shade in the food blogging game {mini rant}

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Normally I’d reserve such missives for a private, long-winded Facebook post, but quite honestly I’ve become increasingly disturbed by the shady practices of food bloggers, who are desperate to attain celebrity status and the coveted title of cookbook author and “online brand.” Let me put this as plainly as possible: I write about food because it’s at the core of who I am. The alchemy of flavors, textures and tastes delight me, and for as long as I can remember, I’ve either had a pen or a whisk in hand. Food has the propensity to connect people in a way that’s visceral, real. We hatch plans, we weep, we rage, we talk our way through our darkness over a plate of hot pasta or a bowl of comforting soup. I write about food because I believe in its ability to heal and bind.

I don’t write about food because I want to be a “brand” or elevate my ranking in Google search with plug-ins, applications, or smartly-worded titles. I don’t write to sell my soul for a stand mixer or to post the au courant recipes making the rounds (popsicles, anyone?). And while I understand the business of content creation, brand building and word of mouth, there is a way in which one can be authentic, passionate, but still turn a profit. And, quite frankly, I’ve seen very few blogs in the food space that manage to keep their integrity in check. Rather, they’ve fallen into a “me-too” think speak of conferences, business cards, book deals, and a strategy that feels machinist rather than honest.

Untitled Recently, I road-tested two recipes from sites I found on Tastespotting (an elegant and visual Pinterest for foodies, if you will), and both times I found myself reading the recipes several times, shaking my head, and muttering: This can’t be right. I scrolled through the scores of comments that complimented the food photography, styling, and the personal anecdotes that preceded the recipe. Nothing about the efficacy of the baked goods or even a question on the chemistry. So, against my better judgment, I baked the two loaves from two separate blogs and they were both failures. One was a chocolate chip pound cake, whose ratios could have not possibly yielded the picture on display (3 sticks of butter for one scant cup of flour for the crumble? Are you kidding me here?), and the other was a bread loaf with 1:1 white for whole wheat flour swap, which didn’t account for the density of the flour and the needed to alter the wet ingredients for the substitution.

A long-winded way of saying the recipes were wrong. The photos were dubious, and scores of blogs are securing traffic, fans and deals, based on the fact of one beautiful picture and a few personal words. This reminds me of those gag books, when opened, are actually storage boxes. They’re empty, devoid of passion and authenticity, reduced to the output of a Canon 5D Mark or a Nikon.

Suddenly, all of the blogs appear as a variation on a single theme, a one-note plea for the glory that internet fame brings. The dream of being the next Smitten Kitchen (for the record, I’ve sampled some of the recipes from this book, and they were not up to snuff, but that’s a whole other discussion). Perhaps this is the reason why I’ve been so severe in terms of how I manage this space. I refuse to call myself a food blogger. I refuse to accept advertising. I refuse to try to achieve anything less than what I consider extraordinary.

A friend once told me that I’ll never have the traffic the “bigger guys” get because I’m too dark. My writing is too melodic and sometimes disturbing and sometimes meandering, and I don’t project an idealized life. Sure, I’ve got the pretty pictures and tagged posts, but I don’t project a home that the world covets. I’m not the online equivalent of cotton candy. My dinner parties are messy, replete with sullied napkins and discussions about Rosemary’s Baby, formalism, Amy Hempel, and Orange is the New Black. I’m outspoken, make whole new shapes outside of lines, and pretty much live in the color blue.

Listen, I’m not claiming to be perfect. I’ve had my blogging mistakes and pitfalls, and I was once tempted by the lure of free things, but I try to be as honest as I am aware. I’m trying to deliver food I’d cook and eat. What you don’t see are all the failed recipes. What you don’t read about is the fully uncut version of my life, because I firmly believe that my life is mine, and when it’s all revealed it suddenly becomes less mine. It becomes yours.

This is probably why I read so few blogs, why I trust a handful of folks who don’t write to gain traffic and build brands. They write because they love food, love the power of it, love how it consumes them. They live for that symbiosis. They live to marry image and text. They want to show you just how much this meal meant to them.

Not how much it’s padded their bank account.

/rant

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chocolate swirl buns + defining myself as a “food blogger”

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As with a wound on one’s own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things. ― Kazuo Ishiguro, A Pale View Of Hills

I’ve spent some time thinking about this space — more than one should, really — in an effort to define it. I’ve never been one to color in the lines, rather I’m someone who prefers to skirt the edges of things. Go beyond the margin. So for a time I dissected food blogs, magazines, trying to sort out where I fit. Communities of any sort have always been a challenge for me as I never follow a roadmap and I end up breaking all the china. And I’m also disturbingly shy around new people, so much so I end up in a corner, alone, and everyone mistakes my fear of meeting new people for snobbery.

After a month of studying the lives of food bloggers who claimed to have stumbled upon their fame rather fortuitously, I noticed a pattern that felt chilling, almost medicinal. You’re served up a dish, beautifully photographed and styled, and told a rather whimsical story of an haphazard life made pretty. Don’t mind the ticker tape of ads and sponsorships and free Kitchen Aids on the side. And then you look at your tiny kitchen with all its clutter and the recipe that doesn’t come close to the picture and the job you have to wake to in the morning, and something inside you turns. How is it possible that the place you’ve chosen to visit, the one that’s supposed to inspired you also pains you?

Although I admired the recipes, the pretty pictures and the sweet lives, I knew that this wasn’t what I wanted this space to be. And then I discovered a handful of blogs — those who told really beautiful narratives and married those stories with photographs. Whether they’re dishes just prepared or completely eaten, you felt warmth coming off the screen. You felt something real and raw and beautiful based on the few words they had to say, and the recipe was but a mere cog — an element of the picture that rendered it symmetrical.

The blogs were a kaleidoscope of one’s heart and at the core of it was food. Always food.

Then it dawned on me that I want this space to be a visual memoir of sorts — a food and life odyssey, where I try so so so so hard not to fixate on perfecting the photographs or the font, but laying my heart to bear. It may not give me loads of traffic or I may be breaking every SEO rule in the book, but I feel most comfortable sharing bits of my life through the lens of food.

Hopefully, you’ll enjoy the ride.

I’ve loved Deb from Smitten Kitchen’s blog for years. I adore her passion for food, her taste for perfection, and her wonderful kitchen tales, but in all candor I struggle with some of her recipes. Some of them purely shine, but some of her baked goods (especially those not in her book, but on her site) don’t always come out like the photo. Clearly, it might be me, my technique or ingredients, but it’s happened specifically with a few of her baked goods that I tend to now only dart in and out of her blog, and find inspiration in her savory bits. So while these chocolate swirl buns are delicious, I’ve made infinitely better ones. However, I’m not going to kick a good chocolate bun out of bed. OBVIOUSLY.

INGREDIENTS: Recipe adapted from Smitten Kitchen, with modifications.
For the Dough
1/2 cup (120 ml) water
1/4 cup (50 grams) plus a pinch of granulated sugar
1 4oz packet of active dry yeast
1 large egg, brought to room temperature
2 cups (250 grams) all-purpose flour, plus more for work surface
1/2 tsp table salt
4 tbsp (45 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature, plus additional for bowl and muffin tins

For the Filling
3 tbsp (45 grams) unsalted butter, at room temperature
1/4 cup (50 grams) granulated sugar
1/2 pound (225 grams) mix of dark and semi-sweet chocolate
Pinch of salt
3/4 tsp ground cinnamon

DIRECTIONS
Prepare dough: Warm water and a pinch of sugar to between 110 to 116°F. While the original recipe called for milk, I tried (and wasted) four packets of yeast because I didn’t see this come to a bubble. This could be me, this could be the milk I used, but I bunged it all and opted to use water. If you don’t have a thermometer, you’re looking for it to be warm but not hot to the touch; best to err on the cool side. Sprinkle yeast over water and let stand until foamy, about 5 minutes. In a small bowl, whisk together egg and 1/4 cup sugar, then slowly whisk in yeast mixture.

In a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine flour and salt. Run mixer on low and add egg mixture, mixing until combined. Add butter and mix until incorporated. Switch mixer to dough hook and let it knead the dough for 10 minutes on low speed. At 10 minutes, it should be smooth and slightly sticky, but it’ll firm up a bit after it rises. Butter a large bowl and place dough in it. Cover loosely with a lint-free towel or plastic wrap and let rise for 1 hour, or until doubled. While my dough didn’t double in size, it did balloon a little, and ultimately I did yield delicious, albeit less puffier, buns. In the end, my product wasn’t perfect but I’m not sweating a mini bun burning the roof of my mouth, am I? NO.

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Meanwhile, prepare filling: If your chocolate is in large bars, roughly chop it. Using a food processor (or mini chop) pulse the chopped chocolate with the salt, sugar, and cinnamon until the chocolate is very finely chopped with some parts almost powdery. Add butter and pulse machine until it’s distributed throughout the chocolate. (If you don’t have a food processor, just chop the chocolate until it’s very finely chopped, then stir in the sugar, salt, cinnamon and butter until it makes a pasty/chunky/delicious mess.) Set mixture aside.

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Generously butter (or spray, as I did) a standard 12-muffin tin; set aside.

Form buns: Once dough is doubled, turn it out onto a well-floured surface and gently deflate it with floured hands. Let it rest for another 5 minutes. Once rested, roll dough into a large rectangle. The short sides should be a scant 11 to 12 inches. The other side can be as long as you can roll it. The longer you can make it, the more dramatic and swirled your buns will be.

Sprinkle the filling evenly over the dough’s surface. It’ll be clumpy and uneven and probably look like there’s too much chocolate for the volume of dough; just do your best. Tightly roll the dough back over the filling from one short end to the other, forming a 12 to 13-inch log. (Yes, it always magically grows because the dough is soft.) With a sharp serrated knife, gently saw 1-inch segments off the log and place each in a prepared muffin cup. Loosely cover buns with plastic wrap or a lint-free towel and let them rise for another 30 minutes.

Meanwhile, preheat your oven to 350°F (180°C).

Bake: Dollop a tiny smidgen of softened butter on top of each bun. Bake buns for 15 to 20 minutes, until puffed and brown. If you have an instant read thermometer, you can take the buns out when it reads 185 to 190 degrees in the middle of each bun.

Set buns on cooling rack. Theoretically, you should cool them completely before unmolding them (with the aid of a knife or thin spatula to make sure nothing has stuck). This, of course, won’t happen, so have at them; just don’t burn your tongue.

Do ahead: These buns can be formed, placed in the muffin cups and refrigerated (loosely covered with plastic, which you might want to oil to keep it from sticking) the night before, to bake in the morning. You can bake them directly from the fridge. They can be baked and frozen until needed, up to 1 month.

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