Exploring the Boston baking scene through Beantown Baker

Click here to see a slideshow of Cupcake Camp 2011, an event that Beantown Baker author Jen Perez helped organize.

The plan was simple:  Create a cookbook of family recipes to send to relatives for Christmas.

That project inspired Jen Perez to do something that would reach many more people than just her family. She created a baking blog, Beantown Baker, which has become increaslingly successful in the local baking scene.

“At the same time I was collecting recipes for the cookbook, I started reading other food bloggers and…taking pictures of food I was making,” she said. “I was kind of like, ‘I can do this.’ So I started my blog in August of ’07 and I’ve been doing it ever since.”

Three years after she and her husband started creating their cookbook, it was complete. In that same three years, Perez’s blog had grown considerably in popularity. While some people set out to use blogs to promote their writing or photography about a certain subject or hobby, Perez said her blog grew more organically to the size it is today.

“I do spend a decent amount of time on my blog, but it’s fun. It’s my thing. I don’t know that I ever consciously was like, ‘now I’m gonna take it to the next level,’ it just somehow happened,” she said.

Food blogs seem to have an especially large presence in the blogosphere. Although there is no definitive count of how many exist, one popular food blog community, Foodbuzz, features blog posts from more than 18,800 food blogs and has more than 95,000 members, or “foodies.”

One of the purposes of such food blog community websites is to give bloggers a platform to promote and display their work, and to meet other bloggers who share similarities, either in location, type of cuisine or other interest.

Megan Chromik, the author behind the blog Delicious Dishings, said as her blog gained in popularity, she found an unexpected scene of food bloggers to connect with.

“The biggest thing is the people you meet through it, the network of food bloggers I’ve connected with,” Chromik said.  “I never expected I’d put my thoughts about food and writing and meet people who felt the way I did.”

Perez said this aspect of community is one of the biggest benefits she’s gained by having her blog.

“The cool thing is that I’ve been, within like maybe the last 18 months, meeting other bloggers, and going to blogging events and that’s been really neat just to meet other people who have a hobby similar to what I do,” she said. “Last weekend I baked with another blogger, and I’m doing some cake decorating with other bloggers in a couple weeks, so it’s been a cool way to make new friends, too.”

Chromik and Perez met a promotional event for bloggers sponsored by Eggland’s Best, which was held at Stella in the South End. Events like the one at Cellar are common in the food blogging world, as are events planned by bloggers.

Perez said that one of the best events she attended was a weekend at King Arthur Flour for about 10 baking and food bloggers that Chromik organized.

“It does seem like company PR people are figuring out that bloggers can really spread the word about a company. It’s great publicity for them.”

Yet while some bloggers choose to write about every event they attend, others have a more discerning style when it comes to events put on by corporations.

Katie Barszcz, the author of Small Boston Kitchen, said she makes her policy very clear on her blog.

“I think I’m pretty clear on my blog. I do have a disclaimer that if I do go to an event, I’m going to write a straightforward review for my audience,” she said. “It’s important to be honest and let people know I was invited to an event.”

Perez has a similar philosophy about reviewing events, and said she rarely reviews events she’s been invited to on her blog, since she defines her blog as more “recipe based.” Instead of talking about most events on her blog, Perez has decided to mention them on Twitter.

“What I’ll do, especially now that I’m on Twitter, is I’ll tweet about [the event] and say, ‘oh I’m excited to be going,” or I’ll tweet while I’m there,” she said. “That’s why I use twitter as a way to like give back a little bit so that I’m not just mooching for free food.”

Though new to Twitter, Perez said website has introduced her to another, different side of social media.

“In the beginning I definitely didn’t really know how to use it efficiently because I have a Facebook page and I figure a lot of people read my blog through Google Reader or something, so I thought ‘what can Twitter provide,’” she said.

Now Perez said she has learned to use Twitter to “keep the pulse on the Boston food scene,” and talk with other bloggers.

“What I’ve found is that it’s really just, the way I use it is to build relationships. So these other bloggers that I’ve met in person or just bloggers that I’ve met online…we can have these kind of conversations.”

Chromik said that for her, “getting on Twitter was huge.” She tweets about her blog posts in the morning and afternoon, and said that even just those posts have increased traffic to her blog, as she has amassed close to 2,800 followers.

For Barszcz, the benefits of Twitter go beyond building relationships.

“It’s a great resource,” she said. “I can ask if anyone knows where I can get this rare ingredient, or if anyone has been to this restaurant and what it’s like, and things like that.”

Yet no matter how many Twitter followers Beantown Baker has, or how many blogger events Perez attends, she said the most important thing for her is that she is constantly challenging herself and supporting her readers.

“Being known for baking on my blog kind of pushes me a little to push myself,” she said. “And to encourage other readers to say, ‘you know she has a range of simple things, and then more complicated recipes, and if Jen can do it, so can I.’”

As part of this project, I videotaped Jen Perez giving baking tips while baking brownies.  I also tried my hand at her brownie recipe, and gave them to Northeastern students to taste.

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Easter Means Peeps

Peeps are a great Easter dessert.

Easter is Sunday, and with it comes Easter egg hunts and Easter baskets filled with jellybeans, chocolate bunnies and Cadbury eggs. But the brightest, most colorful Easter candy is by far the marshmallow peep. Peeps are marshmallow candies decorated with pink, yellow, blue, purple and green sugar. They come in a few variations, but the most popular are their Easter Peeps, which are shaped as chicks or bunnies.

Over the weekend, Beantown Baker Jen and Megan from Delicious Dishings got together and made their own Peeps and included a step-by-step video on how to pipe the marshmallow to get that distinct Peep shape. Earlier this month, Meghan McGarry of the blog Butrcreamblondi made “glamour peeps” and covered them with edible glitter.

But Peeps are quite versatile, and there are many ways to use them besides for eating. In my high school chemistry class, my teacher put Peeps in a jar he pumped with air and tried to blow them up.

Many people have taken up using Peeps as an art medium. An article from the Boston Globe last year highlights a Peeps contest at UNH sponsored by the university’s Health Services department that challenged participants to make dioramas showing Peeps participating in healthy activities, like playing soccer, for example. CakeSpy created her own art piece with Peeps and black jelly beans to celebrate the Easter season, and a few days ago the LA Times’ Daily Dish interviewed Sandy Oxx of Maryland who creates Peep art for a yearly Peep Show fundraiser.

Easter is a great holiday to bake and eat springtime desserts, and Peeps definitely say spring with their bright pastels and their cute animal shapes. Next time you’re in the grocery store, pick up a pack and see what you can create.

Photo (cc) credit Robyn Lee under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Baking for People with Food Allergies

If you have food allergies, baking some recipes, like these pecan sticky rolls, may be out of the question.

In baking, the quality of ingredients used can transform a recipe from “good” to “great.” Many recipes actually call specifically for “the best quality chocolate” or even suggests specific brands of flour or specialty products. For the majority of bakers, the only thing barring them from using the “best” or brand name ingredients is cost and availability. But for people with serious food allergies

About five years ago, my mother was diagnosed with serious, life-threatening allergies to peanuts and tree nuts, changing a lot about the way my family cooked, baked and shopped for groceries. We learned to read labels for allergy information, which brands were safe to buy, and which weren’t reliable and should be avoided. After a while, we were able to successfully navigate grocery shopping, cooking at home and eating in restaurants.

The one thing we struggled with, however, was baked goods. Most bakeries, corporate or local are not nut-free and often use the same equipment to make baked goods with nuts as they do to make baked goods without nuts. Since buying pre-made baked goods and desserts was basically out of the question, we began to bake a lot more from scratch.

Baking at home came with its own set of challenges, however, as companies that make ingredients, like chocolate for example, often make them in a facility that has nuts and cannot guarantee that there will not be traces of nuts in their product.

Chocolate seems to be the staple ingredient that poses the biggest problem when it comes to cross contamination. The best solution my family has found has been Vermont Nut Free. Based in Grand Isle, VT, this company has a great selection of nut-free baking products, as well as other chocolate products and candy such as chocolate bars, chocolate covered pretzels, jellybeans, etc.

A selection of Vermont Nut Free products.

I have used their cocoa powder, unsweetened baking chocolate and chocolate chips (which come in a number of varieties) to great results. The chocolate is excellent quality, and safe for people with nut allergies. I actually prefer using their cocoa powder to other brands, and the prices are actually fairly comparable to other, more commercial brands.

Another nut-free company to get baking products from is Hodgson Mill, a family owned company based in Illinois. This company provides nut-free bread mixes for bread machines, a variety of flours and other baking-related ingredients like corn starch. They also has an extensive gluten-free section as well as wheat-free products. Separate from their products is a section on their website devoted to information about “allergies and intolerances,” with links to sections about other health issues such as diabetes, heart disease and high cholesterol.

A recent post over at My Baking Addiction discusses peanut allergies: recent medical studies, the varying level of reactions people can have, and five alternatives to peanut butter in recipes that call for it..

I’m not very familiar with baking for people with dairy allergies, but the website Eating With Food Allergies has a list of dairy substitutes for almost every dairy product imaginable.

Finally, an allergy that many people haven’t heard of but seems to be on the rise is Oral Allergy Syndrome. This syndrome occurs when someone is allergic to fresh fruits or vegetables, or both, usually because they are allergic to certain types of plant and tree pollens. When my mother was diagnosed with nut allergies, she was also diagnosed with this syndrome, which thankfully is rarely life-threatening. WebMD has an in-depth article on the causes of this syndrome.

What happens when someone has oral allergy syndrome and wants to eat a slice of apple pie? Well, for some people, the heat from just baking the apples in the pie in the oven can be enough to de-nature the proteins that cause the allergen in the first place. For other people, broiling the fruit first, chilling it and then cooking it is the best option if the recipe doesn’t call for a high enough baking temperature. Allergic Living magazine has an article on how to broil fruit for baking or just eating an apple plain. I would suggest chilling the fruit after broiling it, however, to get that “crunch” sensation.

Although it’s difficult, baking with food allergies can definitely be done. It just takes some time and patience to find the right ingredients for a safe and delicious experience.

First photo (cc) courtesy Matt Armstrong under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved. Second photo (cc) courtesy Todd Wickersty under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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Visiting the Christian Science Monitor

A shot of this morning's Christian Science Monitor editor's meeting.

Today, my Reinventing the News class got a tour of the Christian Science Monitor. Founded in 1908 by Mary Baker Eddy, the Monitor has a reputation for being an impartial source of news, especially on national and international issues. Earlier in the semester, Mary Knox Merrill came to our class and told us many stories of her experiences as a staff photographer for the Monitor traveling around the world.

What’s especially interesting about the Monitor is that two years ago they switched to an almost entirely online model. Instead of publishing a printed product five days a week, now the organization posts the majority of their news on their website and publishes an additional weekly edition. According to the Monitor’s editor, John Yemma, since switching to their current model, web traffic has increased from 5 million hits per month to 30 million hits per month.

In addition to a tour of the newsroom, we were lucky enough to sit in on the daily budget meeting among the editors, where editors discussed what articles were going to be published that day. In addition to going over the articles, the editors also talked about what “multipliers” they could add to which stories. Multipliers, one editor explained, are what the Monitor calls add-ons to an article that help multiply the amount of hits and page clicks the Monitor gets. Some popular multipliers that go with articles are lists, photo galleries and quizzes.

One of the most interesting things I learned was while the editors answered our questions. They have learned to embrace search engine optimization (SEO), a term that can make some reporters and news organizations cringe.

Obviously, since the Monitor now focuses about two-thirds of their energy online (according to Yemma), it’s important to get your headline right when competing with big, national news organizations for that top spot on a Google search. Yet the editors stressed that they had worked hard to understand SEO and go beyond just regurgitating a catch phrase as a headline. They want to be able to have the content to back up their headline, and to go in-depth in their articles beyond just the facts to answer the “Why?” readers might have while reading.

I hadn’t thought of SEO in this way before. As an aspiring reporter, what made the most impact on me was what National News Editor Cheryl Sullivan said:

If an article isn’t searchable, then reporters have labored in vain for 600 people to read it, not the tens of thousands that could be reading it.

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Baking Brief: Another Round of Cake TV

Massachusetts native Jorg Amsler works on a cake in the season premiere of Last Cake Standing.

In one of my first blog posts, I talked about the idea of “cake television,” a term that Duff Goldman of “Ace of Cakes” fame coined. The idea that there’s a whole subset of reality TV centered around cakes and cupcakes is pretty interesting.

Contributing to this small but popular genre is “Last Cake Standing,” a show that just started its second season last Sunday. The first season ran in 2009 as a part of “Food Network Challenge.” This season, the show is on its own, and will award $100,000 to one of eight pastry chefs who will be crowned “Best Cake Artist in America.” This post from the LA Times’ food blog has more information on the show and some of the challenges planned.

The newest addition to cake television will be “Staten Island Cakes,” a show that’s airing on WEtv June 21, according to Entertainment Weekly. The channel has been advertising their new show, which seems like an attempt to capitalize on America’s obsession with people from places like New Jersey and Staten Island. Perhaps WEtv executives are hoping the 21-year-old owner of The Cake Artist, Vinny Buzzetta, will be the next Buddy Valastro from TLC’s Cake Boss?

Buzzetta is currently being featured in three episodes of this season’s Amazing Wedding Cakes, also on WEtv. This profile of the young pastry chef from silive.com, a Staten Island news website, claims that the show will be a balance of life at the bakery and life at home with his family.

Both “Last Cake Standing” and “Staten Island Cakes” seem to be appealing to different spectrums of the “cake television” genre. With these two new shows, will we be seeing more diversity to the cake TV in the future?

Photo (cc) Food Network. Some rights reserved.

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My Experience with NewsTrust

Last Friday, Mike LaBonte gave a presentation to my Reinventing the News class on NewsTrust. LaBonte is an editor at the site, which allows users to read and submit news stories from any news site, then review them on the website.

Other people can also have the opportunity to review the articles once they’ve been added to NewsTrust. People can rate articles on a variety of qualities, and can do a quick review or a more in-depth review of the aspects of the article. Ultimately, each article gets a rating of 1 – 5, which can change as more people rate it.

Recently, I reviewed five articles for NewsTrust. I reviewed three that were already on the site, and submitted two of my own. You can see all of my reviews here, at my member page.

I tried to rate articles that had to do with my beat, and ended up reviewing four stories that were about food in general (only one that was really baking related) and one about abortion that was on the front page of NewsTrust. I reviewed all stories on the “full review” setting.

I had a great experience reviewing these stories. It was easy to navigate, and I thought the “full review” setting had a thorough list of questions that got at different aspects of how the article was constructed without being too overwhelming.

Assessing articles through questions like, “Is it fair?” “Is it well-sourced?” “Is it enterprising?” adds a level of thoughtfulness that allows reviewers to really take the time to think about what goes into good journalism. With such detailed questions,  it’s difficult to have a knee-jerk reaction and just dismiss a piece without explaining what’s bad (or good) about it.

One of the issues I have with NewsTrust is that the way comments are set up is a little confusing. At first glance, it wasn’t obvious to me how someone comments on a story or a review. People can comment on individual reviews and engage in a conversation that way, but I can’t find a way for people to comment on the reviews in general.

Another issue I had was that two of the articles I reviewed turned out not to be full news stories, but basically blog posts about an issue. Both the food stamp article and article about fresh bread were small blog posts that got most of their information from other articles. In the case of the food stamp post, it was categorized as “news” but it wasn’t also categorized as a blog post, so I was suprised to find that’s what it was. The option to check “blog post” is available when submitting an article; it might be helpful to require the person submitting the article to check that box.

In general, I think NewsTrust is a great resource for journalists and general news junkies alike. I hope the editors there find ways to publicize this site more, because I think a lot of people can benefit from its services.

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Tips on Measuring Flour

Flour being weighed on a kitchen scale.

Over the weekend, I interviewed Jen, who runs Beantown Baker, for my Reinventing the News final project. While watching her make brownies, she gave me a tip on how to add flour to recipes.

Flour, she told me, can be extremely dense. If you use the method most people use, which is just reaching into your container or the bag of flour itself and scoop, then level it off, oftentimes you’ll actually end up with much more flour than is necessary. Recipes like cookies and brownies are usually written to handle such a method, and that extra flour probably won’t hurt the recipe too much.

For most baked goods, however, the difference an ounce of extra flour makes can be the difference between a great dessert and a dry, heavy dessert.

Jen showed me how she measures flour, which is by stirring up the flour, then taking a small spoon and spooning small amounts of flour into the measuring cup. When she’s done, she levels the cup off with a straightedge.

This morning, the Daily Dish, the L.A. Times’ food blog, had a post from the Times’ test kitchen giving tips on how to measure flour. The post talks about how varied results can be with different methods of measuring, and suggests investing in a kitchen scale.

This short video from how2heroes has King Arthur Flour’s Susan Reid showing how different methods yield different results: a cup of flour should measure 4.25 ounces, but the “scoop and level” method resulted in 5.25 ounces of flour.

A kitchen scale isn’t really in my baking budget right now (nor do I have the space to store it), but in the future, I will definitely try and avoid scooping. Hopefully I’ll notice a difference.

Photo (cc) courtesy Boris Mann under a Creative Commons license. Some rights reserved.

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