If there’s one thing found on every menu this time of year, it’s pumpkin. Though available nearly year round, it is really only popular from October through December, and I love the seasonality that implies. After the new year, dessert-lovers move on to other fruits and vegetables. But for a brief few months, pumpkins rule. There’s pumpkin pie, of course, and we’ll take a look at that in my next posting, but there are so many more pumpkin possibilities. The beauty of pumpkin in baked goods is not only the wonderful earthy color and deep flavor it provides, but also the moistness and texture it contributes to all manner of pastries.
The main question is…fresh or canned?
Many people ask me if I make my own pumpkin puree, or use the canned variety. Both. I love the flavor and texture of freshly roasted and pureed pumpkin. I always use the sugar or pie variety of pumpkin – a type distinct from the humongous Halloween carving variety (whose flesh tastes awful). And I use the canned puree, as well, depending upon the situation. What’s the difference between them? Fresh puree has a light, clean flavor, softly melting texture, and bright orange color. Canned puree has a strong, earthy flavor, thick and almost grainy texture, and dusky orange-brown color. Fresh pumpkin is just pumpkin. Canned pumpkin is a blend of various varieties of squash (including butternut), and has been cooked to remove some of the water content to concentrate it for canning, so its flavor is much stronger. I love freshly roasted pumpkin, but I mostly use it just for myself nowadays. Here’s why.
Some years ago I was working in a new bakeshop, and was thrilled when the first Thanksgiving rounded the corner. I bought lots of organic pumpkins, then roasted, seeded and pureed them. I happily made pie after pie, thrilled with the results. I thought they were the most delicious pies I’d ever made. The reaction from customers was a universal thumbs-down. “What’s wrong with the pumpkins you’re buying?” “The color looks weird.” “There’s no flavor in this pie.” On and on. The basic problem is that most folks are used to the flavor and texture of canned pumpkin puree. Hey, I grew up on it, too. So when presented with a pie made with the less-concentrated and lighter-flavored fresh puree, they thought something was wrong. I tried explaining, but you really can’t talk someone into liking something that they’ve already decided against. After a few of weeks, I gave up.
Oh, I suppose I could have cooked down the puree until it thickened and darkened to a flavor and consistency more appealing to my customers, but I didn’t have the time or manpower to take on the extra step. It was an eye-opening and valuable lesson. In the end, I switched to the canned puree, and my customers were very happy. Consequently, so was I, though I’m still a big fan of fresh puree and continue to roast and puree fresh pumpkins for my home baking. If you’ve never made your own puree, give it a try, and see which one you prefer. And don’t feel bad if you prefer the canned variety – you are in good and plentiful company.
Today, I’ve posted a recipe for pumpkin bread that is quick, easy, and very yummy. When I was growing up, my mother made a variation of this cake every fall. When I baked professionally, I continued her fall tradition and it was on the menu in one way or another nearly every day. Today, I make it at least 5 or 6 times a season. When my book The Art and Soul of Baking was chosen by Gourmet Magazine as the October Cookbook Club selection for a feature in the magazine, this is the recipe they chose to print next to the review. For obvious reasons, it holds a special place in my heart. I hope it will become one of your favorite fall go-to recipes as well. Feel free to omit or change the type of nuts, or to add a handful of dried cranberries to the recipe.
It’s one of those loaves that is equally good for breakfast, during the day with a cup of coffee or tea, for dessert, and even wrapped up with a bow as a gift. When gift-giving, I like to bake it in beautiful paper molds from Italy that serve as both baking pan and gift container. While I used to have to purchase the paper baking molds from a wholesale bakery supplier, Sur La Table now carries a lovely selection of these gorgeous papers to suit your needs and the occasion.More Panoply of Pumpkins ideas and recipes follow after the jump