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Pumpkin pizzazz – savory and sweet
Now that we’re in October, the delightful vision of pumpkins prominently displayed in various sizes, shapes and colors reminds us that we’re undeniably into the fall season. Pumpkins have it rough in the respect that many people aren’t aware of just how flexible they are in cooking. I’m talking way beyond the limits of sweet muffins, scones and desserts. I’m talking about the pumpkin’s ability to stretch from something sweet to savory, enhancing ordinary dishes and taking them to a whole new level and depth.
Pumpkin, similar to its first cousins in the winter squash family, is rich in beta carotene and other powerful antioxidant nutrients. Eating pumpkin is a dietary way to defend against illness and disease. It’s non-fat and a good source of fiber, with only 49 calories per cup. On its own, plain pumpkin tastes almost identical to butternut squash.
I have a technique for preparing pumpkin puree that takes the scary and laborious feeling out of the whole process. Because you need the strength of a body builder to cut through all winter squash when it’s raw, I don’t even bother. Instead, I wash the sugar pumpkin (the little ones meant for eating), place it on a rimmed baking pan, and bake it for 1½ hours at 350 degrees, or until it is tender when poked with a sharp knife. Allow it to cool enough to comfortably handle, slice in half, remove its seeds, strings and skin, and puree in the food processor or mash by hand. This is a good step to do ahead of time — a day or two before using.
Keep in mind that one four-pound sugar pumpkin will produce 4 cups of puree. One 15-ounce can of plain pumpkin contains almost 2 full cups. The canned version tastes just as good as the fresh and is obviously a whole lot easier and less time consuming to use.
As the weather gets colder and the days shorter, we naturally feel the need to warm ourselves. Having soup for lunch and dinner is one of my favorite things to eat this time of year, for how warming and nurturing it feels. Pumpkin soup has more different recipes than you can imagine, from Thai to Southwestern. This particular recipe of mine is savory over sweet, with just a delicate taste that hasn’t been over-powered by any other flavors.
Serves 8 to 10
¾ cup leeks, sliced into small pieces (only white and pale green parts)
1 large shallot, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, chopped
1 cup carrots, peeled and chopped
1 small garnet yam, peeled and chopped
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
4 cups chicken broth, low sodium
4 cups fresh pumpkin puree (or two 15-ounce cans)
2 teaspoons kosher salt
½ teaspoon white pepper
8 to 10 tablespoons sour cream or crème fraiche (optional)
8 to 10 tablespoons pepitas (toasted pumpkin seeds)
Chop the leeks, carrots, shallot, garlic and yam into very small pieces. Using the food processor is an easy way to accomplish this step. In a soup pot, heat the butter and oil over medium-high heat. Saute the leeks, shallots and garlic for about 5 to 10 minutes until they soften. Add the chicken broth, carrots and yam; stir in the pumpkin, salt and pepper.
Bring to a boil, then reduce the heat to low and cook for 30 to 40 minutes, or until the carrots and sweet potato are very tender. In small batches of about a cup at a time, puree soup in a blender, then place it back in the rinsed soup pot, stir and adjust seasoning to taste. Add water if it has become too thick, which it will become once refrigerated.
Stir the sour cream or crème fraiche to make it more liquid, then drizzle it over the top of the soup with a teaspoon. Sprinkle with pepitas.
Pumpkin is the familiar star of the dessert show when spiced up and sweet. This is when pumpkin depends on other supporting flavors to give it pizzazz. We know how pumpkin tastes when enhanced with cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves, but if you haven’t tasted pumpkin with chocolate, you don’t know what you’ve been missing. Over 15 years ago, while in Jamaica, where fresh pumpkin “reigns supreme,” I was served a chocolate pumpkin pie that was the most scrumptious taste combination.
Pumpkin cupcakes with chocolate ganache frosting are not only a perfect Halloween treat, but they’re wonderful to serve this time of year, or any time of year. Chocolate ganache, while sounding complex, is one of the easiest and most successful frostings to pull off. It’s simply the blending of equal parts hot cream to finely chopped chocolate, which thickens over time when cooled. Some ganache recipes will call for butter, but I don’t feel it’s necessary. When first made, it’s thin enough to be a glaze. If you’re a chocolate aficionado, you’re going to want to choose a high-quality chocolate, which is simply the best way to go, in my opinion. Keep the percentage of cocoa under 62 percent or you will need to add more cream.
You can decorate the cupcakes with candy for the children. I got 24 adorable Halloween cupcake liners with coordinating tops at Target for only $1.99. You can also place a toothpick between two matching stickers, with the fronts of the stickers facing outward, or encourage the children to create their own with crayons and construction paper.
Yields 23 to 24
½ cup (1 cube) unsalted butter, at room temperature
¾ cup brown sugar, packed down
½ cup granulated sugar
2¼ cups all-purpose, unbleached flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon ground cloves
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs, at room temperature
½ cup buttermilk, well shaken
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree (not to be confused with pumpkin pie filling)
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees with the rack placed in the middle. Line cupcake pans with liners or grease them with butter. In a medium bowl, sift together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and salt; set aside. Stir the vanilla in the buttermilk.
In a stand mixer or using a large bowl with a handheld mixer, beat the butter and sugars on medium speed until fluffy, for about 5 minutes. Add the eggs, one at a time, scraping down the sides of the bowl after each addition. In an alternating fashion, add the flour and the buttermilk mixtures, beginning and ending with the flour. Beat in the pumpkin, making sure that it’s mixed well from the bottom of the bowl.
Divide the batter evenly between the cups, filling no more than ¾ full. Tap the filled pans once on the countertop to release any air bubbles. Bake the cupcakes for 20 minutes or until an inserted toothpick comes out clean. Cool completely on a rack before frosting.
Chocolate Ganache Frosting
12 ounces dark chocolate, not exceeding 62 percent cocoa (check out the candy aisle for high-quality chocolate bars or just use a 12-ounce bag of semisweet chocolate chips)
12 ounces (1½ cups) heavy cream
Chop the chocolate into no longer than ¼-inch pieces. The food processor works really well for this step. Place the chocolate in a medium bowl. Heat the cream until it just begins to boil. Pour the hot cream over the chocolate, wait 1 minute before (gently whisking it just until it’s well blended), then stop. Over-mixing will cause it to be grainy and not smooth. Allow the ganache to cool, uncovered, for about 30 minutes; cover and it will begin to thicken after being left out for about 8 hours. To speed this process up, you can refrigerate it right after it cools to the desired thickness, about 1 to 1½ hours. If it becomes too thick in the refrigerator, let it sit out for 30 minutes or so to soften. If you make the ganache the night before and allow it to sit out covered overnight, by morning it will be the perfect thickness for frosting. It is fine left out at room temperature for a day or so or refrigerated for several days.
Enjoy! Have a spooky but happy Halloween!
Cynthia Shifrin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (206) 232-3722.