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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Que Pasta?

Some foods are just better in concept than reality. Towering sandwiches built way beyond the capacity of an average mouth are sure to disgorge their fillings after even the most careful bites. Ice cream sundaes gleaming with a scoop of every flavor are guaranteed to melt into murky sludge, no matter how many spoons are digging in. Don’t even get me started on coleslaw so slick with mayonnaise that it could also pass for white cabbage soup.

All these disappointments are easily prevented, but 9 times out of 10, the basic construction is a recipe for failure. Seven layer dip is a top offender in my eyes, a frustration compounded by the potential of each flavorful new tier. Refried beans, salsa, cheese, guacamole, olives, lettuce, and herbs – What’s not to love? Well, let’s start with the physical impossibility of fitting all that goodness on top of one tortilla chip, defeating the whole purpose of that deliberate assembly. if you can manage dig down to the bottom without breaking said chip, you’ll be up to your knuckles in guacamole, which strikes me as a pretty serious party foul.

Perhaps we’ve just been thinking about this all wrong. Instead of serving as a starter, these flavorful layers are really meant for the main event. Trade that frilly shredded lettuce for more substantial fare like pasta, and we’ve got a game-changing entree on our hands.

Imagine if baked ziti went on a vacation to Mexico and came back with a fresh new lease on life. Emboldened with spicy enchilada sauce, this unconventional addition allows you full license to scoop out the entire stratified marvel in one satisfying serving.

Gluten-free Tresomega Nutrition noodles inspired this dinner time revelation thanks to their second annual blogger recipe contest. Made of organic quinoa, rice, and amaranth, these macaroni are one of the rare wheat-free varieties up to the task, remaining properly al dente when cooked with care. Snag a box or two online at Sam’s Club and find much more inspiration on the Tresomega Facebook page and Twitter feed

Complex in flavor but not in preparation, you can speed through assembly with some easy food hacks, pull out all the stops with homemade staples, or mix and match depending on your preference- and patience. Most critical here is the creamy cashew-based cheese sauce, which has a subtle tang thanks to unsweetened yogurt and the subtle smoky spice of chipotle canned in adobo, but in a pinch, good old pepper jack style vegan cheese shreds will certainly do the trick. There’s no shame in make it mostly homemade; a little shortcut is better than not cooking at all, every single time.

Lose the chips and dip into a new favorite main dish with those same luscious savory layers. This bold new interpretation was built on a stronger foundation than those earlier models and will never let you down.

Seven-Layer Pasta Bake

1 (15.4-Ounce) Can Refried Pinto Beans or 1 3/4 Cups Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (8-Ounce Box) Tresomega Quinoa Elbow or Penne Pasta
1 (10-Ounce) Can Red Enchilada Sauce or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1 (14.5-Ounce) Can Diced Fire-Roasted Tomatoes, Drained
1 – 2 Cups Vegan Cheese Shreds or Homemade Cheese Sauce (See Following Recipe)
1 Cup Guacamole, Prepared or Homemade (See Following Recipe)
1/2 Cup Sliced Black Olives
2 – 3 Scallions, Thinly Sliced

Preheat your oven to 350 degrees and lightly grease a 7 x 11-inch casserole pan. If possible, opt for glass to see all those lovely layers! Set aside.

Set a large pot over high heat on the stove and bring approximately 4 quarts of water to a rapid boil. Add the pasta and cook, stirring occasionally to prevent sticking, for only 6 minutes. It will be noticeably under-cooked, but that’s exactly what you want! If you cook it to al dente perfection now, it will get too soft after baking. Immediately drain and rinse with cold water.

Begin the assembly process by smearing the refried beans evenly across the bottom of the prepared casserole dish. In a separate bowl, toss the par-cooked pasta with enchilada sauce, stirring well to coat, before evenly distributing the spicy noodles on top. Add the drained fire-roasted tomatoes next, followed by the vegan cheese shreds or sauce.

Bake for 20 – 30 minutes, until hot all the way through and lightly browned on top. Let stand for at least 5 minutes before topping with dollops of guacamole, a sprinkle of black olives, and a final flurry of sliced scallions. Serve right away, while piping hot.

Makes 6 – 8 Servings

Unfried Refried Beans:

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1/2 Yellow Onion, Minced
1 Clove Garlic, Finely Minced
1 (14-Ounce Can) or 1 1/2 Cups Cooked Pinto Beans, Thoroughly Drained
1/4 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 – 1/2 Cup Vegetable Stock

Heat the olive oil in a medium saucepan over moderate heat. Once shimmering, add the onion and garlic, sauteing until aromatic and lightly browned. This should only take about 8 – 10 minutes, so don’t wander off!

Add in the pinto beans, cumin, salt, and 1/4 cup of the vegetable stock next. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer for 5 minutes. Take a potato masher and smash the beans into creamy submission, adding more stock if needed to reach the right consistency. Enjoy hot or let cool before storing an an air-tight container in the fridge, for up to a week.

Instant Enchilada Sauce:

1 (6-Ounce) Can Tomato Paste
1/4 Cup Vegetable Stock or Water
1 Teaspoon Onion Powder
1 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1 Teaspoon Dried Oregano
1 Teaspoon Ground Cumin
2 Tablespoons Chili Powder
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

This is really a no-recipe sort of recipe that you could probably figure out by simply looking at the list of ingredients. All you need to do is whisk everything together until smooth and you’re good to go!

Easy Chipotle Cheese Sauce:

1 Cup Raw Cashews, Soaked in Hot Water for 1 – 2 Hours
1/2 Cup Unsweetened Plain Vegan Yogurt
1 Chipotle Canned in Adobo Sauce
3 Tablespoons Nutritional yeast
1/2 Teaspoon Garlic Powder
1/2 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 – 3/4 Cup Water

Thoroughly drain the soaked cashews before tossing them into your blender with the yogurt, chipotle, nutritional yeast, garlic powder, salt, and 1/2 cup water. Begin blending on low speed, slowly ramping it up to high as the nuts are broken down. Pause to scrape down the sides of the container as needed, making sure that all the pieces are incorporated. Puree until completely smooth, drizzling in up to 1/4 additional water while running the motor if needed, to reach a silky, pourable consistency, somewhat like pancake batter.

You can enjoy this all by itself as a simple queso dip or spicy cream sauce, but it can also be stored in an air-tight container in the fridge for up to 4 days if not using immediately.

Basic Guacamole:

2 Large, Ripe Avocados
1/4 Cup Finely Chopped Onion
1 Jalapeno, Finely Minced (Optional)
2 Tablespoons Lime Juice
1/4 Teaspoon Salt

In case you needed a refresher course on how to make guacamole… it’s okay. We all have days like that.

Pit and peel your avocados, placing them in a medium bowl along with the onion, jalapeno (if you like it hot,) lime juice, and salt. Roughly mash with a fork or potato masher until creamy but still slightly chunky. Use or eat right away; guacamole is always best fresh.

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Grace Under Pressure

The race is on: Stomachs are rumbling and the call for a quick, cozy dinner is at fever pitch. Even the thought of bundling up to grab Chinese takeout seems onerous, too exhausting after spending so much time on the road or at work already. Besides, once jackets are off and pajama pants are on, there’s no going back.

I have good news for you. Believe it or not, the makings of a hearty, warm, restorative meal are already sitting in your pantry, and they’ll come together in mere minutes, with minimal effort. You don’t even need to leave the plush luxury of your bunny slippers to make it happen.

Could there be anything more comforting than a big bowlful of velvety tomato soup? Whole cashews are cooked right into the mix for this almost instant blend, transforming humble broth and vegetables into an impossibly luscious, creamy bisque. Fire-roasted and sun-dried tomatoes join forces to lend a robust, full-bodied tomato flavor that tastes like it spent all day simmering on the stove; only you need to know it needed just a few minutes in the pressure cooker.

No fancy equipment? No problem. Bring out your standard soup pot and plan to simmer for a little bit longer. It may be difficult to wait, but it’s worth the extra time, and still beats greasy lo mein by a long shot.

Heat ‘n Eat Creamy Tomato Bisque

1 Tablespoon Olive Oil
1 Medium Yellow Onion, Diced
3 Cloves Garlic, Minced
1 Teaspoon Salt
4 Cups Low-Sodium Vegetable Stock
1 (28 ounce) Can Fire-Roasted Crushed Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Sun-Dried Tomatoes
1/2 Cup Raw Cashews
2 Tablespoons Nutritional Yeast
1 Tablespoon Balsamic Vinegar
1/2 Teaspoon Ground Black Pepper
1/2 Cup Julienned (Thinly Sliced) Fresh Basil

Heat the oil in your pressure cooker set to sauté function. Add the onion and garlic and cook until softened; about 5 minutes. Sprinkle in the salt and continuing cooking for about 10 minutes, until the onions begin to evenly brown. Be patient while caramelizing the onions because the more golden-brown they get, the more-flavorful your soup will be.

Pour vegetable stock into the cooker along with the undrained can of tomatoes, sun-dried tomatoes, cashews, nutritional yeast, vinegar, and black pepper. Lock the pressure cooker lid in place and close the steam vent.

Seal and cook over high pressure for 8 minutes. Once the cooking cycle has completed, quick-release the steam vent to quickly break the seal.

Transfer the soup to a blender and thoroughly puree until completely smooth. Ladle into bowls and garnish with basil to serve.

Makes 4 – 6 Servings

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Baking a Difference

You wouldn’t know it at a glance or from the taste, but there’s a lot more than meets the tongue baked into every immaculate mahogany and tawny brown square from Greyston Bakery. If you can temper your appetite long enough to examine the label, you’ll know there’s something different about these treats beyond the essential formula. Raising up people within the community is just as important as raising dough, literally and figuratively, which their Open Hiring Model especially admiral. It should come as no surprise that this progressive company would partner with fellow corporate radicals, Ben & Jerry’s, to supply the infamous brownies in their game-changing vegan pints. My first taste of those darkly decadent, fudgy chunks came smothered in rapidly melting chocolate ice cream, but it wasn’t long before they compelled me to seek out a whole, bare bite.

Genuinely baked bars of soft dark chocolate, they’re the platonic ideal of any brownie, making the case for vegan desserts on a grand new scale. Very sweet, undeniably indulgent, super chewy, and complete with gently crackled top, I dare you to find a single flaw along those edible fault lines.

Now, after 36 years, achieving such lofty goals with unprecedented success has encouraged these bold bakers to expand their offerings with that same spirit of inclusivity in mind. For their second act in vegan baking activism, at long last, a blondie has been born.

The Vegan Cinnamon Roll Blondie is so soft and tender, each sweet morsel practically melts in your mouth. Sprinkled with cinnamon sugar for a light crunch and extra pop, they could be alternately called “snickerdoodle bars” to suit the simplistic approach. No nuts, no fruits, no nonsense, they’re sure to please the pickiest of eaters. Every bit as dense and satisfying as their cocoa counterparts, it’s a victory for all of us to celebrate, right down to the factory line, alongside the workers themselves.

Though it’s hard to beat a fresh blondie straight out of the box, they really come alive when served slightly warm… And, it should come as no surprise, with a scoop of ice cream on top.

Do the Monster Munch

There’s certainly no shortage of sweet treats this time of year. Mountains of glittering, foil-wrapped candies adorn office desks and kitchen counters alike, tempting passersby to indulge at every turn. Though the abundance of goodies excites my sweet tooth, the wide range of offerings all too often prove disappointing to my taste buds; throat-searing sugary centers enrobed in waxy chocolate coatings are more common than not, each morsel putting on a festive facade to mask its flat flavors. Time and again, each new crop of bewitching confections fails to satisfy. Stop the madness, I say! Step away from the shiny packages and seek solace in a far more satisfying popcorn snack experience.

Matcha Munchies Green Tea Popcorn Snack

Popcorn, the crisp, fluffy kernels that boast an impressive serving of fiber in each handful are the savior of peckish healthy eaters everywhere. This workhorse snack provides the perfect blank canvas for a Halloween treat that’s a far lesser evil than those frightful mass-produced candies.

Tinted a monstrous shade of green thanks to the bold addition of green tea powder, each bite of this popcorn snack recipe rings with the complex interplay of sweet and bitter tastes, each in perfect harmony. Crunchy clusters of pumpkin seeds round out the mix with a subtly nutty flavor. Drizzling dark chocolate over the top really gilds the lily, but for an event as flamboyant as Halloween, it seems appropriate to pull out all the stops.

Matcha Munchies Green Tea Popcorn Snack

Though little trick-or-treaters may not appreciate this more mature, sugar-coated delight, that only means there’s more of this delicious popcorn snack to go around for the rest of us. It may appear to yield an intimidating amount of glorious green kernels, but don’t you dream of reducing the recipe. Not even the most sour ghost or ghoul could resist its wicked charm.

Matcha Monster Munch

6 Cups Freshly Popped Popcorn
1 Cup Pepitas
3/4 Cup Granulated Sugar
2 Teaspoons Matcha
1/4 Cup Brown Rice Syrup
1 Tablespoon Vegan Butter or Coconut Oil, Melted
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/2 Teaspoon Vanilla Extract
4 Ounces (About 3/4 Cup Chopped) Bittersweet Chocolate, Melted

Preheat your oven to 200 degrees and lightly grease a jelly roll pan or any rimmed baking sheet. Combine the popped corn and pumpkin seeds in a large bowl and set aside.

In medium saucepan with high sides, combine the sugar, matcha, rice syrup, melted butter or coconut oil, and salt. Whisk vigorously to break up any small clumps of matcha before proceeding. They can be tricky to disperse, especially in hot liquids, so don’t be afraid to really beat the mixture up while you have the chance. Set the pan on the stove over medium heat.

Periodically stir as the mixture heats up, until the sugar has dissolved. Once it reaches a full boil, stop stirring and allow it to cook at a lively bubble for 5 minutes. Don’t rush it!

Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Working quickly but carefully, pour the hot sugar syrup over your bowl of popped corn and gently stir to coat. Transfer the entire thing over to your prepared baking pan, spreading it out into an even a layer as possible, and move it into your oven. Bake, stirring every 15 minutes, for 1 hour.

Let cool completely before drizzling all over with melted chocolate. Allow the chocolate to fully set before breaking the popcorn into large clusters. Store in an airtight container in a cool place for 3 – 4 days, maximum.

Makes About 7 Cups; 6 – 8 Servings

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Ghost Stories

BOO! Looming ominously just beyond sight, Halloween lurks exactly where you’d expect to find it, behind that last door down the creaky corridor at the end of the month. Still, we approach hesitantly, uncertain as we slowly grasp the knob, unaware of the audience’s cries. No, don’t do it! Obviously the killer is in there! October 31st springs out in jarring eruptions of ghouls and goblins, pumpkins and black cats, knocking us out of the usual routine, if only in periodic heart-pounding spurts.

Halloween was once the holiday that I built my entire calendar around, the one day of the year I truly looked forward to. Like most kids who grow up into jaded adults, that enthusiasm has waned, but not entirely disappeared. All Hallows Eve is still an opportunity to indulge in some good-spirited mischief, whimsy, and sweet treats.

If you, too, have been caught off guard by this festive apparition with scant ingredients and nothing prepared to stave off the tiny, hungry demons at your door, don’t panic. I have just the trick for you.

Fudge, without a drop of chocolate? You bet! Highlighting the delicate, ambrosial flavor of full-bodied vanilla bean instead, this creamy confection is sure to be a hit with kids or anyone with an assertive sweet tooth. Though some may argue it’s more akin to solidified frosting than a proper snack, it all depends on the quality of your vanilla, and tolerance for a bit of sugary indulgence. Simply slice it into small cubes if you don’t have a ghostly cookie cutter, as just a little bit is sure to satisfy.

Ghostly Vanilla Fudge

2 Cups Granulated Sugar
1 Cup Unsweetened Non-Dairy Milk
1/4 Teaspoon Salt
1/4 Cup Vegan Butter
2 Tablespoons Vanilla Extract

Lightly grease an 8 x 8-inch square pan, and set aside.

In a large, high-sided saucepan, combine the sugar, non-dairy milk, and salt. Stir thoroughly to distribute the ingredients, and then leave the mixture alone until it comes to a steady boil. Clip on a candy thermometer, and cook until it reaches 238 – 240 degrees, stirring CONSTANTLY, or else the pot is liable to boil over and make a big sticky mess- Mark my words!

Once it reaches the proper temperature, remove the saucepan from the heat, and allow the mixture to cool to 110 degrees. Add in the butter and vanilla, but do NOT touch it while it’s cooling; just keep that spatula at bay for now. As soon as it hits 110, start beating it vigorously with a sturdy spoon or spatula, and just keep stirring until it feels like your arms are about to fall off. It should take anywhere from 10 – 15 minutes before the mixture will thicken and loose some of its shine. At that point, you can pour it into your prepared pan, tap it a few times on the counter to smooth out the top and release any air bubbles, and then transfer it to the fridge to chill.

Let rest for at least 3 hours before cutting, into either simple squares or cute shapes, using a small ghost-shaped cookie cutter. For ghostly eyes, press round sprinkles into the heads, or use tiny drops of melted chocolate (applied with a toothpick.)

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