There are several words that are synonymous with the American Thanksgiving. The top five T-day words that annually invade and disrupt my own thought pattern are turkey, stuffing, cranberries, sweet potatoes and pumpkin.
Oh, pumpkin. I have so much love for pumpkin, yet in the same breath I can curse it to exhaustion. Does every single food and body product have to be infiltrated with pumpkin? I’m so over the sickeningly sweet pumpkin-spice lattes, and I’ve just had way too many pumpkin pies in the course of my 34-year existence that I stopped counting long ago.
I admit that Trader Joe’s pumpkin body butter is the stuff of which my autumn-loving dreams are made. But still, every year around the middle of September, I’m so anxiously waiting to start roasting pie pumpkins (and their glorious little seeds) when they come into season and then chemically transform them into magnificent morsels of edible expression. Like most people who dwell in the U.S., I drag my feet like the programmed pumpkin-loving humanoid that I am to the kitchen and start pulling out last year’s sale cans of pumpkin puree.
This year I refuse to make another pumpkin pie. I’ll probably have no choice but to make my famous streusel-topped sweet-potato bake, sans the awful marshmallows, if I wish to be re-invited to turkey day dinner. America, what is your deal with topping sweet potatoes with horribly sweet pillows of gelatinized egg whites and sugar anyway? I’ve never understood nor forgiven you for such a culinary atrocity. Marshmallows are for s’mores. And hot chocolate. But I digress.
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The other thing, aside from over-consumption, about pumpkin that causes me to be a bit hesitant in using it in sweet applications is that many people do not care for it. Like at all. Many folks associate dessert-pumpkin use with custards and pies. I am surprised at how many people with whom I’ve talked really have deep dislike for pumpkin pie. They start to associate all pumpkin-flavored things as tasting like the egg-y, dense pie that does not tickle their fickle fancy in the slightest.
This “team no-pumpkin-pie” movement brought me to wanting to remind bakers and consumers that pumpkin has so many other uses aside from being the star of its namesake pastry. Pumpkin on its own doesn’t really possess a strong flavor. This is how you can easily sneak it into a chili or soup and not even know it’s there. The same goes for the sweeter side of life, such as in cookies and cakes. What really makes pumpkin-enhanced foods taste pumpkin-y are the spices and added sugars. An abundance of fresh ginger, ground cinnamon, grated nutmeg and fragrant cloves, along with mega-doses of brown sugar are what remind your palate that there’s pumpkin in that thing you’re eating. Cutting back particularly on these spicy additions can mellow out the identity of the orange squash-and-gourd-cousin and allow you to use the vitamin A rich flesh for its other wonderful characteristics, such as adding moisture to your baked goods.
One additional palate pleaser I use in tricking my pumpkin-hating friends into loving my seasonal orange-colored pastries is to add chocolate. Pumpkin and chocolate were seriously made for each other. Go have yourself a soft pumpkin sugar cookie, glazed in rich chocolate ganache and tell me I’m full of it. You can’t and you won’t.
With this not-so-serious arrogance of mine, I present to you a fantastic and fairly easy recipe you’ll not only want to use to impress your Thanksgiving Day guests and give them a taste of something nontraditional, but you’ll be craving it on an odd and hot day in the middle of summer and wish you had an old can of pumpkin puree, hiding in a dusty corner in the back of your pantry. Even better, I’m going to be including both dairy and gluten-free options.
Instead of fussing with pastry dough to make the same played-out pie, give the gift of cupcakes. I have created for you a buttery, fluffy and perfectly moist cake that is loaded with mini chocolate chips, glazed in chocolate ganache, and then topped with the creamiest cinnamon buttercream ever.
There are a few secrets to getting the buttercream to taste impressively delicious and not sickeningly sweet. First, it’s imperative that you go to Michael’s, the craft store, and find the Lorann butter-vanilla baking emulsion in the Wilton/baking section. I found this out by accident one day as I had run out of pure vanilla and had only this bottle for whatever reason, but this stuff seriously takes the flavor to another level. It tastes like it came straight from the bakery without having the chemical aftertaste of which most people aren’t so fond.
It also allows you to use some shortening in place of butter in the frosting to give extra stability. All-butter frostings can become unstable in hot kitchens, and so it’s good to be able to remedy this problem without sacrificing taste. But the Lorann brand is the only one I’ve used that doesn’t taste like “fake” butter flavoring. If you absolutely cannot find time to wander through Michael’s, regular vanilla extract will work. You just won’t have quite the same depth and richness of the butter flavor.
The next secret is to use the finest salt you can get your hands on. Using unsalted butter but adding some salt later allows you to be in total control of how much is being added and how much will be tasted later on. Please don’t worry about your buttercream tasting “salty.” It won’t. I promise. In fact, salt added to sweet items actually enhances the sweet and all the other flavors. The salt I recommend is Mortin’s popcorn salt, which comes in a little blue container and is sold at Wal-Mart in the baking aisle near the rest of the spices. If you cannot find the popcorn salt, regular table salt will work. Just don’t use a coarse salt such as sea or kosher.
And finally … beat the dickens out of that buttercream. Yes, really. Whipping the butter and shortening for an extended period of time incorporates body and air into the final product, and it also helps the frosting to taste less sweet. Essentially it creates more product, similar to how some ice cream factories whip a lot of air into their frozen treats. More volume, better sugar distribution, much improved tasting buttercream.
Vegans, unfortunately there isn’t a good way to substitute the eggs in the cake recipe as too many are used, but you can make both the buttercream and ganache dairy-free and just use with your favorite vegan pumpkin cupcake recipe.
From my humble midtown kitchen to yours, I wish you all the happiest of Thanksgiving dinners. May all bellies be full and blessed.
Pumpkin Chocolate-chip Cupcakes with Chocolate Ganache
Note: Gluten-free and dairy-free options included below.
Makes 24-26 cupcakes, using a 2-ounce scoop
For the cake:
3 cups all-purpose flour (For gluten-free version, use 2 cups brown rice flour [see note below], 2/3 cups potato starch, 1/3 cup tapioca or arrowroot starch, and 3/4 teaspoon xanthan gum.)
1 tablespoon baking powder
1 tablespoon baking soda
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/2 cup butter (1 stick) (Use Earth Balance baking sticks for dairy-free/vegan.)
1/2 cup oil, divided
1 cup brown sugar
3/4 cup white sugar
4 eggs, room temperature
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 cup mini chocolate chips
For the ganache:
1 cup chocolate chips, or 8 ounces of good quality baking chocolate
1/2 cup heavy cream (Use full-fat coconut milk from the can for dairy-free/vegan.)
Heat oven to 325 degrees and line a cupcake/muffin pan (or two pans of 12-muffin cups) with cupcake liners.
In a large bowl, sift together the flour, baking soda and powder, spices and salt; set aside. In bowl of stand mixer, cream together the butter, sugars and 1/4 cup of the oil on medium speed for two minutes, or just until the mixture becomes light and fluffy.
Add in the eggs on low speed, one at a time. Scrape down the bowl with a spatula and continue mixing on medium-low speed for an additional two minutes. Add in the pumpkin puree and remaining oil and mix on low speed until everything is incorporated. Add the dry ingredients in two parts, mixing on low speed until everything is incorporated. You can use your spatula to scrape down the bowl and make sure all the flour has been mixed in without over-mixing. Fold in the chocolate chips by hand.
Portion the cake batter into the cupcake pans with a slightly-rounded 2-ounce scoop. Bake cupcakes for 16 minutes or just until the center comes clean with an inserted toothpick. Allow cupcakes to cool completely before dipping in the ganache.
Once the cupcakes are nearly cool, you can start making the ganache by heating the cream to a near-boil and then pouring over the top of the chocolate chips in a glass or metal bowl; allow the mixture to sit two minutes and then whisk vigorously until the chocolate and cream are completely combined, smooth and glossy.
Dip each cupcake in the melted ganache, spinning it around so that the excess can drip off; place dipped cupcakes back onto cooling rack. To speed up the drying process of the ganache, you may place the cupcakes in the fridge for half an hour or a freezer for about 10 to 15 minutes. Otherwise, allow the ganache to firm up at room temperature for at least an hour.
Once the ganache has hardened enough to hold your buttercream, you may go ahead and either pipe a swirl of frosting onto the top of the cupcake or simply use a spoon to pile it on top. Garnish with extra mini chocolate chips or hand-shaved chocolate.
Note: I recommend using Bob’s Red Mill brown rice flour. It’s inexpensive, easy to find and yields the best texture of all the health-food store brands I’ve tried.
Tastes-Like-Bakery Cinnamon Buttercream
2 cups unsalted butter (4 sticks) (Use Earth Balance baking sticks for dairy-free alternative.)
1 cup shortening
1 tablespoon butter-vanilla Lorann bakery emulsion
3-4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
3/4 teaspoon fine salt
8 cups sifted powdered sugar
In the bowl of a stand mixer with paddle attachment, cream together the butter and shortening on medium-high speed for five minutes, or until the mixture has turned almost white and increased in volume. If you are using a hand mixer, this process will take at least 6 or 7 minutes. Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl with a spatula.
Add the flavorings, salt and cinnamon; mix on low just until everything is combined. Add the powdered sugar, 2 to 3 cups at a time, mixing on low speed for one minute and scraping down the bowl after each addition. After the final addition of sugar, mix on low speed for two minutes and scrape down the bowl with spatula to make sure no sugar has been left behind.
Store buttercream in the refrigerator when not in use. Bring back to room temperature when ready to use and mix for about 30 seconds with paddle attachment to smooth out any air bubbles they may have formed.
Trish Minton is the pastry chef and baker for Pierpont’s at Union Station. Although she has a passion and love for all things baked and sugary, she particularly loves catering to clients who need gluten-free and vegan desserts.