Yossy Arefi is one of the food bloggers and photographers we admire most. Amidst a sea of blogs, Apartment 2b Baking Co (named after her old apartment) has always stood out. First of all, her photography is beautiful. All of her recipes are snapped in the light-flooded kitchen in her Greenpoint home using a third-hand Pentax camera she picked up a few years ago in a thrift shop in the city. With it she captures an endless stream of tarts, pies, pastries and indulgent treats that are creative but always seasonal and easy to follow. In her world, baking isn’t the time to deprive yourself. “My approach has always been that desserts are treats and not for everyday so should be unabashedly delicious,” she says.
She started the blog almost six years ago on the second floor of her Upper West Side home as a way to hone both her baking and photography skills and, after years working her way up from a reservationist to the kitchen, she decided to take the plunge going full time on the blog while working for the likes of Bon Appetit and Food52 as a food photographer and stylist too.
Today we’re sitting in the Brooklyn apartment she shares with her boyfriend and Abigail the cat. Perched against a wall sitting at her dining table, we’re surrounded by vinyl records, Iranian rugs and cookbook-lined bookshelves. Her kitchen is flooded with sunlight, with a wall covered in an impressive array of utensils; another decorated with thrift shop paintings. Today she’s zipping from end to end finishing off a cake she’d been working on before our arrival, talking about the launch of her new book, Sweeter Off The Vine, a collection of classics mixed with brand new recipes of seasonal dessert dishes. The book, which is published by the same company behind the cooking bibles from Nigel Slater and Yotam Ottlenghi, contains 60 recipes with the full 411 on the key tips and tricks of the trade when it comes to mastering the baking basics. She’s on to a winner…
ON THE INSPIRATION BEHIND THE BOOK: I find the new produce I find at the market every week endlessly inspiring. For this book, I wanted to take traditional fruit dessert concepts like shortcakes, cobblers, and crisps and give them enough of a spin that they felt new and fresh, but also not so different that they felt unapproachable and intimidating. I think I achieved that by using a lot of Middle Eastern flavours and whole grains, sometimes both where it made sense. I think a lot of people start blogging with a book in mind as the end goal. I always thought of my blog as more of a working portfolio where I could showcase my writing and photography. I honestly did not think that I wanted to write a book, at all, until I was deep into writing my proposal and developing a collection of recipes that I felt added to the conversation. Creating a collection of recipes for the book was a really fun and immersive project, that I approached in the spirit of my blog, but in a more refined package. There are so many books published every year and it is hard to stand out. I hope Sweeter off the Vine does.
ON THE CREATIVE PROCESS BEHIND HER RECIPES: For these desserts I thought about the characteristics of each fruit and how to best highlight them. For example, I think strawberries are best raw so for all but one of the strawberry recipes I used them very simply and highlighted them with complimentary flavours like lemon, vanilla and lavender. Other fruits stand up really well to cooking, like pears, so I folded chopped pears into a chestnut cake and covered them with crème fraîche caramel in a pie. I started with a list of about 80 recipes that I wanted to explore and through the testing process, some just weren’t quite right so they hit the cutting room floor. I also wanted the book to be balanced in terms of the types of recipes represented: cakes, pies, tarts, frozen treats, etc. So that helped shape the recipe list quite a bit.
ON THE IMPORTANCE OF DISHES LOOKING PHOTO READY: It’s very important to me. Shooting fruit desserts is so great because they are naturally luscious and colourful so shooting the recipes was really fun. A lot of times baking books are full of lots of golden brown things that taste delicious, but leave a bit to be desired visually. This book is a total riot of colour – because the recipes are colourful and gorgeous, but each season and fruit is also represented by lots of field and market photos.
ON WHAT TO EXPECT FROM THE RECIPES: The book is organized seasonally, then further by fruit. Each fruit represented has a few recipes. At the end of the book is a section devoted to pie crust, tart shells, crisp topping and some seasonal larder items that are used throughout the book. I think people think of fruit desserts as a summertime thing, for good reason. The abundance of summer is almost overwhelming, but there are ways to take advantage of seasonal fruit all year round. The winter chapter is full of a huge variety of citrus recipes that are all so light and bright. They are some of my favourites in the book. There are some recipes from the blog, but everything was retested, reworked so nothing is exactly as it was on the blog. It all feels fresh and new, especially with all of the new photography.
WHY DESSERTS SHOULD BE UNABASHEDLY INDULGENT: There are a lot of specific diets books and blogs out there, which I definitely can appreciate – some of my favourite blogs are vegetarian or vegan – but I kind of hate the idea of “clean eating”. Food isn’t clean or dirty; it is just food. I try my best to eat healthy foods that make me feel great and give me energy, but I also don’t feel bad about having a burger and fries every once and awhile. My approach to dessert is that it is a treat, not for everyday, so it should be unabashedly delicious. I don’t shy away from using butter and other fats, but I do try to keep the sugar down just because I think a lot of baking recipes use a bit more sugar than necessary, especially fruit recipes.
THE INFLUENCE OF HER EUROPEAN-AMERICAN AND IRANIAN ROOTS: We ate lots of different foods growing up. Both of my parents cooked, but they also both worked so some nights we ate roast chicken and vegetables from the garden or a full Iranian meal, and some nights we ordered pizza. I think being exposed to lots of different flavours as a kid definitely helped me have a wide and curious palette. It also means that my comfort foods are both rice mixed with plain yogurt, and burgers and fries, ha! Iranian cooking is really wonderfully balanced, where rich flavours are balanced by fresh ones. I think that is really my main aim when I am cooking: to create well-balanced meals.
ON THE EARY DAYS OF HER CAREER: I moved to New York to be with my boyfriend and ten years later we are still here and together. I had saved a bit of money for the move, but was shocked how expensive everything was here so I interviewed around for jobs in the food world as soon as I arrived. I had a full-time job at a restaurant and a couple of on-call type catering/serving jobs for my first couple of years here. It was exhausting; I don’t think I could do it now. Initially I wanted to go to culinary school but ultimately decided against it, which was a 100% financial decision. I had just finished my BA and had some loans to pay off and I could not stomach the idea of owing more money to a bank. I started off as a reservationist and worked my way into the kitchen. I learned a lot of techniques from my co-workers about big batch baking. I also worked with some pretty amazing cake decorators, and they shared lots of their tips and tricks with me.
ON LEAVING HER JOB TO LAUNCH THE BLOG: I think being financially stable is my greatest advice for anyone wanting to take that leap. I am not a risk taker by nature so I only left the bakery because I was in a spot where I could afford to have a slightly unstable income in the short term. Freelance work isn’t for everyone. Every six months or so I tell my boyfriend that I just want to get a regular office job for the stability. Then, I get an exciting opportunity that makes me forget about the leaner times. Make sure that you really love what you are doing because you will probably have to make some sacrifices to make it work.
ON HOW THE BLOG BEGAN: I started the blog when I had my little Etsy shop many years ago. The shop closed, but I loved blogging, and the community I met doing it so I kept going. I never thought that it would lead to so many on and offline opportunities. The first blogs I remember reading are 101cookbooks.com by Heidi Swanson and Orangette by Molly Wizenberg. Coincidentally, or not, both of them have gone on to write many award winning books. I was really inspired by both of them. Since then, the blogging community has grown, seemingly exponentially! There is so much great content out there now.
LIFE NOW: Aside from the blog and the book, I work as a photographer and stylist on editorial and book projects for lots of clients both on and offline. I also write and photograph a regular column for food52. I was always a hobbyist photographer and starting the blog really reinvigorated my interest. I didn’t know that food photography and food styling was a job before I moved to New York. As soon as I figured that out, I knew that I had found my calling. My freelance schedule is pretty unpredictable because I have my hands in so many different things. Some days I am sitting at my computer writing, and some days I am in the kitchen styling 50 different types of baby food. It keeps me on my toes, for sure. An average day for me now starts with making coffee first thing. If it is a shoot day, I’ll get right into the kitchen prepping the recipes. I shoot with daylight in my apartment so I take advantage of the mornings and afternoon light for photography. Then, there are usually a few hours of emails, photo editing and social media maintenance to deal with. I like to exercise in the afternoon, usually between 3-5 pm. Then I’ll get back on the computer for a couple of hours. All of that gets kind of thrown out the window if I am working/shooting outside of the house. Except for the coffee part, I am hopelessly addicted.
ON BALANCE & DEALING WITH CREATIVE BLOCKS: Stepping away from my routine is really important to me. Traveling also helps, even if it is just a day trip out of the city or heading to a neighbourhood I don’t visit very often. Taking the time for myself is hard, and I feel like it is getting tougher to deal all the minutiae that comes with the business side of being a one woman show, and still have energy left for the creative bits. Right now I never switch off. It’s a working progress…
Yossy’s book, Sweeter off the Vine: Fruit Desserts for Every Season is available on Amazon now.