Last January, when snow blanketed much of the Northeast and I was barely into my New Year’s resolution of more exercise and less chocolate, the photo shoot for American Cake began. So much for giving up chocolate! Photo shoots are 10-hour days of oogling over beautiful food and sneaking bites when you can.
This shoot was like no other I had been a part of and took place over two weeks in the Rodale studios in Emmaus, PA. Rodale’s test kitchen had begun baking my cake layers weeks in advance and freezing them. That made it possible for food stylist Paul Grimes and his crew to arrive, make frostings, fillings, and garnishes, and get to work creating the eye candy necessary to illustrate American cake through the decades.
Every cake in the book was shot, and then some. Art director Amy King made sure she had classic food shots of a line of vintage cake servers, a messy cake stand with only one slice of Grapefruit Cake remaining, a still life portrait of the last remnant slices of Mother Ann’s Birthday Cake, and cake slices like the Italian Cream Cake, above, so up-close you can almost taste them.
When preparing to write this blog to share a little of the behind-the-scenes action, I ran across an email Amy sent me after the fifth day of shooting. I arrived on day six.
Yes tomorrow is day 5 of 10. Next shooting day (after tomorrow) is 1/25 for another 5 days. I have to say the cakes were delicious. We found ourselves walking around with a fork in our hand at 4:00. I invited some coworkers to come over and sample and take some with them. I’m taking some home with me tomorrow. My youngest son would sell his soul for that chocolate blackout cake. I snagged half the cake and put it aside for him. It’s funny how people have such diversified tastes. Paul liked the Moravian. I liked the cinnamon flop and chocolate cake. The grapefruit cake was fabulous. My co workers liked the Japanese fruit cake and lady Baltimore. The video guy took the hickory cake. Something for everyone! We’ll shoot an alternate for the white fruitcake tomorrow. It needed to cool down but it looked so beautiful. Sadies was also delicious. We ate that before we left.”
“Something for everyone.” I liked that idea. And I could visualize people I had never met walking around with forks in their hands and squirreling away cakes to take back with them to New York for the weekend. I could imagine the happy face of Amy’s son when he uncovered the dark, chocolate-crumbed blackout cake. And I could only guess that a Lady Baltimore Cake or Japanese Fruit Cake at a New York dinner party would be well received.
Working with the crew – Mitch, the photographer; Carla, the prop stylist; Amy; Paul, the food stylist – was fun but intense. It was intense because dozens of cakes had to be frosted, styled, and sliced each day. Paul kept this running list hanging on the wall of the test kitchen, and once a cake was photographed he crossed that cake off the list.
On a food shoot this extensive, each day was planned to the exact cake, the perfect plate, and the right fork. And that allowed for things to not run smoothly, which is what happens in life and on photo shoots. Extra time was needed to make sure the cakes, fillings, and frostings were chilled enough to slice neatly. Some frostings, like the one on the Chantilly Cake, seemed to take forever to thicken up as it cooled. Other cakes like the Doberge Torte were so tall that Paul had to fire up his electric knife to get a perfect slice.
And Paul was a master of ganache, making it look so beautiful and smooth as leather as he spread it over the Chocolate Stout Cake, the Robert Redford Cake, and others.
The only frosting that needed my expertise was the old-fashioned caramel, and we all know it’s a fussy icing that cannot be rushed. So I stood at the stove, waiting until the right moment to pull it off the heat and then patiently stirred it until the right consistency to spread over baked layers for the Delta Caramel Cake.
On the next-to-last day, I needed to get back to Nashville. But once I was on the plane and we had taken off from the Philadelphia airport, I had one of those Home Alone moments – as if something or someone had been left behind. I pulled out my iPad and glanced down the recipe list, making sure all the recipes had been photographed. Something in my gut told me we were missing one, but I couldn’t recall which one! And there I saw it – in the chapter from the 1970s – the Hummingbird Cake! It hadn’t been photographed, talked about, sliced into. Panic gripped me. And thank goodness for Southwest WiFi!
I emailed Amy to search for the Hummingbird Cake. She replied back, “what’s a Hummingbird Cake?” I emailed her the recipe. She dashed to Wegman’s for bananas. Fortunately, the rest of the ingredients were in the test kitchen. And she assured me that Paul and his guys could whip up a Hummingbird first thing on the last day.
They did, and we’ve got a gorgeous Hummingbird Cake in the book.
Writing American Cake took the last two years of my life. The photo shoot was planned and pulled off in a few weeks. It’s amazing what can be accomplished when you’ve got a great team!