Fall into pumpkin

October is more than half done and I’m moving ever more swiftly into fall. Late summer has faded. My small flower bed is cleaned and tucked away under fresh bark chips to wait out the months till spring. Pumpkins and gourds are the centerpiece for my dining room table, and my taste has turned to hearty foods. Sweaters have come out of storage and back into my drawers. Flannel sheets are on my bed.

Pumpkins!

Pumpkins!

The light fades pretty quickly this far north. Just a few weeks ago the sun rose way too early. Now it’s tempting to stay snuggled in past the call of my alarm. It’s so dark out at 5:00 am. Definitely not time to get up.

In honor of the month, and the iconic pumpkin, in all its orange glory, I’m celebrating the color in food.

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.” ~ L.M. Montgomery, Anne of Green Gables

I was late to appreciate the value of squash in my life. I grew up with yellow squash and zucchini, as a Southern girl should. But other varieties did not grace my mother’s table. Gradually, curiosity overcame timidity, and I began buying unknown squashes to see what I might be missing. I tried acorn and butternut and spaghetti, the deep greens and variegated and lemon yellows adding a charming and rustic touch to my kitchen display, the squashes doing double duty, first as still life, and then, after a run in the oven, making a second appearance as star of dinner.

The focus of this post is butternut. It’s the right color (!) and one medium size squash makes a lovely pot of soup, enough to serve six people with normal appetites, or four quite hungry people, or one or two ravenous souls.

I began, as much of my recipe searching does these days, by scouring the internet to see what’s out there already. I had an autumn squash soup recently at Panera‘s, and it inspired me to create my own version, since the closest Panera’s is in Seattle, an expensive flight away from Ketchikan. I found several knock-off recipes. The one I chose is good, but different than the one I had at the restaurant…not as thick, and not quite as sweet. But of course you can easily adjust to your own taste. I would bet the Panera soup includes a touch of sugar, and probably has a roux base. This soup is just a hearty rendition of squash, onion, seasonings, broth, and cream. It’s tasty and couldn’t be easier. And my favorite thing is that it needs to simmer on the stove….a perfect fall afternoon activity! I put my soup on and just come back to check it now and then.

Butternut Squash Soup

2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 small onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary (1 teaspoon dried)
1 small butternut squash, peeled and chopped
6 1/3 cups chicken stock (50.4 ounces)
1 1/4 cups heavy cream (or use half and half, or milk)
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon white pepper
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
Hot pepper sauce to taste

Melt butter over moderate heat in large saucepan. Add the onion and rosemary and cook until soft (approximately 5 minutes).

Add chopped squash, chicken stock, heavy cream, salt, white pepper and hot sauce. Reduce heat and cover. Simmer for approximately 2 hours – or until squash is tender.

Chop and peel the butternut

Chop and peel the butternut

Rough chop, all the good stuff

Rough chop, all the good stuff

Use blender (or immersion hand blender) to puree the hot soup. Toast walnuts to use for garnish. 

Taste of fall in a cream soup

Taste of fall in a cream soup

Note: you can puree the soup to a creamy consistency, or blend minimally  for a more rustic dish. (I used an immersion blender. This makes the job much easier than pouring hot soup into a blender. If you don’t have an immersion blender, I highly recommend buying one; you’ll find lots of uses for it to justify space in your kitchen.)

Soup in a crock

Soup in a crock

Serve with a hearty bread or grilled cheese. Mmmmm!

In keeping with my orange theme, I tried another recipe this week, this one a no-bake pumpkin dessert.

No Bake Pumpkin Cheesecake

Dessert in a glass!

Dessert in a glass!

For the crust 

1 sleeve graham crackers (about 9 crackers)
½ stick (4 tablespoons) butter, melted
2 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons brown sugar

For the filling 

1 8-ounce package cream cheese, softened to room temperature
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
3 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
1 3.4 ounce package vanilla flavored instant pudding mix
1 14-ounce can sweetened condensed milk
Whipped cream, (in place of 12 oz container of Cool Whip) how to make your own whipped cream here 

Instructions

Place the graham crackers in the bowl of a food processor and pulse the crackers into fine crumbs. Add the melted butter, sugar and brown sugar and pulse until combined.

Spoon the crumbs into individual dishes for serving. Place in the refrigerator to set while you are preparing the filling.

In the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, beat the cream cheese until light and creamy.

Add the pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and pudding mix and beat until completely mixed, scraping down the sides and bottom of the bowl to ensure that all ingredients are well combined.

Add the sweetened condensed milk and mix again until well combined.

Change your stand mixture attachment to the wire whisk. On slow speed, fold in whipped cream until well combined.

Allow the mixture to sit in the fridge for about an hour to firm up.

Using a large pastry bag with a large tip, or a spoon, top the graham cracker crust in each dish with the pumpkin mixture and refrigerate until ready to serve.

Garnish with additional whipped topping if desired.

Note: Feel free to use Cool Whip…I prefer real cream, and it holds up well. I find that this is one area that I’m a bit of a food snob. Notice I’m perfectly happy to use a pudding mix for this recipe. If you really want to be a purist, you could make a recipe of homemade vanilla pudding and use that in place of the instant mix. I might try that next time, but it was a busy day, and I had a mix in the pantry, so I was content to go with that.

I couldn’t resist trying this little treat. Any recipe that combines cream cheese and sweetened condensed milk is not to be missed. And this one is delicious.

I will also admit…an astonishing amount of the filling did not make it to the finished dessert. I tasted my way through a couple of servings, and will be required (!) to put in an extra session or two at the gym to offset my calorie intake for the day. But this is a price I’m willing to pay to enjoy a yummy treat and still be able to wear the new jeans I just bought 🙂

Happy stirring, tasting, and nesting!

Pumpkin Soup and other goodness

Rain and cold greet me as I start the day. Fresh coffee, and the scent of the pellet stove burning, sending out warmth and wood smell, lure me down the stairs to begin. I make breakfast, hot, hearty and healthy, to push us through to lunch. Lunch, salad, light and crunchy bites, fuel until dinner. And then, on this chilly fall Friday, a big bowl of soup and crusty bread for end of day. The soup simmers on the stove already, not because it has to, but because I want it to. Seeing the pot on the burner, giving an occasional stir as I wander through the kitchen, taking a break from my work-at-home office, I feel the comfort of tradition, the ritual of minding, tasting; and the anticipation of home cooked goodness to tuck us in to the dark of early evening. We’ll light candles, play soft music, and get cozy with bread baked this afternoon and soup for the season.

If you’re looking for homemade easy, this is a good place to begin.

                                          November gold

Pumpkin Soup

1/4 cup (4T) butter
1 large onion, finely diced
1 stalk of celery, finely diced
1 can (1 lb) of pumpkin (NOT get pumpkin pie filling)
3 cans (14.5 oz) chicken broth
1/2 tsp. curry powder
1/4 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp ginger
1 bay leaf
1 tsp salt
1 cup light cream or half-and-half
Melt butter in saucepan.
Add onion & celery.  Saute’ until tender.
Stir in pumpkin, broth & seasonings (adjust seasonings to taste if you like more spice).
Bring to a boil stirring constantly.
Reduce heat and simmer uncovered 15 minutes.
Remove bay leaf.
Add cream or half-and-half.
Stir just until thoroughly heated, but not boiling.
Add chives (fresh) for garnish.
Serves four generously.

                                 Sweet Wheat bread dough

Sweet Wheat Bread

3 packets dry yeast
1 1/2 cups warm water, divided
1 tablespoon sugar
1/2 cup dark molasses
1 tablespoon salt
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
2 cups whole wheat flour
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 tsp of caramel coloring, optional

Dissolve yeast in 1/2 cup warm water then stir in sugar. Let stand until bubbly.
Combine dissolved yeast, remaining water, molasses, salt, oil, whole wheat flour, all-purpose flour and caramel coloring in a large mixing bowl. Beat, using a dough hook until smooth. 
Knead dough for 5 minutes. Place in a large bowl then cover with a damp cloth. Let rise in a warm place until doubled in size. 
Punch dough down and divide in 2 large round loaves and place on a greased and cornmeal dusted cookie sheet. Cover with a damp cloth and allow to rise in a warm place until doubled in size.
Remove cloth and bake in a 375 degree F. oven for 30 minutes or until crust makes a hollow sound when tapped.
(The caramel coloring will not affect taste, just the color of the bread. You can order this ingredient from King Arthur Flour.)

                                                Ready for dinner!

Fall is in the air

What’s magic about this season? Many people say this is their favorite time of year, and that’s true for me too. I always think the calendar should begin with September. It seems like the true start to the year, forever tied in my mind to the beginning of a new school cycle. From my own years as a student, through the years of my children’s education, that rhythm was permanently ingrained. Even without a tie to the school calendar now, so many rituals focus on back-to-school events that I can’t escape the reality that summer has ended, a new season has begun. And although summer traditionally brings luxurious down time and a more relaxed pace of life, it feels good to get back to a schedule, a routine, a defined expectation of the week after summer vacations end.

Aside from the back-to-school sales, the beginning of football season, and early advertisements for Halloween (already there are masses of bags filled with bite-sized candy bars beckoning in the grocery aisles), temperatures announce that change is in the air. The sun in September has a different quality in its warmth, a different brightness in its light. By October, mornings and evenings are crisp, and by November, some days there is frost on the steps outside my front door. The familiar ritual, pulling out sweaters and boots, gloves and coats, moving the summer wear out and the winter wear in, signals that turtleneck season, stretching from September to May in Alaska, has arrived.

When my kids were little, we made annual visits to apple orchards to buy apples and cider, and to pumpkin patch farms to pick pumpkins. It was fun to have exposure to the harvest season as we weren’t connected with these experiences in other ways. It was good to see my kids learn a little about harvest time and enjoy a taste of fruit bought from the source rather than a grocery store. There is just something completely heartwarming about drinking fresh pressed cider and riding on a tractor trailer pulling excited pre-schoolers around a farm.

I like pumpkins; they’re my favorite choice for fall decorating. I add a few brightly colored leaves and nuts, some seasonal berries and cinnamon scented candles, and decorating is done from September to November. I think you get more bang for the buck from fall decorating than in any other season. And the best part: so much of what you use is available in a natural form, right from the grocery store or farmer’s market. The produce section alone offers enough variety to dress up your look for any party you host from Labor Day to Thanksgiving.

The best part of fall has to be the food: iconic comfort food like soups, chili, stews; and sweets made with apples, nuts, raisins, pumpkin and all the familiar spices. Even the beverages are unique to the time of year…apple cider and spiced teas and coffees seem just right in October and November. I never think of drinking a cinnamon flavored coffee in July…why is that? But this time of year I’m focused on warm luxury in my beverages, and topping off a spiced coffee with a little sweetened whipped cream is a perfect start to the day or end to the evening. Sampling a pumkin cobbler or apple cranberry pie is a frequent pleasure. I bake more this time of year, and I appreciate the comfort of homey aromas coming from the kitchen when I open the door after work and remember that I put a stew in the crockpot before I left for the day.

Anticipation is key; I know what happens next, and I love it. We’re all getting ready to spend more time indoors, gear up for the Christmas season, celebrate once again the Thanksgiving holiday that reminds us of the importance of family, friends, good times, good food, and the traditions that bind it all together. So here’s to Fall, the magical (and real) start to a new year, a new cycle, and the best of comfort, home, and harvest.