“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.

Cake Ingredients:
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.

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28 Comments on Vanilla Custard Soaked Pumpkin Poke Cake

  1. JC Carter
    September 20, 2012 at 5:17 pm (12 years ago)

    I LOVE this post. I really enjoy how your posts always tell a story. This particular one opens up into an insightful idea that I love. Food is not simply meant to be eaten but enjoyed, and I think yo are spot on in saying that blogs and cook books should more than just food, but also a peron.

  2. Ala
    September 20, 2012 at 10:20 pm (12 years ago)

    What an amazing, sensational description of your experience in New York–you’re a truly genuine storyteller, Julie! When you mentioned getting invited into someone’s home and kitchen, I immediately thought of how you do the very same and keep my imagination coming back for more. I hope the new place is treating you well (internet? haha), and on an unrelated note, I was just about to make the pumpkin spice pull-apart bread that you apparently made exactly one year ago!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      September 20, 2012 at 10:38 pm (12 years ago)

      Thank you so much, Ala! That is so kind of you to say. No internet yet, but a kind friend is letting me steal his wi-fi until I can get someone out here who can hook it up! AT&T has been a mess.

      I hope you LOVE that bread — it is one of my all-time favorite recipes!

  3. Laura
    September 21, 2012 at 2:52 am (12 years ago)

    This is a wonderfully vivid and engaging post – thank you for sharing. And I completely know what you mean about wanting more than just food from books and blogs — that’s part of why I enjoy your blog so much! (Also – this cake looks awesome!)

  4. Kate
    September 21, 2012 at 3:56 am (12 years ago)

    OMG, it’s like pumpkin tres leches meets bread pudding… droooool… Very excellent post, by the way. I was having a real bummed out day before I read it, but for a few minutes, I was transported away from the gloom… and now, I can dream about pumpkin fabulousness!!!! Well, that and visiting NYC again…

    p.s. I asked for help using maple balsamic vinegar a couple months back… I ended up making a maple/vanilla wacky cake. Thank you for encouraging your fans to go out and be brave in the kitchen!!!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      September 21, 2012 at 4:30 am (12 years ago)

      Aw, thank you, Kate!! Now I want to make a pumpkin tres leches… 😉 So glad I could brighten your day a bit. Hope you feel better soon!

      Oh, and that cake!! OH my gosh! That sounds so good! And I’m so glad you chose to use it in something sweet — how totally unique!

  5. Lauren at Keep It Sweet
    September 21, 2012 at 11:41 am (12 years ago)

    This looks amazing. I wish I had gotten to see you while you were in NYC!!!

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      September 21, 2012 at 12:16 pm (12 years ago)

      Thanks, Lauren! I know — I thought of emailing everyone but then it was such a quick turnaround trip!!

  6. Colette @ JFF!
    September 21, 2012 at 4:20 pm (12 years ago)

    It looks healthy enough. 😉 I’ll have to book it.

  7. Pam
    September 21, 2012 at 7:09 pm (12 years ago)

    GREAT post — thoroughly enjoyed it! I can hardly wait to make this cake…

  8. Foodiewife
    September 22, 2012 at 6:07 pm (12 years ago)

    I don’t know how I would muster the courage to go to NYC alone. In fact, I know that I could not. You are one very brave woman! I’m nervous about going to SFO for this year’s Foodbuzz Festival, because I’m staying in a different hotel. Alone. Gulp. Great story. I’ve pinned the ATK recipe, but your version is far better. Wow! Such a master story teller and recipe developer, you are.

  9. Dana
    September 22, 2012 at 8:18 pm (12 years ago)

    Am curious if it would still be tasty without the icing?

    • Julie @ Willow Bird Baking
      September 22, 2012 at 8:49 pm (12 years ago)

      I think it would be, but the icing adds a whole other layer of toasty deliciousness! I think you’ll like it even if you’re not a coconut fan — the overall effect is more nutty than COCOnutty, per se! Either way, I think you’ll enjoy it!

  10. Laura Dembowski
    September 25, 2012 at 2:22 pm (12 years ago)

    This looks and sounds amazing. I love when cakes are soaked with something, adding another layer of yummy flavor. I don’t like to fly or stay in hotels, so I don’t travel often, but find that the different foods I cook and bake take me away to the places I one day hope I can visit. I totally agree with you that a food blog should be about the person behind it. I am an aspiring novelist and started a food blog to try to gain some exposure and see if it would help my dreams come true (it hasn’t yet) and at the end of the day my blog is as much, if not more, about my writing and me as the food.

  11. Roberta
    September 25, 2012 at 6:52 pm (12 years ago)

    Thank you for inspiring a fellow blogger to invite my readers in. I underestimated the value of letting the readers get to know me. Why would they care? Perhaps I will share more of myself in future postings. Your post has improved my kitchen confidence 🙂

  12. Beth R
    October 18, 2012 at 10:23 am (12 years ago)

    I have to admit : I have never been to NYC . Never felt a desire to go…….except for the food.
    When I see images of the NY skyline at night with all the lights, it makes me very uneasy and a little frightened. SO anonymous and frightening. Never in a million years could I go alone.
    Your descriptive post had me right there, in the cab, in that trendy eatery with all the fabulous people around me. You hit the nail on the head for me. Finally I found another soul that understands my love of READING a cookbook. You are the first person that gets it. I agree with everything you said about inviting me in, I have thousands of recipes “pinned” and have owned hundreds of cookbooks over the last 30 yrs but the ones I have kept are those that tell me more than just a list of ingredients. Love a good cookbook, but tell me the story behind the food and I will alot it precious space on my shelf to read over and over again. You are a wonderful writer.

  13. Jewel Napier
    November 14, 2012 at 2:34 pm (12 years ago)

    Can you use a bundt cake pan for this recipe?


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