“What’s the cross-street?” the cab driver asked impatiently. I shifted my short orange skirt, uncomfortable by how it rode up my thighs as I sat on the sticky hot leather of the backseat.
“Um. I don’t know. I’m sorry; I’m not from here.”
“Do you have a phone where you could just look it up?” his voice was tinged with annoyance now.
“Um. No. I have a paper map.” His grunted response indicated that this wasn’t helpful. He slammed on the accelerator with the jolt I was becoming accustomed to in New York City cabs. I rolled my window down halfway to breathe in the mixture of exhaust and asphalt as we swerved our way out of Brooklyn.
My night until now had been filled with strange new experiences. I was wading through New York alone, and since the months leading up to this trip had been so emotionally difficult, I found myself seeing every street through a gauzy shroud. Everything looked gray and artsy. I accepted each new sensation like a confused guard — noticing its approach, unsure whether to welcome it or block it out. So far, though, I’d chosen to be rather hospitable, embracing the unusual slick of makeup across my cheeks and lips, some uncharacteristically chic earrings weighing down each lobe, and a solitary foray into the chaotic Brooklyn evening.
The neon glow of La Esquina, a corner taqueria and café, had cradled me in the darkness, lighting my way but hiding my uncertainty. The hostess looked just like Jessica Alba. She was wearing a tutu dress with a gorgeous back tattoo. I tried both on mentally, wondering if either tutus or body art was another sensation to embrace while I was feeling experimental. She tugged a table out from the wall to let me squeeze into the booth behind it, passing me one lonely menu and a sweet smile.
With the firm booth underneath me boosting my confidence, I looked around at the tiny café. People with hip hairstyles were drinking pretty drinks all around me. A wall of books decorated the back wall. Waiters kept their cool in the middle of chaos, sweeping steaming plates from the kitchen to each table. Looking over, I was suddenly sure that the pretty blonde next to me was Cate Blanchett. But I barely batted an eyelash; I played it New-York-cool.
I found myself torn between different choices on the menu — food always shapes a place for me, and New York had been no exception so far. The NYC atmosphere wasn’t comprised of skyscrapers, but of the thin, blistered slices of cheese pizza from the hole-in-the-wall pizzeria I slid into no more than an hour after arriving. It was built with the thick, seeded bagel I bought at Murray’s one sunny morning, with the skin that resisted my bite and the mound of smoked salmon and fresh whitefish salad tucked inside. It was cobbled together from wedges of Momofuku’s rich crack pie, layered with chocolate and pretzels, and tall bottles of the cereal milk that invoked my childhood’s empty breakfast bowls.
So the choice ahead of me was consequential. I knew whatever ended up on my plate that night would be the shape of Brooklyn in my memory.
I don’t usually drink, but then again I don’t usually walk around New York alone, peer down at a city from 86 floors up the Empire State Building, scale boulders in Central Park, or find myself sitting beside movie stars. So when a white sangria caught my eye on the menu, I ordered it (and a coke on the side). I took a few sips as I considered the tacos. The sweet-sharp wine and bitter citrus — along with the gorgeous guacamole Cate was eating beside me — made me crave something salty and fresh. I finally settled on a plate of the pulled pork tacos. The first bite painted Brooklyn neon-gorgeous: the crisp corn tortillas boasted mounds of succulent roast pork, jalapeños, shreds of cabbage, and pale pink pickled radishes. I squeezed a spritz of lime juice on before I devoured the tacos, trying to sip my sangria demurely between each greedy bite and listening to the hum of conversation around me.
It was after that amazing meal that I ended up in the cab with the only rude driver (and the only rude person in general, for that matter) I’d encountered in New York so far. I accepted his angst as a quaint tourist attraction, a phenomenon I had to encounter to say I’d really experienced the city. Then I muted the blaring television mounted on the back of his seat and settled in for the ride back to my hotel.
I’ve been back in Charlotte for months now, but all of my New York memories came flooding back recently as I read about the city in Luisa Weiss’s new book, My Berlin Kitchen. The book is a love story, a story of place, a memoir, a cookbook — so many different things. I’ve been a bit disillusioned with cookbooks lately. Everyone has one and they’re all beautiful, but the focus is on the food. Maybe it sounds odd or counter-intuitive for a food blogger to say the focus shouldn’t be the food, but I always feel like people can find recipes anywhere. There are websites and books full of great dishes, cooking tips and techniques, and reviews.
What I’m looking for in a food blog — and, I now realize, even in a cookbook — is a person. I want the intersection of a person’s fragile or sacred moments and the food that carries them through. I want to be invited in. In My Berlin Kitchen, Luisa opens the door, invites you in, and even serves you some cake. The beautiful, personal nature of the narrative and its gorgeous food descriptions make it such a wonderful book to settle onto the couch with. I hope you’ll pick up a copy.
Luisa spends most of her memoir trying to pinpoint “home,” so with my story of being a stranger in a strange land, I bring you a dash of the familiar. This homey, comforting, moist pumpkin cake is soaked in an indulgent cinnamon-vanilla custard before receiving its golden broiled icing. It’s simple to make and a lovely way to welcome fall.
What are food memories you have from different places you’ve visited?
One year ago: Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze
Two years ago: Assorted Donut Muffins
Three years ago: Mini-Pies: Pumpkin, Peach Crisp, and Sour Cream Apple
Vanilla Custard Soaked Pumpkin Poke Cake
Recipe by: Adapted from America’s Test Kitchen’s Oatmeal Snack Cake with Broiled Icing, totally inspired by Kristan’s Oreo Poke Cake
Yield: 9 servings
The moist pumpkin cake on its own is a huge hit, so imagine the deliciousness that ensues when you flood it with a sweet, warm cinnamon-vanilla custard. The resulting dessert is velvety and filled with autumnal goodness.
1 cup (3 ounces) quick-cooking oats*
3/4 cup water, room temperature
3/4 cup (3 3/4 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup pumpkin
4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1/2 cup (3 1/2 ounces) granulated sugar
1/2 cup packed (3 1/2 ounces) dark brown sugar
1 large egg, room temperature
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Vanilla Custard Ingredients:
2 tablespoons butter
1 tablespoons flour
3/4 cup milk
3 tablespoons sugar
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon cinnamon
1/8 teaspoon cardamom
Broiled Icing Ingredients:
1/4 cup packed (1 3/4 ounces) dark brown sugar
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and cooled
3 tablespoons milk
1 cup sweetened shredded coconut
1/2 cup (2 1/2 ounces) pecans, chopped
Make the cake: Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Create a foil sling for an 8-inch square pan: cut two 16-inch lengths of foil and fold them to widths of 5 inches each. Fit foil pieces into baking dish, one overlapping the other, pushing them into corners and up sides of pan; allow excess to overhang pan edges. Cut two more pieces of the same size and arrange them in the same way, except perpendicular to the first two. This creates a sling that will help you remove the cake after baking and cooling. Spray foil lightly with nonstick cooking spray.
Combine the oats, pumpkin puree, and water in medium bowl and let sit until water is absorbed, about 5 minutes. In another medium bowl, whisk the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, and nutmeg together.
In a separate large bowl, cream together the butter and sugars for a few minutes until the mixture resembles damp sand (scraping down the bowl as needed). Add the egg and vanilla and mix until combined. Add the flour mixture in 2 batches, mixing until just incorporated after each addition. Add the oat mixture and mix until just combined. Stir the mixture by hand to make sure everything is combined.
Glop the batter into the prepared pan and tap it against the counter a few times to ditch any air bubbles. Smooth the surface with a spatula. Bake the cake, rotating halfway through baking, until a toothpick inserted into center comes out with few moist crumbs attached, about 28 to 32 minutes. Let the cake cool in the pan for about 10 minutes while you make the custard.
Make the custard: Slowly melt the butter in a skillet over medium heat. Remove from the stove and stir in the flour until it’s blended. Add the milk and return to the heat, stirring as you add the sugar. Continue stirring, bringing the mixture to a boil and boiling for about a minute. Remove the pan from the heat and add vanilla, cinnamon, and cardamom. Let the mixture cool for a few minutes as you use the handle of a wooden spoon to poke holes every inch or so over the cake. Pour the warm custard over the cake evenly. Let the cake continue to cool while you make the icing.
Make the icing: Move the oven rack to around 9 inches away from the broiler heating element and preheat the broiler. In a medium bowl, whisk together the brown sugar, cinnamon, melted butter, and milk. Stir in the coconut and pecans before spreading the mixture evenly over the top of the cake. Broil the cake, keeping a close eye on it and rotating as needed, until topping is bubbling and golden, about 3 to 5 minutes. Let the cake cool in pan until it’s cool enough to pop into the fridge. Chill it for at least 2 hours before serving. Use the sling to pull the cake gently out of the pan. Cut it into squares and transfer to a platter or serving plates; discard the foil. Heat each serving for 30 seconds to a minute in the microwave before serving to remove the chill.
*ATK’s notes: Do not use old-fashioned or instant oats for this recipe. Be sure to use a metal baking dish; glass pans are not recommended when broiling. A vertical sawing motion with a serrated knife works best for cutting through the crunchy icing and tender crumb.