how to make your cooking look as pretty as a picture [5 ingredients | 10 minutes]

fig tarts cropped-2
I don’t know about you, but for me a cookbook isn’t a real cookbook without a picture of each recipe.

While I love writing and words, I’m a visual person, so unless I can ‘see’ how a dish is going to turn out, I’m not likely to cook it. The downside of this is that sometimes I get confronted with that horrible sinking feeling when real life doesn’t stack up.

Over the years I’ve learned a few tricks to help my creations to look as delicious as possible. Even before I got into blogging and photography, I was interested in food presentation so I thought I’d share a few secrets to help you feel great about your cooking and get it looking as pretty as a picture.

1. Don’t ever actually compare your creation to the photograph side by side.
A trick I learned early on is to almost disregard the photo once you’ve finished cooking. Its job was to inspire you and to give you an idea of how the dish could be served, but it’s certainly not gospel. Once you’ve plated up, the picture in the book is pretty much irrelevant – I mean you can’t eat a photograph – so do yourself a favour and close the book or shut down that screen.

2. Choose simple crockery and tableware.
Anyone who’s been reading stonesoup for a while will notice that pretty much all my plates and platters are plain white. While decorative, flower patterned China can be beautiful on it’s own, to me it always looks a little sullied when it is holding food. Plain plates allow the food to be the star.

3. Don’t overcrowd the plate.
While it may seem more generous to serve plates piled high of food, it diminishes the chance of the food looking appealing. Think about how you can use the white space of the plate to make your dish look appealing.

4. Emphasise the natural beauty of the food.
This is a difficult one to explain. Try and think about what it is that makes a particular dish look delicious and then serve it in a way to flaunt it. For example I love the golden, cripsy skin of a well roasted chicken. Rather than carve the chook into individual slices with tiny slivers of skin, I would cut the bird into quarters and serve with the skin of the breast proudly intact and prominent.

5. Big platters usually look better than fussy individual serves.
It may be just me, but there’s something so appealing about a tray of roast potatoes or a big platter of salad shared in the middle of the table rather than just giving everyone a plate ladened with a little bit of everything. Even when I’m cooking for two, I tend to serve most things in the middle for us to share.

6. Garnishes must have a purpose.
The old 70s trick of putting a sprig of curly parsley on the side just for appearance seems a little naff. Whereas a finishing sprinkle of parsley chopped so fine it resembles moss to freshen up a risotto or even a roast can add visual appeal as well as lifting the flavour.

7. Always be on the lookout for ideas.
Inspiration can strike from anywhere. When you’re eating out or even just flicking through your favourite food mag, take note of what looks appealing and what doesn’t

I wrote a chapter on food styling for my ebook ‘HOW TO BAKE YOUR FAMILY COOKBOOK‘ – if you’re interested in taking pictures of food you may find this useful – even if you aren’t ever planning to ever actually write a cookbook.

fig tarts-3 fig tarts-13

[5 ingredients | 10 minutes]
little ricotta tartlets with fig & honey

makes 8

The secret to these little tartlets is to find a good biscuit / cookie to use as the ‘shell’. I’ve used Butternut Snap cookies which are a sweet oat-based biscuit similar to an ANZAC. Feel free to substitute with your favourite oat (oatmeal) cookie.

One of the best things about Autumn is that it’s fig season which guided my decision making. But really you could use any fruit you like. Fresh berries would be lovely as would roast stone fruit. Or you could even go tropical with sliced mango and passionfruit.

And it’s not limited to just fruit toppings – praline, chopped nuts, even shaved chocolate. I need to make these tarts again soon.

Apart from their flexilibity, the real beauty of these tarts is that they are just so quick and simple to make but look and taste like you’ve gone to lots of effort – it can be our little secret.

You can either make these before the guests arrive and store in the fridge or whip them up while someone else is clearing the plates from main course. The longer they sit, the softer the tartlet shell will be, but it’s delicious either way.

If you’d prefer you could heat and soften the biscuits in the microwave instead of the oven.

250g (1/2lb) ricotta
2T sugar
8 Butternut Snap cookies or similar
2 large ripe figs, quartered lengthwise
honey

Preheat oven to 200C (400F).

Meanwhile, combine ricotta and sugar and stir until smooth.

Place cookies on a baking tray smooth side up and warm in the oven for approx 2 minutes, or until soft enough to bend. While they are warm, carefully mould a soup spoon into the flat side of each cookie to form a little tartlet shell. Allow to cool for a minute or so.

Divide ricotta mixture between shells. Top each with a fig quarter and drizzle with honey.

fig tarts-2

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Really excited about the positive response to my new eBook – HOW TO BAKE YOUR FAMILY COOKBOOK. Be quick and pick up your copy before they go to full price this weekend.
3D cover

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{ 16 comments }

juan April 1, 2010 at 9:55 am

your photos are just great! do you also have a photography blog?

cityhippyfarmgirl April 1, 2010 at 12:06 pm

Great photo tips. A good food picture really speaks to you.

Claire April 1, 2010 at 6:38 pm

Ricotta.. figs.. biscuits.. is it wrong to lick my computer? Come on Willy Wonka – where’s the TV that can send me food!!! Such a clever way to make a tart shell too – it never occured to me – have always been of the ‘make your own cheesecake base and use tartlet tins’ – what time has been wasted! (I was going to say that the pictures look good enough to eat but it seems somewhat redundant..)
Happy Easter!

Amy April 1, 2010 at 10:18 pm

Thank you for the photo tips. They will come in handy when I get stuck on how to plate up my food to photograph.

'neen @ 9beanrow.com April 1, 2010 at 11:14 pm

Jules, what an excellent idea for the shells.
I love your photographs. I gave a little sigh when I saw the ricotta being drizzled with the honey. A beautiful recipe and a lovely post.
Off to buy the book now.

Dana Zia April 2, 2010 at 5:40 am

Thank you so much for sharing. I feel like I was behind the door when they handed out the lessons on how to plate food. It has been a challenge to say the least!

kylieonwheels April 2, 2010 at 7:05 am

Hey, great tips, as usual.

I’m with you on the picture tip. I prefer to have a pic, because that will get my attention in the first place. But other than for construction purposes (sorry…did I just say that? haha I’m an engineer sorry, trying to live out creativity through food lol), the picture bears no meaning after that. Somewhere along the lines I told myself that if mine was different than the pic, that was probably due to my amazing improvements so I should be happy :) To be honest, most of the recipes I start out following closely, I end up changing at least one thing anyway. So it’s fair to say it’ll never look like the picture!

Garnishing is a good one too. I’ve found myself putting a little garnish of sorts on my own meals, cooked for one, and then standing there beaming for a minute while I admire my own awesomeness haha :-P

(ps. a while back you blew me away with the idea of pyrex containers for work lunches. finally got around to it, and I went with their ‘leak proof’ range, just in case of bumps when cycling. Thought I’d let you know, they’re fantastic, and that was a great tip! No more plastic-y microwaved lunches and lids that don’t fit after one reheat.)

YardEdge April 2, 2010 at 7:18 am

Totally agree…a good cookbook always has pictures…otherwise I have no incentive to try and make it!! Thanks, just found your blog and love it!

Carolyn April 2, 2010 at 11:55 am

I just purchased your e-book and it’s really good Jules. As is your blog – I have cooked more from your blog than the rest of the internet and my hundreds of cooking magazines and books all put together. I have become a Spanish food devotee thanks to you! I am an avid follower and admire the heck out of your courage for giving making a living out of what you love a shot. I wish you huge success. Every single time I read the intro to ‘and the love is free’ my eyes sting, thinking of our Mum’s love is very emotional I feel. Good luck, best wishes and thank you from one avid follower of what you share with us all.

Mark @ Cafe Campana April 2, 2010 at 4:04 pm

These little desserts look sweet. I love to cook but plating up and presentation is definitely my weakness. I just don’t have the touch. Thanks for the tips.

jules April 3, 2010 at 7:23 pm

mark – they are really lovely – and with the ricotta – not too sweet – hope my tips help

hi carolyn
thanks so much for your message – it’s so lovely to hear from people who are loving stonesoup – really makes it all worthwhile for me.

yardedge
yep – pictures are critical – welcome to stonesoup

hey kylie
glad the pyrex can withstand the bike road test. and good to hear from engineer cooks!

dana
plating is a bit of an artform but you can get better. good luck

thanks neen – I was really chuffed with the honey drizzling – a feat of coordination – sweezing the honey with one hand and clicking the shutter control on my computer with the other. hope you enjoy the book

thanks claire – how good would it be if you could taste your screen – happy easter

juan
no i don’t have a photography blog – highly recommend stilllifewith.com

Elena Rego April 5, 2010 at 6:10 am

Thanks for this. Food arrangement/styling and photography go hand in hand in the food blogging world, but its also, for me, a critical part of really savoring the meal you’re about to have fully. It engages all the senses, and becomes a full celebration of the food in front of you.

Thanks again!

Anh April 6, 2010 at 8:53 am

I really like your minimalist style of photos, Jules.

This fig tart sounds lovely and is something I will normally do. Sometimes I serve biscuits in a similar fashion with really creamy yoghurt, fruits and some floral honey as well. It’s easy to prepare and style.

Lonesome Road Studio April 7, 2010 at 12:08 am

I agree, a great recipe photo makes all the difference in the world.
I’m still trying to hone my food photography skills; I’m more used to photographing jewelry, not quite the same thing!
Love your photos, and will check out the e-book….

Conor @ HoldtheBeef April 7, 2010 at 9:47 pm

Thanks for the pointers, oh photography queen! I’m totally with you on the need for photos in cookbooks (though I’m willing to be lenient with this for such likes as the CWA ladies)

Roxy March 2, 2012 at 12:22 pm

I took your photography tips and made a fig cheesecake – I hope you don’t mind me using a similar style to yours :)

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