Wednesday, October 20, 2010

My First Food Blogging Conference

It's been a year since I started this food blog. In that time I've eaten, written, and learned a lot. But I truly didn't know how much I don't know about the world of food blogging until I attended the BlogHer Food conference in San Francisco. On this brilliantly sunny Saturday in October, I played sponge for a day, soaking in ideas, words of wisdom, tastes, and tips.

Some key learnings and insights:

- Food blogging really hasn't been around that long. It's estimated that fewer than twenty food bloggers existed in 2003.  Many old-timers have been blogging only since 2006. So this whole world has exploded in just the past four years or so.

- Many very successful food blog sites exist that I had never even heard of. Some get over 100,000 hits a day, or have over 200,000 registered users. We even have food blogger celebrities. Check out some of the blogs from people who spoke at the conference: Michael Ruhlman (he even has groupies), Serious Eats, Simply Recipes, Gluten-Free Girl, and the Pioneer Woman. We newbies have a lot to learn from these leaders in the field.

- I sat down at breakfast next to a nice looking woman. What a delight when I found out she is probably the world's #1 food stylist. Delores Custer is a legend, having worked and taught in the field for thirty years, including teaching at NYU and The Culinary Institute of America, and with Julia Child on her baking cookbook. I loved learning so many tips and tricks about what makes food look mouthwatering, such as white plates best highlighting food visually, using tools like steam irons to make cheese melt just so on top of chili, and how food styling has changed since the 50s. What a treat to meet Delores and learn from her wealth of experience. 

- We took a tour of the Ferry Building and learned a lot about its history, architecture, and incredible array of food available there. We also participated in a fun scavenger hunt, taking photos of various food items in the building. For lunch I had a delicious and quick steamed chicken bao and iced Vietnamese coffee from Out the Door. I ate it outside by the bay while people watching. What could be better?

- Food bloggers are a fun and passionate group of people: mostly female (at least at this conference), interesting, supportive, and in love with food and writing. Here no one had to apologize for their foodie obsessions, sharing in minute detail what they ate for lunch, the latest recipe under development, or how to make homemade almond milk. We could talk about the craft of writing, sharing our anxieties and triumphs in the way that writers do. We're all unraveling the technology, potential, and platform of blogs. I loved learning what other bloggers are passionate about and what they're doing, learning from a variety of seminars: recipe writing, storytelling, building a blog brand, food styling, writing tips, food photography, and building an online community.

- I ordered three books after the conference. Dianne Jacob has written a new edition of 'Will Write For Food: The Complete Guide to Writing Cookbooks, Blogs, Reviews, Memoir, and More' which includes an entirely new section about blogging.   I've already read the first edition of her book but wanted to order the new version with its blogging guide. I also ordered Anthony Bourdain's new book 'Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook', after reading an interesting and convincing review on Michael Ruhlman's blog.   I have Bourdain's 'Kitchen Confidential' and 'No Reservations' books and enjoyed them both, and had a memorable Kepler's Bookstore sponsored dinner with him at the Left Bank restaurant a couple of years ago. Finally, I ordered Delores Custer's 'Food Styling: The Art of Preparing Food for the Camera' which took her fifteen years to write. It looks absolutely gorgeous, inspiring, and extremely informative. And I'm still so thrilled that I got to have breakfast with her.

I love discovering that there's so much more to discover about food blogging. For me it's a hobby, a creative outlet that combines writing, food, the Internet, and phototography. Now I see it's also a community, both in person and online, and a way to connect with others. The conference exceeded my expectations: I learned what I need to learn and do next to cultivate this blog. Time to get started.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Apple Upside-Down Cake from America's Test Kitchen

Now that fall has arrived, what better way to enjoy autumnal apple flavors than with an upside-down cake? It's a wonderful dessert using fresh apples from your local farmers' market or from your own trees. The flavors are divine, a change from the usual apple pie and pineapple upside-down cake, something different yet familiar. The cake turns out beautiful once revealed and released from the pan.

I saw this recipe demonstrated on the television show America's Test Kitchen, my favorite PBS cooking show. Using meticulous attention to detail and a scientific approach to testing various recipes, ingredients, tools, and methods, America's Test Kitchen chefs create recipes that satisfy. Watching the chefs prepare this cake convinced me to go online to print out the recipe and try it.

My primary addition to the recipe is adding a teaspoon of cinnamon to the apples when adding the brown sugar. I'm a big cinnamon lover, and love combining apples with cinnamon in recipes. My favorite cinnamons are the ones from Penzey's Spices, especially the Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia and the Chinese Cassia blends. I've tried all of Penzey's cinnamon varieties, and love their cinnamon sugar too for an easy way to add a lovely sweet fragrance and flavor to oatmeal, cinnamon toast, muffins, etc.

Now what about the delectable results? First enjoy the intoxicating smell emanating from the oven while the cake cooks. Then wait patiently for the cake to cool while your stomach grumbles, first for twenty minutes on a wire rack and then for another twenty minutes once it's inverted from the pan. Waiting makes your mouth water even more, and the anticipation creates an overwhelming urge to dig in. Then comes the payoff, the moment when you can finally take your first bite. The combination of warm, tart, cinnamony apples with butter and brown sugar makes a luscious fruit topping. And the buttery yellow cake underneath has just the right firmness, texture, and cakey goodness to complement the apple topping just so.

All the little details in the recipe add up to create this scrumptious confection, from slicing the apples in two batches with different thicknesses and cooking times, to the additions of sour cream and cornmeal to the cake batter, to using firmer Granny Smith or Golden Delicious apples to prevent sogginess. Everything works together in perfect harmony, all the effort and waiting are worth it, and the cake not only looks beautiful but tastes fabulous. This cake makes a great dessert for any fall day, an autumnal treat that will not soon be forgotten.

The website requires user registration in order to access recipes, but it's free, easy, and worth it. Without further ado, here's the recipe, adapted to include my cinnamon addition. Enjoy.

Apple Upside-Down Cake

From the episode: Old-Fashioned Fruit Desserts
Serves 8

You will need a 9-inch nonstick cake pan with sides that are at least 2 inches high for this cake. Alternatively, use a 10-inch ovenproof stainless steel skillet (don’t use cast iron) to both cook the apples and bake the cake, with the following modifications: Cook the apples in the skillet and set them aside while mixing the batter (it’s OK if the skillet is still warm when the batter is added) and increase the baking time by 7 to 9 minutes. If you don’t have either a 2-inch high cake pan or an ovenproof skillet, use an 8-inch square pan.
  • 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter , cut into 4 pieces, plus extra for pan
  • 4 Granny Smith apples or Golden Delicious (about 2 pounds), peeled and cored
  • 2/3 cup packed light brown sugar (4 2/3 ounces)
  • 1 teaspoon high quality cinnamon such as Penzey's Extra Fancy Vietnamese Cassia
  • 2 teaspoons juice from 1 lemon
  • 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour (5 ounces)
  • 1 tablespoon cornmeal (optional)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/2 teaspoon table salt
  • 3/4 cup granulated sugar (5 1/4 ounces)
  • 1/4 cup packed light brown sugar (1 3/4 ounces)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 6 tablespoons (3/4 stick) unsalted butter , melted and cooled slightly
  • 1/2 cup sour cream
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1. FOR THE TOPPING: Butter bottom and sides of 9-inch round, 2-inch-deep nonstick cake pan; set aside. Adjust oven rack to lowest position and heat oven to 350 degrees.
2. Halve apples from pole to pole. Cut 2 apples into 1/4-inch-thick slices; set aside. Cut remaining 2 apples into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Heat butter in 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat. When foaming subsides, add 1/2-inch-thick apple slices and cook, stirring 2 or 3 times, until apples begin to caramelize, 4 to 6 minutes. (Do not fully cook apples.) Add 1/4-inch-thick apple slices, brown sugar, cinnamon, and lemon juice; continue cooking, stirring constantly, until sugar dissolves and apples are coated, about 1 minute longer. Transfer apple mixture to prepared pan and lightly press into even layer. Set aside while preparing cake.
3. FOR THE CAKE: Whisk flour, cornmeal (if using), baking powder, and salt together in medium bowl; set aside. Whisk granulated sugar, brown sugar, and eggs together in large bowl until thick and homogeneous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter until combined. Add sour cream and vanilla; whisk until combined. Add flour mixture and whisk until just combined. Pour batter into pan and spread evenly over fruit. Bake until cake is golden brown and toothpick inserted into center comes out clean, 35 to 40 minutes.
4. Cool pan on wire rack 20 minutes. Run paring knife around sides of cake to loosen. Place wire rack over cake pan. Holding rack tightly, invert cake pan and wire rack together; lift off cake pan. Place wire rack over baking sheet or large plate to catch any drips. If any fruit sticks to pan bottom, remove and position it on top of cake. Let cake cool 20 minutes (or longer to cool it completely), then transfer to serving platter, cut into pieces, and serve.

    Precook half of apples in butter to deepend their flavor and reduce their volume, allowing more to be added.
    Add raw apples, brown sugar, and lemon juice to pan, then cook briefly to preserve fresh flavor.
    Transfer apple topping to cake pan and gently press into even layer.
    Spread batter over apple topping and bake.
    Let cake cool in pan for 20 minutes to help set apple topping, then transfer to cooling rack to keep cake bottom dry.

Monday, October 4, 2010

Facebook Feeds

Facebook is everywhere you look--in the movie theaters, bookstores, and online. With 500 million users, it's the virtual place to be when you want to connect with your friends. It also happens to be a Silicon Valley success story, headquartered in Palo Alto next to the Stanford campus. Even though Facebook started in a Harvard dorm room, its move to the Bay Area has been key to its success.  It's here that Facebook has found its home.

So where do Facebookers like to eat? Based on information in two books written about the company ('Accidental Billionaires' and 'The Facebook Effect'), news articles, and in-person sightings, here's a list of some of the local places that feed the Facebook folks:

- The Counter, an inventive customer burger franchise on California Avenue in Palo Alto, the same street as Facebook's headquarters. My husband saw Mark Zuckerberg eating dinner there one week night recently. The Counter has something for everyone with its checklist of items that you can choose from including type of bread, patty, sauce, and toppings. If you haven't tried it yet, you should. Be sure to order the killer sweet potato fries.

- Village Pub, an upscale gourmet restaurant in Woodside. A splurge destination for a romantic meal or special occasion, the Village Pub was also the setting for a dramatic meeting that Mark Z. had with some VCs. The food is divine, and the service top-notch.

- Antonio's Nut House, a quirky dive bar that has notoriously moody wait staff. It also resides on California Avenue and is a popular hangout for Stanford students.

- China Delight, located just a couple of blocks from Facebook's previous office location. China Delight is one of many Asian restaurants in downtown Palo Alto. I've never eaten there, but have often enjoyed nearby Jing Jing's, as well as the Classico Gelato shop and artsy fartsy Aquarius Theater on the same block.

- University Cafe, an airy coffee house on University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto. It's a good place to meet for coffee, breakfast or lunch, and a great place to people watch with a constant stream of pedestrians strolling by.

- Finally the Old Pro, a sports bar also located in downtown Palo Alto. Even though Mark Z. said he wasn't planning to see 'The Social Network' movie, he and the other local Facebookers attended a private screening of the movie at Mountain View's Shoreline Century Cinemas on opening day. They celebrated later at an after party with appletinis at the Old Pro. If you see the movie, you'll understand why they ordered that particular drink.

Kudos to all the Facebookers and 'The Social Network' movie makers. You're making history and may be on your way to some Oscars too. Cheers!