I’m really having to check myself before I gush about these cookies…OMG THE CHOCOLATINESS. THE MELTING SANDINESS. THE DEEP, DARK CHOCOLATE FIREWORKS.
Okay, checking my enthusiasm for now.
Today’s post features part two of an interview with Craig Lee, award-winning photojournalist and photographer of the San Francisco Chef’s Table cookbook (part one of the interview is here). And also a fabulously rich cookie that I kind of screwed up, but am still sharing.
This part of the interview is perhaps my favorite—these questions get to the heart of what we’re after, after all—THE FOOD! Read on for Craig’s (psst–he’s my uncle!) favorite recipes from the book, his tips for aspiring food photographers, and his favorite eats in San Francisco!
(With his underground food connections, you know this list is going to be top-quality.)
An interview with Craig Lee, Part II:
What was your favorite recipe to shoot (and/or eat)?
I love the mudslide chocolate cookies by Rodney Cerdan. The black garlic sourdough-crusted rack of lamb and the walnut ice cream at Absinthe Brasserie and Bar was great—the combination of the flavors in the lamb with the sourdough crust was very tasty. The walnut ice cream was perfectly sweet without overpowering the walnut flavor.
Fideua with duck at Duende was a very tasty paella-like dish. The butterscotch pudding as well as the braised lamb ragout with sheep’s milk ricotta ravioli were delicious at One Market.
Some other standout desserts include the blood orange and chocolate chunk soufflés from the Chocolate Lab, Grandma Frankie’s peanut brittle from Melissa Perello of Frances, and cherry panna cotta from Roland Passot of La Folie.
My wife, Holly, was one of the recipe testers for the book. She made three recipes and they all came out just like they did at each of the restaurants, and they tasted great. She made:
- Crispy noodles with X.O. chicken and bok choy from Martin Yan’s M.Y. China
- Heirloom tomato salad with duck confit and tofu dressing from Parallel 37 in the Ritz-Carlton, San Francisco.
- Duck dumplings from Calafia, Charlie Ayers’ restaurant in Palo Alto.
I could keep going—the cookbook is full of so many great dishes. This book is a collection of many of great San Francisco area restaurants all in one book.
Any tips for aspiring professional food photographers?
Find other food photographers, get to know them, and, if possible, assist them. Join associations like ones for photographers, food stylists, restaurants or anything related to the field. Find photo or food styling workshops. Networking associations events for photographers, food stylists are a great way to make connections. Find aspiring food stylists and do “tests” with them. Tests are photo shoots to experiment working with a food stylist to come up with a potential portfolio piece. Doing this will prepare you for paying jobs down the road so you can show that you can do this. Culinary schools typically have some students who are looking to go into food styling.
Visualize how you want your images to look. Look at magazines and books for photography styles you like. Look at the food and the background. Look at the color tone combinations of the food with the background. For example, look at images in Donna Hay magazine; some of the images have a cool color tone background to contrast the food. Look at compositions and angles. Always keep learning about lighting because as a photographer, your job is to make food look good through lighting. Lighting skills will also apply to others areas such as portraits and seeing light naturally. You need to know how to use lighting and make it happen by creating and controlling it. Use that lighting to capture the texture of the food in the images.
What are some of your favorite eats in San Francisco?
- The “Dorado” Crispy Tacos at La Taqueria at 2889 Mission Street near 25th Street. Get two crispy “Dorado” tacos with everything on it.
- Gott’s Roadside (formerly called Taylor’s Refresher. I liked the former name.) They make great burgers, fries and shakes.
- Super Duper Burgers: another great place for burgers, shakes and fries.
- The Cippino at Tadich Grill. Their cippino is one of the best. It’s perfect; not too salty or too much tomato sauce. They told me their secret is making fresh fish stock every day for the cioppino.
- Mitchell’s Ice Cream on San Jose Avenue. They have been around for years since 1953 and they make the best real ice cream with many flavors.
- Limon: a Peruvian restaurant with three locations in San Francisco. Great food that you can try a variety tapas-style with small plates.
- Dim Sum at Yank Sing: Their Shanghai Dumplings come out perfect every time with the broth inside.
- Rickybobby: Comfort food kicked up several notches up in quality with a twist, such as lobster mac ‘n cheese and a beef bacon burger—they grind up the beef and bacon ground together.
- The House of Prime Rib: That’s all they do and they are excellent at it. (Note: when I was a wee fetus in my mom’s belly, apparently this restaurant was the source of many of her cravings. Oh the irony that she birthed a now-vegetarian.)
- Gialina Pizzeria: great thin crust pizza.
- Bakesale Betty in Oakland: great fried chicken sandwich.
Well now I want to jump on a plane and get my butt to San Francisco. Since I and most of you can’t, let’s talk about chocolate cookies. CHOCOLATE. MUDSLIDE. Cookies.
These were contributed to the book by Rodney Cerdan, pastry chef of at Prospect Restaurant and they were Uncle Craig’s top-recommended recipe. I honestly do not know why I fought the decision to make these, except that I can never make up my mind and the Thai mango scones from Craftsman & Wolves looked so intriguing, but so did the roasted white chocolate cheesecake…and so did the sweet corn-goat cheese bread pudding, and the green farro and peas, and the beet cake with fromage blanc frosting and candied walnuts. Bah! Deciding which ONE recipe to try first nearly turned me into a quivering mess.
I ended up trying the buttermilk cakes first and those were some of the best yellow cake I’ve ever had but these cookies are something else. They require making your own toffee, which put me off at first, but literally takes about two minutes of hands-on time to make. The cookies (oh, the cookies) seek out out their deep, rich chocolatiness from a very generous amount of melted chocolate, amplified by smoky coffee grounds. And then they are positively crammed with toasted pecans, dark chocolate chips, and homemade toffee.
They are heaven on a plate and extremely dangerous to have around your house in bulk. This is your one and only warning. I think it’s fitting to end the interview by sending you off with the recipe for these because one good thing begets another, amirite?
The recipe below reflects most of my substitutions. I ended up with chunkier, fatter cookies than what is pictured in the book, but they’re still delicious (buy the book for the real recipe 😉 ).
- Toffee: My toffee started to separate near the end of its time on the stove. In between desperately googling fixes and juggling hot pans, here are some tips on how to avoid this:
- Use a good-quality, heavy-bottomed pan that will distribute heat evenly.
- Melt your butter slowly (I was impatient and melted it over medium-high heat). If the butter/sugar temperature rises above 320 degrees, the final product will not stay solid.
- If your toffee DOES start to separate, you can stir in a tablespoon of hot tap water and whisk frantically until it mostly comes together, pour it onto a baking sheet and freeze it until solid. It will still work.
- Egg division: I halved the batch, which technically required using 2.5 eggs in the cookies. I subbed ground flax for half an egg instead. Below, I recommend adding a tablespoon of water or milk to the dough to compensate for the liquid-sucking flax meal.
- Chocolate distribution: I reduced the amount of chocolate chips. I recommend using mini chocolate chips or chopped bars of chocolate over full-sized chips for more even chocolate distribution.
- Chocolate: I only had a little bittersweet chocolate on hand, so I used 8 oz of unsweetened chocolate + 3/4 cup granulated sugar and 2 ounces of bittersweet chocolate to equal 10 oz of bittersweet chocolate. If you do this, the added sugar will suck up extra moisture and you will not need to chill your cookies. I recommend just using all bittersweet chocolate.
- Chilling vs. not: IF YOU SUBSTITUTE CHOCOLATE LIKE I DID: left the rolled out balls of cookies out for about an hour before baking. I do NOT recommend this as my dough dried out a bit in the meantime. Bake them right away. (Chilling the dough had no effect on my version since these were going to be serious chunkers either way).
The ultimate chocolate cookie--slightly crumbly, VERY chocolate-y. Crammed with toasted pecans, homemade toffee and chocolate, these rich cookies are extremely addicting.
- 4 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons sugar
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1.5 tablespoons corn syrup
- 1 tablespoon water
- 1 cup whole pecan halves
- 10 ounces bittersweet chocolate, chopped*
- 2 eggs
- 1/2 tablespoon ground flax meal
- ¼ cup sugar
- ½ cup + 2 teaspoons brown sugar
- 1 tablespoon milk (only if using flax)
- ¾ teaspoon vanilla extract
- ¾ teaspoon finely ground coffee
- ¾ cup all-purpose flour
- ¼ teaspoon baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup dark chocolate chips (mini recommended, or chopped chocolate)
To make the toffee:
Grease a cookie sheet lined with foil.
In a heavy-bottomed pot over LOW heat, melt the stick of butter. Add the sugar, salt, corn syrup and water; stir to combine. Turn heat up to medium-high and continue cooking, stirring occasionally until sugar is a medium golden brown. Pour onto the greased sheet and let cool. Once cool, break into small pieces and set aside.
To make the cookie dough:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
Place pecans on a baking sheet and toast for 6-8 minutes, stirring halfway through. Alternatively, toast the pecans in a skillet on the stovetop over medium heat until fragrant and golden brown. Remove from heat and chop into small chunks. Set aside.
Melt the chocolate in a double boiler or in a microwave in 30-second increments. Stir until smooth and set aside in a warm spot.
With an electric mixer, whip together the eggs, flax meal, sugar and brown sugar until well combined. Add the milk, vanilla and ground coffee; mix. Add the melted chocolate and stir to combine.
Stir in the chocolate chunks, toffee bits and toasted pecans until thoroughly combined. Add the flour, baking powder and salt (sift beforehand if you're an A+ student) and fold in until just combined.
If the dough is very wet, chill the dough, covered, for about an hour or until firm enough to scoop. Otherwise, bake the dough right away, using a tablespoon to place rounded tablespoons of dough onto a parchment-lined baking sheet, about 1.5-2 inches apart. Slightly flatten the cookies with your hand. Bake for 8-10 minutes. They should look set but slightly soft when pressed; they will firm up when cool.
*I used 8 oz of unsweetened chocolate and 2 oz of bittersweet chocolate. Add 3/4 cup sugar to the chocolate mixture once it is melted. You will not need to chill the dough if you use this version.
Adapted from San Francisco Chef's Table.