Monday, December 8, 2008

Spices of the Season

There are some flavors you feel comfortable eating all year. Vanilla, chocolate, peanut butter, meat (meat's a flavor, right? That's what I thought) to name a few. Some flavors, however, have such a strong seasonal connotation that they're seemingly relegated to being consumed during only a limited few weeks every year. Pumpkin is one such flavor. Yes, obviously this has to do with the seasonality of the gourd and the fact that it's a symbol of the bounty of fall harvest. Pumpkin is so strongly tied to autumn and Thanksgiving that it seems just plain wrong when eaten any other time. Pumpkin in spring is so out of context that it just doesn't make sense. Pumpkin isn't even on my flavor radar (fladar?) in May.

It's sometimes hard to figure out why some flavors don't translate well among seasons. We've clearly reached a stage with technological advances in food that it's beyond possible to artificially create any flavor imaginable any time of year. And the flavor of pumpkin that we crave isn't really the pumpkin itself, but the spices with which it has become so inextricably linked with thanks to countless renditions of pumpkin pie year after year after year. This is not to say that I think we should be artificially re-creating pumpkin flavors and genetically altering the gourd family just so that we can enjoy pumpkin-flavored desserts year-round, I just find it odd that most people rarely crave pumpkin spice goods at other times of year.

It is this same air of seasonal-exclusivity of pumpkin-spice treats that make them that much more special. They're firmly tied to Thanksgiving, which is probably my favorite holiday of them all. The air around you at this time of year also seems spicier, though I can't really pinpoint why; I imagine it has to do with all the roasting nuts and the knowledge that somewhere, at that very moment, there is a roaring fire going, even if you're not the one seated in front of it. Were we to enjoy pumpkin spice all year round, it would not have this same association, and it would lose some of its charm and crave-ability. It's quite rare that a flavor has such a widely-held element of nostalgia, that so many people around the country have the same association and can have these same warm memories conjured up by a simple taste of pumpkin spice. Even those that don't like pumpkin pie are often hard-pressed to deny the allure of the spice.

That's why, when my parents' anniversary rolled around at the end of last month, a pumpkin spice cake seemed like a perfect choice to celebrate (that, and my mother loves spice cakes). A pumpkin spice cake in the middle of autumn is a sure-fire winner, and though the heyday of fall is behind us, I see no reason to not extend the pumpkin-spiceness of the season just a little bit. As long as the air is still more crisp than cold, and as long as the pumpkins and squash line the stalls of the farmers market, it's pumpkin spice season (and I figure as long as the pumpkin spice custard is on the menu at the Shake Shack, we're in the clear anyway). Pumpkin spice is just that much more special in November and December than it is in March, so heed my advice and make this cake -stat! - you will not regret it.

Pumpkin Spice Cake with Caramel Cream Cheese Frosting

from Bon Appetit, November 2008

This cake is truly fantastic. The cake itself is supremely moist and has a subtle but wholly recognizable spice to it. The addition of caramel tempers the cream cheese frosting, which might otherwise have overwhelmed the rather delicate spices of the cake. The caramel deepens the flavor of the frosting, making it less cloying and more subtle than your typical cream cheese frosting. I burned my caramel just a tad, but I took the chance and mixed it in anyway, and this actually added a nuttiness and complexity to the icing that I quite enjoyed. This recipe makes more than enough frosting, so don't worry about running out when icing the bottom layer.


For the Cake:
3 cups all purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1/4 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom
1 15-ounce can pure pumpkin
1 1/2 cups sugar
1 1/4 cups vegetable oil
4 large eggs
2 teaspoons finely grated orange peel

For the Frosting:
1 1-pound box powdered sugar, divided
1/2 cup plus 1 tablespoon heavy whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 8-ounce package cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, room temperature
Candied orange peel* (note: I used candied ginger; feel free to use either or neither according to your taste)

Preheat oven to 350°F. Butter and flour two 9-inch cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides, tapping out any excess flour. Whisk first 9 ingredients in large bowl. Using electric mixer, beat pumpkin, sugar, and oil in another large bowl. Add eggs 1 at a time, beating to incorporate between additions. Mix in orange peel. Add flour mixture; beat on low speed just to blend. Divide batter between prepared pans.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 33 minutes. Cool in pans 10 minutes. Invert onto rack, then turn top side up and cool completely.

For frosting:
Sprinkle 1/2 cup powdered sugar over bottom of small nonstick skillet. Cook over medium heat until sugar melts (do not stir). Continue cooking until sugar turns deep amber, stirring occasionally, about 2 minutes. Carefully stir in 1/2 cup cream, vanilla, and salt (mixture will bubble vigorously). Stir until any caramel bits dissolve. Stir in remaining 1 tablespoon cream. Strain into small bowl. Cool caramel to room temperature.

Sift remaining powdered sugar into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl. Gradually beat in powdered sugar. Beat in cooled caramel. Cover and chill frosting until firm enough to spread, about 2 hours.

Using long serrated knife, trim rounded tops from cakes. Place 1 cake layer on cake plate, cut side up. Spread 3/4 cup frosting over. Place second cake layer, cut side down, atop frosting. Cover top and sides of cake with remaining frosting, creating smooth surface. DO AHEAD: Can be made 2 days ahead. Cover with cake dome or large bowl and chill. Let stand at room temperature 2 hours before serving.

Arrange candied orange peel/ginger on cake as desired. Slice and enjoy.