Food Blogging as a Hobby: Should we be emulating the pros?

I had the opportunity to meet Dianne Jacob at BlogHer Food back in October; we bonded over chocolate bacon and cherry-pistachio brittle at the closing party while watching Michael Ruhlman demonstrate how to make bacon (which I will attempt and blog about once I get my paws on some pork belly!). I really respect Dianne’s work; in fact, I put her book on my wish list because while I’m sort of allergic to the idea of hiring a writing coach (I had briefly considered the idea of hiring her long-distance, but … no), I am cool with using her book as a resource as I explore my dimensions as a writer.

But then I felt a bit deflated and stung when I read this post on her blog. I am most definitely a hobbyist food blogger. While I do hope to discover or create a career having to do with writing and food, whether that be in academia as an extension of my dissertation work or in another milieu, I harbor no delusions of becoming a professional food blogger. For one, I have zero photography skills, nor can I afford a fancy-pants camera and lenses. What we have of discretionary income goes toward family trips and the like (or concert tickets, as Matt and I both have rediscovered our love of seeing bands at seedy clubs and overpriced outdoor venues with early curfews).

While I do try to post at least once a week, sometimes it doesn’t happen. Okay, more often than not, it doesn’t happen. Sometimes life gets in the way of the hobby (just look at all of my unfinished sewing and knitting projects! Not to mention the shelves of unread novels I’ve picked up or checked out with the best of intentions!). I converted this blog into a food-centric one a little over a year ago not only because I wanted a dedicated angle for my blog, but also because one chapter of my dissertation is devoted to three specific blogs. To that end, it cultivates my own multimodal literacy to keep up an active blog while also thinking critically about other food blogs. But I also just really like thinking, talking, and writing about food. I write here because I can use the recipes I experiment with as a jumping-off point for other things, like family, weight, my dissertation, and the class implications of social media.

Sure, I’d love to have tons of readers and make squillions of dollars off my blog, but that’s not realistic. I take the reality on its own terms. And just as some of the commenters on Dianne’s post pointed out, just because I am running and hope to complete the half-marathon in February doesn’t mean I have aspirations of being a professional marathoner (Ha! HAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAHAAAaaaaa….). Does that mean I should stop running? Should we just abandon all forms of self-expression simply because we won’t ever be good enough as Pioneer Woman (whom I suspect has helper elves) or won’t ever attain professional status?

Jacob argues that because a blog is a public document, we hobbyist bloggers should aim for the high standards she set forth in her talk. Yes, if you want to get more readers and monetize your blog, you should do everything in your power to set yourself apart from the eighty bazillion other food bloggers out there and follow those guidelines. Find an angle. But if you want to use your blog to express yourself and talk to your village, and you’re okay with only getting 25 hits a day (if that), then do your thang. At least, that’s what I tell myself.

Baked Sunday Mornings: Monkey Bubble Bread

Monkey bread with festive Christmas tablecloth

Friends, we are lucky that I have something to report this morning. This week’s Baked Sunday Mornings project is Monkey Bubble Bread, and I’ll admit that I was a little intimidated. As I have mentioned before, I am not a practiced hand at yeast-based treats and so I just tend to steer away from them. And there was a moment last night where I thought I was going to have to take a photo of a dead lump of dough and declare myself an abject failure.

Fortunately, I mentioned to my husband that the dough hadn’t risen and he pointed out that it wasn’t warm enough in the kitchen for the dough to rise. So, per his suggestion, I turned the oven on to low and set the bowl on top of the oven to allow the yeast to do its work. It still took a long time for it to rise, but it all worked out in the end.

My friend Sally, who makes cinnamon rolls and monkey bread all the time, said that this was a good pastry to make with kids because they like to dip the balls in the butter and sugar, but my kids were loooong asleep by the time I got to that step. But Harrison did get to mix the dry ingredients together before bedtime — including turning on the mixer! You would have thought Christmas had come early!

The dough balls, about to go night-night.

The cookbook says that you can make the dough ahead of time, just to cover and refrigerate, then uncover and proof/bring to room temperature before cooking. This was the option I chose, and I was a bit concerned about the fact that the balls didn’t puff up while proofing, but they turned out fine. I felt like some of the inner balls were a tad undercooked, but not so much so that they were inedible. Just a little softer than the outside balls.

Of course, Harrison rejected the monkey bread because he said it would turn him into a monkey. Laurel rejected it because, well, she is crazy and doesn’t eat anything but Z Bars and milk, and the occasional tube of organic yogurt. So, we’ve got a LOT of leftover monkey bread, and the two chubby adults in the house are just going to have to suffer through finishing it off!

Pasta e fagioli

This one comes from the current issue of Everyday Food; it jumped out at me as I was planning this week’s menu with an eye toward alternating meatless dinners (this week we’ve had white bean and kale soup, parmesan-crusted chicken tenders, spinach frittata, and turkey meatballs with pasta).

Pasta e fagioli is a traditional meatless Italian dish; the translation is “pasta and beans.” This version is a pretty rustic tomato-based vegetable stew. I calculated the Weight Watchers PointsPlus for this dish and was shocked that it’s 5 points for approximately one cup, being that it’s mostly vegetables and there’s one cup of pasta for eight servings. But whatevs. Weight Watchers knows best. It’s a pretty light dish, I have to say. While I thought it was quite tasty, I felt compelled to have a piece of cheese toast with it to bring it up to “hearty” status.

Matt is not a huge fan of light/healthy dinners. Last night was no exception. He ate his entire dish, making yummy noises to set a good example for the children, while also giving me a facetious thumbs-up and making pointed comments like, “Mmmm… HEALTHY.”

“And crunchy.” (Yes, some of the veges were a bit al dente.)

Finally, as he scraped his dish clean, he said, “You know what this needs? Some heavy cream.”

“Or a Bechamel.”

“Some Fontina.”

“And some shaved prosciutto.”

Har dee har har. I try to feed my family healthy food and this is the thanks I get! Harrison finally ate a few bites and claimed that it was really yummy, but did not eat more than three or four spoonfuls. I showed him, though, and put some in his lunch today! HA!

The recipe as printed calls for an optional Parmesan rind (which you remove after cooking) and a garnish of freshly shaved Parmesan, a neither of which I had on hand. But let me tell you, this stew SCREAMS for the Parmesan. Don’t skip it, unless you’re trying to be virtuous. Or vegan.

I don’t mean to sound like I’m damning this dish with faint praise. I really, really liked it and will have leftovers for lunch. I just wish it had been appealing to the other 75% of my family. But that’s not the recipe’s fault.

Pasta e fagioli
adapted slightly from Everyday Food

3 celery stalks, diced medium
2 carrots, diced medium
1 small red onion, diced medium
3 garlic cloves, minced
1 sprig oregano
1 28-ounce can diced tomatoes
2.5 c vegetable broth
1 c mini penne
1 can cannelini beans, drained and rinsed

Heat oil over medium in a soup pot. Add celery, carrots, onion, and garlic. Cook until veges are soft, about 12 minutes. Add oregano, tomatoes, and broth. Increase heat to high (unless you’re using something like a Le Creuset, then adjust heat according to the pot’s care instructions) and simmer until the liquid thickens a bit, about 5 minutes. Add pasta and cook until tender, about 12-15 minutes. Add beans and cook until warmed through, about 5 minutes. Serve with freshly shaved Parmesan (or not!) and a nice crusty bread.

BAKED Sunday Mornings: Sweet and Salty Brownies

This week’s BAKED Sunday Mornings entry is Sweet and Salty Brownies. This another recipe I had singled out as “To Make Immediately” when I bought the book. Actually, BEFORE I bought the book! See, I follow Baked on Facebook and had seen one day that they have a sweet and salty brownie, which piqued my interest immediately. I have already gone on record as being an ardent fan of their regular brownie. But it has been, like, six years since the last time I was in New York and back then, I didn’t get anywhere near Brooklyn, and no one I know has been to Brooklyn recently. So. No sweet and salty brownies for me!

Until now!

I made these a couple of weeks ago, actually, for the un-bachelorette party of a friend of mine (“un-bachelorette” makes it sound like a divorce party, but no, it was a bachelorette party at her house with lots of amazing food and cheesy girl movies and a minimum of cheesy p*n!s-themed accessories).

The process of these brownies is very similar to that of the regular brownies, with the added step of making a salted caramel sauce that you pour in between two layers of brownie batter. I was expecting a more discernible caramel layer with the brownies; instead, the brownie soaked up the caramel, which made for a fudgy, moist treat with just the right balance of saltiness. Oh, and utterly, utterly decadent.

The recipe calls for a dusting of coarse sugar on top to finish, but instead I drizzled a generous portion of the remaining caramel sauce on top and garnished with a wee bit more salt. YUM.

So, at the party, the brownies were such a hit that a woman actually hugged me. These brownies will get you hugged, y’all. (Your mileage will vary on whether that is a desirable outcome.) I froze the excess for a week or so, then took them back out for a friend’s visit. They were a little chewier, probably because the caramel had firmed up, but I like that. It made them seem even more naughty!

So, in short: these brownies rocked my face off. Then again, I wouldn’t have expected anything less!

Church Lady cake

…otherwise known as Texas sheet cake. But since I’ve only ever encountered it within the context of Southern Baptist potlucks (my most vivid memory of it is eating a slice of it in the basement of the Baptist church in Trinity, Texas, at the potluck following my great-grandmother’s funeral), I’m calling it Church Lady cake. (I’d never known what it was called, just always thought of it as “that really awesome chocolate cake with cinnamon and the pecan glaze on top.”)

Anyway, I got a wild hair to make this cake when I saw it in layer form. One of the characteristics of Texas sheet cake is that, well, it is a sheet cake. It is also served in the same pan it’s baked in, so that when you pour the warm frosting onto the still-warm cake, the pan contains the frosting, which is runny and gets absorbed into the cake, giving the cake a fudgy, brownie-like consistency.

Let me note that this cake is ridiculously easy to make. I am not a practiced hand at layer cakes, and this recipe is pretty much idiot-proof. It calls for a ganache to go between the layers. At first I thought that since the ganache was not super thick when I put it on between the layers that there wouldn’t much of a ganache layer to speak of, but you can tell by the photo that it was respectable. The frosting sort of went everywhere, making for a kind of ugly presentation, but who cares about that, really?

I made this to take to Thanksgiving dinner at my folks’, but my son came down with strep throat that week and the infection didn’t respond to the first antibiotic prescription. This meant that on Thanksgiving day, he was still feverish and contagious, so we stayed home. Me, home, with a huge chocolate cake that rates among my favorite in the world. DANGER WILL ROBINSON.

I carved off some rather substantial hunks to give to some friends in the neighborhood, one of whom had just come home from birthing her son; had myself a not-ungenerous slice; and gave one to Laurel, who, every time she came into the kitchen would point at the cake and chant, “My cake! My cake!” (she didn’t eat any of the cake I gave her).

That left me with half of this gargantuan cake. I put it in the freezer for later. I think about it every day, but haven’t tucked into it yet. I tell myself I’m saving it for some yet-to-be-determined occasion, perhaps even for my stepmom’s birthday this weekend, but it calls to me from behind the stainless-steel doors. It speaks of sweetness and nostalgia, the earthy spice of cinnamon mingling with the depth of the chocolate, of a tender, moist crumb and the subtle crunch of the pecan glaze.

Maybe the occasion could just be that it’s Thursday.