Build a Better Blog

Inspiring, overwhelming, humbling, invigorating, enlightening, stunning, and motivating; such a rush of seemingly discordant emotions percolated throughout hours of workshops and sessions during the 2018 WOWsummit. Bringing together bloggers from across the country for a 2-day celebration of this incredible online community, connecting screen names to real faces turned a potentially dry educational experience into a real-life reunion party. Beyond meeting and greeting, the main goal here was to share experiences, build stronger networks, and dispense invaluable advice.

With so much information to absorb packed into each discussion, you could easily fill a book after just one day on the expo floor. Condensing down some of the top tips that resonated with me, my notes are not all-inclusive nor definitive advice for guaranteed success, but bold reminders of how to step up my own game. There’s always more that can be done, whether you’re a complete novice or seasoned veteran, often with little extra effort needed. Want to know what resonated with me most? Here are the top tips that continue echoing through my brain…

Finding Your Voice and Personal Brand:

  • Think about your values
  • Speak from personal experience
  • Understand your purpose, know what you have to offer
  • Establish a mission based on your passion
  • Never lose yourself in branding; a human face is what others can connect with
  • Keep it real, not necessarily polished
  • Check in with your audience to find out what’s important to them
  • Numbers don’t tell the full story; quality over quantity always rules
  • Be honest, vulnerable, relatable
  • Have a focus, define your niche
  • Don’t dilute your brand by partnering with companies that don’t fit with your perspective
  • Define your own success; set goals, personally and professionally
  • Be consistent
  • Engage as much as possible
  • Have a schedule
  • Put yourself out there and reach out to brands you already support
  • Network, create connections with other bloggers

Working with Brands:

  • Make sure it’s a good fit; same audience, same perspective
  • Pay attention to detail (no spelling errors, get names right)
  • Do your research to know what they’ve done in the past
  • Give examples of what you will post, link to past work
  • Be clear about terms, goals
  • Encourage ongoing relationship, ambassadorship
  • Offer many options for collaborations
  • Giveaways, Facebook chats/ask and expert/Twitter party/unboxing
  • Don’t be afraid to negotiate
  • Make real connections; talk on the phone, meet in person if possible. Make it personal.
  • Stay in touch, follow up

To say that this is just a shallow overview would be generous. Anyone who’s attempted to blog for more than a day understands what a complex, crazy venture it is, which is why we’re all our greatest resources. What are your best practices for success? What keeps you blogging? Or, if you haven’t started, what’s stopping you from diving into the pool and joining the blogosphere? Come on, don’t just dip in a toe; jump head-first! There’s nothing to lose, and a whole community to gain.

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Do the Monster Munch

There’s certainly no shortage of sweet treats this time of year. Mountains of glittering, foil-wrapped candies adorn office desks and kitchen counters alike, tempting passersby to indulge at every turn. Though the abundance of goodies excites my sweet tooth, the wide range of offerings all too often prove disappointing to my taste buds; throat-searing sugary centers enrobed in waxy chocolate coatings are more common than not, each morsel putting on a festive facade to mask its flat flavors. Time and again, each new crop of bewitching confections fails to satisfy. Stop the madness, I say! Step away from the shiny packages and seek solace in a far more satisfying popcorn snack experience.

Matcha Munchies Green Tea Popcorn Snack

Popcorn, the crisp, fluffy kernels that boast an impressive serving of fiber in each handful are the savior of peckish healthy eaters everywhere. This workhorse snack provides the perfect blank canvas for a Halloween treat that’s a far lesser evil than those frightful mass-produced candies.

Tinted a monstrous shade of green thanks to the bold addition of green tea powder, each bite of this popcorn snack recipe rings with the complex interplay of sweet and bitter tastes, each in perfect harmony. Crunchy clusters of pumpkin seeds round out the mix with a subtly nutty flavor. Drizzling dark chocolate over the top really gilds the lily, but for an event as flamboyant as Halloween, it seems appropriate to pull out all the stops.

Matcha Munchies Green Tea Popcorn Snack

Though little trick-or-treaters may not appreciate this more mature, sugar-coated delight, that only means there’s more of this delicious popcorn snack to go around for the rest of us. It may appear to yield an intimidating amount of glorious green kernels, but don’t you dream of reducing the recipe. Not even the most sour ghost or ghoul could resist its wicked charm.

Matcha Monster Munch

6 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn
1 Cup Pepitas
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Matcha
1/4 Cup Brown Rice Syrup
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil, Melted
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
4 Ounces (About 3/4 Cup Chopped) Bittersweet Chocolate, Melted

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees and lightly grease a jelly roll pan or any rimmed baking sheet. Combine the popped corn and pumpkin seeds in a large bowl and set aside.

In medium saucepan with high sides, combine the sugar, matcha, rice syrup, melted butter or coconut oil, and salt. Whisk vigorously to break up any small clumps of matcha before proceeding. They can be tricky to disperse, especially in hot liquids, so don’t be afraid to really beat the mixture up while you have the chance. Set the pan on the stove over medium heat.

Periodically stir as the mixture heats up, until the sugar has dissolved. Once it reaches a full boil, stop stirring and allow it to cook at a lively bubble for 5 minutes. Don’t rush it!

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Working quickly but carefully, pour the hot sugar syrup over your bowl of popped corn and gently stir to coat. Transfer the entire thing over to your prepared baking pan, spreading it out into an even a layer as possible, and move it into your oven. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, for 1 hour.

Let cool completely before drizzling all over with melted chocolate. Allow the chocolate to fully set before breaking the popcorn into large clusters. Store in an airtight container in a cool place for 3 – 4 days, maximum.

Makes About 7 Cups; 6 – 8 Servings

Printable Recipe

Ghost Stories

BOO! Looming ominously just beyond sight, Halloween lurks exactly where you’d expect to find it, behind that last door down the creaky corridor at the end of the month. Still, we approach hesitantly, uncertain as we slowly grasp the knob, unaware of the audience’s cries. No, don’t do it! Obviously the killer is in there! October 31st springs out in jarring eruptions of ghouls and goblins, pumpkins and black cats, knocking us out of the usual routine, if only in periodic heart-pounding spurts.

Halloween was once the holiday that I built my entire calendar around, the one day of the year I truly looked forward to. Like most kids who grow up into jaded adults, that enthusiasm has waned, but not entirely disappeared. All Hallows Eve is still an opportunity to indulge in some good-spirited mischief, whimsy, and sweet treats.

If you, too, have been caught off guard by this festive apparition with scant ingredients and nothing prepared to stave off the tiny, hungry demons at your door, don’t panic. I have just the trick for you.

Fudge, without a drop of chocolate? You bet! Highlighting the delicate, ambrosial flavor of full-bodied vanilla bean instead, this creamy confection is sure to be a hit with kids or anyone with an assertive sweet tooth. Though some may argue it’s more akin to solidified frosting than a proper snack, it all depends on the quality of your vanilla, and tolerance for a bit of sugary indulgence. Simply slice it into small cubes if you don’t have a ghostly cookie cutter, as just a little bit is sure to satisfy.

Ghostly Vanilla Fudge

2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Tablespoons Vanilla Extract

Lightly grease an 8 x 8-inch square pan, and set aside.

In a large, high-sided saucepan, combine the sugar, non-dairy milk, and salt. Stir thoroughly to distribute the ingredients, and then leave the mixture alone until it comes to a steady boil. Clip on a candy thermometer, and cook until it reaches 238 – 240 degrees, stirring CONSTANTLY, or else the pot is liable to boil over and make a big sticky mess- Mark my words!

Once it reaches the proper temperature, remove the saucepan from the heat, and allow the mixture to cool to 110 degrees. Add in the butter and vanilla, but do NOT touch it while it’s cooling; just keep that spatula at bay for now. As soon as it hits 110, start beating it vigorously with a sturdy spoon or spatula, and just keep stirring until it feels like your arms are about to fall off. It should take anywhere from 10 – 15 minutes before the mixture will thicken and loose some of its shine. At that point, you can pour it into your prepared pan, tap it a few times on the counter to smooth out the top and release any air bubbles, and then transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Let rest for at least 3 hours before cutting, into either simple squares or cute shapes, using a small ghost-shaped cookie cutter. For ghostly eyes, press round sprinkles into the heads, or use tiny drops of melted chocolate (applied with a toothpick.)

Printable Recipe

Dumpling Diplomacy

What defines a dumpling? Is it the dough that sets the category? Does the filling play a role in this determination? Would something intangible, something as abstract as cultural origin have greater influence?

This is the question that lingers after watching the comical debate play out on the final episode of Ugly Delicious, a throw down between Italian stuffed pasta versus Asian dumplings. Though the two schools of thought seem crystal clear a first, peel back the wrapper a bit and it becomes more difficult to know where to draw the line. If you put cheese inside of wonton skins, do they become ravioli? Would that classification change if they were boiled, fried, or steamed? Some will undoubtedly be offended by this question, many more will have a strong, irrepressible knee-jerk response, but what I really want to know is whether or not that makes it any less delicious.

Ultimately, that’s the whole point that David Chang is trying to make in this mock trial. The concept itself is deeply flawed and fraught with controversy, considering the immense cultural diversity that each region encompasses, but still, it made me think. How could I merge the two schools of thought into one single bundle of joy, both a peace offering and a tribute to both sides? Extending an olive branch somewhat literally, olives played an important role in the final fusion.

Italian pasta puttanesca, a bold dish redolent of garlic and punctuated by briny twangs of olives and capers inspired the tomato-based filling to these stuffed savories, but they’re all Asian in presentation. Swaddled in delicate gyoza wrappers and seared to a crispy finish on the bottom, these unconventional potstickers lay claim to no single source, but a harmonious melding of culinary techniques, flavors, and ingredients derived from the world at large. Paired with an herbed olive oil dipping sauce, the eating experience is one that defies definition. All remaining disputes will be forgotten if we could put down our proverbial axes and pick up a set of chopsticks- or a fork- instead.

These potstickers come together in a flash with Twin Dragon Gyoza Wrappers holding everything together. I’m entering this recipe into the Twin Dragons Asian Wrapper Blogger Recipe Challenge held by JSL Foods. Find more recipe inspiration on their Facebook page and Twitter feed.

If only true world peace was as easily attained as such deeply satisfying, savory results.

Puttanesca Potstickers

4 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
4 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 (14-Ounce) Can Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes
1/4 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes, Roughly Chopped
1/2 Cup Pitted Back Olives, Roughly Chopped
1 Tablespoon Petite Capers
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1/4 – 1/2 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
4 Ounces (1/4 Package) Extra-Firm Tofu
1/2 Cup Fresh Basil, Roughly Chopped
1 Package Twin Dragon Gyoza Wrappers

Olive Oil and Herb Dipping Sauce

2 Garlic Cloves, Finely Minced
2 Tablespoons Petite Capers
1/2 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
2 Teaspoons Fresh Rosemary, Minced
2 Teaspoons Fresh Thyme, Minced
3 Tablespoons Nutritional yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black pepper
1/2 Cup Olive Oil

Heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat and add the garlic. Saute until lightly browned and aromatic; about 4 – 6 minutes. Introduce the tomatoes, juice and all, along with the dried tomatoes, olives, capers, oregano, and red pepper. Thoroughly drain and crumble the tofu before adding it last, stirring to incorporate. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 20 minutes, stirring frequently, until any excess liquid has evaporated. Add the fresh basil last and cool completely before proceeding.

To assemble the potstickers, take one wrapper at a time, keeping the rest of the stack covered with a lightly moistened towel to prevent them from drying out. Place a scant tablespoon of filling in the center, lightly moisten the edges with water, and fold the wrapper in half, pleating and crimping the top to seal. (Here’s a handy visual guide if you’re having trouble.) Repeat with the remaining filling and wrappers.

At this point, you can either proceed straight to cooking the dumplings, or freeze them for a later date. Freeze in a single layer on a sheet pan and store in an airtight container in the freeze for up to 2 months, if desired.

When you’re ready to heat a tablespoon of oil in a nonstick skillet over high heat. When oil is hot, place enough potstickers in the skillet to fill but not crowd the vessel, pleat-side up. Sear hard for about 1 minute before adding 2 tablespoons water in the skillet. Cover immediately and reduce the heat to medium. Cook covered until the water is evaporated and potstickers are cooked through; about 3 minutes.

Meanwhile, prepare the dipping sauce by simply mixing everything together in a small bowl.

Remove the cover and flip one potsticker to see whether the bottom side is deeply burnished and crisp. If not, continue to cook until the bottom side turns golden brown. Transfer to a plate and repeat with the remaining oil and potstickers. Serve hot with herbed dipping sauce, asap.

Makes About 50 – 60 Gyoza and 1/2 Cup Dipping Sauce

Printable Recipe

Everything or Nothing

Allegedly, according to surveys of questionable origin, the most popular type of bagel worldwide is plain. Yes, plain. In a world rife with fake news, this shocking proclamation is one that I find most difficult to believe. Has anyone ever raved about a plain bagel in any restaurant review? Are there bakeries out there at risk of selling out of this most austere option? Honestly, when was the last time you willingly ate a plain bagel, excluding the sad occasions when it was sole occupant languishing in the bread basket?

Falling entirely on the opposite side of the spectrum, the case for the everything bagel is a strong one. Brazen and fearless in its combination of savory seasonings, no person in their right mind would decline such savory complexity. Such heresy would be akin to ordering mapo tofu, but asking for it mild. A bagel without everything is nothing.

It’s a suitably audacious statement for such a bold blend, but I’m not alone in this judgement. Spreading a trail of seeded crumbs across the culinary landscape, the “everything bagel” has become a flavor in and of itself, spawning truly creative interpretations of the concept far beyond the original yeasted ring. The Everything Bagel Salad in Real Food, Really Fast remains a stand-out dish among fans, but today, I’m bringing it back down to the bakers bench, with just a little twist.

Make that a literal twist. Boiled rings aren’t the only sort of bread that can have it all. Buttery, tender babka dough forgoes the typical sweet adornments to get in touch with its salty side. Swirled and rippled with thick lashings of cream cheese, awash in a speckled sea of everything seasoning, each rich slice presents the complete package. Toast if you must, but as is the case with the original, fresh is simply best.

That said, cutting those slabs down a bit thinner to make a sandwich with extra cream cheese, carrot lox, dill, and capers isn’t such a terrible deviation from the plan…

I’m proud to submit this bread to the 12th annual World Bread Day celebration. I haven’t missed a single crumb-covered observance in the history of BitterSweet, and don’t plan to turn in my dough hook anytime soon. Scores of yeasted inspiration will be posted soon, so keep an eye out for the official roundup… But maybe, just maybe, don’t browse while hungry.

World Bread Day, October 16, 2018

Everything Bagel Babka

Savory Babka Dough:

1 Cup Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Tablespoon Granulated Sugar
1 (1/4 Ounce) Packet (2 1/4 Teaspoons) Active Dry Yeast
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1/4 Cup Olive Oil or Melted Vegan Butter
3 1/2 – 4 1/2 Cups All-Purpose Flour
1 Teaspoon Salt

Cream Cheese Filling:

1 (8-Ounce Package) Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Everything Bagel Seasoning, Store-Bought or Homemade

“Egg” Wash:

2 Tablespoons Aquafaba

Gently warm the coconut milk to just above room temperature (no hotter than 100 degrees at most) along with the sugar. Sprinkle in the yeast and let sit for about 5 minutes, until the yeast re-activates in a happy, foamy froth.

Mix in the aquafaba and olive oil or melted vegan butter, stirring well to combine, before adding the first 3 1/2 cups of flour and salt. Incorporate all of the dry mixture, using a stand mixer to knead on low speed for about 5 minutes with the dough hook attachment. To knead by hand, plan on spending closer to 10 minutes. Add more flour as needed to achieve a smooth, tacky but not sticky dough.

Round the dough into a ball and place it in a lightly greased bowl. Cover with a clean kitchen towel, rest in a warm spot, and let rise until doubled in volume; about 1 – 1 1/2 hours.

Press down the dough and divide it into two equal pieces. On a lightly floured surface, roll out one piece into a rectangle of about 14 x 10 inches and smear half of the cream cheese all over the surface. Sprinkle evenly with half of the everything bagel seasoning, and then roll it tightly, lengthwise, like you would for cinnamon buns. Repeat with the remaining dough and fillings.

Once you have two filled logs, use a very sharp knife to slice both cleanly down the middle, leaving the bottom intact. Twist the two split rolls together and tuck the messy ends underneath. Place the full loaf in a lightly grease 8 x 4-inch loaf pan and lightly cover with a clean dish towel. Let rise for another hour.

As you near the end of this second rise, begin preheating your oven to 350 degrees. Gently brush the loaf with aquafaba, and bake for 60 – 75 minutes, until golden brown all over. Let cool completely before slicing.

Makes 1 Loaf

Printable Recipe