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Online Club Members Cook Together, Miles Apart

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By Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan
Special to The Washington Post
Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Until this spring, Carolyn Jenkins hadn't given much thought to baking bread. These days, however, the architect spends hours each weekend faithfully stirring, mixing and kneading -- all as part of her quest to bake her way through "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" along with about 250 amateur bakers around the world.

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Every week, the bakers try out one recipe in the book, a primer on basic breadmaking techniques by Peter Reinhart. They then get on their own blogs, Twitter, Facebook or http://www.pinchmysalt.com, the Web site that first inspired the effort, to post pictures and swap stories of their odysseys.

Think of the phenomenon as a modern-day baking club and support group. Unlike the neighborhood-based cooking groups that proliferated in the 1950s, the new ones involve men as well as women. Many members are professionals who recently turned to cooking as a hobby and say they don't have local friends who are as enthusiastic as they are about trying new recipes.

A San Francisco lawyer started the Sweet Melissa Sundays group (http://sweetmelissasundays.wordpress.com) in April; it now has a roster of 50 amateur bakers from as far away as Italy and Brazil working through the 43 recipes in "The Sweet Melissa Baking Book." The Tuesdays With Dorie group (http://tuesdayswithdorie.wordpress.com), 300 strong, is tackling Dorie Greenspan's "Baking: From My Home to Yours."

The largest group so far seems to be Daring Bakers/Daring Cooks, www.thedaringkitchen.com, which began with two bakers who met online in late 2006 and now has about 2,300 signed up to try out a new recipe every month. Just this year, the number of participants jumped more than 50 percent.

The clubs' proliferation coincides with an uptick in cookbook sales. Between January and Aug. 16, 7.5 million cooking and entertaining books were sold in the United States, representing a 5 percent increase compared with the same time period in 2008, according to Nielsen BookScan. (By comparison, the total adult nonfiction category saw a 9 percent decrease in unit sales in the same time period.)

"With the economy the way that it is, this cooking thing has become more important," said Ivonne Mellozzi, a 35-year-old writer in Toronto who was one of the original two Daring Bakers/Daring Cooks. "It costs almost nothing for people to get together and cook something and gab about it."

The members of these groups tend to be home cooks who span a broad range of ages. Daring Bakers/Daring Cooks, for example, has members ranging from high schoolers to grandparents. How the groups are structured varies as well. Some, such as Daring Bakers/Daring Cooks, have a different cook pick a recipe each month for everyone to make. Other groups work their way through a particular cookbook; the Bread Baker's Apprentice group, for example, is baking one bread each week, starting with anadama bread, a New England recipe. Some groups require members to cook along a minimum number of times per month in order to participate. (See "How to Join.")

The impetus to start a group combines food and social networking. San Diego homemaker Nicole Hamaker was leafing through her cookbooks in early May when the idea to focus on "The Bread Baker's Apprentice" made sense.

"My husband's deployed in Iraq right now," she said. "This was something for me to jump into to keep me busy." That day, she posted a message on Twitter asking whether anyone else would be interested in joining her. Within two weeks, more than 200 people -- including a handful from Australia and Sri Lanka -- had signed up.

Jenkins, the architect, said she decided to join Hamaker's group because she had just gotten a copy of the book and found it "intimidating." By signing on, she said, she thought she would be more likely to crack open the book and bake from it.

"I've been so shocked at how supportive everyone is," said Jenkins, who recently moved from Alexandria to Boston. "It's great having them along. . . . You feel like no matter what happens it's fine, because everyone messes up."


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