Food writers cook up Web site, contest

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When Amanda Hesser and Merrill Stubbs first conceived of a Web site devoted to home cooks, they imagined an online community where people would share their best recipes and talk about food.

"A great home cook recipe really makes a lasting impression," says Ms. Hesser, "Home cooks are practical, they're inventive, they don't call for crazy ingredients," and, "they tend to have a couple of details you wouldn't think of doing on your own that makes them really interesting."

As avid home cooks and accomplished professional food writers, both women are well-qualified to evaluate recipes. Ms. Hesser is best known for her New York Times Magazine Recipe Redux column and her award-winning food books, including "Cooking for Mr. Latte: A Food Lover's Courtship, with Recipes"; Ms. Stubbs is the food editor of Herb Quarterly and has contributed to Edible Brooklyn, Body+Soul and Culinate.com. As the idea for the site developed, the final twist unraveled: If they had this great community of home cooks sharing their best recipes, why not go ahead and put them together in a cookbook?

One book contract (and a whole lot of work) later, www.Food52.com was born.

While the contests have started, the site doesn't officially launch until Sept. 15, so first-time visitors need to create a user profile, and log in to view the site, post recipes or comment.

Each week two challenges are posted asking cooks to contribute their best recipe in different categories, such as strawberries (week 2) or salad dressing (week 5). When time runs out, Ms. Hesser and Ms. Stubbs test the likely contenders and pick two finalists. Then Food52 members vote on the winner. To fill out the cookbook and encourage people to contribute to the general recipe archive, they also pick wild-card winners, which aren't subject to a vote.

Winners get their recipes published, some loot from site-sponsor OXO and a free copy of the book when it comes out. The result is an impressive balance of content built by all of the contributors but refined and organized by Ms. Hesser and Ms. Stubbs.

Many are calling it the first "crowdsourced" cookbook, but that definition undervalues the site founders' contributions. By testing the recipes and selecting the finalists, Ms. Hesser and Ms. Stubbs put their aesthetic stamp on the cookbook and play a crucial role in the final product.

Principles of reciprocity are visible in other aspects of the site as well. If someone likes the "simple summer peach cake" that won the best peach recipe contest in week 8, he or she cannot only view Kate Wheeler's (Savour's) other recipes on Food52, but also can check out her blog, http://savour-fare.com, or follow her on Twitter -- two features that will appeal to home cooks who want to build their audience on other forums.

Ms. Hesser and Ms. Stubbs also rely partly on their members to make sure recipes are properly credited; if a member has seen a similar recipe somewhere else, he or she can flag it for review. They're not out to shame people, just to ensure fairness. The women encourage transparency, not just so they can judge the originality of a recipe, but also because knowing how a recipe was developed makes that recipe more interesting to read and to cook.

Despite the millions of recipes already out there, they aren't worried that cooks will run out of recipes to contribute. "There are very few specific ideas that are new," said Ms. Stubbs, "but there are so many elements to every recipe, I think they're a little like snowflakes."


Simple Summer Peach Cake

PG-tested

This particular flavor combination comes from my childhood -- on summer mornings my mother would fix a bowl of cut-up peaches with milk, sprinkled with sugar and a dusting of nutmeg. Although that's a pretty sublime combination, the flavors translate well to cake form. -- Kate Wheeler (Savour)

  • 3 peaches
  • 3/4 teaspoons freshly ground nutmeg
  • 1 cup sugar, divided
  • 6 tablespoons softened butter
  • 1 egg
  • 1/2 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1/4 teaspoon almond extract
  • 1 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 cup almond flour (or finely ground almonds)
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1/4 teaspoon baking soda
  • A healthy pinch of salt
  • Turbinado sugar

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter and flour a 9-inch cake pan.

Cut peaches into bite-sized pieces. Toss with nutmeg and 2 tablespoons of sugar. Set aside.

Cream together butter and remaining sugar with a wooden spoon or spatula. Add egg, buttermilk and extracts, and stir to combine.

Combine flours, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Add to butter mixture, mix until smooth (some lumps may remain). Transfer to the prepared pan.

Press peaches into top of cake. They can be nicely arranged, but I like to cram as many peaches as possible into the cake. Sprinkle turbinado sugar over the top.

Bake at 350 degrees for 10 minutes, then reduce the heat to 325 and bake for an additional 45-55 minutes.

Serves 8.

-- From Kate Wheeler on www.food52.com


China Millman can be reached at 412-263-1198 or cmillman@post-gazette.com . Follow China on Twitter at http://twitter.com/chinamillman . First Published August 30, 2009 4:00 AM


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