At my 30th birthday party – a fabulous 1980s-themed affair to which I wore my 80s goth uniform of a black leather mini, a Sisters of Mercy T-shirt and black lipstick (!) – I made a speech thanking my parents for all they had done for me . One of the quips I remember making ran like this: “When I was fourteen, I was convinced that Mamma knew nothing about life at all. Today, I am truly amazed at how much she has learnt in 16 years!”. Then, 16 years represented over half my life, but even now it is still about a third (ahem!) – and a lot can happen in 16 years.
It took 16 years for Leonardo da Vinci to finally finish the Mona Lisa. It was 16 years after it was first announced that the highspeed Channel Tunnel rail link between the Chunnel and London was finally open for business. It took JRR Tolkein 16 years to write his epic Lord of the Rings trilogy. And it’s taken 16 years from Mark Zuckerberg to go from a spotty Harvard geek to an entrepreneur worth in the region of $54 billion.
It’s also been 16 years this May since I started Cooksister.com (although I am still working on my first billion…!). Back in a time when MySpace was still a thing and people still occasionally used search engines other than Google, my friend Sally who was by then living in the US suggested that I turn my weekly e-mail newsletter to friends and family about life in London into a blog. “A blog?” I said, “Say what?” “Have a look at Typepad (remember Typepad??) and Blogger featured blogs”, she said, “that will give you an idea.” An hour of browsing later, I had stumbled across not one but two blogs written by US lawyers about cooking and restaurants (the now defunct Frost Street and the still active and still hilarious Amateur Gourmet.) Had I not had the good fortune to find two food blogs written by lawyers like me with no formal food credentials, my blog might have turned out to be a very different beast. But I was hugely inspired by the fact that in the new gatekeeperless online world, passionate cooks and eaters like me with crappy (or in my case, no) digital cameras and a burning desire to write could have a platform where they could connect with the world.
And one Sunday night not long after, in a rented house about 100m from where I live now, I sat down and created Cooksister and put up my first blog post. Yes, the entire blog was mustard yellow. No, I have no idea why I did that *eyeroll*. Over the 16 years there have been a couple of redesigns (my first attempt at a banner; and my second mercifully simpler and less mustardy look); 3 different straplines (“A South African nibbles on the world”, “Life’s delicious – take a big bite”; and the current “Food, photos & faraway places”); a move from Typepad to WordPress and my own .com domain; all sorts of blog events (Is My Blog Burning; Sugar High Fridays; Weekend Herb Blogging; the End of Month Egg on Toast Extravaganza; Does My Blog Look Good in This; the Monthly Mingle; Wine Blogging Wednesdays; and Waiter There’s Something in My…); the chance to teach at conferences and workshops (Food Blogger Connect, Plate to Page; the South African Food Blogger Indaba); some absolutely amazing press trips to far-flung places; over 1,500 posts; many more photos; the opportunity to work with so many fun and talented people; and some outstanding lifelong friends made along the way.
A lot has changed in the blogging world since then – I have seen fads come and go and, sadly, bloggers come and go. But looking back on those 16 years, I can also say for sure that blogging has irreversibly changed my life and has been been an amazing learning curve – not only for practical skills like photography, cooking and networking – but also life skills that have far wider application than just the blogging world. Here are five that really resonate with me:
1. You do you – let everybody else do them. Some people will love you, regardless of what you do or how you mess up. Some people will be annoyed by you and how you choose to live life (or blog), despite your best efforts to please them. It’s hard for a people-pleaser to accept, but this is how the world works. Expending time and energy looking at what everyone else is doing and trying to follow every trend and jump on every bandwagon to please other people, or twisting yourself in knots to try and keep up with competitors is exhausting. Write long posts. Write short posts. Tell personal stories. Don’t tell personal stories. Do restaurant reviews. Don’t do restaurant reviews. Do and be exactly what makes you happy and create the kind of blog/life you want to read/live. Ultimately, you will never make everyone happy – so you may as well make yourself happy.
2. From little things, big things grow. If you asked me if I could write a novel I would recoil in horror at the idea of having to stare daily at an empty page and fill thousands of them with coherent writing, But if you estimate that my blog posts are at least 1,000 words each (often more!) and I have written in excess of 1,500 posts, then I have over 16 years written roughly one and a half million words. A manuscript is considered long enough to be a novel at between 50,000-100,000 words. This means that even using the upper limit of a novel’s minimum word-count, I have written the equivalent of 15 novels since I started this blog. Achieving things in your life does not have to take the form of a big, one-off dramatic climax – even just doing a little bit of something most days over years can amount to a massive result. Run 5 km every day and in less than 10 days you will have run the equivalent of a marathon. You really can eat an elephant in small bites.
3. Done is better than perfect. Being naturally inclined to perfectionism is a double-edged sword. Yes, perfection is a noble goal to strive for – but it is also exceedingly hard to achieve and often sets you up for disappointment. Worse, though, is when it holds you back from doing things just because you know they won’t be perfectly done. Not going for a run because you wanted to do 10km but you are running late and will only have time to do 5km. Not making that photo album because you haven’t had time to edit EVERY SINGLE photo to perfection, or write descriptive captions for every image. Not publishing that blog post because you are not entirely happy with the opening paragraph and maybe tomorrow you can think of something better. I only have 3 words for you. JUST. DO. IT.
4. Don’t feed the trolls. Some people come into your life and make it infinitely richer, better and happier. Others, while they may not improve your life markedly, fulfil a need and don’t diminish any aspect of your life. But some people in your life are happiness/mood/self-esteem vampires. They may appear to be helpful or needing your support, but they drain your energy, make you feel bad about yourself and leave you anxious and doubting your own ability and choices. Just as you shouldn’t engage with trolls on social media who seek to drag you down, you shouldn’t tolerate them in your offline life either. Life is hard enough – look after yourself first. You are enough.
5. Say yes. Back in 2011, somebody e-mailed me and asked me if I’d like to go on an all expenses paid trip to Dubai to stay in Atlantis on The Palm in exchange for posting about it on my blog. I was convinced it was a scam to get hold of my passport details – surely nobody was daft enough to send me to Dubai for free to stay in a 5-star hotel?? But after much agonising I said yes… and had one of my best press trips ever, which opened the door to many more over the years. When I was asked to speak at a blogging conference (or hell, even establish one from scratch!); or put together, market and present at a series of writing and photography workshops; or help put together a cookbook; or write a regular column for Food24; or bake muffins in a studio for a major advertising campaign… I just kept saying yes, even when I had no idea if I could deliver the goods. We tend to live as if we will always have another chance and as if every opportunity will come around again. We may not, and they may not. Take that trip. Accept that job offer. Sign up for that course. Life is not a dress rehearsal. Say yes.
As I have said many times before, I am a cook rather than a baker, but the milestone of sixteen years of blogging seemed to call for a celebratory cake. After a little enthusiastic overbuying of plums (ahem!), I had a few in the fridge that were slowly beginning to look wrinkly, so making a cake that used up the plums seemed like a great way to kill two culinary birds with one stone. I have a weakness for upside down cakes and tartes tatin – I think part of it is the caramel (how can you resist caramel??), and part of it is the theatre of upending the unassuming-looking finished product onto a plate to reveal its gleaming, caramelly, fruity goodness. The recipe was a slightly adapted version of this one on the Great British Chefs site – I added extra spices to the batter and used dark brown sugar to give the cake a more robust flavour, which made for a fantastically grown-up taste together with the slightly tart plums. If you can find red-fleshed plums, I would definitely recommend them as they retain their colour after baking. And if you can resist eating it all in one sitting (!), it keeps very well, covered in the fridge for 2 days – just warm a slice for 10-20 seconds in the microwave before serving.
Happy 16th birthday, Cooksister, and may you have many more!
If you like upside-down cakes, you will also love:
- Spiced rhubarb & strawberry upside-down cake
- Pear and cranberry upside-down cake
- Blood orange & Cointreau upside-down cake
- Clementine & cranberry upside-down cake
- Charred clementine & rum individual upside-down cakes
Pin this recipe for later!
- 140 g butter at room temperature
- 150 g dark brown sugar
- 10 large red-fleshed plums stoned and sliced
- 125 g self-raising flour
- 40 g ground almonds
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 1 tsp ground cinnamon
- 0.5 tsp ground ginger
- 0.5 tsp ground nutmeg
- 0.25 tsp salt
- 85 g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 0.5 tsp vanilla extract
- 120 ml milk
Preheat the oven to 180°C/gas mark 4
Place 55g of the butter in a 23cm oven-proof dish or cake tin
Put the pan in the oven and leave until the butter has melted. Remove the pan from the oven, swirl the butter around so that it is distributed evenly, and sprinkle the brown sugar over the butter. Then lay the plums on top of the sugar in a single layer, in concentric circles or any other pretty pattern you like.
To make the batter, start by mixing the flour, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and salt in a medium-sized bowl. In a large bowl, beat the remaining butter with an electric mixer until it is fluffy, then add the caster sugar and beat until creamy. Add the eggs, beat until light and fluffy, then beat in the vanilla extract.
Add the milk, ground almonds and othet dry ingredients to the butter mixture and mix with a spatula until just blended - do not overmix. Spoon the batter evenly over the plums.
Bake until the top of the batter has risen and is golden, and a toothpick inserted into the centre of the cake comes out clean (about 50-60 minutes, depending on your oven). Transfer to a wire rack and leave to cool for 15 minutes. I find if you leave it much longer, the caramel gets too sticky and it becomes difficult to get the cake out of the pan without breaking it.
Run a knife carefully around the side of the pan to loosen the cake. Place a plate upside-down on top of the cake pan, grip them both tightly and carefully flip the pan and plate over. Let it sit for 5 minutes on the plate and then gently lift the pan off. Serve warm with whipped cream or creme fraiche.
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