Lara Ferroni likes a challenge in the kitchen.
For her latest book, the Portland-based food photographer and cookbook author decided to take on some of the most highly processed (and popular) snack foods out there — snack cakes, nacho cheese tortilla chips, toaster tarts — and find ways to make healthier, homemade versions that are still tasty enough to satisfy your junk food cravings.
In Real Snacks: Make Your Favorite Childhood Treats Without All the Junk, Ferroni has re-created 50 classic snacks, from salty, crunchy cheese puffs to sweet and chocolaty snack cakes.
But she didn’t stop there.
Early on, Ferroni decided that each recipe would have a vegan version and a gluten-free version. That’s when her fairly straightforward cookbook project got a lot more complicated.
“I have a lot of friends who are gluten-free and I know how happy it would make them to be able to make these things for themselves and eat them again,” she explains. “But adding that element definitely changed the difficulty level of writing the book.”
After getting lots of suggestions of favorite childhood snacks from friends and followers on her blog and Twitter feed, Ferroni did extensive research to develop recipes that would most closely match the originals and be replicable at home.
It wasn’t always easy.
To create a cheese puff that was as light and crunchy as as a Cheeto, Ferroni adapts a technique used for making shrimp chips, which involves steaming, drying and then frying the corn-based dough. “The process for making the cheese puffs at home is a bit crazy,” she admits, “but they are tasty. I’d probably make them again.”
A fan of alternative grains and sweeteners, Ferroni also uses ingredients such as rye flour and agave syrup to add a little nutrition and flavor compared to the original processed-food recipes. As she says in the book’s introduction, “Baking with only white flour and white granulated sugar is sort of like cooking with only one spice.”
After perfecting the basic recipes, Ferroni went back to the drawing board, deconstructing each one to develop the gluten-free and vegan versions.
“Almost every recipe had to be written three different times to take into consideration those ingredients I was removing — whether it was the wheat or the eggs or the butter or milk — and how I could replace those in a way that was still a whole food.”
For example, in baked goods, eggs are almost never in the recipe to add flavor. Instead, they are always doing something else — adding air, binding things together or adding structure.
While it was easy to find alternative ingredients for many of the recipes, others required additional research. Flaxseed oil mixed with water is a good egg substitute for adding moisture to the dough, but it’s not so great if it’s binding oils together.
“The vegan brownies about drove me crazy,” Ferroni says. She spent two weeks, making up to three batches a day, in search of an ingredient that would bind the chocolate and oil together to prevent ending up with a runny mess. After much trial and error, she finally discovered that a bit of tofu would solve the problem. “The brownies don’t need lift, so tofu works pretty well. It just took a long time to figure it out.”
Ferroni almost gave up on some of the cheesy snacks, unable to find a suitable vegan alternative to sour cream that wasn’t highly processed. But after her publisher encouraged her to keep trying, Ferroni eventually discovered she could use cashew cream, which allowed her to keep those recipes in the book.
Ferroni seems to relish any opportunity to play around in the kitchen, but she got her start in the food writing business through photography. After taking time off from her job as a programmer at Microsoft, she started a food blog in 2005, right around the time that food blogs were taking off in popularity. “The blog was totally personal. I’d get random ideas for things I wanted to try, I’d cook them and then take photos of them.”
Her photography eventually caught the eye of a publisher who asked her to collaborate with cookbook authors to photograph their recipes. Since then she’s worked on books about tacos, popcorn and American craft beer, as well as writing and photographing her own books about doughnuts, food photography and an upcoming book exploring the many possibilities of eggs.
Ferroni works out of her small southeast Portland studio, a well-lit condo space filled with photography equipment, dishware props of all shapes, sizes and colors, and a small kitchen, where she can test recipes and then immediately photograph them. Unlike many food photographers, Ferroni says she usually does her own food styling, preferring the flexibility of cooking and photographing the recipes herself.
“I really love taking photos of food,” she says. “It’s just fun. I get to cook stuff. I get to take pictures of it. And I get to eat it at the end.”
Recipe: Cheesy Fish
80 to 100 crackers
Tiny cutters work best for replicating the classic cheese fish crackers. You can find them online with a quick search, or make your own from a soda can with a great little tutorial at Miss Anthropist’s Kitchen. The corn and oat flours in this recipe boost the nutrition and give a more complex texture to the crackers.
- 1⁄4 cup (30 grams) all-purpose flour
- 1⁄4 cup (30 grams) whole-wheat flour
- 1⁄4 cup (30 grams) corn or all-purpose flour
- 1⁄4 cup (30 grams) oat or all-purpose flour
- 1⁄4 teaspoon salt
- 2 ounces grated, loosely packed mild cheddar cheese
- 2 tablespoons coconut oil or unsalted butter
- 2 to 3 tablespoons hot water, divided
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Line 2 baking sheets with parchment and set aside.
Combine the all-purpose flour, whole-wheat flour, corn flour, oat flour, and salt in the bowl of a food processor fitted with the dough blade and pulse to combine. Add the cheese and coconut oil, and pulse to incorporate. Scrape down the sides of the food processor to free any trapped flour. With the food processor running, drizzle in the hot water, a little at a time, just until the mixture begins to pull together. You may not use all of the water.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and gather it into a ball. Knead gently once or twice. Roll out the dough until it is slightly less than 1⁄8-inch thick.
Using a very small fish-shaped cutter, or the cutter of your choice, cut out the crackers and carefully place them on the prepared baking sheets. Bake until golden around the edges, about 10 to 12 minutes, and cool before serving.
For gluten-free Cheesy Fish, replace the all-purpose and whole-wheat flours with an equal amount of gluten-free all-purpose baking mix. Roll out the dough between two pieces of parchment for easier rolling.
For vegan fish crackers, replace the cheese with 1 teaspoon nutritional yeast and 1⁄2 teaspoon onion powder. Add an additional tablespoon of water. Increase the salt to 1⁄2 teaspoon.
2012 by Lara Ferroni. All rights reserved. Excerpted from REAL SNACKS: MAKE YOUR FAVORITE CHILDHOOD TREATS WITHOUT ALL THE JUNK by permission of Sasquatch Books.