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Meet Sarah Jampel, the Food52 Editor Who Loves Black Sesame More Than Anyone

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It takes a village to make a website. This week, we're introducing you to Contributors Editor Sarah Jampel, SCOBY queen and the baker behind For Goodness Cake



Sarah keeps a bright yellow pocket-size Moleskin notebook on her office desk for jotting down ideas—in re: cakes, contributors, very possibly cats—in her tiny, precise handwriting. On the front of the notebook is a pair of curious eyes in sticker form. This is a pretty good sample slice of who Sarah is: highly organized, completely brilliant, and with a sense of humor so downright playful that most days it has the editorial team bent over with the giggles.

There was the time, for example, that Sarah, in the throes of her first batch of kombucha, told me that she was starting a SCOBY hotel, and gestured grandly for emphasis at the murky collection of tea-and-SCOBY-filled jars that have since taken up residence on the editorial team's desk. Or the piece she wrote about lentil soup, of all things, in which she detailed the members of her food-world girlband (Gabrielle Hamilton on the drums—duh). Or the time she dreamed up her ideal birthday cake—black sesame! peanut butter! banana!—and then made it, gray and lovely. Or the time she made and remade a cake until it finally turned out just how she wanted it, spicy and peanutty and full of blueberries and even done all the way through.

When Sarah gets it into her head to do something—whether that's enlisting great minds to contribute to Food52, breezing through 16th-century epic poems, McGyvering a "window" during a photo shoot, or making fish for the first time (she's the only other vegetarian editor besides me)—she does it. She might be able to do anything in the world. Here's a little more about what happens when Sarah takes matters into her own hands:

Mochi  Deer
Left, Sarah's big-eyed cat Mochi; right, a very happy moment in Japan.

Rumor has it you studied medieval literature when you started at Food52. How did you transition from The Faerie Queene to the food world?

I recently was tasked by my mother to go through all of my notebooks and binders from school and pick out the items I did not want disposed of. This sent me down a black hole of nostalgia—flipping through pages and pages of notes on calculus, Matisse and Picasso, muscular dystrophy, HIV/AIDS, William Carlos Williams, and The Faerie Queene—and got me wondering how, with so many disparate interests, I ever ended up right-side-up. 

It’s like I’ve been on one of those loopy water slides where you don’t know exactly which tube you’ll be spit out of! Luckily, all riders end up in the same sort of lukewarm pool at the end anyway (and you’re usually wearing a floaty device). 

I’m so glad I found Food52 (I was an intern here the summer between my junior and senior years of college and have been hanging around ever since) because it’s a dynamic, creative environment where I’m constantly learning from everyone around me (and from the talented contributors I get to work with!). 

Rice puddingNeither cake nor pie, but rice pudding—Sarah's mom's recipe, with a black sesame-blueberry update.

As the editor of For Goodness Cake, what's your relationship like with cake?

Growing up, I was never the biggest cake fan in the room (really: I grew up in a household where cake was always valued over pie—my mom doesn’t like pie crust), and the same is true today. In a dessert line-up, I’m much more inclined towards pie or cookies or scones (are those dessert?), so it’s a little strange that I’ve become our office CAKE GIRL.

And yet, the world of cake is so vast, my list of recipes to test so lengthy. I’m definitely not bored yet. The other editors at Food52 keep me excited about cake: They send me recipes that use ingredients in new ways, brainstorm flavor and texture combinations, and help me to troubleshoot. But cake is not what I make at home when I have an urge to bake. (Partly because I eat more than my fair share at the office.)

Kombucha  Sarah
Left, the product of Sarah's kombucha bender; right, pretty as a picture on set.

What are the things that are always always always in your fridge and pantry?

While I aspire to maintain a kitchen stocked with the cooking essentials—lemons, onions, garlic, anchovies, vinegar, olive oil—the reality is a lot messier.

The stalwarts of my shelves and cabinets are, without a doubt, the same random condiments, sauces, and spice mixes that end up (sometimes mistakenly, I suspect!) on the giveaway table at the office. When I moved to a new apartment in May, with me came homemade curry powder from the Genius curried avocado; pistachio dukkah; vegan kimchi; and eggplant relish

In addition to that ragtag crew, I always have a lot of seeds and nuts for making granola, tahini, lentils, hot sauce, eggs, and Puffins cereal. I have a probably irrational fear of mold and food waste, so I store a lot of the above in the refrigerator for safe-keeping.

You're one of the masterminds behind the Vegan and Baking books. What are some things you learned from editing your first cookbooks?

I had no idea how collaborative the process is: Each part of production—from finalizing the table of contents to choosing a title to selecting a cover photo to writing the headnotes—involves so many different people. Creating Baking, especially, was a real team experience; the recipes came from our generous community members—and then our test kitchen managers, our photographer James Ransom, all of the other editors here, and, of course, the publishers at Ten Speed turned them into a book. 

When I say “team experience,” I mean that Jennifer and Allison baked cookies at home and brought them in, we collected worn baking sheets from any Food52 employee who had them, James texted Amanda and Merrill cover options during a Saturday morning shoot, Derek made the same pavlova 5 times, Stephanie employed an army of recipe testers, and Erin frosted cake on camera. I hope it’s something that we can all be proud of! 

Tuna  Fish
Left, Amanda Hesser's poached tuna; right, Sarah cooks fish (halibut! for the helluvit!) for the first time.

What's one of the best things you've eaten recently?

I spent the last week of August in Baltimore with my family and I took it as an opportunity to go a little crazy (both to my parents’ glee and dismay) in a suburban-sized kitchen. The first thing I made was Amanda’s oil-poached tuna with warm squash, potato, and corn salad, which was excellent. Fish is new for me, so it continues to astound. I also made a grilled corn and halloumi salad from Bon Appétit—an end of summer Hail Mary—which reminded me just how good—and salty!!—halloumi is. Why have we forgotten about it? Let’s bring it back. Oh, and this raw tomato sauce via Smitten Kitchen. You know how soupy tomatoes can get in salsa? Well the same thing applies to this group of cut tomatoes, garlic, and vinegar, and you can use that liquid to your advantage—as sauce for capellini. I added ricotta. 

You've written about your love of Baltimore and of New Haven. What are some things you love about living in New York?

I like how hard it is to live in a bubble in New York. When so many different people ride the subway and walk on the streets of every neighborhood, it makes it almost impossible to tune out the outside world or pretend that one way of living is the only way of living. I feel like I’m challenged here, and that keeps me asking questions and discovering new interests. 

Let's say that life gives you some lemons. What do you make with them?

Last summer, I made preserved lemons while on one of my “I’m going to do all of the ambitious projects I’ve been putting off for so long!” benders. (Please note that this was the only project I accomplished, and it wasn’t much of a project at all.) I ended up not knowing what to do with these slimy yellow orbs that were much more sour and bitter than I was expecting—so I gave them to Ali, who has been using them in salads and vinaigrettes ever since. Perhaps I'd make more preserved lemons and this time force myself to figure out how to use them? Or I'd make Merrill's lime ice cream, using lemons instead. Or I'd make lemon marmalade for eating with ricotta on toast. Or Lazy Mary's lemon tart—I've never made it! 

Portrait of Sarah Jampel and photo of poached tuna by James Ransom; photo of rice pudding by Bobbi Lin; photo of Sarah with frame by Kristen Miglore; all others by Sarah Jampel

Tags: sarah jampel, meet the editors, for goodness cake