Just Desserts


It's a little late here, the beginning of the weekend, and my youngest daughter and I just came back from a very satisfying Japanese dinner. I've wanted to post more, do more, and write more this new year, but as January came around, I caught a terrible flu. There was nothing --- nothing --- that I could do except stay in bed and feel awful. So much for all of my new year plans (and I have a new planner to write inside and make amazingly productive plans for the new year). However, I promised myself that I would write more, even if it was just a little blog post, and that I would make it more writerly and personal, as I miss the art of writing in a journal. I have many writing to-do lists and ideas, articles to submit, and even that cookbook idea to draft (still, after all these years). I'm not one to give up on ideas, though they shape shift and change as months and years go by. I'm busy working my day job(s), taking care of my three children, up at six in the morning, to bed by eleven (or later), and the maker of breakfasts, lunches, and dinners.

Yet, most of the time, I'm driving in Los Angeles traffic.

And sometimes all of that driving is worth it. For the past two weeks, I've been photographing (and eating) desserts all over Los Angeles. My latest article for LA Weekly is an Asian-inspired dessert slideshow, which means I'm tasting all kinds of Asian desserts in Los Angeles (and there are so many places to try Asian desserts). Of course, in the San Gabriel Valley neighborhoods alone you can find many Taiwanese dessert shops--- which could keep me eating all sorts of bao bing (shaved ice), douhua (tofu pudding), xian cao (grass jelly) all day, with toppings like boba, red bean, taro and black sesame sauce. Then there's matcha desserts. I've had plenty of matcha (green tea) in pudding, ice cream and pastry cream form. Matcha mille-feuille, matcha soft serve, matcha sundae, matcha custard, matcha cookies. I did have a plan to join another bootcamp and workout every morning lifting weights, but so far, it's just been lifting desserts to my mouth and taking one bite, two bites, three bites...

Once you go into a Filipino-owned pastry and coffee shop, you go from the green of matcha to the green of pandan. To offset that pandan green, you need ube purple. Ube (ooh-bae) is similar to sweet potato but has a mesmerizing purple color that, when baked or blended (hello, cheesecake), it transforms anything that gorgeous ube purple. Like a brownie made into a purplie.


My favorite photo discovery was a little mochi shop deep in Gardena called Chikara Mochi that specializes in traditional Japanese mochi cakes called wagashi. The little cakes are so beautiful you don't want to eat them because they're just too pretty. The shop has been there since 1985, run by a sweet Japanese lady, making each mochi by hand every day (along with a few people to help). They have loyal customers that buy up all of the fresh mochi cakes, so when I called to inquire about a visit, they encouraged me to arrive first thing in the morning or all of the wagashi would be sold out. Though, the word "cake" is used, the mochi cakes are more like a confection of sorts. Not quite a cookie, not quite a candy. A soft pillowy ball of sweet rice that is colored and flavored naturally using plant-based ingredients, filled with red bean paste or other fillings. I tasted a seasonal hanabiramochi, a flat, sweet mochi wrapped around anko (sweet red bean paste) and a strip of candied gobo (burdock root). Also, more interestingly, a subtle sweet-salty miso manju cake, which held me over until I could grab some lunch nearby after photographing all of the pretty wagashi (I get really intense low blood sugar and must eat or I become a delirious mess).

Once the desserts arrive, I'm setting up the best place to feature their delicious beauty. Like a painting, your eye should be drawn to the golden ratio, asymmetry, color, texture, shape and form. Of course, when styling the dessert, you have to think about how it will appeal to the viewer, and don't dare taste it until you've snapped off a bunch of high quality shots, and you are absolutely certain you are done taking photos.


Things I've learned about photographing desserts: ice cream melts faster than you think, whipped cream goes from frilly swirls to a dripping sticky mess in seconds, and persimmon foam dappled with delicate basil flowers looks like mushy pumpkin soup in a matter of minutes. Black sesame tastes somewhat like peanut butter, but better, yet subtle on the visual, so get the flecks of sesame for emphasis. Yuzu is refreshing for a citrus dessert and tastes like creamsicle when mixed with coconut cream (making smoothie-building notes here). This has nothing to do with photography, except more than three spoonfuls of yuzu coconut crème brûlée will give you a tummy ache after eating five other desserts. There are hundreds of ways to flavor shaved ice, fluff ice and snow in all of their sweetest incarnations (take a pic quick!) but it's difficult to take a photo of any of these sorts of desserts. Red bean paste tastes good in just about anything, but looks like a dark blob in any given scenario.

Now the Lunar New Year is here, and I'm going to another celebration, a daytime event at the Huntington Gardens and Library. Afterwards, we are taking all of the girls (we have four girls all together) to the San Gabriel Valley to eat dumplings, noodles, tea and dessert (I'm quite sure I'll be eating more desserts after photographing them, but this time I'll have four little girls to help me). Sometimes I wonder about the multiverse theory and how my girlhood wish to only eat desserts factors into it.

If space time goes on forever, it must start repeating at some point, and dessert is served every single day within the space time continuum. Which reminds me of a moment many years ago inside an ice cream shop. As I slowly and leisurely enjoyed my ice cream, I observed a little girl about four years of age with her parents, standing at the ice cream counter. While her parents were ordering, the little girl chanted, "zero... zero zero... zero... zero zero..." quite merrily, until she contemplated infinity within the zeros. Soon her chant became fearful, sudden panic trembled in her voice, her cherubic little face distraught by existential angst. The realization of "zero" as the void, the nothingness, the infinity loop. Yet, she continued to chant "zero... zero... zero..." until handed a beautiful ice cream scoop on a cone. Nirvana instantly achieved.