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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You’re a Peach, My Dear

Few things can match the sensation of biting into a ripe, fresh peach at the height of summer, so juicy that it must be eaten over a sink. Soft fuzz easily gives way to tender flesh brilliantly sweet, floral, and aromatic. It’s a perfect dessert, all by itself, no garnishes need apply.

Sadly but surely, the seasons are marching onward, away from this most wonderful time of year. Don’t miss your chance to indulge in the last of this year’s harvest.

These delightfully chewy cookie bars present another way to enjoy these incomparable fruits, even if the selection isn’t quite as robust. Toasted pecans and fresh peaches, the star of the show, lend these treats a gentle Southern accent. Each sweet square is lightly caramelized through the baking process, ending with a rich, toffee-like flavor.

Southern Peach Streusel Bars

Peach Filling:

5 Ripe Peaches, Divided
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
1 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
3 Tablespoon Cornstarch
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger

Cookie Base and Streusel:

1/2 Cup Vegan Butter
1 Cup Dark Brown Sugar, Firmly Packed
1 1/2 Cups All Purpose or White Whole Wheat Flour
1/2 Cup Finely Ground Pecan or Almond Meal
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Cinnamon
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 – 2 Tablespoons Plain Non-Dairy Milk
3/4 Cup Toasted and Chopped Pecans

First, prepare the filling so that it has time to cool. Begin by removing the pits from four of your peaches, and roughly chopping the flesh before tossing it into your food processor along with the sugar and cornstarch. Blend thoroughly until smooth, and then transfer the puree into a medium sauce pan. Set on the stove over medium heat, whisking occasionally, until the mixture has thickened significantly and bubbles are breaking regularly on the surface. Turn off the heat, and incorporate the vanilla and ginger. Set aside and let cool.

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees, lightly grease 9 x 13-inch baking pan; Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer or food processor, beat the butter briefly to soften. Add in the brown sugar and thoroughly cream together with the margarine, until fluffy and homogeneous. Sift in the flour, pecan or almond meal, cornstarch, cinnamon, and salt, and mix on low speed to combine. The resulting mixture will be rather dry, so with the mixer running. slowly drizzle in the non-dairy milk, a teaspoon at a time, using just enough to bring everything together into a cohesive dough when pressed.

Take 2/3 of that dough and crumble it across the bottom of your prepared pan. Use your fingers to press it out into one even layer that will form the base. If you don’t have enough to cover the bottom, you can use a bit more of the dough, but bear in mind that the base shouldn’t be too thick. Bake in your preheated oven for 12 – 15 minutes, until golden brown.

Meanwhile, take your chopped pecans, and knead them into the remaining dough to create the streusel topping.

Once the base is ready, remove it from the oven, and evenly spread the cooled peach filling on top. Pit and roughly chop the one remaining peach, and scatter it across the peach jam filling. Finally, use your fingers to break apart clumps of streusel, and sprinkle them over the peaches. Slide the pan bake into the oven, and bake for another 20 – 25 minutes, until aromatic and the streusel is golden brown all over. Let cool completely before slicing.

Makes 24 – 30 Bars

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Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peas

Some may find it crude. Some may be downright offended. I’ve simply decided to fully embrace all the pea-ness that this fleeting spring harvest has to offer. Really, there’s no way of going back at this point. I’ve already pea’d on my pizza. I even pea’d on my toast– At work, no less! Dining alfreso has been a true joy as the weather continues to improve, allowing me to pea outside with Luka, too. It’s safe to say that I’m going to keep on pea-ing everywhere until this stream of inspiration runs dry.

Did you really think I could resist sharing another pea-s of my mind before the short growing season passed us by? Girl, peas.

Hungry but tired after a full day of work, I seriously had to pea by the time dinner rolled around. Riffling through the fridge and pantry yielded a few delectable treasures to create an instant, effortless peas de résistance. Spinach and ricotta ravioli, quickly sauteed in garlic and butter, needs no further culinary intervention to shine, but a light sprinkle of coarse black pepper and crunchy veggie bacon certainly didn’t hurt.

Still, for all that fancy frippery, the real focal point of this meal was still those glorious green orbs; the overall combination easily a-peas’d my appetite.

Spring Things

Cherry blossoms. Butterflies. Misted, dewy mornings. Song bird serenades.

These are the things that spring is made of.

Fava beans. Asparagus. Rhubarb. Soft green herbs. Morel mushrooms.

These are the things that spring tastes like.

The promise of these things are what make winter worth enduring, no matter how brutal or seemingly interminable those frigid, forbidding days of darkness become. Slowly but surely, that veil of frost will be lifted to reveal to reveal tender green shoots emerging from quickly thawing earth, revitalized after such fitful slumber.

At long last, all signs point to spring here on the west coast, although that’s not quite the case nationwide. It’s hard to imagine blizzard conditions elsewhere while strapping on sandals to greet the day.

Should these early days of April fall short of expectations, don’t despair. One particular taste of spring is still easily accessible even if your local farmers market remains barren. Fresh peas are an exquisite treat, verdant and shockingly sweet straight out of the pod, but frozen are no terrible sacrifice in a pinch. Roughly mashed into a chunky spread with bright mint and lemon accents, the simple combination is enough to make any residual memories of winter melt away, even if the snow refuses to follow suit.

This combination of rich almond-based ricotta and bright pea puree on a slab of hearty, seeded bread is actually a limited-edition menu item on offer at Nourish Cafe. In case you can’t hustle in before the season comes to a close, it’s an easy recipe to make at home for a taste of spring that everyone can enjoy year-round, worldwide.

Yield: 4 Servings

Spring Pea Toast

Spring Pea Toast
This combination of rich almond-based ricotta and bright pea puree on a slab of hearty, seeded bread is an easy recipe to make at home for a taste of spring that everyone can enjoy year-round, worldwide.

Ingredients

Minted Pea Pistou:

  • 1/2 Cup Fresh Mint, Lightly Packed
  • 1 Cup Fresh Spinach, Lightly Packed
  • 3 Tablespoons Garlic Oil
  • 2 Tablespoon Lemon Juice
  • 1 Pound (3 Cups) Fresh, Blanched or Frozen, Thawed Green Peas
  • 1/2 Teaspoon Salt
  • 1/4 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper

For Assembly:

  • 4 Thick Slices Toast
  • 1 Cup Vegan Ricotta
  • 1/2 Cup Fresh Peas
  • Pea Shoots or Sprouts (Optional)
  • Edible Flowers (Optional)

Instructions

  1. Place the mint, spinach, garlic oil, and lemon juice in your food processor and blend until the leaves are all broken down and the mixture is fairly smooth. Pause to scrape down the sides of the container as needed to make sure everything gets incorporated. Add in the peas, salt, and pepper, and pulse until spreadable but still slightly coarse.
  2. To assemble the toast, layer on a thick schmear of vegan ricotta on each slice of bread, followed by the pea pistou and topped with fresh peas, pea shoots, and edible flowers if desired. Savor a taste of spring, no matter the weather outside!

Notes

The pea pistou can be prepared in advance and stored in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 – 4 days.

Nutrition Information:

Yield:

4

Serving Size:

1

Amount Per Serving: Calories: 216 Total Fat: 1g Saturated Fat: 0g Trans Fat: 0g Unsaturated Fat: 1g Cholesterol: 0mg Sodium: 397mg Carbohydrates: 40g Fiber: 11g Sugar: 12g Protein: 12g

Treasure Chestnuts

Inspired by the Japanese kuri gohan, the beauty of this side dish is its simplicity, highlighting the seasonal delight that is freshly roasted chestnuts. Harmonizing with the naturally nutty flavor of brown rice, those toothsome grains cling to each tender morsel for an incredibly satisfying bite. Though chestnuts are sadly hard to come by when winter ends, you’ll find yourself craving this combination all year long.

Chestnut Rice

2 Cups Short Grain Brown Rice
2 1/2 Cups Water
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1 Cup Roughly Chopped, Roasted and Shelled Chestnuts (About 20)
2 Tablespoons Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil
1 Tablespoon Toasted Black Sesame Seeds

My favorite way to prepare this dish is in an electric pressure cooker since it’s so crazy fast, but it can just as easily be made on the stove top. If working with a pressure cooker, simply toss in the rice, water, salt, chopped chestnuts, and butter or oil. Lock in the lid and set it to 20 minutes on high pressure. Once that time has elapsed, quick release by opening up the valve to immediately discharge the built up pressure. Stand back and cover with a dish towel to prevent any spray or steam burns. Let the rice stand for 5 more minutes before uncovering.

For stove top prep, combine the water, salt, and butter or oil in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat. Add the rice and chestnuts, cover, reduce the heat to low, and simmer gently for 45 to 50 minutes, until the liquid has fully absorbed. Let stand for 5 more minutes.

Top with sesame seeds right before serving.

Makes 4 Servings as a Side Dish

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Poached Trade

At their bare essentials, all holidays are based around eating and drinking to some degree, but none more so than Thanksgiving. In fact, it’s the main event! Without the gluttonous, butter-soaked spread, it would be just another family meal. Our excuse is that we’re merely celebrating the great bounty we’re so fortunate to receive, but somewhere along the line, it becomes a battle between man and sweatpants, seeing which will give under the pressure first.

Today, I would like to offer you the antidote to that over-the-top indulgence, in the form of a persimmon. Elegant simplicity defines this plate; more of a procedure than a full recipe, the most essential step is one not written in the instructions. Start with only the very best fruit, or don’t bother starting at all.

I would never suggest that such a humble dessert, delicious as it may be, could ever replace the traditional slab of pumpkin or pecan pie. Rather, consider each one a sweet little snack that’s something extra special for the occasion. Serve these dainty orange orbs midday to stave off that familiar, gnawing hunger while dinner slowly roasts to prevent the inevitable frenzied binge. Alternatively, save them for the following day when those sticky, crumbly, half-eaten pies aren’t nearly so appealing.

Poached Persimmons

5 Fuyu Persimmons, Stemmed and Peeled
3 Cups Pineapple Juice
2 Tablespoons Dark Rum
2 Inches Fresh Ginger, Sliced
1 Vanilla Bean, Split
Zest of 1 Orange, Peeled Off in Strips
2 Tablespoons Cornstarch

Whipped Ginger Fluff:

1/4 Cup Aquafaba
1/2 Cup Granulated Sugar
3/4 Teaspoon Ground Ginger
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract

5 Tablespoons Toasted Pistachios, for Garnish

Core out the persimmons, removing the calyxes, and peel. Place them in a medium saucepan along with the pineapple juice, rum, fresh ginger, vanilla bean, and orange zest. Bring the liquid up to a boil, reduce to a simmer, cover, and gently cook for 20 – 30 minutes, until the fruits are fork-tender.

Remove the persimmons with a slotted spoon, leaving the excess poaching liquid behind in the pan. Remove and discard the ginger pieces, spent vanilla bean, and orange peel. Whisk in the cornstarch and return it to the heat. Bring the mixture back to a boil, whisking periodically, until thickened. Set aside.

When you’re ready to make the fluff, begin whipping the aquafaba in your stand mixer on low. Gradually increase the speed all the way to the highest setting and slowly begin adding the sugar and ginger together. Once incorporated, add in the vanilla. Continue whipping for about 10 minutes, until light and fluffy.

To serve, spoon a dollop of the ginger fluff on top of each persimmon and top with a tablespoon of the pistachios. Divide the sauce equally between the plates and enjoy warm.

Makes 5 Servings

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