EyeSwoon

the bite: Susan Spungen

If there is anyone who has run the food styling gauntlet, it might just be my friend and Amagansett neighbor Susan Spungen. I first met Susan through the incredibly interlocking food community-family that is Instagram. Suddenly Susan was in my home last holiday season, homemade fruitcake in hand, and we got to chatting, you guessed it, FOOD! We came to realize that my son and her nephew go to school together in Manhattan. As their friendship blossomed over last year, (they are now best friends), so did mine and Susan’s. We have now shared many a family dinner and beach BBQ. Susan’s generosity and crazy food skills are vast–she even cooked a meal in her home for my entire crew as I was shooting my cookbook.

Of course, she has certainly had some rigorous training in the cooking and styling departments. Susan got her start in the food world in the high-pressure realm of restaurants and catering before transitioning into media to become the founding food editor at Martha Stewart Living. Instantly, Susan was a food stylist, and among her other responsibilities was assisting Martha herself. After 12 years at the powerhouse publication working alongside a talented creative team, (including the queen of entertaining, in the flesh!), Susan went on to food-style on the big screen for “Eat Pray Love” and “Julie & Julia”. And while the movie gigs sound glamorous, they were also incredibly demanding. As T Magazine and The New York Times recount, Susan has performed such culinary feats of endurance as creating 50 cakes for just one scene and trekking over cobblestone to deliver food to sets in 100-degree weather. If all that weren’t enough, she has also published three cookbooks, “Recipes: a Collection for the Modern Cook, “What’s a Hostess to Do?, and “Strawberries“.

Get a taste of Susan’s stunning food right here as she shares the recipe for her butternut squash tart with pomegranate-cranberry glaze. Beyond the recipe, Susan generously divulges some hard-earned food styling tips and tricks and shares her thoughts on the newest wave of food stylists, the all-in-one stylist-photographer-social-media-mavens.

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NAME: Susan Spungen

PROFESSION: Food stylist, recipe creator, cookbook author

FOOD PHILOSOPHY? I’ve always applied the same innate creativity that I have as a visual artist to the creation of food. I might be inspired by a single ingredient, a concept, a particular flavor, or a vision of the finished product. I love using hyper-seasonal ingredients and often let them dictate my menu.

ESSENTIAL TOOLS IN YOUR FOOD STYLING KIT? Tweezers, of course. Evian spray, offset spatula, turkey baster, eyedropper, Eye-Tees (pointy cotton wabs), lots of spoons, and lately, my Searzall.

BIGGEST DIFFERENCES IN FOOD STYLING FOR PRINT VS. FILM? With print it’s all about the tiniest details, like the hair on a raspberry. Not so for film. It’s more about making a bold statement, and quickly. Since the image is moving, you have only a second to make an impression, so color and form become really important.

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HOW DO YOU APPROACH COOKING AND STYLING AT HOME VS. AT WORK? Not all that differently, actually! I use my home cooking as an opportunity to explore new ideas for recipes, and I always try to make my food beautiful, so essentially, I am always practicing and honing my craft. Of course, there are things one has to do on set that you would never do at home, which is to basically dissect things, and sometimes avoid salt or acid in a recipe.

GO-TO TRICKS TO KEEP FOOD LOOKING FRESH? Well, aside from trying to shoot fast, lots of brushing things with oil, or misting with the aforementioned Evian spray.

FOODS MOST DIFFICULT TO STYLE? I think melted cheese is the hardest, because it’s hard to control, and looks good for a really short amount of time.

THREE INGREDIENTS YOU COULDN’T LIVE WITHOUT? Eggs, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh herbs.

BEST SOURCE FOR FOOD AND RECIPE INSPIRATION? The Union Square farmers’ market and Quail Hill Farm. And Instagram!

 

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DESCRIBE A DAY ON SET FOR AN EDITORIAL SHOOT AND ONE ON A FILM SHOOT. It’s funny because people tend to think that working in the movies is a glamorous job, but it’s anything but! For print, we work in a nice, sunny studio with a kitchen, and generally work from 9 a.m. until 6 p.m. We know exactly what’s on the agenda, and the stylist gets to set the pace. In film, we are working with a much larger group of people, and are just a cog in a bigger machine. We are often working in a dark soundstage with a less than ideal kitchen setup, and days are 12 hours or longer.

THOUGHTS ON BLOGGERS AND SOCIAL MEDIA MAVENS BEING PHOTOGRAPHERS, FOOD AND PROP STYLISTS? Well, it is a different sort of situation when you have total control over your own shoot than what some of us have been doing professionally for many years, but I like to think that we who have been doing this for a long time have been a source of inspiration for some of those who have started more recently and have become one-man bands. It’s a sign of the times and our changing media landscape. I say more power to them!

Susan Spungen on EyeSwoon

GO-TO RECIPE WHEN ENTERTAINING AT HOME? Oh my, I don’t have just one! I am always trying out new things on my guests, but you can’t go wrong with a classic like bouef bourguignon, or some kind of baked pasta.

DO YOU KNOW WHEN YOU ARE WORKING ON A MAGAZINE COVER? Yes, usually. Most magazines set aside days for this, but once in a while a shot is so good it ends up on the cover even if it wasn’t planned that way.

ENDURING ENTERTAINING TIP FROM YOUR MARTHA STEWART LIVING DAYS? Try to make things showstopping, even if they are showstoppingly simple! This is what people remember. Martha was really good at this in her catering days. A good example from her original entertaining book is an enormous basket (yes, baskets were big then,) of strawberries. Just the sheer amount of them made it special.

ADVICE FOR SOMEONE WANTING TO BREAK INTO THE BUSINESS? Find people you admire, and then reach out offering to assist for free. Then show up and work like you’re being paid.

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Butternut Squash Tart with Pomegranate-Cranberry Glaze

Susan Spungen

  • Ingredients

    • “I created a similar dessert to this about a year ago for a magazine client, but they were not into the glaze, and there were other compromises that had to be made to make the recipe easier. I couldn’t get the idea of a cranberry-glazed squash tart though, so when the FeedFeed invited me to their Friendsgiving this year, I thought it would be the perfect thing to recreate and bring. I had to create it on the fly, because I had a very busy week that week, so I hadn’t written anything down. When I brought it to the party, everyone got very excited about how it looked, and also how it tasted–and that’s saying a lot since the room was full of Instagrammers! After that, I perfected the recipe so I could post it on my site and share it with others. I added a layer of chocolate to line the tart shell and keep it crisp, because I wasn’t happy with the soggy crust the first time, (but no one else seemed to mind!).”

      Serves 10 to 12

      For the crust:

      • 13 whole graham crackers (to yield 1 ¾ cups)
      • 8 tablespoons (1 stick) melted butter
      • ¼ cup sugar
      • pinch of salt
      • 4 ounces bittersweet or semisweet chocolate, melted

      For the filling:

      • 1 pound precut peeled butternut squash
      • 1 tablespoon butter, melted
      • 3 ounces whole milk
      • 2 eggs, lightly beaten
      • 2/3 cup pure maple syrup
      • ½ teaspoon salt
      • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
      • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice

      For the glaze:

      • 1 tablespoon cornstarch
      • 1 cup pomegranate juice
      • 1 cup fresh or frozen cranberries
      • ¼ cup sugar

      To finish:

      • 2/3 cup pomegranate seeds
  • The Prep

      1. Heat oven to 375°. Process graham crackers, sugar, and salt in the bowl of food processor until fine crumbs form. Add melted butter, and pulse to combine. The mixture should feel like wet sand. Spread out in an 11-inch tart pan with a removable bottom and press in, taking care to build up the sides so you’ll have a nice top edge. Bake 8-10 minutes, until golden. Cool for about 10 minutes, and spread evenly with the chocolate. Let cool while you make the filling.
      2. Toss butternut squash with the melted butter and roast until tender, about 35-40 minutes. The tip of a paring knife should slide in easily when done.
      3. Reduce oven heat to 350°. Transfer squash to a blender, and blend until smooth. Add milk, eggs, maple syrup, salt, vanilla, and spices, and blend until well combined. Pour into the cooled crust, place on a baking sheet and bake for 30-35 minutes, until slightly puffed at the edges. Place on a cooling rack. Once cool, you can refrigerate for up to 2 days if not serving right away.
      4. To make glaze, slowly whisk the pomegranate juice into the cornstarch in a small bowl until smooth. Combine with the cranberries and sugar in a small saucepan. Bring to a boil and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, until cranberries have all burst and are very soft. Let cool slightly, and pass through a sieve set over a bowl, using a rubber spatula to squeeze out all of the liquid. Scrape the back side of the strainer and stir the glaze. If it looks too thick to pour smoothly, add a few drops of water. Pour over the tart (it can be chilled, or just cool enough to handle), and tip it around so the glaze is even. Decorate the edge with the pomegranate seeds. Chill until ready to serve.

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