One early evening this September I stepped outside, took a deep breath, and inhaled a familiar aroma that I hadn’t been acquainted with since this time last year. A feeling of excitement came over me as I continued to walk up Fifth Avenue, and I realized that this certain smell was autumn.
What does that mean – to smell like autumn? It’s hard to verbalize, but it smells light, cool, and crisp, as though the air has gradually calmed down from exposure to the summer sun’s bright rays. It is redolent of the leaves changing from deep and bright greens to warm red orange and amber shades, and it is aromatic of something that is slightly toasty and nutty, yet elusive in some way.
Autumn in the Northeast is completely unlike what I was used to growing up in San Francisco. A San Francisco autumn was unremarkable; the idea of leaves changing color was completely novel to me when I moved to the Boston area in 2004. I went to school at one of the most beautiful college campuses in the area and was able to fully experience a real New England autumn complete with Harry Potter-like Gothic-Georgian architecture in the background. The leaves slowly but surely changed color. I had no idea that a green leaf could turn into a deep magenta or purple shade, or that the same leaves that were orange could also become yellow before they crisped up and became brown. It was as though every day when I walked outside, I was constantly stunned by endless transformations and beauty.
Throughout the last seven years, I’ve watched with wonder as I’ve passed children in parks embracing autumn’s arrival. The glee with which they delight in autumn has never failed to bring a smile to my face – the way they thrash around in the leaves, rolling in them, tossing them up with their hands and kicking them and crunching them. I’m honestly not sure what warms me more – seeing the kids’ carefree delight or observing the parents watch their children, realizing how amazing it is to derive joy from life’s simple pleasures. Many times, I’ve been tempted to join in on the fun and jump up and down in the leaves with them, but then the self conscious adult side of me takes over and I decide that it wouldn’t be the smartest thing to do.
I’ve spent the last few months experiencing autumn in urban areas in New York like Union Square, Central Park, and Madison Square Park, but have also been able to see it by leaving the city and going hiking in Mohonk Preserve and wandering around the Berkshires in Massachusetts. Autumn in the Northeast is the most spectacular when you are outside of the city and completely immersed in nature. The few times I have left, it’s also helped me clear my head temporarily and just think about two of the simplest yet most complex things – love and life itself.
I always want to say that autumn is my favorite season, not just for that amazing smell that fills my nostrils as soon as September hits, and not just for the dramatic foliage, but also because it signifies the beginning of the holidays – Halloween, Thanksgiving, and Christmas – and the traditions I embrace each year. Carving jack-o-lanterns, cutting up different types of squash for soup, getting together with family and friends for extravagant and gluttony turkey meals, decorating Noble Fir trees with my newest and oldest Christmas ornaments, and making egg nog and holiday cookies; it’s everything I love about life condensed into three short months of the year. If we just added some sun and warmth, it really would be the most perfect time of the year (I am slightly conflicted, though, because I also love watching the snow fall and lightly dust itself onto the city around me).
Autumn also means that I can get back to my favorite place in the house, the kitchen, and begin baking again. I bake the most during the autumn and winter, and one of the things I’ve been making without fail for the last four years has been pumpkin bread.
The spice combination in this bread – cinnamon, nutmeg, and ginger, combined with cranberries and toasted nuts, is one of the best ways to welcome autumn back into our lives. That spicy smell wafting through my apartment just conjures up all of the memories I have of every autumn I’ve spent on the East Coast.
Pumpkin bread is a really simple quick bread to make. Canned, unsweetened pumpkin is readily available at almost any grocery store, and I can speak from experience when I say that cutting up, pureeing, and straining a real sugar pumpkin for your pumpkin bread or pie is not really worth the effort. The taste will be exactly the same, so you should save yourself some trouble and just buy the canned stuff. The canned stuff is really good, so there’s no reason to dismiss it.
I always like to add either dried cranberries and/or toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans to my pumpkin bread. Both dried cranberries and toasted nuts always remind me of the autumn, and what’s better than making an autumn sweet bread taste even more like autumn?
I got this recipe from the resident director at my dorm in college. He loved to bake and cook, and in the autumn, he made several loaves of this pumpkin bread and shared it with all of us. It was love at first bite – I immediately asked if he’d be so generous as to share the recipe with me, and share he did. Although I’m no longer in touch with him, his baking legacy lives on with me and everyone else I love who gets to benefit from the fruits of my autumn baking.
Pumpkin Bread with Cranberries and Walnuts
Adapted from the 2005-2006 Stone Davis Resident Director’s recipe collection
- 2 C. sugar
- 1 C. vegetable oil (canola or corn)
- 3 eggs
- 2 C. cooked/canned unsweetened pumpkin
- 3 C. flour
- ½ tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. baking soda
- ½ tsp. salt
- 1 tsp. ground ginger
- 1 tsp. cinnamon
- 1 tsp. nutmeg
- 1 tsp. cloves (optional)
- 4 C. dried cranberries
- 1.5 C. toasted, chopped walnuts or pecans
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees F.
Combine the sugar and vegetable oil in a large mixing bowl; mix well. Add the eggs, one at a time, until incorporated. Combine the all of the dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Mix the pumpkin into the egg mélange, and when combined, gradually add in all of the dry mixture. Stir in the cranberries and nuts. Put into two greased loaf pans. Bake the loaves for 1 hour.
Before I moved to the East Coast and actually lived a summer here, I’d never really known about what a “real” summer was like. Back in San Francisco, the land of everyday fog and households ignorant of the need of air conditioners (if you lived in 50-60 degree Fahrenheit weather year-round, would you need central AC?), I lived in complete ignorance of what it is like to change living habits based on the seasons. We never limited ourselves to cooking stews and braises for the winter or making lemonade and sorbets in the summer. We could do whatever we wanted year round, and our kitchen would be at about the same temperature. Cooking was cooking.
Well, I’m no longer in San Francisco now. In my apartment in New York, in which I have lived for over a year, which I will also tell you until yesterday had no AC (my landlord likes me now, so he is loaning me one for the duration of my stay here), if you want to bake blueberry muffins or even do the simplest saute, it will feel as though you are baking yourself. You will just want to throw yourself into the freezer and stay there – forever. I know this because this is how I have felt the few times I have tried to cook this summer. There you have it — my long-winded reason for not updating my blog since June.
Blueberry and I have actually been spending quite a bit of time eating out this summer, partly because of the blistering summer heat, which has just very recently gotten much worse, and partly because we are just out and about in New York and New England and want to try restaurants and check out areas we haven’t yet been to. Last weekend, we wanted to get away and took a day trip to the area around Brattleboro, Vermont. A month ago, a very generous coworker brought me back the most amazing Grade A Dark Amber Vermont maple syrup, and as soon as I’d had a taste on my blueberry pancakes, I knew we had to go to this wondrous maple land that is two hours outside of Boston.
The first stop that we made was at the Brattleboro Farmers Market. It’s considered one of Southern Vermont’s premier farmers markets and has over 50 vendors with everything from Vermont artisanal arts and crafts to local produce and prepared foods from a variety of cultures. The first thing that caught my eye there was this cute Thai food truck run by Anon’s Thai Food:
This farmers market was probably the nicest farmers market I’ve ever been to — it was bustling with lots of people, and the variety of produce, flowers, food, and items being sold was amazing. The stands themselves looked so rustic, all made of these wooden branches that had little roofs. While I love the New York City Greenmarket and all, it really can’t hold a candle to the depth and breadth of this Vermont farmers market. The vendors themselves were incredibly friendly, too, and more than willing to elaborate on their products and their businesses as a whole, which is not always the case at the Greenmarket back home, unfortunately.
We picked out some really unique fruit wines from an artisanal winery stand – the Putney Mountain Winery from Putney, VT. One was a sparkling apple wine with a very bright effervescence and a slightly bitter aftertaste. This was definitely a different taste than what I am used to with apple cider-type drinks; the aftertaste was really unique. The other bottle we got was the Vermont Cassis, which is a sweet and tart dessert wine made with local black currants. The woman at the booth who gave us free tastings of all her wines told us that it would be a great topping for ice cream and would last quite a while on the shelf after opening, which was a new idea to us since most wines we have had have lasted only a few days max.
We also found a prepared food stand that was selling Malian dishes. We had never had Malian food, so we got a combination plate with peanut butter chicken, beef and spinach stew, rice, and a special Malian hot sauce that was hotter than hot. Blueberry, who usually loves heat in his food, tortured himself eating more and more of this fiery sauce. The small reddish-green pile at the bottom right corner is the Hot Sauce of Death. Here’s our plate of Malian food:
We also had a cup of hibiscus juice here. It was really refreshing; sweetened with a bit of sugar, it was ideal for a hot summer’s day. The juice had a hint of floral flavor from the hibiscus and seemed to taste more like a sweetened floral tea than an actual juice.
From The Sun-Dried Tomato Mediterranean stand, we got a spinach-mozzarella roll-up and a piece of homemade baklava. Our baklava was incredibly sweet, nutty, and satisfying. Look at all those layers:
After the Brattleboro Farmers Market, our next stop was at the Robb Family Farm. The Robb Family Farm is a family-owned farm/business that has been around since 1907. Their farm is about 470 acres right outside of Brattleboro, and they own over 100 cows, half of whose lives are devoted to producing milk and cheese wholesale and for regional companies such as Hood and Cabot Cheese. They also have a big family of maple trees for genuine Vermont maple syrup. Depending on what time of the year you come, you can also schedule tours, hay rides, sleigh rides, and see maple syrup being extracted and produced. They also produce a small amount of raw milk that you can pick up if you are lucky enough to get there early in the mornings. Unfortunately we didn’t get there until early afternoon, so we missed our chance to taste raw milk. I’ve always wanted to drink raw milk, but with all these tough restrictions in the U.S., it’s hard to find it in regular markets near me.
However, we were able to go into the barn and see the cows. Here are two of the little calves we saw. These girls are young and feisty, especially the one on the right, which had a slight obsession with licking my arm all over:
I always romanticize, like a lot of city people do, about how sweet and idyllic it could be if I just lived out in the countryside, owned a farm, and produced all my own food instead of being so far removed from the food production process in a great big metropolis like New York City or San Francisco. Being out there on the farm and seeing all the cows was fun, but I think after a while I could tire of it, especially from the cow dung smell, honestly.
We left the farm with a large 16 oz. container of Grade A Dark Amber maple syrup from their farm. Since we got it in a metal container, we’re planning to get some mason jars to store the syrup longer, since maple syrup tends to have a longer life in the fridge if you store it in glass.
Afterwards, we stopped by an organic farm called the Lilac Ridge farm and passed by a cute sign that they had up:
Another place that was on our itinerary was the Grafton Village Cheese Company. While we were excited to taste different cheeses, we were a little disappointed that the cheese company seemed to be more commercial than we had originally hoped. And while the Vermont-made cheddar cheeses were tasty, none of them were so exceptional that we thought we needed to buy them while we were there. We actually thought that our local markets made cheddar cheeses that were just as good, if not better. Sadly, the one cheese we tried that blew us a way — a really nutty, subtly sweet Gruyere — was actually an import from Switzerland. So much for trying to support local, independent businesses.
We ended our day in Vermont with canoeing on the Connecticut river and having dinner at a nice Italian restaurant called Fireworks in downtown Brattleboro. It seemed to be a somewhat new restaurant, what they called a “work in progress.” They try to use organic produce whenever possible, use free-range chicken, and cook with cured meats made only by local producers. It was a fun, relaxing day, and we definitely plan to come back to Vermont for autumn hiking when the leaves are changing color and in the early spring when maple syrup is being extracted and processed. For foodies who are interested in learning more about how different foods are produced, especially maple syrup and Vermont cheese, Vermont is definitely a must-see with the added bonus of having beautiful scenery. New England has so many hidden gems; it makes me happy and grateful to be able to live near an area as beautiful as this.
I’ve never been a huge muffin fan. Maybe it’s because most of the ones I’ve had have either been too sweet or greasy, or that they’ve been so monstrous that they were victims of diminishing marginal utility (I’m in the camp that believes that too much of a good thing actually can be bad; this happened with me and Haagon Daaz’s four-ingredient ginger ice cream — loved it, ate too much of it, and now I need to stay far away from the stuff). Or maybe it’s because I had too many that were mass produced at Costco, which I love, but honestly a good majority of their baked goods need just a tad bit of work.
But the notion of fresh fruit muffins has always attracted me, mostly because I love the idea of baking with fresh, seasonal fruit and how in each bite (at least ideally), you’d have a nice burst of fresh fruit flavor, whether it be in a cake, a pie, or a simple muffin. As much as I can enjoy a nice basket of blueberries in the morning, I would never turn away a plate of just baked fresh blueberry muffins.
This summer, I had two goals in the epicurean department: 1) to make use of seasonal (and hopefully local) fruit with the best dessert recipes possible, and 2) to make my own fruit jams using summer’s best fruit. One thing that has always driven me crazy about fruit jam/preserves that I see at grocery stores is that many of them are so overwhelmingly sweet. I recently read Russ Parson’s How to Pick a Peach, in which I learned that to be legally called a jam or fruit preserve in the U.S., the fruit concoction needs to contain at least 50 to 60 percent sugar or sweetener (that god-awful high fructose corn syrup in many unfortunate cases). The idea just seems so ludicrous to me, since if you are already starting with fresh, ripe fruit, why would you need to add 50 to 60 percent more sugar to what is already a lot of natural sugar?
So I snatched Blueberry’s latest issue of Cook’s Illustrated, which just happened to have a many-times tested and perfected blueberry muffin recipe that uses not just fresh blueberries but also homemade blueberry jam. It was like my dream come true in a muffin recipe — I knew I had to make it as soon as possible… which I did. And get this: for a cup of blueberries, a mere one teaspoon of sugar is added to jam reduction. When I took it off the stove to cool it and test it, it was an enlightening moment — perfect jam that had a strong blueberry flavor with just the right sweetness.
When I was reading the blueberry muffin article in Cook’s Illustrated, the writer had said that she didn’t want her muffin to be “too cake-like,” but at the same time she wanted it to be flaky and soft, but sturdy like a quick bread to hold the weight of the fresh berries. While Blueberry and Kumquat were noshing on the muffins just out of the oven for breakfast yesterday morning, they both said that they didn’t particularly care for muffins that were too cake-like as well, yet to me the crumb of this muffin seemed light and fluffy, as a good cake should be (assuming it’s not one of those dense chocolate ones). How do you describe the ideal muffin texture, and how does it really differ from that of a cupcake other than the fact that your muffin may have berries or nuts in it?
Cake-like or not, these blueberry muffins were probably the best I’d ever had, if I do say so myself. The muffin had just the right amount of fresh blueberries and blueberry flavor throughout, the crumb was delicate yet sturdy, and the lemon zest sugar topping was a beautiful and delicious complement. This recipe is definitely a keeper, and with blueberries at their peak this summer, I will definitely be making these again. I can’t wait to try them with an almond crunch topping.
Best Blueberry Muffins
from Cook’s Illustrated, May & June 2009
Yields 12 muffins
- 1/3 cup (2 1/3 ounces) sugar
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated zest from one lemon
- 2 cups (about 10 ounces) fresh blueberries, picked over
- 1 1/8 cups (8 ounces) plus 1 teaspoon sugar
- 2 1/2 cups (12 1/2 ounces) unbleached all-purpose flour
- 2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
- 1 teaspoon table salt
- 2 large eggs
- 4 tablespoons (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
- 1/4 cup vegetable oil
- 1 cup buttermilk
- 1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
Stir together sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl until combined; set aside.
Adjust the oven rack to upper-middle position and heat oven to 425 degrees. Spray standard muffin tin with nonstick cooking spray or grease with vegetable oil.
Bring 1 cup blueberries and 1 teaspoon sugar to a simmer in a small saucepan over medium heat. Cook, mashing berries with spoon several times and stirring frequently, until berries have broken down and mixture is thickened and reduced to 1/4 cup, about 6 minutes. Transfer to a small bowl and cool to room temperature, 10-15 minutes.
Whisk flour, baking powder, and salt together in a large bowl. Whisk remaining 1 1/8 cups sugar and eggs together in a medium bowl until thick and homogenous, about 45 seconds. Slowly whisk in butter and oil until combined. Using a rubber spatula, fold egg mixture and remaining cup blueberries into flour mixture until just moistened. The batter will be very lumpy with a few spots of dry flour; do not overmix.
Use an ice cream scoop or a large spoon to divide batter equally among the prepared muffin cups (batter should completely fill cups and mound slightly). Spoon one teaspoon of cooked berry mixture into the center of each mound of batter. Using a chopstick or skewer, gently swirl berry filling into batter using figure-eight motion. Sprinkle lemon sugar evenly over muffins.
Bake until muffin tops are golden and just firm, 17-19 minutes, rotating muffin pan from front to back halfway through baking time. Cool muffins in the muffin pan for 5 minutes, then transfer to a wire rack and cool for 5 minutes before serving.
Note: If buttermilk is unavailable, substitute 3/4 cup plain whole-milk or low-fat yogurt thinned with 1/4 cup milk.
Variation: Blueberry Muffins with Almond Crunch Topping — follow the recipe for blueberry muffins and omit the lemon-sugar topping. Instead, combine 1/3 cup finely ground almonds and 4 teaspoons of turbinado sugar; set aside. For the flour mixture, prepare as usual but add 1/3 cup finely ground almonds. When adding in the vanilla extract, also add in 1 teaspoon of almond extract. Sprinkle the almond topping over muffins before baking.
Addendum: Today (8/24), I actually made the blueberry muffins with this almond crunch topping. Although I didn’t have any turbinado sugar to add to the crunch-top effect and instead used regular granulated sugar, the almond topping was delicious. Here are some of today’s baked photos of this muffin variation:
Here’s a close-up view of a muffin top. I love the way the ground almonds look sprinkled on the top. It looks crusty yet all fluffy at the same time:
Last time I made these muffins with the lemon-sugar topping, I used buttermilk, but this time I wanted to be a little more practical since I knew I wouldn’t use up a whole quart of buttermilk, and I got low-fat yogurt and mixed it with milk instead. The muffins came out perfectly! Recipes from Cook’s Illustrated are amazing — even their substitution ideas are perfect. I will be honest, though, and say that both Blueberry and I prefer the lemon sugar topping. It tends to add more contrast with the sweetness of the muffin and the blueberries, and the color contrast aesthetically is a bit more appealing to me. Try both and let me know which variation you prefer.