to talk about food photography. Unfortunately, we had little time for Q&A, but the question I was asked the most after the session was a version of:

“I want to upgrade from a point and shoot camera. I am on a limited budget. What should I buy?”

I will preface my answer by saying that I “speak Canon,” but similar solutions exist for all of the major DSLR vendors. (I like my Canon equipment and cameras – a lot – but I am not sponsored or paid by Canon, and I have not done any testing on other equipment.)

If you are planning to go the DSLR route, there are separate purchase decisions to make – the camera body, and the lens (or lenses).

Camera body – most DSLRs will perform quite well, regardless of whether they cost a few hundred dollars or thousands, but there are some things to consider:

Megapixels – The higher the number of megapixels, the better the photo quality. Even the new entry-level DSLRs are at about 18 megapixels. If you are looking at used equipment, I’d suggest that you should look for at least 16 megapixels. The more you crop, the more megapixels you need.

Full frame versus crop frame
– This terminology refers to the “frame” that the camera sees. Full frame cameras will “see” more of the scene than crop frame cameras (with the same lens). A lot more. Here’s an example with the full frame on the top and the crop frame below, with an identical setup:

Full frame cameras also give you more potential depth of field. That said, full frame cameras are considerably more expensive (because the technology is more complex). Keep in mind that you can compensate by using a wider-angle lens and reducing the f-stop. For most bloggers, a crop frame camera will be more than sufficient. On the other hand, if you are considering professional photography and want something that will grow with you, the full frame camera could be the way to go.

– many DSLRs now have video capability, but not all. If this is something you want, look for a camera body that has that capability. (My crop frame camera has video capability, but my full frame camera does not.)

– the lens or lenses you choose are arguably more important than the camera body. A crappy lens on either an entry level or a high-end body will produce a lousy photo. Conversely, a fabulous lens will perform beautifully on both. This is true regardless of whether you choose a crop frame or full frame camera. It’s also true that the best lenses are not always the most expensive – but there is a general correlation.

Most camera bodies will be packaged with a “kit” lens – usually a medium telephoto that is positioned to be “all-purpose.” (All-purpose usually means pretty good at a lot, but not great at anything.) However, it’s often possible to negotiate with a camera vendor to package a different lens with the camera. In fact, I highly recommend doing this; once you have decided which lens you want (if it’s not listed with that configuration), call the online camera shop you would buy from and ask if you can get the lens you want instead. It might cost a bit more, but it will be cheaper in the long run and you won’t have a “throw-away” lens collecting dust.

There is a difference between fixed focal length lenses (e.g., 35mm, 50mm, etc.) and telephoto lenses (e.g., 17-55mm). The latter allows you to get in closer or farther away from the subject without moving the camera (which, of course, should be on a tripod). Fixed focal length lenses will nearly always give you a better result, with less distortion, less bleeding, and less noise. However, a variable length lens can be very useful; it will likely be what you take with you on vacation; it also allows you to vary the shot without moving the camera (e.g., for a full table shot and then a close-up). I now use fixed focal length lenses almost exclusively for food photography, but I’d feel naked if I didn’t at least have an option for a telephoto lens.

The plot thickens…

The other characteristic to consider with lenses is whether they fit just a crop frame camera, or can work on either a crop frame or full frame. Canon calls their crop frame lenses “EOS” lenses, and one of my favorite lenses is an EOS lens – but it doesn’t work on my full frame camera.

And, if it wasn’t already complicated enough, for whatever length lens you choose, the wider the aperture capability, the better the lens will be (and more expensive). I am referring to the “f” numbers that appear next to the lens in the description. The lower the number, the better. An f/4 lens is okay, but an f/2.8 lens is better (and more expensive). Variable length lenses will often have a range (e.g. f/4.5-5.6), which denotes the lowest f-stop depending on the focal length you choose. I usually prefer food photos that are shot in the f/3.2-5.6 range, but for how-to shots I will choose a narrower aperture (e.g. f/8) to keep the entire photo in crisp focus.

Keep in mind that (in terms of depth of field results) an f/4.5 on a full frame camera is roughly equivalent to an f/3.2 on a camera frame camera.

And then there’s image stabilization. If you’re walking around you will want image stabilization. But you’re using a tripod, right? And while on the tripod you don’t need IS.

So, what do you need?

For most food photography, I would suggest a wide angle lens (the lower the mm, the wider the angle) and a macro lens. This combo will allow you a wide angle for top down shots, and the ability to get in really close for ¾ shots.

When I took the photos for Learning to Bake Allergen-Free I used a Canon EOS 7D with a 60mm EOS macro lens and a 17-55mm EOS lens (usually set at the widest angle – 17mm).

Since that time I have purchased a full frame camera with a couple of additional lenses. For my new book, I am shooting with the Canon 5D Mark II equipped with a Sigma 35mm lens and the 7D with the 60mm macro.

Even though I have a 100mm macro for my 5D, I really love the results with the 60mm macro. And my Sigma 35mm lens is dreamy.

My best advice on what to buy is to consider your budget and what type of photos you most want to take. Then research, read the reviews, strike a bargain, and enjoy!

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Announcing the Winners of the Hamilton Beach #smoovember Giveaway

Oh it's so much fun to have two winners!

The winner of the Hamilton Beach Smoothie Smart Blender is:

Dough Maven

And the winner of the Single Serve Blender is:

Kathryn @ Mamacado

Congratulations! I will be contacting each of you directly.

Enjoy your smoothies!

Thursday, November 7, 2013

We Are United #FABlogcon

I am still feeling the positive energy from the first annual Food Blogger Conference. I am exhausted – jet lag, changing back from daylight savings time, and behaving like an extrovert when I am really an introvert all contributed to that. But I am also energized.

Bringing together bloggers, authors, doctors, advocates, educators, and vendors who are connected by severe food restrictions was the brainchild of Jenny Sprague and it was a resounding success. As we were leaving the conference a friend said, “I hope she does it again next year,” and my response was, “Oh, she’s doing it again!” So, Jenny, don’t prove me wrong on that!

There is something cathartic about being surrounded by people who “get it.”

Despite the fact that some of us there were advocating for ourselves while others have children or loved ones with food restrictions…

And despite the fact that our food-related issues ran the gamut from anaphylactic allergies, to celiac disease, to eosinophilic esophagitis, to intolerances, to a plethora of other less-well-known illnesses…

And despite the fact that some of us have been managing food restrictions for years, others just received a diagnosis, and yet others are on a seemingly never-ending quest for a diagnosis…

We are all united by the desire to drive awareness, acceptance, and accommodation of severe food restrictions.

Acceptance was everywhere. Not one person questioned another’s need to avoid a particular food – for any reason. We didn’t look at each other suspiciously. No one asked pesky judgmental questions and no one suggested that they knew better what would work for your body than you. No one suggested that only “life-threatening” food allergies should be prioritized. And we all had each other’s backs.

I wish everyone who visits this blog could have been there. In case you weren’t, here’s a bit of what you missed:

The first session with the talented and funny Tess Masters, the straight-talking Joel Warady, and marketing genius Annelies Zijderveld was one of my favorites.

I didn’t bring enough Kleenex for this session on Facing Adversity with a Smile with Susan Weissman, Tiffany Glass, and Jenny. I think it’s fair to say that many in the food allergy community have had way more than their fair share of difficulties – including many non-food-related illnesses and other losses – yet, this is a group that moves forward triumphantly!

Henry Ehrlich made us laugh and gave us hope during his keynote address.

And we ate well. Very well. As always, I brought a stash of safe snacks, just in case. I didn't need them, and I didn't even need to open a box of the Enjoy Life cookies Joel shared with us. Even the restaurants had a top-8 allergen-free menu:

Before I go, I must give a shout-out to the fabulous Homa Woodrum. While she expertly avoided all stages and cameras she was busy making everything work behind the scenes. FABlogcon wouldn’t have happened without you Homa!

If you didn’t happen to win one of the fabulous prizes at FABlogcon (or even if you did) be sure to enter to win the Hamilton Beach blender giveaway – you have a week to enter.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Calling All Smoothie Lovers, It’s a #smoovember #giveaway!

You are going to love this! Hamilton Beach gave me the two blenders I am reviewing here, and they are also giving one of each away to lucky readers here. Two winners! Yippee! It’s #smoovember!

Most of us use our blenders for smoothies, right? So it made perfect sense to me that Hamilton Beach would design their new line of blenders around the smoothie. Let’s take a look at them, one at a time.

The Smoothie Smart blender is very solid and sturdy. I love the glass container – it’s a hefty appliance. I also like that the hole to add things (ice, liquids, or oil if you are making an emulsion) has a little flip lid; that makes it very easy to add ingredients while the blender is running. Of course, what makes this blender unique is the smoothie button – goof-proof if you are making smoothies:

What I like best about the Smoothie Smart is its size – it’s only 15 inches high, making it ideal for those of use with low clearance on our counters.

 Now, let’s take a look at the Single Serve blender. This is a very cute little gadget. I love the idea of being able to make a smoothie and then take it along with you. In my days of working in Corporate America, I brought a smoothie to work every day. I would make it in a big blender, and then transfer it to a travel container to bring to work. (And I’d have to clean the big blender as well as the travel container.) This Single Serve blender lets you drink from the same container you make the smoothie in.

There’s a lot to like about this blender; it’s a simple one-touch design, the container has volume measurements, and the lid has a sip top (similar to travel coffee mugs). At first I thought it was odd to be carrying the blade along with my smoothie, but I soon got over that.

Before I show you my smoothie, I need to talk about what else this blender can do. As you may know, I grind flax seeds all the time, to use instead of eggs. In reading the instructions for this blender I noticed that it could be used to grind coffee and I thought – I bet it can grind flax seeds. That was the very first thing I tried to do with this blender, and I am happy to report, it works!

Now, about that smoothie…

It’s November, so I dug into my stash of frozen fruit (from my pickings at the farm earlier this year). I combined a ripe banana with frozen blueberries, strawberries, and blackberries. Then I added ½ cup coconut milk beverage.Yummy!

The giveaway:

To enter, leave a comment here with which blender you prefer, and what type of smoothie you’d like to make. I will be picking two winners, one for each blender.

For extra entries:

Share this post on facebook and/or twitter, linking back here. Use hashtag #smoovember. Leave a second or third comment to let me know you did so!

Entries end on Tuesday, November 12th, at midnight eastern time. The winners will be announced on November 14th. In the meantime, have a great #smoovember!