Monday, May 31, 2010

The Cake of Legends: Blum's Coffee Crunch Cake

This is about cake. But first:

Did you know that the tree peony (see below, with yellow center) doesn't require frost and therefore can be grown in Southern California?

Or that this might be the most charming fourteen year old boy that I know?

(That's a mini chocolate brownie in his hand.)

Some people are born with a talent for warmth and creativity. Thus, whenever I go to my friend Miss Andrea's house, I feel happy inside.

After all, how could you resist such a beautiful table on Memorial Day weekend?

Here she is, looking divine:

Even her dogs are my favorites:

This is Mabel with Minky.

But the pièce de résistance was, of all things (drum roll please), a cake. A cake. Probably the most delicious cake I have ever tasted in my entire life.  I hesitate to say that it almost gives bløtkake a run for its money, although that would be difficult, and I feel awfully disloyal saying it.

The cake came in a box and alongside the box was a big bag of honeycomb bits (imagine Crunchie without the chocolate.)  This honeycomb has to be affixed to the cake at the last minute:

"The cake features two layers of sponge cake in a delicate coffee whipped cream frosting, covered in delicious bits of crunch"
"You're going to want to blog about this cake" said Wendy.
"Just you wait till you try it" said Andrea.
"No, it's not really my thing, you know, cake" I said.
But then I put one small piece in my mouth.

It's called a Blum's Coffee Crunch Cake and is now being made by Valerie's Confections in Los Angeles. But the cake has fans everywhere. Martha Stewart has a recipe here.  On the I Speak of Dreams blog, Sandy Weil tells the story of her father being the first baker of the cake at the original Blum's in San Francisico (first comment) and her father, Ernest Weil's cookbook is here.  If you look it up, hundreds of people tell swooning stories about the cake. It is, quite honestly, the cake of legends.

legend cake in its splendor

When I first arrived in Los Angeles, twenty three years ago, we were invited to swim on summer weekends at a rather nice house on North Rodeo Drive, owned by a friend of the Maharishi's mother.  Eunice was an archaeologist who spent months in Syria on digs, and was always swathed in elegant white linen and old gold rings from Damascus.  I loved that this rather swanky house had a poolhouse on which was painted a huge psychedelic mural, designed by Eunice's son, a former hippie.  I marvelled at parents who would allow their children to express their creativity around the house in this way, so un-English, so wonderful, so not the way I'd been raised. One day, when she was home from a dig with a basket-load of slides of old stone and tablets, she gave me a potted history of the difference between Northern and Southern California, one that I never forgot.

"San Francisco is where one would wear gloves and a hat to lunch when I grew up there" she said.  "Los Angeles wasn't like that."

So, with regard to the cake, Blum's was where mothers took their daughters, in gloves and hats, for tiny sandwiches and iced tea, after shopping at I. Magnin's.  If they were very good, they were given a slice of Coffee Crunch Cake.

Evan Kleiman, of Good Food on KCRW, interviews Valerie Gordon  (of Valerie's Confections, the LA bakers of the cake) "who is making cakes reminiscent of a bygone era" here.  She wants to bring people's childhoods back to them, one scrumptious bite of cake at a time.

Thursday, May 27, 2010

Richard Long: Heaven & Earth

Richard Long
A Line Made by Walking 1945
Tate © Richard Long
"Nature has always been a subject of art, from the first cave paintings to twentieth-century landscape photography. I wanted to use the landscape as an artist in new ways. First I started making work outside using natural materials like grass and water, and this led to the idea of making a sculpture by walking. This was a straight line in a grass field, which was also my own path, going ‘nowhere’. In the subsequent early map works, recording very simple but precise walks on Exmoor and Dartmoor, my intention was to make a new art which was also a new way of walking: walking as art. Each walk followed my own unique, formal route, for an original reason, which was different from other categories of walking, like travelling. Each walk, though not by definition conceptual, realised a particular idea. Thus walking – as art – provided a simple way for me to explore relationships between time, distance, geography and measurement. These walks are recorded in my work in the most appropriate way for each different idea: a photograph, a map, or a text work. All these forms feed the imagination."
-- Richard Long  (from Richard Long, Heaven and Earth at the Tate Britain, 6.3.09-9.6.09)

 (c) Richard Long

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

paeonia anomala

Watercolour and pencil on paper of 
Paeonia anomala var. intermedia (peony) 
by Lilian Snelling (1879-1972) -- 15 May 1931

a billion, trillion stars

Inside and outside her head, a billion, trillion stars, beyond count, circled and exploded. A million frogs croaked, trees fell in forests echoing down valleys; children cried. The flux of everything throbbed on and on. Songs were heard in spheres within spheres, electric, crackle, sharp. She heard nothing. How could she, when not once had she even heard the sound of her own breathing. 

~Duane Michaels, "Inside and Outside"
(as quoted in "Devotion" by Dani Shapiro.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Ørnulf Opdahl

Ørnulf Opdahl: Havet ved midnatt, 2007 

Janet, behold what thou hast wrought

 Gillian Wearing b. 1963
'Everything is connected in life...' 1992-3

Janet Street-Porter has managed to piss off more than a few people with her ill-conceived Depression? It's Just The New Trendy Illness! (punctuation via the Daily Mail) in her May 14 column in the Mail.  For my American friends who aren't familiar with Ms Street-Porter, she's a feisty red-headed cockney media personality and journalist, born under the Bow bells, with famously horsey teeth and an accent that would send Henry Higgins into anaphylactic shock. Alastair Campbell hits back at Street-Porter here and Andrew Brown, a mental health writer, responds here. Unfortunately the Daily Mail, along with stories on botox and boobs and Kylie Minogue's insistence that Pond's Cold Cream is the reason for her permanently surprised face, tends to publish this sort of thing, and the outrage would have been more justified had it been published in, say, The Independent or The New York Times.

Allison Pearson, journalist, author of I Don't Know How She Does It, and, incidentally wife of my favorite critic, Anthony Lane, devoted her last column in the Daily Mail to her own depression.  Her response to Street Porter's piece? “The good news is depression is a manageable condition and you can get better. Unfortunately there is no treatment for being an unfeeling b***, so Janet Street Porter has no hope of recovery.”

I wish there were no shame in admitting it -- perhaps the British part of me is more influential than I give it credit for -- but I struggle too. The shame transmogrifies into anger, a grey and potent grumpiness where the sun doesn't seem to shine brightly, all motives are questioned, one's body stagnates, and everything seems to become an enormous, treacly effort.  This causes in one a desire to be pumped full of adrenaline a la Uma Thurman in Pulp Fiction, perhaps a shot to the heart of pure, infectious joy.  The children help enormously.  "I'm so tired" I say (for sleep is the first casualty) and they rally round for hugs and giggles.  There must be studies that show that the physical embraces of ones loved ones, the arms around you, squeezing your blood to flow again, surely changes the chemical make up of the body.

Be kind to yourself.  This is important.

William Styron once said:

“In depression . . . faith in deliverance, in ultimate restoration, is absent. The pain is unrelenting, and what makes the condition intolerable is the foreknowledge that no remedy will come -- not in a day, an hour, a month, or a minute. . . . It is hopelessness even more than pain that crushes the soul.”

On a related note, did you see the Dalai Lama on the Today Show? What a coup.  What's next, the Pope? (Gosh, please don't get me started on the Pope.) Poor Ann Curry got a lot of flack for speaking to him in baby talk.  I didn't mind it at all.  She was doing that thing that everyone does when they speak to foreigners who they don't believe have a particularly strong grasp of the language (or old people), they talk particularly loudly and ann-un-ci-ate ev-er-y word.  But how lovely to hear him say that humans have created much of what is wrong with the world and we also have the power to change it.  He believes he 21st century will be a much happier, more peaceful century than the last.  Let's hope he's right.

The Errant Aesthete, who has the most beautiful blog in the world (I should copyright that tagline for her), wrote a great piece yesterday about the oil spill in the Gulf.  If you haven't read it, please do here.  She starts it like this:

The Buddhists have a belief that all of life is intertwined, that all phenomena are intimately connected from the smallest insect hidden in the tall grasses to the metallic gold of a butterfly’s chrysalis. Every living thing, big and small, is united in a kind of universal cohesion, intricately woven like the fine weave of a spider’s web.

The Chaos theory suggests the same interdependence: A butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, a hurricane results thousands of miles away. 

Charles Eames, David Byrne, my husband & Josh on their first acid trip on Zuma Beach, Spike Milligan, Alan Watt, Yoko Ono, John F, Kennedy, John Muir all believed the same thing:
"Everything is connected."

And so, like Richard Mabey, I come back to nature.  It is the ocean, or the trees, the flowers, the apple trees that I hope will help* make us better.

A friend from school, Caroline, with whom I recently reconnected, and who has been struggling with depression for years, responded to Janet Street Porter.  Here is a small part of her letter:
In contrast to JSP, I have, thanks to a succession of fabulous GPs, clinical psychologists, fantastic family & friends, Prozac, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT), understanding employers, much self- discipline and many tears, reached the relatively tender age of 47. Not only has my life been regularly disrupted by depression, but I have also experienced the often devastating effect of this wretched phenomenon on my mother and siblings. My personal experience of depression therefore gives me the right to comment appropriately, genuinely and without prejudice. In short, I understand.
...Everyone has their own experience, their own triggers, their own ways of coping, or not coping as the case may be. It is this very diversity that makes this an illness difficult to predict and difficult to treat successfully in the short term... I have been lucky. I was made aware of the value of medication very early on in my treatment for depression. My mantra now being; “Medication may not cure the problem; but it buys you time to find the right solution for you”

*If you are depressed, or think you might be, you can contact the Depression Alliance (or on Facebook) in the UK. In the US, contact the DBSA.

Monday, May 24, 2010

Blythburgh Estuary

Roger Fry, Blythburgh Estuary (Suffolk) 1892

To be perfectly honest, this post was inspired by the wonderful
Errant Aesthete's post today on Edith Sitwell. And, of
course that the entire English side of the family is in
Suffolk and Norfolk for the Whit Monday holiday.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Asparagus, watercress & green lentils

For my friends, I give you another Ottolenghi smash hit which was tried truly last night.  Of course, I was rushing back from the horse show, had six people coming for dinner and did not have watercress, so I substituted arugula.  Also pecorino was missing.  However, the result was delicious. This morning, the children had fried eggs, with this Green Goodness heaped on top.  Ned said, "it takes like fresh spring grass, something that I'd like to eat all day." Well, it sounded a bit more lyrical the way he said it.

This recipe is also available where I found it, in Plenty, the new Yotam Ottolenghi cookbook.

Whit Sunday

I didn't know it, but today is Whit Sunday or Pentecost, the day that Christians celebrate the gift of the Holy Spirit.  It's also the birthday of the church, and in the old days, girls went to church in new, white dresses. 

A short video piece retracing the marvelous Philip Larkin's train journey in his poem The Whitsun Weddings is here.

From the Evening Standard:
Sunday is Whitsun. Pentecost if you prefer. In times of yore church bells would have rung as the villages of England sprung alive with summer games and maypole dancing, mystery plays and fairs. Alas, we don't much go in for that any more. The religious calendar withered from popular consciousness long ago.
In his column, Picturing the Spirit in the Times, Dr Graham Kings, the Bishop of Sherborne asks how you describe the Holy Spirit, and experiments using the the pronoun "She" in a poem by 4th century theologian St Ephrem:
“She bubbles like a spring, tumbles like a waterfall, meanders like a river and welcomes us like the sea. You may as well try to bottle the wind as capture her. She is wild and unrestrained, surprising and unpredictable, yet true to her character and utterly reliable. She is reticent and reflective, giving glory to the Son and the Father.
Like the wild desert wind she drives and scorches. Like the oil of the olive tree she heals and soothes. In a still, small voice she speaks and questions. The contemptuous proud she resists and brings down. The humble poor she supports and uplifts. Our imagination she enlarges and stretches. Our humdrum existence she enlightens and enlivens. Who can resist the draw of her calling to come to Christ and delight in God?
She does not force and manipulate, but coaxes and draws. She inspires, enthuses, interprets and invigorates. She warns and reminds, convicts and convinces. She brings joy and delight, depth and sorrow, a feast in want and fasting in plenty.
She does not ingratiate but delivers grace. She does not calculate but risks adventure. She does not rest on her heels but is fleet of foot. She is not sedentary but agile, not ponderous but quicksilver. All who know her, love her, for she loves the Son and the Father.”
I'm sure God is pondering greater things, such as whether we believe in Him at all, but I am rather keen on this little poem and the answers it provides to a tricky question. I've always struggled with the notion of the Trinity.  And never more acutely than when of my children asked me to describe it.  It is something we've been asked to accept without question and thus Father, Son and Holy Spirit becomes part of our frozen chosen lexicon at a young age, though I doubt that I'm the first to wish I had a Venn diagram to describe the relationship.

Bishop Alan is always good to read and today is no exception.

After church, I took the dogs to Solstice Canyon Park in Malibu, to walk in the cathedral of burned oak trees.  Heartening new green growth is sprouting from every tree. And the sun was bursting through the clouds.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

four legged friends

Top to bottom: Toska, Bean (with Fred), Fred & Dotsie, Fred, Anka (Susie's new mare)

Friday, May 21, 2010

Shrimp in a Pink Sauce with The Glass Family

My friend Wendy is one of those writers so talented that the fact she hasn't yet been published leaves one scratching one's head.  Writing aside (for I could go on ad nauseum) her passion for cooking takes some beating. It was she that first introduced me to Ottolenghi's eggplant with saffron yogurt sauce and pomegranate seeds and last summer, she brought me a homemade, utterly blissful rhubarb fool.  Last night, for example, we gathered for book group (Franny & Zooey was our May choice) at her cottage by the sea and she stirred up this delectation from Madhur Jaffrey's Easy East/West Menus for Family & Friends.  She served it with basmati rice with peas and carrots, flavored with cardamom and cinnamon and a salad of arugula with crisp green apple, lemon and cumin.

  • 4 tablespoons tomato puree
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1 cup heavy cream
  • 1 1/2 teaspoons grated fresh ginger root
  • 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 4 teaspoons lemon juice
  • 1 teaspoon ground cumin
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • ground black pepper to taste
  • 1/2 teaspoon white sugar
  • 3 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon mustard seed
  • 2 cloves garlic, chopped
  • 2 pounds medium shrimp - peeled and deveined
  • salt to taste
  • ground black pepper to taste


  1. Place tomato puree in a measuring cup. Add enough water to make a total measure of 1 cup, place in a medium bowl. Stir in cream, ginger, cayenne pepper, lemon juice, cumin, 1 teaspoon salt, black pepper to taste, and sugar. Cover and refrigerate until needed.
  2. Heat oil in a large frying pan over a medium-high heat. Add the mustard seeds. As soon as they begin to pop, add the garlic. Stir once and add the shrimps. Stir and fry until they just turn opaque, sprinkling with salt and pepper to taste.
  3. Pour in the pink sauce and stir. As soon as the sauce is bubbling, the dish is ready to be served with hot cooked pasta or rice.

A glossary of chickens

My daughter, 15, brings a copy of this week's New Yorker into the car for the school run. I'm slightly surprised, but say nothing.  She doesn't immediately pull out the iPod, but instead she says "I'm going to read you something."  She proceeds to read me this poem as we hurtle down Laurel Canyon towards the school bus:

A Glossary of Chickens

There should be a word for the way
they look with just one eye, neck bent,
for beetle or worm or strewn grain.
“Gleaning,” maybe, between “gizzard”
and “grit.” And for the way they run
toward someone they trust, their skirts
hiked, their plump bodies wobbling:
“bobbling,” let’s call it, inserted
after “blowout” and before “bloom.”
There should be terms, too, for things
they do not do—like urinate or chew—
but perhaps there already are.
I’d want a word for the way they drink,
head thrown back, throat wriggling,
like an old woman swallowing
a pill; a word beginning with “S,”
coming after “sex feather” and before “shank.”
And one for the sweetness of hens
but not roosters. We think
that by naming we can understand,
as if the tongue were more than muscle.

by Gary Whitehead

Thursday, May 20, 2010

roses & strawberries

roses & fraises du bois in the driveway this morning. this is the beginning of the optimism of summer in laurel canyon.


"Seymour once said to me - in a crosstown bus, of all places - that all legitimate religious study must lead to unlearning the differences, the illusory differences, between boys and girls, animals and stones, day and night, heat and cold."
- J.D. Salinger, Franny and Zooey

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Black Oaks

Okay, not one can write a symphony, or a dictionary,

or even a letter to an old friend, full of remembrance
and comfort.

Not one can manage a single sound though the blue jays
carp and whistle all day in the branches, without
the push of the wind.

But to tell the truth after a while I'm pale with longing
for their thick bodies ruckled with lichen

and you can't keep me from the woods, from the tonnage

of their shoulders, and their shining green hair.

Today is a day like any other: twenty-four hours, a
little sunshine, a little rain.

Listen, says ambition, nervously shifting her weight from
one boot to another -- why don't you get going?

For there I am, in the mossy shadows, under the trees.

And to tell the truth I don't want to let go of the wrists
of idleness, I don't want to sell my life for money,

I don't even want to come in out of the rain.

-- Mary Oliver

Quinoa & grilled brioche salad

1/2 cup quinoa
4 slices brioche*
olive oil**
4 ripe medium tomatoes
3 small cucumbers
1/2 small red onion, thinly sliced
4 tbsp chopped cilantro
1 1/2 tbsp chopped mint
2 tbsp chopped parsley
1 tbsp lemon juice
3/4 tbsp red wine vinegar
2 small garlic cloves
salt & pepper

This is from the excellent book Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi. I have modified just a tiny bit (using brioche instead of sourdough, which I detest, and adding a sprinkle of sumac).  The result is a meal in itself, with the addition of the quinoa making it a little different and more hearty than a traditional Fatoush salad.
Preheat oven to 350F. 
Put quinoa in a pan of boiling water and cook for 9 minutes, till tender. Drain in a fine sieve and rinse under cold water.
Brush *bread (I had brioche, recipe calls for sourdough) with a little olive oil and salt and bake on a sheet for about 10 minutes, till golden brown.
Cut tomatoes into rough 2cm dice and put in mixing bowl. Cut cucumbers in similar chunks, add to bowl.
Add everything else including **two good glugs of olive oil (I have no idea what 70 mls of olive oil looks like), onions, herbs, garlic, lemon & red wine vinegar, salt and pepper, quinoa and ***sumac (recipe does NOT call for it; I like the Fatoush-y taste) and mix well.  I added the bread, broken up into bits, at the end and mixed again because I like it a little crunchy.

Present Tense with Dani Shapiro (via A Design So Vast)

This little interview with Dani Shapiro is rather lovely and worth reading. Dani Shapiro is the author of "Devotion." (via and with thanks to A Design so Vast)

Monday, May 17, 2010

English picnics

"A picnic is the Englishman's grand gesture, his final defiance flung in the fact of fate...[he] refuses to frequent an outdoor cafe of any sort, obstinately clinging to his picnic basket in wet and wasp-haunted fields."

-- Georgina Battiscombe, English Picnics, 1949

Julie Klam's You Had Me At Woof

As I've said before, there is no way to even try to resist a book named "You Had Me At Woof."

I met a charming Boston Terrier named Winston at the horse show on Saturday. I may have mistaken him for a Frenchie had I not just read Julie Klam's "You Had Me At Woof."  Winston was awfully handsome and bore an uncanny likeness to his namesake.  I was immediately charmed and now, not unlike my daughter's obsession with micro-pigs, I'm rather imagining taking one with me in my handbag wherever I go.

I think they can take the girl out of publicity, but they can never take the publicist out of the girl. I can't keep my mouth shut when I see or hear or taste something I like.  Julie Klam chronicles her life with dogs, most of the Boston Terriers, and demonstrates with considerable wit how each taught her a life lesson.  She's a very funny writer with a light touch, and kind, even towards those who aren't particularly doggy (I've said before that I don't trust anyone who doesn't like dogs, but one of my best girlfriends is, in fact, a non-dogbian; we forgive).  Empathy abounds, and deliciously dry humor and belly laughs. I wept through the chapter about Dahlia, the older dog that she adopted. One can't really imagine how anyone can discard an old dog but the pounds are full of them and the poor things face either living out the rest of their lives in concrete and iron captivity or euthanasia.  I've often said that if I had piles of money, I'd buy a house on a few hundred acres and fill it with old dogs who can spend their dotage chasing rabbits in green fields and lying in the warm sunshine.

Research shows that people with dogs live longer and are happier. Dog people have of course known this for years.

A few things

Christmas, such a big deal in our house for about three weeks of the year, is largely forgotten by May. However, yesterday a large box arrived on my desk, containing four beautiful tins of first cold press extra virgin olive oil.  Such excitement! In it, a note: "Hello, Here is your Nudo spring package of delicious olive oil from your very own tree AL084 in the Aleandri grove."  And after much puzzlement, I remembered a present from Mr & Mrs L -- they had adopted us our very own olive tree in Italy.  I'm afraid I'd all but ignored it, thanked them perfunctorily, typically didn't read the fine print, and am ashamed hadn't fully appreciated what a wonderful thing it was.  It's brilliant -- and keeps on giving.

We spent the last four days at a horse show in Del Mar with Minky.  I dream of retiring to Del Mar, with its beaches, pine trees, hippy cafes and book shops.  Quite brilliantly, I managed to lose my iPhone for about 36 hours which forced me to unhook from the grid.  Initially panic set in, but then an overwhelming sense of calm.  No more jittery checking of email or twittering every move. Just the blissful sense of being at one with and happy in the world.  I'm not sure I was delighted when the phone was retrieved.  Would it be very outre or retro to have just a phone phone? Am sorely tempted.

Today is 17. Mai, Norwegian National Day, the day when Norway gained its independence from Sweden, and a day celebrated quite ferociously by everyone living in that small country. My mother has put up Norwegian flags at her house in England, my cousins are no doubt eating herrings and blotkake, and all over the United States, from San Francisco to Minneapolis to Brooklyn, Norges are celebrating. I've brought down Andreas Viestad's book Kitchen of Light from its shelf, so that we can have a celebratory supper.  Quite perfectly, it's raining here in LA and everything smells fresh and wet, like Norway.

An unexpected pleasure at the horse show was running into, quite by chance, Minky's old pony, Moon Pie who has miraculously transformed himself into a little jumper pony called Pegasus.  His rider is a ten year old girl called Jackie.  He was standing by the pony ring with his groom when we spotted him. He recognized Minks first, pricked up his ears, mumbled something and then covered our hands in licks and nuzzles and love.  Finally we walked away, behind some temporary stalls away from the crowds, and cried our eyes out. (He's the cute grey pony in the middle & with his new little girl, below).

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

I have sty-le

I don't think I'd ever imagined that I'd be sitting at my desk with a tea bag stuffed behind the right lens of my glasses, attempting to write with one eye, while drinking tea at the same time (waste not want not).

My father had one eye. He lost his right one while out shooting. A man shot down the line (instead of straight ahead). The bullet went in through his nose and migrated to his right eye where it severed the optic nerve.  He said he could do everything without his eye but judge distances. He continued to drive -- either very fast down the middle of the road or with one wheel in the ditch, while whizzing down country lanes -- and managed with frequency to knock over trays in waiter's hands because he couldn't see them when they came up on his right side.  I practiced driving this way down Laurel Canyon yesterday, before I had the need to put a tea bag on my eye, and realized that one's depth perception is completely gone.  It's amazing he didn't complain more, although my mother thinks he was decidedly more grumpy after the man shot his eye out.  In fact she told me once, when I was still quite small, that she did not hate anyone in the world except for the man who had done that to my father.  That made me tremble in my boots. Hate is an enormous word when you're 9.

So here I am making light of the fact that I have a sty in which a small pig could happily live, on my right eyelid, and it is swollen to the size of a young apricot and glowing pink.  The one good thing is it does set off the blue of my irises quite wonderfully; they are a shade of cobalt Yves Klein would envy.  I can't wear make up and I've been instructed to use hot compresses. I'm keeping my glasses on to complete the look; one part old Estonian woman, one part Robin Day, and one party hardcore pot smoker.

Nothing can be done. You have to wait it out, they say, and apply hot compresses or teabags. I'm doing both liberally.

I'm glad that I'm not in the oldest profession in the world or I'd have to resort to an eyepatch. Although I suppose the pirate look could be hot.  Kinda like Dana Perino.

It is, however, somewhat mortifying.

Rie Elise Larsen

Love this Danish designer.