Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Le Bernardin on a Bad Day--Better than a Baltimore Bistro, but ...

Recently as part of a  family birthday celebration in New York City, we  booked reservations at Le Bernardin. We chose it on the advice of a foodie friend who often frequents world-class restaurants worldwide and flatly told my son, "Le Bernardin has the best meal and service in New York." So of course, we were expecting to be wowed.

Let me start with the good news. As the pic above suggests, we  had a wonderfully convivial and leisurely meal together in what is IMHO a strikingly beautiful and elegant space. Some customers say they miss the traditional French feel of the restaurant before its makeover, but I love the warm light and updated stylishness of it today.  Our table was set and waiting, and we started off toasting all around with a really pleasant, properly served champagne (from a solid wine list) for the grownups and bubbly soft drinks for my 8 and 9 year-old grandchildren.  Then, some wheels started coming off....

 First, the restaurant was  fairly unhelpful in accommodating the children. Though they've been "fine dining" all their lives and are as well-behaved (and clean) as most adults, they still prefer somewhat blander, more familiar mainstream dishes--which we understood in advance are in short supply at Le Bernadin. When we politely inquired about perhaps a simple beef dish for the kids, the waiter shrugged and suggested the Wagyu beef-osetra cavier tartare! (In contrast, when my grandson, pictured above right, asked if he might have  beef with Bernaise  at the vaunted, seemingly stuffy Taillevent, in Paris, they not only prepared it, but after he pronounced the Bernaise the best ever, the chef invited him in to tour the kitchen!)

When we settled on the truffled pasta with bacon for the children's entrees and asked if the shaved black truffle garnish could be omitted,  we were told that this was impossible. Our solution was to simply remove and eat the shavings ourselves as the plates were served.  (The slivers were somewhat dry and their taste muted, suggesting they'd been prepped early in the morning and then left uncovered all day. But the tagliatelle with black truffle sauce turned out to be one of the most well-prepared dishes of our lunch.)

Our waiter's disdain probably reflects the common, but unfortunate high-end restaurant view of children as an unwelcome nuisance. Their fidgeting and messiness can mightily annoy other patrons (including me), plus they don't run up the big bar tabs that fatten bottom lines and tips. But these children sat still, smiled and did nothing whatsoever remotely irritating, and we had deliberately booked a 2:30 pm lunch to avoid taking seats from the more lucrative business account lunch crowd.  (The managements of august eateries might want to remind themselves that such youngsters are their next generation of loyal customers. The chef at Taillevent was certainly wise to this!)

The second lapse was more surprising and inexplicable. Do you see the genial-looking man (aka Mr. Baggett) in the pic at the top? Apparently, the server couldn't. When he offered us bread, he skipped right passed my hubby, who had to wait another 10 minutes after we pointed out the oversight before the bread tray returned. (Without a single word of apology, BTW.)  Midway through our meal when bread was offered a second time, my husband was overlooked again; fortunately, he didn’t care for seconds.  At meal’s end, when our coffee was served, guess who got none?  Happily, the invisible man was more amused (or bemused) than peeved.

I've saved the most disappointing news for last.  The food was mostly prettily presented (like the losbter, at left) and, with one exception, as good or better than we might enjoy in an upscale Baltimore bistro--but, of course, we were not in Baltimore.

Actually, two of us ordered the "peekytoe warm crab cake" as our first prix fixe course, and though it wasn't bad, we both felt the poor thing had given up  peeking due to having languished for an extended period in the kitchen.  Its meat was not nearly as succulent or fresh-tasting as the typical Chesapeake blue, nor was it in the least enhanced by the decorative but dry bits of potato perched on top or the salty but otherwise tasteless ring of pureed potatoes girding it. ( I later noticed from a menu that a tequila guacamole, not potato puree, was supposed to accompany the peekytoe, and that would have perked him up a lot.)

My main course was a stunning-looking halibut dish served with a red borscht sauce, golden beets, and a horseradish creme fraiche. Though it was pleasant, the fish had the texture of  a portion held too many hours in a warmer.  The beets and horseradish sauce--both normally fairly boldly-flavored ingredients that I adore--were meek and mild.  My hubby also pronounced his main course, the lobster, good, though slightly tough, and nothing special.

We enjoyed but didn't swoon over several of our prix fixe desserts, like the "Chocolate-Peanut (below left)," which featured "Madagascan chocolate ganache, peanut mousse, and salted caramel ice cream," in quantities that covered less plate surface than the printed description of the dish took up on the menu.

But  my choice, the Religieuse,  (described as "Elderflower 'creme mousseline', crunchy choux, pear coulis, and black currant powder") was hard to chew, rather plain, and except for the faint herbal character of the elderflower, tasteless. I, myself, have tried to use pear coulis to enhance desserts, but have found its very delicate flavor (not to mention color) is usually lost in a composition, part of the problem here.  Perhaps I'm being a bit too harsh, but I trained as a pastry chef with former White House executive pastry chef Roland Mesnier, and I'm fairly certain he, too, would have given this "treat" a failing grade, particularly on appearance.  As you can see, the Religieuse, shown below, looks vaguely like a triad of  misshapen wafers or macarons.
Would I go back to Le Bernardin? Probably, if  somebody else were picking up the tab, because I enjoyed basking in its shimmery, golden glow, and the food was good.  True, even on a bad day it's a step up from  a nice local Baltimore bistro. But  not a big enough step up to warrant my expense for the meal or trip.

In case you're interested, I had nicer things to say about Denver's Rioja and would go back any time.
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Friday, February 24, 2012

What Cookbook Editors are Looking For--Two Top Cookbook Editors Dish Out Details

If you’ve ever yearned to write a cookbook, understanding what editors do and don't want is a great place to start. Such insights will help you get off on the right foot whether in a chance networking opportunity at a culinary conference or in a cover letter and proposal sent to the editor’s office.

 Here, two very well-known and successful editors, Lorena Jones, Publishing Director at Chronicle Books, and Justin Schwartz, Senior Editor at John Wiley & Sons, share their tips and tell you exactly what they're looking for. Lorena agreed to let me quote from her remarks and a very detailed and thoughtful handout she distributed during a food journalists’ convention workshop some years ago. Justin is my editor at Wiley, and his comments are from a recent personal interview.  Since I’ve worked with a number of cookbook editors on seventeen cookbooks over the years, I’ve added some of my own observations here and there. 

          >Be well prepared: Be sure you’re able to describe your book idea articulately, vividly and very concisely. If you can’t communicate the concept clearly, the editor won’t be able to envision it or worse yet may assume that you aren’t clear about it either.  If you have a chance to pitch your idea in person, Justin Schwartz says you need to boil it down: “Keep it short.  If you can’t explain the concept in two sentences, preferably one, then it’s probably too complicated to be saleable anyway.”

My advice is to focus on the concrete, easy-to-grasp details, such as “50 meal-in-a-bowl soups that can be prepared in 30-minutes or less,” and to avoid hyping with over-used adjectives like mouthwatering and delicious. The editor assumes that the recipes will be tasty; you need provide insight into how you’ll accomplish that, such as “with lots of fresh herbs and really interesting spice combinations” or perhaps “by making clever use of certain convenience products like commercial pestos, salsas, and ready-to-use veggies.”

 Short and non-hypey doesn’t mean cut and dried, though. As Lorena Jones points out, editors want to get a sense of your passion and unique vision for the book. They need to feel that you’re, “excited enough to work on a very difficult assignment for months,” and then willing to “actively promote it for another two or three years.” Share how you got interested in the topic and developed your expertise. Give some insight into what you want to accomplish by writing your book.

          >Promptly and smoothly weave into your conversation or cover letter who you are and why you’re the best person to write this particular cookbook. For example, you might introduce yourself by saying, "I’m the chef of the award-winning Locavores’ Delight restaurant. We’ve been getting such a huge customer response and demand for our recipes that I’d like to write a cookbook that teaches home cooks how they too can prepare great meals year round using only local foodstuffs.” Or the following, which is in fact the way I first pitched my Kneadlessly Simple cookbook idea to Justin Schwartz: “I just completed a lot of research and devised a set of “kneadless” bread recipes for the Washington Post. Both the food section staff and I are getting so much enthusiastic feedback from the recipes, I think there’s a place in the market for a whole book of no-knead breads.” (There was!) Each of these pitches highlighted the author’s personal experience and expertise, which both editors say is one of the essential ingredients publishers look for.  

          >Mention right away if you have a “platform." That is, do you have an established venue or mechanism for reaching potential buyers for your book? This could be a cooking show, a newspaper or magazine column, a website with a large loyal following, or even a well-known restaurant. Editors are judged partly on how well their books sell, and if they can factor in support from your existing followers or fans, they are much more likely to take on your project.  In fact, Justin says, “If your platform is amazing, then you don’t have anything to worry about – agents and editors will come find you.” (For more on how literary agents fit in the picture, check out my post, "What Do Literary Agents Do?"  here.)

          >Be pleasant and enthusiastic, but never pushy. "It's best not to come on too strong,” says Justin. “Editors, like most other people, are uncomfortable with high pressure sales pitches." He adds that you need to take your cue from the editor’s reaction. “If it’s positive, great, then keep supplying more information and offer a business card.” (Justin says he’s most impressed with a card containing a link to a well-maintained website.) 

On the other hand, if the editor doesn’t seem interested, be polite. Don’t monopolize his or her time, and don’t keep approaching (or calling or e-mailing) over and over, as this can be perceived as badgering. “The editor-author relationship is a long-term one, so it has to be positive. You want to be thought of as considerate, not overbearing,” he says. Lorena echoes this sentiment, noting that when you do a book you and your editor are “on the same team” for a long time.

Listen carefully, take heed, and be receptive (never offended) if the editor has any negative reactions to your idea. If, for example, he or she comments that, "Yes, Italian cookbooks are still selling well, but I'm wondering how much fresh territory is still there to be explored," then be sure you make a strong case in your proposal that what you plan to do is new. Sometimes, responding effectively to such criticism can actually change a no to a yes, as I relate in "Food Writing Lessons I Learned the Hard Way." One great piece of advice from Lorena applies whenever you work with an editor: "Apply what you learn as you learn it to everything you write."

          >Follow through on anything you promise the editor, exactly as promised and in the most polished form possible, Lorena advises. One reason editors tend to prefer working with previously published authors is that these folks have already proven they can deliver the goods. Editors need to feel confident that you can produce the 100 or 200 hundred (or whatever the number contracted for) tested original recipes and accompanying publishable-quality text in the time frame and form specified.  Any early signs that you are unreliable or not up to what (trust me) will be a formidable task, will likely snuff out their enthusiasm for working with you.

As for how much you should deliver, Lorena suggests submitting a “meaty" proposal which includes an “irresistible” cover letter; statement of vision for the book; tested recipes (if appropriate); marketing information (including any competition facing your book); annotated table of contents; samples of each text element (such as chapter intros, recipe intros, sidebars, etc.); detailed bio information; and any special sales commitments or opportunities you bring to the project.  In her view, “more is more—a substantive sample starts us off with clarity of direction.” (Note that almost all cookbooks today are sold on the basis of a strong proposal, not as a result of a writer submitting a completed book-length manuscript. This gives the editor an opportunity to help shape the project as it's being completed.)

If all this sounds daunting, it is. A cookbook is a huge commitment, and a solid proposal is just the beginning of your work. But there is almost nothing more gratifying than when your project comes to fruition and you first hold your book in your hands. And, in fact, that same sense of pride and accomplishment comes with every book you write. Right now I’m looking forward to having my next cookbook, Simply Sensational Cookies, in my hands in a few months. I can hardly wait!

Other posts you may like: "Five Things NEVER to Say to a Food Editor." 

or "What Food Editors are Still Looking For."
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Friday, February 17, 2012

Introducing a Fine New "Kneadless" Bread Pot & a Crusty Wheat Pot Boule to Bake in It

I was wrong—well partly wrong! And I’m happy to say so, because it involves sharing some pleasant news.  

Until recently, I always told folks that the best pots for baking the  new “kneadless”  rustic boules were  various metal containers in the 3- to 3 ½-quart range.  Even though I’d successfully used a vintage white Corningware baker and one hand-crafted stoneware casserole while testing my recipes, I specifically avoided recommending ceramic containers.  I was leery about the risks of preheating any empty ceramic pot to 450 degrees  F, then dumping  in a cool or room temperature yeast dough.  It seemed like this step was just inviting the container to crack or shatter from thermal shock.
While my concerns were justified (some ceramic containers can’t tolerate such treatment), others, like the beautiful stoneware piece shown here will handle it just fine.  In fact, as this pot’s makers Tom and Betsy of Clay Coyote explained, it was custom-created just for baking rustic, crusty pot boules like the one here.  

Says Betsy, “We were first introduced to no knead bread about three years ago by a good customer.  She was hunting for one of our casseroles to make the bread, but found that most of ours are curved on the inside, which makes it pretty tough to get the bread out in the end.  We loved the bread so much we decided to make a baking dish just for it.” I was, of course, thrilled when Betsy added that she and Tom also carry Kneadlessly Simple in their gallery as a “featured book to go with the baking dish.”  (Disclosure: I have no commercial relationship with Clay Coyote and played no role in their decision to sell my book, but they did send me the pot free of charge.) 

As you can probably tell, the pot is not only handsome, but is well suited for baking “kneadless” pot boules. It’s about 8-inches in diameter inside, straight-sided, and features a roomy domed lid, all ideal for effortlessly creating a perfectly round, high-rising loaf (and getting it out once it’s done!).  The size and shape are exactly what I recommended in my book and blog post on choosing suitable bread pots here; some recipes circulating around the Web suggest a larger dish, but this lets the dough spread out too much and yields a flatter, less stylish- looking loaf.
Clay Coyote Stoneware Pot & "Kneadkess" Boule
I was curious as to why the Clay Coyote pot can withstand high temperatures when some stoneware pieces can’t, so asked Tom about this.  Basically, he says, the key is in using the right clay—it must be formulated for heat tolerance: “Stoneware expands from heat when some of the silica in the clay body is left in a crystalline state and these crystals expand when heated,” he explains.  “One type of crystals in some clay is called cristabolite and it can suddenly expand  about 3 percent when it reaches 428 degrees F.  This sudden expansion can mean trouble—the pot may crack.” To avoid such problems Tom says they use clays in which these crystals are actually dissolved, which eliminates the cristoabalite and the related expansion problems.  

Still, he cautions, it's a good idea to heat the Clay Coyote stoneware pot gradually, at the same time the oven is heated. And, he says, place the hot bowl on a soft surface like a towel or hot pad when it's taken out of the oven. “If there ever is a cracking problem--rare but possible—we replace without question,” he notes.  Since my recipes feature the unique step of simply turning the unshaped dough mass right into the preheated pot (other books require you to shape it into a loaf first), I also suggest that the dough be at warm room temperature when put in to reduce the thermal shock.
Aside from the obvious aesthetic appeal of baking homemade bread in a hand-crafted pot, I found it produces a loaf with a really beautiful golden color and pleasing crispy crust.  I was surprised to find that it is also a more efficient baker than most of the metal pots I’ve tried. While it’s usually necessary to remove the lid after about 50 minutes and allow the loaf to brown and bake a few minutes more uncovered in a metal pot, when I lifted off the lid the loaf was already well- browned, fully baked, and ready to remove from the oven.

 With that incredible smell wafting up I could hardly wait to cut some slices! (They are nice served right in the pot.) The pot is also convenient for storing the bread once both are cooled  or for reheating the boule again.

Whole Wheat & Bulgur Crusty Pot Boule

In honor of my new bread pot, I’ve created a new “kneadless” bread and am unveiling it here.  As you may know,  the Kneadlessly Simple method involves letting the dough simply stand, slowly ferment and bubble away for a number of hours. The fermentation action develops both full, complex yeast flavor and  a lot of gluten, so the dough actually kneads itself;  I’ve posted more info on this “self-kneading” phenomenon here.

 Since I’ve been interested in eating more whole grains lately, this loaf calls for half whole wheat and half unbleached white flour.  If you can find it, try white whole wheat flour, which is a new strain of whole wheat that is lighter in color and milder in flavor, yet offers the same nutritional advantages of regular whole wheat flour.  The King Arthur brand is sold nationally.  (If a plain white boule is more your speed, check out my peasant-style white pot bread here.)

To boost fiber, the recipe also calls for some bulgur wheat; it’s often stocked in supermarkets with Middle Eastern ingredients.   Like cracked wheat, or chopped wheat berries, it is a whole grain product, but the kernels are already par-cooked so they can be added in without any pre-soaking, boiling, or other advance preparation.  (They will be barely noticeable in the finished bread.) Don’t try to substitute cracked wheat, as the bits may not only remain too hard but absorb too much water, throwing off the correct consistency of the dough.  Even bulgur wheat will draw up some moisture as the dough stands, so it starts out slightly soft and then usually stiffens a bit during the long slow rise.

This is a wholesome, hearty, but not heavy boule that’s both  flavorful and astonishingly  easy to make.  Besides being completely “kneadless,” as the photos show the raised dough is simply scraped from a bowl into the preheated pot--which automatically does all the shaping for you.  This is a unique feature of many Kneadlessly Simple rustic pot breads  and dramatically reduces the usual kitchen muss and fuss associated with most bread making.

The bread is good warm, cut into large slabs and served along with a soup or stew, or cut in tidy slices and used for toast and sandwiches.

Tip:  Measure out the flour either by weighing it or by dipping down into the canister or sack with the appropriate dry measure and overfilling the cup slightly. Then with a metal spatula or straight knife blade sweep across the top, leveling the surface.  Don’t stir or fluff up the flour first; don’t try to compact it either.

1 1/2 cups (7.5 ounces) white bread flour, plus more as needed
1 1/2 cups (7.5 ounces) white whole wheat flour or regular whole wheat flour
3 tablespoons (1 ounce) dry uncooked bulgur wheat
Generous 1 1/4 teaspoons table salt
1/2 teaspoon instant, fast-rising or bread-machine yeast
1 1/2 cups ice water, plus more if needed
Corn oil, canola oil or other flavorless vegetable oil or oil spray for coating dough

First Rise: In a large bowl, thoroughly stir together the flours, bulgur, salt and yeast. Vigorously stir the water into the bowl, scraping down the sides and mixing until the ingredients are thoroughly blended. If the mixture is too dry to incorporate all the flour, stir in more water, a bit at a time, just enough to blend the ingredients and yield a slightly soft, but not wet dough . If necessary, stir in a little more water or more flour to yield a dough that slowly spreads out in the bowl.

Brush or spray the top with oil. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap. If desired, for best flavor or for convenience, you can refrigerate the dough for three to 10 hours. Then let rise at cool room temperature for 18 to 24 hours. If convenient, vigorously stir the dough once about halfway through the rise.

Second Rise: Using an oiled rubber spatula, gently lift and fold the dough in toward the center, all the way around, until mostly deflated; don't stir. Brush or spray the surface with oil. Re-cover the bowl with plastic wrap that has been coated with nonstick spray. Let rise using any of these methods: for a 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-hour regular rise, let stand at warm room temperature; for a 1- to 2-hour accelerated rise, let stand in a turned-off microwave along with 1 cup of boiling-hot water; or for an extended rise, refrigerate, covered, for 4 to 24 hours, then set out and let it come to room temperature. Continue the rise until the dough doubles from the deflated size; remove the plastic if the dough nears it.

Baking Preliminaries: 20 minutes before baking time, put a rack in the lower third of the oven. Set the pot and its lid on the rack to heat at the same time. Preheat to 450 degrees F. Heat until the oven reaches 450, then continue 5 minutes more to thoroughly  heat the pot or Dutch oven. Remove the pot, using heavy mitts and place on a dry tea towel .  If you aren’t sure whether the dough will stick to the pot or not, spritz its interior with a little non-stick spray. Taking care not to deflate the dough (or burn yourself),  immediately loosen it from the bowl sides with an oiled rubber spatula and gently invert it into the pot. Don't worry if it's lopsided and ragged-looking; it will even out during baking. Generously spritz or brush the top with water. Immediately top with the lid. Shake the pot back and forth to center the dough.

Baking:  Lower the heat to 425 degrees F. Bake on a lower rack (but not bottom rack) for 55 minutes. Remove the lid. If the dough looks well browned and very crusty, it may be done. Test with a skewer or an instant-read  thermometer  in the thickest part; if it comes out clean or registers 209-212 degrees, set the pot on a wire rack and let the bread cool for 5 minutes.  If the dough top still looks pale and slightly soft and the temperature below the target range, reduce the heat to 400 degrees F. Bake, uncovered, for 10 to 20 minutes longer, or until the top is well browned and a skewer inserted in the thickest part comes out with just a few crumbs on the tip (or until center registers 209 to 212 degrees on an instant-read thermometer). If the thermometer is at all moist or full of crumbs, bake 5 minutes longer to ensure the center is baked through. Cool in the pan on a wire rack for 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the loaf to the rack and cool thoroughly.

Storing: Cool completely before storing. To maintain the crisp crust, store the loaf draped with a clean tea towel or in a heavy paper bag. Or store airtight in a plastic bag or wrapped in foil: The crust will soften, but can be crisped by reheating the loaf, uncovered, in a 400 degree oven for a few minutes. The bread will keep at room temperature for three days, and may be frozen, airtight, for up to two months.
Makes 1 large loaf (about 2 pounds), 12 to 14 slices.

Interested in whether "kneadless" bread is a passing fancy or here to stay--survey results here reveal some interesting answers

If you lack a suitable bread pot, but are in the mood for "kneadless" bread, check out my cheddar and chiles loaf.
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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Secrets to Successful Food Blogging -- "Life’s a Feast" Host Jamie Schler Shares Her Recipe for Success

This is the first in a series of interviews I’ll be posting about food bloggers whose work I enjoy and think you might, too.  One purpose of these interviews was personal--simply to learn more about the people behind the food blogs I admire. Another was to learn individual bloggers’ secrets to success and share their work and wisdom with you. (Hint: Every popular blogger I’ve interviewed has a unique, highly personal recipe for success.)
Jamie Schler, Life's a Feast
This initial post features Jamie Schler, host of the well-known "Life’s a Feast : Confessions of a Gourmande" food blog and a regular contributor to the Huffington Post. Jamie has also conducted numerous food writing and food and culture workshops at venues including the International Food Blogger Conference in New Orleans, Food Blogger Connect in London, and the South African Food & Wine Bloggers Indaba in Cape Town.  She also presents workshops for the Plate to Page Food Writing and Photography Workshops group.

Jamie and I have never met in person (though we hope to remedy that soon in New York at the IACP annual conference). And, since we live on different continents, we probably would never have connected if not through blogging.  I don’t recall how I happened upon her blog, but I was immediately taken with her graceful, evocative prose, and photographs and recipes that resonated because they somehow reminded me of the years I’d lived in Europe. 

For example, the  gorgeous chocolate cake pictured below and which she wrote about here looked a bit like some of the Torten I'd sampled in Germany.  So, I kept going back to Life’s a Feast for another helping. And she started stopping by Kitchenlane.  And well, you know…. 

Like most successful food bloggers, Jamie clearly understands what makes her blog special: She immediately notes that she has a “multi-cultural” kitchen and perspective, the result of being an American who is married to a Frenchman and has lived in Europe for 25 years. When asked what’s unique about Life’s a Feast she says, “… my writing: my style, my stories and the way I approach and tell the tales of my life. And how I succeed in relating all of that to my food.
.... I never just write about what I cooked and why and I never just sit and pump anything out just to get a blog post up …. ”

Here, edited only for length, are my questions and her responses. I've found her answers thoughtful, articulate, and very useful; for me, they ring true.  Please comment to let me (and Jamie!) know what you think.

Why did you start your blog? Has the experience been what you expected?
My husband and son, both very connected to the internet, forced me to start a blog. To be honest, they were tired of listening to me talk about food all the time and decided a blog was the best outlet for me. My son designed the blog and got me started. And I had absolutely no expectations; I didn’t know what a blog was really, much less a food blog, and I had no idea what I was doing or where I was supposed to go. The one thing that really surprised me and what I didn’t expect, though, was that the very first day I sat down to write that very first blog post, the words flowed; writing that first story was indescribably exhilarating. It really took me about another year to realize that writing, not food, was my true passion as well as my future.

Can you share some insights into how you write, come up with recipes, etc.?
The food on my blog is what I feed my family everyday: I pull ideas and recipes from each of our various cultures: American, French, Jewish, Moroccan, Italian, etc and then what I choose is influenced by the holidays, the weather, what my family is asking for, etc. 

Writing is more complicated. I really need to be inspired and a topic may pop into my head immediately or it may simmer for several days until that incredible Eureka! moment and then I rush to the keyboard. I write, rewrite, edit, change... a story evolves as I write and I can’t hit “publish” until it is exactly what I want to communicate in subject, mood, emotion, etc. It really is like a work of art for me and I apply the same process. I try and touch each of the senses when talking about food and I try and “manipulate” the reader’s emotions: a story is nothing if I can’t pull my reader in and inspire a mutual feeling and emotional response. Language itself is extremely important to me: there are a lot of good ways to say something but there is only one perfect word or expression that exactly describes what is going on inside of my head, whether an action, a flavor, texture or sound, or an emotion. And I try and use language and vocabulary that mirrors and accentuates the mood of the story.

Do you have  any secrets to success you could share with other food bloggers?
First, I think that I am lucky that I began blogging before traffic, stats, monetizing, cookbook contracts, and SEO were the blogger’s biggest concerns and driving force. I fell in love with writing and that became the focus of my blog very early on and I realized that I wanted to make a career in writing, both on food and culture.

My secrets? I keep my head down and work very hard every day to develop my writing skills, both the technical side of writing and the creative, storytelling side of writing. It was also important that I found my particular niche - food and culture - because that is crucial when it comes to marketing myself. I don’t let what is happening in the food blog world influence me - I have my style, my goals and I try not to waver from them no matter what; I came to realize that comparing myself and my work to others is futile. I want to be my own voice and pave my own path, not let others dictate my blog design, my recipe choices, my writing style or my goals.

Any other advice you can offer?
Have patience: Give yourself the time to hone your skills, understand your talents and strengths and make them work for you. And don’t judge your talent or how good you are by what people say to you on twitter. Turn to professionals and people whose own work you admire for critique and trust their judgement, both the negative and the positive.

Measure your confidence and your humility: Learn the art of networking: there is a fine line between being assertive and being aggressive; be respectful as well as friendly. I do believe and it has been my own experience that if one is talented, one will be noticed without being loud. Never assume that you are the best or that there is no room for improvement, growth or change.

Hold onto your individuality: While I allow others to inspire me I refuse to copy anyone’s style. I seek out my strengths and nurture them. I have learned to trust myself and my instincts and to follow them, while gratefully accepting guidance, advice and encouragement from those whom I respect.

Follow your passion: I’ve been involved in creating, organizing and participating in many conferences, workshops and events. Although I know this helps my visibility as a blogger, I actually do all of this because I love doing it: speaking and teaching about writing, and that passion for the subject (rather than the fame) shows - and it is that that creates one’s reputation! ###

If you're just getting started at food blogging, you might also be interested in some basic tips in Culinary Blogging 101. 
Or for more food writing advice, check out my Three Steps to More Compelling Culinary Prose.
If your goal is a cookbook, you may want to read Wanna Write a Cookbook?--Make Those Recipe Intros Tasty or Three Big Dos and Don't for Writing Recipe Intros.
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Monday, February 6, 2012

Sweets for a Sweetie--Vintage American Valentine's Cards

I don’t know exactly when images of cute little girls whipping up sweet treats and delivering “punny” lines like, “Valentine, I’m sweet on you!” became a favorite theme for Valentine’s Day cards. But as you can see from these interesting vintage 1930s, 40s and 50s examples here, the idea had definitely taken hold in America by the mid-20th century.  (The first known Valentine was a love poem written by a French duke in 1415; details are here.)
Images of this sort were commonplace in the 50s when my friends and I were swapping valentines in elementary school, which, interestingly, teachers encouraged us to do. (I don’t think we had to give out cards to every classmate, and I know we didn’t have to sign them, both of which I'm guessing are now usually required to avoid hurting or creeping out anyone.)

No doubt one reason the baking topic turned up so often was that it readily (predictably) lent itself to the “Sweets for a Sweetie!” or “You’re my Sugar Pie!” sort of declaration. But it’s probably also because American girls and women of that era faced a lot of social pressure to assume the happy homemaker/man-pleasing role; see my post on retro baking ads showing blissful home bakers. And what better way to please that special someone than to bake up a treat?
Besides underscoring the gender stereotyping and spotlighting what goodies were topping the sweet tooth list 60 years ago--pies and cookies appear in most of the cards I’ve seen--these images reveal a good deal about the dramatic differences between American life then and now. Ethnic diversity, for example, wasn’t on anybody’s radar when I was a child. Almost invariably the little girls pictured were pink-cheeked WASPy pretty, probably a holdover from the Victorian era when bevies of sweet cherubs routinely adorned valentines. Nowadays, the females featured are as varied as Dora the Explorer, Catwoman, and the Monsters, Inc. “star,” Cyclops-like, multi-pigtailed Celia Mae. (For more heritage cards, visit   the which provided many of these images.)

While the messages and visuals on cards for young children today are still usually benign, they are a far cry from the hearts, flowers, cuddly pets and warm kitchen sweetness of these vintage examples. And IMHO, some cards today step completely over the line. While hunting for a card for my grandson, I just rejected one showing a raygun-shooting space warrior announcing, “You’re a blast, Valentine!” and another with a big-fisted boxer punching the air and pronouncing, “Valentine, you knock me flat!” Not exactly what I wish to send a nine year old!

One thing that hasn’t changed is the preponderance of fairly dopey-silly puns on kids’ cards. The line on the one here below right saying, “I'm all stirred up aboutcha Valentine,” is certainly no more lame than the modern one with a boy hang-glider announcing, “You soar above the rest Valentine!”
That said, I haven’t seen any recent card quite as strange and awkward as the example at the bottom left: “I hope the RANGE of your happiness is in my kitchen, VALENTINE.” What!? That card designer was clearly trying way too hard.
I've heard from a number of peeps that their children still exchange cards today in school. Some teachers use the opportunity for handwriting practice or instruction in "socialization." How about your kids?

If you are interested in making your own Valentine's sweets, check out these pretty heart-shaped cookies shown right or step by step pics showing how to form icing hearts here.
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