Food & Drink

Portrait of a Maker: Loria Stern

This LA based chef and baker draws on the inspiration of the natural beauty surrounding her to create works of edible art.

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hen you hang out with Loria Stern, particularly when you’re in her kitchen, there’s a  moment that hangs over the whole affair. This is doubly so when you’re there to write about her, because the moment becomes a real test and it’ll determine just what you’ll say and how you’ll frame the whole thing. The moment of course is when she casually motions to the plate of fresh baked cookies and asks, ‘Want to try one?’ 

Loria is a skilled baker and her repertoire extends from multi-tiered wedding cakes, to pies, to focaccia that looks like a child’s drawing of a secret garden. But these are the cookies, the recognizable, instagramable, hit single of the baking world that put Loria on the map, and still top the charts.  

My answer is ‘Oh sure, I’d love to.’

“There's a vibrancy that makes it surprising that these pieces are actually edible.”

Casual as can be, but there’s a lot riding on this cookie.

For the uninitiated, Loria Stern uses hand-picked edible wildflowers in all of her baking. These flowers change through the process, adding pops of color and unique taste and texture that can never be replicated on a mass scale. The cakes and cookies are so artfully arranged that when you first see them they almost look like decadent wallpaper.  There’s a vibrancy that makes it surprising that these pieces are actually edible. Each silver-dollar sized cookie contains a single pressed flower. And set against the natural cream color of the cookie emphasizes the silhouette and colors of whichever flower the cookie holds.  

Anyone with an internet connection can see them, their appearance isn’t any kind of  mystery. And in fact, they look better in person. In the squares of an IG account they  seem more graphical than they really are. When you’re holding one it has a fragile,  precious quality and all the minor imperfections present in any wildflower are suddenly apparent — making them seem even more valuable. But we’re not talking about the appearance.

The real question is, how do they taste?

It’s not likely that they’re bad, and that’s for a number of reasons. First, a bad cookie is  still a cookie, and a bad cookie is a very minor offense when placed into the broader spectrum of bad food experiences. So they may not be bad, but they very well could be mediocre. And if they are, if these are lackluster sugar cookies with just a marketable twist, well, that calls everything into question. It means all of Loria’s success – the celebrity weddings, the growing business, even me sitting here – is built on nothing more than surface-level appeal and becomes one more knock against the shallowness of our culture. 

I met Loria 36 hours before the cookie moment on a mountaintop near Ojai.  

The farm was at the end of a long and winding road through unincorporated areas of Ventura county and I got a sense that this was an area where the most common crop has significantly higher street-value than cookies. And that vibe is a big part of the appeal of this corner of the world. The living is free and easy, the land provides, and time is marked by good swells, rain, and the occasional catastrophic fire. You’re at the edge of the continent and you feel that you are at the edge of the continent. And in this milieu you come across a lot of people with a certain California affect. They run a general store maybe, wear a floppy hat and give a throwback vibe that seeks to evoke a sense of the Laurel Canyon scene from the seventies. And here’s the thing, for some folks this is just the latest fad, a kind of live-action-role-playing of an idea of a time that never actually existed. But for a select group they are, often unwittingly, simply living a continuation of a California life that they were born into. They’re the genuine article, embodying an authentic life that may dovetail with certain bigger trends, but is still who they are. The difference between the two can be felt more than it can be articulated. And Loria is of  the latter group, a Californian through and through who has built her craft from where  she grew up, which just happens to be one of the more beautiful places on earth – a  microclimate where the mountains meet the sea and edible blooms grow year-round.

“My uncle was a concert pianist, my whole family’s musical actually. But I feel like I channel my emotions into my baked goods and my cooking.”

Loria grew up in Ojai, the daughter of a jazz clarinetist who supported the family  through his music. “I come from a family of artists” she explains, “My uncle was a  concert pianist, my whole family’s musical actually. But I feel like I channel my  emotions into my baked goods and my cooking.” And the inspiration that carries her now began just out her back door, not far from this mountaintop. “We had a big vegetable garden in our backyard and we also had a rose garden. I remember we had a sunflower that was taller than me. I was probably four years old at the time.” She remembers the feeling well, “Our yard was grass and it was all green and trees and beautiful. But then you see this bright, big sunflower with huge, bright yellow petals. It’s kind of a wonderment in how it looks like it grows a foot each day that you see it the next day. That’s kind of magic in a way.” She pauses for a moment, a little lost in the revery, then, “It really spoke, they spoke to me.”

And the flowers are still speaking, the language and vocabulary has changed though. As Loria walks through the field, examining flowers and plucking as she goes, it can appear like a casual jaunt. The reality is that she’s spent years learning through study and trial and-error just what works when it comes to incorporating wildflowers into her baking.  

The initial experiments were a confluence of two separate interests. Loria explains, “I  was enrolled in an adult education medicinal and edible plant class, while I was  simultaneously working as a pastry chef at a high-end hotel. I was in this class going on hikes and walks and identifying different native California plants and different edible flowers and more obscure ones that one wouldn’t normally know about, then also developing these French pastry skills.” 

Slowly she began using edible flowers as decorations. The big shift came when she began putting the flowers onto the pastries before they went into the oven instead of after.

“But then you see this bright, big sunflower with huge, bright yellow petals. It’s kind of a wonderment in how it looks like it grows a foot each day that you see it the next day. That’s kind of magic in a way.”

“I felt completely inspired to keep experimenting when I realized that different flowers and herbs behave in different ways after baking them.” She plucks a sprig of lavender,  “For example, when I started baking with edible flowers into my cookies, I would notice  that a lavender once bright purple lavender, after the bake would turn gray. And then I  would notice that the petals from the pomegranate tree, which are bright orange after  the bake, they got even more bright.” This lead to hours in her home kitchen testing out  different combinations and seeing what happens to various flowers at 350°. “Since then, I’ve experimented with thousands of different edible flowers, and herbs and anything edible, even vegetables and fruits pressing them on the cookie and watching how they behave after the bake.” She smiles, “It’s just such a cool science.” 

After baking over 100,000 of the flower cookies on her own she’s come to know just what works. Some flowers wilt under any heat, some lose their colors creating a nostalgic, faded look, and others take the heat well with their colors intensifying and growing brighter. And from these trials more uses of the flowers became apparent. She’s made a petal swirled ice-cream that is similar to a fudge-swirled vanilla, with the fudge replaced by a rainbow of flower petals. She’s found a combination of flowers that retain  their color, and still melt when eaten, blending seamlessly with the ice cream. More recently she’s been experimenting with botanical steamed tamales where she places flowers in the corn husk prior to steaming the tamales. While cooking the color of the flowers transfers to the masa and the flowers appear on the tamales themselves, looking as though they’ve been painted on.  

This alchemy has proven to have real appeal. The first time Loria ever showcased them was at a craft fair in the Echo Park neighborhood of Los Angeles. “I had a platter of my flower pressed shortbread cookies in all different colors,” she recalls. “And people were  walking by and would just stop and come back. And what are these? These are amazing. Can I eat these?” She sold out that day, “And as soon as I started posting them on Instagram, I immediately started getting inquiries for orders.” 

From there she’s grown out of her home-kitchen into a commercial space and has  needed to staff up her operation. So what is driving the interest? Loria has her own theory, “Eating something wild brings us back to a primitive time. For me, it connects me more with nature and more with being in the moment.” There’s also an element of  doing something that is taboo, “People tell you that there’s a lot of poisonous plants out there and don’t eat anything that’s not sold at the grocery store, which in a lot of ways that’s good knowledge to live by. But in other ways there’s so much delicious edible food that is forgotten about. And it’s not sprayed with a lot of chemicals or coming from thousands of miles away, it’s worth learning about and exploring.”

*Please exercise caution and conduct research before incorporating flowers and other plants into your cuisine.

“This flower came from a mountaintop, it grew toward the sun as best it could...”

For most of us, we’ve never even been taught that we can eat flowers.

Flowers have been compartmentalized into simply display objects. They’re used to express affection, or the imagery is used to convey summer and spring, rarely do we ever think of flowers as wild, let alone edible. Loria’s ability to see the wild in wildflowers is what sets her, and all her creations, apart. The process of making her cookies is structured so that the flowers are minimally handled and barely changed from their naturally occurring state. At home she takes the bounty from a day of picking and presses the flowers under books and between parchment paper. They sit for two weeks while she bakes and reads and listens to music around them. Once they’ve dried and flattened they become two-dimensional  versions of themselves, but retain all of the elements that tells you they are wild. There is still a stray leaf on the stem, at petal shorter than the rest, or a discoloration in one area.  

All of the imperfections – is it right to even call them that? – are crystallized and then when put in cookie form they are celebrated. This flower came from a mountaintop, it grew toward the sun as best it could, early in its life there was a heavy rain, this petal has a funky fold in it, it’s here for you to eat and for you to see and in seeing it’s asking you to embrace the wild and what that means. 

I haven’t bitten into the cookie yet, I’m still admiring it.  

When I do, I’m immediately put at ease. It’s delicious. All the flavors are subtle and clear – a pure church bell ring of sweetness carrying the almost-hidden taste of chamomile. I think about the field, and the guys working on the farm, and the outdoor kitchen the  couple there had built. They’ve got their own California dream going on, and Loria is one note in it, her cookies carrying the good news and easy living from the coast to the wider world. I let out a big exhale and ask if I could have just one more.

Loria’s Secret Garden Focaccia Recipe

INGREDIENTS
 
4 cups (650g) flour
1.3 cups (400g) lukewarm water
2 Tablespoon olive oil (35g)
1 Tablespoon honey (20g)
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt (3g)
1 sachet (7g) of dried yeast
Olive oil, for greasing
 
Colorful Vegetables: 1 red pepper, 1 orange pepper, 1 yellow pepper, 1/2 cup sliced colorful tomatoes, 5-10 asparagus, 5-10 scallions, 1 cup washed and leaves picked apart flat leaf parsley, 2 mushrooms, 1 red onion, 3 purple potatoes, edible flowers, rosemary, thyme, etc.
 
Edible Flowers Tip: Remember to explore and conduct research before experimenting with flowers and other plants in your everyday making
  1. Proof the yeast. Add lukewarm water (about 110°F and honey to the bowl of a stand mixer with the dough hook attachment, and stir to combine (using a non-metal spoon or your finger).  Sprinkle the yeast on top of the water.  Give the yeast a quick stir to mix it in with the water.  Then let it sit for 5-10 minute until the yeast is activated and foamy.
  2. Knead. Set the mixer to low speed, and add gradually flour, olive oil and salt. Increase speed to medium-low, and continue mixing the dough for 5 minutes or until dough pulls away from the sides of the bowl.
  3. First rise. Remove dough from the mixing bowl, and use your hands to shape it into a ball. Grease the mixing bowl with a touch of olive oil, then place the dough ball back in the bowl and cover it with a damp towel. Place in a warm location and let the dough rise for 45 minutes, or until it has nearly doubled in size.
  4. Prep veggies. While the dough is rising, prep your vegetables. Make sure you wash each veggie and cut into thin slices — strips and rounds, so that the vegetables are varied shapes and sizes for most colorful garden focaccia results.
  5. Second dough rise + Decoration. Once dough rises for the first time, punch down and then put your dough onto an olive oil greased standard baking sheet (13”x9”) and press the dough down so it covers the baking sheet and is about 1/2” tall. Preheat oven to 400°F. Now start decorating your blank canvas focaccia, imagining your favorite garden. Create shapes using the vegetables that mimic flowers, don’t forget to add the asparagus stems and parsley as leaves or grass! Remember that the dough grows and the veggies shrink, so for bright and best results, cover the dough completely with various vegetable flowers. Before placing in the oven, sprinkle with a pinch of sea salt.
  6. Bake. Bake for 20-30 minutes, or until the dough is slightly golden and cooked through.
  7. Serve. Like most baked goods, this focaccia is best served straight from the oven. You can also let cool completely and wrap in tin foil and store in fridge for up to 1 week or freezer for up to 1 month.
Written By Alex Jablonski Director Alex is an Emmy award-winning director. His feature documentary WILDLAND also went on to play theatrically and was broadcast nationally.
Alex is an Emmy award-winning director. His feature documentary WILDLAND also went on to play theatrically and was broadcast nationally.

Makers In This Story