I recently attended the Foodbuzz Blogger Festival in San Francisco, California, 2,700 miles away from my home. Traveling alone is always a meaningful, reflective experience for me, and over the next couple of weeks, I’ll be sharing vignettes that I hope are meaningful to you, as well.
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I’ve started to write this story countless times. Sometimes you get so tangled up in words that they suddenly seem more like a net than a lubricant, more like a shroud than a lamp.
It’s when the ideas are most important that the words get the stickiest. Personally, I find that I have to scrap those sticky words entirely — sometimes repeatedly — to set myself free and finally get the tale told. So. Here’s another try…
It was the first word the man next to me on the bus (the correct bus, thankfully) had uttered, and I didn’t understand what he meant. I looked at him quizzically. He repeated himself, pronouncing the word slightly wrong: “Proposition?”
I noticed he was pointing to something and looked down at the book in his lap. His finger was settled on — what else? — the word “proposition.” I finally put the pieces together. “Oh! Yes, that’s ‘proposition,'” I answered, pronouncing the word correctly. He thanked me and went back to his book with a satisfied nod.
I forget how the conversation started up again, but eventually we were chatting. He introduced himself as Vincent. I told him I was a food blogger and teacher from Charlotte. He revealed that he had family in Winston-Salem but had lived in California for years. Finally, the pleasant conversation ambled back to his book. “What are you reading?” I asked. It seemed like a totally innocent question.
Rather than answering aloud, he turned his book over so I could see the cover. It was 12 Steps and 12 Traditions, an Alcoholics Anonymous book. I immediately stuck my foot in my mouth wondering if I’d embarrassed him, but he seemed unfazed by the interaction. I was touched — both that he was diligently reading this book on the bus and that he was willing to share it with me.
But I was also a little self-conscious. How should I respond to the information he’d just shared with his simple gesture? Wouldn’t anything I had to say sound patronizing? After all, while he seemed to have had plenty of hard knocks, I was giving off the air of an easy life. I was wearing a blue Parisian scarf and a camel trench coat, holding a huge camera case, and I’d just flown across the country for a vacation of sorts.
He couldn’t know that the scarf was a gift, the coat a hand-me-down, and the plane ticket a contest prize. Nor did it really matter. I just looked floofy. Floofy in that wealthy lapdog sort of way. And compared to the sort of obstacles he was facing, my life was pretty floofy.
Floofy or not, I decided there was nothing to do except respond sincerely. Quietly, I said, “That’s awesome, Vincent. I really admire that you’re doing that.” He flashed a big smile and I inwardly sighed with relief.
Up until now our chat had been lighthearted, but we’d just turned a corner into SeriousLand (a little known suburb of San Francisco, apparently). Before long we were talking about his recovery (he was on his way to see his sponsor at that moment), his life in San Francisco, and about Jesus. You know, the usual.
I was nervous about missing my stop, but Vincent was getting off at the corner of Lombard too. “The view of the bay is beautiful here,” he said as we alighted from the bus. “You should try to walk around if you get a chance.” He took a moment to direct me toward my next bus stop before shaking my hand and rounding the corner toward his sponsor.
I met a lot of people over the course of my San Francisco trip — even some pretty fancy bloggers! — and I enjoyed them all for different reasons. I did some schmoozing, some eating, some shopping (Dear H&M, please come to Charlotte. Thanks.) But as I sit here in Charlotte with little Byrd snarfling into her supper bowl beside me, Vincent is the one who comes to mind. In a weekend full of people with their game faces on — me included — Vincent was the one who was sacrificially genuine. With a stranger, at that.
I gave him a Willow Bird Baking card. I hope he gets a chance to happen by sometime, and I hope he recognizes himself through the pseudonym I’ve given him. Vincent, if you ever read this: Thank you for a conversation I’ll have tucked in my heart for the rest of my days. Godspeed.
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In honor of a special guy, here’s a special pound cake.
But listen, THIS AIN’T YOUR GRANDMAMA’S POUND CAKE.
Okay, it kind of is, actually. It’s Southern Living’s Cream Cheese Pound Cake and it’s been a staple in many family recipe boxes for decades. But first off, GRANDMAMA DON’T PLAY. She knows exactly what she’s doing in the kitchen, thankyouverymuch.
Second off, this pound cake has a new twist; namely, pumpkin-cinnamon-pecan-streusel-awesomeness swirled throughout the cake. Add the maple brown sugar glaze and some toasted nuts on top and you have the perfect autumn dessert. It’s a handsome one, at that, so consider this recipe for your holiday table.
Have you one of these unexpected, significant conversations?
Pumpkin Streusel Swirled Cream Cheese Pound Cake
Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, inspired by Southern Living
Yield: 12 servings
This dessert was made for autumn! A ribbon of pumpkin custard and cinnamon pecan streusel winds through this luxurious, rich cream cheese pound cake. It’s topped with maple brown sugar glaze, toasted pecans, and a dusting of cinnamon. The finished product is pretty as can be — and so delicious!
Cream Cheese Pound Cake Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups butter, softened
8 ounces cream cheese, softened
3 cups sugar
6 large eggs
1 1/2 teaspoon vanilla
3 cups flour
1/8 teaspoon salt
Pumpkin Pie Filling Ingredients:*
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
1/8 cup sugar
1/2 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ginger
1/8 teaspoon allspice
*This makes a little more filling than you need, but I used most of it and baked the small amount I had leftover in a greased ramekin for 15-20 minutes — instant pumpkin custard!)
Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
1/4 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon cinnamon
2 tablespoon cold butter
1 cup chopped pecans
1/2 cup cinnamon chips (optional — you can find these seasonally at some grocery stores or online from King Arthur’s Flour)
Maple Brown Sugar Glaze Ingredients:
2 tablespoon butter
4 tablespoons milk
1/2 cup brown sugar
2 tablespoons real maple syrup
1 1/2 – 2 cup powdered sugar (I ended up using just 1 1/2)
cinnamon for sprinkling
Toast pecans: Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Spread pecans out on a baking sheet, and bake for 4-6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring and flipping nuts once in the middle. Spread the nuts out on a plate to cool. Leave the oven on for the cake.
Make the creamy pumpkin pie filling: In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Add the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice and mix until combined. Set in fridge while you make your cake.
Make the streusel: Combine the flour and brown sugar in a medium bowl and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until you have crumbly streusel. Mix in the cinnamon chips (if you’re using them) and 1/2 cup of the cooled toasted pecans (if they haven’t completely cooled, stick ’em in the fridge for a bit first — you don’t want to mix warm nuts into this and melt your butter, since it should stay cold). Save the rest of your nuts for decorating the finished cake. Set the streusel aside.
Make the pound cake: Beat the butter and cream cheese on medium speed for about 2 minutes or until it’s creamy. Gradually add sugar and beat 5-7 minutes until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, beating only until yellow disappears after each one. Stir in the vanilla.
Whisk the flour and salt together in a bowl and add to creamed mixture gradually, beating on low speed after each addition and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Pour/dollop 1/3 of the batter into greased and floured 10-inch tube pan and use a spatula to smooth it right up against the sides of the pan and level it.
Dump your streusel into your pumpkin pie mixture and fold it together a few times to loosely mix — you’re not trying to combine them completely. Dollop big spoonfuls of this pumpkin mixture on the batter in your tube pan and swirl with a wooden skewer or table knife. Top this layer with another third of the batter and add another pumpkin layer (swirling again). Top with the final third of the batter. Fill a 2-cup ovenproof measuring cup with water and place in oven with cake (this keeps it moist!).
Bake the cake at 350 degrees for 1 hour 30 minutes to 1 hour 55 minutes (the original recipe said 1 hour and 10 minutes, but this was way too short for me. Nevertheless, you should start checking early and often just in case. This is a good practice, also, because you may have to cover the top with foil if it’s getting too brown). To test for doneness, insert a wooden skewer in a few different areas of the cake and pull it out. You want it to come out with just a few moist crumbs (no liquid batter, but not completely clean either).
Let the cake cool on wire rack for 10 minutes before running a knife around the edge of the pan. Remove the cake from the pan by topping the pan with a plate and carefully inverting it. Then invert the cake again onto another plate so that it’s right-side up. Let cool completely (at least 1 hour).
Make the Maple Brown Sugar Glaze: Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, whisk in the brown sugar, syrup, and salt, whisking until the brown sugar melts. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the powdered sugar, starting with 1 cup and adding more to thicken per your preference (taste as you go to ensure you don’t oversweeten). Drizzle the glaze over the top of your cooled cake. Sprinkle the cake with toasted pecans immediately (the glaze sets quickly) and dust with cinnamon. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and microwave for about 20 seconds to serve.