In the last few weeks, I saw several incidents and articles that led me to think about why I blog. First there was the whole Food52 Piglet controversy between two popular bloggers, Mimi Thorrison and Adam Roberts. From that hot mess came several wonderful nuanced and articulate articles from Eater, Lottie + Doof, and Design Sponge that offered differing perspectives on the incident, and each said a lot about the world of blogging and food media.
This post kind of came from me thinking about and digesting all of that. And let me be up front: It’s long and a tad controversial. For a while, I even struggled whether to publish it in the first place. But below are some thoughts about my blog, blogging in general, and the direction I worry it’s headed in the long run (and if you want to skip my rambling and head straight to the recipe, I promise I won’t be offended at all!):
So, first some background: I started this blog back in 2011 as a way to keep up with friends and family, as well as distract myself from a job I hated. Back in 2011, even though it wasn’t all that long ago, Blog Land was an entirely different landscape. Pinterest was just getting started and only accepting new users via email. People still used Instagram in the way they use their personal Facebook profiles today; that is, folks only followed people they knew in real life as Instagram’s content was primarily blurry photos with overwrought filters.
Back in the day, the only way to get your food blog noticed immediately was submitting to content aggregation sites like Foodgawker and Tastespotting. Unlike Pinterest and Instagram, there was actually some sort of quality control — you submitted your picture, and you waited with baited breath to see if your recipe would be published on the site. In the beginning, especially when I was just starting to figure out my DSLR camera, I got a lot of rejections. Rejections often came back with blunt feedback: bad composition, harsh lighting, white balance issues, etc. That feedback, while harsh, was really helpful in helping me figure out how to take good photos! I still remember the butterflies in my stomach when Foodgawker finally accepted and published one of my pictures, a not-that-great, slightly overexposed and underfocused picture of this hazelnut crepe cake (whose pictures are… well...eek!). But still. If I had to point to one thing that put my blog on the map and bring in, you know, readers who weren’t my immediate friends and family, I’d probably have to credit Foodgawker and that picture, which eventually got republished by The Huffington Post.
And this is where my memory starts to get hazy. Because it was around here, sometime between my multiple, frustrated attempts to get published on these sites, that I got bit by The Bug. You know, the feeling of awe that people you don’t know are reading your work and interested in what you are saying; the feeling that your blog could be something MORE… a fully fledged cookbook, a full time job with a steady paycheck, and a stream of sponsorship opportunities with cool companies. You name it, the sky was the limit. Blogging was a new, uncharted world full of financial opportunity and internet fame that I — or anyone, really — could easily tap into. That was The Bug.
I’m not going to lie. I definitely got suckered into all that, especially after Saveur Magazine shortlisted me as one of the Best Baking & Desserts Blogs and the press mentions, sponsorships, and free SWAG came rolling in. I did sponsored posts for the money and wrote nice things about products I was just “meh” on but felt guilty because I’d gotten it for free. These days, I’m extremely picky about the people, companies, and products that I work with. Because after a while of saying “yes” to everything, I started to realize that it just wasn’t my jam. The extra money was nice, sure, but every sponsored post took me further away from why I was blogging in the first place: learning how to cook new baked goods and play with different ingredients. And of course, there was less talking about my life and the things I ate with friends who were far away — instead, I was talking about products and events I attended in a weird overly-smiley, way-too-shilly way. It wasn’t sincere or authentic.
And then there was a whole other gross thing I caught myself doing: pandering. What does that mean, exactly? One of my blogger friends, Kathryn, wrote a thoughtful, articulate post about baking for the sake of blogging that’s worth checking out. As for myself, as recently as a few weeks ago, I noticed that my Instagram follower count would decline as I posted lots of photos of my trip to Singapore and the Philippines. I realized that the majority of my followers only followed me for my dessert pics, and my dessert pics alone. Why else would a picture of a pie recipe of mine have twice as many likes as a picture of some cool architecture in Singapore or dropdead gorgeous ocean views in the Philippines? My initial reaction to the fluctuation was, Oh, shoot! Gotta keep my Instagram followers high; I’ll scale back on my trip pictures and just keep posting pictures of sweets. And I actually freaking restrained myself, holding back photos of mountains and oceans in order not to annoy anybody!
But later, as I was standing watching my old boss dance around in the best Darth Vader costume I have ever seen (complete with a glowing light saber), I realized that there was no way I could NOT take a photo of this for my Instagram feed. There were a handful of old friends and coworkers who I know would just DIE with laughter seeing the photo. It seemed ridiculous to text them all individually, especially since they all followed me on Instagram. Why was I censoring myself, restraining myself from posting and sharing pictures of experiences that I was enjoying? Because a bunch of anonymous followers who I didn’t know personally were unfollowing me?!! Like… really???
I guess what I’m trying to say is, that in the last three and a half years of blogging, I’ve found myself too easily caught up in the “fame and fortune” side of things. And whenever I am in that funk, I always get really depressed and down on my blog — beating myself up for not making more money, not having as many followers, not being re-nominated for that award, etc. And I hate that. Because it’s not why I started blogging in the first place, and perhaps more importantly, it’s not why I continue to blog, and certainly not what I love about it at ALL. But it’s incredibly easy to forget, and I have to take a step back and remind myself of that every so often.
My big concern, however, is that blogging appears to be moving in the opposite direction, especially with the turn of Instagram and Pinterest as legitimate growth tools. It’s a lot easier to share the pretty pictures of your recipes on either medium, and watch the likes, hearts, and ultimately, pageviews to your blog roll in as algorithms serve it to people around the world. It’s much easier to amass a big following fast, as long as you have a decent eye for what’s hot right now and use the right hashtags. The Bug is easier to catch more than ever, as folks become famous practically overnight with one Pin or regram.
Ultimately, there’s nothing wrong with blogging to become rich and famous, the chance to break into a new industry, whatever. Blogging deserves to be recognized as a perfectly legitimate career (we all certainly work hard enough on our blogs for that to continue being unrecognized), and it’s well on its way to becoming one. But I just hope that we also don’t lose sincere, authentic, and heartfelt content in the process. Because if everybody’s trying to get big all the time, everybody’s cooking and presenting recipes that they know are popular, taking and styling photos that are on-trend and everybody else will like… right? Which is… fine. But also, not really.
Because it’s like what Tim was saying in his post: we need less pandering, especially the kind that I’ve been guilty of in the past. That is, a little less blogging for the sake of blogging, press mentions, likes, hearts, and much less of that self-censorship that prevents us from posting the content that we actually want to. We need bloggers who are unafraid to bring new criticisms, ideas, and perspectives to the table. And certainly, we need more bloggers who are unafraid to lose followers while doing so.
So post that picture that has nothing to do with food, or publish that recipe that you know is a little bit off-the-rails.
I promise that I won’t unfollow you.
On that note, after emotionally sorting all my feels, I just wanted to bake something that was pretty, tasty, and time consuming enough to be therapeutic… like this pomegranate citrus meringue cake. Why pomegranate? I’ve been drooling over the pink buttercream cakes on Pinterest lately, but since I’m a hater of artificial food coloring, decided to try and find an ingredient that would provide natural color instead. Pomegranate won the fight (though beet, hibiscus, and red wine (!!!) came close), giving the buttercream a wonderful pale pink tint. From there, lemon curd and crunchy meringue crumbles seemed to pair naturally with the subtle fruit flavor. Enjoy!
Some baker's notes:
- This recipe has a lot of individual components to it: meringues, lemon curd, cake and frosting. I ended up using store bought meringues because I ran out of time, but my Christmas e-book from a few years ago contains my go-to recipe for vanilla meringues. If you're making everything from scratch, I suggest making the meringues first, then the lemon curd (which can be refrigerated up to 1 month), then the cakes and finally the frosting.
- This recipe actually makes a three-layer cake; I baked mine in three 6-inch pans, divided two of the cakes in half to create four layers and froze one layer for a later recipe that I'm working on. I've included the instructions for three 8-inch pans, so don't be confused if your cake doesn't look exactly like mine.
- For this recipe, I tried out a neat trick learned from a new cookbook I recently bought: Decorated: Sublimely Crafted Cakes for Every Occasion by April Carter, the extremely talented blogger behind Rhubarb and Rose. In the book, April instructs you to fill cakes with jam by first piping a buttercream border around the edge of the cake to create a "well" for the jam. I used this method (seen in the gif above) to trap in my lemon curd and meringue crumbles.
- The cake is best the day it's made — the meringue crumbles will loose their crunch fast, especially when sandwiched between cake and lemon curd.
For the Lemon Curd:
(makes around 1 cup, enough for one cake)
- 1/2 cup granulated sugar
- 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice
- zest from 1 lemon
- 4 large egg yolks
- 1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, cut into 1-inch cubes
(makes one 8-inch, 3-layer cake)
- 4 large eggs
- 2 large egg yolks
- 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
- 1 1/4 cups buttermilk, divided into 1/4 cup and 1 cup portions
- 3 cups cake flour
- 2 cups granulated sugar
- 4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 4 cups confectioner's sugar, sifted
- 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
- a pinch of salt
- 2 tablespoons whole milk
- 2 tablespoons 100% pure pomegranate juice (no sugar or other sweeteners added)
- 1 cup crushed meringues
- 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds
- In a heatproof glass bowl, whisk together 1/2 cup granulated sugar, 1/4 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice, zest from 1 lemon, and 4 large egg yolks. Set the bowl over a pot of simmering water over medium heat to make a double boiler, making sure that the bottom of the bowl isn't touching the water. Whisk occasionally, cooking the mixture until it thickens considerably and a candy thermometer placed in the middle of the mixture reads 172 degrees (F).
- Remove the bowl containing the curd from the pan. Place on a wire rack and allow to cool until a candy thermometer placed in the middle of the mixture reads 140 degrees (F).
- When the mixture has cooled to 140 degrees, whisk in a couple of unsalted butter cubes from your 1/4 cup portion. Continue whisking until the butter cubes are completely incorporated, and then add another couple cubes until you finish your 1/4 cup portion. Place plastic wrap directly on the surface of the curd to prevent a skin from forming and refrigerate until well chilled before using to assemble and fill the cake.
- Center a rack in the oven and preheat to 350 (F). Prepare three 8-inch round cake pans by spraying generously with cooking spray and lining the bottoms of each with parchment paper circles. Spray the parchment paper circles with cooking spray as well.
- In a liquid measuring cup, whisk together 4 large eggs, 2 egg yolks, 1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract and 1/4 cup buttermilk. Set aside.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 3 cups cake flour, 2 cups granulated sugar, 4 1/2 teaspoons baking powder, and 1/2 teaspoon salt. Beat on low speed for 1 minute or until well combined. With the mixer on its lowest setting, add 1 cup unsalted butter and the remaining 1 cup buttermilk. Raise the mixer speed to medium and beat until light and fluffy, about 2 minutes.
- After 2 minutes, reduce the mixer speed back down to its lowest setting. Add the egg mixture (from the 2nd step) in 3 additions, adding the next addition only when the previous has been fully incorporated into the mixture. Once all the egg mixture has been added, scrape down the sides of the bowl and beat on low speed for 1 more minute and no more — be careful not to overmix or you'll end up with a dense, tough cake and I'll cry for you!
- Divide the batter evenly between the three prepared cake pans. Bake in the preheated oven for 30 to 35 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of each cake comes out clean and the top of each cake bounces back when gently poked. Allow the layers to cool in the pans on wire racks for 20 minutes, before turning out onto the wire racks to cool completely before assembling and frosting.
- In the bowl of a freestanding electric mixer fitted with a paddle attachment, combine 4 cups confectioner's sugar, 10 tablespoons unsalted butter, and a pinch of salt. Beat on medium-low speed until the mixture comes together and the butter is fully incorporated throughout the sugar.
- Reduce the mixer to its lowest speed. Combine 2 tablespoons whole milk and 2 tablespoons pomegranate juice in a separate, small bowl and add to the butter mixture a couple teaspoons at a time. Once all the liquid has been incorporated, turn the mixer up to high speed. Continue beating until the frosting is light and fluffy, at least 5 minutes. The longer the frosting is beaten, the fluffier and lighter it becomes. If it is too pale for your liking, add another 1/2 teaspoon of pomegranate juice. But be careful not to add too much, or your frosting will be too liquidy! Add up to 1 1/2 teaspoons more of pomegranate juice max.
- Transfer about 1 cup of pomegranate buttercream frosting to a piping bag fitted with a large plain icing tip (or a Ziploc bag with a corner cut off). Pipe a ring around the outer edges of your bottom cake layer, creating a "border". Learn from my mistakes and be generous with your frosting — you should use around 1/2 cup of frosting for one border. The more you use, the prettier it will look when you slice the cake.
- Use an offset spatula or the back of a spoon to spread 1/2 cup lemon curd in the interior of the buttercream border (see gif above for clarification), meeting the piped line of the border.
- Use your fingers to evenly sprinkle 1/3 cup crushed meringues over the lemon curd.
- Place the next layer on top and press down gently to make sure that the filling is sealed in all the way around. Repeat steps 2 and 3, and nestle the final cake layer on top.
- At this point, use your remaining buttercream to frost the cake in its entirety. Sprinkle the frosted cake with the remaining 1/3 cup of crushed meringues and 1/4 cup pomegranate seeds. Serve immediately.