Pale strands of my hair tangled into the mess of dusky flowers in my lap. Mike's car sliced quietly through the lukewarm air of the countryside until a gravel drive slid into view. We turned into it with a crunch, parked, and began the arduous process of shuttling picnic supplies down a rocky path.
Some time later we sat alone by a still pond, the flowers now perched on a stack of books beside us. We'd just finished eating an elaborate lunch on my childhood patchwork quilt. The ground was hard and uneven -- it always seemed so soft in movies -- but at one point I lay down, the silk of my slip dress cool in the autumn breeze, and watched the highest leaves fluttering against the sky. Then I looked back to Mike's ruddy, bespectacled face and smiled.
Sometimes you only realize how special a moment is once it's passed, but every now and then, you get the gift of realizing in the moment itself. This was one of those times.
I'd never been on a legitimate blanket-on-the-ground picnic before, and living in different cities, Mike and I rarely got to just sit and enjoy each other's company. Now here we were, grinning at each other, stuffed like turkeys in the middle of the woods and post-lunch euphoria. The streamer of hearts I'd hung from the trees around us whispered in the wind. The whole afternoon spread out before us.
That was last fall. In the dark days that followed, I remembered that picnic as a bright bit of joy to hold onto.
I love those unexpected moments that settle into your heart as significant -- the ones that nestle like bookmarks into the very best folds of time. I remember so many of them:
Sitting by a fire in Gatlinburg with Mike, drinking hot chocolate in mugs we'd just bought from a Walgreens around the corner.
Dancing with a stranger on the sidewalk one night in San Francisco.
Pausing with Mike on the stairwell of my apartment building to watch the sunset.
Looking down at the fluffy mop in my lap while driving home from Carolina Poodle Rescue and realizing that Byrd was truly mine.
Embracing my new friend, 7-year-old Zoe, when she ran up to hug me after we'd been baptized together one Sunday morning.
Walking alone across the Georgia Tech campus one summer night in the middle of my teacher training, the golden skyline glowing above me.
Getting the phone call where my dad revealed that after years of dangerous treatments, he was cancer-free.
Running barefoot through the grass in La Jolla one warm night with my sister, Sarah, for no reason at all.
Sitting in traffic on i-85 to Raleigh with the sun illuminating the gorgeous fall leaves and little Byrd poking her nose out the open window.
And, most recently, sitting with Mike and eating gooey pumpkin cookie cake straight out of my cast iron skillet. I'd just pulled the cake from the oven and taken dozens of photos, and with my camera still propped up beside me, we dug in. No plates needed -- just forks and some ice cream. There's just nothing like the casual, sweet act of devouring forkfuls of a shared dessert without even an ounce of fuss.
And this cake! I made it twice to fiddle with proportions a bit. The first version (pictured throughout this post) was great, but the second version (see pictures below) was insane: a moist, gooey, comforting cake boasting surprise bites of caramel and toasted pecans.
Not only that, but you can make this cake in about half an hour with one skillet! Even if you choose to toast up some pecans and make some streusel to go with it (which I recommend!), you'll have minimal dishes to wash. Especially if you skip the plates.
A slice of the final cake.
You have to make this thing as soon as possible. Make it tonight! Throw it together and eat it on the couch with someone sweet. Or take it to your Halloween parties. Or eat the entire thing alone while watching old episodes of Hoarders. No judgments. It'll be amazing no matter what.
And in the meantime, share a beautiful moment that stands out in your memory.
One-Skillet Gooey Pumpkin Cookie Cake
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by Sophistimom and Food Network
Yield: about 8 servings
This melt-in-your-mouth pumpkin spice cake is warm, moist, and delicious. Gooey caramel and toasted pecans amp up the "mmm" factor. And to say it's easy is an understatement -- you can make it in one skillet in about 35 minutes! This is the perfect recipe to whip up on a whim and eat in your PJs on the couch. Devour it straight from the skillet with a pile of ice cream. (P.S. If you don't care about the number of pots and pans and want to go a little crazy, cut down the sugar a little and try the cake with this amazing caramel sauce.)
3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/4 cup vegetable oil
3/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1 cup pureed pumpkin
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 1/8 cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon ginger
1/4 teaspoon allspice
some dulce de leche or 10-15 caramels
1/2 cup toasted pecans (optional, see note in directions)
Note: The first time I made this cookie cake, I mixed in 1/2 cup of chopped pecans that I'd toasted (on a sheet pan at 350 degrees F for about 6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring a couple of times). The second time I made it, I mixed in this toasted pecan streusel -- heavenly! These extra mix-ins will add a bowl and a sheet pan to your prep, but I highly recommend them.
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. In a 10- or 12-inch cast iron skillet over medium heat, melt the butter. Stir in the vegetable oil, sugars, and vanilla and remove from heat. Let this mixture cool until the pan is no longer hot (about 5 minutes) so you won't scramble your eggs.
Add both eggs to the butter mixture, whisking them well to combine. Whisk in the pumpkin. In a separate bowl, whisk together the flour, salt, baking soda, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice (Note: it's kind of lame to use another bowl for this, and according to Sophistimom, you should be able to just dump all your dry ingredients on top and whisk them in well, but I was too chicken to try. So I guess this is technically "One-Skillet, One-Bowl" cake if you do it my way. If you just dump them in, please let me know how it goes!) Whisk the dry ingredients into the wet and pour the batter into your skillet.
Stir in the toasted pecans or streusel if you're using them. Place dollops of dulce de leche or caramel candies around the surface of the batter. Bake your skillet cookie for 15-25* minutes, or until the edges are getting golden and the center is still soft (a toothpick inserted into the center should come out with some moist crumbs, but no liquid batter). Eat immediately (preferably straight out of the skillet!) with heaps of vanilla ice cream (or a fun caramel flavor).
*Depending on your skillet, this cooking time can really vary. I'd start checking at 15 minutes and then check every couple of minutes after that with toothpicks. Make sure to look for moist crumbs, not a clean toothpick. If you overbake, it might be dry!
Recipe before and after tweaking to warm, gooey perfection.
Need a closer look at the final product?
Gooey, caramelly, streuselly, pumpkiny, amazing.