Saturday, May 27, 2006

Pure-Gold Double Vanilla Cupcakes: Second Childhood is Better than the First

Since I don’t get HBO, I didn’t see Sex and the City on TV, but given my general interest in American sexual mores, it was almost required viewing on DVD. It hasn’t been that long since I saw the famous scene of Carrie and Samantha licking pink frosting from Magnolia Bakery’s cupcakes, but I know most of America got there years before me. Could it be that those ten seconds of indulgence sparked a national obsession—or perhaps rediscovery—of the cupcake? Surely it tapped a deeper reservoir of baby boomer lust for the indulgences of childhood, that magical single portion of sweet cake piled with buttercream frosting, the mainstay of classroom birthday celebrations and bake sales?

Well, I’ll get to the recipe now and leave the musings for later. This recipe, officially named “Golden Vanilla Cupcakes,” really makes an awesomely excellent cupcake, tons better than the cake mix versions you had as a kid. Tender and moist—if you eat them the same day—and bursting with a “crème brulot” double vanilla flavor, these are worth every calorie.

This recipe comes from Ceri Hadda’s Cupcakes, and I don’t usually put other people’s recipes on my blog, but this book is sadly out of print. You can get used copies, though, and I highly recommend it. I’m still looking for an excuse to try the Cannoli Filling/Topping and the Rum Raisin Cupcakes, both versions…. Oh, and if you’re certain you’re using salmonella-free eggs, make sure you lick the beaters. I find cake batter less compelling than cookie dough, but this truly does taste like a rich French custard!

Golden Vanilla Cupcakes
(Makes 12, actually about 13)

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup (1 stick) butter, softened
3/4 cup sugar
2 eggs
1 egg yolk
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract (I like Penzey’s)
1/2 cup whole milk

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Line 12 muffin tins with paper liners.

In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, and salt.

In a medium bowl, beat the butter until light and fluffy with an electric mixer on high speed. Gradually beat in the sugar until very light and fluffy. Lower the mixer speed to medium. Beat in the eggs one at a time, the egg yolk and the vanilla. Lower the mixer speed to low. Beat in the flour mixture alternately with the milk, just until blended.

Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin tins.

Bake until the tops of the cupcakes are springy when lightly pressed with a fingertip, but not quite golden, about 20-22 minutes. Cool for 15 minutes in the muffin tin on a wire rack.

Frost with swirls of vanilla buttercream frosting. I like to decorate them with M&M “flowers,” that is, an M&M of one color for the center and six of another circling it. These are irresistible to kids at bake sales.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

“The Cunt Book”: Are Erotica Writers Exhibitionists?

Since I had such a good time writing about blindfolds, I thought I’d talk about another one of my early stories, and a particular favorite called “The Cunt Book.”

C-book (as you have to call it on Amazon) was one of those stories I was “writing” in my head for many years. Once I finally sat down at the computer, the whole thing poured out in one week of morning writing sessions.

One of the inspirations for the story was the bizarre and unsolved murder of Bob Crane, an actor known best as the genial and supposedly-irresistible-to-women Colonel Hogan. Masterpiece Theatre made me an Anglophile as a child, so I always preferred Richard Dawson (reportedly another womanizer) but I was still creeped out that a fixture of my after-school T.V. rerun viewing had met such a bloody end. Surely the murder had some connection with the stacks of photo albums documenting Crane’s many sex partners? The movie Auto Focus has its own explanation for what happened—it certainly does a good job of portraying sex addiction.

What intrigued me most, however, was Crane’s particular version, not to say perversion, of humanity’s urge to collect. In fact, anyone who’s ever made a list of his/her sex partners is doing something similar—but the fixation with pictorial evidence mixes it all up with Playboy and other broader cultural issues. This gave me the idea for “The Cunt Book,” in which the female protagonist hears a possibly apocryphal story from her married lover about his “uncle” who had his lovers pose for formal portraits and then cajoled them into providing close-ups of their naked vulvas.

The protagonist doubts that truth of the story, because she knows the guy is a storyteller (that is, a liar), but she feels a compulsion to make it true, at least for them as a couple. This leads to the “climactic” scene where she nudges him into making a cunt book of and for her. Hey, I’m not really giving anything away because you won’t really reading it for the plot.

This story found particular favor with Baby Boomers, those of us who came of sexual age before the Internet. For us old fogies, there is still a certain forbidden quality to “dirty” pictures and nude photo sessions that has probably been busted wide open by the easy access to trillions of such images today. The three editors who liked the story enough to publish it (in fact they were all gratifyingly enthusiastic) were all vanguard Baby Boomers. Rachel Callaghan of InPosse Review, Bill Noble of Clean Sheets, and Marcy Sheiner of Best Women’s Erotica 2005. Maxim Jakubowski also wanted it for Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, but BWE wouldn’t allow the double exposure. The story has also gotten me the most fan mail. How I wish all my stories were so beloved! But hey, when it happens, it’s nice.

But on to exhibitionism. The central scene of “The Cunt Book” deals with a woman revealing her most private self by her own choice. The protagonist is no dupe of an unscrupulous sweet-talker or any of the usual scenarios of dirty picture portraiture. She wants him to see what she has to show. I must confess that as I write, I often amuse myself with a “meta” approach to my story. So, yes, “The Cunt Book” is also about writing, about revealing yourself through art. Every writer reveals something about the workings of her mind and sensibility. Fiction writers, however, can hide behind veils of make-believe at the same time. I can say that no fictional piece I’ve written is ever “true.” But there is truth in all of it, and in “The Cunt Book” and all my stories, I am revealing the truth about my experience of female sexuality as well as whatever part of our society’s myths and fantasies I’ve breathed in from the media. In that sense, I think all writers are exhibitionists. Erotica writers just veer a little closer towards actually undressing in front of the window.

Sunday, May 07, 2006

Blindfold Erotica

The internet is full of amusing ways to waste time and one of them, of course, is to google yourself every few weeks and see what comes up. The usual impetus to do this is a sudden upswing in the number of people who visit my website and/or blog. I can often trace this to some new mention of me and my work online. Oddly enough, it does make me feel “connected” in a kind of cold, impersonal way!

It’s also amusing what sorts of links show up. For example, my story which is most often poached for other sites is one of the very first erotic stories I ever wrote—the second to be exact—called “The Blindfold.” It first appeared in print in the literary journal Rain Crow and was reprinted in the sex and death issue of The Absinthe Literary Review. A more sexually explicit revision called “Blinded” appeared last year on Clean Sheets. Apparently that very word “blindfold” has enough zing to merit its own fetish category, or at least lots of websites devoted to it, and someone is always looking for new entries.

“The Blindfold” is not my most accomplished story, but I do have a special fondness for it. It was the first time I found myself balancing erotic heat with a cooler intellectual curiosity. Even as I dreamed up steamy sex games, the underlying momentum was an idea—that sex has to get “better” and that this somehow involves pushing the boundaries, which would lead in the end to the ultimate boundary. Death.

I realize now that I was also grappling with the boundary between literary and erotic writing which was more problematic for me back then. It is still an issue—should I tone down a more complex story and try to send it to “serious” magazines or stick with the explicit sex and go for erotica venues? As I wrote “The Blindfold,” I found myself constantly reigning in the sexuality, which I later tried to fix with the revised version for Clean Sheets.

Of course, explicit sex is not necessarily the sexiest. Suggestion can be very arousing to me. Certain scenes or lines in “literary” fiction--“the good parts”—are burned far more deeply into my memory than much of the erotica I’ve read, perhaps because I read them at a more impressionable age, or using my own imagination to fill in the details is more vivid, or a sex scene just stands out more memorably in a mainstream story.

But back to “The Blindfold.” It was also one of the first stories I actively researched, from tracking down an old college friend who was a fencer for some technical advice, to making my husband put on a leather glove to caress my neck. And yes, we did try out a few of the games, and they “worked” just fine! Even if you don’t feel ready for the edgier sorts of role playing or sexual power games, I’d recommend trying a blindfold. Use a scarf, one of those sleep masks the airlines give out, or a special furry one they sell at the enlightened sex stores that cater to woman. It’s not so kinky a nice, middle-class suburban couple can’t easily use it to spice up the marital repertory. Its simple power lies in forcing you to focus on the other senses we usually shortchange in our culture--touch, sound, taste and smell. And, as you might expect, even a mild injection of novelty tends to return huge dividends in excitement.

Okay, so I’ve done my bit to encourage America to spice up its sex life, back to the dramas of the writing life. Sending the story out to editors was not quite as much fun as researching and writing it. With high hopes and some trepidation, I sent it to the “top” erotica places I knew—Yellow Silk and Libido, both defunct now. Naturally I fantasized they would snap the story up and immediately recognize my talent as a rising star on the erotica scene. Both rejected me with tiny form letters, but hey, it’s part of a writer’s life to be battered and toughened up at the beginning. I then went to my hard copy of Writer’s Market and scanned the entries for any that said they accepted erotica, slim pickings at about a dozen. Ah, but yes, I forgot, with the sort of bravado only a beginning writer can muster, I also sent it to C. Michael Curtis at The Atlantic and Playboy! Curtis actually sent me one of his “personal” notes offering encouragement. Alice Turner at Playboy wrote, coldly, that “it’s not for us.”

I eventually did end up writing two erotica pieces for their website under a pseudonym, but that’s another story.

In retrospect, the editorial response to “The Blindfold” was pretty encouraging, considering it was “naughty.” I got a respectable amount of ink (writer speak for personal comments from editors), much of it saying the story was too sexual, but they liked my writing. And then, just as I’d given up hope, I was contacted by Michael Manley of 33 Pages, which had changed in the interim to Rain Crow. Manley wanted to publish the story! He was even going to pay me money for it!

I wonder if every writer remembers those first acceptances so keenly. Later ones from more prestigious places are certainly cause for great celebration, but they don’t quite have the same thrill as that first dip in the rollercoaster of the publishing game. I will always be absurdly grateful to Michael Manley for seeing the “literary” qualities of the story for his literary (not erotic) magazine—also, sadly, no longer published. The second thrill came when I held the journal in my hands and read my own story in print. It wasn’t my first publication, but somehow the story felt more revealing, more of me was on that page than ever before.

Btw, my first published fiction was “Questions” in Stanford Magazine, quite respectable for a debut. I got $300, the magazine reached tens of thousands of alums, and many I knew told me they read it and liked it. I also got some nasty letters slamming me for introducing the specter of real sex into the newly impersonal merging that fertility technology allows (the woman carrying a donor egg imagines her husband and the egg donor having sex in a motel), but hey, we want to get a reaction from readers, and bad is better than none. When I first read that story in its published form, complete with an original illustration—it’s also cool to see how another artist interprets my work--I got teary at the end. More because of the theme of mother love, but still. Is it a form of masturbation to be moved by your own work in some form or another?

Maybe, but like masturbation, it’s still a heck of a lot of fun.