gingerbread biscotti

It’s scientific fact that the most decadent hot chocolate needs the perfect dunking cookie. Last week, the hunt for this led me to assault family and friends with bold, high-stakes queries such as “would you rather dunk graham cracker flavored, snickerdoodle or gingerbread biscotti in your hot chocolate?” Don’t let it ever be said that the Smitten Kitchen shies away from the hard questions! Gingerbread was the clear winner, and while I aim to please, I couldn’t quite shake the feeling that a little snickerdoodle-style roll in cinnamon-sugar is never unwelcome in winter, and so it was.

This is gentle gingerbread; it’s not going to muddle your steamy cup of dark chocolate cocoa with molasses and cloves, but instead gently suggests a little winter spice. It’s as much a cookie as it is the ideal golden and crisp packet of December warmth, essential on 26 degree days like today (too soon, New York, too soon!) even if you, perhaps, after reading one too many articles about how Norwegian and Danish children go outside all winter, regardless of how cold it is, didn’t conclude that this meant that you and your small child should arrive at the schoolyard 30 minutes before the school bell to get your fix of “fresh air” and “nature exploration” and have still, 3-plus hours later, not warmed up.

This cookie, dunked in a cup of hot chocolate with a thin layer of melted mini-marshmallows on top, is also doing its best to console me for the fact that but 24 hours ago, I was neck-deep in the Atlantic Ocean, because, you see, it was just too hot to be on the sand. My husband turned 40 over the summer, and I decided that instead of buying him a thing I wanted to provide an experience and, for Alex, there are few things that make him happier than spending the day on a hot beach, alternating between napping and reading a book. I also wanted to surprise him, because presents that come when you least expect them are way more fun than those at predictable intervals. And so Friday morning, he found this card at the breakfast table. And our Saturday and Sunday looked something like this. And, lo, it was a great weekend.

Thus, I hardly expect you to feel bad for us, shivering in that cab line last night at JFK because we’d decided to pack “lighter” by omitting winter coats, hats and common sense. We don’t need any violins. But discovering what was left of last week’s decadent hot chocolate mix and these biscotti on the counter this morning were exactly what a cold Monday morning needs, and then, once you’ve finished the first batch, you can make a few more as gifts for some very lucky people.

On Pinterest: Want a little visual guide to all 70 cookies in the Smitten Kitchen archives? How about some homemade food gifts? It’s beginning to look a lot like December over there, come see!

Signed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks: Have you ever wanted to buy someone a Smitten Kitchen Cookbook but you wanted it to say something really specific, like Merry Christmas! or Congratulations on your engagement! (Now bake me some cookies.) or No matter what anyone else tells you, you’re my favorite reader. No seriously. It’s you. all of which have happened last year because you guys really are that funny and awesome. Well, you can! I work with McNally-Jackson, an independent bookstore in Soho to sign books; I sign them, they mail them out. This year, we have a hard deadline for Christmas shipping (i.e. you’d pay standard and not rushed shipping and the book will reach you by Christmas) of Monday, December 15th. [Order Custom Inscribed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks from McNally Jackson]

One year ago: Eggnog Florentines
Two years ago: Cashew Butter Balls
Three years ago: Caesar Salad Deviled Eggs
Four years ago: Garlic Butter Roasted Mushrooms
Five years ago: Coffee Toffee and Vanilla Roasted Pears
Six years ago: Brown Butter Brown Sugar Shorties, Spelt Everything Crackers, Feta Salsa and Carrot Cake with Maple Cream Cheese Frosting
Seven years ago: Latkes and Pear Crisps with Vanilla Brown Butter
Eight years ago: Zucchini Ham and Ricotta Fritters, German Pancakes/Dutch Babies, Winter Panzanella, Homemade Orchiette with Tomatoes and Arugula,

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Pasta and Fried Zucchini Salad
1.5 Years Ago: Rhubarb Cream Cheese Hand Pies
2.5 Years Ago: Broccoli Parmesan Fritters
3.5 Years Ago: Roasted Peppers with Capers and Mozzarella

Gingerbread Biscotti

Yield: 30 to 34
Time: About 1 1/2 hours

Cookie
2 cups plus 2 tablespoons (265 grams) all-purpose flour, plus extra for flouring hands
2 teaspoons (10 grams) baking powder
2 teaspoons (4 grams) ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons (4 grams) ground ginger
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
A few grinds of black pepper
1/2 teaspoon coarse sea salt
1/2 cup (95 grams) dark brown sugar
1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
7 tablespoons (100 grams) unsalted butter, melted and cooled
2 large eggs
2 teaspoons (10 ml) vanilla extract
1 1/3 cups toasted, chopped nuts or white or dark chocolate chunks (optional, I kept mine plain)
1 large egg white

Cinnamon-sugar (optional)
1/3 cup (65 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon (6 grams) ground cinnamon

Heat oven to 350°F (175°C). Line one large or two small baking sheets (if yours are small you’ll probably prefer using two, as the logs will spread a lot) with parchment paper or a silicon baking mat. In a large bowl, stir together dry ingredients — 2 cups plus 2 tablespoons flour, baking powder, spices, pepper and salt. In a medium bowl, whisk together sugars, butter, 2 large eggs and vanilla. Add wet ingredients along with any optional additions (nuts or chocolate) to dry mixture and stir to combine. It’s going to seem a bit soft and sticky; it’s a-okay.

Divide dough in half. Using floured hands, transfer first half to the prepared baking sheet(s) and form it into a slightly flatted log about 11 inches (28 cm) by 2 1/2 (6 1/2 cm) inches, going down one side of a baking sheet intended for two logs, or the center of a baking sheet intended for one log. Repeat with second half of dough. Whisk egg white in a small bowl until a little foamy and loose. Brush over top and sides of each log.

Bake logs until golden brown all over, about 25 minutes. Transfer tray to cooling rack; let cool about 25 minutes, until lukewarm. Gently transfer each log to a cutting board. Using a sharp serrated knife and gently sawing motion, cut logs on the diagonal into 1/2-inch wide slices. If using cinnamon-sugar, stir the two together and dip both cut sides in the mixture.
Arrange slices, a cut side down, on baking sheet(s). Bake for another 10 to 12 minutes, until golden underneath. Turn each biscotti over and bake for a final 6 to 8 minutes, until lightly bronzed all over. Let cool on rack.

Do ahead: Baked biscotti should keep in airtight containers at room temperature for weeks.

Decadent hot chocolate mix

Here is how I’ve made hot chocolate for most of my life: heat some milk in a saucepan, add a bit of unsweetened cocoa and sugar and whisk. Form lumps. Be unable to break up lumps. Get frustrated, try again, this time slowly slowly slowly whisking milk into cocoa and sugar, hoping to form something of a cocoa roux. Heat mixture until steamy and drink merrily, trying to ignore faint background of chalkiness. Hooray for cocoa?

Until this week, that is. This week, I saw a recipe for a homemade hot chocolate mix in this month’s Cook’s Illustrated that had my undivided attention because it wasn’t just cocoa and sugar but ground chocolate and vanilla and salt and and and… I mean, how bad could it be? What was the worst that could happen — we’d have to warm up with several cups of hot cocoa in a single week in the name of recipe testing? I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again: sometimes, this job is the worst .

Shockingly, because given that the source is basically perfect, it wasn’t for me. Even more surprising, because I love bittersweet chocolate so much, I actually found it too bitter. But this just gave me the excuse to make more. I nixed the milk powder because I’m rather eh on it, especially when a) there’s real milk around or b) it would keep the recipe dairy-free so you could instead use steamed coconut, almond or soy milk. I switched out the unsweetened chocolate for semisweet/bittersweet, reduced the salt and vanilla a little and bumped up the cornstarch ever-so-slightly to encourage the mixture to dissolve perfectly, even without the powdered milk.

And then, well, I probably should pretend this heaping pile of miniature marshmallows was for the kindergartener . Because only a kindergartener would so shamelessly use a cup of decadent, gloriously rich hot cocoa as a vehicle for marshmallow consumption, right? I really should. But we all know the truth. Kindergarteners are at kindergarten during the day, giving adults an excuse to not act their age for a while. I regret nothing.

On Pinterest: Want a little visual guide to all 70 cookies in the Smitten Kitchen archives? How about some homemade food gif t s? It’s beginning to look a lot like December over there, come see!

Facebook Notifications: Are you only sometimes finding out through Facebook when there is a new recipe here? Here’s how you can make sure you don’t miss a single one: once you’ve liked the smitten kitchen page (thank you!) you can use the dropdown menu right under the “liked” button to select “get notifications.” This lets Facebook know going forward that they shouldn’t dare get between you and your marshmallow-studded hot chocolate.

One year ago: Sugared Pretzel Cookies
Two years ago: Cauliflower-Feta Fritters with Pomegranate
Three years ago: Nutmeg Maple Butter Cookies
Four years ago: Roasted Chestnut Cookies
Five years ago: Cream Biscuits
Six years ago: Dark Chocolate Tart with Gingersnap Crust and Veselka’s Cabbage Soup
Seven years ago: Rugelach Pinwheels, Fennel Ice Cream and a Ratatouille Tart
Eight years ago: Fettucine with Porcini, Potato Salad with Sherry-Mustard Vinaigrette and Salted Chocolate Caramels

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Coconut Brown Butter Cookies
1.5 Years Ago: Rhubarb Cream Cheese Handpies
2.5 Years Ago: Strawberries and Cream Biscuits
3.5 Years Ago: Roasted Red Peppers with Capers and Mozzarella

Decadent Hot Chocolate Mix
Adapted a little from Cook’s Illustrated

This is the ideal homemade December gift to pack up for friends and family, if I do say so myself. It’s both rich and deeply chocolaty, without being excessively sweet. Add some homemade springy fluffy marshmallows or the my new favorite thing to dunk in hot chocolate (next up!) if you want to do it up further.

Yield: Just under 1 3/4 cups mix, enough for 9 cups; packs up well in a 2-cup jar
Prep time: Seriously like 10 minutes

1/2 cup (100 grams) granulated sugar
1 tablespoon (8 grams) cornstarch
3 ounces (85 grams) semi- or bittersweet chocolate, roughly chopped
1/2 cup (40 grams) cocoa powder, any kind you like
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract or the seeds from a tiny segment of fresh vanilla bean
1/8 teaspoon fine sea salt or 1/4 teaspoon kosher salt

Combine all ingredients in a food processor and blend until powdery. Don’t have a food processor? Chop or grate the chocolate until it is as fine as you can get it, and stir it into the remaining ingredients. Mixture keeps in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 2 months.

To use: Heat one cup of milk (coconut, almond or others would work here too) in a saucepan over medium heat until steamy. Add 3 tablespoons hot cocoa mix. Whisk over heat for another minute or two, until it begins to simmer and mix is completely dissolved. Pour into mug, top with mini-marshmallows or a dollop of whipped cream and hide somewhere nobody will make you share give it to someone you love.

Other flavors: CI walks you through how to make variations including Mexican Hot Chocolate (with some chile powder, cayenne and cinnamon), Mint Hot Chocolate (with mint extract instead of vanilla), Mocha Hot Chocolate (with a couple tablespoons of espresso powder) and usually I’d say “have fun with it!” I mean, you can and should. But I have to admit to being a bit of a traditionalist with my cocoa, and would take the pure chocolate flavor of the above recipe over anything that would clutter my tastebuds. Then again, maybe you shouldn’t listen to someone who needs a minimum of two dozen mini-marshmallows on a single cup of hot chocolate?

Packaging ideas: Had I more time, I might have picked up some charming Weck Juice Jars or Tulip Jars (.5 liter size, which will give you some space at the top — perfect for a handful of marshmallows?), either of which can be used later for pickling or storage. I used Mason jar-ish mugs with lids ( 1 , 2 ), which could be used later for hot chocolate consumption. You could tie a a tablespoon measure on as well with ribbon, to make their end of the work even easier.

Twice-baked potatoes with kale

As I do every year, I woke up the morning after Thanksgiving with dueling urges to consume pie for breakfast as well as to repent with an endless sequence of brothy vegetable soups until I no longer dreamed of pumpkin cheesecake, cranberry caramel almond tarts and chocolate silk. I vowed make the wholesome side triumph this year, however, yet somewhere along my righteous path to eating kale salad for breakfast, lunch and dinner, I remembered that kale salad tastes absolutely nothing like pie and that was basically the end of that. By dinner that night, we were digging into terrifying heaps of spaghetti and meatballs at Carmine’s, followed by overstuffed chocolate cannolis. There wasn’t a ribbon of kale in sight.

By Sunday night, however, I’d found a happier medium between total submersion in butter, cream and chocolate and the kind of austerity measures that never quite cut it when it’s 33 degrees outside: the twice-baked potato, restuffed with not only the usual sour cream and cheese, but an entire bundle of greens. Greens make everything healthy, okay?

The inspiration came from a version on Food52 created by the blogger behind Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast who had served these, I think rather brilliantly, as a side to her family’s surf-and-turf Christmas Eve tradition. Of course, I ended up veering a bit off recipe, using less cheese (I hardly know myself, either) and sour cream, adding a softly cooked leek, using far fewer chile flakes (my heat wimpiness thus established) and then, although kale was supposed to be the theme, I actually had a bundle of Swiss chard ready to age out of the fridge and used that instead. You, too, can take liberties here: spinach would be welcome, or another green of your choice; you could use parmesan, goat cheese or cream cheese instead of the traditional cheddar or comté I used. If you’ve got a surplus of shallots or scallions instead of leeks after the holiday, you could use them instead.

But I do hope you make it because I cannot express loudly enough how much this hit the spot — toasty and a little decadent, but green enough that I didn’t even feel the need to make a salad on the side. It was the perfect light dinner cap on the end of a long weekend of heavy eating. Even the kid, suspect of all green things that are not steamed broccoli or cucumbers, ate one which means that this goes straight into the annals of weeknight favorites. Hallelujah.


This Thursday, 12/4/14: At the Food52 Holiday Market [168 Bowery, NYC], I’ll be demo-ing these Cranberry-Orange Breakfast Buns, one of my favorite festive winter recipes. The demo portion, 11 to noon, is ticketed ($10). The Smitten Kitchen Cookbook will also be for sale and I’ll be signing books between noon and 1pm; no ticket is required to attend the book signing. [Sign up, buy tickets and find more information on the Food52 Holiday Market site]

Signed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks: Have you ever wanted to buy someone a Smitten Kitchen Cookbook but you wanted it to say something really specific, like Merry Christmas! or Congratulations on your engagement! (Now bake me some cookies.) or No matter what anyone else tells you, you’re my favorite reader. No seriously. It’s you. all of which have happened last year because you guys really are that funny and awesome. Well, you can! I work with McNally-Jackson, an independent bookstore in Soho to sign books; I sign them, they mail them out. This year, we have a hard deadline for Christmas shipping (i.e. you’d pay standard and not rushed shipping and the book will reach you by Christmas) of Monday, December 15th. [Order Custom Inscribed Smitten Kitchen Cookbooks from McNally Jackson]

One year ago: Cigarettes Russes Cookies
Two years ago: Cauliflower-Feta Fritters with Pomegranate
Three years ago: Nutmeg-Maple Butter Cookies
Four years ago: Apple Latkes
Five years ago: Cappucino Fudge Cheesecake and Balsamic-Braised Brussels with Pancetta
Six years ago: Pumpkin Cupcakes, Cabbage Apple and Walnut Salad
Seven years ago: Tiramisu Cake and Curried Lentils and Sweet Potatoes
Eight years ago: Apple Pie and Blondies, Infinitely Adaptable

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Nancy’s Chopped Salad
1.5 Years Ago: Lobster and Potato Salad
2.5 Years Ago: Asparagus with Almonds and Yogurt Dressing
3.5 Years Ago: Fudge Popsicles

Twice-Baked Potatoes with Kale
Adapted from Brussels Sprouts for Breakfast via Food52

I think these could also be good as a party appetizer, perhaps twice-baked little red potatoes? A little fussy, scooping and restuffing all of those little potatoes, but what delicious bites they’d be. A melon baller made easy, neat work of the scooping (also my favorite to remove halved apple cores).

Serves 6 as a side; 3 as a hearty main

3 russet potatoes (mine were 9 to 10 ounces each)
1 bundle lacinato kale (aka dinosaur, tuscan or black kale), swiss chard or spinach (10 ounces)
Coarse salt
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter
1 large leek
1 cup coarsely grated cheddar, gruyere or comté, 2/3 cup finely grated parmesan or pecorino, or 1/2 to 2/3 cup cream cheese or goat cheese, softened
3/4 cup sour cream
Freshly ground black pepper or red pepper flakes to taste

Heat oven to 400°F (205°C).

Cook potatoes the first time: Gently scrub potatoes but do not peel. Pierce all over with a fork so that steam escapes [raise your hand if you’ve forgotten to do this and had the pleasure of jumping three inches off the sofa due to an oven ka-pow!] Bake 1 hour to 1 hour 15 minutes or until potatoes are tender when pierced in center with a skewer. Leave oven on.

Alternatively, you could microwave fork-pierced potatoes for 10, turning them over halfway through to ensure even cooking. You could also boil the whole potato for 15 minutes.

While potatoes cook, prepare your filling: Tear kale, chard or spinach leaves from stems (you can save the stems for another use, such as a vegetable stock or juicing) and plunge leaves in cold water to remove any residual dirt or grit. No need to dry them when you’re done. Tear leaves into large chunks. Heat a skillet over medium-high and add greens and a pinch of salt. Cook them in the pan with just the water clinging to the leaves until they wilt and collapse. Transfer to a colander and when cool enough to handle, wring out any extra moisture in small fistfuls. On a cutting board, finely chop greens. You should have about a cup of wrung-out, well-chopped greens; don’t worry if you have a little more or less.

Trim leek down to just yellow and pale green part. Halve lengthwise — if it’s gritty inside, plunge it in cold water to remove grit, then pat dry. Cut leek halves lengthwise again, so that they’re in quarter-stalks, and thinly slice.

Heat a large skillet over medium heat; add butter and oil. Once both are warm, add leek and reduce heat to medium-low. Cook until mostly tender and sweet, about 10 to 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Try to avoid letting it brown. Add chopped greens back to skillet and warm with leeks, 1 minute. Transfer mixture to a bowl.

Prepare potatoes: When potatoes are cool enough to handle, halve lengthwise and scoop out all but the last 1/4-inch thickness of skin and potato (essentially, you want to leave a shell inside for stability) and add potato filling to bowl with leeks and greens. Arrange the potato shells on a baking sheet. Mash potatoes, leeks and greens together until smooth. Stir in the sour cream, 3/4 of cheese and more salt and pepper than you think you’ll need. Heap filling in prepared potato skins. Sprinkle with remaining 1/4 of cheese.

Cranberry pie with thick pecan crumble

Cranberries are, for me, one of the best things about late fall and they show up right in time, just as all of the other colors disappear. The ginkgo trees, always one of the last November holdouts, simultaneously ejected their green/yellow leaves last week and ever since, pretty much everything outside is looking rather… greige, but not like the charming shade of the boots I want. And then, out of nowhere, perfect red berries appear and things look up.

I love cranberries the way I do sour cherries in June, except cranberries are easier to come by (here, at least), keep longer, cost less, have less of a blink-and-you-missed-them season and freeze seemingly indefinitely perfectly. I think it would be chromatically impossible to find a more stunning shade of red than the one they collapse into when cooked. Yet taste-wise, I know they scare people because they’re aggressively tart and sour — they could make your average Eureka lemon seem like a wimp.

But this can be the best part. My favorite foods embrace contrasts — savory against typically sweet, salt against decadent desserts, caramelized crunch atop a rich casserole — and cranberries, especially twisted with sweet, rich ingredients like this ice cream I need someone to make for me right now, really get to shine.

You rarely see straight-up cranberry pies. They’re usually cut with chunks of apples or pears, seemingly afraid of their own intensity but I vowed this year to tackle my own at last. I found that the trick to making a palatable cranberry pie was to, yes, sweeten them more than I would other fruits, but also to provide a great contrast, here a thick cinnamon-scented, oat-and-pecan crumble on top, that’s finished, like all things worth eating, with a shower of powdered sugar, a good dollop of sweetened vanilla whipped cream or vanilla ice cream on top.

Thanksgiving is on Pinterest this year: The Smitten Kitchen Pinterest page is all decked out for November and December. Need more Pumpkin ideas? Savory or Sweet Thanksgiving ideas? Homemade Food Gifts? Or maybe just All The Cookies? So do we, and we’ve got you covered.

One year ago: Parsley Leaf Potatoes and Sweet Potato Cake with Toasted Marshmallow Frosting
Two years ago: Spinach Salad with Warm Bacon Vinaigrette
Three years ago: Dijon-Braised Brussels Sprouts
Four years ago: Sweet Corn Spoonbread
Five years ago: Gingerbread Apple Upside-Down Cake
Six years ago: Walnut Tartlets and Cauliflower Gratin
Seven years ago: Chile Garlic Egg Noodles
Eight years ago: Wild Mushroom Pirogies and Bourbon Pumpkin Cheesecake (which I make every year, always)

And for the other side of the world:
Six Months Ago: Carrot Salad with Tahini and Crisped Chickpeas
1.5 Years Ago: Two Classic Sangrias
2.5 Years Ago: Rhubarb Snacking Cake
3.5 Years Ago: Spring Salad with New Potatoes

Cranberry Pie with Thick Pecan Crumble

Despite the contrast from the brown sugar, oat, cinnamon and toasted pecan crumble on top, the shower of powdered sugar, the sweetened vanilla whipped cream or ice cream that I know you wouldn’t serve this without, this is still, at its core, a tart pie. It may not be for everyone, but it is definitely for us. Cranberries are excellent pie berries, it turns out, so high in pectin that you’re at little risk for a sloshy pie or “soggy bottom” (crust!). Par-baking the crust is optional, but of course will keep the base the most crisp. I like to cook this filling for a few minutes on the stove; it will probably be okay without it (just needing 10 to 15 minutes more baking time) but it gives you a chance to get the berries a little loose and lightly crushed, while reducing the overall baking time, which is, delightfully, under an hour. Note: Your topping will look less messy and loose than mine. I was a little distracted while baking this, and added too many oats.

Yield: 1 standard 9-inch pie (not deep-dish)

Crust
1 1/4 cups (155 grams) all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons (6 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 teaspoon (3 grams) fine sea or table salt
1 stick (4 ounces or 115 grams) cold unsalted butter, cut into chunks
1/4 cup (60 ml) very cold water, plus an additional tablespoon if needed

Filling
4 1/2 cups fresh or frozen cranberries (from 1 1/2 12-ounce bags)
1 cup granulated sugar, plus 1 to 2 more tablespoons, if desired, to taste
A few gratings of orange zest (yes, clementine zest works great here too)
A pinch of salt
1 tablespoon cornstarch

Streusel
2/3 cup rolled oats or 1/2 cup oat flour
1/2 cup all-purpose flour
1/3 cup granulated sugar
1/3 cup light or dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon coarse or sea salt
3/4 cup pecans, toasted if you have the time
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled

To serve
Powdered sugar, sweetened whipped cream with a splash of vanilla extract or vanilla ice cream

Make the pie dough:

  • By hand, with my one-bowl method : In the bottom of a large bowl, combine the flour, salt and sugar. Work the butter into the flour with your fingertips or a pastry blender until mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. (Some people like to do this by freezing the stick of butter and coarsely grating it into the flour, but I haven’t found the results as flaky.) Add 1/4 cup cold water and stir with a spoon or flexible silicone spatula until large clumps form. Use your hands to knead the dough together, right in the bottom of the bowl. If necessary to bring the dough together, you can add the last tablespoon of water.
  • With a food processor: In the work bowl of a food processor, combine flour, salt and sugar. Add butter and pulse machine until mixture resembles a coarse meal and the largest bits of butter are the size of tiny peas. Turn mixture out into mixing bowl. Add 1/4 cup cold water and stir with a spoon or flexible silicone spatula until large clumps form. Use your hands to knead the dough together, right in the bottom of the bowl. If necessary to bring the dough together, you can add the last tablespoon of water.
  • Both methods: Wrap dough in a sheet of plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least one hour, or up to 48 hours, or you can quick-firm this in the freezer for 15 minutes. Longer than 2 days, it’s best to freeze it until needed.

Form the crust: On a floured counter, roll the dough out into a 12 to 13-inch circle-ish shape. Fold dough gently in quarters without creasing and transfer to a 9-inch standard (not deep-dish) pie plate. Unfold dough and trim overhang to about 1/2-inch. Fold overhang under edge of pie crust and crimp decoratively. Return to fridge until ready to fill.

[Optional: If you’d like to par-bake the crust, once you’ve rolled it out, freeze it for 10 minutes inside your pie tin, until solid. Prick unbaked crust with a fork several times. Line it with lightly buttered foil. Fill with pie weights, dried beans or pennies. Bake at 400°F (205°C) on rimmed baking sheet 15 minutes. Remove paper or foil and weights, and bake 5 to 10 more minutes until crust is golden brown and lightly crisp.]

Heat oven: (Or reduce oven heat, if you just par-baked your crust) to 375°F (190°C).

Make the filling: Combine all filling ingredients — no need to defrost frozen cranberries, they’ll just need a couple extra minutes to warm up — in a medium saucepan over medium heat. After about 5 minutes, berries will begin to leak juices. Cook, stirring for 5 minutes more until filling is loose. If desired, you can lightly crush the mixture once or twice with a potato masher, but try to leave most berries intact. Transfer filling to a bowl to let it cool slightly for 5 to 10 minutes while you make the crumble topping.

Make the topping: If using whole oats, grind them to a powder in a food processor. Add pecans and coarsely grind them too. Add remaining ingredients except the butter, pulsing a few times to combine. Add butter, pulsing until crumbles form. Sprinkle topping over cranberry filling.

Bake pie: For 45 to 50 minutes, until juices are bubbling enough that they splash a bit onto the crumb topping. If pie browns too quickly, cover top with a piece of foil for remaining baking time. Transfer to a wire rack to cool a bit before serving showered with powdered sugar and alongside whipped cream or vanilla ice cream.

Dry-brined turkey with roasted onions

For 13 years, this site has not had a turkey recipe for a few, perhaps not terribly convincing, reasons. I don’t usually host; it’s usually a family member with, I’m sure just coincidentally, more than a 2-bedroom apartment of space. Second, I mean, this is the internet, right? And there are, as of this morning, 200,000 search results for “roast turkey.” Probably there’s a gem or two in there for you and you’ve got this covered? Finally, the truth: turkey has never been my favorite bird. I mean, when it’s done well, I do enjoy my yearly two slices (dark, please), but I’ve rarely been summoned with the motivation to finetune a recipe in the off-season.

But then a couple things changed. A few years ago I started hosting Friendsgivings (see here and here) and now, a few turkeys later, I — inevitably — have a lot of opinions about turkey. For example, when you’re making a turkey the size you need for the 18 to 25 people most Thanskgivings may entail, you’re going to want to find a way to treat the bird in a way that it won’t dry out in all of the hours it will take to safely cook through. I’ve wet-brined (a nightmare with delicious results, but still a nightmare) and dry-brined, and the latter was the clear winner.

My second opinion is that if you’re putting anything besides a lot of quartered onions under your turkey, you’re missing out on one of the best things we have ever eaten. I tried it after rejecting the usual medley (potatoes, carrots, or other vegetable) because they were represented more generously in other side dishes at the table. I never looked back. Over a few hours in the oven collecting buttery, salty drippings, they become otherworldly: both deeply caramelized to the point of jammy sweetness, but charred and salty too. There’s enough to go around. Since they will taste too good to share, however, I might take this time to remind myself of the key Thanskgiving themes: generosity, gratitude, hospitality, and probably not standing in the kitchen eating onions off a knifepoint? Okay, fiiine .

My third opinion is, in fact, my view on All Things Thanksgiving: Thanksgiving recipes should be rivetingly simple, the kind of short ingredient list, high reward stuff that has no mise-en-place, because all of my dishes are otherwise engaged when I’m having 21 people over. If I can make a stunning, perfectly cooked, delightfully-seasoned, crisp-skinned turkey with merely 6 ingredients and 2 steps, I’m simply not going to make the one with 15. Not today, St. Martha.

This turkey follows the rules. I took a risk the first year and kept it really basic, seasoning with only salt, and pepper, and basting with butter after brining and seasoned, juicy, and delicious. However, now I’m hedging, just slightly, on this, because I accidentally did what I thought I never would: tested a turkey recipe when the month didn’t require it.

Earlier this year, I made a slow-roasted whole chicken and ended up brushing the well-salted skin with a mixture of butter, maple syrup, and gochujang chili paste and it was astoundingly good but I had this nagging feeling it this chicken wished it was a turkey. Hear me out: turkeys are slow-roasted birds; turkeys are wonderful with a salty-spicy-sweet finish. And unlike many other hunches in my life (no we’re not going to talk about the wide-leg mom jeans today), this one was actually on-point, and we get to reap the burnished, delicious rewards.

Dry-Brined Turkey with Roasted Onions

1 to 2 days before serving: Make sure the giblets (usually in a bag) are removed from the turkey’s cavity. Sprinkle all over with kosher salt, using about 1 tablespoon per 4 pounds of bird, including some into cavities. I do this on a rack in my roasting pan. Loosely cover with plastic and place in the fridge for 1 to 2 days, and until 4 to 5 hours before you want to serve it.

1 to 2 hours before roasting: Remove plastic and discard any juices that have collected around the bird. Allow to come to room temperature, which will take 1 to 2 hours. No need to rinse any salt off the bird; it’s all as it should be.

2 1/2 to 3 1/2 hours before serving: Heat oven to 450°F with a rack on the lowest level of the oven. If you plan to stuff the turkey with anything, do so now. Truss the legs (tying them together) with kitchen twine or, uh, any other string you have around.

Toss the onions with a splash of oil (don’t worry about seasoning, they’ll collect it from the pan) and arrange around the turkey. Combine 1 tablespoon of the melted butter with the maple syrup and chili paste in a small bowl, whisking until smooth. Brush this — or use your hands to coat — all over the turkey, leaving none behind. Here you’re supposed to tuck the wings under the bird to prevent the tips from burning, something I have never successfully done, if we’re being honest. Have a big piece of foil nearby for when you will want to cover the turkey.

Roast turkey for 25 to 30 minutes, then — this is very important — reduce the oven heat to 350° and continue roasting the bird until a thermometer in thickest part of the breast reads 150 to 155.

Beginning when you reduce the heat, periodically baste the turkey with 1 to 2 tablespoons of the remaining melted butter, and then, when you’re out of butter, with the juices from the pan.

This turkey is going to brown fairly quick and quite dark. Don’t fret, it will not taste burnt, but go ahead and put the foil on when it gets as dark as you can stand it. Rotate the pan in the oven a couple times, and turn onions in pan over once, for even cooking. Remove the foil for the last 5 to 10 minutes of roasting, so the skin crisps up again.

A 14 to 16 pound bird takes a total of 2 to 2 1/2 hours of roasting. A 19.5 pound bird once took over 3 hours. Keep in mind that if you’re opening and closing the oven door a bunch of times to move other dishes around, it will take longer to cook (up to 30 minutes).

Rest, carve, and serve: Allow the turkey to rest at room temperature 15 to 20 minutes before carving, which you should estimate 20 or so minutes to do, depending on your comfort level. This will allow the juices to be locked in and the turkey to carry over to an internal temperature of 165°F. Use the rest time to rewarm any sides that need it and to make gravy (see below).

I am not going to write out carving instructions because I personally cannot do it without watching a video. I pop this or this or this up on my phone (I recommend previewing them earlier and picking the one that works for you), hit the pause button a lot, and do my best. When you slice the turkey, make sure your knife is really, really sharp to get those clean cuts. Do you know what else really clean cuts do? Make people think you knew what you were doing. (I absolutely do not.)

Your turkey is going to spill a lot of juices while you carve it. Do you best to collect them (have paper towels nearby, you’ll be glad you do), then pour it over the sliced turkey, plus a final sprinkle of salt and pepper, before serving to keep it warm and seasoned. Arrange onions all around and serve with glee. You totally rocked this; I knew you would.

Notes: Buying turkeys: Heritage- or pasture-raised tend to taste a lot better, if you can find them. Estimate 1 to 1 1/2 pounds per person; I tend to aim to the lower range because we don’t love leftovers and there are so many sides. If your turkey is frozen, defrost 2 to 3 days before in the fridge. They say it takes about 1 day per 5 pounds of turkey. You cannot defrost it at room temperature; it’s just not safe. Salt: I use Diamond brand kosher salt which clocks in at 135 grams a cup which is only important to note because the weight over other brands varies significantly, especially at this quantity. Morton brand = 230 grams per cup and David’s = 288 grams. So, please use half or just about half if you’re using another brand to avoid significantly over-salting your turkey. Doneness: Your turkey is done when a thermometer (this remains my go-to) inserted into thickest part of the breast reads 150F to 155F, or in the thigh at 165F, however, I prefer checking the breast. Thighs are smaller and often hit the “done” temperature sooner but are more forgiving of a few extra degrees. Nobody is forgiving of undercooked turkey breast. Logistics: Here’s a logistical tip I don’t think enough recipes make clear: You want to rest your turkey for 20 to 30 minutes before carving it, tented lightly with foil. It’s then going to take 15 to 20 minutes to carve (I had a friend holding a YouTube video tutorial in front of me because I’m very bad at it.) This gives you 30 to 45 minutes of empty oven time where you can reheat sides, which is more than most need. I have a single, not big, not great oven and this is how I manage to make it work. Extra ingredients: This is — and I know this is very bizarre to many people — and herb- and garlic-free turkey. If you’d like, you can toss 1 lemon and 1 head of garlic, each sliced in half crosswise, and a fistful of thyme, rosemary, and/or sage inside the turkey. I’ve made this turkey with none of these things and I’ve made this turkey with all of these things and I want you to know that it’s excellent both ways. The fragrance of the turkey is more dynamic with the lemon and garlic, but it doesn’t make a large difference, in my opinion, in the final flavor of the slices, so proceed as you wish. Cookware: I’m using this roasting pan.

Now, let’s talk about gravy. This is my core gravy recipe:

Very Simple Gravy
8 cups turkey or chicken stock (I either use homemade chicken or Better Than Bouillon’s turkey base)
1/2 cup unsalted butter
2/3 cup all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons dry marsala or cider vinegar

Melt butter in an empty pot or your emptied roasting pan and stir in flour. Cook this mixture over moderate heat, whisking, 3 minutes. Add marsala or vinegar, cooking for another minute. Add stock a little at a time, whisking constantly to prevent lumps, then bring to a simmer, whisking occasionally. Season with salt and pepper.

However, there are three ways to approach this. The first, above, straight gravy and it’s ideal for people who do not want to stress about it, don’t want to wait until the more frenetic time when the turkey is out and needs to be curved, and even want to make it earlier in the day and rewarm it.

The second is more traditional. You use the same formula but you first pour off drippings that have collected under your turkey. Put them in a glass (or a beaker like this) to allow them to separate. Swap whatever fat accumulates on top with the same amount of butter in the recipe, and drippings with the equivalent amount of broth, and proceed as written.

The third is a little riskier, but you only live once, right? Place your roasting pan across two stove burners, and bring the liquid (which is a mixture of fat and juices) to a boil. Deglaze the pan, loosening any stuck bits, with a glug of dry marsala or a wine of your choice. Boil all of the juices off until only the fat remains. Eyeball it — you might have just 2 to 3 tablespoons, or you might have more. Add enough butter to get you to 8 tablespoons. Add the flour, and then, since you’ve concentrated flavors so intensely here, you can replace half of the stock with water, to essentially rehydrate them. Season as needed and cook as you would the core recipe.

Perfect apple tarte tatin

Almost without fail, the more bafflingly short an ingredient list and the more stunningly delicious the outcome, the more likely it is to rivet me. I don’t need all recipes to have 5- or 10- or fewer ingredients — I fare poorly under arbitrarily restrictive confines — but doesn’t it just blow your mind that you can make the apple tarte tatin above with only apples, sugar, butter, lemon juice, and a sheet of defrosted puffed pastry?

Or, you should be able to. When made well, this upside-down apple tart looks like snug copper cobblestones on top of a rippling puff of flaky pastry. If you’re lucky, the apples will taste like they drank a cup of caramel and then napped in what they couldn’t finish. I love it enough that I’ve written about it twice (!) in eleven years but my efforts were… mediocre at best. I mean, just look at them — too thin, too sparse, too pale, apples either under- or overcooked, and way too many apples have dissolved long before the cooking time should have been up, despite being “good baking apples.”

I’d begrudgingly resigned myself a life of tatin mediocrity when I spotted one of the most stunning ones I’d seen to date on a magazine stand. And I had a feeling I knew who had cooked/styled it — my across-the-street neighbor. Her name is Susan Spungen and she’s a cookbook author and food stylist and whether you realize it or not, you’ve probably admired her behind-the-scenes handiwork on movies — see: that croissant scene in It’s Complicated , oh and everything Amy Adams and Meryl Streep cooked in Julie & Julia . It was on the latter project that she got very, very good at apple tarte tatins. She explains “It was a quick shot, but I worked hard to get the right look and technique, so I could make it over and over again, and have it look exactly the same each time, which is essential for a movie scene.”

I invited myself over and watched her make one in her tiny kitchen, not even breaking a sweat, and it was perfect. I thought it would fill me with the confidence I needed to replicate it at home. But two years later, it had not. So, this fall, I asked her to come to my place this time, I took 200 pictures and almost as many notes. I then made four more without her and all except the one I made with what turned out to be the wrong apples, looked exactly like hers. With this I knew it was time to write what I hope will be the last tarte tatin recipe you’ll ever need.

Here are a few things I learned from watching a professional, and basically making five tatins in two weeks:

1. The type of apple matters. You need one that holds its shape after it bakes. The internet is full of lists of “good baking apples” and “bad” baking apples and I cannot tell you which one will never lead you astray because there’s (believe it or not) a limit to my madness and I won’t be testing any recipe with every variety of apple. However, I was crazy enough to audition four here. I homed in on ones that I can buy at both grocery stores and local greenmarkets right now: Pink Lady, Fuji, Gala, and Granny Smiths. The first three worked great; the last one fell to mush. It may be because it was from a grocery store (I actually don’t find them at markets much) where they’re often very, very old, or maybe it’s just that they’re all wrong for this recipe. I don’t think it’s worth the risk to find out. If you make it with another kind with success, shout it out (and whether it procured locally or from a grocery store) in the comments.

2. You don’t need to cut them all crazy. I see recipes that call for halves (too big), quarters (too small), and some that call for thirds, which is about right but there’s no need to do exacting knife work to get every piece to be the same size, even if you have the patience to make finicky apple cuts. I’m using three sizes — a little less than half, a third, and about one-quarter in each that you see here — and cut them the way you would if you were snacking on an apple: imperfect and easy. A mix of sizes and shapes fits better.

3. Apples shrink a lot when they cook. If you’ve ever wondered why so many apples are called for in a 9- to 10-inch round tart, this is why. If you’ve ever made one and really thought you crammed the fruit in, only to have a tatin that looked like sparse apple cobble stones, ditto. It means that when you nestle the apples against each other before you bake it, you want each to lean onto the one behind it, overlapping it by one-third, so as it shrinks in the oven, they’re still tightly snugged together.

4. Three-quarters of the apple-cooking is done on the stove in the caramel; the rest happens in the oven. When the pastry is nicely browned and crisp, it’s done. This means that if the sautéed apples aren’t mostly cooked, that they’re still crunchy inside, it needs more time on the stove before it goes in the oven or the baked tatin won’t have perfectly tender apples.

5. Because of #3 and #4, you really want to use two pans make your tatin. Trust me — a person who will go to almost any length not to dirty two dishes when she could only dirty one — when I say that this is a place where it is unequivocally worth it. Almost every apple tarte tatin recipe makes life unnecessarily difficult by having you do the stovetop component (making the caramel and cooking the apples in it) in the same small pan as you’d might bake your final tart. Just look how many apples end up in the final tart, and that’s after they’ve shrunk. It’s very hard to cook the not-yet-shrunk apples evenly in caramel in a small pan. It’s much easier and will give you more consistent results if you use a big skillet. Then, arrange the apples exactly the way you want them in a smaller ovenproof skillet or standard pie pan. (And, it cools the apple mixture down a bit, essential because you don’t want to melt the butter in your pastry before it gets in the oven.)

6. Almost every apple tarte tatin recipe, including my previous ones, tells you to flip it out of the pan too soon. Give it time for the caramel and cooked apple juices to thicken up a bit. I found a minimum of 30 minutes and up to 60 worked well. It’s not ruined if you flip it sooner, but the caramel will be thinner and more likely to run off and puddle.

Perfect Apple Tarte Tatin

While the recipe calls for 7 and almost always only needs 7 apples, I always start with 8, just in case one is too banged up to use, or they shrink enough that I can fit an extra piece in. Caramel apple pieces that don’t fit — you’ll figure out what to do with them. Look for apples that are relatively even in size for even “cobblestones” on the tart.

An important note about checking the caramel’s temperature: It takes 1 to 2 minutes for the caramel to get to the dark amber color after you whisk it smooth — this is really fast. More than once, in just the 10 to 20 seconds I was fumbling with my thermometer (the temp reading won’t stay steady), it got too dark and smoky and I had to start over again. I highly recommend just eyeballing the color.

Heat oven to 400°F (205°C).

Peel your apples. Cut apples in thirds off of the core as best you can (no need for perfectly even thirds) and cut or scoop any remaining seeds out. Squeeze the juice of half a lemon over them and toss to coat.

Have the butter very cold and ready by the stove. Trust me.

Pour sugar into a large (11- to 12-inch) skillet and place over medium-high heat and cook, without stirring, until sugar is partially liquefied, about 4 minutes. Whisk until all unmelted sugar disappears into the caramel and nudge the heat down to medium low. We are going to cook it a little darker, but it will go quickly from here. Cook until the sugar is dark amber, 1 to 2 minutes (you can test this on an instant read thermometer, it’s about 350 to 370 degrees F but read the Note up top first; a drop of caramel poured on a white plate will look dark amber). Remove from heat, immediately add butter and whisk to melt and combine. This will hold the color where it is.

Return to the heat and add the apples and cook over medium high heat. The caramel will seize up a bit and will seem too thick to coat the apples, but it will loosen up in a minute. Cook, gently stirring and turning to ensure even cooking, until apples soften and begin to turn translucent at the edges and are about 3/4 of the way cooked through, about 10 minutes. This is not an exact science; larger or more dense apples may take longer. On the flipside, if your apples are falling into mush here, they’re the wrong apples, it will not get better in the oven. Don’t worry about overcooking the caramel once the apples are in; this has never happened to me.

Using tongs, transfer apples, rounded side down, one at a time to a smaller (10-inch) skillet with an oven-proof handle or a 10-inch (standard) pie dish. Arrange them in a concentric circle around the outside, overlapping each apple by about 1/3 and purposely crowding them. Arrange remaining apples in the center of the ring; it’s far less noticeable if the center is more messily arranged. If you began with 8 apples, you’ll probably find that you don’t need all the pieces. Pour any extra caramel in the skillet over the apples. Let this cool for 10 minutes, and use this time to roll out the pastry.

Roll the dough out to a rough circle about one inch larger than the pan. If you’re not ready to use it yet, chill until needed on a lightly floured plate or tray.

Top sautéed apples with the pastry round, tucking the edges in all around. Cut a vent or two in the center, and place dish or skillet on a baking sheet. Bake for 25 to 30 minutes minutes, or until pastry is nicely browned and apples are bubbling around the edges.

Run a butter knife around the edges to loosen. Let cool in the pan at least 30 minutes and up to 60 minutes. Peek under the crust if you can, or tilt the pan slightly, looking for evidence that the caramel and juices have thickened slightly. To invert, top with a serving plate and grasp the pan and plate tightly together as a unit (wearing oven mitts if it is still warm;) and flip quickly. Remove the pan. If any apples stick to the pan, just replace them where they should go on the tart. Serve warm, with crème fraîche or whipped cream, if desired.

If it has cooled completely before you serve, either return to the oven (if in a pie dish) or the stove (if in a skillet) to warm up and loosen the caramel for a few minutes. Leftovers keep well in the fridge, rewarm gently before serving.

How to Shoot and Stitch Panoramas with a Drone

Drones allow photographers to capture images and video from unique perspectives and vantage points. Although digital cameras on modern consumer-level drones have come a long way, they are still quite limited when it comes to sensor size and resolution. As a result, images that come out of drones often lack the amount of detail that is needed for high quality prints. Thanks to the ability of drones to hover in the sky without any movement, it is possible to shoot vertical or horizontal aerial panoramas. In this article, I will go through the process of capturing panoramas with a drone, then discuss how you can use post-processing software to create high-resolution aerial images.

First, let’s go over focal length and exposure considerations.

Focal Length, Focus and Exposure Settings

The process of shooting aerial panoramas with a drone can be somewhat complex, because there are a number of variables at play. First of all, you need to look into the focal length of the drone and see what type of panoramic photography you can do with it (typically, the longer the focal length of the drone lens, the better it is for aerial drone photography). While most drones on the market are armed with a wide-angle lens (typically 24mm or 28mm FoV equivalent in full-frame), some have longer lenses, or potentially even offer a zoom range. For example, the Mavic 2 Zoom has a 24-48mm equivalent focal length range, which can be very useful for doing aerial panoramas. Now you might be wondering why longer focal length lenses in drones are more suitable for panoramic photography. The main reason for this is the same as when shooting panoramas on a tripod with an ultra wide-angle lens – stitching such panoramas can be quite painful in post-processing due to extreme levels of distortion. It is simply a lot easier to stitch panoramas that are captured at longer focal lengths. So if you have a zoom lens on your drone, make sure to zoom in before starting to shoot an aerial panorama.

The second variable to consider is aperture. While most consumer-grade drones will feature one fixed aperture, more advanced drones might offer full aperture control, allowing you to stop down the lens to yield better contrast and sharpness. If your drone has this capability, my recommendation would be to stop down the lens to the aperture that gives you the best detail. This obviously depends on shooting conditions – if there is insufficient light, it might be best to choose a wider aperture rather than longer shutter speed, especially if you are dealing with windy conditions.

Next is shutter speed. The overall size and weight of the drone does impact its stability in the air, especially when it comes to combating light winds (generally, larger and heavier drones will hover with more stability compared to their portable and lightweight counterparts). As a result, the shutter speed you choose will primary depend on several factors such as shooting conditions, drone size / weight and overall drone stability while hovering. Even though some drones might offer a “tripod” mode, it does not mean that you can shoot long exposures – things like drone rotor vibrations and wind can easily result in enough shake to make images look unusable, so keep this in mind.

Since the goal is to generate a high-resolution panorama with as much dynamic range as possible, always make sure to choose the base ISO of the camera, which is typically something like ISO 100. Make sure to turn off Auto ISO, as it will mess up your exposures and make it extremely difficult to stitch images later in post.

Lastly, make sure to properly focus before your first shot (typically by tapping on the part of the scene that has enough edge contrast) and verify that you are properly focused, especially if you have previously zoomed in or out (if available). The last thing you want to end up with is a bunch of out of focus images!

As we have previously explained in our panoramic photography tutorial, always make sure to keep your exposure and focus settings the same when shooting panoramas. This means that once your focus is solid, you should pan from one side of the scene to another and note any serious changes in brightness – if one part of the sky is too bright, you might want to increase your shutter speed to reduce the potential for overexposure. Keep in mind that compared to your digital camera, you are going to be working with a small sensor drone that might have much less dynamic range to work with, which will limit your shadow and highlight recovery potential in post. Therefore, choose your settings wisely!

File Format / Crop Settings

Just like you should be shooting in RAW format when taking pictures with your camera, make sure to shoot in RAW with your drone! Also, pay close attention to image crop options – make sure not to crop your images and pick the native aspect ratio of your drone’s sensor. For example, if you use a DJI Mavic drone, you should pick 4:3 aspect ratio, since that’s the native aspect ratio of the drone’s sensor. Picking a different aspect ratio might end up cropping your RAW image, which is not what you want!

Shooting Conditions

It goes without saying that shooting conditions are extremely important for doing aerial panoramas. While light constant wind might be easy for your drone to deal with, sudden wind gusts and heavy winds will move your drone and mess up your panoramas, so you should avoid shooting in such conditions. Another thing to keep in mind is freezing cold temperatures at higher elevations – batteries don’t do well in cold environments and if you don’t plan properly, you might not have enough time to properly shoot a panorama. Lastly, if you are planning to do complex multi-row panoramas, you must make sure that the lighting conditions don’t change drastically in-between, so shooting sunrises and sunsets might not be ideal. My recommendation is to always start with a single “safe shot” when shooting a sunrise / sunset. This way, if your panorama does not work out or if the light conditions change drastically, you still have a single image you can work with.

Horizontal vs Vertical vs Multi-Row Aerial Panoramas

Whether you shoot with a drone that has a single focal length lens, or with a drone that has a zoom lens, you can shoot a number of different types of panoramas with it. A horizontal aerial panorama is typically comprised of two or more drone images in a single row, which results in a thin horizontal panoramic image. Horizontal panoramas are the easiest to capture, because all you need to do is pan the drone camera from left to right or vice-versa, then capture images while overlapping between them by 20-30%.

A vertical aerial panorama is typically taken with two or more images that result in a single vertical panorama, which is sometimes referred to as “vertorama”. If your goal is to capture a thin vertical image that showcases your subject as well as the sky, a vertorama is relatively easy to capture and can be shot with any drone. When using wide-angle lenses, my recommendation is to increase the amount of overlap between images when shooting with wide-angle lenses to 50% or more.

A multi-row aerial panorama is the most complex type of panorama to shoot. It requires proper planning and depending on the focal length of the lens, might require a lot of overlap, in addition to quite a bit of distortion correction in post-processing software like Photoshop. Multi-row panoramas take some practice, but once you learn how to do it right, produce the best results. The best candidates for multi-row panoramas are those drones that have lenses with focal lengths of 35mm and longer (in 35mm / full-frame equivalent).

To shoot a multi-row panorama, I personally start from the top left side of the frame (typically the sky, with a small portion of the ground), then shoot a bunch of horizontal images that overlap at least 50% until I am beyond the end of my frame. Then I move the gimbal down a little and go from right to left in the same manner. Depending on the scene and the drone I am using, I do between 2-5 rows, which can yield images over 10,000 pixels wide.

Stitching Aerial Panoramas

The process of stitching aerial panoramas captured with longer lenses is really no different than what one would normally do in something like Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop – you just select the images you want to stitch, then use the panorama merge tool to create a Spherical, Cylindrical or Perspective panorama.

Where things get complex is when stitching panoramas captured with wide-angle lenses. In such cases, you might end up with a funky-looking panorama that looks like this:

Depending on what you are shooting, some panoramas might not work out at all no matter what you do, especially if they involve a lot of straight lines and architecture. However, when shooting landscapes, a heavily distorted image like the one above can be more or less “fixed”, although I would probably replace the word “fixed” with “artistically enhanced”, because the distortion correction tools you will be using are probably going to heavily influence the final look of the image (which might end up looking quite a bit different compared to the way the scene looks in real life).

The process to tackle such panoramas involves the use of Photoshop’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Here is the way I personally process such images:

  1. Merge all images to panorama in Lightroom. This way I end up with a DNG image that I can easily edit / post-process in Lightroom
  2. Perform the main edits in Lightroom (correct white balance, recover highlights and shadows, etc)
  3. Open the image in Photoshop
  4. Use the “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool to address distortion issues
  5. Perform final edits in Photoshop and save

Let’s go through the above image and see what we can do in Photoshop CC’s “Adaptive Wide Angle” tool. Once you fire up the tool, click the “Constraint Tool” on the top left side of the window, then draw a line between the areas that are curved, but should be straight. In the above image, I know that the mountain tops are more or less even in terms of their altitude, so I started by drawing a line from one of the mountain tops, as can be seen below:

Holding the “Shift” button before placing the other end will force Photoshop to straighten and level that part relative to the whole landscape. After I went through the first ridge, I then did the same thing with the second mountain range, but this time, I used the rotate part of the tool to make sure that the line goes straight again. I repeated this for the whole mountain range, then corrected the curved lines on the sides of the mountain, as shown below:

Then I clicked “OK” to save and close the tool. There was a lot of empty space left to the sides of the image, which I then had to crop using Photoshop’s crop tool. The areas of the sky that were empty I filled with Content Aware Fill tool, which did a very nice job. After a few additional adjustments in Photoshop, here is the final image:

This image took some effort, but thanks to the Adaptive Wide Angle tool in Photoshop, I didn’t have to mess with any other post-processing software and still ended up with a usable image.

Hope you find this article useful. Please let me know if you have any questions in the comments section below!

Nikon Z 24-70mm f/2.8 S Field Report

After two weeks and more than 2600 photos taken with Nikkor 24-70mm f/2.8 S, I wanted to share my initial impressions with this new Z-mount lens. Just in case you are impatient and want to hear my short verdict here: this is the best zoom lens I have ever used. Here is why.

Why I Bought It in the First Place

Until recently, I preferred to shoot with 20mm, 35mm, 50mm, and 85mm primes (all f/1.8 G) when photographing events and people. But since I do more and more reportage-style of coverage of different events where I need to be very quick – be it coverage of press conferences or photoshoots with kids – I realized I need a fast, basic zoom lens to compliment my trusted 70-200mm VR II telephoto zoom.

Sure, I could go with the 24-70mm f/2.8 G lens. Both the VR and the non-VR versions are very solid performers. However, I always found them very heavy and pricy. The non-VR version was sharper for my uses, but I realized that I’ve missed a number of photos with other lenses in the past because of their lack of VR (vibration reduction). Hence, neither of the F-mount 24-70mm lenses seemed to be future-proof enough for the upcoming bodies.

So, I got quite excited about the new Z mount Nikkor S 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, which, in its specifications (MTF-curves), seemed to be flawless. On top of that, the combination with the IBIS of the Z bodies was exactly what I wanted to get. Well, except for the price, and except for the fact that I did not own any Z body back then. This lens made me buy the Z6! I wanted to test the Z system anyway, and this lens was the last straw that swayed me. And so I emptied my account… but I have no regrets.

Starting to Use the Lens

My newly-bought Z6 could not arrive in the promised delivery date, so I got a loan of the Z7 body instead. That is why some photos in this article are taken with Z7, which obviously is much more demanding to the lens in terms of its optical performance. After three days with Z7, my Z6 finally arrived, so I had to give back the leased Z7 body. I have shot on only the Z6 ever since. I can compare the f/2.8 version also with the 24-70mm f/4 lens that I bought in the Z6 kit set.

I made quite a bold plunge from DSLR into MILC system: After only a couple days of testing the Z7 with the new 24-70mm lens, I used it for a big assignment (photographing an international political delegation in Prague for a whole day). At the end of the day, I could also take several cityscape photos of Prague during the sunset and blue hour. In the next days, I took pictures in various situations – mostly outdoor, photographing insects (bees in flight), portraits, family photos, products, flowers in my garden, and landscapes.

Assessing Performance

The Z cameras and 24-70mm f/2.8 S combo have not disappointed me a single time so far. Frankly, I was never worried about sharpness, but I did wonder about autofocus at first (more due to the Z body than the lens). I was also curious to know how it feels to have a quite bulky lens on a Z body with a rather small grip in my hand for the whole day. Here I can say that it feels very balanced, and my hands did not get too tired.

During the big assignment with the political delegation, the vast majority of the shots with this lens were keepers. I was glad the lens (and the Z7 with 2.0 firmware) could focus in low-light. It could acquire focus even when people were sitting in front of a window and their eyes were hardly visible (people were mostly silhouettes). I used the lens wide open all the time (at f/2.8). The shots taken at 24mm were visibly sharp at 100% magnification. The other focal lengths seemed very good as well, albeit a tiny bit less sharp. Nasim has a full article comparing 24-70mm lens sharpness, and this lens is the sharpest of all. In total, I was very happy how the assignment panned out with the new lens. I do not think I missed the focus more than 5% of the time, which is excellent given that most of the time I was shooting in difficult light conditions (indoors during a rainy day).

It was only the end of the day, however, that the moment of joy came. I ended my assignment in the centre of Prague at 9pm when the sun was setting down. I decided to go to Oldtown square and for the first time I was able to photograph outdoors with this lens. It was getting dark, and I needed to use shutter speed of around 1/30 to 1/15 second with the wide open aperture of f/2.8. Yet, all the shots I took were razor sharp at 100% magnification.

I could take hand-held photos of Prague even some 40 minutes after sunset without raising ISO beyond 400. I was excited!

In Combination with Eye-AF

The other “wow moment” came when I was testing the new autofocus feature of the 2.0 firmware of the Z bodies. It can pick both in the single servo (AF-S) and the continuous mode (AF-C) any human face (even with dark sunglasses) and pick the eye as long as the face fills roughly 10% of the frame.

If you have very lively kids who do not enjoy being photographed, you probably know how hard it can be to take good photos of them. My 2 year old nephew is such a case. As soon as he sees a camera in my hands, he does anything so that I cannot really photograph him. I usually fail to take any good candid shots of him with my D750 and different lenses.

Now I picked the Z6 body and the 24-70mm f/2.8 lens, put the AF-C auto-area autofocus and used the screen (not the viewfinder) to frame and focus (often in “stealth” mode, by pretending that I was not photographing). And just the fact that I our eye-contact could be kept and not disturbed by a gadget in between us made a difference. But the real magic came when I realized that the camera did a great job in focusing on the face – and, in roughly 75% of the photos, picking the eyes and focusing on them accurately. Here and there, some nitty-gritty pixel-peepers could argue that perhaps eyelashes were sharper then the iris of the eye. But hey, I could never get nearly as good photos with my trusted DSLR.

Disclaimer: I do not argue that this is better or worse than how other brands (such as Sony) would fare. I just compare this with my D750 performance. And again, I know how to nail focus with DSLR when people are not moving or are moving predictably.

Ever since, I’ve used this functionality with this lens while photographing moving people, and it works great for me. You could argue that the credit should largely go to the Z6 body with its new firmware, but I really think it is the native Z-mount fast lens that makes this feature really perform well.

Astrophotography Use

Nikon is bragging about the exceptional corner to corner performance of the 24-70mm f/2.8 S. While I knew after a couple of shootings that this certainly holds for sharpness, I was really curious about the coma, aberration performance, and vignetting.

For night photography, I used the lens 90% of the time wide open, and I noticed that there is noticeable vignetting, even though some correction is automatically applied in the Lightroom in the RAW files. Still, I could see it.

The first night shots confirmed this impression, and I could see the light fall-of in the night images. Nasim provides exact details on this in his tests.

On the other hand, the lens deals very well with coma correction – i.e., circles in the corners remain their regular shape, with only a slight hint of transforming circles into a cross shape. It is definitely an improvement over the G version (F-mount) lens.

Critique

Does this lens have any drawbacks? There are a few issues where I would rate the performance as mediocre rather than superb.

The bokeh is decent – and not bad given this is a zoom lens – but it is not on par with fixed primes.

I also think that this lens has some flare and ghosting issues. Again, it is not very bad, but you will see very colourful reflections of the sun in the photos from time to time. The good thing is, however, that the contrast does not decrease by much in such situations. I would rate this lens similar to 20mm f/1.8 AF-S lens, which also has some ghosting issues.

Subjectively, I find the zoom ring traction a bit too tight. I am not able to re-zoom from 24mm all the way to 70mm with a single hand movement, which is surprising to me. This is caused not only by the tightness of the zoom (which prevents the creep of the lens while hanging perpendicular, i.e. one can also say it is a good thing), but also by the size of the lens. It is a bit bulky (though not heavy).

And although I do I like the aesthetic design of the lens, I have some doubts whether the deep indenting of the function rings will keep out dust and other dirt (given that I do shoot in rough conditions).

All these things are minor issues for me and are outweighed by the positives listed above.

My Conclusion

The first conclusion shouldn’t be a surprise for you by now: This lens is very sharp wide open, actually insanely sharp at 24mm. But this is not the main reason why I am excited about the 24-70mm f/2.8 S lens.

Before buying new gear, I always ask myself: Will I be able to get some shots that I would otherwise not have been able to get? And yes, this is the case with the new f/2.8 lens and the IBIS technology in the Z bodies. When photographing in cities, I really hesitate whether to take tripod, as it not only burdens my back, but it also slows down my workflow during the short period of the blue hour. Now I can take tack-sharp photos of night Prague without any significant ISO increase. I knew immediately that this is going to be my go-to street photo lens.

And just as importantly, I can now photograph people with a reliable face-detection (and eye detection as well) from very low perspectives while using display rather than the viewfinder. This gives me a completely new range of options for photographing tricky portrait subjects.

So, that’s why I love this lens. It is now my go-to lens for street photo, events (such as weddings), and family portraits.

Have you used this lens or are thinking about getting it? Let us know your impressions and experience below.

A Failed Landscape Photography Expedition

To be brutally honest – some plans are doomed to erupt in flames the moment they meet reality. That isn’t a surprise; the only twisted part is that we almost always know what’s about to happen, yet keep chugging along anyway. I found myself in that position last week while attempting to photograph the Milky Way over mountains in Colorado. Still, there’s always something to learn from failure.

The story is quite simple. I wanted to photograph the Milky Way for a few articles and videos to publish on Photography Life. I did some internet research and found a “moderate” rated hike to a mountain lake in Colorado that looked pretty stunning. My goal was to start the hike late in the day and get to some good views by midnight. (There were, of course, no drop-offs along the way, or I’d never have attempted such a hike at night.)

The first part of my plan worked stunningly well – take a nap before the hike. To my dismay, the rest of the trip didn’t go as smoothly. The clear forecast turned into a rainy nighttime slog, with deep snowbanks covering the entire length of the hike. I didn’t bring along my snowshoes, thinking the path would be mostly clear, so each step meant sinking up to my shins or more. It was perhaps the most grueling hike I’ve ever done, despite being nowhere near the longest nor the coldest.

Mistake #1: Planning a hike with the assumption that this year’s June conditions would be the same as last year’s June conditions.

This past winter, Colorado had an impressive snowfall. Overall, that’s great news. More snow means more snowmelt – enough to end the two-year drought across large parts of the state. As a result, the outlook for summer 2019 is fewer wildfires and more stable reservoirs, a welcome sight indeed.

For hiking, of course, it means that many of the main trails are nowhere near “summer conditions” despite the time of year. A number of high-altitude roads remain closed due to snow (yes, even now, almost two weeks into summer). While researching the trail I planned to hike, I read reports from last year’s hikers in June, and even May and April. They experienced only minimal snow, in comparison to the astonishing amount present this year.

Mistake #2: Believing that online reports accurately represent an entire hike, rather than just the highlight(s).

It wasn’t just the snow conditions that I misinterpreted from my research online. Even more importantly, people’s photos from the hike showed beautiful conditions for Milky Way photography – spectacular mountain views and a lot of sky.

Yet, the hike itself was very different. Other than the last 0.5%, the entire thing was in a forest with essentially no clearings. I’m certain it would have been a very pleasant hike during the day, but I was going along at night with the sole goal of seeing as much Milky Way as possible. That certainly didn’t work out.

As the lack of good views became more and more obvious during the hike, I should have turned around. But nature, ever the perfect carnival operator, knew how to keep me hooked. Every time I was tempted to cut my losses, something kept me going just a bit longer . The cold rain let up. An amazing Milky Way started to peek through the trees, which thinned out a bit. The lake at the end of the hike – which I knew would be great, regardless of the views beforehand – grew nearer with every step.

Mistake #3: Feeling that a shot – any shot – is a must-capture, and that it is worth going beyond your normal limits to photograph because conditions are perfect.

Anyone who has tried Milky Way photography knows how difficult it can be to get the perfect shot. For maximum Milky Way visibility, you need to shoot in the dead of night (beyond nautical and even astronomical twilight) on a day with minimal clouds and no moonlight. Plus, you have to be as far away from light pollution as possible, even small towns. Photographing the stars is not easy.

Yet, all those variables lined up perfectly during the hike. Combined with the photos of this location I had seen online – a spectacular mountain basin with big sky views – it was the perfect formula for pushing it too far. Sure, I was in a seemingly endless forest, but some good view of the sky had to be close.

It wasn’t. The destination took several hours longer to reach than I had expected. And although the Milky Way grew truly beautiful around midnight, some clouds started rolling in shortly after. When I finally made it to the clearing at the end of the hike, it was nearly sunrise, and the Milky Way had vanished.

Worst of all, the clouds faded away again at sunrise, making for a bland sky when I finally did reach the (admittedly very beautiful) destination.

From a hiking standpoint, the whole thing was pointless. I walked for hours through difficult terrain without seeing any scenery at all, except what my headlamp illuminated. From a photography standpoint, the whole thing was… nearly pointless. I got a few borderline-usable photos (the ones in this article), but even those have some major flaws.

One big consolation, at least, is that I was never in danger of anything except taking bad photos. I had plenty of water, two GPSs, extra batteries, and warm layers. People knew where I was going and when I would be back. Although I flirted with heavy exertion – not something to trifle with – I did carry a tent, sleeping pad, and sleeping bag, allowing some rest along the way to keep my energy up.

It all reminded me of a hike I did many years ago in Iceland, where, from the edge of a canyon, I saw a giant, unnamed waterfall in the distance. Stubbornly focused on the goal of reaching the falls, and knowing it was within my capabilities to make it there (though not without plenty of discomfort), I spent the rest of the day hiking to that spot. When I finally reached it, the falls were less interesting than almost all the others I had seen on the trip. Combined with the dullest of dull light, I didn’t get a single keeper that day.

I’ve written before that you shouldn’t confuse backstory with quality – i.e., your memory of taking a photo with how good the photo actually is. Today’s article has a related, though distinctly different takeaway: Before you take a photo, during the planning stage, don’t think that more effort will lead to more results. At a minimum, you need to put that effort in the right direction.

The other point of this article is beyond obvious, but it still bears repeating: Learn from your mistakes. I made several on this failed landscape expedition, more than just the three big ones I emphasized here. I can’t say for sure that I’ll never make the same mistakes again, but I do think it’s less likely. That’s especially true in terms of how much credibility I’ll give to online research – whereas the art of chasing doomed photos may be a flaw I’m stuck with!

After all, in hindsight, this plan was always going to fail. Everything needed to go perfectly, from the weather opening up at the right moment to trail conditions allowing a normal hiking speed. It could have worked out, but any success would have been pure luck. Don’t get me wrong; lucky breaks are great. But you can’t rely on them.

Instead, if your landscape photography plan is rock-solid, nearly everything can go wrong – except the light – and you’ll still get a good shot. If I manage to meet that standard next time around, I’ll have some Milky Way content to publish on Photography Life soon. But if it does end up being another failure… hopefully, at least, it’s another failure that starts off with a great nap.

Photographing the Vivid Sydney Festival

I suppose we all develop a unique attachment to the place where we were born, raised or have otherwise spent a significant portion of our lives. In my case, that’s Sydney, Australia. I’ve travelled extensively through the USA, Europe, the Caribbean and South East Asia. Along the way there have been trips to wonderfully visual cities like Singapore, Hong Kong, Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, Mumbai, Kolkata, London and others. Still, every place has its own unique style, colour, culture, and architecture. The quality of the air, light, sounds, scents and mix of people in each location also creates an ambience which dwells in the memory long after returning home. Being a photographer, I think, gives us an impetus to notice aspects of our environment and details which otherwise might be overlooked, or considered banal. Photography heightens your visual acuity.

I decided on writing this article to focus mainly on the Vivid festival, held this year between May 24 and June 15, during the evening hours 6pm-11pm. During the festival, important landmarks like the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge are illuminated with graphic displays of laser lighting. There are also music concerts, seminars, and film festivals. In collating some of the images I wanted to use in the article, I realized that Sydney – and especially Sydney Harbour and the surrounding suburbs like Manly – are visually spectacular in a way I’ve never experienced anywhere else. I suppose the eye-watering cost of Sydney real estate is evidence enough of that. Most of the images here concentrate on the Vivid festival, particularly areas of Sydney close to Sydney Harbour. I think of Sydney Harbour as a crown and the Opera House as the jewel. It’s the masterpiece created by Danish architect Jorn Utzon. When the Opera House was declared a world heritage site in 2007, Utzon was only the second person to be recognized in this way during his life.

Contingent on that thought, I’ve included some additional images in an attempt to convey some of my visual impressions of parts of Sydney that I’m familiar with. Some of the images are of Darling Harbour; some are of the Manly area where I live. Sydney as a city is bound by and defined by water, by the clarity and vibrancy of the light, by vivid colour, beaches and large tracts of national parks and the stunning valleys and escarpments of the Blue Mountains, around a 2 hour drive from the CBD. Sydney presents a bounty of visual opportunities for photographers, from the natural landmarks to the theatrical events and concerts I photograph professionally.

I’m an event photographer specializing in photographing stage performance under theatrical lighting while an audience is in attendance. I just bought a Nikon Z6 because it will allow me to be more inconspicuous. The shutter of a Nikon D4 on high speed continuous is not something desirable during a serious dramatic performance with the audience a few feet away. I think although photography and digital imaging is ubiquitous, to explore the visual medium and try to create meaningful and lasting work is incredibly challenging and requires a great deal of effort and commitment.

People may equate your professional activity with their own (how many people turn up with cameras when you’re photographing a wedding) yet the technical expertise and equipment required to reliably produce high level work involves using complex lighting, creative composition, sophisticated communication and software post production skills – skills which easily rival the demands of my former career in computer programming.

I rarely go anywhere without at least having a camera in the car; one of my favourite recreations is taking long exposures of the Sydney Opera House and Harbour Bridge. During the Vivid festival, many photographers are attracted to the sight of complex animations projected onto the various focal points of the harbour. Of course, there are also many thousands of people using mobile phones to capture the scene, although most photographers will almost certainly know that without a tripod, decent camera, lens, and remote shutter release, it can be very challenging to get a decent image.

In my case, I pack a range of lenses, my Nikon D810, shutter release, and a Manfrotto 190 tripod with a geared three-way head. It’s a little heavy, but very stable, and the head allows me a very precise foundation for my camera. As a local, I can usually avoid the expensive parking in the Sydney CBD by parking some distance away and walking to my preferred location. One of those locations is the walkway which traverses the Harbour bridge from Kirribilli on the north side to Circular Quay, which has a large ferry terminal. It’s a spectacular, amphitheatre view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location. If you have deep pockets, there are guided tours to the top of the bridge archway, although cameras are not permitted.

The bridge walkway has its own set of challenges as a location for long exposure photography. For example, most of the length of the bridge is subject to the vibrations of passing traffic. The one stable location is a viewing area below the southern pylon – where a lot of photographers congregate during Vivid. This platform is surrounded by metal fencing, which makes it difficult to position a tripod. Nonetheless, it’s an especially great view of the harbour and Opera House from an elevated location.

At the far end of the walkway across Sydney Harbour, there are usually thousands of people milling around Circular Quay, the Museum of Contemporary Art, and the walkway along Bennelong Point to the Opera House. It can be challenging to set up a tripod, but seasoned photographers will know instinctively that establishing a good location to take your images is a very crucial aspect of photography.

Another popular location for night photography is the roof of the Circular Quay railway station. There is an elevator to the eastern end, which leads to a great viewing platform with plenty of space to set up a tripod and a spectacular view of the Opera House and Sydney Harbour Bridge.

I’ve found a focal length of 24mm to be ideal for this location, and a number of the images here were taken with the Sigma 24mm Art, using long exposure to capture the ferry and boat trails coming in and out of the Circular Quay wharves.

Another great location for night photography during Vivid is the overseas passenger terminal nearby. The beauty of this location is that you can get a great side on view of the Opera House and usually some space to set up a tripod, despite a lot of people milling around.