Tag Archives: apple pie

Four Ingredients — Pun Intended — Cookstr Needs To Be a Truly Viable Recipe Site

I recently interviewed for a position at the recipe site Cookstr.

And…I made this joke on Facebook at the time, so, friends, bear with me: Like the Buffalo Bills in the 1990s and the Chicago Cubs in the 2003 NLCS, I have a history of choking when it counts…so I spent a fair amount of time reviewing the site beforehand so I’d be as prepared as possible at the moment of truth.

And…I gotta say: I like what I found. I think it’s a really good concept — and I’m not just saying that.

Here’s why:

In this NY Tech Meetup video from CenterNetworks, Founder and CEO Will Schwalbe shares his love of cookbooks and explains that the major online recipe databases, Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com, are focused on Conde Nast and Food Network content, respectively, but chefs and cookbook authors don’t really have a place on the Web where they can share their recipes and drum up interest in their books.

And thus, as Schwalbe tells it in the video, Cookstr was born.

It sort of reminds me of Birchbox, actually. I talked to one of the start-up’s founders for a ClickZ story in January. Basically, for $10 a month, Birchbox members receive high-end samples of hair, makeup and/or skincare products from partners like Benefit, Nars, Cargo and Laura Mercier. Birchbox, in turn, talks up all of the samples it includes in each monthly box…and gives members the opportunity to go back to its Web site to order full-size products. So…the partners give away samples, but, in turn, reach a wider audience and gain yet another online space where they can hawk their wares.

That’s essentially what’s happening with Cookstr, except there’s no monthly fee. Cookstr has partnered with a slew of chefs and cookbook authors, who are featured on the site. These recipe-producers allow a sample of their content to appear on the site…and each recipe is displayed alongside an image of the cookbook it originated from…and, if you click on it, you are given multiple options for purchasing the book from retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

It’s pretty smart for all parties involved, as I’m sure Cookstr has revenue-sharing agreements with each vendor. And the cookbook authors and publishers don’t have much to lose — just a few recipes.

I think Cookstr has really great search options — I especially love the cost feature — and, frankly, I like a lot of the chefs.

But Cookstr is not perfect.

According to Compete.com, Cookstr had slightly more than 57,000 unique visitors in January. That’s versus 1.8 million for Epicurious and 11.3 million for FoodNetwork.com

Granted, Cookstr is still quite young and can’t be expected to compete on a level playing field with two major media companies. (According to Wikipedia [after a very cursory Google search], Food Network had revenue of $1.5 billion in 2008…which is when Cookstr was just a baby.) But I honestly think Cookstr *could* give Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com a run for their money…if it only implemented a few small changes.

I always spend hours prepping for interviews and thinking up answers to potential questions and most of this stuff never sees the light of day…so here is my response to, “How could Cookstr improve and/or better compete with Epicurious and FoodNetwork.com?” if for no other reason than proving how passionate I am about food/words/online content and what a great fit I’d be for this site:

1. More feedback.

One of the things I love about Epicurious (my go-to recipe site) is that I can search for a basic recipe like, “apple pie,” and even though I end up with multiple results, I can quickly scan the ratings — 1 to 4 forks, from worst to best — to see how users grade each recipe, as well as what percentage of users would make the recipe again and what — if any — comments they have. The comments often include valuable information about tinkering with the recipe and/or tips for next time and help me narrow down my options.

If, for example, I was deciding between Rum Raisin Apple Pie and Lattice Apple Pie with Mexican Brown Sugar, I’d see that 95% of users would make the Rum Raisin pie again and that they’ve given it an average rating of 4 forks and that user mandica from Windham, Conn. decided to soak the raisins longer to make them plumper.

I know that the content on Cookstr is supposed to be trusted already…but I also think it’s fair to say that every recipe site — Epicurious included — is bound to have a stinker somewhere. Plus, Rick Bayless may assure me that his Smoky Chipotle Salsa with Pan-Roasted Tomatillos is as simple to make as it is delicious, but what about those of us who haven’t spent decades studying Mexican cuisine? How easy is it for us to produce? That’s where I think user feedback is so valuable. If I’m going to the trouble of actually cooking or baking something, I’d like a reasonable expectation that it will turn out okay. And seeing multiple users say, “Yummy!” Or, “Perfect! Just cut down the salt…” puts my mind at ease.

But, sadly, there doesn’t seem to be much commenting on Cookstr recipes. Of the 25 recipes I added to My Cookstr, only four had comments. And just one apiece. I suppose the number of “favorites” each recipe has helps…but not as much as forks or percentages.

I think Cookstr needs to implement some sort of promotion or go on some sort of social media spree — or both — to encourage users to comment on recipes. Maybe they can reward comments with points and a certain number of points yields a discount on a cookbook…or, since the site already has partnerships with publishers (I think), why not give away some cookbooks to the most prolific commenters? Or, at the very least, tempt those commenters with a feature on the Facebook page?

Simply put: If Cookstr wants to be a trusted recipe site, it needs more user-generated feedback.

2. A dinner newsletter.

The Cookstr 10, a list of ten recipes that is sent out each week, seems pretty focused on holidays or major events. And while that is helpful, to a degree, I feel like eventually you’re going to come to a time of year when there aren’t any holidays or events nearby and you’ve already done warm weather or cold weather recipes…so…what then? I guess focusing on one particular cooking technique isn’t a bad alternative…and I’m not arguing that the Cookstr 10 should be done away with completely. I just think Cookstr users could be better served by a newsletter that helps solve the problem of what to make for dinner. (This is actually what the Cookstr 10 focused on last week…I don’t see why they can’t do it every week.)

It’s not an original concept. Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping do it. And there’s good reason. When I look at magazines or cooking websites, I’m often looking for inspiration. I need to go to the grocery store, but I have no idea what to buy. And I don’t think I’m alone.

That dinner void is exactly where Everyday Food and Good Housekeeping step in, and I see no reason why Cookstr can’t do the same. All they need is seven dinner recipes once a week — it could even be a compilation of all the Recipes of the Day that week.

If the majority of people do their grocery shopping on weekends, Cookstr could send out this new newsletter, on, say, Friday. It could still focus on the time of year and what’s in season and what holidays are coming up…but it would be a much more practical way of saying, “Hey — here are our suggestions for this week. Now you don’t have to think about it,” which, I think, in turn, conjures up a sense of trust — but only if the recipes are good — and the consumer begins to rely on it more and more (if the recipes are good). Another win-win.

3. Play to the crowd.

There are certain dishes that only come up once a year…but they are reliable bets annually.

Last week, for example, a friend on Facebook posted a request for king cake recipes.

However, if I search for “king cake” on Cookstr — which I did — I get Kathleen’s Wheat-Free Fudge Brownies, Flaky Scones and Rosemary Foccacia Sheet. None of these recipes are even remotely close to king cake.

Epicurious, on the other hand, has three viable king cake recipes; FoodNetwork.com has nearly ten.

With Easter coming up, I imagine folks will also be looking for hot cross buns. But, sadly, when I look for “hot cross buns” on Cookstr, I get Jamie Oliver‘s Bun and Butter Pudding.

I realize these are two heavily Christian examples and that the world is made up of lots of different faiths and that Cookstr can’t possibly accommodate every single holiday. But…I think they need to do some research to make sure they have their bases covered for the most popular ones.

Sure, king cake and hot cross buns may not come up super-often…but the absence of recipes in cases like this will alienate those who *are* looking for them and send them right into Epicurious and/or FoodNetwork.com’s arms. I, for one, get quickly discouraged if a site offers no options for what I’m looking for…and I move on.

In short, I think that if Cookstr wants to gain and/or retain the trust of consumers who are searching for recipes, it needs to better anticipate what they are searching for — and accommodate them.

4. More tweets.

As of Sunday afternoon, Cookstr‘s last tweet was on March 4. That’s nine days ago. They simply can’t go that long without any updates.

For one, the site features a Chef or Author of the Day every single day. At the very least, that’s prime tweeting material.

The site also features a Recipe of the Day. Why are these recipes not tweeted daily, too?

What’s more, tons of folks are talking about Cookstr recipes on Twitter. Check out these search results. There’s no reason for @Cookstr not to reply to — and follow — these users.

Simply put, the site needs better engagement with this audience. @Epicurious and @FoodNetwork don’t miss a day — neither should @Cookstr.

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Avoiding Post-AP English Syndrome, Using Expired Scone Mix, Descending Upon My Proposal Like a Beast, Going Through a Cream Phase…and Still Rooting For Team Melissa

Alright, so, I’ve been getting LOTS of amazing feedback…which, for a writer frequently plagued by self-doubt, is really wonderful to hear (although, folks, don’t be shy! Feel free to comment *right here* so, you know, any future employers/publishers can feel the love, too…)…although, in true LL style, it sort of worries me as I fear I’ll get Post-AP English Syndrome again…which, for those of you who haven’t known me since high school, is basically what happened after my AP English teacher told me I was a good writer and I went off to college and felt all sorts of pressure to *be* a good writer and it backfired and I’d spend weeks and weeks on individual papers and get Bs — Bs! — and, about a year later, I finally threw in the towel and said, “To heck with it! If I’m going to get Bs, I’m not going to spend weeks and weeks writing these damn things…” and I wrote a paper the night before it was due…and I was so, so embarrassed by the, you know, word-vomit that I turned in…and that very paper turned out to be the turning point and my professor asked me to stay after class because he thought I could get it published. End Writer’s Block.

So, long story short, I worry my blog will all of a sudden become crap and I will find myself incapable of writing about anything anymore if I let this go to my head and/or try to write anything that I think people will like. Although, in all fairness, Post-AP English Syndrome was — cringe — about ten years ago. So…perhaps I have matured since then. We’ll see.

I haven’t really cooked or baked anything since returning to New York to tackle the New Year (I *did* make eggnog scones from a mix that was given to me last Christmas(-ish) by the Luxury Spot…which were okay…and the only other things worth noting about it are: 1) I like the name of the bakery — Sticky Fingers — and would like to come up with something comparable for my book; and 2) the mix said it was best by 07/03/09, which I *assumed* meant merely that they would have turned out fluffier last summer and not that I would, you know, die after consuming them now…but I’m very much in starving artist mode, so I took a chance.

And, really, the past week has been all about the freelance scramble — drumming up projects, applying for jobs, working on the book proposal — which I absolutely HATE and which stresses me out even more than, you know, baseline…and I feel like I’m constantly working, but never really getting anywhere — there’s ALWAYS a pitch I could be writing or a job I could be applying for (…even if it doesn’t sound all that interesting…)…and there’s always some editing that could be done on my proposal…and, while we’re at it, there’s always some editing that could be done on my 90,000-word draft, too. And…I keep extending my proposal deadline to accommodate…but feel like if I do it any more, it will be 2011 and I’ll still be saying, “My proposal is almost done!” So…this week is it — I’ve given myself an ironclad deadline. No excuses. It’s going out to agents no matter what. (I had a little freakout when I realized that all agents seem to want something different — some want the first chapter, some want the first three…some want the first five to ten pages…some want the first four to seven…and here I’ve been working on a proposal that weighs in at about 100 pages now…and it sounds like I’m going to have to pick it apart — like some sort of vulture! — and cater it to each agent specifically…although a friend pointed out that the agents likely appear finicky just so, you know, they know that you’re really specifically sending it to *them* rather than just sending out a blanket email to see who will bite. [Although a blanket email with my 100-page proposal would be SO much easier…and yield a much faster sense of accomplishment! But…I guess if I’ve waited this long…])

So…simple math — 20 agents in five days. Totally doable. And then no more of this starving artist business with expired scone mix. Lisa Lacy is going places.

Annnd…there are really only two other bloggable things on my mind: National Pie Day and The Bachelor.

First things first, as noted, I’m poor…and I really can’t afford to bake 14 pies and a cobbler to celebrate January 23 in high style like I did last year. (I have also officially given up on Internet fame…) At the same time, I feel like I can’t let January 23 go by unnoticed (plus, I really like traditions…and wish my family had more. When I was in Chicago, I ended up crashing K’s family’s New Year’s Day homemade pizza party…which is something they’ve done every January 1 for the past 30-ish years…and I love stuff like that…)…but this then begs the question — if I’m only going to make ONE pie to acknowledge National Pie Day, what’s THE pie to make? I have my mother’s peeler/corer/slicer, but I feel like I’m over apple for the time being. And I still have cans of pumpkin…but I also feel like pumpkin is too blasé. I’m actually sort of feeling a lemon meringue or a banana cream might be nice — if not totally evocative of the pie genre as a whole. And this is after making a chocolate cream pie for Christmas…so maybe  it means I’m going through a cream phase. I don’t know — I’m open to suggestions. (And — ooh — hey, look: ANOTHER excuse to comment. Lucky!)

And…no good way to segue from cream pies to reality TV (I Googled — there isn’t…), but…I’ve totally been watching Jersey Shore because I’ve been working on a story about it (although, now that I think about it, I guess I’ve already mentioned it…but, since then, I learned that one of my J-school classmates totally interviewed Vinny when we were in RW1 together. It’s my six degrees of separation…)…but my other guilty TV pleasure is The Bachelor. And…I admit that I was genuinely into it in the Jason Mesnick era. I couldn’t believe DeAnna didn’t choose him and felt so sorry for him…but don’t even get me started on the whole Melissa/Molly debacle…and, I mean, sure — things have worked out really well for Melissa since then…and even though Jason looked like a big scumbag at the time, it probably *is* better that he followed his heart when he did, blah, blah, blah. But…I worry a little that maybe Melissa was so eager to show the world that she isn’t a Sad Sally that she jumped into this marriage with Tye. And I could be wrong — all I know about Melissa is what I’ve seen on ABC…but I also wonder if it says something about, you know, modern times (not Medieval Times) or whatever that she needs a husband to make it look like her life is complete and she can’t be independent with a successful career and hold her head up high on her own. *That* would be something. (Although, admittedly, it’s not an easy thing to do. Especially when Stupidface who let you go is right there with his new ladyfriend — who is clearly nowhere near as awesome as you are — and you have to smile through gritted teeth and tell them both how good it is to see them…even though all you really want to do is shoot laserbeams out of your eyes to vaporize them.) So, I mean, I wish Melissa and Tye the best…and I hope it doesn’t turn out to be a Charlie-Sheen-sort of situation. (I was *also* thinking about how Denise Richards must feel a little vindicated and/or be experiencing some good ol’ schadenfreude as news leaks about Charlie post-Christmas. I just hope Jason and Molly don’t find themselves in a similar position. Happy or not, I think they’re a little too smug.)

Okay — one more embarrassing paragraph on The Bachelor and we’re done. SO much to love this season…if not the Bachelor himself. He’s okay, I guess…but he didn’t really win any bonus points in my book for going back to warn Jillian about Love Don’t Come Easy. Seemed a little much to me…although I guess it established a nice segue for this season. Regardless…I totally thought the big scandal was that two *contestants* had hooked up in the house, drumming up all this girl-on-girl intrigue…and not just that one of the ladies had an affair with a crew member. Seems so droll in comparison…and I’m actually kind of surprised ABC hasn’t thought of a lesbian affair already. Perhaps next season. (“It’s okay, Jake, I swing both ways!” Can you imagine??) Back to the stuff I love: LOVE the tagline “On the Wings of Love.” (He’s a pilot! Get it?) I loved the plane flying over Jake’s head when he parked his motorcycle at the beach. I loved it when he said he’d never had 25 women fighting over him before and so seatbelts needed to be fastened. And I loved it when he threw the rose in the fire after learning of Rozlyn’s indiscretion. But the most memorable part was undoubtedly the Cambodian chick from Santa Rosa, Calif. (current home of Guy Fieri, former home of yours truly) who told Jake — first in Cambodian! — that he could park his plane on her landing strip any time. I mean, admittedly, you need to think of something to say that separates you from the pack — I get that. And I *might* be tempted to lead with my first and last name and a wink-wink with its pornographic implications…should I ever find myself getting out of a limo in an evening gown to meet the Bachelor on Episode 1. But…words fail, Channy. As much as I’d like to believe in the power of reality TV show love, I hope for her sake that the show is scripted and someone put her up to it.

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A Consistent Bacon Theme…with the Best Burgers in Chicago and Pies to Boot.

My fat-themed trip to Chicago began with K meeting me at O’Hare with a pumpkin spice latte (say what you will about Starbucks, but it’s become a rite of fall…), which was absolutely perfect as my flight from Denver left at 6:40 and I needed just a *little* more coffee to really feel like Lisa.

Our first stop was Vosges, a chocolate shop with the tag line “Haut Chocolate.” We were there specifically for a bacon bar, but discovered there were actually several to choose from — milk, dark and caramel toffee. I don’t actually remember which of the chocolates I liked better with the bacon bits (it’s sweet and salty…which is one of the reasons I used to love Take 5 so much…), but I generally like milk chocolate better, so that was probably it. The bacon caramel toffee was certainly good, but we couldn’t tell there was any bacon in it…which may defeat the purpose of actually buying bacon chocolate. But, in the end, neither one of us was compelled to buy a whole bar…in part because I could not tell how much they were…and if I had to ask, maybe I couldn’t afford it? (Turns out they’re about $7.50 each…so it might be worth it as a special treat for bacon lovers.)

From there, we stopped off at Dominick’s (…which sells Safeway products! A nice little kickback to my California roots…) for pie ingredients. K is participating in the Bucktown Apple Pie Contest on October 18 and wanted some pointers. I told her the one big thing I learned from the 2007 APC Crisco National Pie Championships — Plain apple won’t do it. You HAVE to have something unique and/or distinctive. — and we found a recipe on Epicurious for a Deep-Dish Caramel Apple Pie. (She actually used her iPhone to do it…which made me long for one even more…but then I worry that I will never be able to make calls in my apartment as the reception is so bad…and I continue to hem and haw…)

We used my aunt’s crust recipe…and, in all honestly, all I think K needs to do is practice a bit to get her confidence up…and *maybe* purchase a few tools (a pastry blender! a pie crust shield! a silpat liner!). Otherwise, the only advice I gave was the standard “make sure your water is really, really cold” and “don’t let the dough get too sticky.”

And…even though the recipe does not call for an upper crust, we improvised a bit and added one…and I think the pie was better for it. It was definitely a memorable spin on standard apple.

After baking, we hit up the Bristol…which allegedly serves a Bacon Manhattan for brunch. We thought maybe we could ask nicely and they would serve us one anyway for happy hour, but, alas, the barkeep said he did not have the right bacon-infused booze on hand. He later let me try some bacon-infused scotch (and the brunch menu says the Bristol’s Manhattan is made with bacon-infused Dewar’s, so…?)…and I told him I liked it better than regular scotch — the truth! — but I did not tell him that I do not like regular scotch. The bacon infusion sort of took the edge off of it…and totally made it drinkable. (Another bonus? They had duck fat fries…which I have been unable to try at Hot Doug’s for TWO consecutive Chicago trips. [They are only served on weekends.])

After meeting up with K’s new husband, we headed over to Kuma’s Corner for what was supposed to be one of the best burgers in Chicago. I don’t like eggs, so the Kuma Burger (with fried egg) was out, but it was really hard to decide between the YOB and Iron Maiden and Neurosis (among others). In the end, I went for the Iron Maiden and K ordered the Neurosis…and both were really, really good…on the order of not-much-talking, lots-of-eating kind of good. I was at Subway once with a guy (hey, big spender…) who was sort of shocked that I ordered a sandwich with everything on it…so, what can I say? I like lots of stuff. I actually kind of wish I lived closer to Chicago so I could try some of the other combinations at Kuma’s. Worth noting in so many words: Definitely worth the trip if you’re in the area.

With bellies full of burgers, K’s husband dropped us off at the Green Eye, where we continued to catch up and whatnot…and we were thrilled to see it had one of those collegiate banners hanging from behind the bar that said, “Bacon!” (The theme continues!) And…I’ll blame it on the bacon-infused scotch, I guess, but it maybe seemed like I had nothing to lose by contacting Wall-E at that point…although it was kind of weird when he showed up and I think I was maybe kind of mean and ignored him a little. So. There ended that.

The next day, our first stop was the Hoosier Mama Pie Company…which K had emailed me about long, long ago. We were both kind of sick of sweet stuff — we had, after all, had pie for breakfast — but they had a peach raspberry pie…which contains, like, my two favorite fruits of all time…so I couldn’t not get a piece. (K, for her part, got a slice of bacon quiche.)

We couldn’t eat it right then and there though — so we dropped off the baked goods at K’s house and headed downtown…where K had the brilliant idea of eating at Rick Bayless‘ new restaurant, Xoco. We had to wait in line for a good long while (and a ballsy woman pulled up in a Corolla and wanted someone to give her menus and phone numbers)…but it was totally worth the wait. (Plus, RICK BAYLESS HIMSELF was working in the kitchen…so we were sort of able to gawk while we waited…) K had the choriqueso, I had the milanesa…and by the time we actually had seats, it was another one of those no-talking, more-eating moments. We were approached by a WGN reporter at the end of the meal who wanted to talk about our food. Unfortunately, nerves got the better of me and I sounded like that version of myself that I hate…and even though it didn’t come out very clearly to WGN, it *is* true that my mother LOVES Rick Bayless and that my torta was really good…I just couldn’t think of any other way to describe it while on the hot seat. Perhaps I’ll give it another go here: it was kind of like a grilled cheese sandwich, but with this tomatillo sauce that gave it a little zing…or maybe you could even think of it as a Mexican spin on an Italian cutlet sandwich?

K and I did some kind of arty, shoppy stuff in the afternoon…and then, finally, we more or less ended everything with a trip to (O)enology at the InterContinental Chicago for — that’s right — more chocolate-covered bacon. One of my classmates had tweeted or Facebooked or somethinged about trying chocolate-covered bacon in Chicago…and so we knew we had to add ENO to our fat list, too. And, you know what? It had one of those menus that seems like it would be really fun to write (Another? Le Peep.) and I would totally dig a job like that…except, even though I realize they have a schtick, I might feel kind of like a schmuck with the whole “Wine. Cheese. Chocolate. Sensation.”-thing. Regardless, the chocolate-covered bacon was only available with the “Wine and Swine” Chocolate Sensation…and so that is what we ordered (along with flights called “Tickled Pink” and “Ring Around the Rose”). It also came with a shiitake truffle…which I was not sure about…but our waiter (who looked like Bradley Cooper from afar) assured us we’d wish it had *more* mushroom. I can’t say I really tasted any shroom…it was pretty much just chocolate. And the chocolate-covered bacon was, you know, good. Same sort of sweet/salty combo as before…but perhaps with more salty this time as there was more meat…and it was covered in dark chocolate…which I suppose was a nice complement to the higher chocolate:bacon ratio?

And then that was it. I had to go home and eat leftover burger and pack so I could wake up super-early and fly back to NY. (And I will share my thoughts on *that* momentarily…)

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