It’s quite a log time, really. Longer than either of the two World Wars; longer than the musical Grease ran on Broadway; longer than the life of the oldest hamster ever recorded; and considerably longer than either of Britney Spears’ marriages. Nine years ago last Thursday, I took a deep breath, sat down in front of my computer armed with enough knowledge of html to fill a small thimble, and miraculously after an hour I stood up having put together my fully functioning blog, CookSister. Granted, it wasn’t particularly big or clever, only particularly… ummm… mustard yellow – but it was all mine and after a couple of hours of tinkering, I was able to publish a page of my own writing on the web for the entire online world to see. For somebody whose writings up to that point had primarily been handwritten in notebooks, shown only to a very select few friends, this was empowering to the point of making me quite giddy.
Back then, nobody knew what a blog was. You were greeted with looks of total incomprehension when you said that you were taking pictures for your blog, rather than being greeted with looks of eye-rolling disdain (which are, sadly, far more common today). It was something you literally did for your own fulfilment and no other reason. There were so few food bloggers worldwide that we all knew each other and when a foreign food blogger came to town, practically all the London food bloggers would show up to have dinner with them. PR companies’ discovery of blogs as a potential source of free coverage was still many years in the future; no bloggers had considered turning their private obsession into a published book; and social media as we know it today was but a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. Oh what a difference nine years make. It now seems that most of the literate world (and some from the illiterate world…) has dabbled in blogging. It has become accepted wisdom that if you want to launch any sort of career, from publishing to TV stardom to retail, you need to have an online presence where your blog is the focal point of an ever-growing web of social media connections. Everyone starting a food blog today seems so filled with purpose and bristling with business plans; and as bloggers we are now constantly bombarded with advice on how we should be blogging, how to devise a marketing strategy for our blog, and how to write optimally for SEO purposes.
If it all starts sounding rather like hard work to you, don’t worry – you are not alone. Because, you see, I am not really a blogger with a gameplan; or a writer-in-waiting who is blogging to plug my forthcoming book; or a TV chef building a following for my potential show. I am a blogger’s blogger. I blog because… I truly love blogging, not because it is a means to an end. Yes, it has brought me teaching and writing and travel gigs that I have totally adored, but even if I got a full-time job teaching and writing tomorrow (dreamy dreams…) I would still blog. Because even after all these years, I still believe deeply and passionately in blogging as a manifestation of the right to freedom of expression; as a deeply fulfilling creative outlet; and as a living testimony to the Internet’s power to create and sustain communities of people with shared interests and goals.
I also believe that sharing lies at the heart of any functional community and I can’t fathom why people think that sharing their know-how will somehow diminish their success. So in that spirit, here are five thoughts (I hesitate to call them tips!) that I’d like to share with anybody currently writing a food blog, with my top tip for those who are just thinking of starting a food blog being just do it!
1. Be the best you can be. Invest in your skills. Take a creative writing course. Buy a decent camera and learn how to make a plate of brown lentil soup look edible on screen. Never post anything on your blog that you are not proud of – content really is at the heart of any successful blog.
2. Be the blog you want to read. Yes, you can make more money by selling every inch of real estate on your blog to advertisers; or by running a giveaway of bumper packs of loo paper for a fee almost every week – but be sure to think long and hard about whether you really want a blog that is an unattractive walking billboard for somebody else’s product, full of press releases rather than original writing. Is that the kind of blog that you want to read? And if not, ask yourself why your readers would continue to read such a blog. I am not against advertising per se, but where the revenue tail starts wagging the content dog, it’s probably time to rethink your strategy.
3. Be confident of your own worth. People tell me I am “lucky” to go on press trips or to receive free meals or samples. There is nothing lucky about it – the fact is that if you have worked hard to build up a following on various social media, PRs who offer you things are doing so because they want access to the audience that you have built up, plain and simple. By all means, be gracious when free things are offered – but do not feel you have to do a day’s worth of work in exchange for a free bag of crisps; and do not be afraid to turn down offers you are not comfortable with. There will be other offers.
4. Be prepared for creatively lean times. Writer’s block. Blogger burnout. Call it what you wish, but be assured that at some point it will come a-knocking at your door. It’s not necessarily a sign that you are all written out and that it’s time to stop blogging – like bubble skirts, spiral perms and hula hoops, it’s a phase. It will pass. Step away and do something else for a few days; or force yourself to write for 10 minutes every day about something unrelated to food (your first day at school; a first-person account of being a pet cat; what you liked/disliked about the last movie you saw or book you read; your fantasy holiday). The urge to blog will come back, I promise you.
5. Be in it for the love of it. Like marriage, people enter into blogging for all kinds of wrong reasons. Like marriage, there really is only one right reason to carry on blogging year in and year out – because you love it.
What better way to celebrate nine years of food blogging than with a large cake? Those of you who follow this blog will know that I am not a huge baker, and when I do bake I am more likely to bake muffins or tarts than cakes – but every now and again, only a celebratory cake will do. This one was inspired by my love of upside-down cakes, and the arrival in my kitchen of five sturdy stalks of rhubarb from the “share the bounty” surplus table at the allotments. Strawberries and rhubarb are a match made in heaven, both in terms of colour and flavour and so they seemed to be the natural choice for this cake. The recipe is adapted from The Kitchen Magpie’s rhubarb upside down cake, but I wanted something a little less sweet and a little more grown-up – closer to the spiciness of my favourite pear and cranberry upside-down cake, in fact. I also used dark brown sugar instead of brown, and golden granulated instead of white, giving the entire cake a darker and more caramelised look. The end result was spectacular – starting with the incredible aroma of the baking cake, following through with its decadent good looks, and finishing with a perfectly balanced sweet, tart and spicy flavour and gooey texture. It’s even better cold the next day… if it lasts that long!
Elsewhere on the food blogs…
- Margot made a crumble with apple, rhubarb & ginger
- Meeta made a strudel with rhubarb, ginger and quark
- Jamie made a cobbler with cherry and rhubarb
- Andrew made a sweet risotto with rhubarb compote
- 114 g (1/2 cup) butter, softened
- 150g (3/4 cup) soft brown sugar
- 150g (3/4 cup) white sugar
- 2 eggs
- 5ml (1 tsp) vanilla essence
- 250g (2 cups) plain white flour
- 2.5ml (1/2 tsp) ground cinnamon
- 1.25ml (1/4 tsp) ground ginger
- 5ml (1 tsp) bicarbonate of soda
- 2.5ml (1/2 tsp) baking powder
- 250mk (1 cup) Greek yogurt
- 2 cups (about 2.5 large stalks) of finely chopped rhubarb tossed and coated with 1 Tbsp of flour
- FOR THE TOPPING:
- 55 g (1/4 cup) melted butter
- 200g (1 cup) packed soft brown sugar
- 400g (2 cups) sliced fresh strawberries
- 200g (2 cups) chopped fresh rhubarb
- Pre-heat the oven to 180C.
- Prepare a 32 x 22cm (13×9-inch) cake tin or Pyrex baking dish pan by greasing the sides with butter and pouring the melted butter for the topping over the base, tilting the dish to ensure even coverage.
- Sprinkle the brown sugar evenly over the melted butter. Arrange the sliced strawberries on top of the sugar - feel free to be as random or artistic as you like - and then add the shopped rhubarb for the topping. Press all the fruit gently into the sugar.
- For the batter, cream the butter and both sugars together using an electric mixer. When fully incorporated, beat in the eggs one at a time, add the vanilla and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy.
- In a separate bowl, mix all the dry ingredients. Gradually add the dry ingredients and the yoghurt to the sugar-butter mixture in an electric mixer on low speed - add about ⅓ of the flour, then ⅓ of the yoghurt and mix until fully incorporated; then repeat until all the dry ingredients and yoghurt have been added.
- Add the two cups of chopped rhubarb dusted in flour and gently mix into the batter until evenly distributed.
- The battter will be relatively dry - spreadable rather than pourable. Spread the batter carefully over the top of the strawberry & rhubarb topping mixture in the baking dish.
- Bake at 180C (350F) for about 30 minutes, then cover the cake with aluminium foil to prevent over-browning. Continue to check the cake every 10 minutes or so until the centre starts to crack a little and a skewer inserted in the centre comes out clean - mine took a whopping 70 minutes, but ovens vary.
- Remove from the oven and onto a cooling rack. Run a palette knife or spatula around the edges of the cake to ensure that it is not sticking to the sides of the dish.
- Allow to cool for 5 minutes, then place a large platter or chopping board upside down over the baking dish (it must be large enough to cover the baking dish completely). Using pot holders or oven gloves, hold both the platter/board and the baking dish firmly and quickly flip over. Carefully lift the baking dish, shaking gently to release any bits of fruit or caramel - the cake should drop easily onto the platter/board.
- Allow to cool to room temperature and serve with a dollop of crême fraiche.
- Makes 15 square servings.