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Interview: Elizabeth Tulis of Pastry and Prose

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Meet the woman behind the magic.

Elizabeth Tulis head shot

I love all bakers, but there is a special place in my heart for bakers who, like me, are also lawyers. Unlike me, though, who gave up practicing law to pursue another career, Elizabeth Tulis manages both a full-time job as a government attorney in Washington, D.C., and a stunning baking blog, Pastry and Prose.

Elizabeth has baked since childhood. But since starting her blog — complete with an equally-stunning Instagram feed — the public has been able to enjoy her baking, recipes, and finely-tuned aesthetic. I talked with Elizabeth about her academic and career evolution, what baking means to her, and more.

You’ll also like these other profiles: Anela Malik of Feed the Malik and Open Kitchen Founder and Owner Mary Johns

elizabeth tulis RUSTIC OMBRÉ APPLE TART WITH HONEY FRANGIPANE
Rustic Ombré Apple Tart With Honey Frangipane [Photo by Elizabeth Tulis / Pastry and Prose]

The Interview: Elizabeth Tulis of Pastry and Prose

This interview took place on September 15, 2020. This article has been lightly edited and condensed for space.

Lisa Ruland: So to start at the beginning, where did you grow up and go to school?

I lived a couple of places when I was little, but mostly grew up in Austin, Texas. I went to college at Yale in Connecticut and then I worked for a few years in New Hampshire and D.C. Then I went to grad school at Yale for English, but dropped out of that program after three years, and went to law school at Yale instead. Then I clerked for two years, and after that I got a job in New York [City].

Did you like living in New York?

It’s funny. It’s a place where I had not planned to live, but I ended up there unexpectedly. I lived in Fort Greene [Brooklyn]. It was a terrible apartment, but a lovely location.

In New York, I didn’t even have a galley kitchen. I had a sink, a three-quarter-sized fridge with a freezer that didn’t work, and no counter space. I had a small stove, and some of the burners didn’t work. Such is the salary for a public-sector employee.

But then I moved to D.C. and got a real kitchen.

How did you first start baking?

It’s something I’ve been into since I was a kid. My mom recently even found a picture of me piping éclairs when I was eight or nine years old. I remember taking a kids’ baking class where I made monkey bread. I went away to college and didn’t really bake then, but it’s something that’s been a part of my life for a long time. After college, when I was teaching at a boarding school, I’d make things for my students sometimes, and then in New York I baked occasionally, but I had limited time and resources.

What do you love about baking?

Baking allows you to create something, and it can be done in a day. It also lets you have social connections. I remember bringing cookies to coworkers when I moved to D.C.

But I also like the chemistry: the way choux pastry puffs up, the way a meringue is made. It’s fun. It provides gratification in a lot of ways, and provides a distraction and works my mind in a different way from my day job.

When I cook or bake, I often get into that space where everything else falls away. It can be very meditative in a way.

Yes. Right now, I’ve been working on making rosettes and it’s a good distraction. 

You have a gorgeous aesthetic. How did you develop it? I went to the beginning — like, post zero — of your Instagram feed and your food pics have always been gorgeous, but it seems like at some point your aesthetic just clicked into place.

I was taking pictures with my iPhone and thought, “Ok, I need a DSLR.” Two of the photographers I followed on Instagram — Aimee Twigger and Betty Binon — were leading a workshop in London called “Rembrandt with a Camera.” I love London, and I love Aimee and Betty’s work, so I decided to go to London for this workshop. There, I got to connect in person with experienced food photographers and got some tips about basic things like creating shadows in a certain way, and composition.

I still very much think I’m a work in progress, but you just start experimenting, such as: What places in my apartment have the most interesting light? I feel like there are a lot of duds before I get to a photograph I feel I like.

And the photography adds another layer of creativity to the process. It is really at least three layers: creating the dish, styling and decorating the dish, and figuring out how to display it, photograph it, and how you want the photograph to look. It is a good way to focus your mind away from the law.

Talk a little about how and where you set up shots. I think when you see good food photography, it seems like a moment in time of some beautiful land of perfect food, but in reality, people set up on the floor, in their bedrooms — all because maybe that is the best lighting. So where are you shooting? What time of day? How do you plan what you’re doing to make?

I would say that about 75 percent of the time, I shoot in the morning. That’s when the light is generally best. Before I did the photography workshop, I was shooting on a ledge in the bedroom, which was east-facing so had sharp, dramatic light. But I learned that northern and southern exposure is actually your best light. I happen to have a wall of windows that face north, so a lot of the flat lays I do are on that surface, either directly on the ledge, or on my dining room table.

It’s more of a weekend thing. During the week, before Covid, it would be something that I made the night before or could bake quickly in the morning. But now I am working from home.

elizabeth tulis apple sage gruyere scones
Apple Sage and Gruyère Scones [Photo by Elizabeth Tulis / Pastry and Prose]

Looking at your blog Pastry and Prose, it looks like you just started in May 2018. Is that when you first started it?

It was one of those things where I was occasionally posting things I made on Instagram and brought things into the office that weren’t just someone else’s recipe, but something I’ve been working on. People would say that I should start a blog.

I told a friend that if I had a good name, I’d start a blog. Then I thought of a name, and when my friend came to visit and I mentioned that I had thought of a name for a blog, she was just like, “Yeah, let’s do it!” So we went online and researched how to start a blog and just did it.

Did you have a goal of becoming so popular? When did it start getting so popular? Were you surprised? 

My blog is actually not that big, because I just don’t have the time that I would need to devote to it to make it bigger. I don’t post as much as I wish I could, because it takes me so much time to test and write up the recipes, edit the photographs, and so on.

Here’s an anecdote: I started baking sourdough a couple of years ago. I created a starter and eventually just started making bread with the sourdough discard; I figured out a way to make regular bread with discard. And I googled and it didn’t seem like anyone had much out there for how to do this. And I thought, “If I think there was ever a recipe on my blog that could get traction, it might be this.”

In one week, in March 2020, my blog readership increased 300 percent, and it was all because of people googling how to make sourdough. And still, so much of my traffic is for that one recipe.

So it only happened when Covid happened.

What happened with everyone rushing to make sourdough in lockdown? What was the sudden appeal of sourdough, do you think?

Sourdough is the ultimate home baking because it’s nothing but flour, water, and salt. And it’s this really fun creative thing where you can take just a few very raw ingredients and magically transform them through moisture and time and heat.

It has all these elements that are very particular to that way we were all living at home. Sourdough takes time and attention. So it’s something that’s much easier to do if you’re home more and have the flexibility and time.

Where do you get inspiration?

It’s funny. I’m working on another project where I’m thinking about this. Several places. Sometimes it’s other recipes I like, or flavor combinations. But I think my greatest inspiration is probably seasonal produce. I go to the Dupont Circle Farmers Market, and I can never resist an unusual fruit or vegetable.

If I never heard of it, I’m buying it. Like, What do I do with a paw paw? Well, what is a paw paw? Ok, it is sort of like a cross between a mango and a banana. I can make a mango panna cotta, so maybe I can do a pawpaw panna cotta.

I wanted to ask you about your favorite D.C. food recommendations. 

I love Seylou Bakery. It’s actually very near where my physical office is, back when I went to the office. I’d go there and get their whole-grain croissants. They’re the only place I know locally that mills their own flour, so I buy a lot of my flour there.

Is there a restaurant you default to?

I love Tail-Up Goat. It’s right around the block from my house, but it’s also wonderful. They’re very friendly and very low key even though they have a Michelin star. And I love that they are right in my neighborhood.

Does your sourdough have a name?

Herbert. I don’t know why. It just came to me. Herbert got started in spring 2018.

You mentioned that you are working from home now. What has been the hardest part for you with Covid?

The hardest part is the social isolation. Yes, I can get Tail-Up Goat to go, but I miss going out with friends and having wine or a dinner together. I miss going out with friends after work. Just the casual gatherings that D.C. facilitates.

How have you been taking care of yourself with the isolation?

I had this period where I was really into care packages and sending tons of cookies to people. The UPS guy was like, “Cookies again?”

But I think I got a little burned out on that. I have some friends who live kind-of near me and we’ve had socially-distanced walks or coffee in the park.

I’ve probably watched more television than I ever did before. But there’s a lot of baking that I used to do that I’d now feel guilty doing because it’s not the kind of stuff that I can eat by myself, and I don’t want to waste. I’m not going to eat a whole fruit tart by myself.

It’s good to have work that I’m able to do remotely, and in that sense, it isn’t that different. But I do miss the daily interactions with people.

I definitely hear you on that. Thank you so much, Liz. It has been so nice talking to you and getting to know you and Pastry and Prose a bit better.

elizabeth tulis country loaf with sourdough discard starter
Country Loaf With Sourdough Discard Starter [Photo by Elizabeth Tulis / Pastry and Prose]

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