Welcome to the second episode of my new column, Blog + Cookies, my occasional column on what it's like to run a food blog. Today's topic? Writing about food.
These days, it's not enough to just post pretty pictures and a recipe on your blog — readers have also come to expect a cute little anecdote about your recipe, day, life, whatever. As a blogger, I sometimes struggle with my writing and, when I'm completely frustrated and just want to slam my head against the table, I remember these three tips:
1. It doesn't have to be completely about the food.
The best bloggers are the ones who are really able to bring a little bit of warmth and life into their posts. They do this by creating context around the recipe, discussing the history of the dish, why the recipe means so much to them, and how they sourced the ingredients for the dish.
But let's not lie — all that can be a little bit too much. There are only so many times you can read a post on how the blogger spent all day foraging for ingredients at the farmer's market. Plus, if you work a full-time job alongside of your blog, you just don't have time for that sort of thing. At least, I don't. And that's why it's important to remember that it doesn't have to be completely about food.
One of my favorite pieces of food writing is this Serious Eats review for Crabbie's Alcoholic Ginger Beer. If you've got a few minutes, you should seriously check it out. At first glance, it doesn't even seem to be about the beverage — at all. Instead, we've got some guy rambling on about his pothead friend, before segueing into some hilarious and bittersweet self-reflection about his own vices, until finally crescendoing into a surprisingly informative review. It's completely compelling. You can't help but keep reading as you wonder where on earth he's going. Genius.
2. Start with the second paragraph.
I have to thank my coworker Mike for this awesome tip. Often times, I'll have writer's block and can't think of how I want to introduce the recipe. So you know what I do? I just launch into what I want to say without providing any beginning whatsoever. And when I finish writing, I'm surprised by how easy the first paragraph with the appropriate introductory context follows.
For example, my buying agent recently asked me to write a "Dear Seller" letter to the sellers of the house I was interested in purchasing. Stunned that I had to write a letter to ask for permission to buy somebody's house, I started off with a rather ornery introduction complete with expletives:
I imagine you've probably got a stack of letters to get through, each of them more or less saying the same thing: you have a beautiful home, it's in a great neighborhood, blah dee fucking blah.
You can imagine an introduction like that wouldn't have gone well with the seller. But much to my surprise, the subsequent paragraphs that came after that rather vitriolic first sentence actually had, well, substance. Out of nowhere came a pretty heartfelt and honest message: how after I'd spent a nomadic childhood living in several countries, I was ready to call Portland my home and build my roots here. How I admired that they had obviously spent a lot of thought and care on their home, and how I hoped to live up to that.
You see, once I had gotten past the pressure of starting the letter and introducing what I wanted to say, all the good stuff had flown out of me just like that. And afterwards, it was easy enough to edit the letter to a more, um, easier-to-swallow introduction:
3. It's okay if you don't have too much to say.
I don't know about everybody else, but here's the truth for me: most of the time, I don't really have too much to say about the recipe. At all. Because nope, I didn't spend all day foraging and sourcing the ingredients from the local market. Nope, I didn't find this recipe in a box in my grandmother's attic, where it had been passed down from generation to generation. Do you guys want the plain old boring truth? Most of the time, I just thought it sounded like a good and idea and decided to bake it! And that's totally okay too.
These cookies, for instance, are the perfect example of a lack of story. I've always wanted to make a homemade version of Oreos, one of my favorite childhood snacks, and was pleasantly surprised to find that a recipe in Thomas Keller's highly lauded Bouchon Bakery Cookbook. It turns out that he likes Oreos too. Who woulda thunk that Oreos would be the guilty pleasure of the chef behind the French Laundry and Per Se, frequently cited as some of the world's best restaurants?
Admittedly, I'd eaten one of these during my trip to New York a few weeks ago and I was, well, surprised. Although they looked like Oreos, they definitely were NOT Oreos. Instead of an artificially sweet and highly preserved frosting, Thomas Keller's Oreos sandwiched a whipped white chocolate and cream ganache. The chocolate biscuit itself was intensely chocolatey and almost salty, providing a great balance to the white chocolate filling. Indeed, these were not Oreos at all — more like Oreo's posh, slightly snotty cousin. I loved it.
A few baking notes:
- This is a bit of a time consuming recipe — both the white chocolate filling and the chocolate dough need to be chilled before you can work with them. Read the recipe carefully ahead of time, and plan accordingly.
- The chocolate shortbread biscuit dough originally called for 2 teaspoons of kosher salt, but I found that to be way too much. Feel free to use 2 though if you like the flavor of salted chocolate!
- The white chocolate filling can and should be made in advanced, since it needs to be refrigerated for at least 4 hours until it's workable. The filling is very delicate and temperature sensitive, so don't make the same mistake I did and bake it on an 80-degree day. Not the best recipe to make for the summer, but now I know.
- It's best to use a pastry bag to frost the cookies, but you can also just use an offset spatula to spread the frosting around.
I told you this was the Oreo's posh cousin.
- wax paper
- a 2 1/2-inch fluted cookie cutter (I used a biscuit cutter)
- 4.4 ounces white chocolate, chopped into fine pieces
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
- 1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon heavy cream
- 1 3/4 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour
- 1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons Dutched cocoa powder
- 3/8 teaspoon baking soda
- 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon kosher salt
- 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar
- In a double boiler (or, a glass bowl sitting on top of a pan filled with water, not touching the water), melt 4.4 ounces white chocolate and 1 tablespoon unsalted butter together, using a rubber spatula to stir together constantly. Meanwhile, in a separate pot, bring 1/2 cup plus 1 teaspoon heavy cream to just under a simmer.
- When the cream is hot, pour it over the white chocolate and butter mixture and whisk to combine. Allow to cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating for at least 4 hours, or until completely chilled.
- In a medium bowl, whisk together 1 3/4 cups plus 1 1/2 tablespoons all-purpose flour, 1 cup plus 1 1/2 tablespoons cocoa powder, and 3/8 teaspoon baking soda. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, beat 2 sticks (8 ounces) unsalted butter on medium-low speed until smooth. Add 1 teaspoon kosher salt and continue to mix for another 15 to 30 seconds. Add 3/4 cup plus 1 tablespoon granulated sugar and mix for about 2 minutes, until fluffy.
- Use a rubber spatula to scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl before adding the dry ingredients (from the first step) in 2 additions, mixing on low speed for 15 to 30 seconds after each, or until just combined. Be careful not to overmix, and just mix until the dough has come together!
- Mound the dough on a work surface lined with wax paper and push it together until it forms a 6-inch square block. Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least an hour, or until firm.
- When the dough is chilled and you're ready to bake, position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 325 (F). Prepare a pan by lining it with parchment paper or a Silpat mat.
- Unwrap the dough and place it between two pieces of wax paper. With a rolling pin, pound the top of the dough, working from left to right, and begin to flatten it. Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat — this will help prevent the dough from cracking as it is rolled. Roll out to a 1/8-inch thick sheet. Be careful not to overwork the dough and let it thaw too much, otherwise it'll be too hard to work with! If it gets too melty, simply refrigerate it until it's firm enough to cut.
- Using a 2 1/2-inch fluted cutter, cut rounds from the dough. If necessary, push the trimmings together and reroll. I got around 60 cookie cuts, which translates to 30 sandwich cookies. Arrange the rounds on your prepared sheet pan, leaving about 3/4 inch between them.
- Bake in the preheated oven for around 12 - 14 minutes, or until the cookies are fragrant with small cracks on the surface. Set the pans on a cooling rack and allow them to cool completely.
- Place the white chocolate filling (from the first recipe) in the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, and beat until fluffy and airy. If using a pastry bag, transfer to a pastry bag.
- Turn half of the cookies over and carefully pipe a spiral circle onto the cookie, starting in the middle of the cookie and working your way to the edges — if using an offset spatula, simply spread the frosting around. Top each with a second cookie — there's no need to gently press the cookies together, they'll sandwich together on their own. The cookies are best the day they are baked, but they can be stored in an airtight container refrigerated for up to 3 days.