Inspiration

salami

It’s been too long once again. Not because I haven’t wanted to write, but because there are only so many hours in the day. 

Summer is always a double-edged sword for me – on the one hand it’s great to spend more time with my girl, more time entertaining friends on our roof deck (the cocktail of the summer is the pistachio sour) and more time just lazing on a lounger reading beneath the stars on a warm summer night.

borlottibeans

On the other hand it’s always a time of enormous creative frustration. The light is so amazing, the markets are groaning with the most glorious produce and the temptation to spend time time playing in the kitchen and photographing the results is so very, very strong.

But it’s been punishingly hot here – too hot to turn the oven on – camps finish early, it’s a struggle just to complete my regular work (astonishingly I seem to have pulled together a portfolio of regular clients – Edible Seattle, Seattle Refined and Zagat’s, and have been doing a lot more commercial work) and a house full of tween girls making videos to Taylor Swift songs is not very conducive to creativity.

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This year that tug of inspiration, that craving to follow the muse’s siren song to the exclusion of everything and everybody else has been overwhelming thanks to two amazing workshops I’ve attended in recent months.

You already know Ilva and Jamie of Plated Stories fame. When I heard that Jamie and her husband Jean-Pierre had acquired a small hotel in Chinon in the Loire Valley I of course had to invite myself over for a visit while I was in Europe. Before very long a whole workshop was being arranged, with Ilva too, under the title ‘Finding Inspiration’.

Because obviously inspiration is hard to come by when you’re visiting the world’s most charming hotel (of which more another day) in the world’s most charming small French town (also of which more another day), under the tutelage of two incredibly patient, generous and supremely talented women and while sharing the whole experience with a bunch of other immensely talented, smart and funny photographers and writers. We ate delicious meals in Jamie’s kitchen, critiqued each other’s work, bounced ideas off each other and chatted long into the night, while our eyes and minds drank in more beauty than any eyes and minds should reasonably have the right to expect.

Was that my camera clicking from early morning until nightfall? Perhaps finding inspiration wasn’t such as struggle after all.

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The summer’s second workshop blew my mind too, but in a totally different way. After reading my friend and mentor Jackie Donnelly’s write up of Seattle portrait photographer John Keatley’s Survival Guide workshop, I knew I had to attend. Even if it meant heading to St. Louis (which, as it turns out, is charming and fun, with killer ice cream and barbecue).

This time I didn’t even turn my camera on. Instead I listened as John, his wife Nichelle and his assistant Taylor told us everything they had learned about running a successful photography business. And by everything, I mean EVERYTHING. How to market yourself, how to pitch, how to bid on a project, how to invoice and even what thank you presents to send afterwards. We talked branding and direction, target markets and dream clients, got right into the weeds with finances and had our portfolios constructively and comprehensively critiqued by both John and our peers. The workshop was held in food photographer Rob Grimm’s awe-inspiring studio – it was worth the price of admission alone just to spend time in that space – and the creative energy sparked and fizzed all weekend.

This time the only pictures I came away with were a few grainy phone pics (I’m hating on my iPhone 5s with fire of a thousand suns currently) but instead tucked into my suitcase was something infinitely more precious, a small notebook with the text of every one of John’s slides, covered with all my own hastily-scribbled notes  – the blueprint for growing my own business to the next level and beyond. Let’s all hope that my scribbles are actually legible.

Croissants

It’s funny how inspiration strikes – a scrap of an idea here, a fleeting picture there, a story or a conversation that will lead you off in a whole new direction, changing your life in big ways and small.  Chinon’s incredible fleamarket inspired me to visit the antique shops of Snohomish, where I ended up buying a set of vintage weighing scales like the ones Jamie had in her kitchen. Walking through the chateau de Chinon chatting with Ilva led me to reread a couple of biographies of Eleanor of Aquitaine (who spent part of her life in Chinon) and then to watch the supremely fabulous Empire (which is based on her story – Eleanor’s not Ilva’s). My late night conversations with Stacey have inspired me to search for a studio and my portfolio reviews with John Keatley and Rob Grimm have made me want to focus more on my still-life food photography. I want to blog more and market myself more, grow my Instagram following and rebrand my website and collaborate with more people and start teaching workshops. But above all else I just want to make images and write stories. My head is currently bursting with them.

On Sunday we’re off to spend a few weeks on Whidbey Island, so I can relax and recharge and make the most of the final weeks of what has been an incredible summer here in the PNW. But come September 9th when school finally goes back, I’m SO ready to put all this pent-up inspiration to good use.

The images in this post were made in Jamie’s apartment under Ilva’s watchful eye. Through their blog posts and Facebook updates those two inspire me every single day. (Here is their take on the subject of Inspiration). 

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Springtime in Paris

Springtime in Paris, photography by www.paolathomas.com

Failed right off the bat with the non-touristy shot

I’m recently back from an wonderful trip back home to England and then on to Chinon in France to attend a workshop with the ever-inspirational Ilva and Jamie. I have so many thoughts to process, ideas to hatch and plans to create – I think we’ll be making some significant changes as a result of this trip – but suffice it to say that going back to Europe in the spring was probably not a sensible thing to do from a homesickness point of view.

Springtime in Paris, photography by www.paolathomas.com

Paris in the Springtime. Not remotely a cliché

Before heading down to Chinon, I spent an afternoon in Paris with my friend Stacey who was accompanying me to the workshop. We walked our feet to bloody stumps from Place Vendôme through the Marais to the Rive Gauche and in between I tried to take non-clichéd, non-touristy photos of Paris. In the Springtime. Yeah, good luck with that.

Springtime in Paris, photography by www.paolathomas.com

I love how cool Parisians are.

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As was she.

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And as was he.

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I’m sorry. I didn’t ask her to wear a beret. OK?

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Nor did I arrange for a wedding to be taking place. Outside Notre Dame no less.

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If only walls could talk. Yep, clichés a-gogo round here.

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And she was just sitting there in her cute dress, in her cute hat, with her cute ray of sunshine artfully arranged. That’s Parisians for you.

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Graffiti and padlocks.

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Splodges

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and stripes.

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The stuffed rats of Les Halles hanging in the window of the ratcatchers shop Maison Aurouze

charcuterie

The most epic plate of charcuterie I’ve ever sampled (that terrine at bottom left will live on for ever in my memory).

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And an amazing array of cakes that I did not.

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Rive gauche

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Rive droite

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Paris by night

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Paris without a tripod

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OK, Paris in the Springtime. You win.

Paris-7

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Karneval in Germany –Part 1

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

When I was living in London, I resolutely avoided Germany. Even though I studied German at school and at one point even at university, the idea of Germany was very much less appealing than the sunshine, beaches and olive oil of the south of France and Italy.

I travelled every opportunity I could as a student but the cheap train fares and summer jobs always took me south, and I never once set foot in the land of bier, wurst and Beethoven. And in the end, when I realised that I could read the works of Goethe and Schiller, but could order neither a bier nor a wurst in their native language I gave up studying German too.

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Aside from an unplanned trip to a rebuilding Berlin when I was first going out with the Husband, I had no real desire to travel to Germany, and when the lovely Veronika Miller invited me to go on BlogTour to the Ambiente gift and tabletop show in Frankfurt I must confess that I wasn’t entirely convinced.

We spent most of our five days there gliding along the moving walkways and wandering the gigantic hangar-sized halls of the Messe Frankfurt (of which much more in other posts), but for one day of our trip we were taken to visit Oppenheim and Mainz along the banks of the Rhine and I realised quite how foolish I had been all these years. These German towns were really rather lovely and the cobbled streets, half-timbered houses and gothic churches spoke tenderly to that part of my soul that requires extravagant doses of ancient buildings to keep it fully alive.

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

My Italian mother would hang a little sprig of mistletoe over our back door to ward off evil spirits.

We are supposed to tour the catacombs in the little town of Oppenheim, but I decide not to join the group and instead spend time wandering through the antique streets in a sort of photographic daze, bedazzled by the extraordinary creamy light. Everything is beautiful.

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Would YOU go underground with this bunch?

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

The layers, textures and shapes are almost overwhelming  – rough wood, bumpy stones, pointed spires and gables and arches, the wacky tartans of the half-timbered houses and the hard, intricate curlicues of stone, wrought iron and gothic-fonted street signs. In Seattle buildings are new and smooth, modern towers of granite, metal and glass and the wooden houses are carefully painted. I’ve missed the worn and weatherbeaten so much.

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

And to cap it all it is karneval time. Kids and adults, monks and jesters, clowns and executioners, even – displaying a less PC sensibility – lady cannibals in Ugg boots, are gathering in the streets, their very costumes reflecting a sense of history that is missing nowadays from Halloween in the US and UK.

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

An old woman approaches me and talks to me in German – I think my fur collared jacket makes me look like I belong. Her speech is fast and guttural and I reach deep into the dusty,  cobwebbed German library that’s tucked somewhere in my brain to understand her. Using that same library I tell her how charming I find her town to be. She beams with pride and we nod and smile, and I realise sadly that we’re actually mostly communicating through facial expressions.

But yet, in this country I’ve hardly visited, surrounded by people I can hardly understand, I feel a sense of belonging and connection that I rarely feel in the US. The history of this little town is MY history, these cobbles and cathedrals, monks and jesters are MY heritage. I’m back in Europe and in a very real, very visceral way, this European girl is back home.

  Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

Karneval in Germany photography by www.paolathomas.com

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Captive Spirits Distilling

There are some days when I just adore this photography gig of mine.

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

I met Holly from Captive Spirits Distilling at the Seattle Street Food festival, where she was handing out samples of their Bourbon Barreled Big Gin.

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

For those of you who aren’t into artisanal gins (which are booming in the Seattle area at present) then you should rectify that immediately. This stuff was insanely good – golden, citrusy and buttery smooth with smoky undertones of bourbon – and it makes for awesome cocktails. It seems that the rest of the world likes Captive Spirits’ gins too as they won some big deal awards last year, including a Gold Medal for Best Contemporary Gin in the International Wine & Spirits Competition for the Bourbon Barreled Big Gin, making it the first American gin to EVER win in the gin category. Their unaged Big Gin took a Silver in the same competition.

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits’ story is all the more amazing when you realise that Holly and her husband Ben, together with their business partners and a small staff, craft the gin and market it worldwide from a small garage in Seattle’s Ballard neighbourhood, and I spent a wonderful morning there recently photographing the bottling process at the distillery.

It truly had everything to thrill a photographer’s heart – soft, creamy light, gleaming copper French stills, sparkling bottles, beardie hipsters, charming owners and Rosie, the world’s most photogenic dog. I could literally have stayed there photographing all day.

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

I was so inspired by their story that I pitched it to Edible Seattle which resulted in me taking the portrait above of Ben, Holly, Rosie the dog and the stills, Jean and Phyllis.

Captive Spirits Distilling - photography by www.paolathomas.com

It also led to me pitching and writing a round-up of artisan gin producers in the Seattle area for Seattle Refined. All of which appears to be leading me on a dangerous new craft spirits obsession. I will report back. 

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Nuns and Sea Gypsies

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I’m not a particularly spiritual person, but like so much else in Thailand the unassuming, yet sincere, spirituality of the Thai people really got to me and provided much food for thought.

The Thais we met were so courteous and friendly, their smiles so wide and genuine and their kindness to each other and to the animals with whom they shared their streets so apparent, that it was difficult not to think that somehow our materialistic, hyper stressed, hyper angry Western society has got things very, very wrong.

I’m not so naïve as to imagine that life in Thailand is all rainbows and unicorns, but people in general did seem more relaxed, more satisfied and more genuinely happy than in any other place I’ve ever been. It’s had me thinking ever since.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

One of our most remarkable days there was spent with Chaya NaTakuathung who leads ‘Meet the Locals’ tours in Old Phuket. I started the tour thinking that we were going on some nonsensical fake tourist-y bullshit thingy and finished several hours later feeling like I’d had a profound spiritual experience. If you ever find yourselves in Phuket, don’t hesitate even for one second before taking a tour yourselves.

Chaya is a fiercely intelligent, immensely knowledgeable, super friendly guide who speaks perfect English and is driven by a genuine desire to show tourists a side of Phuket that only the locals get to see.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

She squealed with delight when she discovered that our group was just women, as that way she could take us to visit a local Buddhist nunnery, where no men are permitted to enter.

The nunnery is an oasis of tranquillity in the middle of the noise, chaos and bustle of Old Phuket. As we walked through the carefully tended gardens, the traffic noise seemed to melt away, together with our Western preconceptions and anxieties. The rhythmic chanting of the nuns at prayer was immensely moving and contemplation seemed easy in this simple, serene environment. I understood nothing, but didn’t need to, the energy in the room was enough.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The nuns there were a mixture of permanent nuns and women on longer term retreats – as signified by their shaven heads – and other women and girls who were just attending on a short term basis, for short retreats or for counselling, who can keep their hair as it is. Chaya herself had spent many retreats at the nunnery and you could see that there she was surrounded by friends and mentors.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And I started to realise how smart it is, to have a place where you can just go for a few days when you need to regroup and recharge your batteries; where teenage girls can receive advice from wise older women or where you can just spend some time thinking and relaxing and contemplating and praying. I had ended up paying thousands of $$$ for that retreat experience and it still felt like a wacky and self-indulgent thing to do. Instead in Thailand it is an ordinary part of everyday life. They understand that sometimes we all need a bit of down time, simplicity and space for contemplation.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Time just to sit, hang out and finally smell the flowers.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

After a visit to a temple and an excellent meal, Chaya then took us to visit the village of the sea gypsies, or chao le (people of the sea) in Thai.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The chao le are a nomadic people of Polynesian heritage and strikingly different in build – much taller and sturdier – than the diminuitive Thai people. They used to live out to sea and come to land only rarely but in recent times they have created one or two settlements along the coast of the Andaman Sea, though they still make their living by deep sea fishing, diving deep without scuba equipment.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their village was destroyed by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, but they didn’t lose a single member of their tribe. When their elders saw the sea draw out dangerously far from the coast,  their deep understanding of the sea meant that they recognised the warning signs and urged their people to move to higher ground.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Their rebuilt village is nothing but a shanty town, and the people are obviously heartbreakingly poor, but after a while you stopped noticing the shabbiness. What I shall remember more is how clean the kids’ clothes were, how litter was bagged up neatly for disposal, how everyone was smiling and laughing. Soccer balls were being kicked, kids of all ages were playing together and whole families lounging on their verandahs waved and smiled and invited us into their homes to share their evening meal.

Thailand - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And as I watched, I started to understand that these people were rich. Rich in wisdom, in generosity, in friendships and fun, and that maybe it is we who are the poor ones.

At the nunnery my soul had been touched, with the sea gypsies it was my heart. In both places, and very in different ways, I had been shown the wisdom of simplicity, of community, of sharing, of smiling, and that maybe our relentless chase after the material has left us Westerners greatly impoverished as a result.

I’m still not sure quite where all these thoughts will end up, and certainly they were displaced for a bit by the materialistic orgy of Christmas, but boy, were many chords struck.

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Roasting, or Searching for a Food Writing Style

‘”I’m thoughtful when I come to class. My aim this weekend is to bring more personality and feeling to my writing and photography, to transform the sterile and soulless and help it resonate with a wider audience.

Telling stories like this doesn’t come easily to me – I’m not an emotional person – but I know that the proof of the pudding is in the story; that it’s the tale that turns the ordinary into the extraordinary, that illuminates the subject and makes it come alive.

Roasted Veggies Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The gilded smoky scent of roasted vegetables emanates from the oven. Aran has made lunch. I fix myself a plate of roasted squash, beets and carrots, perfumed with oil and herbs and speckled with spices. The tender squash is velvet smooth, the flavours nutty, complex and cosily sweet, the subtle colours running the gamut from gold to caramel by way of saffron, ochre and honey. In contrast, an uncooked squash sits on the counter with dishes of fresh raw carrots and beets. The raw vegetables are hard, knobbly – their colours almost aggressively vibrant – subtlety is clearly not their thing.

Vegetables Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I chew thoughtfully on the warm soft velvety squash. I know now what I need to do. Roast my stories to bring out their flavour and sweetness. Texture them with salt and herbs and fragrant oils to reveal their hidden subtleties and complexity. Knock off their hard edges and soften their crunch to make them palatable and sweet.

I take another bite. Food for thought indeed.”

Food Writing Workshop Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Ugh. The above is a writing exercise I did at the second workshop I took last October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio with the very lovely and inimitable Tara O’Brady (check out Luisa Brimble’s fab workshop here). All I can say is that I most definitely haven’t found my ‘voice’ yet. To me something like the above still sounds pretentious and inauthentic and I have to fight the urge to be snarky even when I’m writing about feelings and emotions that are actually genuine and real. Maybe snark is my authentic voice. I dunno. The only thing I know is that this food writing malarkey is hard, people.

Food Writing Workshop Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Tara on the other hand makes it all look easy. The author of the wonderful Seven Spoons blog, she writes with a genuine depth of emotion that I can only dream of achieving; develops all her own distinctive and tempting recipes and does all her own food styling and photography. In her house. In between looking after her kids.

She’s also an amazing teacher. We focused during the workshop on writing and photographing with intention and purpose; developing and building a connection with your audience and how to evoke atmosphere and emotions with both words and photography.

It was heady stuff and brought to us by an accomplished wordsmith, who, unlike some purely visual people, could actually explain her thought processes and ideas. If you get the chance to be taught by Tara, jump at it.

Soup - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The above is a quick iPhone shot of the soup that Tara is styling and photographing above. Girl is a genius AND she’s bringing out her first cookbook later this year. Jump at that too. We saw galleys and it looks FABULOUS.

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Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As promised many moons ago I can now finally reveal my recipe for the Parsnip Cake that debuted back in Edible Seattle in January of last year. Editor Tara and I wanted the cakes in this series to make the most of seasonal, local fruits and vegetables, which hugely limited our scope in January when all that seems to be available round these parts is mountains of kale.  

We started playing with the idea of root vegetables and I remembered a carrot cake I had made for the Minx’s first birthday party back in the Dark Ages. The cake I had in mind was a  moist, squidgy cake, dense with raisins, and warmed with spices and maple syrup  – a comforting wintry sort of cake, made all the more so by snowy swirls of cream cheese frosting on the top. And then we started toying with the idea of substituting parsnips for the carrots.

It seems obvious that carrots can be added to cake – their flavour is delicate, sweet and clean and they are delightful eaten raw. Raw parsnips on the other hand are not so obviously appealing – the flavour is woody, less sweet and just deeply, deeply vegetably. So it was with some trepidation that I lifted that first test cake out of the oven. I needn’t have worried, the alchemy of baking had worked again. The parsnips had roasted within the cake to become soft, sweet and totally unrecognisable as parsnips, just adding an intriguing smoky undertone. Make this cake and I defy anyone to identify the secret ingredient. (The Minx adores this cake BTW).

I made a couple of other changes and substitutions, most notably replacing the raisins with tart dried cranberries, as they seemed more seasonal, and I liked the idea of cutting the rich sweetness a little.  A cream cheese frosting, as is usual with carrot cake, seemed to be the way to go, adding another little tang to cut the sweetness, but this time I experimented with browning the butter and adding some bourbon to bring out the smoky woodsiness the parsnips had added to the cake. I warn you now, this frosting is like crack on a spoon.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The photography process was interesting too.

Following Tara’s art direction I started experimenting with something fashionably moody and almost Rembrandt-y in its lighting, but that seemed too spare and gloomy for this simple cake with its dark interior and plain white frosting. I decided instead to go for a lighter, cool blue grey palette instead, which would contrast with the rich browns of the cake, but seemed wintry in a more hopeful way and layered on the textures – weatherbeaten wood, rough burlap, vintage lace and hard glass to contrast with the soft sumptuous swirls of the icing.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 We decided to slice the cake to make it more interesting and so it didn’t end up being just a giant white blob, but getting the slice positioned correctly was a challenge. Too far forward and the slice was in focus but the cake looked like a heap of mashed potato, too far back and the cake looked lovely, but the slice looked unappetising. It took me many shots before I realised that both cake and slice had to be on the same plane of focus and that I had to position something WAAAAYYYYYY at the back to take the eye through the photo and get enough blur that it wasn’t distracting to the main event.

They both took some experimenting, but I ended up being delighted with how both cake and image ended up. And I suggest you root around (ha!) in your vegetable bin, find some parsnips and get baking. And without further ado, here is the recipe you need.

Parsnip Cake with Bourbon Brown Butter Frosting
Serves 8
A rich moist parsnip cake with a decadent take on a cream cheese frosting
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Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
Prep Time
45 min
Cook Time
1 hr
Total Time
1 hr 45 min
For the cake
  1. 1 1/3 cups grated parsnip (woody cores removed)
  2. 1 cup dried cranberries, roughly chopped
  3. 6 tablespoons olive oil
  4. 1 cup light brown sugar
  5. 1 2/3 cups wholewheat flour
  6. 1 teaspoon baking soda
  7. 1 teaspoon baking powder
  8. 1/2 teaspoon grated nutmeg
  9. 1/2 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
  10. 8 tablespoons maple syrup
  11. 4 tablespoons orange juice
For the frosting
  1. 1 stick of butter
  2. 8 oz pack of cream cheese
  3. 1 cup powdered (icing) sugar (sieved)
  4. 2 tablespoons bourbon, or to taste (optional)
For the cake
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 degrees Celsius)
  2. Grease and line the bottom of an 8 inch springform cake pan
  3. Combine the parsnip, cranberries, oil and sugar in a large bowl.
  4. Add the flour, baking soda and powder, nutmeg and cinnamon, maple syrup and orange juice. Stir until everything is combined in a sticky, wet batter.
  5. Spoon into the prepared cake pan, level the top and bake for an hour, or until a skewer, knitting needle or stick of spaghetti stuck into the cake come out clean. The top of the cake should be firm.
  6. Let the cake cool in the pan before removing.
For the frosting
  1. Melt half the butter in a small pan over a low heat, stirring occasionally, until the milky solids turn medium brown and give off a nutty aroma (3-5 minutes).
  2. Remove from the heat immediately and set aside.
  3. Cool for about three minutes.
  4. Beat together the cream cheese and remaining butter.
  5. Pour on the browned butter and mix on a low speed until the mixture is cooled.
  6. Add the sugar a little at a time until fully combined and then increase the speed and beat the frosting until it is light and fluffy (about 3-5 minutes)
  7. Add bourbon to taste and mix until fully combined
  8. Use a knife or offset spatula to spread a thin 'crumb coat' of frosting over the fully cooled cake
  9. Add another generous layer of frosting and craft swirls with the back of a spoon.
Notes
  1. The recipe makes an 8 inch cake with frosting. For the large cake in the photograph I used one and half times the cake recipe and a double batch of frosting.The larger cake can be baked in the same 8 inch springform tin, but add around 15 minutes to the baking time and make sure you check for doneness with a skewer. Split the larger cake into two separate layers before icing.
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
Adapted from my own recipe that was originally published in Edible Seattle
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That Was the Year That Was–2014

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

We’re back from a truly delightful break in Whistler for Christmas, staying again at the Chateau Whistler, in what is now becoming an unbreakable family tradition. This year the usual Christmas magic – gorgeous decorations, amazing food, log fires and Santa on tap – was enhanced by an abundance of crisp white snow right down in Whistler village, which made for wonderful winter walks round frozen Lost Lake (this urban girl has never walked on a frozen lake before), snowball fights and snowman building with the Minx and lots of opportunity to contemplate ‘stuff’.

Lost Lake, Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

2014 was my best year in ages, for all sorts of reasons.

I started getting paid to do what I love. I now not only write and photograph regularly for Edible Seattle, but I also write and photograph a regular weekly travel and lifestyle column in local online magazine Seattle Refined. I’ve also photographed on occasion for Zagat’s Seattle and completed various paid freelance gigs. The pay is not amazing, but it is approximately eighty four gazillion times more than I was earning this time last year, and these gigs have given me the credibility I need to take on additional clients and approach other publications. Here’s hoping for oodles more interesting work in 2015 (and if you’d like to work with me, my portfolio is here, drop me a line!)

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

On my big birthday in 2013 I decided to hire a life coach, and 2014 was the year I worked with the amazing Susan Hyatt. She helped set in motion all sorts of deep-seated changes which I’m still processing and working on, but which I think will bear fruit into 2015 and beyond. You know I’m not a particularly woo-woo person, but I can’t recommend life coaching highly enough if you want to squeeze the most juice out of life’s lemons and make the very, very best lemonade. One of the simple things I worked on with Susan was to try and incorporate as much JOY as possible into my everyday life and do more of the things I really love to do and which nourish my spirit. I’m still really bad at doing this – at the beginning of 2014 I found it difficult even to identify the things which bring me joy – but I’m trying hard and getting better. Sometimes we get so caught up in deferring gratification and playing on Facebook that we end up having no gratification at all.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Having a bit more money coming in allowed me to travel more in 2014 than I had since before the Minx was born. Travel brings me JOY like nothing else, and I missed it so much when the Minx was little.  This year I was lucky enough to go to New York twice, once on an insanely wonderful BlogTour, which was a huge highlight of my year; to Tuscany for a life-changing (and I don’t use such terms lightly) workshop with Jamie Schler and Ilva Beretta of Plated Stories, where I decided I need to do more writing; to Rome and Sardinia for a lovely family holiday; and to Thailand, with Susan Hyatt, where I fell in love with a country, its people and its food.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I also spent a lot of time working on my photography, with is something else that brings me JOY. One of the things I love most about photography is how I learn something new every single time I pick up my camera, how every shoot brings a different set of challenges to overcome and puzzles to figure out. I’m still very, very far from where I want to be as a photographer, but having something to work towards is half the fun. Aside from the Plated Stories workshop, the two workshops I attended in October at Aran Goyoaga’s studio in Seattle were both spectacularly thought-provoking and useful and I hope to do more in 2015.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

It seems I managed to pick up one or two good health habits along the way too. I received a free Barre3 class on my birthday in September (after half-heartedly attending one or two classes earlier in the year) and for some reason it struck a chord that time and I have since been going 4-5 times a week. It’s not exactly fun, and I haven’t lost much weight, but I feel immeasurably stronger, more toned and more flexible and my body feels so much better. I’ve just bought a year’s unlimited pass at vast expense, so I’m going to have to keep this up in 2015.

Over the last two years I’ve been battling adrenal fatigue and ever-worsening insomnia, which came to a head over the summer when I could hardly sleep at all. My health was depressing the hell out of me and we discussed it at length on the Thailand retreat, when one of my fellow retreaters mentioned that I might want to look at a therapy called TRE. It’s deeply weird, involving exercises that fatigue your core muscles and trigger off a natural instinctual shaking throughout the body, but it’s meant to bring deep relaxation and release deep-seated tension. I started doing the exercises and immediately started sleeping better and within two weeks I was sleeping through the night, something I have not done in years and I’ve been sleeping well ever since, with only a handful of bad nights. Not feeling tired during the day has been a revelation - I honestly couldn’t remember what that felt like – and recent bloodwork has shown that various hormonal imbalances I’ve had are starting to correct themselves. I’m working with a naturopath and a health coach to continue improving things through diet and am doing a Whole 30 for the duration of January.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Finally, and I know a ton of other bloggers have mentioned this, but at the tail end of last year I read a book entitled The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up which I think will actually be life-changing. It’s a charming book and an easy read and essentially encourages you to only keep the stuff around you that brings you JOY and let go of the stuff that doesn’t so it can bring joy to someone else. For some reason that really resonated with me – I now have ‘permission’ to keep that threadbare sweater which is so very comfortable and cosy and to let go of  expensive stuff I bought online which just doesn’t suit me, even though I’ve hardly ever worn it. Already many bags of stuff have gone to Goodwill and I want to continue this process slowly but surely in 2015 . I’m sure that freeing up space and the time spent in ‘stuff management’ will make room for other, more joyful, stuff to come into my life.

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

So my resolutions for 2015 are really to keep doing more of the same:

- Keep going with the TRE and hopefully keep on sleeping (honestly, if I can just keep this resolution I will be happy).

- Attend barre class regularly for a whole year

- Eat  nourishing food to rebalance my hormones

- Continue working on my photography (and writing) as much as I can

- Travel more (and to that end the year has already got off to a fabulous start with an invitation to go on another BlogTour to the Ambiente consumer goods fair in Frankfurt this February).

- Keep going with the magical tidying up

- Keep on using the fancy planner. It has hugely improved my productivity and focus.

- Refocus this blog as a living portfolio and blog at least once a week (as the lovely Luisa Brimble advised me to do during her workshop).

 

And my word of the year? Well, if you haven’t guessed already, it’s JOY – to continue focusing on activities which bring me joy; to squeeze as much JOY as I can out of the boring stuff that has to be done; and to surround myself with the people and objects which bring me JOY and let go of those that don’t.

Are you making resolutions this year? Or choosing to focus on a specific word? What are you doing and what word have you chosen?

 

Whistler  British Columbia, Canada  Photography by www.paolathomas.com

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Fancy Hotel of the Week–Villa Chan Grajang

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Fancy Hotel of the Week-Villa Chan Grajang. Well, it’s not quite a hotel, but an absolutely stunning and very large private villa, but since it comes equipped with its own Thai chef, large staff and the most wonderful housekeeper ever, it feels like you’re staying in your very own exclusive boutique hotel and therefore seems to work for the purposes of this ongoing series (which I’m sure none of you remember, it’s been so long since I last did a Fancy Hotel post).

 Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

One of the reasons I jumped at the chance to go to Thailand for a retreat with life coach Susan Hyatt was the fact that Miz Susan doesn’t do anything by halves. When she was organising her retreat she went straight to a website called AwesomeVillas.com which, awesomely, specialises in, you guessed it, awesome villas. Except that the villa we ended up in – the Villa Chan Grajang overlooking Surin Beach – was more than awesome. Stupendous and sensational are superlatives that come to mind, and, judging by the collective intake of breath that occurred when we all arrived, I guess breathtaking would fit the bill too.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

As you all know I have a terrible weakness for stunning architecture (an astrologer friend blames it on my moon in Libra), and, after living in Kinfolk in last week’s blog post, this was more akin to taking a vacation in Architectural Digest.

I was so happy here. The lines and symmetry of the buildings were incredibly soothing to the eye and to the soul; the saltwater pool was the perfect blue and the perfect length, and the minimalism of the buildings just served to enhance the spectacular planting and views. Everywhere you looked there was a new vista or detail to observe – a reflection, a shape, a shadow or a texture. My eyes were drowning in beauty, yet relishing every moment and it felt almost spiritually uplifting. It was an object lesson in how our surroundings can affect our moods and mental well-being for good or for ill, and one that I need to apply to my own untidy bedroom and office.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Obviously we had to find out who was the lucky owner of such gorgeousness, and after a few judicious moments with Google, Susan worked out that it was the artist Damien Hirst. Which figured, as its cool white lines were not so very different from the cool white lines of his restaurant Pharmacy, which I used to live close to in my Notting Hill days. I don’t think I’ve been so jealous of a person in my life.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Mr Hirst, if I promise never to call you a charlatan again, will you invite me back to your astonishing house?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The beauty of the villa was only enhanced by the tranquil presence of Pom the housekeeper -  one of many people I met in Thailand who are beautiful both inside and out -  and her wonderful staff. I adored the Thai way of decorating with fresh flowers and little flourishes. The Thais take such pleasure in beautifying the everyday, which is another lesson I need to take to heart.

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The view from my bedroom

The food was faintly astonishing too – with mindboggling depths of overlapping spices, flavours and textures, presented again in the most beautiful way. Believe me, the overly salty and sugary Thai food you can find in the US or UK bears little resemblance to the subtle intricacies of the dishes we were served. In my next life I want to come back as someone who has a live-in Thai chef. Surely that wouldn’t be too much to ask?

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I loved this place. Loved, loved, loved it and couldn’t bear to leave. One day I will return. That’s a promise.

 

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

The villa was even gorgeous in the rain

Villa Chan Garang, Surin Beach, Thailand. Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Did you notice all the beautiful women in this post? My fellow retreaters were some of the loveliest, kindest, most creative, thoughtful and inspirational people you could wish to meet. It was a privilege to get to know them.

The Villa Chan Grajang is available to rent through Awesome Villas. Please take me with you.

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Soul Food

The most wonderful thing about this food photography world that I find myself being increasingly drawn into, are food photographers themselves. For some reason which has so far eluded me, they are among the kindest, most generous, most creative and most inspiring people you could wish to meet, and none more so than Luisa Brimble and Aran Goyoaga.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Aran was ably assisted by Luisa’s friend Adriana

As you may know Aran has recently moved to Seattle and started hosting workshops in her beautiful downtown studio. When I heard she had invited Sydney-based food and lifestyle photographer Luisa Brimble to host a workshop I jumped at the chance to attend – Luisa has shot for The Simple Things, Frankie and Kinfolk amongst others and has recently founded her own magazine in Australia, Alphabet Family Journal, because that’s what you do when your home magazine market is small and opportunities are limited.

She is also a firecracker in person – bursting with life, wit and enthusiasm – with an infectious energy and a warm, generous smile; and her photography is a dazzling combination of graphic simplicity infused with Aussie sunshine, exuberant colour and vibrant personality.

Luisa is particularly known for her overhead shots of people feasting around loaded tables, and she’d promised to give us a demonstration of how she puts such shots together. All this, plus Aran’s amazing food styling and the incredible beauty of the studio – honestly, people, it’s just like living in Instagram – made for a weekend that I won’t easily forget.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

While we chatted about photography with Luisa, and she told us how she had built her career through hard work, focus and determination (and I’m sure enormous talent and bucketloads of charm did no harm), Aran worked her food styling magic.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Luisa then climbed her ladder and starting directing the photo shoot – as an ex-wedding photographer she is adept at getting the most out of her models. I, by contrast, just wish I could spritz the people I’m photographing with olive oil and manipulate them with tweezers, which is probably not the best approach.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And this is the beauty that emerges when two huge talents collaborate (just a phone shot from me as there wasn’t room for us all up the ladder).

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Luisa then did one of her trademark ‘person with armful of flowers standing on a chair’ shots. Seeing her work with, and get the best out of, people was one of the most inspiring things about this weekend.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

See what I mean about living in Instagram?

We then got a chance to do our own photography and styling.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And it was lovely to have tame and now fully-trained hand models available.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Everything – food, props, light – was so darn BEAUTIFUL.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

 

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Later that weekend we had the opportunity to watch and shoot Aran as she baked and styled a galette. It’s amazingly soothing watching her bake. She has a quiet serenity and focus about her which is quite mesmerising, particularly considering she was surrounded by loads of cameras when these shots were taken. (NB I am not remotely like this when I am cooking, but I think you probably guessed that already).

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

I learned a ton over the weekend – about photography, food styling, how to build a photography career, build rapport with models and how to bake with methodical calmness. But also, and more importantly, I learned lessons from two very different women about how to live life with enthusiasm, grace, focus and immense and inspiring style. Well worth the price of admission I’d say.

Soul Food - Photography by www.paolathomas.com

And yes, I shall forever feel inadequate that my eggs are not arranged by colour.

Aran is planning to bring more amazing photographers to Seattle in 2015. Check her blog or social media feeds for more workshop details in the New Year.

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