Thursday, 24 November 2011

Thanksgiving | Spiced Pumpkin Cake

I'm not American, but I actually get more excited about the baked goods related to this holiday more than any other.  I think back to several Thanksgivings spent browsing through the heaving aisles of Zabars in New York - my basket laden with anything which had pumpkin, pecan or cinnamon in the title.

So it's usually about now I make a traditional pumpkin or pecan pie but this year I'm making Spiced Pumpkin Cake, a particular favorite of mine because it's quick, easy to make, there's no faffing with pastry, the pumpkin makes it super-moist (squash works just as well I find), and you can dress it up with a cream cheese frosting and pecans or have it just as it is.

The cake calls for mixed spice in the recipe which of course can be shop bought.  In the States there is a lovely blend you can buy called pumpkin pie spice mix - a variation of cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg - which the fabulous Apartment Therapy|the kitchn has a great recipe for. But I prefer to use a Dutch speculaas spice blend which I make myself.

Speculaas are delicious nut-brown oblong biscuits stamped with festive scenes traditionally associated with St Nicholas' Day (Sinterklaas) on 6 December that you can get year round in the Netherlands.  To me, these cookies smell and taste like Christmas.  Many moons ago I bought a speculaas spice mix from my favorite Dutch supermarket Albert Heijn and used it in everything which called for mixed-spice.  After finally running out one day I stared forlornly at the empty jar, took a look at the back and decided to make my own blend so I'd never be without it again. 

What I think is particularly wonderful about a speculaas spice mix is the subtle addition of white pepper and coriander which I love but I know won't be to everyone's taste - sometimes aniseeds are added but since I never have any to hand I don't bother - but that's the beauty of a home-made spice mix, you add and subtract to make it your own.

Spiced Pumpkin Cake

4oz/115g butter
7oz/200g caster sugar
2 free range eggs
2 tsp speculaas spice (see below) or mixed spice
1 tsp vanilla extract
250g fresh pumpkin purée (see below) or tinned
8oz/225g organic self-raising flour, sifted

Optional | Cream cheese frosting (see below) & pecans to decorate

Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 

Cream the butter and caster sugar together, using a food mixer or electric hand-whisk, until light and fluffy. Beat the 2 eggs in a separate bowl and then add a little at a time to the butter and sugar mixture, then add the vanilla extract and speculaas spice mix or ground mixed spice.

Slowly stir in the pumpkin purée and when fully incorporated gently fold in the sieved flour a couple of tablespoons at a time.

Pour the mixture into a greased and lined 8in round tin or 9in-square tin. Bake for 35-40 minutes and check the cake is done by pushing a skewer into the middle. It should come out clean with no uncooked cake mix stuck to it.  Cool for 15 mins in the tin, then turn out to finish cooling on a rack.


Pumpkin puree

If you're in a rush you can of course use tinned pumpkin purée - Libbys is a good brand.  But I prefer using fresh pumpkin or squash. I'm pretty lazy and find peeling largish pumpkins pretty laborious - although peeling a squash is not too bad.    

So there are two ways you can do this.  If you've got a large pumpkin or a couple of squashes halve/quarter them, leave the seeds in and place the pieces in a baking tray, flesh-side up, covered loosely with foil and leave happily to roast at 180C/350F for 30-40mins.  Poke with a knife to check if the flesh is really soft if not continue to roast, checking at 10min intervals until it is.  Leave to cool completely, then scoop out all the seeds and stringiness, the skin should come away easily.  Place the flesh in a food processor and blitz until really smooth.  Weigh out what you need for the cake and freeze the rest of the purée into handy 100g portions, which can be used later for all manner of sweet and savory recipes.  

Otherwise peel and de-seed your pumpkin or squash, chop into chunks and put in a pan with a third of a cup of water. Bring to the boil, cover tightly, and cook gently for 10 to 15 minutes until the pumpkin is really soft. Stir a couple of times to check that it is not sticking, adding a little extra water if necessary. When done, leave to cool and then blitz or mash the pumpkin to a purée. 

1 small pumpkin or 1 large squash yields approx. 400g of puree.

Speculaas spice mix 

I use a coffee grinder to blitz the whole spices like cloves, cardamom and coriander as I can never find them in the shops ready ground, and I finely grate a whole nutmeg. The other spices you can buy ground from the supermarket. Mix to the ratios below and then store in an airtight jar.

10 tsp ground cinnamon
2 tsp nutmeg (grate a whole
2 tsp cloves
1 tsp ginger
1/2 tsp white pepper
1/2 tsp cardamom
1/2 tsp coriander

Cream cheese frosting

4oz/115g cream cheese
2oz/60g butter
9oz/250g icing sugar
1 tsp vanilla extract

To make the frosting, beat the butter with the cream cheese until smooth, then add in the sifted icing sugar and vanilla essence. Spread the frosting onto the cake and sprinkle with decorate with pecans.

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