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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Love is in the Air, and in the Kitchen

Now that the salty, savory extravaganza of Super Bowl Sunday is out of the way, Valentine’s Day looms large on the horizon as our next big food affair. Though terminally single, I’ve come to enjoy the event as an opportunity to show friends and family that I care, inevitably in the form of something edible. Though my best suggestions do skew heavy on the chocolate, there are still many lovely, lighter options to cleanse your palate. While you still have time to plan, take a peek at some of my favorites that have hit the blog in years past.

Whoever said that you can’t win friends with salad never sat down to a plateful of lovingly carved heart-shaped strawberries atop tender artichoke hearts, crisp endive, and buttery spears of hearts of palm. Yes indeed, my Heart-Felt Endive Salad is all that and more, living up to the name in more than one way.

This Roasted Red Pepper Soup is quite the blast from the past, so pardon the terrible photo! Though the recipe itself is nothing earth-shattering, the technique of swirling tiny sour cream hearts can be applied to any smooth, pureed soup you care to serve. A little extra effort goes a long way, so you can effortlessly score some extra brownie points by taking a minute to go all out on the garnishes.

Moving on to the main event, Blushing Beet Pierogi are a more subtle way of showing that you care. In hindsight, I wish I had cut these little potato and pasta pouches into the shape of hearts to reinforce the theme, but you can learn from my mistake! Do it up right and really wow your loved ones!

Starting with something light for dessert, fluffy and refreshing Frozen Strawberry-Balsamic Souffles are ideal for those with a penchant for fruity treats. Each ramekin presents a bright, bold contrast between sweet and sour, hitting all the high notes with nary a boring spoonful from start to finish.

When words fail, say it with cake. Show your heart with a stunning slice of Hidden Heart Wild Blueberry Cake. For a truly impressive unveiling, bring the whole cake to the table and cut it right in front of your beloved. Sure, it’s a bit more intricate than your average pound cake, but the extra effort will be worthwhile for the lasting impression those sweet shapes will leave.

Okay, you’ve waited long enough; steel yourself for the chocolate onslaught. Let’s start simply with Cherry Hot Chocolate Spoons. Don’t lock yourself into just one flavor destination though; consider this a guideline for further exploration. Try adding in a touch of orange zest, or using freeze-dried strawberries instead of cherries. Take out the fruit altogether and stir in some peppermint extract and crushed candy canes for an extra breath-freshening bonus (hint hint!)

Flourless Chocolate Cake is a classic, and though predictable, it never gets old. Dark, rich, and decadent, this version is for chocoholics only. The real danger is that it’s so easy to whip up, you may not be able to contain your love to just one special occasion for indulgence. Try it once, and it could easily become an everyday affair.

Keep your cool with another frozen treat: Pomegranate Ice Cream Pops. This quick fix novelty is simply blended and thrown into silicone molds, no churning necessary. Leave out the lollipop stick to make frosty chocolate-covered truffles, or throw that creamy pomegranate base into any popsicle mold you might have on hand. As long as you don’t omit that crisp chocolate shell, you can’t go too far wrong.

Of course, if all else fails, just bake a pan of brownies and call it a day. No one would be mad at that.

Perfect Party Pearings

Take a deep breath: You’ve survived another grueling round of holiday merriment. Feasts have been devoured and mountains of torn wrapping paper lay in ruin. It may very well look like a bomb went off in the living room, complete with tinsel shrapnel and carpet stains that will haunt you for the rest of your days, but the deed has been done, the festivities successfully completed.

But before you lock the doors tight, entering into full hibernation mode, don’t forget that one last hurrah remains. In less than one week’s time, the calendar mandates yet another grand celebration, demanding every last iota of enthusiasm remaining following the Christmas craze. With dishes still stacked precariously in the sink, it’s a lot to consider. For the New Year, however, it’s time to give yourself a gift if you’re bold enough to take the reins as host or hostess once again, and just take it easy.

Skip the elaborate dinner menu in favor of simple, snackable small plates. Your guests are undoubtedly worn out from holiday excesses as well, happily munching at a slower pace while enjoying each others’ company. Crostini (or bruschetta, if you prefer) are the ideal vehicle for any sort of sweet or savory toppings, so for my festive suggestion, I would like to raise a literal and figurative toast to both ends of the taste spectrum.

A golden platform of crusty bread supports a creamy, rich schmear of cream cheese, contrasted by the tender, sweet, and slightly tart bite of pomegranate-infused pears. Sturdy enough to withstand advanced prep and a full evening at ambient temperature, these understated yet spectacular little morsels are your ideal party guests. They’re guaranteed to never overstay their welcome, either.

Pomegranate and Pear Crostini

Pomegranate Poached Pears:

3 Cups 100% Pomegranate Juice
1 Cup 100% Apple Juice
1/3 Cup Maple Syrup
1 Whole Vanilla bean, Split and Scraped
1/8 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
4 Firm Bartlett, Anjou or Bosc Pears, Peeled, Halved, and Cored

For Assembly:

1 Baguette, Sliced Thinly and Toasted
1 Cup Vegan Cream Cheese, Store-Bought or Homemade
1 Pomegranate, Arils Removed

Combine the pomegranate juice, apple juice, maple syrup, vanilla bean seeds, and black pepper in a medium saucepan over medium-low heat. Serve the spent vanilla bean pods for making vanilla sugar, or another recipe.

Bring the liquid bring to a gentle simmer and add the pears. Cover and cook for 20 – 30 minutes, until the pears are just fork-tender. Remove the fruit from the saucepan and chill thoroughly before slicing. Don’t toss the excess poaching liquid- It’s fantastic mixed with a bit of chilled champagne for your New Year’s toast.

To assemble, spread the slices of toasted baguette generously with cream cheese and top each one with a slice of poached pear. Finish with a sprinkle of pomegranate arils and serve chilled or at room temperature.

Makes 16 – 24 Servings

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Tagine O’ Plenty

Two weeks, and counting. Are you ready for Thanksgiving yet? Don’t worry, there’s no need to rush out and grab a frozen roast from the grocery store yet. As a matter of fact, there’s still ample time to plan out a genuine feast fit for a crowd of voracious revelers. Be it a fancy affair or a low-key, casual gathering, I have just the recipe for you.

Shrouded in mystery as it arrives to the table covered, concealed by the heavy ceramic lid of the tagine. Hot and heavy, it lands with a weight of importance; all eyes are on this curious dish. Lift the lid to release a great plume of steam, followed shortly by awed gasps, wide eyes, and possibly even a round of applause. It’s no exaggeration to say that this entree is the height of my holiday hostess career up to this point.

Laden with slow-roasted autumnal squash, root vegetables, and caramelized onions, the multicolored melange of produce is just the tip of the iceberg. Dig deeper to uncover a warmly spiced chickpea and tomato curry, freckled with fresh herbs and punctuated with briny green olives. Explore further still, and eventually your spoon will hit gold; a vibrant bed of garlicky, flaxen couscous lovingly cradles the savory mountain with ease, supporting and absorbing those brilliant flavors without disappearing into the background like a bland bit player.

Thanksgiving is about celebrating abundance, and this meatless main is the epitome of just that. It’s not trying to imitate any trussed up fowl nor does it care to compare itself against ingrained traditions. It’s a bold departure from the standard American menu, and yet it makes so much more sense from a plant-based perspective. Rejoice in the season and all it has to offer, rather than stick to an antiquated script that hardly resonates with the average eater of today.

With great inventions comes great responsibility, and no small measure of commitment. Truth be told, this is a serious undertaking, a huge amount of food to break down and a lot of time to invest for one meal, but wouldn’t you go through exactly the same lengths for a grand roast? How many times a year do you get to invite over all your friends and family and feed them a lavish, over-the-top banquet, after all? This is the time to break out the nice plates, pull out all the stops, and create a dinner that everyone will talk about for years to come.

So now, tell me… Do you have your Thanksgiving dinner plans yet?

Harvest Tagine

4 Tablespoons Olive Oil, Divided
2 Apples, Cored and Sliced
2 Small Parsnips, Peeled and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Large Red Onion, Cut into Wedges
2 Medium Red and/or Orange Bell Peppers, Seeded and Cut into 4-Inch Long Sticks
1 Medium Delicata Squash, Halved, Seeded, and Sliced into Half-Rings
1 1/2 Cups Baby Carrots
1 Teaspoon Salt, Divided
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
4 Cloves Garlic, Sliced
2 Teaspoons Smoked Paprika
1 1/4 Teaspoons Ground Cumin
1 Teaspoon Ground Coriander
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric
1/4 Teaspoon Crushed Red Pepper Flakes
28-Ounce Can Fire-Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
1 14-Ounce Can (1 3/4 Cup Cooked) Chickpeas, Drained
1/2 Cup Green Olives
3 Tablespoons Lemon Juice
1/2 Cup Fresh Parsley, Roughly Chopped
1/4 Cup Toasted Pepitas

Toasted Golden Couscous

2 Tablespoons Olive Oil
2 Cloves Garlic, Minced
2 1/2 Cups Whole Wheat Couscous
3 Cups Vegetable Stock
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Turmeric

Preheat your oven to 400 degrees and lightly grease 2 – 3 sheet pans.

Begin by breaking down all the apples, parsnips, onion, bell peppers, and delicata squash, and laying them out on the prepared sheet pans, along with the baby carrots, in one even layer. Drizzle evenly with 2 tablespoons of the olive oil, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon of the salt and all the black pepper. Roast for 50 – 60 minutes, rotating the pans every 20 minutes or so, until evenly browned and fork-tender. No need to flip as long as you adjust the sheets on higher and lower levels as you spin them around.

Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 tablespoons of oil in a large stock pot over medium heat on the stove. Add the garlic and cook until golden brown and highly aromatic, stirring frequently to prevent the pieces from burning; about 5 – 7 minutes. Sprinkle in all of the spice and mix well, toasting for just 1 minute to unlock their full flavor potential. Quickly deglaze with the crushed tomatoes, scraping the bottom of the pot with your spatula to make sure everything is fully incorporated. Bring up to a simmer and add the chickpeas and olives.

Reduce the heat to low, cover, and simmer for an additional 15 – 20 minutes. Stir in the lemon juice, give it a taste, and add the remaining 1/2 teaspoon of salt, if needed.

For the couscous, set another large pot on the stove over medium heat. Add the oil and garlic, and cook until golden. Add in the couscous next and stir well, coating that granules with oil and toasting until the mixture smells wonderfully nutty and garlicky. Pour in the vegetable stock and stir in the turmeric. Bring to a boil, cover, and turn off the heat. Let sit, undisturbed, for 15 minutes until the grains have absorbed all of the liquid. Fluff with a fork before transferring it to the bottom of a large ceramic tagine (or casserole dish fit for serving table side.)

To complete the tagine, cover the couscous with the chickpea stew and arrange the roasted vegetables attractively on top. Finish with a sprinkle of fresh parsley and pepitas, and serve immediately, while piping hot.

If you’d like to prepare the tagine in advance, you can make the entire assembly up to 5 hours before serving. Cover and store in the fridge. Reheat in an oven preheated to 375 degrees for 15 – 30 minutes, depending on how conductive your serving dish is. Just check periodically to see if it’s hot all the way through.

You can also create the individual components up to 2 days in advance. Just store them separately in airtight containers in the fridge. Be sure to re-fluff the couscous before proceeding with the rest of the construction.

Makes 10 – 12 Servings

Printable Recipe

Triangles and Tribulations

If ever a single holiday could rival the festivities of Halloween, it would have to be Purim. The comparisons are obvious: Fanciful costumes, parties and games, and of course, sweet treats. Where Purim has the leg up on the competition, however, is in those much celebrated edible offerings. Rather than merely candy, hamantaschen are the traditional pastry-based prize. They’ve become synonymous with the observance, almost more important to the observance than the historical significance itself. A Purim party without hamantaschen would be like underwear without elastic; uncomfortable at best, but in practical terms, truly impossible.

Previous years have seen the sugar-flecked and jam-splattered variations flying fast and furious out of my oven. Traditional or avant-garde, it’s hard to go too far wrong when you start with tender, buttery cookie dough, so rich that the best cookies threaten to flatten out into triangular puddles while baking. Flipping the script in a drastically new approach is a dangerous proposition, considering their fervent following, but I can never leave well enough alone. Perhaps they’re only hamantaschen in spirit, but since any food with three corners can stand in as a representation of Haman’s hat, I’m hoping my wild digression might still get a pass.

Savory, not sweet. Steamed, not baked. Wonton wrapper, not cookie. We can argue the disparities all day long, but when it comes down to it, there’s no question about their taste. Stuffed with gloriously green edamame filling, these dumplings are a quicker and easier alternative to the typically fussy sweet dough, and offer much needed substance after overdosing on the aforementioned pastries. General folding advice still stands as a good guideline to follow when wrapping things up, but once you get those papery thin skins to stick, you’re pretty much golden. If you’re less confident in your dumpling prowess, cut yourself a break and fold square dumplings wrappers in half instead. You’ll still get neat little triangles, and with much less full.

Short on time but long on appetite, I’m not ashamed to take a few shortcuts to get these delightful little dumplings on the table. You can go all out with homemade edamame hummus and even dumpling skins from scratch, but this quick-fix solution allows you to steam up a quick batch at the last minute, or any time the craving strikes.

Edamame Hamantaschen Dumplings

1 Cup Shelled Edamame
1/3 Cup Edamame Hummus
1 Scallion, Thinly Sliced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1/2 Teaspoon Finely Minced Fresh Ginger
1 Teaspoon Soy Sauce
1 Teaspoon Toasted Sesame Oil
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin

Savoy Cabbage
15 (3-Inch) Round Wonton Skins or Gyoza Wrappers*
Additional Soy Sauce, to Serve

*You can typically find these either in the produce section near the tofu, or in the freezer aisle with other Asian ingredients. Double-check the labels because these sometimes include eggs.

The filling comes together in a snap so for maximum efficiency, set up your steaming apparatus first. Line a bamboo steamer or metal steam rack with leaves of savoy cabbage to prevent the dumplings from sticking to the bottom, and start the water simmering in a large pot.

Simply mix together the shelled edamame, hummus, scallion, garlic, ginger, soy sauce, sesame oil, and cumin, stirring thoroughly. Lay out your dumpling wrappers and place about 1 tablespoon of filling in the center of each one. Run a lightly moistened finger around the entire perimeter and bring the sides together, forming three bounding walls. Tightly crimp the corners together with a firm pinch.

Place on the cabbage leaves and cover the steamer or pot. Steam for 2 – 4 minutes, until the wrappers are translucent. Serve immediately, with additional soy sauce for dipping if desired.

Makes 15 Dumplings

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