Austinite Rachel Johnson knows that the phrase “unicorn food” sounds silly at first.
The freelance food writer and recipe developer makes so-called internet food, a highly visual form of food that combines bright colors, creative mashups and playful themes. This year, she’s written a book, “Unicorn Food,” about the latest rainbow-hued iteration of Instagram-friendly food trends.
Johnson dates the current era of photo-focused food to the cronut, the croissant-doughnut hybrid that debuted 2013. Five years in, we now have rainbow bagels, $1,000 cupcakes topped with edible gold, hamburger cakes (both cakes made to look like hamburgers and hamburgers made to look like cake), unicorn Frappuccinos, watermelon “ham” and Prince and Beyonce macarons.
Like many millennials, Johnson, who also writes a blog called stupidgoodrachel.com, grew up watching “My Little Pony,” “Rainbow Brite” and “Care Bears” and toting Lisa Frank folders to school. “I crafted a lot as a kid, making fun, glittery stuff,” she says
Frank, the designer whose rainbow-colored creations covered countless backpacks, T-shirts and school supplies in the 1990s, directly inspired the current unicorn craze, Johnson says. In some ways, she gave America its own version of the Japanese kawaii — or cuteness culture.
The cronut might have kicked off the internet food trend, but Johnson says the fun really started when this kind of food left high-end kitchens and entered everyday homes. YouTubers such as “Nerdy Nummies” star Rosanna Parsons, for instance, taught home baking projects that were inspired by video games, TV shows and movies, and Facebook pages and Instagram accounts dedicated to “wow” foods became commonplace. Johnson started getting paid to develop food that would be easily shareable and catch people’s attention online.
But Johnson doesn’t see this visual food trend as superficial. When you combine the eye-popping colors and details with basic, real-life food techniques, you can learn something while making something cool, Johnson says.
It’s easy to find sweet recipes that tap into this trend, but for her book, Johnson wanted to include savory and healthy recipes, too, with salads, spring rolls and sandwiches that include naturally bright elements.
People can be snobby about food created just for how it looks, but professional chefs also focus on how a dish is presented, and nobody questions them. Johnson says she sees an over-the-top cake or loaf of rainbow bread as “a fun way to get excited about food in general.”
“If we are going to come together over eating better food, more beautiful food, more nutrient-dense food, we have to use attractive food,” she says. “That’s where I see the opportunity.”
Johnson loves the magical elements of the unicorn world, but she drew the line at creating unicorn poop, one of the more popular searches on the internet. Instead, Johnson made Candy Mountain Creambows, which teach the reader how to make marshmallows.
Through this book, Johnson met Rosie Pierce, an Austin-based baker who runs a sprinkles company called Neon Yolk (neonyolk.com), which specializes in custom-made sprinkles that are created around certain themes or colors. She, too, was inspired by Lisa Frank.
“Trapper Keepers, stickers, pencils, I had it all,” Pierce says. “It was definitely nostalgic for me, and I wanted to invoke that same feeling of fun, happiness and playfulness in our company.”
Pierce says she thinks unicorns have captivated us not just because of the nostalgia. “I think everyone loves unicorns because they represent something that’s unique and special, and that’s how we see ourselves,” she says. “More than ever we’re sharing our daily lives online, and fun, colorful foods provide us the opportunity to spread some sunshine to our friends and followers.”
Pierce created a special unicorn mix for Johnson’s book, but many of us have sprinkles sitting unused in our cabinets right now and simply need an excuse to pull them out. Because unicorns and rainbows and glitter and stars are appealing to just about everyone, Johnson says she hears from people who use it as a way to connect kids with parents and grandparents.
“It’s natural that people are skeptical of things that are kitschy or seem cheesy,” she says, but if there’s anything people can learn from her book, “maybe we can just be nice to each other and eat unicorn popcorn.”
Make sure you use edible glitter. Crafting glitter might say it is nontoxic, but it’s still not good to eat. Edible glitter is often made with sugar and gelatin, but there are vegan versions out there, too.
Some recipes call for mixing in the food coloring with gloves, so change or wash the gloves if you don’t want the dyes to mix. Do the same with bowls or utensils used to mix colors with ingredients.
Instead of using the kind of food coloring and dyes available at conventional grocery stores, you can use natural alternatives, but the colors won’t be quite as vivid.
Tie-Dye Grilled Cheese
Don’t freak out, but this is the grilled cheese of your dreams. The multicolored cheese pull is just perfect to generate a like for your Instagram!
— Rachel Johnson
4 ounces shredded mozzarella
4 ounces shredded cheddar
4 ounces shredded Gruyere
Food coloring (pink, green, blue and purple)
4 tablespoons softened butter
8 (1/2-inch) slices white bread (such as sourdough, pullman or brioche)
Kosher salt, to taste
Edible glitter (optional)
Mix the cheeses together in a large bowl. Divide between four bowls and tint each cheese with each food coloring by stirring around with a spoon (about 2 drops per color per bowl will do).
Heat a nonstick pan or griddle to medium-high heat. Spread the butter evenly on one side of each bread slice.
Place four slices of bread, butter side down, on the heat surface. Top with each color of cheese in any preferred pattern. Sandwich with another slice of bread, butter side up. Cook on the griddle for 2 to 3 minutes or until the cheese is starting to melt. Flip and cook another 2 minutes, or until the bread is toasty and golden. Sprinkle with salt and edible glitter in case you are extra. Makes 2 sandwiches.
— From “Unicorn Food: Magical Recipes for Sweets, Eats and Treats” by Rachel Johnson (Sterling Epicure, $14.95)
Frozen Turmeric Lassi
Milky golden drinks spiked with turmeric are everywhere these days, beloved for their exotic flavor and sunset color. Turmeric, a rhizome popular in Indian cuisine and traditional medicine, has recently become a darling of the American wellness world, lauded for its anti-inflammatory properties, among other benefits. Here, I spliced together a turmeric latte and a mango lassi — a common Indian refreshment made from mango, milk and yogurt — to create one summer-friendly drink. Since mango lassis naturally contain probiotics from the yogurt, I added in a bit of probiotic powder, plus coconut milk and avocado for richness.
— Kat Odell
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 cup ice cubes, plus extra for serving
1/4 ripe avocado, pitted and peeled
3 ounces frozen mango chunks
2 ounces frozen pineapple chunks
2 teaspoons raw honey
1 teaspoon freshly grated peeled ginger (from about 1-inch piece)
1 teaspoon ground turmeric
1 teaspoon probiotic powder
3/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
3/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
Pinch of ground cloves
Combine the coconut milk, ice cubes, avocado, mango, pineapple, honey, ginger, turmeric, probiotic powder, cardamom, cinnamon, pepper and cloves in a blender and puree until smooth, about 30 seconds. Pour into a glass with ice and serve immediately. Serves 1.
— From “Unicorn Food: Beautiful Plant-Based Recipes to Nurture Your Inner Magical Beast” by Kat Odell (Workman, $19.95)
Birthday Cake Waffles
Cake batter waffles are only made better when studded with neon sprinkles, which make them fit for a birthday breakfast, when you can replace the syrup with a scoop of ice cream.
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon baking soda
Pinch of salt
1 1/2 cups milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter, melted
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1/2 cup assorted sprinkles, plus extra for topping
Whipped cream or ice cream, for serving
Separate the egg yolks from the whites. Set the yolks aside. Place the whites in the bowl of an electric stand mixer and beat until fluffy and stiff peaks form.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In a small bowl, whisk together the milk, butter, vanilla and reserved egg yolks. Whisk the wet ingredients into the dry. Using a spatula, fold the egg whites into the batter. Gently fold the sprinkles into the batter.
Heat a waffle iron to your desired setting. Following the manufacturer’s directions, pour batter into the center and cook until the waffle is set. Repeat with the remaining batter. Top with whipped cream or ice cream and sprinkles.
— From “The Pretty Dish: More than 150 Everyday Recipes and 50 Beauty DIYs to Nourish Your Body Inside and Out” by Jessica Merchant (Rodale Books, $29.99)
Rachel Johnson’s “Unicorn Food” is one of four cookbooks out this year with the same title. Kat Odell’s “Unicorn Food,” which is new this month, features only natural ingredients to brighten rainbow-hued vegan dishes and nut milk. Two other cookbooks called “Unicorn Food” came out earlier this year, one by Sandra Mahut and another by Cayla Callagher; both have a more literal, whimsical unicorn theme, similar to Johnson’s.