What Goes Up, Must Come Down

One of the many things that boggles my mind is that as food bloggers become more proficient in their cooking skills–and technology get better, faster, and easier–the images of their dishes become shockingly good. I mean, perversely good. Take a look at smittenkitchen.com, 101 Cookbooks, or Cupcake Bakeshop. Some of those pictures are cookbook-worthy.

After having been in advertising for years, as well as being on set for the shoot for my own cookbook, I know the amount of work (and the tricks) that go into shooting the perfect image. For every cookie in a shot, a dozen are baked. For every pound of braised beef ribs nestled in a pot on the cover of a magazine, four pounds are cooked. Then, the food stylist picks through pan, pot, or baking sheet, finding that one specimen the camera will love.

Failed Bread

But my guess is most bloggers aren’t making four, five, or, God forbid, six times the amount require in a recipe for one fleeting shot on their blogs. I think it’s a do-or-die, one-photo-has-to-make it phenom.

A fact that left me banging my head against my kitchen cabinets today when I pulled out my latest loaf of bread, only to discover the pathetic, glutenous mess awaiting me in the pot. I could have left my camera in my bag, telling no one, but I decided to buck up, face the music, and photograph my miserable failure for all the world to see.

No toasty loaf here. No tender, open crumb and crackly crust. No image that will make the round of the Internet or be a universal fave on Flickr. It’s just a one-inch-high cow flap that bears not even a passing resemblance to its forbearer. View it and snicker, dear reader, while I weep.

Side-by-Side Bread

You might recall I’m going full throttle with the New York Times’ No-Knead Bread. After having incredible success on my first try, I’ve been revisiting the recipe weekly, with diminishing return. (If I keep this up, by next week, I’ll pull matzoh out of the pot.) I tried to figure out what went wrong, but I’ve come up empty-handed. The loaf was baked in the same oven, in the same pot, using the same flour and yeast as the prior glorious loaf.

I think the problem is I’ve lost my baking mojo. In keeping with our “Month of Comfort” theme over on the homepage (yes, I actually cook from our site), I destroyed Ina Garten’s idiot-proof Lemon Cake (it rose beautifully, then collapsed, leaving behind a sinkhole the size of my fist) and drastically over baked a delicate shortbread so its pale complexion was more the color of a Hollywood spray-on tan.

My only success in the past seven days was Diane Morgan’s Garlic and Herb-Rubbed Crown Roast of Pork.

But I’m a baker at heart. I get off on the precision of measurements, the exactness of temperatures, the mental fretwork that goes into creating the perfect piece of sweet goodness. So the fact that I was able to pull off a succulent roast with nary a thought of reaching for a Xanex says less about Diane’s excellent recipe and more about some “Freaky Friday” catastrophe, where my normally preternatural adeptness at the art of baking and my quivering reaction when I have to face the stove with a piece of raw meat in my hands changed places.

I can only hope this curse, this godforsaken run of baker’s bad luck ends soon. I have cookies to make and cakes to frost. My friends are starting to give me that perplexed, IQ-of-a-philodendron look Jeff Bridges gives Karen Allen in “Starman,” and it’s making me uncomfortable.

David Leite's handwritten signature of 'David.'

About David Leite

I count myself lucky to have received three James Beard Awards for my writing as well as for Leite’s Culinaria. My work has also appeared in The New York Times, Martha Stewart Living, Saveur, Bon Appétit, Gourmet, Food & Wine, Yankee, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, The Washington Post, and more.

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  1. As much as I have a reasonably extensive cooking background – and this is from getting self-taught throughout my 20s, into the 30s – baking is something that has come into my grasp and then gone again. It must be a whole different flavour of learning to cook, to be a pastry chef against the other kind. Ultimately, I know I’m a one-pot sort of guy.

    The one recipe that I have come back to in that vein is the Canadian Nainaimo Bar, cooking it for Canada Day three years in a row now. It remains to be seen if that continues this year, though I certainly hope so.

    The first one was nearly a disaster, runny custard and whatnot.
    The second one was an improvement, and one of the crowning achievement. I took a portion into my work, and this Italian lady tried a bit and was highly impressed. She had the anime look and everything (if you’ve watched anime, you would know it). At the end of her shift, she bagged what remained. It still had just that bit to go.
    Which comes to the third time around. Sadly, didn’t really get to showcase it to anyone. While the last one could be eaten like a pudding, this one could easily be picked up with your fingers and eaten.

    Anyways, that was one guy at the helm. I reckon heaps of those YouTuber, bloggers and those folks have a whole team behind the scenes. The rough-around-the-edges appeal in the early days is shaved off, and a back-up recipe is in the background just in case.

    Nevertheless, in the next season of “Is It Cake” on Netflix – look out for David Leite!

    1. Right, Mikey?! There are plenty of folks with teams of people to help them, but you might be surprised to discover how many one or two-person food blogging and YouTube operations are still thriving. There are just more and more tools to help cover up our disasters and make everything picture perfect. Now that you’ve perfected the Nanaimo bar, I urge you to give its competitor a try . . . the very Canadian Squamish bar.

      1. Ok, Angie. For the uninitiated (um…me!), what is a Nanaimo bar and a Squamish bar? Do tell!

        1. Both named after towns on Vancouver Island, the Nanaimo bar and less-known Squamish bar are popular no-bake sweet treats. Nanaimo bars are made with a graham cracker-chocolate-coconut base, topped with a layer of sweet custard frosting, and finally, a layer of chocolate. Squamish bars are similar, but they have a peanut butter-corn flake base, a lighter custard frosting, and a layer of chocolate on top.

          1. You had me at “peanut butter”. I will definitely seek recipes for Squamish Bars out for that alone. Maybe add a banana touch to give it the Elvis vibes.

  2. Thoroughly enjoyed this article. I am feeling the same way. I have been baking bread for the last three years. I first made your Ciabatta Bread 2 years ago. A raving success. Looked just like your photo and delicious. I have made 2 attempts in the last week to make it again. An utter disappointment both times. Flat as a pancake. Exterior dull, but crusty. As for the crumb, no holes, dense an unappealing. The Bread Gods are definitely punishing me for some unknown crime.

    1. Barbara, I hear you. I’m beginning to think there is some global conspiracy crisis going on, as several people have written us within the past week about different bread recipes on the site. They, too, found that their loaves were as flat as pancakes. And these are tried and true recipes! We must find a way to appease the hungry Bread Gods! Hang in there, Barbara, your baking mojo will return.

  3. Lost your baking mojo? Oh, can I relate. I learned to bake starting when I was 4 or 5 years old, at my grandmother’s knee, or up on a chair so I could reach the counter. I baked bread for many years without a recipe, pizzas at least once a week–no recipe. Then, one day, I couldn’t make anything I was willing to own.

    I imagine you’ve gotten your mojo back by now. I’ve been craving the baking thrill a lot lately, and one of these days I’m going to give my old mojo another try.

    That bread in the picture on the right? Until after the jump, when I learned it was the bad bread, I thought it looked great. I bet it would have tasted great warm with plenty of butter. 😉 It reminds me a bit of something the House of Bagels in SF calls “flats.” Heh. They are bagel dough rolled out and cooked flat, and they make them with onions and poppy seeds (IIRC) on top. We lived within walking distance for a while, and trekked over there early every Saturday to get our flat fix.

    So, don’t denigrate it without tasting it. And maybe top it with some onions and poppy seeds, just in case.

    1. ruthie, I have gotten my mojo back, but bread is still hard for me. I can make all sorts of desserts–cakes, cookies, tarts, pies–you name it, but bread is tricky. My friend Christine is a master and whips out a loaf every two days. (Envy.)

      And yes, the “bad” bread is the image at the top and to the right. It tasted okay, but for the life of me I have no idea how it got that way.

      1. Who cares? Just eat it and enjoy. 😉

        I have to say that my disasters were not even edible, so you were way ahead of me mojo-wise. 😉