Play With Your Food, I Say!

I am wrapping up this month’s exploration of patterns with a play session. When young, we are admonished to not play with our food. Aside from the occasional volcano of mashed potatoes and gravy lava I mostly adhered to this rule. But now that I am grown, I have thrown that reprimand out and taken to playing with my food. My idea of “playing with food” these days is styling and taking pictures. My latest subject – citrus, was chosen for the patterns created when cut in a cross-section.

three citrus cutA grapefruit,

grapefruit cut

a mineola tangelo,

mineola cutand a mandarin tangerine

mandarin cutare my citrus of choice.

I gathered leaves and cilantro from the yard and had a great time cutting and arranging. The smell – refreshing, and a fun way to kick-off a Saturday for this backyard sister. Citrus still on my mind I had a vision of delving deeper into the pattern created in the segments. So, I rigged up a photo box using an opaque plastic storage bin turned on its side and a clip-on desk light allowing me to place the light facing up inside the box. After slicing the citrus thinner I set them on the box over the light.

tangerine sliceThe back light allows the segments making up the segments to be visible. What joy! I was made even happier by the adjustment in Photoshop of filling the background with white thus removing any distractions and allowing the fruit slice to stand alone.

grapefruit sliceThese patterns are intriguing to me as well as inspirational. I may create a backdrop based on them.

orange sliceIt reminds me of a stained glass window.

These subjects make a great snack too!


~ Susan

Go Ahead and Break It

Patterns denote a certain regularity – repeating designs or behaviors.

photo credit: @1ofmykind

photo credit: @1ofmykind

I have noticed l have a tendency to fall into a photographic pattern. It hit me while going through my photos one day. Whether shooting portraits, landscapes or even editorial I become comfortable with what has worked in the past and tend to repeat it- same poses, settings, subjects.

grass pattern

It can be difficult but fun to try and break out of patterns, try a different angle, a new lens, different settings, new pose, etc.

IMG_1376I am naturally drawn to certain subjects, and I find making a conscious effort to look at them from a different angle or focusing on a smaller part of the whole, keeps me from falling into a familiar pattern.

IMG_9737Not that we have to do something different every time, simply making an effort to create new takes on old scenes can spark a freshness in our perspective and get the “creative juices” flowing.

IMG_4608Also, choosing subjects that you may not usually photograph will have the same result and often this is right in front of our eyes! We just have to remember to raise the camera, focus and click.

To a week of breaking patterns.

~ Susan

The Weekend Dish – Trifle

We gather, gab, nosh and fête frequently. The backyard sisters take our celebrations seriously. Yes,truly, getting the extended family together and feasting are not activities to be trifled with.

photo credit: @1ofmykind

photo credit: @1ofmykind

The backyard sisters, their spouses, parents, children and often in-laws and a friend or two celebrate birthdays and holidays on a regular basis. A backyard cousin, home from college for a spring break visit, spurs us to man the party stations. Just so happens one of his favorite desserts is Trifle and lucky for him his Oma makes an impressive one. Lucky for me, I was privileged to indulge in this light and creamy delicacy that night. Not only is the layered presentation special and elegant but also


it tastes luscious. Now I know why he loves it so; it is a perfect mix of sweet, fruity flavors and creamy, airy textures. It sure impressed this guest and I daresay it would impress yours too, and that’s no trifling matter!

~ Susan


  • Angel Food cake torn into bite size pieces
  • vanilla pudding (recipe follows)
  • strawberry sauce (recipe follows)
  • whipped cream
  • sliced fresh strawberries

A trifle dish is the optimum container but if you don’t have one don’t let that stop you, any tall glass bowl or tall glass individual dishes can work also. Begin with a layer of the angel food cake, then spoon pudding over, next the strawberry sauce and then repeat topping it with whipped cream and sliced fresh strawberries.

Vanilla Pudding

  • 2 1/2 cups whole milk
  • 2/3 cup sugar
  • 4 egg yolks
  • 1/4 cup flour
  • 3+ tsp vanilla extract (to taste)
  • 3/4 tsp salt

Mix sugar, flour and salt in a saucepan. Mix milk and egg yolks together and add to dry ingredients. Cook over low to medium heat until thickened stirring constantly. Remove from heat and add vanilla. Cool and chill.

Strawberry Sauce

  • 4 cups frozen strawberries mashed
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 3 Tbsp cornstarch
  • 1/2 cup water
  • 2 Tbsp butter
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract

Combine mashed strawberries sugar, cornstarch and water in a saucepan. Cook until thickened stirring frequently. Remove from heat and add butter and vanilla and stir until butter incorporated. Cool.

Whipping Cream

To a pint of whipping cream add either powdered sugar or agave and vanilla to taste. Then whip with an electric mixer on high speed until it holds its own shape. If you beat too long you will end up with butter.

Dark. Then light.

I ran a marathon once…


Today’s post comes from Theresa, the eldest Backyard Sister.

I ran a marathon once.  I ran because my life was a train wreck right then and I was afraid if I didn’t get up and move I would never get up again. I ran to learn how to just breathe. I ran to be a part of something larger than me.

I spent months training, long hours alone with my thoughts and the sound of my ragged breaths. I learned to love the smell of early morning and the peace of downtown before shops opened and the sidewalks filled with people hurrying to begin their day.  I came to appreciate the soft breeze of twilight and the gentle shapes of nightfall when the world is infused with the last bit of sunlight. Trees, leaves green and then brilliant with fall, and birds with their busy chatter and endless fluttering kept me company. As did my faithful training companion, a middle-aged Jack Russell terrier whose exuberance for life and tireless motion inspired me to keep going many days when I didn’t think I could. I ran in rain and wind and cold and wondered if I was crazy. I discovered that I could struggle with self-doubt or pain or fatigue and emerge still moving, still breathing, still alive.

I ran that marathon, 26.2 miles, each mile an adventure. Through it all, people lined the path, there on a Sunday morning in January for no other reason than to show support for a group of strangers who had an idea they would challenge themselves to do something really hard and were there to accomplish their dream.  When I finally came around the last corner, there was a crowd of spectators and runners who had already finished, calling out encouragement and congratulations, helping us celebrate what we had done. I have kept these lessons I learned in my heart – one foot in front of the other, breathe, things get better in time; run after life,  even when you aren’t sure where you are going; and there are many more good people in the world than bad.

And so this brings me to the events of the week, the bombing at the Boston Marathon, how to make sense of something so senseless, so purely evil. How to live with the images forever etched into my brain,  runners reaching the finish line, the joy of that moment, the cheers of the crowd juxtaposed with the sound of explosion, the smoke and screams, blood and shattered glass. I have struggled with this contrast all week, angry and deeply saddened that someone chose a marathon as a backdrop for murder and tremendously moved by the stories of courage and sacrifice that are emerging.  Stories of strangers comforting the injured and saving lives, strangers offering a bed and food to those stranded by the bombing, people who when faced with a situation they never dreamed  possible embraced the challenge and ran forward to help. What I have decided is that there will always be good and evil and shades in between, always the overlay, always the pattern, there is no making sense of it, it just is.

I have stopped looking at the pictures and videos because they live in my mind now, the contrast of the horror of the bombing with the celebration of the day. I play them over and over, trying to rewrite the ending like I do when I wake up after a bad dream. And I am starting to see other parts of the picture emerge, I see people bent over the wounded, I see those who rushed in and began the terrible work of saving lives and I am beginning to realize that in the same moment of great darkness is the light of goodness we all contain, in the moment we are most fragile, there is great strength. And I do believe that good always triumphs over evil, maybe not at first, but always in the end, I am holding on to that thought – to ponder more during my next run.



You can read more by Theresa. Her essay “Lessons From Winter” is here.

Seeing the tree through the forest

Patterns in nature come in many forms. This week, I took the time to “be in the moment” when walking about and looking for natural patterns. I found them! On a recent “photo walk” in Palisades Park, Santa Monica, the eucalyptus and palm trees are abundant and once I stopped looking around them and instead looked at them the beautiful design of their trunks became apparent.



_MG_8307patternNext, the patterns in the leaves of the grape vines and apricot tree, which are just beginning their new cycle of growth, right in my own backyard.


_MG_8316patternTwenty-four years ago this April, our family received a cymbidium orchid plant to celebrate the birth of our daughter (thank-you again backyard sister.) Every March and April since, it bursts forth with the most beautiful pink blooms which have an intriguing pattern in their center.

_MG_8326patternIt’s such a treat!

Sometimes, nature is used by man as a medium to create an art installation like the puppy sculpture at the Guggenheim museum in Bilbao Spain.

IMG_4513pattern.JPGOr, nature can be tamed and formed into geometric patterns creating a grand and formal garden like this one at Versailles.

IMG_3935patternThe pattern possibilities of nature are great. I’m sure I can find more if I try this exercise again. It is helpful to capture with a purpose – for it’s through practicing your photography that you will improve and hone your craft. Having a project or a purpose in mind when you are going out to photograph, makes you ponder what you are trying to convey and the best way to capture your vision. It also can keep you from falling in to a pattern of always taking the same types of pictures – more on that next week.

Naturally yours,

~ Susan

A Patterned Place, or Two

the rookery chicago

The patterns are out there, both natural and man-made. When looking for patterns to photograph, buildings are where I find my lens gravitating often. This week, I explore some man-made patterns and ways to look at things in your everyday life for their pattern potential. Seems to me, many architects have an affinity for repeating geometric patterns and I have discovered I too have a fondness for these patterns. Architects Daniel Burnham and John Root designed a patterned masterpiece in the Rookery building in Chicago. The light court, above, is loaded with patterns; from the intricate iron work to the painted walls, it’s an awe-inspiring space. Staircases are often an architecturally interesting and pattern producing feature.

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago

CaixaForum, Madrid

CaixaForum, Madrid

This skyscraper is outside the Annenberg Space for Photography in Los Angeles.

Century City skyscrapers I am drawn to the two towers reflected in the mirrored building but I like the cut out space breaking up the pattern especially.

Sometimes, patterns can be found in unexpected places.



Pico House, Los Angeles

Let’s not overlook the amusement park for patterns.

Ferris Wheel

_MG_8237Incorporating patterns into your photos adds interest and impact.

This coming week, I will be looking for natural patterns.

On a patterned path,

~ Susan

The Weekend Dish – Checkerboard Cake

_MG_8216Adventures and experiments in the kitchen can be challenging and fun. Trying to come up with a dish to go with this month’s theme of patterns, a checkerboard cake immediately came to mind. Never having made one and a bit uncertain about what seemed like a daunting task, I suppressed the idea for a day or two exploring other possibilities but I kept coming back to the cake and readied myself for a challenge. First, I learned there is a special pan one can buy for creating this effect, but not wanting to invest in one and, with further research, I found a video online of Buddy, the cake boss, teaching Rachael Ray how to make a checkerboard cake using cookie cutters.  Well, without circle cookie cutters, I improvised using a glass and a glass vase ( thoroughly cleaned of course ). Checkerboard cake here we come. First task is making chocolate and vanilla cakes.

_MG_8208Most cakes after cooking have a slightly rounded top, at least mine do, so to get even layers that will sit flatly on top of each other; after the cake has cooled, trim about one quarter of an inch off the top. Then cut concentric circles from the center out and you will have three circles of cake.

_MG_8211Next step is to alternate the chocolate and vanilla rings. If you have a vanilla ring on the outside insert a chocolate ring next and finish with a vanilla ring in the middle. After assembling your first layer, apply frosting. I learned a trick from the cake boss – use a bag to apply the frosting. I used a ziploc bag and cut a hole in one of the bottom corners. By applying the frosting this way, all you have to do is gently spread it around to smooth it out and it keeps it from getting full of crumbs. For the next layer, start with chocolate on the outside then vanilla and finish with chocolate in the center then add frosting again. I made a three layer cake so for the last layer I repeated the pattern of the first layer. Then apply frosting to entire cake. I could have made another layer but ran out of frosting. . . and time.

_MG_8221It’s fun cutting into the cake and revealing the impressive checkerboard pattern!

_MG_8234I made the cakes from scratch because I prefer that to mixes, but if you want you can use cake mix. I put my foot down at the frosting from the grocery store though; it’s just not as good as homemade!

 Hershey’s “Perfectly  Chocolate” Chocolate Cake  (from the Hershey’s Cocoa box)

  • 2 cup sugar
  • 1-3/4 cup all-purpose flour
  • 3/4 cup Hershey’s Cocoa
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking powder
  • 1-1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 cup milk
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 2 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup boiling water

Heat oven to 350° F. Grease and flour two 9-in. round cake pans. Combine dry ingredients in a large bowl. Add eggs, milk, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed 2 minutes. Stir in boiling water (batter will be thin). Pour into pans. Bake 30-35 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted into center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes, remove from pans to wire racks and cool completely.

Yellow Cake (from Better Homes and Gardens New Cookbook)

  • 3 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1 Tbsp baking powder
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 1/2 cup butter,softened
  • 1-1/2 tsp vanilla (I doubled this, I like vanilla a lot)
  • 2 eggs

Preheat oven to 375° F. In a large bowl combine dry ingredients. Add milk, butter, and vanilla. Beat with electric mixer on low speed until combined. Beat on high speed for 2 minutes. Add eggs and beat 2 minutes more. Pour into 2 greased and floured 9 in. round cake pans. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool on wire racks for 10 minutes. Remove from pans until cooled completely.

“Perfectly Chocolate” Chocolate Frosting (also from Hershey’s Cocoa box)

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) butter
  • 2/3 cup Hershey’s cocoa
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 1/3 cup milk
  • 1 tsp. vanilla

Melt butter. Stir in cocoa. Alternately add powdered sugar and milk, beating on medium speed to spreading consistency. Add more milk, if needed. Stir in vanilla. Makes about 2 cups frosting.

I once and a halved the frosting recipe but I didn’t have enough to make a fourth layer so I would double it next time.

If you would like to watch the Rachael Ray video click here.

This can be made with different colored and flavored cakes also.

It makes me want to go play a game of checkers. While eating cake of course!

~ Susan


I am drawn to certain empty things like urns and skies.
I abhor other barrenness, like empty promises or hearts.

I rail against the empty life. Fill it with books, philosophies, a deep well of love.
I protect certain empty hours. Create a space for dreams and meditation, staring into spring.

EdenMy backyard before I moved

When I am on the abandoned beach, I miss you.
When I am deserted, I miss my beach.

Patterns emerge against emptiness.
Sound breaks silence.
Silence relieves talk.

Knit one. Pearl two. Add one. Drop a stitch.

My grandmother used to mutter directions for a sweater or scarf she was knitting.  If the pattern were disrupted she’d have to rip the stitches out.

You can unravel yarn but it always shows the kinks of where it’s been.
If you don’t know how to knit, what do you imagine?


Backyard Sisters’ mom and dad

A pattern emerges against the emptiness.
Knit two. Pearl: One.
Now isn’t that a fine direction?


p.s. Maybe you like to read. I do. Maybe you like to knit. I don’t. Either way, a rather interesting book crossed my path. Literary Knits: 30 Patterns Inspired by Favorite Books,by  Nikol Lohr, is a book about as self-explanatory as its title.

9781118216064_cover.inddLohr has created knitting patterns for clothes items for women, like the Daisy cloche inspired by F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby; for men, like the Gregor sweater inspired by Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis; and for young girls, like the Anne Shirley dress inspired by Anne of Green Gables by Lucy Maud. If knitting is your thing, or if you want to see one yarn artist’s rendering of a word artist’s description, check it out.

Admirable use of the concept of patterns in literature I would say.

Patterns are Powerful

Happy April! Here at Backyard Sisters a new month means a new photographic topic to explore and this month it’s patterns. Patterns are everywhere. Once you start taking note and incorporating them in your photos you may become a pattern fiend. Using patterns in a photo can draw in the viewer and keep them there as they are examining, following and maybe getting lost in your pattern. One place that immediately came to my mind to begin the pattern practice, The Getty Center in Los Angeles, is crawling with patterns;  in the architecture,

getty center patterns

Getty center patternsand in the gardens.

Getty garden patternsPatterns made by man,

Getty garden patternsgeometric patterns

Getty garden patternsand patterns found in nature.

pattern plantThis month, we turn our eyes and lenses to the patterns around us. See what patterns you can find as you go about your everyday life. The patterns are there, simply look around and see what designs captivate your imagination and will invite your viewers to get lost in your photos.

Looking forward to sharing a patterned month with you.

~ Susan