Nothing tricky about this pumpkin dessert

On Baking

Updated 10/26/2010 5:11 PM

Halloween desserts and the bakers who create them fall into two distinctive camps: the devoted spooky crowd and the happy pumpkin fans.

Over the years I've leaned toward spooky, dramatic themes; I've spun spidery webs on midnight fudge frostings and crafted graveyard scenes with Oreo cookie crumbs.

But great Halloween desserts centered on macabre themes rely upon visual impact and decorative skill to deliver that eye-popping, heart-stopping effect and I realize not everyone has the skill or confidence to pull that off. Worse yet, these desserts can focus so much on looks that taste falls into the grave.

This year I decided to leave the campy side of Halloween desserts no dark chocolate cakes or ghoulishly decorated cookies for me and set out in pursuit of spicy harvest notes.

While pumpkin embodies traditional harvest celebrations, I'm generally disappointed in most dessert recipes featuring the squash. Frankly, they bore me.

When it comes to Halloween party fare, boring has no place at the buffet table. The food, especially desserts, should offer bold flavors, sensational tastes and wild presentation.

If a pumpkin dessert was going to get in the game, it needed a sharp, spicy edge.

But where to start? Pumpkin pie screams Thanksgiving and traditional quick breads whisper tea party. Then I remembered clipping an unusual spice bar recipe that called for an entire can of pumpkin puree. The recipe seemed to blend pumpkin pie slices and spice cake into an interesting textural treat for the taste buds.

Built upon a graham cracker crust and topped with a buttery cream cheese frosting, this was no doubt a different take on the bar style dessert but I still needed to spice things up a bit without layering on too much work.

I assumed the graham craker crust would bake into a hard shell, distracting the taste buds, but in reality the crumbs created a nuanced layer that complemented the pumpkin base. I pumped up the spice essence by adding ground ginger to the cinnamon grahams. The pumpkin filling proved more challenging. In pie slice style, the recipe called for mixing oil and eggs with pumpkin puree. To avoid a puddinglike base, I swapped melted butter for the oil and slightly reduced the amount. This created a firm, yet moist texture that melded gently against the crumbs.

Replacing some of the white sugar with light brown deepened the color, infusing a hint of caramel flavor. Pumpkin pie spice, a cost-effective blend of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, along with ground cloves boosted the spicy edges in the filling.

Traditional cream cheese frosting creates the perfect decorating base. However, the rich sweetness calls for tangy sour cream to tame the sugary texture. Decorate with toasted nuts, festive sanding sugars or favorite Halloween candy and you've got a hauntingly good spicy pumpkin treat.

• Annie Overboe, a Culinary Institute of America graduate, lives in Villa Park. To suggest a column topic or ask a baking question, write her at