Hot Potatoes

Remember years ago when sweet potatoes had a moment in pop culture history, akin to the fervor perpetually surrounding everyone’s seasonal darling, pumpkin spice? Oprah Winfrey essentially discovered the orange spud, according to online sources- And you know that if it’s on the internet, it must be true. All of a sudden, health gurus and foodies alike raced out to clear supermarket shelves of the tubers. It was as if no one had ever noticed them before, or at least, fully appreciated their flavorful potential.

Like all food trends, the extreme pitch and tenor of that enthusiasm quickly died down to a low roar, eventually settling back into a quiet hum of indifference. Where are all the sweet potato proponents now? Is there really only room in the oven for one autumnal vegetable superstar?

This year, I’m bringing sweet potatoes back. I’ve already professed my support for their simpler starchy brethren, so it’s time we dig a bit deeper into the root cellar for more colorful, flavorful possibilities.

Warm spices and dark, rich molasses join forces with the supple amber flesh, transforming the nostalgic, simple pleasure of the humble rice crispy treat into a seasonal delight. The satisfying crunch of toasted pecans punctuate the chewy, tender squares, rivaling the experience of a full slice of Thanksgiving pie.

Better than baked custard or scratch-made pastry, though, the instant gratification of transforming basic ingredients into a instant dessert surely squashed the competition. That’s definitely something to be thankful for.

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A Pumpkin In Every Pot

Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, you recently carved a delightfully ghastly jack-o’-lantern face out of pie crust. I know, it’s quite a reach, but humor me for a moment, will you? Imagine, with those features missing from an otherwise perfectly good, full sheet of pastry, the possibilities for further baking witchcraft.

Pumpkin is still at play here, but under a more savory guise, you see. Humble pot pie pulls on an autumnal cloak in this phantasmic fall affair. Beneath that buttery, golden brown exterior lies a rich stew of tender orange squash, bolstered by an infusion of pumpkin puree throughout. A touch of umami tomato paste and warming spices sets it apart from the standard child’s play.

Of course, this is all theoretical. Such a wildly abstract thought could easily be written off as a dream… Vanishing almost as quickly as the dish itself.

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Supernatural Supper

Night slowly descended and glowing orange lights flickered on as the witching hour drew nearer. We donned capes and pointed hats, impractically sloped heels and brittle broom sticks, preparing to take the town by storm. It was Halloween night, better than Christmas Eve in my young mind’s eye, and it was almost time for the show to begin. Untold treasures awaited at every turn, the thrill of the hunt pushing caravans of candy-crazed children deeper into the bowels of the city, seeking a sugar high that comes but once a year. Oversized empty bags at hand, we were ready to cause mayhem.

But then the doorbell rang. It wasn’t an early batch of trick-or-treaters beating us to the chase, but the pizza man. One can’t plunder on an empty stomach, after all.

Equally important to the ritual and tradition, my family always ordered pizza before embarking on the annual Halloween candy crawl. Turns out I wasn’t alone; the busiest night of the year for pizza delivery and takeout is Halloween, beating out even Super Bowl Sunday.

Like ordering Chinese takeout on Christmas Day, I thought it was something quirky and unique to my family, but it turns out everyone else was hip to the trend all along. Of course, these old school pies were nothing special; just your average cheese and/or pepperoni options. Maybe it would have been more remarkable if there was a more thematic meal to suit the moonlit masquerade ahead.

Something with a mysterious, mischievous black crust, dark as night, perfumed with a hint of smoke enhanced by a lightly charred surface. Thin, crisp, yet structurally sound, it has no trouble bearing the weight of abundant autumnal toppings. Classic red sauce can take the night off when pumpkin steps up to the plate. Spread richly over the surface, that creamy, garlicky sauce combines the natural sweetness of everyone’s favorite orange squash with the savory flavors of nutritional yeast. Tender sweet potato slices seal the deal, contrasted with sharp red onion slivers and a touch of hot red pepper flakes for a devilish finish.

Before you send your little ghouls and goblins off to collect their sugary plunder, don’t forget to fill them up with something a bit more satiating. The witching hour will come to pass in the blink of an eye, but the memories of the time leading up to it will last a lifetime.

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Fall Back Plan

Wet leaves slap the windshield, leaving teardrops in their wake, smearing across the glass before spreading their wings and fluttering away. Driving through a light autumnal drizzle is strikingly more depressing than a gentle summer rain. Fog obscures the road, blurring signs and stoplights into hazy, shapeless colors. I feel like my whole head is full of damp cotton balls by the time I finally shift gears to park.

Fall is not my favorite season, but by no fault of its own. Signaling the end of summer, it’s merely the messenger, doomed to be shot every year. I shiver as I watch temperatures slowly fall, regardless of how warm it really feels. I storm angrily through piles of leaves, even if there’s only one small mound pushed together on an entire block. The truth is, there’s still a lot to love about fall, and almost all of if it is food.

Do you welcome the arrival of the autumnal equinox with open arms, or reluctant acceptance? One thing we can all appreciate is a return of cozy comfort foods with all their warming spices, hearty starches, and nostalgic aromas. There’s a handful of recipes that always set me in the right mood and remind me, in spite of my irrepressible pessimism: Hey, it turns out that autumn isn’t all bad.

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Peter Peter, Pumpkin Eater

Do you know what’s in your pumpkin puree? No, do you REALLY know what’s mashed into that aluminum tomb, wrapped up like an autumnal present with labels that promise “all natural” and “100% pure!” contents? This isn’t not a trick question like asking who’s buried in Grant’s tomb, but a real head-scratcher that might surprise you. That golden orange goo has little to do with actual pumpkins, which are much more stringy, watery, and bland than what we’ve been raised to enjoy. Rather, a blend of hardy squash, such as butternut, Hubbard, Boston marrow, and golden delicious are the unsung gourds that have bakers swooning. Like orange juice, natural variations between harvests turn the job of maintaining consistent flavors a perpetual challenge between batches. It takes more than one source to hit just the right standards for the tastes and textures we’ve come to know and love. If you thought you were really just getting plain Jane pumpkin all along, I’m very sorry to pull the curtain back and ruin the illusion.

By spreading this knowledge, my goal is not to incite riots in the canned goods aisle, but encourage everyone to think beyond those metal constrains. There are so many more squash in the sea, looking for love, and a place in your kitchen.

Featuring a few of the unsung heroes of autumn, this grand double decker celebration cake is a gloriously sweet tribute to those underdogs at the farm stand. Butternut squash puree is an easy swap for pumpkin, since you were probably using that anyway without even realizing it, but I’ll readily admit that spaghetti squash might be a bit of a stretch for some. In fact, it rarely makes it onto the dinner table as is; a real shame, considering just how delicious those firm, noodle-like strands are, especially when smothered with red sauce or pesto. We’re talking dessert today though, so just consider this a natural evolution of carrot cake or zucchini bread. You wouldn’t give a second though to including those vegetables in their eponymous confections, so why should this humble gourd be any different?

Crowing this pièce de résistance, naturally artful slices of delicata squash contribute beauty along with brains, adding a moreish bite to the moist, delicate crumb down below. Paper-thin shavings are essential here lest you risk throwing off that careful balance, perfected by the crisp crunch of fresh squash seeds. If you have to call it a day and resort to good old pepitas, well, I won’t tell. A little bit of pumpkin is still welcome on my table, especially if it’s not coming out of a can.

Does this revelation ruin or redeem the classic orange gourd for you? Hopefully I can make amends either way with this offering of the best cake autumn’s bounty has to offer. Trust me, you’ll never miss the pumpkin; you were never eating it anyway.

Harvest Squash Cake

2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Pastry or All-Purpose Flour
1 1/2 Teaspoons Baking Powder
1 Teaspoon Baking Soda
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Tablespoon Ground Cinnamon
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Nutmeg
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1 1/2 Cups Full-Fat Coconut Milk
1 Teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar
1 Cup Butternut Squash Puree
1/2 Cup Olive Oil
1 Cup Granulated Sugar
1/2 Cup Coconut Sugar or Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
3 Cups Cooked Spaghetti Squash*
Delicata Squash, Seeded and Thinly Sliced (Optional, for Topping)
Reserved Squash Seeds or Pepitas (Optional, for Topping)

Cream Cheese Filling:

1 (8-Ounce) Package Vegan Cream Cheese
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Cups Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Lemon Extract or Lemon Zest
1 – 2 Teaspoons Water

*To easily cook your spaghetti squash, slice it in half lengthwise and scrape out the seeds, reserving them for the topping if desired. Place the halves with the cut sides down in a microwave-safe dish, adding about an inch of water around them. Cover loosely with plastic wrap and microwave for 8 minutes. Let stand for 2 minutes before carefully removing the plastic. Test for doneness by piercing them with a knife; if it slides in easily, and the squash give under gentle pressure, they’re done! When cool enough to handle, take a fork to the interiors and scrape out the strands of tender squash.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease two 8-inch round baking pans.

In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, and spices, stirring thoroughly to evenly distribute all of the dry goods throughout the mixture.

Separately, whisk together the coconut milk, vinegar, butternut squash puree, olive oil, and both sugars. Still to dissolve the sugar and smooth out the mixture, so that there are no lumps of butternut remaining.

Toss the cooked spaghetti squash into the bowl of dry ingredients, coating the strands with flour to keep them from simply sinking to the bottom of the cakes. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry, folding the two together with a large spatula to combine. Resist the urge to break out the heavy artillery here; the batter will be fairly thick, but it’s perfectly fine to leave a few lumps, rather than risk over-mixing.

Divide the batter equally between your prepared cake pans. If desired, seed and very, very thinly slice the delicata squash, arranging the pieces artfully around the top of one pan of unbaked batter. Sprinkle with the leftover seeds or pepitas for a final flourish. Bake for 35 – 45 minutes, until golden brown and a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. Bear in mind that the layer topped with squash will take longer to bake due to the excess liquid expressed by the gourd.

Let cool completely before assembling the final cake.

To make the filling, simply toss the cream cheese and butter into your stand mixer and beat until soft, smooth, and homogeneous. Add in the confectioner’s sugar and begin to mix on low speed. Pause to scrape down the sides of the bowl with your spatula, as needed. Once mostly incorporated, add in the vanilla and lemon, and increase the speed to high. Add water as needed to reach your desired consistency, but use sparingly! It doesn’t take much at all. Whip for about 5 minutes until light and fluffy.

Turn out the bottom layer of the cake onto a serving vessel and smoother generously but evenly with the filling. Top with with second, decorated layer, press down to adhere, and serve with aplomb. No pumpkins need apply.

Makes 12 – 16 Servings

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How Do You Like Them Apples?

Few fruits are more loaded with symbolism than the common, everyday apple. Johnny Appleseed planted the trees straight into early American culture, likely with little more than basic sustenance in mind, but their importance goes far deeper than those shallow roots. Well before that, the Greeks associated the apple with Aphrodite,
the goddess of Love. The Christian mythology of Adam and Eve is well known, ascribing both great and terrible wisdom to the humble apple, the catalyst for the creation of civilization as we know it.

Those are some pretty weighty claims for such a simple, sweet little morsel. While a bite of one perfectly crisp, tart Fuji can feel like a moment of temporary enlightenment, sweetness, and all the comforting, optimistic, uplifting sentiments that go with it, are my ultimate takeaway. Enjoying apples on Rosh Hashanah in hopes of assuring a sweet New Year ahead feels almost redundant, almost too obvious, but still too good to question.

Thick slices of freshly harvested apples, lavished with an golden drizzle of thick honey, always stood at attention on the festive dinner table, waiting for takers. Even when darker, more robust maple syrup was offered alongside, those pale slivers sat as little more than those iconic symbols. A nice thought, a hospitable offering of well wishes, but not an actual appetizer, or palate cleanser- And certainly not dessert.

Given the abundance of apples all across the globe and their rich tradition in almost all cultures, it’s hard to come up with a truly original treat for Rosh Hashanah. I still can’t claim to have done so, but the last thing I want to serve is another standard-issue apple pie or apple cobbler. While I wouldn’t turn up my nose at either given the chance to serve myself, there are simply more decadent things I crave… Like apple fritters.

Doughnuts are hit-and-miss affairs, only good for the first hour or so out of the vat of hot oil. Their texture declines exponentially with every passing minute after that, and don’t get me started about the logistics of making enough for a crowd. To satisfying this particular, powerful longing, it was straight to the oven for me.

Sweet yeasted dough, rich enough to pass for challah, swaddles tender chunks of lightly simmered and spiced apples, prepared just as it might be for your typical deep fried function. After the usual chopping and division, however, these pieces are reunited in one large cake pan and baked together, emerging from the oven as one grand, show-stopping dessert fit for a crowd.

To keep more closely with tradition, the torte could be just as easily finished with a drizzle of vegan honey, agave, or maple syrup, but a simple vanilla bean glaze takes it over the top for me, more closely echoing its original doughnut inspiration.

Read whatever deeper meaning that you may, but there’s no questioning one thing about this latest twist in the apple saga: These are symbols that are meant to be eaten. Prepare to go home with an empty pan after this particularly sweet holiday.

Apple Fritter Torte

Torte Dough:

2 1/2 – 3 Cups All-Purpose Flour
3 Tablespoons Granulated Sugar
1 Teaspoon Baking Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Teaspoon Active Dry yeast
1/2 Cup Aquafaba
1/2 Teaspoon Lemon Zest
6 Tablespoons Warm Water
6 Tablespoons Vegan Butter, Melted and Divided

Cinnamon-Apple Filling:

2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/4 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
2 Large Fuji Apples, Peeled, Cored, and Diced
1 Teaspoon Tapioca Starch

Vanilla Bean Glaze:

1 Cup Confectioner’s Sugar
1 Teaspoon Vanilla Bean Paste or Extract
1 – 2 Tablespoons Water

In the bowl of your stand mixer, combine the 2 1/2 cups of the flour, sugar, baking powder, salt, yeast, aquafaba, lemon zest, and water. Beat on a medium speed for 5 – 8 minutes, until the dough begins to pull away from the sides of the bowl and forms a soft, slightly sticky ball. Slowly add more flour, just a tablespoon at a time, to get it to a workable consistency. It should still be very tacky, and not as firm as bread dough. Allow the dough to rest for a minute.

Start the mixer again on low speed and slowly drizzle in 4 tablespoons of the melted butter, about a teaspoon at a time. Once fully incorporated incorporated, continue to knead with the hook attachment for about 5 minutes, until glossy, smooth, and elastic. Transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and chill in the fridge overnight, or for at least 8 hours.

Meanwhile, prepare the apple filling by heating the remaining 2 tablespoons of butter in a medium skillet over moderate heat. Add the cinnamon and sugar, cooking until dissolved. Introduce the apples, reduce the heat to medium low, and gently simmer for about 10 – 15 minutes, stirring periodically, until fork-tender. Sprinkle the starch evenly over the mixture and quickly incorporate, whisking out any lumps. Cook just until slightly thickened and turn off the heat. Cool completely before using.

After the dough has properly rested, turn it out onto a floured surface and roll it into a large rectangle. Don’t sweat the actual size; just aim for about 1/4-inch thickness. Spoon the apple filling down half, lengthwise, and fold over the dough, pinching the edges together to seal. Use a very sharp knife to cut the skinny rectangle into 1-inch strips, and then cut those strips diagonally. If that sounds confusing, don’t worry! I made a fancy diagram in Paint to help you out:

And yes, it will be an absolutely terrific mess.

Fear not! Gather up all the pieces and press them into a lightly-greased 9-inch round springform pan. Let rest and rise for 1 hour, and in the meantime, begin preheating your oven to 350 degrees.

Bake for 1 hour – 1 hour 15 minutes, until amber brown all over; just a shade darker than simply “golden.”

Prepare the glaze by whisking together all the ingredients, adding just enough water to reach your desired consistency.

Cool the torte for at least 25 minutes before serving, but don’t let it sit too long! It’s best served warm, with the vanilla bean glaze lavished on top just prior to slicing.

Makes 14 – 16 Servings

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