Re-Post: Southern California's Favorite Guest

This is a re-post of something I wrote five years ago when I first started this blog and had absolutely no idea what I was  doing. I didn't include a picture with the original post or add any hyperlinks or SEO labels, as I don't think I even knew what SEO was. I also never tweeted or facebooked this post to my recollection. Yet, in defiance of all logic or anything I have learned thus far about Internet traffic and viral blogging, day after day and month after month, this remains one of my most popular posts. In honor of this weekend's rainstorm, I thought it might be fun to give it a little update and a well-deserved photo (taken this morning outside of church). Hope you enjoy, and thanks as always for reading!  ~ Christy ~

Go ahead and walk down the street—any street in Southern California—and ask as many people as you can if they like the rain. Ask them if they think it should rain more in Southern California. Do you want to know the answer you will very likely get? In spite of the fact that we are in a major drought and that we probably only get an average of about ten days of rain per year, my guess is that the answer you will hear will be a thunderous and nearly unanimous, ‘No!’ 

Sure, we know that we need rain; but are the rainstorms really worth all of the disruptions that come along with them? For example, traffic in L.A. is notoriously awful; yet, in the rain it somehow finds a way to become worse. Patches of the freeway are transformed into mini-rivers, and the whole 405 evolves into a massive and winding collage of skidding tires, foggy windshields, and frustrated drivers encountering any number of unexpected situations. During last month’s major downpour, it was brought to my attention that my windshield needs to be resealed. I say that in the most literal sense, as I had to watch large spouts of water drop from the top of my windshield onto my lap in random intervals while driving to work.

I then arrived at the restaurant where I work only to find that the roof was suffering from a similar malady—an inability to cope with all of this wetness. The main dining room was littered with strategically placed bus tubs that had been given a new job assignment for the day. Rather than enduring the typical strain of carrying dirty plates, half-eaten pieces of salmon, and jagged steak knives that poke and prod at their every corner, these bus tubs were asked only to stay stationary for the day and take in the soft, yet noisy drops of rain as they squeezed through the cracks in the ceiling and landed into their growing reservoir. 

Plop, plop . . . plop.

The very foreignness of heavy rain in Southern California is utterly apparent in all the ways we have to adapt to it. The alternate routes we have to take on our morning drive to work. The warm jackets we have to locate from the inner depths of our closets. The creative methods we must employ to calm our children down when they hear thunder for the very first time, and want to scream and run wildly around the house or the classroom because they’ve been cooped up inside all day and honestly believed that thunder was just something out of the movies.

Ah yes, rain in Southern California. 

But, for all of its inconveniences, its foreignness, its overbearing way of inviting itself into our lives, I must admit that I absolutely love it. I love it in its incongruity—it’s inability to make up its mind. Shall I be soft and melodic, or shall I be relentlessly passionate in my downpour? Why not be both? I love the way it forces me indoors and asks me to do things I might not otherwise allow myself, like curling up on the couch and watching marathons of LOST. I love the way it just slips out of town, ever so subtly, and leaves us with a bright blue sky that for a very brief moment, is completely clear of smog. It lifts that dirty veil that usually disguises every mountain range and allows us to witness their intricacies that are usually so hard to decipher from a distance. The mountains—that are always so covered that we often forget about them entirely—are actually topped with snow on their peaks. They actually have crevices and patches of greenery and elements of grandeur more engaging than even the Hollywood sign that rests within them. Who knew?

And after the slate has been cleaned and the city of Los Angeles has been given a much needed bath, when those first few rays of sunshine force their way through the clouds, when the air is clean and fresh and smells of wet pavement, I am always filled with a sense of renewal, as if we all get to start again from scratch.

"Creativity Is Like a Warm Hispanic Woman" and Other Lessons Amy Poehler Taught Me

The sun was curving its way downward, behind the screaming billboards and massive shopping centers clamoring for space alongside the freeway. I was on my way home from an exceedingly long day of teaching. Granted, all of the days that I teach are long by virtue of the fact that I made a less than sound decision to cram all four of my writing classes at two different campuses into one day. It starts in the copy room at 7:30 a.m. and ends at 6:00 p.m. when I then have to brave rush hour traffic on the 405 from Irvine back to Long Beach. In spite of it all, I was in my happy place because I had survived another day and was now listening to NPR inside the comfort of my Matrix.

On this particular episode of Marketplace, the host, Kai Ryssdal, was interviewing comedian, Amy Poehler. He asked Poehler—who, in addition to staring on Saturday Night Live is author of a book currently rated #1 on the New York Times Best Seller’s List—how she can handle the stress of juggling work and family and still be so creative. She said the following:

“Creativity is like a warm Hispanic women who makes delicious food for me. She smells great, she makes me laugh, she tells me I’m beautiful all the time, and she has a really young son that I get along with.

“Your career,” Poehler continued, “is like a bad boyfriend. Your career will never call you back, it flirts openly with other people, it’s never going to marry you, it likes you most when you ignore it. Those two things are very separate.”

I turned down the dial on my radio and spent a few moments absorbing these brief analogies, slowly becoming convinced that Amy Poehler was some sort of comedic shaman and psychologist all wrapped into one.

My mind flashed back to a vision of myself four years ago, suitcase in hand, ready to take New York City by storm. I’d heard a rumor that Madonna originally moved to New York with nothing more than $6 in her wallet, which I found oddly inspiring. It never occurred to me to check the validity of this fact, but I did hold on to it like a talisman and grew excited over the prospect that since there was certainly more than $6 in both my wallet and savings account, I was already off to a better start than Madonna had been.

I want to say that my view of creativity at that time was of a warm, nourishing, life-giving place—much the way Poehler describes the Hispanic woman’s dinner table. Yet, the “bad boyfriend” who resembles career very quickly starting showing up in the evenings and inviting himself to eat with us. After being in New York for several months, it became difficult to distinguish the difference between the comfort and happiness of my creativity and the fickle, demanding nature of making it a career. The two merged together. They became one in the same until the bad boyfriend took prominence. He spoke louder than the Hispanic woman and sounded more convincing, freaking me out about money and whether or not anyone would ever buy my book, and what on earth I was doing at the age of 30 trying to be an “artist” when I should be acting more responsibly and opting for stability so that I could one day raise a family. As Julia Roberts tells Richard Gere in one of my favorite scenes from Pretty Woman, “The bad stuff is easier to believe.”

In desperation, I began trying to write a book proposal even though my primary concept for the book itself wasn’t yet finalized. I created stressful and unrealistic time lines, and eventually gave up when I didn’t meet them. I got to the point where I wasn’t writing; I was stalling and distracting myself with anything and everything else. I took a class on the ins and outs of the publishing industry through NYU Extension. I heard Zadie Smith was reading at the Barnes and Noble up the street, so I walked several blocks, bought a copy of her latest book, and waited in line to have her sign it.

“About how many hours a day do you spend writing?” I asked her when it was finally my turn.

She paused for a moment, looking to the sky and calculating in her head. “Four,” she said. “Yes, it is. It’s four.”

I considered this a magic formula, and vowed that I too would write four hours a day.

Except then I heard that some writers I followed on Twitter were hosting a networking event with authors and literary agents and editors. Surely I needed to attend. That was more important than actually writing, right? Even the most talented people are nothing without connections. So I went and hobnobbed and added several key figures to my social media network. All was well until they started asking me what exactly my book was about. How far along was I?

I leaned against the bar and glanced at the sweaty beer bottle in my hand. I didn’t quite know what to say.

Years later, I am now in the process of starting to write again, of redeeming my view of it and of creativity—Amy Poehler style. The New York City distractions are gone and my schedule has opened up drastically since it’s winter break and I’m not teaching.

On certain days, the “bad boyfriend” has seemed like a distant memory. I’ve been typing and journaling and completing exercises from this incredible book called Your Life Is a Book. The authors suggest everything from creating a detailed time line of your past on a long scrap of butcher paper, to writing via candlelight while listening to Baroque music. I’m trying it all and I’m freaking loving it. I’m at the wooden table. I’m eating homemade tamales and drinking sangria and enjoying the company of Senora Creativity herself. The bad boyfriend is still miraculously missing, as I am not worrying so much anymore about success or money or fame or impressive Twitter followers. But yet, there is still something dampening the mood, making me want to leave the table and find excuses not to come back.

That something, I’m finding, is actually me. It always has been.

Even in the most ideal situations, I am still faced with myself. Scrape away teaching, scrape away money problems, put me in a room where all I can do all day long is write, and I guarantee it’s not going to be utter bliss the whole time. Instead of writing, I’ll make excuses. I’ll stall, pick at my cuticles, and search the fridge for something to snack on even though I’m not hungry. I’ll decide I need more “inspiration” and thus read someone else’s writing rather than doing my own. I’ll search the internet, make to-do lists, daydream, glance at the clock, go back to picking at my cuticles. Each day is a vigorous wrestling match as I both long to write and fear it simultaneously.

In the New York days, I ran from my fear of writing. I hid from it, denied it, masked it with a bunch of smiles and hopeful anecdotes. I wondered if the fear’s very presence in my mind meant that I wasn’t a true writer. Maybe I was a fake, a fraud, a poser. Surely, the Amy Poehlers of this world didn’t feel this way.

But what if they do sometimes? What if it isn’t important either way because my journey is my journey and it doesn’t really matter what everyone else’s looks like? What if hiding from fear is actually the worst thing I could be doing?

Now, in this little creativity vision Poehler has blessed me with, today and every day after, I am vowing to face my fear head on. I am inviting it to the table and pouring it a glass of sangria. We’re getting to know each other, which isn’t always pretty. But with every meal we share, I find that it’s quite helpful. It’s good. It keeps me from running.

Molly Wizenberg's Rich Chocolate Cupcakes With Chocolate Glaze

Last Christmas, I drove to Northern California to be with my family and I ended up bogarting my mother's kitchen for an entire week. I infused vodka with lemon peels and sugar to create homemade limoncello to give out as gifts. I searched the web for the most interesting cookie recipes I could find, and got to work making chocolate gingerbread, Earl Grey tea wafers, and the Momofuku Milk Bar's tried and true concoction for cookies with blueberries and cream. I simmered balsamic vinaigrette over the stove top until it turned into a sweet, syrupy glaze that I poured into Mason jars with red ribbons neatly tied around the lids.

The kitchen became a veritable science lab with spilled flour, batter-scraped dishes piled high in the sink, and a distinctly sour, metallic smell resulting from simmering vinegar too long and at too high of a temperature. Note to readers: When creating your own balsamic glaze, do not rush the process, apologize in advance to all residents of the home who will likely be forced off the premises by the oppressive stench, and open every window -- even if it's winter and you will freeze. Freezing may be preferable to the smell.

But, alas, those were the good old days. This year, with my crazy work schedule, I knew I would only have time to bake one thing. After much deliberation, I settled upon the chocolate cupcakes from Molly Wizenberg's book, A Homemade Life. In the beginning of the chapter, she laments how cupcakes nowadays are "mounded high -- almost obscenely . . . with swirls of buttercream."

Upon reading that line, she had my attention in full. (See previous blog post on why buttercream creeps me out.) Wizenberg's recipe opts instead for a thin layer of melted chocolate covering the top, which sounded perfect. I tried one batch following her recipe exactly, and then tried another where I attempted to melt white chocolate chips in the microwave and add mint extract to them for a fresh, wintry flavored glaze.

It didn't work.

The white chocolate chips only liquefied slightly into a mealy sort of paste that was really hard to work with and not what I was hoping for. So, I scooped the sticky lump into the trash can and decided I could probably achieve the same effect by glazing the cupcakes with melted chocolate chips and topping them with crushed candy cane bits. This worked gloriously.

The batter itself was about the moistest and most decadent chocolate cake I have ever tasted, and the dark chocolate mint combo on top was reminiscent of those Candy Cane Joe-Joes that line the shelves at Trader Joe's each Christmas season. I couldn't have been happier.

I know Christmas is over, but that doesn't mean you can't still bake these cupcakes! And if you're not in the mood for mint, use a high quality chocolate to glaze the top and then add some sprinkles for decoration, as in the picture above.

Chocolate Cupcakes
(adapted from A Homemade Life by Molly Wizenberg)  

1 oz. semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2  cup hot brewed coffee
1 cup sugar
3/4 cup  + 1 Tbsp.  all-purpose flour
1/2 cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1/2 tsp. baking soda
1/4 tsp. baking powder
1/4 tsp. salt
1 large egg
1/4 cup safflower oil, or other mild-flavored oil
1/2 cup well-stirred plain whole milk yogurt (not low fat or nonfat)
1/4 tsp. vanilla extract

Preheat the oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit. Line the wells of standard-sized muffin tins with paper liners.

Put the chocolate chips in a blender and grind until they become tiny shavings that are almost powder-like. Add the chocolate powder to a medium bowl and then pour the hot brewed coffee over it. Stir until the chocolate is melted and fully combined.

Next, whisk together the sugar, flour, cocoa powder, baking soda, baking powder, and salt.

In the bowl of a stand mixer, or alternatively a mixing bowl, if you plan to use handheld beaters, beat the egg on medium speed until it is pale yellow, about 1 minute. Add the oil, yogurt, and vanilla, beating well. Gradually pour in the melted chocolate mixture and beat to thoroughly combine.

If using a stand mixer, switch to the paddle attachment and add the dry ingredients all at once. Mix on low speed until the batter is just combined. Using a rubber spatula, scrape down the sides of the bowl and briefly stir to make sure all the dry ingredients are absorbed.

Spoon the batter into the wells of the muffin tins, making sure that it is evenly distributed. Bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center of one of the cupcakes comes out clean.

Transfer the pan to a wire rack and cool for another 20 minutes before carefully removing the cupcakes. Meanwhile, get your topping and glaze ready.

Chocolate Glaze and topping

1/2 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips, (or 3 oz. high quality bittersweet chocolate, such as Scharffen Berger)
1 candy cane crushed into tiny little bits

Use the above method to melt the chocolate in a microwave safe bowl, stirring every minute until fully melted.

Place the candy cane in a Ziploc bag, let all the air out, and seal it tightly. Place the bag on a cutting board, or other stable surface and proceed to bang away at it with either a hammer or a rolling pin. Keep going until it becomes a fine dust with just a few larger pieces to add color and texture.

Once the cupcakes have cooled, spoon dollops of the melted chocolate on top of them, and then use the back of the spoon to ensure it is smooth and even. Next, use your fingers to sprinkle candy can dust (or regular old sprinkles) on top of the wet chocolate for decoration.

At this point, you can either wait until the chocolate cools and re-hardens (that is my preference). Or, you can eat them while the chocolate glaze is still warm and gooey, but I warn you that doing so will require lots of napkins and a large glass of milk.