It's pumpkin time! These next few weeks, pumpkins will be everywhere you look. And not just on doorsteps and at hay-strew corner pumpkin patches; there are pumpkin spice lattes at every Peet's, divine pumpkin ice cream at Mitchell's Ice Cream in the Mission, pumpkin bread and pumpkin cupcakes in every bakery.
Maybe it comes from having a birthday in October, but I'm a sucker for anything pumpkin-y. Which means I'm doing a lot of pumpkin-themed cooking this time of year--pumpkin bread, pumpkin cookies, curried pumpkin-and-apple soup, and more.
My secret? I don't actually use pumpkin, not even those cute little made-for-baking sugar pies or baby-bear pumpkins. Instead, I like to range through the goofy and gorgeous world of winter squash. Every squash-selling farmstand has dozens on offer right now, and I'd bake with just about any of them. (For me, squash season is also heralded by the arrival of many orphaned squash on my doorstep, dropped off by friends with CSA boxes and a guilty glut of butternuts and delicatas.)
Since I'm up in Marin this weekend, I'm getting my squash from organic Noeller Farms, who sell at the tiny but fun Marinwood Community Farmers' Market.
They sell lots of big pumpkins--mostly for carving and roasting the seeds, since pumpkins raised for size can be pretty fibrous, although tasty if you puree them or put them through a Vitamix. But my favorite is the dense and chestnutty kabocha (or kabota), a Japanese variety that's extra-sweet and good for baking.
Yes, the easy way out is to open up a can of Libby's. There's nothing wrong with plain old canned pumpkin. But this time of year, the fresh squashes are so cute, and I'd rather put my money directly into the pockets of the hard-working farmers who are willing to grow the quirky varieties, like the bright-orange sunshine kabocha, that I love.
They smell sweet and autumnal as they bake, and your backyard chickens will treat the stringy innards and seeds like Halloween candy.
To prepare, just slice in half, scrape out the fibrous string and seeds, and bake face down in a 350°F oven for 30-45 minutes, until squash is very tender. Turn face up and let cool. Scrape flesh into a colander and let drain for a few hours. Mash into a puree; you can also crank the squash through a food mill for extra smoothness.
Everyone seems to have a favorite recipe for pumpkin quick bread. This yeasted version is a little more unusual. It makes a great base for turkey sandwiches slathered with mayonnaise and cranberry sauce; it's also wonderful for breakfast toasted and spread with apple butter.
Yeasted Pumpkin Bread
You can go sweet or savory with this bread. Reduce or remove the brown sugar altogether and leave out the spices for a more savory bread; add sweet autumn-y spices like cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves to make it more of a breakfast or teatime treat. Cinnamon can be a little overwhelming, so try experimenting with just a couple, like nutmeg and cloves. Pregrated nutmeg quickly loses its punch, so try grating a fresh whole nutmeg using the fine holes of a box grater or microplane. The flavor difference is quite amazing.
Makes: 2 loaves or 2 dozen rolls
1/4 cup warm water
1 package (2 1/4 tsps) active dry yeast
2 cups roasted, mashed pumpkin or other winter squash
2 tablespoons pumpkin-seed, walnut, or other vegetable oil
1/2 cup warm milk
2 large eggs, beaten
1/3 cup brown sugar, packed
1 tablespoon salt
1 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice, or a mixture of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and/or cloves, optional
1/2 cup cornmeal
3 cups whole-wheat flour
3-4 cups unbleached white flour
1/2 cup dried cranberries
1 cup hulled pumpkin seeds
Egg glaze: 1 egg yolk beaten with 2 tbsp water
1. In a large bowl, sprinkle yeast over water. Let stand for a few minutes, then whisk to dissolve.
2. Mix pumpkin, oil, milk, eggs, brown sugar, salt, spices if using, cornmeal, and whole-wheat flour into yeast mixture. Beat with a wooden spoon to make a thick batter.
3. One cup at a time, add white flour, stopping when you have a soft but manageable dough. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface.
4. Wash, dry, and lightly oil the bowl you were just using. Now, knead the dough with gusto for 10-12 minutes. Sprinkle over small amounts of remaining flour as needed; dough will tend to be sticky. Use patience and a dough scraper, and resist the temptation to dump in a whole bunch of flour to make it behave one and for all.
5. When dough has become smooth and elastic, return the dough to the oiled bowl. Swish around and turn over to make sure the whole ball of dough is lightly coated with oil. Cover bowl with a clean dishtowel and let rise in a warmish place until doubled in bulk, about 2 hours.
6. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Pat into a large, flat rectangle. Sprinkle with dried cranberries and 3/4 cup pumpkin seeds. Roll up dough, rolling and kneading gently to distribute cranberries and seeds throughout dough.
7. Divide dough in half, and shape each half into a round or rectangular loaf. You can also shape dough into small round rolls.
8. Place loaves or rolls on a parchment-lined or lightly greased baking sheet. Let rise until nearly double in size, about 1 hour.
9. Preheat oven to 375°F. Brush loaves or rolls with egg glaze. Sprinkle with pumpkin seeds. Bake for 20-25 minutes for rolls, 30-35 minutes for loaves. Remove from oven and let cool on a rack.