Feeding the creative muse

“To feed your Muse, then, you should always have been hungry about life since you were a child.”
— Ray Bradbury, “Zen in the Art of Wrting: Essays on Creativity”

Ray Bradbury told me why I am here.

He told everyone, but only some of us were listening. I feel lucky that on that day a few years ago, when I stumbled across a talk Bradbury had given posted on youtube , he posed the most profound of questions, “Do you want to know why you are here?”


I sat on the edge of my seat as he ambled and rambled around in his talk, all the while fascinating, but not answering the question directly. Why? Why? I had some idea, but I wanted to know for sure.

You are here to witness and to celebrate! Bradbury practically shouted at his audience. It was so simple, yet true:

“There’s no use having a universe, no use having a billion stars, no use having a planet Earth if there isn’t someone here TO SEE IT! You are the audience,” he told us. “We are here to be the audience to the miraculous. You’re gonna be alive once. You got one chance to pay back. You owe, you OWE to the universe. The burden of proof is in your lap and in your writing and you gotta pay back. I demand it! You get the hell outta here and do that, and your gonna have a good life.”

Sometimes, we need to be reminded, of why we are here, of how good life is and how we should always witness and celebrate.

Bradbury practiced what he preached. He took more joy from the creative process than any writer I’ve ever heard speak about it, witnessing and celebrating his love that began when he started tapping away at his typewriter at age 12. He was just a boy when a traveling carnival performer named “Mr. Electrico” yelled out into the audience at a young Bradbury, “Live forever!”

When Ray Bradbury died this past June at the age of 91, I felt the loss deeply, but it occurred to me that Bradbury would do just that — live forever — in the words and joy and inspiration he left behind.

Ray Bradbury was a sunny man who wrote about dark things and delighted in the wonder of all of it. He used and celebrated the magic of the imagination that most of us leave unstirred, like a silt sitting useless at the bottom of our muddy brains. In the talks he gave, he ranted and cheered any of us willing onward to, in our own ways, live forever.

He wrote one of the best short stories I’ve ever read, called “The Lake,” a piece what he called the first story he ever wrote in his own voice.

He wrote one of the best books on writing, “Zen in the Art of Writing: Essays on Creativity.” It is no guidebook on plot and structure; it is a force, an urging toward what Bradbury called your “metaphors,” those first loves from childhood that we must never leave behind, that provide the foundation and the truth to your work. In one essay in the book called “How to Keep and Feed a Muse,” Bradbury explores that delicate source for all creative dabblings — the muse: “What is The Subconscious to every other man, in it’s creative aspect becomes, for writers, The Muse.”

My muse has been inspired, tended and fed by Bradbury and this blog. I owe much to them both.

Since 2010, I have witnessed the passing of dual milestones — my birthday and my blog anniversary — and celebrated them with a cake of my own making. The cakes are known when I see them. My cake this year presented itself last November in The San Francisco Chronicle — a decadent coconut layer cake, deemed one of the best recipes ever, from the Minetta Tavern in New York. My cake appeared again in the pages of February’s Bon Appetit, a special Southern issue that insisted every Southern table had a place for a fabulous coconut cake. They lured me in, these cakes, with their majestic towering elegance of multiple layers, filled with cream, sealed with frothy icing and toasted flakes of coconut.

When it came time to prepare for the cake, I found a quandary. Once again, I liked elements of both recipes. I liked the use of a rum-flavored syrup (I would make mine sans booze), and a pastry cream between the layers from The Chronicle cake. With the Bon Appetit recipe, the cake layers themselves were intriguing in that they used unsweetened coconut, coconut oil and buttermilk, as well as a frosting made with a pound of cream cheese! Recipe fusion, again. I believed it could be done.

When I began the cakes the weekend of my birthday, it occurred to me my aim extended beyond my reach. It was not that it could not be done. It was that it could be done, but only if it was done over the course of an entire weekend and a dirtying of a cupboard full of dishes. Why had I not noticed all the steps, the various chilling and cooling times, the multiple bowls, pots and pans. Mercy, what had I gotten myself into? Would it be worth it?

If I was truly to feed my muse, I would participate in this cake fully, with a hunger of life. I made the cakes first, making my own buttermilk, melting the coconut oil, which comes in the form of a solid, like vegetable shortening, and baking them in shifts, given I had only three pans and there were four layers. This was night No. 1.

Morning of the next day, the rum syrup, which I made my heating 1/2 cup of water and 1/2 cup of sugar to boiling, letting it cook until slightly thickened, then adding a teaspoon of rum extract and allowing that to cool. I made the pastry cream, which had the curious ingredient of creme fraiche in it. My grocery did not have creme fraiche, so I made my own by mixing heavy cream with some of the buttermilk I had made and allowing it to sit for several hours. The cream to fill the layers of the cake was a stovetop custard, not too difficult to come together, then it had to chill, then just before using, cream was to be whipped and mixed into the pastry cream. Was this a coconut cake or a banana cake, because it was beginning to drive me thus.

I toasted the coconut flakes, waiting patiently for them to get the proper golden brown. It took two trips to the oven to do this (I was tentative the first time and did not get them brown enough).

Then, on to the frosting. Bon Appetit’s recipe called for Southern Comfort; I used vanilla extract. I’m boring (but sober…same thing to some rubes), I know. The frosting fluffed up beautifully. The dishes were mounting. This cake was taking as much time and as many impelments as a Thanksgiving dinner.

I whipped cream, added it to the custard and began the cake assemblage, brushing the rum-flavored syrup on each layer before spreading cream atop it Brick by brick, custard mortar, the cake tower grew.

Time to frost. I revisited the directions. First frost the top of the cake, then chill it; then frost the sides of the the cake and chill it. Then, alas, you could press on the coconut flakes. I was losing days of my life to this cake. It occurred to me to finish it as best I could and smash it against the wall…or put my fist through it.

Why was I here again?

Witness. Celebrate.

I was feeding my muse.

Celebration was the only option. As Bradbury insisted: “You are here to witness and celebrate, witness and celebrate. And you got a lot to see and a lot to celebrate. That’s your business, you put it into your work, into your stories. Otherwise get the hell out, get out of our way and let us live. If you are gonna be a cynic or be a pessimist, there’s no hope for you.”

I pressed the coconut on the cake. And I had found something special on Amazon — thin as tissue paper sugar butterflies , muse representations, to be sure. They came in an array of colors, but in my mind I saw, resting delicately in the golden shavings, fluttery creatures of brilliant blue.

My “Feading the Muse” cake was done. It was so lovely. It made the two cakes of previous years look like something I had slapped out in the dark (which I had). Just what had I been complaining about? It was worth every bit of trouble. Everything was. Everything is.

One candle. One wish.

For years I had but one wish. It was a wish borne out of threat, a threat to my life, or the way of it. And being so threatened changed who I am and who I will be forever. One wish. Every birthday candle, every first star, every eyelash, every wishbone, every necklace clasp, all went to that wish. It was a desperate but important demand, that wish, and when it was alas, granted, I sat thrilled, but numb. What do I wish for now? To want anything more than that wish seemed greedy and excessive.

I want to witness and celebrate. So simple, and not. Miraculous and marvelous. So many of you will never know how much. One day, I will tell you.

Until then, a birthday tune of a different sort..here are lyrics from an Inuit song used as the epigraph to a wonderful film called “Never Cry Wolf,” about the naturalist Farley Mowat, studying wolves in the Arctic:

“I think over again my small adventures, my fears.
 Those small ones that seemed so big.
 For all the vital things I had to get and to reach.
 And yet there is only one great thing, the only thing: 
To live to see the great day that dawns 
and the light that fills the world.”

One candle. One wish.

I already had everything I wanted.

Feeding the Muse Cake

Adapted from recipes in Bon Appetit and The San Francisco Chronicle

Nonstick vegetable oil spray
2 3/4 cups cake flour plus more for pans
2 1/2 cups unsweetened shredded coconut (not reduced-fat)
1 tablespoon baking powder
2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 3/4 cups sugar
1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
5 large eggs
1/2 cup coconut oil, warmed to melt
1 cup buttermilk

Rum syrup
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup water
1 teaspoon rum flavoring

Pastry cream
1 large egg
2 large egg yolks
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup cornstarch
1 cup whole milk
1 cup creme fraiche
1/2 vanilla bean, seeds scraped out and reserved
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/3 cup heavy whipping cream

Frosting and topping
4 cups unsweetened coconut chips (large flake coconut — can be found at supermarkets, natural food stores and specialty foods sources, cut as Bob’s Red Mill, www.bobsredmill.com)
2 8-oz. packages cream cheese, room temperature
1 1/2 cups (3 sticks) unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 tablespoons plus 1/4 cup Southern Comfort
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
5 cups powdered sugar

To make cake:

Arrange racks in top and bottom thirds of oven; preheat to 350°. Coat cake pans with nonstick spray; dust with flour. Whisk 2 3/4 cups flour and next 3 ingredients in a medium bowl. Using an electric mixer, beat sugar and butter at medium speed, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until smooth, 3–4 minutes. Add eggs one at a time, beating to blend between additions. Beat until light and fluffy, 2–3 minutes. Gradually beat in oil. Beat in dry ingredients at low speed in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beginning and ending with dry ingredients. Divide among four 9″ cake pans (about 2 generous cups batter per pan); smooth tops with a spatula.

Bake until a tester inserted into center of cakes comes out clean, 22–27 minutes. Transfer pans to wire racks; let cool in pans for 5 minutes. Invert cakes onto racks, remove pans, and let cakes cool completely.

For frosting, filling and assembly
To make rum-flavored syrup, heat sugar and water to boiling, let reduce slightly. Remove from heat, stir in rum flavoring. Allow to cool completely.

For the pastry cream: In a bowl, whisk together the egg, egg yolks, 1/4 cup sugar and cornstarch; set aside.
Combine the milk, creme fraiche, vanilla bean seeds and remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a heavy-bottomed, non-aluminum saucepot. Stir and bring to just under a boil over medium heat. (The mixture may look curdled, but will come together when cooked with the cornstarch.)

Slowly whisk the hot milk mixture into the egg mixture, then transfer back to the saucepot. Cook, stirring constantly, over medium-low heat, until the mixture comes to a boil and becomes thick enough to hold a line when you draw your finger across the back of a spoon or spatula, about 165°. If it becomes lumpy, smooth out with a whisk.

Remove saucepot from the heat, and whisk in unsalted butter. Continue whisking until cool (speed up the process by moving pastry cream to a glass or metal bowl set in an ice bath), then place plastic wrap directly on top of the pastry cream. Refrigerate until cold.

Just before assembling the cake, whisk the heavy cream to stiff peaks; fold into the pastry cream.

Preheat oven to 350°. Place coconut chips in a single layer on a rimmed baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Toast until some of the chips are golden brown (some will remain white), 5–7 minutes; let cool completely. DO AHEAD: Can be made 3 days ahead. Store airtight at room temperature.

Using an electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter on high speed, occasionally scraping down sides of bowl, until smooth and creamy, 2–3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 Tbsp. Southern Comfort and salt; beat to blend, about 1 minute longer. Add sugar; beat on low speed to blend. Increase speed to high; beat until fluffy, 5–6 minutes.

Place first cake layer on cake plate, flat (bottom side up). Brush top and sides with rum syrup. Spread with one-third pastry cream. Repeat with two more layers. Place fourth cake layer on top, brush with syrup, then spread with frosting. Chill cake for 30 minutes. Leave remaining frosting at room temperature.

Cover sides of chilled cake with frosting. Cover cake loosely with foil and chill overnight (or a few hours). DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Keep chilled. Let cake stand at room temperature for at least 30 minutes.

Gently pat handfuls of toasted coconut chips over sides and top of cake and serve.

Blogger’s Note: It was delicious! Took nearly as long to eat as it did to make!

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