Pumpkin for Christmas: who knew? My Midwestern pals, that’s who. Putting together two back-to-back holiday parties for my best friend, who cherishes her Minnesotan roots, I was surprised that she put pumpkin cake, made in a Bundt pan, of course, on the top of her list of must-have treats for the table. She was right: big smiles lit up the faces of the guests who hailed from Chicago and Minneapolis when they spied the cinnamon-brown Bundt. “Pumpkin cake for Christmas! I was just thinking about that,” said one. “With whipped cream, of course,” agreed another.
It makes sense, though: such a cake is dense and spicy, redolent of all the fragrant holiday spices that perfume everything from gingersnaps to mulled cider and hot wine this time of year. It’s easy to throw together, since a couple cans of pumpkin are probably already in the cabinet, souvenirs of Thanksgiving’s pie-minded supermarket stock-up. (A recent report found that 20% of Americans always have canned pumpkin on hand in their pantries. Having poked around in a lot of home kitchens, though, I would guess that most of that pumpkin was bought in 1993, forgotten, and never moved or dusted since.) If not, there’s a plethora of gorgeous fresh winter squash out there, ready to be roasted and mashed.
(The nomenclature of pumpkin bread aside, I’ve found that butternut squash gives the most consistently full-flavored results, and cranking your freshly roasted squash through a food mill turns any stringy chunks into a velvety puree.)
The pumpkin cake I made for last week’s holiday party was a basic buttery-cinnamony recipe originally published in Gourmet. It was light and moist, thanks to the pumpkin and buttermilk. I added powdered ginger, fresh nutmeg, and a pinch of cloves to the mix; having just cinnamon and allspice is like the Brady Brunch without Cindy, Jan, or Alice.
Turns out I wasn’t the only one thinking about pumpkin at this time of year. Talking to my old pal Jennifer Joseph, poet, founder and publisher of the excellent Manic D Press, and Bernal baker par excellence, I got the inside scoop on the pumpkin cake she made last week, which was devoured, down to the crumbs in less than two days by her husband and daughter. Made with whole-wheat pastry flour, fresh cranberries, walnuts, chocolate chips, and pumpkin, it was, she said, “secretly good for you,” and we all know chocolate is a health food, right?
It also looks particularly bright and festive, which meant it wasn’t too much of a jump to take it from afternoon cake to morning bread. I’ve cut back the sugar a little, subbing in apple juice (or cider) for the water in Jen’s original recipe so as to add a little more natural sweetness and flavor. Served warm, this bread is lovely on its own, or spread with a little whipped cream cheese.
Secretly Good for You Pumpkin Breakfast Bread
Fresh cranberries add a nice tanginess to this sweet bread. Stock up on cranberries when you find them in late autumn; they freeze beautifully and don’t need to be thawed before using. In a pinch, you can use dried cranberries, but since they’re already sweetened, they won’t add as much contrast to the finished loaf.
Yield: 1 loaf
Prep Time: 20 minutes
Cook Time: 50-60 minues
Total Time: 1 hour, 10-20 minutes
1 1/2 cups whole wheat pastry flour
1 1/2 tsp pumpkin pie spice (see note, below)
1 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
1 cup pumpkin puree
1/2 cup sugar
1/4 cup canola oil, melted butter, or melted coconut oil
1/4 cup apple juice
2 tbsp molasses
1/2 cup chopped fresh cranberries
1/2 cup chopped walnuts
1/2 cup dark or white chocolate chips, optional
1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a loaf pan or metal or Pyrex ring mold.
2. In a large bowl, sift together flour, spices, baking soda, and salt.
3. In a medium bowl, beat eggs, sugar, pumpkin, oil, apple juice, and molasses together.
4. Stir pumpkin mixture into flour mixture, stopping when just mixed. Gently stir in cranberries, walnuts, and chocolate chips, if using. Spoon into prepared pan.
5. Bake 50-60 minutes for a loaf pan, ring mold 40-50 minutes, until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
Note: Pumpkin pie spice, sometimes called apple pie spice, is a blend of commonly used baking spices, usually including cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and/or cloves. For this recipe, you can substitute 3/4 tsp cinnamon, 1/4 tsp freshly ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp ginger, and 1/4 tsp ground cloves or allspice.