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.
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."
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.