Betty Binon: The Rembrandt Of Food
A feast for the eyes through Betty Binon’s passion for food, florals and photography.
If only you could taste Betty Binon’s beautiful musings through the pages of Dolce. Luckily, the next best thing would be to try the bespoke recipe she created for our fall edition: braided pumpkin babka with chocolate and pecans.
Binon is the creative force behind Stems & Forks, a blog she started in 2017 to showcase her musings on recipes, photography and botanical sculptures. After having worked in floral design for two decades, Binon realized she needed an outlet to satisfy the other aspects of her creative mind. As she explains, “I went into the blogging business, and I thought, I’ll teach myself how to bake, how to cook and document my journey … I said I’ll go back to photography, which I had abandoned decades before. So, I decided, you know what, I’m going to make this hodgepodge of everything I’m interested in.”
Her creations, which are genuinely a feast for the eyes, are characterized by the Golden Era’s chiaroscuro style, which involves contrasting light and shadow in drawing and painting for visual effect. Binon’s individual interpretation of this style through her work is intended to teach those admiring the art form a greater lesson: “For me, the relationship between light and shadow is simple. Beauty and joy can only be appreciated and understood when darkness is present.”
Binon captures the chiaroscuro imperative through the use of a small palette of colours dominated by dark earth tones and golden highlights in photographs of her combinations of food and floral arrangements, all of which give her visual creations a Rembrandt-like effect. “Manipulating light and creating shadows with strong highlights have been around for centuries, that form of storytelling, and I just love that strong contrast of the darkness with the light. I tend to gravitate toward art like that, even music. Music that’s kind of got a dark side, but then has that really uplifting, hopeful side. It speaks to me,” says Binon.
Making the leap from the floral business into the unknown world of blogging wasn’t a risk-free proposition, but was something Binon knew she needed to do for her own peace of mind. “I have always been like my father’s daughter, which is [that I] don’t take risks, and to move always cautiously, and, now, I’m realizing that, I think, in life you have to take risks, and the bigger the risk, the bigger the reward. I do have regrets. I regret not taking the plunge earlier, so, I would say that it’s easier said than done, but be fearless, be strong. Chase your dreams, because I truly believe we only have one life, we don’t have an afterlife, and, if we do, we don’t have it here on Earth. So, try to do what you love, because you may not have a second chance, you know? … Even if it was 20 years later, I would say that if you want to make a career shift into something that you love, definitely go for it.”
Growing up in a Korean and Japanese household, Binon infuses her background into the flavours of her dishes, blended with a presentation informed by the Renaissance esthetic. “If you look at my feed, I do try to inject a lot of my background into it, so there are a lot of Korean or Japanese ingredients … Taste is very important. I look at seasons and the availability, and, because I am a visual storyteller, I try to think of something that’s beautiful or that could convey some type of beauty.”
For many of us, the rise of the recent pause in our lives has given us the ability to lean into skills and passions that we may not otherwise have had the opportunity to explore. For Binon, this was embracing something she’s always wanted to do. “One of the takeaways from the pandemic was learning how to shoot video. During the pandemic, as soon as it started, everyone went into panic — they cancelled events, they cancelled gigs, jobs. So, for me, I lost a lot of business in the beginning, because workshops and speaking engagements got cancelled. I decided, you know what, I’m going to teach myself video. This is something that has always been on my bucket list. I’m going to take the time to learn it, and, so, for the past 19 months, I’ve just been teaching myself how to shoot and edit video.”
Just like Binon taught herself how to bake, cook and work the camera, she has brought her magic touch to the art of videography. “I think teaching it yourself definitely absorbs a lot better, instead of sitting in a class. Teaching myself videography, for instance, rather than a course, it’s a struggle, but I tend to absorb it a lot better going through that struggle and trying to figure things out. I think there is something to be said about being self-taught, for sure.”
Despite providing her with the time to develop her skills as a videographer, society’s pause brought about its challenges, not the least of which was something all mothers can relate to: “I would have to say there was a thorn for my kids; I really felt bad for my kids. For a seven-year-old and a 15-year-old to be cooped up in a house and to see the daily ins and outs of their mom and dad working, I just thought, mentally, it was the most wretched for kids. They couldn’t go to birthday parties or celebrate their own with their friends … Seeing my kids suffer from that was horrible.”
“The sweet Life is being Able to find Beauty in The everyday”
But, at least, the increased time at home allowed for well-deserved family time. “I think the biggest pro has been being able to sit down and have dinner with my family. That, to me, is priceless and a time that I miss so much from the childhood of my first daughter, my firstborn, when I had the flower shop. Just being able to cook a meal, and being able to offer that to my family is such a treat … I didn’t get that growing up; my parents were always at work. I think, in many ways, as I became an adult, I thought that that was acceptable, and OK, just to work hard like an ox and not care about anything else, just as long as you’re focused on working and providing for the family. But, I realize there’s more to providing to the family than just financial providing: it’s to actually be there, be physically present in the lives of your kids. Just being physically there to let them know you’re here, you know, is, I think, very valuable in a child’s life.”
In addition to her children, Binon’s ideal guests for a dinner party are Jesus Christ, Johan Sebastian Bach and her grandmother. An interesting mix, at first glance, but completely consistent with Binon’s sources of inspiration. “I would have to say it comes from everywhere. It comes from ideas, or emotions and then, based on those ideas, or concepts or emotions, I try to create a visual story, so it doesn’t even necessarily have to be something visual. It can be as simple as an emotion of nostalgia and then I’ll go from there.”
When Binon was a teenager, she always wanted to create films in some capacity, but shied away from it because of her father. “My dad was like, ‘Oh, you’re chasing rainbows.’ Very old-school immigrant Dad, typical immigrant Dad, and I believed him and said, ‘Yeah, you’re right, you’re right.’ And now, I’m in that state of mind of I really don’t want to be on my deathbed and say I didn’t try, so it’s a dream I always had that I’m trying to make happen now later in life — pursuing things that I’ve always wanted to. One thing that I’ve been really focused on for the past seven months is actually writing a screenplay. I’ve been writing a screenplay, which I’ve been really focused on, and I don’t know if it’s going to take me anywhere, but it’s one of those things that I’ve always wanted to do, and now I have the time to do it … if something comes of it, great, but if it doesn’t, at least I can die saying I tried.”
Admiring the light because of darkness, or seeing the beauty in unexpected places, defines Binon’s journey. “The sweet life is being able to find beauty in the everyday. I always say, ‘Finding the extraordinary in the ordinary’ that’s kind of like my little motto in my head. I think that stems from me growing up in such a poor household and always trying to elevate the experience, even though we didn’t have the most luxurious things around us. I think that’s the sweetness of life, is just finding it in whatever situation you’re in, you just have to make it.”
“Taste is very important. I look at seasons and the availability, and, because I am a visual storyteller, I try to think of something that’s beautiful or that could convey some type of beauty”
There’s something to say about those who make even the smallest parts of their lives the most whimsical they can be — understanding that what makes life wonderful isn’t what you’re given, but what you create with your hands and your mind. With that, we hope this recipe reflects more than just a sweet treat, but living la dolce vita.
BRAIDED PUMPKIN BABKA WITH CHOCOLATE AND PECANS
Prep time: 30 active minutes
Cook time: 35-40 minutes
For the Dough:
2 teaspoons active dry yeast
1/4 cup or 50 g sugar, plus 1 teaspoon divided
1/2 cup milk warmed to 110°F–115°F
5–5 1/4 cup or 650–680 g, as needed, unbleached all-purpose flour, plus more for dusting
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup or 115 g unsalted butter, room temperature and cut into cubes
3 eggs room temperature, separate and save 1 egg white
1 cup pumpkin purée, canned or fresh
For the Filling:
1/2 cup or 115 g unsalted butter, room temperature
3/4 cup or 150 g cup dark brown sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons ground cinnamon
1/2 cup pumpkin purée, canned or fresh
1 cup or 125 g chopped pecans
1 cup or 115 g roughly chopped semi-sweet chocolate
For the Dough:
Add 1 teaspoon sugar and yeast to warm milk. Stir gently and wait about 7–10 minutes, until the yeast proofs and forms a foamy top. In a stand mixer bowl, with the paddle attachment, mix together 5 cups flour, 1/4 cup sugar, salt, cinnamon and nutmeg.
Add the eggs (2 eggs, plus 1 egg yolk), yeast milk and mix on low–medium speed. Swap out the paddle attachment for the hook. Add the 1 cup pumpkin purée and mix until incorporated. Add the butter, a couple cubes at a time, and knead for about 10 minutes on low–medium, scraping the down the sides of the bowl periodically, until dough looks smooth, shiny and elastic. If the dough doesn’t pull away from the sides of the bowl after 10 minutes, add a tablespoon at a time of flour until the dough is tacky and doesn’t stick to the sides of the bowl.
Grease a large bowl with neutral oil and transfer the dough to the bowl. Cover with plastic wrap and place in fridge overnight. Remove dough from fridge about 1 hour before rolling out to make it softer to work with.
For the Filling:
Beat the butter with the paddle attachment in the stand mixer on medium until light and fluffy. Add the brown sugar, cinnamon and pumpkin purée. Cream together until smooth and spreadable.
Assembling the Babka
Take dough from fridge at least 1 hour before rolling. On a lightly floured surface, divide the dough into 2 pieces. Roll dough out into rectangle about 18 inches x 14 inches. Spread half the filling evenly over the sheet of dough. Sprinkle half the chopped pecans and semi-sweet chocolate. Roll into a tight log lengthwise using both hands. Transfer to a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Repeat with remaining piece of dough. Freeze logs for about 15 minutes. Once logs have hardened a bit, use a very sharp serrated knife to cut lengthwise down the middle. Take the tendrils and create a cross, looping over each other. Continue looping over, starting with the tendril underneath and cross over the top tendril of its neighbouring braid. When the tendrils become too short, take the ends of the tendrils and tuck under the babka.
Transfer the babka to a baking sheet covered with parchment paper. Cover with a warm damp kitchen towel and leave at room temperature for 25–30 minutes.
Baking the Babka
Preheat oven to 375°F. Lightly whisk the reserved egg white until loosened. Brush the egg wash all over the babka. Bake for 35–40 minutes. Check if babka is over-browning at 20 minutes and cover with foil.
At 30 minutes, check for doneness by inserting a cake tester in centre. Tester should come out clean and not gummy.
Store in airtight container for up to 3 days.