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Online Club Members Cook Together, Miles Apart

Some cooking club enthusiasts say they were inspired by "Julie & Julia," the best-selling memoir about a New York blogger cooking her way through Julia Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and the basis of the recent Nora Ephron movie. (Thanks to the movie, Child's cookbook is now at the top of bestseller lists.) For others, the draw has been having a network of amateurs nudging them to try new things.

A Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge that involved making brioche, for example, had bakers in knots over the extraordinarily gooey dough and occasional stubbornness when it came to rising. "I finally realized my dough was destined for a life of mediocrity; I grudgingly gave it an egg wash and shoved it in the oven," lamented Jeff Shively, a network administrator in Fort Wayne, Ind., on his blog, http://www.culinarydisaster.com/wordpress. Shively, who had never baked bread before he joined the Bread Baker's Apprentice challenge in May, said the exercise has taught him to be more patient. "I'm used to just throwing things on the grill and going. But here, I'm stuck at the mercy of the dough."

Wendy Betancourt (http://pinkstripes.wordpress.com), a 37-year-old epidemiologist who devotes a big chunk of her free time to baking and cooking along with three online groups, said she has become a little more adventurous. "There were a lot of things I was scared to try. But I've learned from these groups that you need to just jump in," said the Redland, Calif., resident. "Even if you create the biggest disaster, you learn more from your mistakes, and it's always better the next go-round."

Bolstered by that new outlook, Betancourt signed up to learn scuba diving in December, something she said she had always wanted to do but was too afraid to try. In April, when she ran a half-marathon for the first time, she had the support of tweets and e-mails from her newfound cooking buddies. They helped carry her to the finish line, she said.

In my case, although I'm an avid baker of cookies, cakes and pies, I had never baked a bread that required kneading, braiding or waiting for dough to rise until I made bagels with the bread bakers. Ten beautiful, homemade "everything" bagels later, I was hooked. I've been baking along with them ever since, an experience that has been a confidence-booster both in the kitchen and out, even when the breads don't turn out so well.

When I felt like a complete failure after my attempt at making ciabatta filled my apartment with smoke and yielded three blackened, rock-hard loaves, for example, the messages that I got from other bakers on Twitter and my own blog (built to support an upcoming food memoir) were instantaneous, sweet and incredibly rah-rah reassuring. "Hey, if you got as far as the couche part and the loaves rose and were perfect just before you put them into the oven then I would say you were 95 percent successful," fellow baker Daniel Rios wrote from Berlin. "Other than the obvious [burn], the loaves are beautiful."

Because of the camaraderie that such groups generate, offshoots are springing up. Recently, while I was waxing lyrical about bacon and BLTs on Twitter with Hamaker and a baker in Paris, we formed a mini-group of cooks who would make and blog about BLTs that week for a virtual BLT lunch date.

Reinhart, the author of "The Bread Baker's Apprentice," said he felt flattered when he heard about Hamaker's group. "But you get a little nervous about it, too," he told me. "I don't know what their responses are going to be. One of the first thoughts I had was, 'Once they find a recipe that doesn't work, they're going to gang up on you!' " But since exchanging e-mails with Hamaker when the group was formed, the author has not heard from bakers seeking tips or reporting errors in his recipes.

Noting that a movie starring Meryl Streep was made from the "Julie & Julia" book, Reinhart said he has one wish: "If there is a movie made, I want Hugh Jackman to play me. But it'll probably end up being Jason Alexander."

Cheryl Lu-Lien Tan is a New York food and fashion writer who blogs at http://www.atigerinthekitchen.com.


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