Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Chocolate Chip Cookies and Food Photography

(Update Aug. 22: I've added photos to this post)

I just returned from a three-week vacation. I had every intention of posting while away (I even had this picture of chocolate chip cookies on a USB key to use in an internet cafe). But it never happened.

However I return refreshed and with lots of new toys: While in Paris I went back to Mora, where I bought individual tart rings and a dipping fork. Also when I saw our trip took us near Tain l'Hermitage, home to Valrhona, I felt compelled to stop there. My husband generously agreed, perhaps hoping there's something in it for him.

So back to the post I meant to write a few weeks ago. These cookies are perhaps the first thing I ever baked as a child. And I baked them many, many times since. The recipe comes from Joy of Cooking (the recipe doesn't seem to have changed from one edition to another).

As a child baking them in France, I didn't know that our brown sugar ("cassonade") was any different from American brown sugar. I also had to make my own chocolate chips from bars of dark "chocolat de ménage." Baking soda was available, we just had to buy it in pharmacies ("bicarbonate de soude").

These were always a hit among French friends, well before "les cookies" became commonplace and lost the appeal of novelty. And even today, none of my friends has become so blasé about cookies that I ever have to bring any home.

I haven't changed the way I make them much, other than buying the darkest brown sugar I can find in health food stores here in Europe. I like them small and crunchy, which can be achieved by baking them a few minutes longer than for a softer version.

Recipe: Classic Chocolate Chip Cookies
Source: Joy of Cooking
About 3 dozen 2 1/2 inch cookies

- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons all purpose flour (140g)
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 8 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened (125g)
- 1/2 cup sugar (100g)
- 1/2 cup brown sugar (110g)
I've tried cutting these amounts drastically but it does affect texture. Still, you can get away with reducing sugar by about 25% I would guess.
- 1 large egg
- 1/4 teaspons salt
I think the original Joy of Cooking recipe had 1/2 tspn, and I agree less is better. But don't leave it out, it does add a pleasant kick.
- 1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
or one packet vanilla sugar
- 1 cup semisweet chocolate chips (about 150g dark chocolate I believe)
I use good dark chocolate bars, but not much more than 50% cocoa. I tried the 70% but it was too bitter for this style of cookie. I chop them into chunks with the biggest knife I can find.
- 3/4 cup chopped walnuts or pecans
Sigh, the children of this family don't like nuts, so I make two versions, with and without nuts.

1. Position a rack in the center of the oven. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Grease the cookie sheets.

2. Whisk together thoroughly flour and baking soda.

3. Beat softened butter and both sugars on medium speed until very fluffy and well blended.

4. Add and beat until well combined the egg, salt and vanilla.

5. Stir the flour mixture into the butter mixture until well blended and smooth.

6. Stir in the chocolate chips and nuts.
At this point you can chill the dough or even freeze it for later use.

7. Drop the dough by heaping measuring teaspoonfuls onto sheets. If the dough has been chilled you can shape little walnuts with your fingers.

Don't flatten them, they will flatten naturally in the oven. Space about 2 inches apart.

8. Bake, 1 sheet at a time, until the cookies are just slightly collored on top and rimmed with brown at the edges, 8 to 10 minutes; rotate the sheet halfway through baking for even browning.

9. Remove the sheet to a rack and let stand until the cookies firm slightly, abut 2 minutes. Transfer the cookies to racks to cool.

Make sure they are quite cool before boxing them, but don't let them lie around too long or they might capture moisture and get soft.

Food Photography
On another subject, I don't post so much about photography as I originally intended to do. The main reason is that based on comments, there seems to be more interest in food than in anything I have to impart about taking photos (not much, as my interest is very recent). Still, I'm always eager to learn more about this subject, and I enjoy reading well-illustrated blogs.

Among these I ran across this great post from 101 Cookbooks with tips on food photography. Given the quality of Heidi's photos, her advice is extremely valuable.

For instance:
Utilize all-natural (or available) light:
I look for light that is soft, sometimes diffused with a thin curtain (which helps the window to act like a huge light box). I avoid direct light because it throws really harsh shadows across the food. No Flash. Ever. Unless you want your food to look sweaty and greasy - which can sometimes be cool/modern when you are talking about BBQ or something. But get the techniques down using natural light first, and then start breaking the rules

I always wanted to make a list of the rules I've stumbled across thanks to blogging, and will make so bold as to post my own tips after the authoritative advice referred to above:
- Use an SLR camera if you can (wow they make a difference)
- Take pictures in daylight if possible, as recommended above. Since I often cook or bake at night, natural daylight is usually not available (see the photos of cookies in the making included with the recipe above). If lighting conditions are difficult, increase the ISO level (sensitivity to light) to 800 or 1600. I personally don't care if this makes my pictures grainy.
- Never use a flash on food (again, as per Heidi's recommendation). It's such a shame when well-executed dishes appear unappetizing because a flash was used.
- Take pictures close up, and try different angles. Low is dramatic, but sometimes a good shot from above makes the picture more "readable".
- Have fun with high apertures to blur backgrounds or foregrounds. Though with my new Canon 50mm 1.8 lens I feel sometimes too much of the shot is blurry. For instance the shot above hurts my eyes a little because the cookie in the foreground is blurry. But I do like the blurry green background. I have to learn to dose it.
- Cropping can be fun, but I've tried to stay away from it recently. I want to focus on getting good overall photos, not just good details for cutting and pasting.
- Watch out for cluttered backgrounds (hard to do in my messy kitchen!)
- If I'm hesitating between an "artistic" shot and one in which you can really see and understand the nature of the food (what I mean by readable above), I tend to choose the latter if what I want is a discussion on the food, not the photography. This seems obvious but I do get frustrated when fashion magazines don't give you a clear view of whatever clothes they're trying to pitch.
- Take sectional shots, so you can see how food looks on the inside
- And probably use a tripod to get sharp photos. I bought one recently but haven't used it much (too lazy), which explains why many of my shots are blurry. Aside from using the wrong aperture.


Dolce said...

Thanks a lot for your comment on my blog! I use a small digital compact camera (canon ixus 65) and when I see wonderful photographs like yours on your site I'm not so satisfied with mine. Perhaps I'll make myself a wonderful SLR christmas present (already in four months!). Until then I try to do my best...
And thanks you for your photographical advice in your post!
If you ever need a receipt from my site in English or in French - don't hesitate to contact me!

Greetings from Munich,

Claudia - Dolce

Anonymous said...

Yes, the husband always does a good turn out of self-interest!

The husband who loves cookies

J said...

hi astrid, what BEAUTIFUL cookies - am positive, of course, that they must simply taste as awesome as they look! just add icy cold milk and what a moment of sheer bliss ;)

SouthernGirl said...

Thank you for your advise. Even with my simple camera, it will help me.
(not saying anything about the food. Just looking at it makes me fat).

Astrid said...

Dolce - Thanks for the nice comment! When we bought our SLR camera I felt guilty for spending so much, but the improvement in our photos is breath-taking. And when you think your photos are your memories, it makes it a lot easier to justify the investment. Especially if you have little kids who will not stay little kids for ever...

Husband - You know I love to make them for you (oh all right, for us)!

Jocelyn - Thank you for your compliment. I return it to you 100-fold for all the artistic and mouth-water creations you share with us on your blog!

Southerngirl - Glad the tips can come in handy!

Kai Carver said...

Mm, those look good.

The Gorillapod SLR tripod (more) looks like it might be handier than traditional tripods. It could help with the laziness and make an excellent toy for the kids. :-)

The problem with the top photo is that only the back cookies are in focus. A general rule might be to blur equal amounts of the front and back of the main subject matter (not the whole picture). In your photo, the front cookie seems at least as interesting as the top one, so it's a bit disappointing to see it blurred. The second cookie pile pic is better for focus and detail (yum!), but the background color is dull, so the first pic is more distinctive.

Advice on focus & depth of field: "look at the entire scene and think about whether blurring them out of focus and out of attention would make them less distracting".

Astrid said...

Hi Kai - Welcome back! I love that tripod, though it looks like it might come after you in the middle of the night... I agree with your comments on the photo and I'll read the link to tips with interest.

Molsthepiegirl said...

I found your blog when searching for a recipe to mimic a lovely chocolate cookie I have found myself addicted to. A little french cafe on capitol hill (in Washington,DC) makes them. They use small dark rich chips. The cookies themselves seem like they have more butter and maybe egg than a traditional cookie. I can't seem to find any recipes that would lend themselves to these & I'm aching to find one. I don't even know if they are truly french. The cookies are on the large side and have a light, buttery texture, soft as well and about an 1/2 inch-inch in thickness. Any ideas?

Astrid said...

Hi Molsthepiegirl. Maybe you mean these cocoa fleur de sel cookies, a recipe by Pierre Hermé, translated by Dorie Greenspan? They were quite the rage at one point on blogs. Here's one of the many posts about them: http://dessertfirst.typepad.com/dessert_first/2006/09/my_favorite_coo.html
I like them and make them often too.