It's pumpkin season. Or should I say pumpkin pie spice season, because that's really the flavor that drives us to giddiness (and to Starbucks and Dunkin' Donuts) earlier and earlier each year for a taste of fall.
Some time in September, the pumpkin offerings begin to turn up. Shock Top, Blue Moon and Shipyard, among other beermakers, release pumpkin brews. Any coffee joint worth its weight in beans is pouring a pumpkin latte or some such autumnal elixir. Pumpkin bread, muffins and bagels are being smeared with pumpkin cream cheese across the land. LongHorn Steakhouse is serving a pumpkin spice lava cake dessert, and the trendy dessert-in-a-jar phenomenon has taken hold at Red Lobster, where the seasonal dessert is Pumpkin Pie in a Jar.
All pretty tasty, except for the pumpkin spice M&M's we were unfortunate enough to sample. A colleague with uber-perceptive taste buds said they smacked of air freshener. Interesting that we know that's not a good thing despite never having sampled air freshener.
These mostly sweet, seasonal offerings hang on the power of pumpkin pie spice — cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and cloves. The pumpkin, I am afraid, is incidental.
But it shouldn't be, for on its own, pumpkin can be used in soups and baked goods, pastas and fondues, and even scooped into applesauce, smoothies and yogurt to add both nutrition and fiber. In its natural state without the addition of sweet spices and sugar, pureed pumpkin plays well with lots of ingredients. Sage and thyme are amiable companions, making pumpkin well-suited for savory dishes too.
Its good-for-you attributes include fiber and vitamins A and C, plus folic acid and beta-carotene. I am a fan of opening a can of pumpkin puree — read labels carefully and don't buy pumpkin pie filling — rather than peeling, seeding, boiling (or roasting) a pumpkin. Besides the long process, I am never sure what I am going to end up with. There are many varieties of pumpkins, but unless you live near a working pumpkin patch, you'll need to select yours from the store.
The behemoth pumpkins favored by carvers are not suitable for cooking, though their seeds can be roasted and salted for snacks. Carving pumpkins tend to be stringy and watery, which makes the flavor weak. For cooking, smaller pumpkins — sometimes labeled sugar — are best. Less string, more concentrated flavor.
Even so, hand me the can opener. That can on the shelf represents consistent flavor and texture, something I can't depend on from that pile of festive pumpkins at the store.
A 15-ounce can is about 1 ½ cups of pureed pumpkin. Open one and use it several ways over the course of a week. Here are suggestions from various sources including Food Network magazine, Bon Appétit, Rachael Ray Magazine, TLC and my own kitchen experiments:
Oatmeal For every cup of oatmeal you make, stir in ½ cup of pumpkin. To sweeten, add brown sugar and raisins, if you'd like.
Smoothie Wake up a banana smoothie by adding 1 cup pumpkin to 1 cup each vanilla yogurt and ice, plus 1 banana and a couple of teaspoons of honey. Crumble graham crackers on the top if you'd like.
Mac and Cheese Stir ½ can of pumpkin into your homemade cheese sauce before pouring on cooked pasta, or even add pumpkin to a mac-and-cheese mix.
Chili Add a can to a large pot of chili. No one will suspect that it's pumpkin, and they'll wonder what you did to make yours taste so delicious and different.
Salad dressing A tablespoon or more whisked into homemade vinaigrettes or creamy dressings gives your salad an earthy kick.
Cheese Ball Pulse 8 ounces of goat cheese, 2 cups grated asiago, ¾ cup pumpkin and ½ teaspoon each paprika and coarse salt. Form into a couple of balls and then roll them in a mixture of chopped pecans and pumpkin seeds. Serve with crackers.
Pasta Sauce Add a few tablespoons of pumpkin to butter or cream sauce and toss with pasta of your choice. Earthy Parmesan cheese and hulled pumpkin seeds (pepitas) are great garnishes.
Omelet Jazz up an omelet by adding a dollop or two of pumpkin to sauteed mushrooms then folding the mixture inside the omelet with crumbled feta cheese.
Grits For every ¾ cup of quick grits, add ½ cup pumpkin.
Pumpkin Spice Cake Add 1 can of pumpkin to a spice cake mix, leaving out water, oil and eggs, and then bake according to package instructions for a 9- by 13-inch pan. Lower in fat, higher in nutrition. Sprinkle with confectioners' sugar after it's cooled rather than frosting.
Janet K. Keeler can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8586.
Layered Pumpkin Pie in a Jar
This is a variation on the layered pumpkin pie dessert being served at Red Lobster this fall.
For the graham cracker crust layer:
1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs
3 tablespoons brown sugar
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted and slightly cooled
For the whipped cream layer:
2 cups heavy whipping cream
1 ½ cups sifted confectioners' sugar
8 ounces cream cheese, at room temperature
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
For the pumpkin layer:
1 cup milk
1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree (not prespiced pumpkin pie filling)
2 packages (4-serving size) Jell-O vanilla flavor instant pudding and pie filling
1 ½ teaspoons cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
⅛ teaspoon cloves
Semisweet chocolate shavings to sprinkle over the top (optional)
You'll need a dozen 10-ounce wide-mouth mason jars. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Place the mixing bowl and beaters into the freezer to chill.
To make the graham cracker crust layer, stir together the graham cracker crumbs, sugar, cinnamon and salt. Then add the melted butter and stir until evenly moistened. Spread mixture in a 9- by 13-inch pan and bake for 5 minutes. Stir and bake for another minute or two, or until crumbs are fragrant and nicely browned. Be careful not to burn. Remove from oven and let cool completely while you prepare the other pie layers.
For the whipped cream layer, use chilled bowl and beaters to whip the cream until stiff. Add the powdered sugar and beat just to combine. Remove sweetened whipped cream to another bowl and set it in the refrigerator. Add the cream cheese to the same chilled bowl and cream until very smooth, about 1 to 2 minutes. Blend in the vanilla. Now add half of the sweetened whipped cream back into the chilled bowl with the cream cheese, gently folding to thoroughly combine. Place this bowl of whipped cream cheese and the remaining half of the sweetened whipped cream back into the refrigerator to stay chilled.
For the pumpkin layer, pour the milk into a large bowl. Add the pumpkin, pudding mixes and spices. Beat with a wire whisk for 2 minutes, or until very well blended. The mixture should be thick.
To add the layers into the jar, fill a pastry bag fitted with a large plain round tip (or use a sturdy plastic storage bag with a hole cut in one corner) with the whipped cream cheese mixture. Pipe a layer of this mixture onto the bottom of a jar, starting at the perimeter of the jar and working toward the center. Lightly tap the jar on a towel (so jar doesn't break) on the counter, to settle the mixture. Repeat this step with the rest of the jars.
Sprinkle the whipped cream cheese layer with 2 tablespoons of baked graham cracker crumbs. Lightly tap the jar again to even out the crumbs. Repeat with the rest of the jars.
Fill another pastry bag with the pumpkin pudding mixture. Pipe this mixture onto the graham cracker crust layer, in the same manner as the first whipped cream cheese layer. Lightly tap again and repeat with the rest of the jars.
Now add a dollop of the reserved sweetened whipped cream (without the added cream cheese) to the top of each pie with a spoon. Then finish with a sprinkling of graham cracker crust and chocolate shavings, if desired. If you plan to transport these jars with their lids screwed on, keep in mind the height of your top dollop, if you don't want it to get smashed when you add the lid.
Make ahead: Can be prepared one day ahead and kept chilled in the refrigerator.
Makes 10 to 12 jars of pie.
Source: afarmgirldabbles.com and Kraft
With Pumpkin and Pancetta
¼ pound pancetta, diced
1 pound small or medium shells
1 (15-ounce) can pureed pumpkin
2 cups heavy cream
¼ pound shredded fresh mozzarella
½ cup grated Pecorino Romano
½ cup fontina, coarsely grated
¼ cup crumbled Gorgonzola
2 tablespoons ricotta
1/2 teaspoon coarse salt
2 teaspoons chopped thyme leaves
Crisp the pancetta in a saucepan over medium heat, about 10 minutes. Remove and drain on paper towels, discarding the fat.
Bring a large pot of salted water to a boil. Cook the pasta for 5 minutes, drain and run cool water over it for about 10 seconds. Set aside in the colander.
Combine the pumpkin and cream with the cheeses, salt, thyme and pancetta in a large bowl and stir gently to combine. Add the hot pasta and fold together.
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Spread the pasta evenly in a casserole or baking dish. Bake uncovered for about 15 minutes, until the top is browned and the bottom layer of pasta is just tender.
Serves 6 to 8.
2 cups all-purpose flour
⅓ cup light or dark brown sugar
½ teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking powder
½ teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon salt
½ cup cold unsalted butter, cut into pieces
⅓ cup raisins
¼ cup toasted and chopped pecans or walnuts (optional)
⅓ to ½ cup buttermilk
½ cup fresh or canned pure pumpkin (if using canned pumpkin make sure there are no spices or sugar added)
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
For the egg wash:
1 large egg
1 tablespoon milk or cream
Preheat oven to 400 degrees and place rack in the center of the oven. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, spices, baking powder, baking soda and salt. Cut the butter into small pieces and blend into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or two knives. The mixture should look like coarse crumbs. Stir in the raisins and pecans, if using. In a separate bowl, mix the buttermilk, pumpkin puree and vanilla, and then add the buttermilk mixture to the flour mixture. Mix just until the dough comes together. Do not overmix.
Transfer to a lightly floured surface and knead gently four or five times, then pat the dough into a circle about 7 inches round and about
1 ½ inches thick. Cut this circle in half, then cut each half into 4 wedges (triangles). Place the scones on the baking sheet. Mix the egg and milk or cream in a small bowl, then brush the tops of the scones with the egg wash.
Place the baking sheet inside another baking sheet to prevent the bottoms of the scones from overbrowning. Bake for about 20 minutes or until golden brown and a toothpick inserted in the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack to cool.
Makes 8 scones.