Spicing up the season
Wednesday, November 21, 2018
Some traditions at elk camp are not to be broken. There will be snoring, booze, dirty dishes, belching and profane utterances. There will be a party of hunters hitting it hard by day, looking to rest and replenish at night, and there is no prohibition against pumpkin spices at hunting camp. Quite the contrary, it turns out.
Until about 14 years ago, the pumpkin spices stayed in familiar culinary territory, adding their aromatic flavors to pies, cookies and the occasional glass of holiday eggnog. It was an open secret among adventurous chefs that the spices could be applied elsewhere, but doing so was rarely the selling point that it is today.
The Pumpkin Spice Latte (PSL) was introduced by Starbucks in 2003. Since then more than 200 million PSLs have been sold, and the pumpkin spice umbrella has grown far beyond the coffee chain. Pumpkin spices have become a major food trend, anointing about $500 million worth of food (and candle, soap and swag) product annually, and they appear in processed foods like Godiva truffles and Pringles potato chips, as well as the cookies and Pop Tarts I impulse-purchased en route to hunting camp.
We know they spice up a bowl of morning oatmeal, but would they work in a big greasy breakfast, or a chunky, savory supper? Would the pumpkin spices mix with whatever drink might be within arm’s reach of one’s camp chair? These are the questions I went to camp to investigate.
As I prepared to get out of town, I decided to calibrate my pumpkin spice-o-meter to the original elixir: the Starbucks PSL. But the drive-thru line was 16 cars long, spilling around the parking lot and onto the street. The clock was ticking, so I decided to wing it.
Anyway, Starbucks didn’t even invent the pumpkin spice latte, much less pumpkin spices, which have been used together for centuries. A batch of pumpkin spices is typically about half cinnamon, followed by smaller amounts of ginger, nutmeg, allspice and clove. But the formula is most customizable. I was in a rush, so I bought some premixed powder at the store. I also bought a rotisserie chicken.
As I packed, I followed the guidance of enthusiastic YouTuber Talk Becky Talk, and learned her method of homemade PSL from scratch. Hers, like the Starbucks version, is prepared by mixing coffee with pre-made pumpkin spice syrup. Her spice concoction, nutmeg-heavy and clove-free with added black pepper, demonstrates the range within which this recipe can be customized.
Becky said to start with a pie pumpkin—or any other squash that’s good for baking such as acorn, kabocha or blue hubbard. Peel it with a sturdy, sharp knife, clean out the seeds and innards, and cut up the meat into one-inch chunks.
Arrange a pound of the pumpkin/squash chunks in a baking pan, and sprinkle with 1/2 teaspoon allspice, a heaping teaspoon cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon ground ginger, a pinch of black pepper, and one whole freshly ground nutmeg. For sweetness, add a tablespoon of vanilla extract, three ounces soft brown sugar, and four tablespoons maple syrup. Add 1/3 cup water, stir it with a spatula, cover in foil, and bake at 350 degrees for 50 minutes—until the pumpkin is nice and soft. Allow it to cool to room temperature.
Put the remains in a saucepan, boil for 10 minutes, and cool. Add water (I used almond milk) to dilute if it’s too thick, and blend until it is smooth and silky. Pour into a sealable glass jar.
Becky proceeded to make the best PSL ever. Then I drove through the night to the best hunting camp ever.
They mocked me when I arrived with my pumpkin spices, but soon enough they lapped them up in whatever form I served them.
I cooked with the premixed pumpkin spice powder, and used the syrup as a condiment. The syrup made everything taste better, and the boys were particularly game to explore the various adult beverages beyond coffee with which the syrup could be mixed.
Cooking with my dry pumpkin spice powder was rewarding too. As soon as it hit a greasy pan the smell would permeate the camp.
For a snack, I pulled apart the remains of that rotisserie chicken and added the pieces to a pan of bacon, along with some chopped onions and two tablespoons of pumpkin spice powder. It slowly cooked down into a something of a Mexican mole.
I had other spicy ambitions as well—pumpkin spice pizza, mini-muffins, French toast, maybe even some handmade pumpkin spice gnocchi with sage butter, if the boys were good. But after a hard day stalking the wily wapiti, it was all I could do to pour the appropriate form of pumpkin spices onto the appropriate dish, and enjoy.
Nobody complained about pumpkin spices cooked into the spicy elk chili, or on the refried baked chicken, or the bacon and eggs, nor seemed to mind the syrup in Greek yogurt, or mixed with rum.
Alas, we never did get to try the spices pan-fried with elk blood. But someday we will, and that will be a cheerful smell indeed.
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