Life

Three Food Writers Try To Save Pumpkin Spice In This Cooking Challenge


Ahh pumpkin spice, you either love it or…

Nope. You hate it. Everyone hates it. Pumpkin spice is is the Guy Fieri of flavors: Easy (and fun!) to ridicule. But just like the King of Flavortown: The hate is mostly nonsense. As Shane Torres says about Fieri in his famous stand up bit, “People shit on that guy all the time. And, as far as I can tell, all he ever did was follow his dreams.”

Pumpkin spice is just trying to follow its dreams. And those dreams are simple: Not to be distilled down to the microgram level and then combined with pure-liquid sugar into a syrup for your dumb latte. Instead, pumpkin spice longs to inspire the feelings of fall — warm, earthy, curl-up-by-the-fire feelings. Hygge, as they call it in the Nordic regions.

After our summer barbecue competition stretched into September, we took a big risk by staying seasonal and decided to take on fall with “pumpkin spice.” It’s worth noting that we all interpreted that as “pumpkin & related spices” and not simply “the spices you use to flavor pumpkins.” The result was a contest that had a solid guiding principle with three widely varying takes and some inventive techniques (no sous vide, though ?).

Take a look and see what you think. Hopefully, after reading you’ll be ready to give pumpkin spice a clean slate — besides it’s more fun to save your snark for the three chefs than waste it on an inanimate flavor combo. As always, your shares, Tweets, and comments are much appreciated.

— Steve Bramucci, Managing Editor, Uproxx Life

PAST RESULTS:

BLT Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Mac & Cheese Showdown — 1) Vince 2) (tie) Zach, Steve
Taco Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Winter Stew Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Steve 3) Vince
Date Night Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Pasta Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince
Hot Beef Showdown — 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Shellfish Showdown — 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
BBQ Showdown — 1) Steve 2) Zach 3) Vince

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 15
VINCE: 11
STEVE: 11

ZACH’S ARANCINI

I’m not gonna lie. The last two losses have hit me pretty hard. So, I’m going technical and delicious here with one of my favorite street foods — the Arancini. That’s a risotto rice ball with a cheese center that’s breaded and deep fried.

Since I keep getting docked for going places and doing things — fuck it — it doesn’t matter where I learned this recipe. Just know it’s the fucking bomb. I started off by making a classic risotto with spicy candied chanterelles and pumpkin that was topped with lemon-infused olive oil, fresh oregano, and sea salt. It was the sort of meal where everyone at the table went silent and didn’t speak again until they’d finished eating. It was a great plate of lush cheesy rice with hints of spice, sweetness, umami, funk, and bursts of citrus. Man, you should have been there.

The Base

Always make twice the risotto you need to serve. That’s a life lesson right there. The benefit? You can make Arancini with the leftovers the next day.

Start off by combing about two cups of vegetable stock with two cups of chicken stock. I like to cut the chicken stock to mellow it out a bit. Then add two chopped Cremini mushrooms, two cloves, and a star anise. Bring that up to a boil and immediately turn the heat off and cover.

Next, finely dice a medium yellow onion and crush a large clove of garlic. Heat a large saucepan with a couple good glugs of decent olive oil over medium to medium-high heat.

Once hot, put your onion in with a good punch of salt. Once it’s translucent, add your crushed garlic and cook for another minute or two. What I like to do here is add a ladleful of broth and let it cook through the onion and garlic until the liquid is gone. This basically helps melt the base so that it adds more depth to the rice.

Add the rice to your pan. Make sure to buy a nice Arborio. I’m basically using a pound for this recipe. Stir the rice until it’s completely coated with olive oil, onion, and garlic. Now let the rice cook for a few minutes while stirring often. You want it to just start to go transparent but not start to brown. Then you’re going to hit the rice with about a half bottle of white wine. I use a nice Vernaccia di San Gimignanon from Chianti. The Vernaccia grape has a crisp acidity with a nice oaky mellowness. Make sure it’s room temp when you add it to your rice.

Stir the wine into the rice. You should be using a large wooden spoon or paddle here. Risotto lives or dies by the starch coming out of the rice and emulsifying with the cheese and butter at the end to create a creamy texture.

Once the wine has been completely simmered off, add in about one cup of the steeping broth. Make sure to use a small sieve when pouting the broth in your rice to ensure you don’t get any brothy bits in your risotto. Stir it in briskly. Simmer until the broth is no longer on the surface. Repeat. Basically, you’re going for a point where the rice is just inching past al dente. Then you turn off the heat and add in about one cup of high-quality grated parmesan and a large nob of unsalted butter. Stir that it, cover, and let rest for five minutes.

The Candied Mushrooms and Pumpkin

Cube some pumpkin. You’ll need about half-a-cup. Rinse, clean, and pat dry some chanterelles. Get a frying pan with olive oil piping hot. Fry the pumpkin with salt and pepper until just browned. Set aside.

Next, fry the chanterelle’s with salt and pepper until all the water has simmer off and you hear them start to fry in the oil. Sprinkle a little white wine over the mushrooms. Simmer off entirely (30 ish seconds). Next add the pumpkin back into the pan with a nob of butter and a heaping tablespoon of raw honey. Keep the pan moving and toss the ingredients over the heat until well-coated and caramelization starts. Next, grind a couple twists from an allspice and cinnamon mill and about half a crank form the nutmeg mill into the pan and toss again. If you were serving the risotto as dinner, this is where you’d plate the rice and top it with these delicious mushrooms and pumpkin and watch the table go silent.

The Arancini

The next day, take your leftover risotto along with the candied chanterelle and pumpkin from the fridge. Finely dice a couple spoons of the mushroom and pumpkin with some fresh oregano leaves then that mix into about half-a-cup of risotto. Lay a piece of plastic wrap on a flat surface and flatten out the risotto mix into a six-inch across patty.

Add a nice big chunk of funky gorgonzola (or mozzarella if you’re not into the funk) in the middle. Don’t make the cheese too big. It should be about one-inch by one-inch at most.

Slide your hand under the plastic wrap and cup your hand. Next, bring the edges of the wrap towards the center. This will create your Arancini ball. It should be about the size of a cue ball. Use the plastic wrap to smooth the edges and let rest.

While it’s resting, ready some 00 flour (about half a cup), a lightly scrambled egg, and some panko bread crumbs (about a cup) into separate trays. Salt and pepper each. Remove the plastic wrap from your rice ball and smooth out the edges in your hands. Coat the ball in flour then egg then panko. Once it’s nicely and evenly coated, let rest again while you heat up some rapeseed oil. I happened to have some handy.


You don’t want a high heat here. 300F is the max temp. You’re going to need to heat a fairly big ball of starch through to the point of melting hidden cheese while just browning the outer layer. Once your oil is hot, drop in the ball. Let cook on each side for about one minute or until it starts turning deep brown. All told, my Arancini fried for four minutes.

Take out of the oil and drain on a plate with paper towels. Let rest for at least five minutes. Serve.

Cut that cross section and watch all that gooey cheese ooze out of the this lusciously spiced and slightly sweet Arancini. Seriously this thing is dope AF. The cheesy and subtly spiced rice mixed with the spicy and sweet chanterelles and pumpkin in the background matches perfectly with the funk of the gorgonzola. And the outer panko crust gives a perfect crunch. This is comfort food at its absolute best.

Steve on Zach’s Dish:

Zach, just because we were going to tease you about the fact that you learned this dish from a peasant’s daughter in Tione di Trento, doesn’t mean we don’t want to hear the tale. We love your stories! Now I have to fill it in for myself:

As the sky turned purple, we pedaled our bicicletas toward a gurgling brook at the base of the Alto-Adige — hair streaming behind us, with Ornella Vanoni’s “L’Appuntamento” trickling out of a battery-operated radio. We settled down below a spreading oak, to eat arancini and drink crisp white wine made by a local viticoltore. As a clipped-coin moon rose overhead, we made love on a bed of moss.

“Zach,” she said — legs twining with mine, upper lip beaded with sweat, voice like the honey that we’d harvested to candy our totally under-utilized pumpkin, “I am falling deeply in love with you.”

“Grazie,” I replied, kissing her collarbone. “But my darling, I am a wanderer; a vagabond; a man of the road. I only have love for my sous vide… And Berlin.”

I never saw her after that night and stowed away on a steamer for Shanghai a week later. But in my rucksack, I carried one memory of our summer together: A simple recipe, for the best damn rice ball on earth.

As long as I’m snarking, here’s another cannonade off the portside:

  • LOTS of starch in that dish. Breadcrumbs on rice? Feels dense.
  • The pumpkin is completely ancillary to this whole affair. 10-1 says that if you could have just used the chanterelles and not the pumpkin you would have been stoked.
  • You and Vince, man — Are you boys allergic to herbs? You don’t want a few sprigs of fresh oregano on this? Would a snip of flat-leaf parsley have killed you?

That said? I have no doubt that your technical prowess will keep you in the running. Also, if there was a food cart selling these at the end of my street right now, I would run-not-walk to buy a half-dozen. That probably bodes well.

Vince on Zach’s Dish:

Sweet Jesus, I feel like I just read a Russian novel. I suppose the biggest drawback of this dish is that while I was reading it, two of my daughters died in the bread famine and the third ran off with the cobbler’s boy, a simpleton. Also, you cut your chicken broth? What, too delicious for you? It’s like I don’t even know you, man. Anyway, this seems like an insane amount of work for a croquette, but as they say, Zach gonna Zach. I’m probably going to lose because your photography is on point, but honestly the part where you lost me was the honey. I understand the rice, and I understand the frying, and if I try real hard I can even understand the pumpkin/mushroom combo (…I mean, I guess?), but pumpkin is already sweet, especially by blue cheese arancini standards (no shade, I actually love blue cheese). You needed to make it sweeter? You’re sweet enough, bay b. This feels like it can’t decide whether it wants to be a croquette or go full donut.

VINCE’S PUMPKIN MOLE ENCHILADAS

I was kind of disappointed when I found out we were doing a pumpkin challenge, because the only forms in which I enjoy pumpkin are: baked with gravy (it’s like a better version of a baked potato), which is a side dish; pumpkin bread, which is a breakfast pastry; and dropped off a building, which is a fun thing to do and a nice thing to name band after, but not a food.

Pumpkin in entree form took some more thinking. Then I remembered mole. I’m not nearly as versed in mole as in other Mexican foods, but knowing what I knew of both, it sounded like the perfect place for savory pumpkin. The pumpkin’s moistness would actually be an asset (unlike in pumpkin gnocchi, my attempt at which succeeded mostly in using up all my flour and destroying my kitchen), not to mention that it’s a perfect match for pumpkin’s natural semi-sweetness and ability to stand up to wintry spice. So set ’em up, homey, it’s mole time!

*soccer chant* Mo-le, mo-le mo-le mo-leeeeee, mo-leeeeeeee, mo-leeeeeeeeeee……

The Sauce

Mole is known for being insanely complicated, but I tried to keep it simple. No chocolate, no peanut butter, no tomatoes. Don’t need em, pumpkin is already semi-sweet and kind of complex. Just pumpkin and a couple mulling-type spices. The sauce has:

  • Pumpkin (about a quarter of a smallish pumpkin, baked)
  • Onions and garlic (about half a white onion and 10 garlic cloves)
  • Chiles (four guajillos — no special reason for the choice, that was just what I had lying around)
  • Pumpkin seeds, aka pepitas as thickening agent (bonus pumpkin points)
  • Cumin seeds (if you use pre-powdered cumin you a punk, straight up), about a tablespoon
  • Cinnamon and clove

Step one, bake the pumpkin. I actually bought my pumpkin at the world’s most thorough pumpkin patch, in Carmel, California. Seriously, they had everything.

I like to think the spirit of former Carmel mayor Clint Eastwood was flowing through me (I bought one of the weird-lookin’ green jobs that the sales lady was better for baking than the orange pie pumpkins). I halved it, and baked it, covered, on a rock salt bed for 90 minutes, then scooped out the flesh.

Step two, de-seed and toast the chiles in a hot pan (press ’em down with a spatula, they turn fragrant and shiny — you can actually see them releasing those flavor-y oils). Then rehydrate in hot water.

Step three, sautee the onions and garlic in pork fat (I had some lying around, and fat makes everything taste better). Most Mexican recipes want you to char the onions and garlic under a broiler or over a flame, which adds some char flavor, but honestly I kind of prefer the less-harsh sauteed-in-a-pan flavor.

Add the onions, garlic, and rehydrated chiles to the blender. Meanwhile, toast the pepitas and cumin seeds in same fat. You know you’re cookin’ when they start to smell good. Add those to the blender. Add in the pumpkin flesh (call it a cup worth?). Blend, adding enough of the chile water to give you a watery, taqueria salsa texture (ie, thinner than the final sauce). Add that back to the pan with the cinnamon and clove to reduce. Pretty easy.

The Meat

Nothing fancy here, just chicken thighs, the sexiest part of the chicken (behind the brain).

  • Pre-salted and peppered chicken thighs (I like to salt them a day before to let the seasoning sink in)
  • Bay leaves
  • Chicken broth

I just braised the thighs with chicken broth and bay leaves for about an hour, until it was shreddable, removed the skins, then shredded the meat like Yngwie Malmsteen tearing up a bullshit arpeggio. Meanwhile, I deliberately overreduced the sauce (giving it a darker color) and took all that rich braising liquid and added it to the sauce (reserving a little for the chicken, to keep it moist).

Why do I remove the skins? Well, I have a little cooking rule, and that’s to never waste perfectly good chicken skins. I put those back in the pan and make some chicken skin bacon, which I eat while I finish cooking. Damn those are good. Never, ever waste a potential cracklin.

Tortillas

Hell no I’m not making my own, I know my strengths and weaknesses. Instead I do the next best thing, soften my store-bought corn tortillas in the fat from my chicken skin.

Assemblage

Dunk the tortillas in the sauce, fill them with the shredded chicken, spoon some more sauce inside, then roll up and cover with more sauce. In Mexico, this would probably be a finished enchilada. Since I am an ugly American, I sprinkle on some shredded melting cheese and stick the whole thing under the broiler to melt. I can’t help it, I kinda like the char it gives to the sauce. It’s a perfect bite: cheese, juicy braised chicken, creamy slightly sweet sauce with a mix of hot spice and spice-spice, and soft corn tortillas moistened in chicken fat.

Zach on Vince’s Dish:

Ah, Vince, always complaining about what I do then turning around doing the exact same thing — dude, your recipe was just as long a read as mine. And, who hasn’t heard of candied chanterelles??? Okay, okay. It may be more of an evergreen state thing and not a trapped in the-hell-they-call-California’s-central-valley thing. I’ll give you that.

Sorry bro, but you did not — in any way — make mole. The very fact that you’d make a quasi Pipian Rojo cum pumpkin sauce and called it “mole” makes we want to contact the Mexican Embassy and have your Mexico privileges revoked indefinitely. Not putting cacao or nuts (amongst several other key ingredients) in your mole is like not putting eggs in your fresh pasta or parmesan in your Cacio e Pepe or something-something in your mom. It’s just all wrong. That’s not saying I wouldn’t eat what you made, of course. Seems legit otherwise. But, man, if you told me I was getting Pumpkin “Mole” Enchiladas and this sad excuse for a sauce showed up as your “mole,” you’d be voted off the island to pack up your knives. Or something.

Steve on Vince’s Dish:

WOW. Zach is on one today! Dammit Mancini: He’s not here for your non-traditional mole. No cacao? No thanks!

FWIW: Though this seemed mole-ish enough to me. Still, Vince should have known to call it “mole-inspired” — so that Padma Lakshmi here didn’t get too finicky. Jeez Mancini, didn’t you write the book on winning food contests?

My complaints aren’t with technique, but taste:

  1. Sorry to harp the same point, but… again with no herbs? Cilantro? Chives? Jesus, you and Zach are really fighting big-herb lobbyists hard on this point, eh?
  2. When it comes to shredded meats, the best chicken on earth < middling beef or “just okay” pork. Cracklings are great, but pigs supply those too. To be clear, I’m not just nitpicking: I think you could have chosen a more umami-rich protein to cook with. Something to stand up to that hearty, thick sauce.

Still, overall I find this dish highly functional and plenty tasty-looking. Also, it’s covered with cheese, so “Fuck it, I’ll eat a plateful.” Also, the pepitas were a stunningly clever choice.

STEVE’S DISH

I cooked first this time, which is the worst position to cook in because everyone sees what you’ve done and then steps their game up a little. I knew I wanted to make a pasta, ravioli, or a gnocchi — because I love pumpkin and sage-based Italian dishes this time of year — and pasta won out for the sake of ease. Sorry, I do have a great pumpkin ravioli recipe, but it’s been a wild year.

Ingredients:
Pumpkin, sage, nutmeg, cracked pepper, heavy cream… there’s lots not shown too. Pine nuts, rosemary, bone broth, white wine, mounds of parmesan, shallots, garlic chives, browned butter, and pancetta.

Yes, it’s a dish with a lot of ingredients, which is an easy thing to criticize in these contests, but they’re all ingredients that conspire to the same savory, let’s-get-cozy (and fat) sort of place.

Prep:
This is almost a one-pan dish. Cube the pumpkin and saute with pancetta, white wine, shallots, a little bone broth, sage, rosemary, etc. Cook until the pumpkin is soft but not disintegrating.

Pro tip:
Once that was all cooked down, I felt like the pumpkin was nice but not… pervasive. I wanted it to be the absolute star of the show. So I juiced the rest of the entire pumpkin with a slow-masticating juicer and put that moist pulp into the pan (btw: Moist Pulp is the title of Vince’s mom’s crime fiction novel).

With the earthy toasted pine nuts and the pumpkin infusion, this sauce was pretty much exactly where I wanted it. Then I added a dollop of cream, a little browned butter, and an excessive amount of imported parm.

Next, I boiled my pasta water in a 1:5 bone broth to water mix, left it super al dente, and let it cook a little more while I tossed it in my sauce. Eventually, I added a nip more white wine to keep it all lubricated and to lighten it a little.

As you can see, I topped the dish with garlic chives, more parm, and cracked pepper. It’s not shockingly complicated — but it was shockingly delicious.

Vince on Steve’s Dish:

First off, can I just point out how on brand it is for Zach to ding my mole (…inspired?) sauce for historical inaccuracy? You just know he pedantically pushed his glasses up his nose before he typed that. As for Steve… I’ll go easy on him because he just had a kid… but aside from running your-mom jokes into the ground, you did exactly what Zach did and made a dish that would probably taste just as good or better without the pumpkin. Way to squeeze in bone broth again though. I hear bone broth is your mom’s favorite. Nice job on soft-pedaling the part where you didn’t make your own pasta, too.

Also, let’s go back to Steve’s list of ingredients: “saute with pancetta, white wine, shallots, a little bone broth, sage, rosemary, etc.”

Whoa whoa whoa, “etc”? I don’t trust a guy who loves random ingredients as much as Steve to give me food with an “etc” in it. I might end up biting into pine needles or a cricket. God only knows what lies beneath that mons pubis of imported parm.

Zach on Steve’s Dish:

Oh, Steve. It’s amazing how just having a kid can make us both want to go easy on you. Then common sense rushes back over me and I think, “how will he ever learn…?” Plus, he acts like he never had arancini before! Yes, Steve, breadcrumbs on rice!

I guess two things stick out here. One, it feels rushed and the process of really drawing out these flavors seems lost. Two, why do you need cream when you have pumpkin puree? The puree will thicken and add flavor, the cream will cut your flavors and water shit down. Classic Steve over-doing it. Also, your I-talian card is going to be revoked if you keep putting “heavy whipping cream” in your pasta sauces.

As for the form, it felt over the top and sort of underthought at the same time. The pancetta is a great place to start. Fry that off with some butter to get a great fond and then pop in your pumpkin to add a little white wine to draw all that flavor into the pumpkin and really amp that shit up. As for putting your aromatics in at the beginning of the cook … man, way to lose all the punch of that sage. This one really feels like it could have been awesome with some pancetta, pumpkin, a little white wine, and pumpkin puree that’s tossed with plenty of nice pasta and then covered with all those garlic chives and sage right at the end before you take it out of the pan and all that gorgeous cheese gets snowed everywhere. Light, vibrant, delicious. Alas, this looks nice but sounds heavy and over-wrought. So … on brand I guess for Steve-o.

Also, I’d like to know where to get this elusive ingredient “etc.” as well.

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