Category Archives: Down East

Isle au Chocolat

Picture this: a small, snow-covered island with a few dozen inhabitants off the coast of Maine in the middle of February. A frozen photographer with a cart full of props on a mailboat. An editor with a vision for a unique and luscious cookbook. An industrious couple who have discovered the secret to sustaining themselves on this island. The secret being chocolate. Lots of it. Combine all these things and you have a large part of the story behind the beautiful new Down East cookbook Desserted: Recipes and Tales from an Island Chocolatier, by Kate Shaffer of Black Dinah Chocolatiers.

Have props, will travel.

I spent two-and-a-half fabulous chocolate-filled days on Isle au Haut taking photos for this book last winter, and, okay, I’ll admit it, tasting every manner of chocolate-based dish put in front of me. I did this only to ensure that the recipes were perfect, though! And let me tell you, they are. I’ve made several since then, and each one is heavenly. Whether you want to learn the painstaking art of making hazelnut coffee truffles or are content with making your own Maine mint chip ice cream (me!) and flourless peanut butter chocolate chip blondies (me again!), you’ll find plenty to love in this book. Kate’s humorous and heart-felt stories of island life are sure to have you poring over the pages long after your desserts have been prepared.

Not such a bad place to be in the middle of a snowstorm, especially when you’re surrounded by chocolate!

Dotty, the 83-year-old post mistress, presides over the island’s postage-stamp-size post office.

It’s not often that I get to work collaboratively with people on creating photos. More often than not I get my marching orders and off I go, solo. Mostly I’m entrusted to just “do my thing.” There are advantages to this, of course, like doing things the way you want to do them without distracting, and possibly irritating, input. But if you have a team of like-minded people working together on something they enjoy, nothing beats the feeling of a successful collaborative project. Ideally, ideas complement each other or when one person is stuck another comes up with a brilliant solution, and the end result is something everyone is super satisfied with. Well, I’m happy to say this is how things went down with Desserted. I couldn’t have asked for a more good-natured, supportive and creative team than that of Kathleen Fleury and Mirik Jurek, the editor and designer, respectively, of the book at Down East, and Kate and Steve at Black Dinah.

I arrived on the island with a shot list and ideas for props and set ups, but despite my organization, was a bit terrified of having to shoot island landscapes, the chocolate making process, portraits of Kate, and 13 finished recipes all in two-and-a-half days. Thanks to Kate’s late-night and early morning prep work and her innate culinary talent, Steve’s coffee-making skills and good humor, and Kathleen’s schedule keeping and decisiveness, all went smoothly. There were certainly no opportunities to spend hours fine-tuning one shot, but sometimes that’s better I think. Often it seems the best shots are taken without too much fuss and over thinking. Some wonderful collaborative moments occurred when, pressed for time, a slew of spontaneous ideas from all those present concerning props, angles and lighting were combined to form winning shots. Other times, I would be struck by the beauty of totally unstyled moments, such as these three below.

An off-the-cuff shot of some parchment on which Kate had demonstrated how she decorates truffles was transformed into an elegant design that appears on the chapter title pages.

I couldn’t resist capturing the residue of the elderberry glaze that topped an equally vibrant pumpkin cheesecake.

Filo cigars fresh out of the fry pan draining on paper towels also caught my eye.

There are two shots that stick out in my mind as ones that we particularly celebrated at the time. The first was the Black Dinah tiramisu, a thing of utter beauty. I was dubious when Kate had encouraged us to shoot this recipe as I envisioned a gloppy, off-white blob. Kate’s take on this Italian classic, though, is unique and visually arresting (not to mention delicious!). I did some eye-level shots, two of which appear in the book, and then Kathleen suggested an overhead shot. I was initially skeptical, but all of us oohed and aahed when we saw it pop up on my laptop screen. Its graphic appeal won us over. The other shots were more stylistically in keeping with the rest of the book, however, so it makes sense that this one didn’t make it into print.

Black Dinah tiramisu

The other shot that had us saying “Cool!” was appropriately enough, ice cream. I had never shot ice cream before this cookbook and knew it was the stuff of food photographers’ nightmares, to the point where some use substitutes for the real thing. I never shoot artificial “food” so I knew I would have to work fast. I got the set ready and we took a couple quick test shots of the two sorbets and one ice cream unadorned. Then when Kate went to drizzle the black pepper sauce on the strawberry balsamic sorbet for the final shot, I instinctively snapped this photo. Unfortunately, it did not make it into the book either, probably because of the placement of the element that made it cool in the first place; the photo ran as a spread and the drip would have disappeared right into the book’s gutter. Just goes to show you sometimes the best shots won’t work for publication purposes!

Mexican chocolate sorbet, strawberry balsamic sorbet with chocolate black pepper sauce and Maine mint chip ice cream

If you want to get your fill of the photos that make Sandy Oliver “want to lick the page” and read all of Kate’s magical recipes and stories, comment on this post for a chance to win your very own copy of Desserted. As a special holiday treat, I’m giving away one copy of the book to a randomly selected person who leaves a comment. If you don’t win, rush right out to your local Maine bookstore to purchase copies for all your Maine-island-loving, chocolate-adoring friends and family members, or order here!

Make the Basics, Part III: Ice Cream

Before summer really is over, I thought it’d be a good time to post about my latest culinary passion: making ice cream. When I had envisioned people making their own ice cream in the past, I always pictured someone laboriously turning a crank on a wooden barrel filled with ice and rock salt and thought “oh, that seems like way more trouble than it’s worth!” But then came three fabulous food-filled days in February of this year on Isle au Haut, a small island off of Stonington, Maine. Yes, ice cream on a Maine island in February. Sounds enticing doesn’t it?

Well, here’s how it went down. I was on the island for a whirlwind trip (more on this adventure later!) to do the photography for the fantastic forthcoming cookbook Desserted: Recipe and Tales from an Island Chocolatier to be published by Down East this fall. Kate Shaffer, a co-owner, with her husband Steve, of Black Dinah Chocolatiers, has penned a fabulous book full of humorous stories and knock-out chocolate-centric recipes. The book contains four ice cream and sorbet recipes. I saw her making one of them, the Maine mint chocolate chip, and was captivated. She put the mint-infused custard she had made earlier into her cute, little ice cream maker, which to my delight did not have a giant crank or a pile of ice. It had a frozen metal cylinder that is placed into a plastic container with a small plastic handle that she easily spun around a few times every 4 minutes for 20 minutes or so. Then the ice cream was placed in the freezer for several hours to set. Easy as could be. (The only potential stumbling block is planning far enough in advance so that your custard has time to cool thoroughly overnight in the fridge and then the ice cream has time to freeze solidly.) There are also electric ice cream makers that presumably make the process even easier, but I like the low-tech crank method because that’s just the sort of gal I am: one who appreciates things that are less likely to break down, less noisy, involve you more in the process and all that good stuff.

And then I tasted that ice cream. And wow, I was in love. It was better than any ice cream I’d ever purchased anywhere. It was fresh and creamy and had a perfect balance of flavors. I vowed to get my very own cute, little ice cream maker as soon as the temperature rose above freezing. Since May I’ve experimented with several recipes. Among my favorites so far, aside from Kate’s Maine mint chip, which is still at the top of the list (the recipe can be found in Desserted come October), are salt caramel ice cream, strawberry ice cream, blueberry ice cream and sweet corn gelato. I like making ones that feature foods that are in season in Maine because the ice cream tastes that much more fresh and flavorful. Most of the recipes are very simple and involve making a custard from milk and eggs, which means after mastering the basic process it should be fairly easy to make up your own recipes. I haven’t done this yet, but I plan to! There’s also a new book out called Jeni’s Splendid Ice Creams at Home that uses a different method, not involving custard. I’ve heard good things about it and am eager to check it out. Let me know if you have any favorite ice cream flavors or recipes you’d like to share, especially before summer is over!