Monday, February 25, 2008

self portrait tuesday - blue series #2

At my 40th bday last August. More blue portraits here.

So, I jetted out of the house this morning before six, in the dark, to hit the local coffee spot before I started the long commute to The Job. The main street near my house is small-town quaint and in the predawn it was precious and dormant still. But when I opened the doors to the coffee spot, it was like entering a night club. Such a commotion of conversation, many of the chairs filled; a local biking club geared up in blue and white spandex and cleats chugging down espressos before they yelled out, Let's Ride! I gave the barista my order and asked, "It is six in the morning, yes?" We had this conversation in New York, about how NY'ers live late and CA'ians start early. But this was ridiculous.

I hit the highway to the debut of the day. Bold, melon-colored stripes cut across budding blue in a Look At Me kind of way, and I responded. I'm a great audience for a new day. There's something about the privacy of dawn that makes me gush over almost anything presented to me in that vacuum. I blasted Raising Sand, which we've been discussing over at Maven's Place. I tried to think how I could put Dawn on a cake. It all goes back to cake. Listen, I built a site solely for Rivera Baking. Check that out regularly here.

Incidentally, I felt like a million bucks in that photo above. That's not hard to tell. Fancy, I was, and I ain't mad at the occasional fanciness. No ma'am.

Speaking of sassy, I saw Viggo Mortensen on Wilshire Boulevard a week or so ago. He was within conversational distance, about ten feet away, getting into an old Ford truck wearing scruffy clothes and a short beard. We caught eyes. I like to say we had a nanosecond, but he looked more surprised that I recognized him in his Regular Guy disguise. He was extremely bad-ass handsome. When I told Mandy about it she said, "You didn't hop into the passenger side of the truck?" I said, "I had the kids with me." "Well, next time," she said.

The LA Marathon is Sunday. I had a terrible dream the night before last that I was trying to get out of it. I woke up nervous for the first time about it all. I took my last long walk on Sunday along the ocean, a mile so was dipped in pre-spring showers. I felt pretty good, but wondered what exactly had I gotten myself into. I finish what I start, though. Eesh. As far as the initiative is going, I believe we will make the number of signatures by the skin of our teeth. It's ridiculously tight, but god bless the people at Californians for Humane Farms as they are still feverishly counting away in these last few days. If you'd still like to send in a lil' marathon sponsorship, email me at, but mainly send me your thoughts on Sunday morning to push me to the finish.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Baked in NY

To say that my trip to New York for the vegan baking workshop at the Natural Gourmet Institute was fantastic is a disservice. To say that it was perfect sounds like a lie. But I'm not lying. It was perfect.

In the workshop, I learned more correct technical tricks and about more efficient equipment, sure, and I got a lot of new recipes -- of course! But it was an underlying feeling that changed for me during the course of the workshop. To be able to clearly and really organically answer my own questions about what exactly baking means to me was invaluable. Baking, it seems, means a lot. And I'm not so bad at it. There was no way to really know this until I went to a program like this and shared a kitchen with other serious-minded bakers. The entire process was exhilarating.

This last week, I realized something kind of obvious. It starts with the acute awareness that I'm moved by many -- way too many -- things that are usually artistic in nature; things that span too wide of a spectrum. This has often been an overwhelming characteristic that leaves me confused, only as far as direction and focus go. (Actually being lost in the awe of details is a clear practice for me, not confusing.) And I realized that in the tiniest of capacities I may be able to capture glimpses of a wide range of beauty through baking. Any of it, all of it; from touches of radical and fine art, patterns of indigenous textiles, to odd and patchwork religious elements, things in nature to the molding of an old door. I suddenly feel I can do this: Create a small snapshot or interpretation of an interesting detail and get it on a cupcake, on a teacake, a three-layer cake. Cake is my temporary offering of beauty. I know I've written about this before, about when I used to watch the Tibetan Buddhist teachers create gorgeous sculpture out of butter that took days, and it melted away in as much time. It was a gesture that everything is temporary. You offer up your best, creating an artistic and profound impact -- in symbol and in living -- and then it's gone. The offering dissolves, but the impact lingers. The thoughts of compassion will last and do more work than anything physical. Our vehicle melts away and we come back to try to do better.

But then there are times when you just want to shove something delicious in your face without a goddamn philosophical or humanities reference. I'm working on that too. This is harder for me.

The structure of the workshop was well done. Thirteen students bustled around in a big professional kitchen and around workstations, and we had dreamy assistants waiting on us hand and foot. Fran Costigan was terrific; generous with time and information. Her joy for baking trumped all other elements of the class, which was infectious, and she gushed when we did well; our end products genuinely thrilled her. Those things, the honesty of her emotions, endeared me most to her. We baked seven hours a day. We were assigned recipes as groups and as individuals and were told to try variations. When we made good time, Fran assigned us more. She gave us some room to experiment with the recipes too. It was an industrious atmosphere, but the over-all energy was charged, and we were focused in a jazzed way. I thought I'd be much more tired at the end of the days, but I was fine. I was more than fine.

I also learned that after a year of corresponding and loving someone via the internet, that my instincts were dead on and that I could love them more fiercely in person. This was part of the perfection of the trip, hanging with Emilie. It was effortless and fulfilling. We partnered in workshop -- I caught many tips then -- and we roamed vegan eateries and cake supply shops and the streets of Chelsea and the lower eastside, sometimes talking a lot and sometimes lost in our own minds until we spilled back into conversation. We're kindred, yo. Here we are at the Vere Chocolate Factory where we had a blast learning about their beautiful and thoughtful facility right there in NYC.

During the flight back home I sketched for hours in a note pad, drawing cakes and frantically scribbling ideas. I filled pages. I still can't see where this baking path is leading me, but after this week I, without a question, have made legitimate space for the path. It's wide and well raked.

Today was a little murderous. I knew work would be out of control. I want to whine about coming back to endless piles of high maintenance customer-care crap, but it's pointless. I have to do this working thing. Getting all bent about it makes it almost more unbearable. So, I'm exhausted and Mina is home with an ear ache and Carmen's right paw is swollen -- she's walking with a limp -- and the entire house could use a good scrub down. I'm trying not to spew the piles back with a geyser of overwhelmingness. I feel it building a bit. I keep thinking, I can't wait to bake this and that, but I've had no chance yet. I just keep eying my sketch pad of pen-drawn cakes trying not to lose the fervor that was built so freestyle in New York. On my work lamp on my work desk, I've tapped a fortune I got at Red Bamboo in the Village on Sunday night. It reads: "You have an important new business development shaping up." On the back it teaches me how to say "I need money" in Chinese.

I just want to thank everyone again for the kind and supportive comments over the last week. I'll post more workshop photos in the flickr soon.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

self portrait tuesday - blue series #1

Valentine's Blue Shimmer Cupcakes

The only thing blue about this coming Valentine's is that Husband and I won't be together. And this Valentine's will be our 10 year wedding anniversary, which is why we got these. I think it's a very big deal, don't you? Ten years? Especially how he still blows my hair back. Not that it should surprise me, I guess, but I couldn't have planned to be this happy for so long with someone. I told him that last week, that is was . . . electric to love him so much still, even more than when we first fell for each other. I said, "Because there aren't any guarantees, really, are there, that your partner will still float your boat this much after ten years?" Judging by the look on his face, maybe I shouldn't have said that out loud. I laughed a little, "I mean, right?" He laughed and said, "Jesus, no guarantees?" I said, "I'm saying the good news is that I am head over heels for you." He said, "Good thing it turned out that way." I said, back pedaling now, but not able to contain the laughing, "I'm not saying we wouldn't be married if it wasn't this great. . ." Ah man, maybe I should've just shut the hell up. "All I'm saying is that you are perfect for me. I didn't know perfect really existed." You can't know that, really, until 10 years in; 20, 50 years in.

We went on a day-date Saturday together as a mini celebration. We went to the Newsroom Cafe for lunch. The restaurant is on Robertson Blvd which is a ridiculous stereotype of L.A. living. I'm sure this is what the rest of the world thinks of us. I thought the scene would be amusing, but it was flashy-tired and big-yawn lame. The food was good though. I had a vegan spinach quesadilla. After lunch we went to the Design Center to see an exhibit on Emory Douglas, the Minister of Cultural Affairs for the Black Panther Party, which means he illustrated all of the artwork representing the movement. It was very powerful to see a revolution channeled through pen and lithograph. I learned a lot, and say what you will about taking violent measures to draw a line, but civil change and awareness was most certainly expedited because of them. There were also tons of evidence of programs that the party set up in poor neighborhoods to feed and clothe communities. I was mostly inspired by how much women were acknowledged as an equal force to promote change. It was the 60's & 70's; that was revolutionary unto itself.

My heart pangs about not being with Husband on our anniversary, but there's a good reason. I fly to New York on Valentine's, alone, to attend a vegan baking program offered at the Natural Gourmet Institute. It's an intensive workshop, all day, every day for five straight days conducted by Fran Costigan. She's the diva of dairy-free desserts, everybody! I'll be learning everything from gelled desserts and sauces and glazes to elaborate cakes. Check out Day Five's itinerary:

The Layer Cakes: Versatile Vanilla Cake; Coconut Cloud Layer Cake; Chocolate Layer Cake To Live For; Carob German Not Chocolate Cake; 24-Karrrot Cake. The Big Cakes: Orange Cranberry Bundt Cake; Cinnamon Streusel UnCoffee Cake. The Frostings, Fillings and Creams: Ultimate Chocolate Frosting; Chocolate Ganache; Coconut Pecan Filling; It's Like Lemon Curd; Custard Filling; Berry Cream; and West Indies Coconut Cream.

Doesn't West Indies Coconut Cream Cake sound worth the price of admission? And dude, Cinnamon Streusel . . .?

I'm excited in way that makes me light headed. I'm nervous in a way that questions why this is important. But I can hardly hear the nervousness. It's next level stuff. It's professional stuff. I'm trying not to think so much about it. I'm just Doing, for a change.

I'm rooming with my friend and spectacular baker Emilie who is attending the workshop too. She has been a huge inspiration to me because her baking is so intelligent and thoughtful and loving and interesting, all in an effortless way. I first noticed her stuff because it glowed. It beamed out and touched me. I knew that was the level I wanted for myself: Mindful baking. We can all eventually learn the techniques, but I too want to bake in a way that is an expression of my very specific and layered personality. I want my stuff to drip with energy too. I can't wait to spend time with her.

Wish me luck, my friends. And Happy Valentine's Day.

The look of the cupcakes above was inspired by lovely British baker Peggy Porschen. Half of the cupcakes were vegan jelly-filled almond cardamom, an experiment. The others were rich vegan chocolate. Both are topped with fondant icing and royal icing with edible shimmer. They were a blast to make. I surprised myself how they came out though I'm still not fond of the taste of fondant. For the record, these took longer to make than any cupcake I've made before. Wow, does pretty take forever. More blue portraits


Friday, February 08, 2008

Trees of Santa Monica, Part 1. The Indian Laurel Fig

In my neighborhood, the trees move me. So, I'm going to make good on my promise to learn all about the trees, or at least the ones that move me most.

The first thing I learned -- though I had heard a whispering of a rumor before -- is that figs come from ficus trees. What I'm also learning is that there are five billion kinds of the same type of tree. Botany 101, y'all!

This is the tree outside my apartment building. It is a ficus, a Ficus microcarpa, or an Indian Laurel Fig Tree. These trees line my street and a few others, but what I'm finding out is that the ficus on other streets are not necessarily this Indian Laurel. I'll explore those later. The Indian Laurel is listed as "medium height". Their fruit is green and I can't imagine that it's edible. The bark is smooth white or grey.

These trees are native to India, parts of China and Malaysia. What upsets me is that I can't find out why these were planted here over 50 years ago. I'm still digging for that. The books on local trees are dusty and outdated.

Here's Mina on the gnarled roots
The ficus trees in general are a hot topic in Santa Monica right now. The city has planned to remove a third of the mature and gorgeous ficus that shade downtown SM. The company that manages most of downtown believes the thick canopy detracts business; that the shade is shopping prohibive. It's a ludicrous theory. The shading and the trees are what make downtown so inviting. There's also the fact that many people trip and fall on the ficus roots. And nobody likes a law suit. Hey, watch where you're going! The management company came up with stories that the trees were sick and diseased, and a danger. Months later they retracted the "disease" thing. Nice going on the paranoia angle. Trees were supposed to be cut last October, but thanks to the effort of some grassroots protestors and the many of us natives that have written letters, the cutting has been halted, for now. There are no plans to abort the cutting mission yet though. I think a few have vowed to chain themselves to the trees when it's time. God bless 'em.

Here are the Indian Laurels parading down my block; keeping us happy and beautifying the place.