Project Cook: Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti

A few weeks ago, Irvin from Eat the Love posted on his instagram feed that he wasn’t seeing many pumpkin recipes from the bloggers he follows, and both politely and in fun, essentially told everyone to step it up! Instantly (although I’m definitely not one of his favorites – I doubt he knows I exist!) I knew I wanted to make pumpkin biscotti, using one of his tricks (more on that later). I would stud them generously with pumpkin seeds since I’d had that bag of pepitas in the pantry forever,* and maybe some other nuts, and top them with coarse, crunchy sugar or a criss-crossed shiny glaze, and I’d be right on trend.

And then, of course, I didn’t. Instead we had friends over, and I graded papers, and the kitchen was too warm, and I lost track of my biscotti for a while, but this past weekend, in between setting out Halloween decorations (and, of course, more grading), I finally got down to it. Supplies bought, I went looking for the rest of the ingredients, and after tearing through my pantry shelves, realized the wellspring inspiration for the whole recipes – the pumpkin seeds – were nowhere to be found.

Cut to me, grumbling and grouchy, on an emergency trip to the nearest grocery store, scouring what felt like every aisle until I finally found some, in measly little 2 ounce packages, next to the cocktail peanuts. Project back on track.

For the base dough, I turned to the gurus at King Arthur Flour. While their recipe looks delicious, I knew I wanted to raise the stakes a bit with various sources of crunch, and – here’s where Irvin becomes important for this recipe again – I wanted to use his pumpkin trick of drying the puree out on the stove before integrating it into the recipe. The problem with pumpkin, as I’ve noted previously, is its massive moisture content. The KAF recipe contains only ½ cup pumpkin puree, likely because it’s so wet that adding much more would not allow for crunchy cookies. I figured since I was going to reduce the moisture so much I could increase that quantity by half. This would give me a dryer ingredient with a more intense pumpkin flavor.

But making my mixture less wet entailed potential recipe problems. Biscotti should be crunchy, but reducing moisture content too much could lead to stale-tasting cookies, or a mix that didn’t hold together properly. Time to do some research. My favorite biscotti recipe, from the very first issue of Bon Appétit I ever bought, is flavored with lemon and walnut and has become a family Christmas standard. It differs considerably from the KAF recipe for pumpkin biscotti, with more egg, a good bit more butter, and of course a staggering 3 cups of chopped walnuts I was not planning to come even close to. The recipe creation then became guesswork, which involved a series of texts between me and my sister to try and figure out how to proceed.

I settled on increasing the amount of egg and butter, but not quite as much as my old reliable standby. Since I’d be adding nuts and seeds, I also opted to change up KAF’s procedure a bit to match the one I was used to: rather than putting the shaped, sticky batter straight into the oven, I wrapped mine in plastic wrap (which also helps shape it – more below…), chucked it into the fridge for a few hours, and then unwrapped and baked it once it had firmed up.

My go-to lemon and walnut biscotti recipe advocates cooling the flattened dough logs completely after their first bake, then slicing, lying the cookies down on their cut sides, and baking again at low heat. The KAF recipe I was half-following suggests cutting while still hot, then baking again with the cookies standing up on their flat bottom edges. I was intrigued and tried this new way, and I might never go back. Yes, the slicing requires delicacy, especially because the pumpkin seeds and pistachio pieces are harder than the surrounding dough, but cooking them standing up means first: the coarse sugar you press into the top stays put, and second: they brown evenly on both sides. Even browning, sugar-crunch layer, and you can even fit more on the baking tray at once. Say no more. I’m sold.

But I guess really there is one more thing to say, and that’s our assessment. These are outstandingly delicious. They are spicy and crunchy and not too sweet, and though the pumpkin flavor is mild it’s definitely there. The sparkling coarse sugar on top is perfect against the earthiness of the nuts and pumpkin seeds inside. It’s a good thing I’m taking a batch in to work tomorrow, because by the time I remembered I should count how many cookies this recipe made to report here, we had already eaten… enough of them… that guesswork was required, and when I realized I was eating what might have been my fourth in an hour or so, I sentenced them all to wait in a hard-to-open Tupperware on top of the fridge with the Halloween candy so they would be harder to access. We will certainly make these again, as should you. And I’ve already plotted out a version with amped up ginger and chopped dried apples for Christmas. Move over, lemon and walnut standard. Or at least be ready to share the plate.

* for a clear explanation of the difference between pepitas and plain old pumpkin seeds, see here.

Seeded Pumpkin Biscotti
Adapted from King Arthur Flour
Makes approximately 3 dozen
About 4 hours (including resting time) or overnight
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ cup pepitas
½ cup roughly chopped pistachios
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, softened
⅔ cups granulated sugar
1½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
scant ¼ teaspoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 eggs
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 tablespoon flax seeds
2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, such as turbinado or demerara, for sprinkling

 

  • In a small skillet, cook the pumpkin puree over high or medium-high heat for about 15 minutes, stirring frequently, until the color has deepened and the puree has dried and has a texture something like a thick, crusted frosting. It will be reduced by about half. Set aside to cool.
  • While the pumpkin puree is reducing, if desired, toast the pepitas and chopped pistachios in a 300F oven for about 10 minutes. Set these aside to cool as well.
  • In a large bowl, or the bowl of your stand mixer, cream together the butter and granulated sugar. Add the cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, salt, and baking powder, and beat with the paddle attachment until smooth and creamy.
  • Beat in the eggs and the cooled pumpkin puree until well combined. The pumpkin will take a minute or two to fully integrate.
  • With the mixer on low speed, add the flour a ½ cup at a time, then the flax seeds and the cooled pepitas and pistachios. Be sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl once or twice to ensure everything is mixed in. The resulting mixture will be very sticky.
  • Cut two pieces of cling wrap and spread them out on a clean counter. With a determined spatula, scrape half the dough mixture onto each. Using the plastic wrap, push and mold the dough into two long rectangles of about 10 x 2½ inches. Wrap them up in the plastic wrap, put them on a cookie sheet or other flat tray, and stow in the fridge for at least two hours, or overnight.
  • When you are ready to bake, preheat the oven to 350F. Retrieve the dough logs from the refrigerator, unwrap them from the plastic wrap, and position them an inch or two apart from one another on a parchment lined baking sheet. Sprinkle the tops with the 2-3 tablespoons coarse sugar, then use your hand to spread the sugar evenly and gently press it in to the top of the dough a bit so it adheres.
  • Bake the dough logs for 25 minutes; they will be just firm. Remove from the oven and let cool 10-15 minutes. Meanwhile, reduce the oven temperature to 325F.
  • After 10-15 minutes, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the logs crosswise into ½ inch slices. Use a gentle sawing motion to avoid breaking up the slices, which will still be very delicate at this point. Some of the nuts and seeds will be harder to cut through. Be sure to cut as straight up and down as possible; if the biscotti are thicker on the top than the bottom, they won’t stand up correctly for their second baking.
  • Stand the biscotti on their bottom edges on the same parchment lined baking sheet you used to bake the flattened logs. They can be fairly close together but should not be touching. Carefully return the pan to the 325F oven and bake for 40-45 minutes, until they are getting golden brown around the edges. They will still be soft in the middle.
  • KAF recommends turning off the oven, cracking the door, and allowing the biscotti to cool completely while inside, likely to ensure the finished cookies are crunchy. I did not do this because I had something else I needed to bake; I cooled them in the oven only 5 or 10 minutes, then removed the pan to a counter top and let them cool completely. Mine were still perfectly crisp all the way through.
  • Serve when completely cooled. Perfect with coffee, chai or other tea, or straight off the pan.

Autumn Bisque, now with post and recipe!

I promised you a recipe when I was feeling a bit better, and suddenly a week slid by! It’s not that I wasn’t feeling better (though suspected food poisoning that requires two days – TWO! Two entire days! – home from work does take a while to recover from); it’s just that the end-of-semester panic that seems to make many of my students momentarily forget how to write seemed to strike me too. The words dulled and tripped and, in the face of multiple fires breathing their way up and down Southern California and all the other apocalyptic promises of the impending end of the year, chose to stay inside, thank-you-very-much.

But it’s time to shed that cocoon and step back out, and besides, this soup, with its medley of root vegetables, apple for sweet tartness, and luxurious quantities of cream, is all the velvet goodness a winter table requires. Its inspiration comes from a gorgeous bowl at my sister’s wedding last fall – a soup so rich and luxe and flavorful it was practically a down comforter. I knew it had root vegetables in it, I knew it had cream and herbs, maybe butternut squash, maybe sweet potato… so I wrote to the catering director at the venue and got into a very silly standoff: I wanted an email with a recipe, she wanted me to call (during HER business hours, east coast time – didn’t she know I was at work too? Didn’t she know I abhor phone calls?!) so she could tell me how she makes it, which sounded more like procedure than like an ingredient list with quantities. This went back and forth for a week, with me refusing to call and her refusing to provide a recipe, and finally I just gave up. Ten months later, the time to recreate the soup arrived, and I had only my muted memories from a night soaked in champagne and joy to go on.

To that end, I have no idea how close this is to the original. I picked sweet potatoes, parsnips, and celery root for an intriguing background flavor – you could change up the vegetable choices and use winter squash, or carrots, or even rutabagas. I suspect the venue’s version had even more cream, and I don’t think it included the spritz of nutmeg I added (mostly for looks, but we liked the flavor of it too), but there’s something about pouring in over a cup of heavy whipping cream and watching the contents of the pot go from bright orange to decidedly pale gold that makes a home cook’s arteries start whispering threats. I also don’t think the venue added a last minute slug of irish whiskey, but I’d recommend that you do, since just that little bit somehow rounds out the flavor in a way nothing else could.

What I do know is: this is cozy. It’s smooth, and rich, and pleasantly filling, and would be perfect with a bright, citrus-spiked salad full of radishes and pomegranate seeds and bitter lettuces.* And a thick wedge of bread to round things out. Maybe this one. And it leaves me lacking only one soup, with three weeks to go, to make this project complete.

* wow, that sounds good, doesn’t it? Want one next week? I’ll see what I can do…

Autumn Bisque
Makes 10-12 first course servings; about 6 main course servings
About an hour
4-6 cloves garlic
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium white onion, diced
5 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 cups peeled and diced celery root
2 cups peeled and diced sweet potato
2 cups peeled and diced parsnips
1 green apple, peeled, cored, and diced
3 sprigs fresh thyme (plus more to serve, if desired)
1 sprig fresh sage (4-5 leaves)
1 bay leaf
1½ cups heavy cream
1-2 ounces whiskey, brandy, or marsala, optional
1-2 teaspoons salt, to taste
sprinkle of nutmeg, to serve

 

  • Set the oven temperature to 350F. In a small, oven-safe bowl, drizzle the garlic cloves with a little bit of olive oil, some salt and some pepper. Top tightly with aluminum foil and stow in the oven until the garlic smells sweet, 20-25 minutes. There’s no need to wait for the oven to preheat.
  • While the garlic is roasting, melt the butter in a large pot over medium heat. Add the diced onion and cook gently with 2 pinches of salt until the onions are tender and slightly translucent, but not browned. This is called sweating, and should take 8-10 minutes, during which time you can peel and dice the other vegetables.
  • With the onions softened, pour in the stock, then dump in the diced celery root, sweet potatoes, parsnips, and apple. Stir in the thyme, sage, and bay leaf, then raise the heat, cover with a lid, and bring to a boil.
  • Once the liquid is boiling, reduce the heat to medium or medium low, keeping the soup just at a simmer until the vegetables are fork-tender: easily speared but not disintegrating; about 30 minutes. The apple will be softer than the others; the celery root will likely take the longest.
  • When the vegetable chunks are tender, remove from heat and add the roasted garlic – once it has cooled a bit from its time in the oven, just squeeze the cloves right out of their skins, and straight into the soup. Then, very carefully and working in batches, relocate the soup to a blender and blend until very, very smooth. Hot liquids can expand rapidly in the blender, causing small “explosions,” so leave some room in the top, leave a space with the lid for air to escape, and consider covering the top with a thick kitchen towel just in case.
  • Transfer the smooth soup back to the pot. If you’re feeling especially fussy, you could try straining it first. I didn’t, but if you do, let me know how it goes!
  • Back in the pot, stir in the heavy cream and the alcohol, if using, and the salt. Start with 1 teaspoon, taste, then add more if you feel the soup needs it. Return to low heat until warmed through.
  • To serve, ladle into bowls, dust lightly with nutmeg, and top with a sprig of thyme if you’re feeling fancy.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits

I think it’s like this every year. I’m sure I’ve said that before. The first week of the semester goes by and I think “well, that was fun,” and then I think “oh, I have to do that fifteen times more in a row!” The second week goes by, and I’m exhausted, but grateful for the bonus day Labor Day provided.

Then week 3 hits. The add period is over, so my classes stabilize and become the “real” group that will soldier through the semester with me. The serious assignments begin. The bedtime and alarm start to feel like normal and not like torture.

But the work. At this point, yes, classes have stabilized, but in almost all cases they are still at their enrollment caps, which means the first paper I collect comes in a dose of sixty. And even when you parse that out in stacks of ten, boy does it feel like a lot. By the time the weekend following week 3 hits, I need comfort food.

Fortunately, our weather has cooled into something that feels surprisingly like fall. Mid September is usually stifling, but we are descending into temperatures in which it’s not suicidal to have the oven on for a half hour or so. When I saw that windfall on our weather forecast, I thought of biscuits.

I realize, of course, that there is no shortage of biscuit recipes here, and if I’m quite honest with you, almost every one has the same base. The magic, though, is in what extra flavoring agents you add. This time around, the fall combination of apples and onions hit me hard. I’ve done this before, in a meatball that was really just an excuse to eat more breakfast sausage, but in biscuits I wanted less tartness, less crisp-tender bite, and just melting sweetness with a touch of roasted flavor. Green apple and red onion get roasted in chunks for a half hour before they are tossed with the dry ingredients, then blended in with butter and buttermilk or soured cream. Roll, fold, and punch out rounds from the wet dough, and you are only fifteen minutes from hot, flaky biscuits.

As we chatted during our weekly viewing of Project Runway, my friend T. and I speculated additions to these biscuits. You could add plenty of black pepper, or amp up the savory with herbs: sage is quintessentially autumnal, and thyme also goes well with apple and onion. Where our minds went immediately, though, was blue cheese. Think about it: crumbles in the mix leaking out during baking to form little lacy puddles around the edges of the finished biscuit. Or, if you don’t want more busyness in the biscuit itself, T. suggested blue cheese butter to spread in the center.

These are not doctored, though, any further than the original pairing, and honestly, they don’t need to be. Even the tartest apple, as were the two tiny granny smiths I cubed up, mellows as it cooks, playing with and enhancing the sweetness of the onion. You could have them as we did: the “bread” of a breakfast-y sandwich (I mixed bulk sausage with maple syrup, red pepper flakes, and a squeeze of Dijon before frying in patties to put in the center), but I bet, especially if we are thinking seasonally, that they would be perfect cut a little smaller and swaddled in a basket to be served alongside a Thanksgiving turkey.

Roasted Apple and Onion Biscuits
About 60 minutes, including cooling time
Makes 14-15 2½ inch biscuits
2 small or 1 large tart green apple (I like granny smith), skin on, cut into small cubes
½ large red onion, skin, root, and stem ends removed, cut into large chunks
2 tablespoons olive oil
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon pepper
2 cups all-purpose flour + more for sprinkling on your board
2 teaspoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons baking powder
6 tablespoons cold butter, cut into chunks
6 ounces buttermilk, or whole milk or cream soured with about a tablespoon of vinegar

 

  • Preheat the oven to 400F. On a baking tray lined with aluminum foil, toss the apple and onion chunks with the olive oil, the ¼ teaspoon salt, and the pepper. Roast for 15 minutes, toss gently with a spatula, then roast another 15 minutes, until just a few edges are taking on a toasty brown color. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
  • While the apples and onions cool, combine the flour, sugar, 1 teaspoon salt, and baking powder in a medium bowl. I like to use a whisk for this to keep it all light and well mixed.
  • Add in the cooled apple and onion pieces and toss to ensure they are well coated with flour – this will help them stay evenly distributed in the biscuits rather than sinking to the bottom. Dump in the cubes of cold butter and use a pastry blender or your fingers to work the fat into the flour mixture. You are looking for butter bits the size of small peas.
  • Pour in the buttermilk or soured cream and use a fork or your fingers to mix it through the flour and butter mixture and bring the whole thing together into a shaggy, soft ball of dough (if it seems too dry and is not coming together, just set it aside for a minute or three – this will give the flour time to absorb the wet ingredients a bit more).
  • Turn the dough out onto a well floured board, sprinkle some more flour on top, and knead with your hands two or three times just to catch any loose bits. With a rolling pin or your hands, press or roll the dough into a rough rectangular shape about ½ an inch thick. Fold the dough into thirds, then roll out again. Repeat, again folding the dough into thirds and then rolling it out; this creates more flaky layers. If the dough sticks to your board, use the flat blade of a butter knife or a pastry scraper to help you lift it free. This is a fairly wet dough, so you’ll need to be stern with it, and you may need to sprinkle on more flour as you go.
  • After you’ve rolled and folded, rolled and folded (so you’ll have done a total of six folds), roll out once more, this time to a thickness of 1 inch, and use a 2½-inch round cutter (or the floured lip of a glass) to punch out biscuits. Push the cutter straight down through the dough; don’t twist until you are all the way through to the board, or you’ll crush the flaky layers! Repeat until you can’t punch out any more rounds. Re-roll the dough scraps (no need to fold again unless you want to) and repeat – with a 2½-inch cutter, you should be able to make14-15 biscuits around an inch in thickness.
  • Replace the aluminum foil sheet on your baking tray with parchment paper, and arrange the biscuits on it, evenly spaced. I like to do about 8 at a time, but they don’t spread much, so you can crowd them a little. Bake 15 minutes (still at 400F), until they are puffed and the tops are golden and slightly dry. These won’t climb sky high because the apples and onions are wet and add extra weight, but they will still rise a bit.
  • Let cool for a minute or two, then serve warm (see suggestions above for accompaniments).