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A Tasty Tufts Guide to Pumpkin Spice

Pumpkin Spice lovers – what you’re about to hear may shock you.

There isn’t a single piece of pumpkin in your pumpkin spice– zip, in everything from the Starbucks Latte to the OREO to the candies, drinks, and baking mixes that all attempt to fulfill America’s fixation with this favorite fall flavor.

Pumpkin spice’s flavor profile – sweet, nutty, slightly spicy, seems to me to embody the image of fall in America. More subtle and complex than the bright, fresh flavors of spring and summer, and with a warmth and richness that lends itself to the substantial but mild flavor of squash, pumpkin spice is a perfect partner to Thanksgiving’s signature gourd. Like Thanksgiving, pumpkin spice represents the synthesis of European culinary tradition with American ingredients.

Pumpkin Spice Oreos - No pumpkin involved. Source: Buzzfeed

Pumpkin Spice Oreos – No pumpkin involved.
Source: Buzzfeed

A History Lesson

What’s actually in pumpkin spice? Pumpkin spice’s origins are in the mixed spice of Europe – a blend of expensive eastern spices, often bulked out with the slightly more affordable Caribbean allspice. The most common eastern spices used were cinnamon and nutmeg (or mace); but it could also include dried ginger, cloves, cardamom, aniseed, and even traditionally savory spices like coriander seed, caraway and red or black pepper. Cardamom was particularly popular in Germanic Europe, especially the Netherlands and Scandinavia.

Probably inspired by Indian cuisine (owing to the similarities with chai masala and other Indian spice blends), the use of these spices was part of the festive nature of the holiday season. Each component was an expensive import, and their use together signified wealth and connections. Typically, mixed spice blends found themselves in seasonal pastries and puddings. As a veritable workhorse of flavor, it was perfect for Europe’s traditionally mild-flavored desserts like custards and puddings where, much like with pumpkin pie today, the base had a lot of substance but lacked a depth of flavor.

Closer to the Caribbean and deeply connected to the colonial trade, we Americans picked up mixed spices readily as part of our own holiday celebrations. Without the dried fruit from the Mediterranean that was the hallmark of British winter pastries like suet pudding, American cooks substituted the sweet and fibrous flesh of pumpkins and sweet potatoes instead. Our blend of mixed spices, which came to be known as pumpkin pie spice, dropped the bold flavors of anise and cardamom, as well as all of the savory spices like pepper and coriander. Like its predecessors, it remained a luxury until recently and was associated with a few traditional desserts as American culinary traditions gravitated away from Europe’s rich, cream and egg desserts toward those dominated by Caribbean sugar.

Source:  How Sweet Eats

Source: How Sweet Eats

Homemade Pumpkin Spice

Pumpkin spice is extremely easy to blend since its components are usually pre-ground at the store. A homemade blend is fantastic for making enough but not too much, since ground spices stale more readily. You’ll definitely be able to use the individual components for other things throughout the year.

A typical blend is dominated by cinnamon. Nutmeg can be overwhelming if too much is used, but helps to cut the bold and sometimes soapy flavor of cloves and spiciness of dried ginger. Allspice helps to round out the flavors.

This recipe is listed as a ratio rather than a set amount of ingredients so as to be scaled:

  • 3 parts ground cinnamon
  • 2 parts ground ginger
  • 1 part ground allspice
  • 1 part ground nutmeg (or equal parts mace and nutmeg)
  • 0.5 parts ground cloves

The procedure is as simple as can be – shake thoroughly in a bag to combine.

Pumpkin Spice Recipes:

Here’s a recipe for a homemade pumpkin spice latte that uses pumpkin rather than the condensed milk and flavored syrup combination used in Starbucks and other coffee chains’ versions.

Pumpkin can be a great source of structure for baked goods; these brownies use an entire can of pumpkin as well as a heaping tablespoon of pumpkin spice for a dessert that actually ends up being considerably lighter than typical brownies, even with the cream cheese frosting. I imagine that a little ground coffee wouldn’t go too badly here if you really can’t get enough of the Pumpkin Spice Latte.

Source: Taste of Home

Source: Taste of Home

For a pumpkin spice recipe that’s acceptable to eat at dinner, here’s a sweet and savory vegetarian recipe for spiced pumpkin stew inspired by a traditional Afghan preparation of pumpkin called Borani Kadoo.

You’ll need:

  • 1 2-3lb pumpkin or pumpkin-like squash like buttercup or kabocha, peeled if necessary and chopped into large chunks. In Afghanistan, a type of squash related to the red kuri or kabocha would be used; these squashes look like small pumpkins and can be green or bright red.
  • 2 tbsp and 1 tbsp of sugar, divided
  • 1.5 tbsp of oil
  • ½ tbsp fresh ginger
  • ½ tsp turmeric powder
  • 1 tsp garlic, minced finely
  • ½ yellow onion
  • 2 tsp and 1 tsp of pumpkin spice, divided
  • ¼ tsp of dried red pepper, preferably mild and smoky, like chipotle or aleppo
  • ½ cup whole-milk strained yogurt or sour cream
  • 1 tbsp butter
  • Salt
  • Mint, dried or fresh
  1. In a large pot, add around half of the pumpkin and some salt. Pour in enough water just to cover. When the pumpkin can be pierced but is still firm, add the other half. This helps ensure that some of the pumpkin retains its shape. With the other half of the pumpkin, add 2 tablespoons of sugar and cook until reduced substantially or the second addition of pumpkin is cooked through but still firm enough to retain its shape. The sugar should help thicken the softer first set of pumpkin into a saucy consistency.
  2. In an oven-safe pan or casserole over medium heat, sautée the onion with the red pepper flakes, garlic, turmeric, and ginger until aromatic but not browned. Add the pumpkin and 2 teaspoons of pumpkin spice, and mix gently to combine without breaking up the chunks of more firm pumpkin. Sprinkle the remaining sugar over the top and place in an oven under the broiler until the sugar caramelizes and the mixture is thick and not soupy.
  3. Meanwhile, melt butter in a small saucepan. Add remaining pumpkin spice and stir well. You can bring it to a browned state or keep it yellow. It will be used as a garnish.
  4. Mix the yogurt or sour cream, mint, and some salt and set in a bowl.
  5. Carefully remove pan from the oven. Ladle pumpkin into a plate with sloped sides or a bowl. Serve with mint yogurt on the side (to avoid breaking) and drizzle spiced butter. Serve with naan.
  6. For a version with meat, one could add ground beef or lamb at the stage where the onion is sautéed. It would be unadvised to use more than ¼ of a pound for this quantity of ingredients.

-Edmund Brennan

Cover image source.

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