Most days, Elizabeth Falkner is in the kitchen of Citizen Cake, her cafe and bakery in San Francisco, folding butter into puff pastry or beating egg whites. On sunny Saturdays, however, she's usually beating her opponents on the soccer field with her team, the Follies, in the Golden Gate Women's Soccer League. Only after the game does she return to more typical surroundings, to prepare a replenishing meal for her teammates.
Falkner originally studied to be a filmmaker; she was in San Francisco working for a production company in the early Nineties when she took a job as a night chef and saw that cooking could also be a creative outlet. Inspired by the architectural approach to food popular at the time, she began to apply the same principles to desserts. "It was like art to me," Falkner says. Though she had no culinary training, she quickly got jobs at the San Francisco restaurants Masa's and Rubicon, where she became known for outlandish, gravity-defying desserts.
Soon coworkers were coming to her on the sly for wedding and birthday cakes; their orders and their enthusiasm persuaded Falkner to open Citizen Cake. The cafe, an immediate cult favorite, soon outgrew its original digs and has recently reopened with an expanded menu, but the cakes are still the main attraction. They defy easy labels: Retro Tropical Shag is a genoise cake filled with passion-fruit mousse, frosted with buttercream and topped with a carpeting of coconut, and A Chocolate Work Orange has layers of cocoa-bean meringue, orange marmalade and chocolate ganache.