Pumpkin can bring more to the fall dessert table than a standard custard pie or overly sweet cake, yet most bakers view this humble squash as a non-contender in the ingredient arena and overlook the culinary possibilities.
Admittedly, plain pumpkin purée lacks that spark needed to ignite on our taste buds. But underneath its rough exterior and well, those pesky seeds, hides an ingredient bursting with potential.
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I knew I wanted to cook up a harvest-themed column, but when it came to my first few kitchen trials that flavor spark remained missing in action. Clearly the kitchen wasn't inspiring me; I had to take a break.
So I sat down to read and an article about seasonal beers caught my attention. What kept me reading was the main flavor theme: pumpkin ale. Could this be the tinder my culinary curiously needed? Could pumpkin ale infuse a savory component into a dessert recipe without overpowering the other harvest notes, specifically pumpkin purée?
I eagerly headed to the store and searched out a few different pumpkin ales. Inspiration in hand, I headed back into the kitchen to put pumpkin ale to the recipe test.
Looking over a few pumpkin bread recipes, I realized I first had to address the main problem with most quick breads: they're too sweet. Sugar rules these recipes by distracting our taste buds when it should be enhancing and complementing the harvest flavor theme. Inspiration led me from curiosity about pumpkin ale into a full-blown recipe makeover. Game on.
The secret behind a great quick bread lies in balancing the powerful players. As a neutral-flavored ingredient, pumpkin purée buffers the extremes of sugary sweetness and sharp spices and allows us to dial down the butter or oil. On the other side, the sugar and spice enhance pumpkin's mellow taste and the fat smooths its lumpy texture. In this stance the pumpkin gets more than it gives, yet still receives top billing and credit for the signature flavor.
Of the pumpkin ales tested I enjoyed the deep savory flavors of Samuel Adams Fat Jack Double Pumpkin Ale. The dark amber color and harvest aroma of the ale blends seamlessly with the pumpkin purée and molasses from the dark brown sugar. My first loaf baked high and moist, but the flavor still needed more spark.
My recipe called for the standard harvest spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cloves and allspice. I realized the bread needed more of the same blend, rather than boosting cinnamon or ginger over the other spices. Pumpkin pie spice offers the perfect solution. This mixture contains all the flavor players in an easy to use blend. One tablespoon did the trick.
Reducing the sugar in the batter gave me the opportunity to finish the bread with a crunchy topping. Simple streusel perfumed with cinnamon and a touch of nutmeg bakes into a visually stunning garnish. Serve this bread with light cream cheese and cold pumpkin ale for a memorable fall dessert.
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at email@example.com.