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Archive for October, 2012

I think it’s safe to say that this brutally hot summer is finally over. About time, too – it’s nearly November!

At the Dupont Circle farmers market yesterday, winter squash and root vegetables ran the show. My findings included spaghetti squash, kale, carrots, sweet potatoes and leeks.

One word popped into my head – soup. I needed to make soup. Something savory, and comforting; something that said “It’s finally Fall.”

Today, I’m stuck inside my apartment because of Hurricane Sandy. It’s currently 52 degrees, cloudy and windy. It doesn’t seem too bad now, but the forecast says the worst is coming. Who knows if it actually will get worse, but during all of this Sandy insanity, I’m going to make soup. Farmers market sweet potato, carrot and leek soup.

I left the basic ingredients of the soup, sweet potatoes and carrots, relatively untouched. A hint of ginger and cinnamon, and a touch of crushed red pepper contrast the sweetness of the soup. Chicken stock adds salt. Adding lemon juice at the end (I think cooking lemon juice weakens its flavor) adds a final element of acidity to the soup.

My favorite part about this soup is the leeks. They lend a mild, earthy flavor that pairs perfectly with sweet potatoes and carrots in the soup. I don’t think the sharp flavor of onions would have worked nearly as well.

In my opinion, leeks are not used enough in home cooking. They require a little more effort than onions, but the result is worth it. Leeks often have grit, so it’s important to rinse them with water beforehand. I always slice off the top, dark green part, as the flavor comes from the white part of the stem. You can separate the leek stem into segments, halve them, and then slice them thinly. Easy, right?

Okay, enough about leeks. Let’s cook.

Farmers Market Sweet Potato, Carrot and Leek Soup

(Makes at least 3-4 medium-sized bowls of soup)

  • 2 medium-sized sweet potatoes
  • 6 medium-sized carrots
  • 3 large leeks
  • Chicken stock
  • Juice of 1 lemon
  • Ginger
  • Cinnamon
  • Crushed red pepper
  1. Peel and roughly chop sweet potatoes and carrot into small cubes. (I think cutting the veg smaller makes them easier to chop in the blender.)
  2. Slice off the dark green part of the leeks, and dice the white and very light green parts. Rinse the diced leeks in water. Start in a pot with olive oil over low-medium heat. Add salt and pepper and stir until leeks have softened.
  3. Add sweet potatoes and carrots and stir to combine. Add dried ginger, cinnamon (don’t go crazy on this one) and crushed red pepper.
  4. Add chicken stock, enough to cover the vegetables completely. Bring to a boil, then turn down heat to a simmer.
  5. When potatoes and carrots are tender, remove from heat and pour into a blender.
  6. Puree until smooth. Depending on the quality of your blender, this could either take a few minutes or a bit longer. The soup should have a smooth consistency without any chunks. If the soup is too thick, add stock to thin it out.
  7. Add lemon juice to pureed soup. Keep in mind that you might not need all of the lemon juice, so add it to taste.
  8. Double check for seasoning (does it need more salt?), and enjoy.
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In my last blog post, I explained my childhood love of Ruby Tuesday’s chocolate tall cake. When I discovered that it had been removed from the menu in 2009, I was devastated. Now, three years later, I’ve decided to make my own chocolate tall cake. Follow my efforts below!

Step one – the goblet. Without the goblet, this dessert would be just plain cake and ice cream. It’s that majestic, glass goblet that makes this dessert so special.

I bought my goblet for three dollars at a Goodwill in Baltimore. Enough said.

Step two – the chocolate cake. Ruby Tuesday’s chocolate cake consisted of multiple layers separated by a rich, chocolate mousse. The cake was soft and moist, but still sturdy enough to support the explosion of toppings that followed.

With my limited pastry experience, I decided my best option was to Google “really moist chocolate mousse cake.” The recipe I finally chose was from Barefoot Contessa. I figured Ina Garten wouldn’t lead me too astray.

Beatty’s Chocolate Cake
from Barefoot Contessa at Home

  • 1 3/4 cups all purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cups cocoa powder (I used Dutch processed)
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon kosher salt
  • 1 cup buttermilk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 extra large eggs, room temperature (I used 2 large eggs and about half of another egg)
  • 1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
  • 1 cup freshly brewed hot coffee
  1. Preheat oven to 350 F. Butter and flour two 8 or 9 inch round cake pans.
  2. Sift together the flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder and salt and set aside.
  3. In the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, combine the buttermilk, oil, eggs and vanilla. With the mixer on low, slowly add the dry ingredients to the wet to combine. Slowly add the hot coffee just until combined.
  4. Pour batter into the prepared pans and bake for 35-40 minutes or until a cake tester comes out clean.

My first mistake was not buttering or flouring the cake pan. The pan was non-stick, so I didn’t think I would have any problems.

I made a few adjustments to the ingredients, such as using canola oil for vegetable oil, and 2% milk for buttermilk. I also used less brewed coffee than the recipe called for, because I thought my batter would be too thin otherwise.

The first layer came out too dry because I baked it for too long. Impatient and wanting to start the second layer, I removed the cake from the pan before it had cooled completely. As you can see from the photo, this was a bad idea.

I lined the pan with canola oil (I had no butter), hoping this would work better. As the second layer was baking, I started on the chocolate mousse filling. The recipe came from the same website as the cake did.

Chocolate Mousse
adapted from Cooks Illustrated

  • 8 oz. bittersweet chocolate, finely chopped
  • 2 tablespoons Dutch processed cocoa powder
  • 1 teaspoon instant espresso powder
  • 5 tablespoons water
  • 1 tablespoon whiskey
  • 2 large eggs, separated
  • 1 tablespoon sugar, divided into 1 1/2 teaspoons each
  • 1/8 teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons cold heavy cream
  1. Combine chocolate, cocoa powder, espresso powder, water and whiskey in a medium heat proof bowl. Heat over a double boiler, stirring frequently until chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Remove from heat and set aside.
  2. In another medium bowl, combine the egg yolks, 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and salt. Whisk until mixture lightens and thickens slightly (about 30 seconds if using an electric mixer). Pour the melted chocolate into the egg mixture and whisk until combined. Set aside until mixture cools to just warmer than room temperature.
  3. In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the whisk, beat egg whites on medium speed until frothy; add remaining 1 1/2 teaspoons sugar and increase speed to medium-high and beat until soft peaks form. Stir about 1/4 of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture to lighten. Gently fold in remaining egg whites until only a few white streaks remain.
  4. Using your now empty mixer bowl (no need to wash it), whip heavy cream until soft peaks form. Fold the whipped cream into the chocolate/egg white mixture until no white streaks remain. Cover and refrigerate until firm for at least 2 hours (or up to 24).

I subbed the rest of the coffee from the cake recipe for the whiskey and left out the espresso powder.

Everything went smoothly until I made the meringue. For some unknown reason, I failed. Using my mixer, I blended the egg whites for 10 minutes, but nothing happened. No “soft peak,” no anything. Just white, frothy liquid. Screw it, I finally said, and dumped the whites down the drain.

After spending a year in culinary school, I’ve learned that there is always another way to achieve the final product. I folded whipped cream into my melted chocolate and skipped the meringue entirely. This resulted in a thinner, less dense mousse, but I figured it would thicken after chilling for an hour or two. Despite everything, the mousse tasted great.

My second layer of cake came out much better than the first. After I spread the mousse over the first layer, I tried to detach the second layer from the pan. Let’s just say that canola oil is no substitute for butter and flour. I gathered the broken pieces of cake and placed them on top of the mousse as neatly as possible.

Looks like a cheeseburger with rye bread!

I took a small bite of my cake. Ruby Tuesday’s cake was moister, and aesthetically way more appealing. The chocolate mousse in my cake, however, was out-of-this-world good.

I should have refrigerated my cake right away to let it set. Instead, I left it out on top of the stove, which was still hot from the oven. Ten minutes later, I realized that the whipped cream holding my mousse together had melted, causing the top layer of cake to slide off of the plate. Oops.

Step three: Chocolate sauce and caramel sauce

After my cake fiasco, I wanted to keep everything else simple. I made both chocolate and caramel sauce at L’Academie de Cuisine, so I recreated these recipes from memory.

Chocolate Sauce

  • Chocolate chips
  • Heavy cream
  • Vanilla extract
  1. Add about 1 cup chocolate chips and a little cream (helps keep the chocolate from burning) to a stainless steel bowl over a pot with simmering water. Use a spatula to stir until the chocolate has melted.
  2. Remove from heat and add a little vanilla extract and stir.
  3. Add more cream until desired thickness.
  4. How simple was that??

Caramel Sauce

  • Sugar
  • Butter
  • Heavy cream
  • Vanilla extract
  1. Add about 1-2 cups of sugar to a pot. Add a little water, just enough so that all the sugar can absorb it. This will help the sugar not to burn.
  2. Over medium-high heat, cook the sugar until it turns a medium brown. Then, add a few small cubes of butter and remove from heat. Swirl the pot to combine the butter.
  3. Add heavy cream until caramel has reached desired thickness. Add a little vanilla extract for flavor and that’s it!

No drama here. Just delicious sauce. Thank God.

Step four: Vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and crumbled Oreos

Like I said before, I’m no pastry chef. Sometimes, it’s just easier to go to 7-11. It’s especially easier when it’s about 30 feet away from my apartment. I bought Haagen Dazs vanilla ice cream and a six-pack of Oreos.

I always asked for no whipped cream at Ruby Tuesday, so let’s be historically accurate here and just leave it off. I also ran out of heavy cream after the chocolate and caramel sauces and didn’t feel like buying more.

Step five: Assemble!

Now that’s just beautiful.

Step six: Eat!

For me, the homemade caramel sauce was the star. The slight bitterness of the caramel was the perfect contrast to the sweetness of just about everything else going on in the dessert. In addition, the smoothness of the chocolate mousse and crunch from the Oreos contributed a different texture.

Because of limited time, making the tall cake on my own took several days. I don’t know what it is exactly, but there is something pretty awesome about ordering a dessert like this at a restaurant and having it appear in a matter of minutes.

After I finished my creation, I made a shocking discovery. A Ruby Tuesday in Hong Kong is still serving the chocolate tall cake (don’t believe me? Check out their website). Well, I guess I’ll be making a quick trip to Hong Kong in the near future.

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When I was younger, my family’s options for dining out in my hometown of Charlotte, North Carolina were limited. For a reasonably priced dinner, there just weren’t that many options. Pizza meant Pizza Hut.  Chinese meant Shun Lee Palace, the questionably sanitary take-out place near our house. Classic, all-American food meant Ruby Tuesday.

Charlotte has come a long way in the past ten years. The city has transformed completely, most notably with the opening of many new restaurants. What used to be a city full of chains and casual local joints has now become one of upscale, fine dining spots. And they’re not all outrageously expensive, either.

As a child, Ruby Tuesday was always my favorite spot. My dad liked the rack of ribs, which was enough food to feed a small village. There was a salad bar, which I always avoided (I used to hate vegetables), but my parents would pile their plates high with greens and other healthy looking things.

For me, there was the chocolate tall cake. It’s still so clear in my mind – layers of moist chocolate cake and chocolate mousse, swimming in caramel and chocolate sauce, topped with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream and Oreo cookie crumbles – presented in a gigantic glass goblet. In my tiny four and a half-foot, eight-year-old body, the tall cake towered over me.

I might allow my mom or dad to have a few small bites of the tall cake, but that was it. I could take this monster down nearly every time, pretty easily too. I might have felt sick afterwards, but it was a small price to pay for its deliciousness. It’s amazing that I wasn’t a fat kid, either.

A few years ago, Ruby Tuesday decided to distinguish itself from Applebee’s, T.G.I. Fridays, and Chili’s by upgrading its menu and appearance. Gone was the random crap and paraphernalia that previously filled the walls, traded for a cleaner, more minimalist look to their restaurants. Gone were many of the past menu items as well, including my beloved chocolate tall cake.

Unfortunately, I found this out the hard way. Sometime in 2009, the same year of Ruby Tuesday’s transformation, I tried to find the chocolate tall cake on the menu. I asked my server about this, but was instead offered the double chocolate cake. I didn’t want that. I wanted the chocolate tall cake. Every restaurant has a double chocolate cake for dessert. That’s not very creative at all.

A 2009 article from The New York Times provided an explanation. Ruby Tuesday executive chef Peter Glander commented on taking the tall cake off of the new menu –

“Some things lose luster…like the chocolate tall cake. It’s this cake that is extremely rich, and when I came over a year ago, this was the holy grail of the dessert menu. It was like, there will never be anything happening to this piece.”

With the loss of the tall cake came the New York Cheesecake, the Blondie, Tiramisu, gourmet cupcakes and the double chocolate cake. Really? Gourmet cupcakes? Ruby Tuesday is so trendy now.

Perhaps Chef Glander decided the tall cake was not sophisticated enough for Ruby Tuesday’s new menu. I say, why fix something if it was never broken in the first place?

You probably think I’m starting to sound a little bitter. Well, I am. I really liked the chocolate tall cake.

Sometimes, it’s best to take matters into your own hands. Determined to bring back this dessert masterpiece, I vowed to recreate the chocolate tall cake in my tiny, ill-equipped kitchen.

In my next post is the chocolate tall cake experiment breakdown. Unfortunately, my roommate, my boyfriend and myself ended up eating most of the cake before I finished my experiment. As a result, the tall cake wasn’t so tall anymore. Oh well. Stay tuned for the sweet saga.

(Photo: http://www.foodspotting.com/places/60159-ruby-tuesday-/items/218335-chocolate-tall-cake)

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Note: For some unknown reason, I had the tendency to type “Shack Shake” instead of “Shake Shack” while writing this blog post. I’m pretty sure I caught every instance, but apologies if there are still a few “Shack Shakes” floating around.

 

Earlier this month, I turned 24. Ouch.

I know, I know. I’m not old. My culinary school program at L’Academie de Cuisine just ended, which is probably a good explanation for the way I’m feeling. I’m still working at Cashion’s, but I’m trying to figure out my next course of action. Sometimes this task gets a bit overwhelming.

Although I worked on my birthday, I had the morning and a small part of the afternoon free. I went for a bike ride and then a run, enjoying the weather outside.

Afterwards, I decided to treat myself to lunch. I biked past Shake Shack on the way home and instantly knew that’s what I wanted. Since opening over a year ago in Dupont Circle, this New York City burger joint has quickly become a popular spot for a quick bite in D.C. I had meant to stop by for months, but could never find a good enough excuse to indulge in a burger, fries and shake.

Shake Shack first opened in 2001 as a street cart in Manhattan’s Madison Square Park. Due to its success, the cart moved to a small building (or “shack” I suppose) in the park in 2004. In 2008, Shake Shack expanded into a larger restaurant in the Upper West Side. From there, the business continued to grow and opened locations in neighboring states.

The first time I learned of Shake Shack was from a New York City native and good friend of mine in college. I can remember her voice, You’ve never heard of Shake Shack??? What planet are you from?!

Just because I’m from North Carolina doesn’t mean I’m a hillbilly. After all, we’ve got Chick-Fil-A. Waffle fries, BBQ sauce and chicken nuggets. Oh my god.

Speaking of cult followings, Eater.com reported that customers apparently waited up to an hour in line for a burger on Shake Shack’s opening day in Dupont Circle. Clearly, Washingtonians were excited about its arrival (pictured on the left is the D.C. Shack with quite a line outside).

Inside, the lively and upbeat restaurant is almost always crowded with customers and loud with thumping pop music. The order and pick-up windows are located in the front, while seating is in the back.

As I stared at the large menu posted on the wall, the age-old question popped into my head – What the @#$% do I order? When faced with a situation like this, I think it’s best to stick to something fail-proof and basic. I ordered the Shack Burger with a single patty, lettuce, tomato, cheese and the special “Shack Sauce.” To accompany, I chose fries and a chocolate frozen custard.

After about 10 minutes my food arrived, arranged neatly in a brown paper Shake Shack bag. I loved the presentation and how every component had its own spot in the bag. Unfortunately, this seemingly nifty bag would prove quite problematic.

The bag was rather stiff and rectangular shaped, making it difficult to fold and seal the top. There was no way this bag going to fit into my small backpack for the bike home either. Frustrated, I sealed the top as best as I could, turned it vertical on its side and stuffed it into my backpack. All I could do now was pray that my precious trio of deliciousness would not be smashed into an unrecognizable mess of chocolate, fries and meat.

While there was a bit of damage to my meal, it was not nearly as horrific as I perceived. The burger was partially crushed from the ride, the fries weren’t as hot as they had been, and the custard was partially melted. Overall, though, no major harm. See for yourself.  

From the bright red tomatoes to the green leaf lettuce that peeked out from the bun, this burger was damn good looking. The beef patty was a thin, always-well-done fast food style patty, but it appeared hand-packed and the cheese was melted evenly over it. The bun itself was soft, but did not have that squashed appearance that you might see from other fast food buns.

Presentation wise, this burger was a winner. But how about taste? Aside from the slightly tangy Shack Sauce, which I discerned to be some kind of flavored mayo, the taste of this burger is straightforward. Melted cheese and meat. Mmm, good.

I understand that a well-done beef patty does not have same juiciness as a medium rare patty does, but that’s not what Shake Shack is about. The place aims for consistency, like all fast food joints do, but with the added bonus of quality ingredients. The ripe tomato and crisp lettuce strongly contributed to this burger, when they so often are treated as afterthoughts.

Shake Shack’s crinkle-cut Yukon Gold fries were not as strong as the burger. I found the fries under seasoned and bland, but they did have a nice texture. Perfectly crunchy on the outside, soft, pillowy potatoey goodness on the inside. Dip them in ketchup and you’re good to go.

Or, if you want to unleash that inner child in you, feel free to try this –

At this moment, I became nostalgic. I remember sitting in Wendy’s with my friends when I was in middle school, eating a chicken sandwich, never a burger. I HATE Wendy’s burgers. The square shape is the most shameless reminder of mass-produced factory meat I have ever seen. In addition to the burger, I always ordered fries and a Frosty. We’d laugh about how weird it was to dunk our fries in our Frostys. We didn’t know what it was, but there was something oddly appealing about it. Maybe the combination of salty and sweet? Crunchy and creamy?

It was now, while enjoying my Shack burger, fries and custard, that I didn’t feel so “old” and overwhelmed. Having to go to work in a few hours suddenly didn’t seem so daunting, either.

It’s comforting to have a place like Shake Shack nearby, especially with all sorts of crazy innovations in food like molecular gastronomy going on right now. You know what you’re going to get, and you know it’s going to be good. Sometimes, you just want something simple.

Shake Shack takes the fast-food concept to a whole new level. They have their own beer, called “Shackmeister Ale.” They even have a menu for dogs. Minus the Frostys of course, Wendy’s doesn’t hold a candle to that.

(Photo credit: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/going-out-gurus/post/shake-shack-finally-puts-dc-on-the-map/2011/05/17/AFBuTr5G_blog.html)

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A few weeks ago, I attended the Association of Food Journalists’ annual conference in D.C. I had the chance to meet food journalists from all over the country and listen to speakers cover hot topics in the food journalism world. I even got to have lunch at the Swedish ambassador’s home and attend a reception at the State Department for the launch of the American Chef Corps (check out this article from Eater.com for more information). For this post, I wanted to share an article I wrote for the October 2012 AFJ newsletter covering a panel led by Ann Hodgman, a well-known humor and food writer. Hodgman discussed her upbringing, her inspirations and addressed the question, “what is humor’s place in food writing?” I’ve always loved using humor in my own food writing, so I found Hodgman’s perspective very informative. If you haven’t read her article, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch,” then you’re missing out. Check it out – it really shows Hodgman’s knack for strong voice and vivid descriptions.

“Make ‘Em Laugh, Urges Ann Hodgman”

Ann Hodgman’s Panel at the annual AFJ Conference in Washington, D.C.

 

 Ann Hodgman grabbed AFJ Conference participants’ attention by starting her panel discussion, “Make Em’ Laugh,” with the first few sentences of a magazine piece she wrote entitled, “No Wonder They Call Me a Bitch.”

“I’ve always wondered about dog food. Is a Gaines-burger really like a hamburger? Can you fry it? Does dog food “cheese” taste like real cheese? Does Gravy Train actually make gravy in a dog’s bowl, or is that brown liquid just dissolved crumbs? And what exactly are by-products?”

In the Spy magazine article (June 1989), Hodgman explained how she bought different varieties of dog food from the grocery store, including canned “Chunky Chicken” from Kal Kan Pedigree and dry “Butcher’s Blend” from Purina. Hodgman sampled these flavors at home and reported her honest opinions about them.

She establishes a genuinely curious voice in the first sentence and carries it throughout the piece. It is entertaining to follow as she gradually comes to the conclusion that dog food does not taste good to humans (especially when we already knew that truth to start!).

When panel moderator Jim Shahin from The Washington Post asked Hodgman if she really was curious, she said, “No, I wasn’t at all curious. I knew it tasted bad. I wanted to write something funny and edgy that fit the magazine.”

Her article caught readers’ attention, and even landed her an appearance on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.

In addition to her memorable piece about dog food, Hodgman has a long list of other accomplishments. While attending Harvard University for her degree in English, she was an editor of The Harvard Lampoon, a humor and parody based student publication. Since then, Hodgman has written children’s books, humor books and humor cookbooks, including Beat This!and its sequel, Beat That!. She has contributed to The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, Atlantic Monthly, Gourmet, Food and Wine and more. She was a humor columnist for Spy magazine and writes regular humor columns for Eating Well magazine.

While discussing the role of humor in her own food writing, Hodgman talked about her past, her inspirations, and how she creates humor.

“It’s definitely more of a challenge to be funny [in food writing],” Hodgman said. The topics of appetite and nutrition can be sensitive topics for some people.

On the same note, Hodgman believes humor is one way to tackle emotional situations. Poking fun at everyday scenarios that regular people go through not only makes writing lighthearted; it also becomes relatable, human writing. Taking a topic that would not normally seem humorous and making it hilarious fascinates Hodgman.

Since childhood, humor and food have played a strong role in Hodgman’s life. She remembers her family’s constant encouragement to see the humor in every situation, including difficult ones. As a teen, Hodgman thought about food often, struggling with her weight and trying various diets. She turned to humor to tackle her troubled relationship with food.

Peg Bracken’s I Hate to Cook Book was also an influence on Hodgman’s writing. She admired how Bracken mocked domestic life, a topic that had previously not been approached with humor. Bracken’s hassle-free recipes were relatable and realistic to busy, working moms in the 1960s, when the cookbook was released. Hodgman also admired Bracken’s conversational writing style and how she worked humor into her recipes.

Hodgman uses a similar style as Bracken, finding many of the jokes she uses by listening to casual, everyday conversations. One place from which Hodgman gets ideas from is in school cafeterias, listening to children’s’ conversations. “Kids sometimes put things in a way that adults can’t,” she explained.

She finds that humor writing is more successful when the language flows like natural conversation. To exemplify her style, Hodgman shared a short piece she wrote for Eating Well called “The E-mail Home” that was nominated for a James Beard Award in humor writing this year. The piece starts like this –

“MOM!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Of course I still “plan to grace you with my presence during the holidays,” as you put it. All I meant was, I’ve changed a LOT since coming to college and I need you to respect that. I’ve totally educated myself about nutrition. I’m learning to make food choices that are right for me. I was NOT criticizing your cooking when I said most of the foods you make are poison.”

Hodgman first took a scenario that most moms have experienced, a daughter writing home from college about what she’s been doing. To make this situation humorous, Hodgman played with the daughter’s character, making her exaggerate her new, overly health-conscious diet. She rambles on about her new gluten-allergy discovery, her new obsession with agave syrup over sugar and detoxing her body with raw foods.

Hodgman explained that she intended the piece to be a commentary on our society’s obsession with “super healthy food.” Exaggerating and joking about health and diet can help readers put into perspective just how seriously they might take these topics.

Lastly, Hodgman encouraged food humor writers to strive for a confident, assured voice. She suggests avoiding phrases that show uncertainty such as “in my opinion.” To Hodgman, believing in one’s humor and writing is more important than worrying about what the reader will think.

“Trust your own voice,” she said. “Trust that what you say is funny and don’t back away from that.”

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