Inner-Conflict Pumpkin Bread

Summer becoming fall finds spices — and emotions — swirling in the air.

Image by Author.

At no time of year is it easier for me to understand the word “bittersweet” than when the long, golden days of summer begin to shorten, and fall starts to nudge in. Summer is the fun season, for many of us a time of greater leisure and travel (in certain times), and fruit is bursting from every vine. As an ice cream guy in the American Northeast, it’s always a bit difficult to consider that my productive season, the time when I can focus intently on my work and can see my business at its most lucrative, is coming to its annual end.

This melancholy lives at odds with the thrill that runs through me on the first day I feel outdoor air that’s in the 60s, or the first time I yawn under a darkling sky, figuring it must be nearly time for bed, only to discover it’s just barely eight o’clock, and that I have time for (yet) another glass of wine. When my body catches up to my brain in the realization that whether I want it or not, autumn is happening, deep excitement begins to set in. What’s ahead? My favorite season for fashion. Warm fires. Painted landscapes and their fragrant canvas, which you discover when you get down into them. Approaching holidays and, however scaled back, time with family.

And baking. Lots and lots of baking. Ovens that warm your face when you open them, rather than contribute to the already-oppressive summer heat of an apartment with no cross-ventilation. Breads that enrich you and leave you feeling hale and emboldened for a crisp evening walk. Soups, chili, braises and rich meats and game, mushrooms, a harvest of vibrant vegetables. The word for autumn is “bounty,” and baking spices are a terrifically generous expression of it. As cinnamon, clove, and ginger turn together in the air, it signals fall to us, and a contentment settles in. We realize that something deserving of a better title than “consolation prize” to summer’s passing is in store for us. (Indeed, as I tested for this article, my upstairs neighbor sent me a text: “Are you baking apple pie!??!”)

Now, these spice combinations, often commercialized as “pumpkin spice,” are ubiquitous. They are no less special for all that, but I think they’re merely light bulbs. They’re wonderful, beautiful light bulbs, and they too need some unseen force behind them to get them properly lit up, to let them shine their glory into every corner. The spices — cinnamon, ginger, clove, nutmeg, allspice, a few others — vary in their mixtures: one often takes center stage or perhaps plays solo. The choice is certainly ample. But what I find myself constantly seeking is this secret current, this baking electricity, that will bring them to life. I seek the magic.

Discovering one of these special ideas is like stumbling across a spell-scroll in your Great-Great-Aunt Vera’s attic. I remember when I found my first — I was baking a large batch of my grandmother’s molasses cookies in a commercial kitchen. I’d made and taught and shared (and, as you might have guessed, eaten) these very cookies countless times before, and had always been entranced by the spices as they swirled in the kitchen air. This was certainly happening now, but I could also sense something else — something more than just a great blend of good spices. I smelled deeply and realized it was the combination of butter and molasses rising from the oven that gave the spices the space they needed to play. The wand is cinnamon. The feather is ginger. The magic itself, that makes one affect the other, is molasses and butter, heating together. Wondrous.

It became my goal to find more magics like this one, and as I continued to bake and cook more, I began compiling a list of these tricks in my arsenal: wholes greater than the sum of their parts. In fall, one of my very favorites of these is brown butter and pumpkin. It begins as I stand above the mixing bowl. The smell of butter browning on the stove is already drool-worthy, and when I stir that into puréed pumpkin, the smell that rises to greet me is like a seductive wave of olfactory velvet. It’s impossible to do it justice in words, you must try and experience it.

There’s one more bit of slightly less esoteric action going on — cardamom. I’m a huge fan of cardamom as it is, and I find it as at-home in an apple pie as in a pumpkin bread. I especially like it with anything orange, like carrot cake or sweet potato pie. Something about its combination here, with brown butter and pumpkin, seem to give it an even more special expression, and it completes this flavor perfectly.

Bake this pumpkin bread, and on the next brisk day, when you notice that your toes are cool and you feel like it’s just slightly darker outside than it should be for what time it is, grab a slice. You’ll find it far more than a consolation.

Recipe: (Spice-Crusted, Brown Butter) Pumpkin Bread

When you share it with people just call it your pumpkin bread, and let them enjoy the magic without peeking behind all the curtains.

This is for a six-cup loaf pan, which is about 8 1/2" by 4 1/2". Reduce by about a quarter for a smaller, four-cup pan (use one egg and one yolk). Preheat oven to 350°F. All spices listed are ground, except nutmeg, which I like to grate fresh.

Ingredients:

  • Butter: 9 T (4.5oz) + 1 T (softened) for the pan
  • Cinnamon: 2 t
  • Ginger: 1 t
  • Clove: 1/2 t
  • Cardamom: 1/2 t
  • Sugar: 1/3 c (2.5 oz) plus 2 t
  • Brown Sugar: 2/3 c (5.3 oz)
  • Kosher Salt: 1 t
  • Baking powder: 1 1/2 t
  • Baking soda: 1/2 t
  • Nutmeg (whole, or mace)
  • Pumpkin (canned): 1 c (8 oz)
  • Eggs: 2
  • Flour (all-purpose): 2 c (10 oz)

Instructions:

  1. In a small saucepan, heat 9 T butter to melt and then brown it. Place a bone-dry, heatproof container nearby (such as a 2-cup glass measuring cup) for when the butter is finished. Do not let it spatter violently, rather cook it gently (it will sputter quietly) and proceed with later steps, monitoring it as you go. Scrape the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon with increasing frequency as the butter cooks. You will note that the solids, which had risen to the top of the melted and simmering butter, eventually fall to the bottom; it is then that they begin to cook and brown. Scrape more frequently, and when you notice a finer foam forming at the top, be on the lookout for little brown bits, scraping and stirring gently but nearly constantly when this begins to happen. When they’re as brown as you dare, remove from the heat and pour carefully and confidently into your heatproof container, scraping as many bits as possible along with it. Brown butter burns very quickly, which is why it is not left in its pan. Your moxie will determine how brown you let it get.
  2. Use the remaining 1 T soft butter to thoroughly grease your loaf pan.
  3. Combine the ground spices. Set one teaspoon of this mixture aside in a small container.
  4. In an amply-sized mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, 1/3 cup sugar, salt, baking powder and soda, and the main amount of ground spices (1 T). Grate a little nutmeg over the bowl (or skip it, or use a pinch of mace, if you happen to have that). Use your hands to ensure that *all* of the brown sugar is broken up — do not leave any lumps as they will be nearly impossible to mix later. Once this mixture is homogenous, you are ready to proceed. Make the center of the mixture lower than the edges.
  5. Into the depression at the center of the bowl, add the pumpkin and two eggs. Use a whisk to gently combine this in its place, and once the eggs are broken up, whisk everything in the bowl together.
  6. Carefully add the brown butter, and use your whisk to stir it gently into the contents of the bowl. Once it’s mostly incorporated, whisk until everything is smooth and uniform. (Isn’t that smell just divine!?) Retire your whisk.
  7. Add the flour, and use a rubber spatula to fold the mixture together; do not “mash” or stir vigorously. Mix until barely combined — indeed a few dry spots here and there are just fine and will bake out.
  8. Scrape the contents of the bowl into your loaf pan and smooth it (reasonably).
  9. Combine the 1 t reserved spices with the remaining sugar, and sprinkle this evenly across the top of the loaf.
  10. Bake for 55–70 minutes, checking first at 30 minutes, then after 15 more, then as often as you feel necessary *just* until a skewer comes out clean.
  11. Cool for a while in the pan, then gently remove to a rack; it may need some loosening on the sides but it should not give you too much trouble in the release.

NOTES

  • This has always baked, for me, with a large crack running along the length of one side of the loaf. Roll with it, it’s beautiful.
  • This is excellent with a ginger and/or maple and/or bourbon glaze atop the whole loaf, and / or with cream cheese frosting spread on each slice.
  • I find testing with a bamboo or wood skewer (or cake-tester, if you’re fancier than me) particularly helpful here. The very long baking time requires frequent checking near the end to avoid overbaking.
  • I found myself re-testing this recipe in Denver, after writing it at sea level, so I figured I’d include the high-altitude variations: From the batter recipe, remove 1 T sugar, reduce the baking powder to 1 1/4 t and eliminate the soda altogether, add one egg, and use an extra 2 T flour. Bake at 375°F and start checking around 30"; mine took 50 minutes. Perfect.

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