As I gingerly lowered the cloth-covered bowl of suet-based gloop into the bowl of boiling water, I couldn't help holding my breath and trying vainly to cross my toes. This was my second attempt at making an oriental ginger pudding and my first efforts had not gone as well as I'd hoped – resulting in a strange scrambled concoction, a mountain of dishes, and my kitchen walls looking as though I'd attempted to paint them in golden syrup. I glanced over at my laptop, which was teetering perilously on top of my washing machine – I was sure that I'd assiduously followed the recipe on the screen to the letter, meaning that after an hour and a half I should hopefully be able to fish out a perfectly steamed piece of pudding perfection. Hopefully.
Despite being a pretty adept home cook (and the proud owner of an A* in GCSE Food Technology), it's pretty safe to say that, until this month, I hadn't given the idea of creating a suet pudding a second thought. But then I was alerted to the existence of the online cookery club Daring Kitchen (Daringkitchen.com) – a secret society that encourages its members to test their cooking skills whilst expanding their culinary horizons. And seeing as I'm the kind of person who has always prided myself on being a bit adventurous in the kitchen, I couldn't resist trying one of their challenges for myself.
Daring Kitchen is the brainchild of Ivonne Mellozzi and Lisa Lorree, two bakers who met online in 2006. Its rules are relatively simple. On the 17th of every month, its members – known as Daring Cooks and Daring Bakers – have access to a forum on the site where a challenge containing one new recipe is posted by an alternating host (who is usually a fellow food blogger or food writer). Each member then creates the recipe, records the process and posts their results on their respective blogs on the same date. Recipes range from the seemingly simple (like risotto and meze platters) to the deviously difficult (such as gingerbread houses and the rather exotic-sounding dobos torta – a Hungarian speciality).
Since its inception in 2006, it has grown to comprise more than 5,000 avid home cooks of all ages and abilities situated around the world. And it continues to grow at a monumental rate. Each month, roughly 200-300 new members join the club to participate in challenges and show off their efforts from various corners of the internet.
Jenny P, an Edinburgh-based researcher, discovered the existence of Daring Kitchen in September 2009 after seeing it discussed on various food blogs and forums. Since then, she has been avidly trying out all of its recipes and posting the results to her own blog, The Red Mangetout (theredmangetout.blogspot.com). She says that becoming a Daring Baker has really helped her to become a more confident cook.
"I like making recipes that normally I would put off. I'm not massively good at self-motivation, so knowing that there is a deadline and that other people will be checking up on you helps me to make things that normally I wouldn't have the courage to try," she says.
"Knowing I've attempted some complex recipes with success means I feel happier trying more adventurous dishes. I've also done some voluntary work in a kitchen recently, where I was asked to make puff pastry and sponge fingers amongst other things. I don't think they were expecting me to have made these before but I'd done both through Daring Kitchen."
Jenny says that one of the main draws of participating in an online cookery club is the camaraderie among participants, many of whom may not have friends who share their enthusiasm, as they are about trying new recipes.
"I think that modern life can leave people quite isolated, and it can be hard to find people who share the same hobbies as you. Certainly, if I suggested to any of my friends that we make highly complex baked goods over a period of days I wouldn't get very far! Unless you happen to move in very culinary circles, I think online is the only place many people can find like-minded folks."
The Daring Kitchen is certainly a very friendly community. When I felt like a total failure after my first attempt at a suet pudding resulted in a bowl of inedible gunge, the messages I got from other Daring Cooks both via Twitter and the site's forum were instantaneous, sweet and filled with support and helpful advice, all of which helped me to feel like a proper culinary pioneer instead of a butterfingered dolt. And when I took their advice on board, culminating in my second attempt coming out of the pan as a steamed ginger pudding that Delia Smith would have been proud of, I did feel an undeniable sense of pride.
On the evidence of my own experience, it's not difficult to see why so many people feel inspired not only to participate in the challenges, but also to go on to form cooking societies of their own. A quick search on the internet reveals a whole host of online groups, mostly comprised of young professionals who have turned to cooking as a hobby, and are enthusiastic about trying new recipes they may never have thought of attempting before.
Each club appears to have its own unique structure – while some, like the Daring Cooks, are all about the challenges, others may be coming together to work their way through a particular cookbook, or to test their skills with one particular type of food. Caro Hewitt, a senior researcher for the Department of Education, is the founder member of the Northampton branch of The Iron Cupcake, a competition that initially began in the USA before moving to London. Each month, a theme or key ingredient is announced and entrants have to bake a cupcake that fits with the theme or features the ingredient.
"I love baking and experimenting in the kitchen, so when a friend of mine told me about the London branch of The Iron Cupcake, I really wanted to give it a go for myself," she said. "I started attending a few of the London events, but I was finding it a bit difficult to get there on a regular basis – never mind the logistics of shifting a large load of cupcakes via public transport!"
The answer for Hewitt was to set up her own offshoot of the competition in her home town of Northampton with a group of like-minded friends. Since its inception in March of this year, their own branch of The Iron Cupcake has gone from strength to strength, and they are currently preparing for their third themed competition, to be held at the end of this month.
"It's the work leading up to the actual competition that I like most of all," says Caro. "Different people get different things out of it, but for me, the best thing is working with ingredients I may never have even heard of before and really stretching my abilities to their absolute limit.
"I am a far better baker now than I was a year ago, and much more creative – for example, I recently made some bacon cupcakes with maple syrup and a paprika cream cheese frosting that went down a treat. I've also bought a lot of new equipment – some cake tins and piping nozzles mainly – and am even thinking of taking a professional sugarcraft course to really improve my skills."
She says that the popularity of such groups lies in their social element – although competitiveness does play a factor. "I think that when you're doing this kind of thing, you just need to jump in and give it a go," she says. "It's a real confidence booster when people compliment you on your cupcakes, and being surrounded by so much talent and ideas is incredibly inspiring. Making cakes for your friends and family just isn't the same; the competitive element makes you really try your best."
Whilst it's easy to say that more and more people are turning to cooking due to the recession, joining a cookery club certainly isn't the cheapest way to get your culinary kicks. My steamed ginger pudding may not have cost as much as it would have done if I'd bought it in a restaurant, but once you factor in the cost of the various pieces of equipment I'd had to buy to create my "masterpiece" (and I use the term loosely), it certainly wasn't particularly economical either. And although my boyfriend would have happily scoffed the lot (and asked for seconds), I'd make an informed guess that he'd probably do that irrespective of whether I made it entirely from scratch, or poured it ready-made out of a carton.
But then again, is that really the point? There is something remarkably addictive about participating in these clubs – cooking can often feel like quite a solitary experience, and the knowledge that there are a bunch of people out there who you can turn to for advice when the going gets tough is definitely inspiring.
I know I certainly intend to continue trying my hand at various Daring Kitchen challenges, and am even considering asking some of the readers of the blog I write for, Domestic Sluttery (domesticsluttery.com), to form a cookery club with me. Who knows? I might become my area's answer to Nigella Lawson ... although judging from my initial attempts at being a pudding-making goddess, perhaps I shouldn't give up the day job just yet.
Cookery clubs: the ingredients
* Cookery clubs are not a new phenomenon. In the 1950s, many neighbourhood cookery clubs were set up to support and inspire female homemakers to try adventurous new dishes.
* More recently, many have been inspired by Julie Powell, who spent a year cooking all 524 recipes from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking and posting the results on her own blog, resulting in her becoming a major character in the film of her book Julie and Julia.
* You don't need your own blog to form your own cooking club – just a group of enthusiastic people, an idea and a kitchen. You could showcase your results via a Facebook group, tweet pictures to your friends and followers, or just nip round to a friend's house with a bag of flour and a wooden spoon.
* If you're thinking of participating in the Daring Kitchen challenges, there are a few rules that must be followed to ensure that you're kept in their ranks. These are:
- You must participate in at least eight of their 12 monthly challenges.
- Never post your results before the agreed deadline.
- Always let others know if you are unable to participate.
- Missing two challenges consecutively and not commenting (that you are unable to participate) results in no more access to the challenges or forums.
- All challenges should be followed as the host defined them; however, dietary restrictions allow for substitutions and omissions.
- Keep all challenges secret from outside the Daring Kitchen private forums.
Concerned you are not quite so daring or don't have the time to commit to eight challenges a year? There's no reason why you can't create your own mini challenges via the Daring Kitchen site. And if you do decide to rise to the challenge and consider yourself to be a thoroughly Daring member of the kitchen elite, cookbook reviews are welcomed and frequently published.Reuse content