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.
After all that buttercream, it's no wonder Falkner feels compelled to get some exercise. She began playing the game as a 10-year-old, when her mother was persuading her little brother to join a team. "I volunteered, too," Falkner says. She rediscovered soccer in her adulthood and for the past decade has been playing with the Follies once a week.
The tradition of team lunches started accidentally. At a birthday party for a teammate, Falkner commandeered the barbecue after seeing the faux pas her friends were making with the steaks. "I hate seeing people grill things to death," she says, "so I just had to step in." Soon she was doing things like mixing up mounds of dough and providing sliced potatoes, Italian sausage, roasted peppers and fennel so the players could make their own pizzas.
For one recent party, Falkner prepared a buffet with elements of both Californian and Mexican cuisine: fish tacos with coleslaw and avocado cream, a salad of tomatoes and arugula with a corn vinaigrette, and baked beans with chocolate added to deepen the flavor. Falkner also threw in a little spiciness to cool everyone off with her mango, jicama and jalapeño salsa. The meal was delicious--and restorative. "After a game, all I want is saltiness and bright flavors," Falkner says. A blend of grapefruit, orange and lime juices updated a soccer-league tradition from Falkner's childhood: Each week a different player's mother was assigned the task of bringing oranges. Falkner's drink does double duty: By itself it's a halftime refreshment, and with tequila it's a postgame reward. Of course, Falkner's friends also got a terrific dessert, hazelnut meringue and cajeta (goat's milk caramel) ice cream sandwiches. Only one per person, however. As any baker-cum-soccer player knows, too many ice cream sandwiches can really slow you down on the field.