Flavors at Home: A Virus, A Fire, A Wedding

Left:The main event, piped and sprinkled with rose petals. Right: The loving couple gets busy with dessert. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

In light of the shelter-in-place order, many of us have resorted to cooking at home, revisiting old recipes and getting creative with our pantries. Instead of our usual Flavors Worth Finding column with recommendations from restaurants, KQED staffers are sharing the meals they’ve been making at home to find some comfort and grounding during uncertain times.

We needed a win. All the norms of my community of friends were gone in the time of coronavirus: the group house rental each summer, the potlucks in backyards, the gatherings for birthdays, new babies, and weddings. 

Many friends had to postpone weddings meant for summer. One of them was a close friend who was supposed to get married on Memorial Day at our friend’s house in Wine Country. She played a crucial part in my wedding by becoming an overnight florist and providing all the greenery for our celebration. 

For her wedding, I was gifted the greatest job I could imagine: baking the wedding cake.

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While that may sound overwhelming to some, this was a magical request for me. First off, I’d started baking a few years back, and instead of finding it overly meticulous, I found it gratifying. I took on increasingly more challenging tasks: scones, babka, a birthday cake made from scratch. A wedding cake felt like the next natural step. Second, this couple is super chill and super grateful, so I knew even a lump of sugary stuff would probably be fine. 

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So when the bride and groom cancelled their wedding and mourned the loss of their original event, I mourned the loss of being able to spend days designing and executing an edible piece of art.

A few weeks later, though, they decided on a new date and a new approach. After all, we needed a win.

It would be in August, same location, with just a handful of people in person and many others on Zoom. The only instruction the couple gave me was that one part of the dessert ought to be a mochi cake, for the groom’s Hawaiian heritage.

Cake tins on a stove with different colors. One is yellow, one is res, one is green and one is blue. There is also a pot lid on the stove
The four rainbow layers of the large cake cool on top of the oven. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

I video chatted with a team of baking acquaintances for advice. They spoke in languages that were foreign to me, saying things like “crumb coat,” “icing smoother” and “cake leveler.” I spent several hours on YouTube, watching a whole host of characters with impeccably polished nails teach me how to bake, freeze, defrost, pipe. I was learning so much, about something of seemingly such little consequence, and I felt joy. 

I wasn’t chipping away at climate change, researching COVID-19 transmission or writing up any article like I did in my day job. I was just… baking.

Baker with apron on placing gold leaf on chocolate mochi cupcakes
Writer Laura Klivans delicately placing gold lead on chocolate mochi cupcakes. (Laura Klivans/ KQED)

I finally settled on my recipes: one large, vanilla, four layer cake and several chocolate mochi cupcakes, all frosted with white swiss meringue buttercream (I didn’t even know there were different kinds of frosting before this experience) and dotted with gold leaf. The frosting would be white, but each layer inside would be a different color, revealing a rainbow when cut. A pop of life among the challenges of our times. 

A few weeks before the wedding day, I started making the creations, getting a big assist from the freezer. I worked late at night, well past my bedtime, pumped up on sugar and adrenaline. I watched as mixtures took shape in my Kitchenaid, our counters crowded with cake pans, bags of flour, a borrowed rotating cake stand. 

Unfrosted cake in two layers on a cake stand
Assembling the bottom of the big cake. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

But the week before this newly scheduled wedding date, lightning struck—literally. That thunderstorm, rare for the Bay Area, awoke many of us from our sleep with unnerving thunder and the fear of what the storm might mean for fires, destruction and smoke. 

My friends felt nervous and upset, their still-fresh wedding vision once again upended. They informed the small wedding group that they’d make a game-time decision, updating us as the event date neared. The home where they planned to celebrate was socked in by smoke and experiencing a heatwave. Nearby towns were evacuated. Closer to home in the Bay Area, smoke began to cover the sky. 

I put my finishing touches on desserts intended for a heart-exploding event, with a deflated feeling that no one would eat them, and that my friends may very well feel cursed.

Swiss meringue buttercream in a pale blue Kitchen Aid stand mixer with the whisk attachment on and the attachment in the up position
Swiss meringue buttercream is a frosting that’s incredibly smooth, and less sweet than traditional American buttercream. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

The morning of the wedding, though, we got word that yes, it was on, relocated to the groom’s brother’s backyard in San Francisco’s Bayview 

And there, in a multi-leveled, funky, fenced-in backyard, somehow safeguarded from the smokey air, we celebrated. The bride, outfitted in a white jumpsuit, exuded a triumphant happiness. The groom performed a traditional hula with his mother— who joined him over video conference in Hawaii. The crowd of Zoomers cheered and the socially distanced home team cried. 

A rainbow cake that has been cut into with white buttercream frosting on the outside. It's on a teal cakestand with a table surrounded by flowers, gold-stripped plates, cutlery and wedding programs.
A partially consumed rainbow love cake. (Laura Klivans/KQED)

We broke bread with pizza from a local SF joint and then came the moment: The bride and groom cut into a towering, detailed white cake to find an array of color. They fed each other their baked treats, and I felt a deep happiness, one that I’d missed for months.  

We got our win.