As any reasonable person knows, and if you’re reading this I’m sure you’re a reasonable person, this whole pumpkin spice thing has gotten out of control. I’m only now seeing the first red peppers rolling into the farm stands, with nary a pumpkin in sight, and the local stores are already starting to roll out pumpkin spice flavored tchotchkes, most of which don’t contain any pumpkin, and leave lots to be desired on the spice front.
Why are people so obsessed with the concept of pumpkin spice, especially when it doesn’t particularly taste like spiced pumpkin? Why do people buy beer, coffee, doughnuts, cakes, milkshakes, and vodka all tainted with the stuff? Perhaps it’s a collective exhale to mark the end of summer and transaction into the brief comfort of temperate days and cool nights. Maybe pumpkin seems like a more wholesome flavor than Razzle-Dazzle Blue Raspberry. A flavor that harkens back to our Puritan roots, and scratches the deep-seated need for comfort food that we all have.
In short, I don’t know. And while I may not know, I won’t be left behind. Last year I decided to develop a pumpkin spice recipe that I could be proud of. A recipe that had real pumpkin, real spice, and didn’t require one to wear yoga pants and a hoodie in order to enjoy it. This pumpkin mole is what I ended up with. It’s a little sweet, a little savory, high on spice and flavor, but moderate in heat. When I debuted it at the café last fall it was an instant hit. We enjoyed it simmered with pork and stuffed into enchiladas, folded into cheese sauce to make a fall themed mac and cheese, cooked with chorizo sausage and dotted with eggs allowed to simmer in the sauce shakshuska style, and whisked into polenta. It’s amazingly versatile, and an easy way to jazz up a whole variety of foods.
“Mole” is derived from the Nahuatl word for “sauce”. It’s the origin of the word “guacamole”, literally meaning an avocado sauce. While most Americans are familiar with the classic “mole poblano”, a chili sauce sweetened and enriched with chocolate, there are many moles found thoughout Mexico, including red moles, green moles, and black moles. There are five basic components to a mole:
1. Some kind of chili, either fresh or dried, green or red
2. A tart component, often tomato or tomatillo
3. A thickener, frequently nuts, seeds, or stale tortilla
5. A sweetener, sometimes chocolate, sugar, agave, etc.
In the mole that I created the chili comes in the form of dried ancho chilies, and a little chipotle. Anchos are sweet, mild, and easily found in Latino stores or even grocery stores with a large Latino population nearby. Chipotles are spicy smoked jalapenos, and are commonly found canned, or dried and powdered in most grocery stores. They add a little bit of heat and a hint of smoke to the finished sauce. When working with dried chilies it’s important to “bloom” them by frying in a little oil or lard until they shift color and become aromatic, or toast in the oven until the same thing happens. I prefer toasting in the oven to save time, but frying in oil gives you a subtly flavored oil that can be used in other recipes.
The remaining ingredients are easy to find, and likely to already exist in your pantry. For the apples a tart variety is preferable to make the sauce pop. I Braeburn, Cortland, or Jonathan. For the maple syrup Grade B (now called “Very Dark with Strong Taste” by the new, silly maple labeling rules) is almost always preferable for cooking and baking.
My recipe for mole includes a few cooking techniques that are unique to Mexican cookery. The first is charring in a dry pan. This is a very simple technique in which you use a dry cast iron pan to give a charred, smoky, roasted flavor to vegetables. Simply place the pan over medium high heat and allow it to come to temperature. Then add the vegetables and cook until they are lightly charred on the first side. Flip, and char on the reverse side as well. Properly done the vegetables should be lightly blacken, and soft but not mushy. In the case of roasting garlic this way, which works beautifully for any recipes that call for a small amount of roasted garlic when you don’t want to turn the oven on, just add whole cloves of garlic still in their skin, but separated from the paper on the outside of the head. Turn frequently until the paper darkens, about 10 minutes. Allow to cool, then simply squeeze the skin of the clove to push the garlic out, not unlike a tube of toothpaste.
Charring onions in a cast iron pan
The technique of frying a sauce is also one that is unique to Mexican food, and something that I utilize in this recipe. Also simple, one just heats a thin layer of oil or fat in a pot until smoking, then pours a small amount of sauce into the oil, stirring. Once it’s reduced in half the rest of the sauce can be added and the recipe resumed. This technique is a great way to add a rich, caramelized flavor to the finished sauce. I pair it with a series of reductions, where each element of the sauce is added individually and allowed to reduce and concentrate flavor before adding the rest.
The recipe below was designed to make a large quantity of sauce, and it’s the way I recommend making it at home. It’s a somewhat lengthy and involved recipe, and it doesn’t take considerably longer to make a large batch than it would to make a small batch. It freezes beautifully, and I would recommend freezing whatever isn’t consumed within a week. I designed the recipe to be vegetarian friendly, but substituting stock for the water in the recipe and lard for the oil will yield a richer sauce.
2 oz. dried ancho chilis
1 tsp chipotle powder, or half a canned chipotle pepper
1 small onion, peeled and cut into rounds
2 cloves of garlic
1 c. hot water
2 c. pumpkin, freshly roasted
1 c. water
1/2 tsp cinnamon
1/2 tsp powdered ginger
1/2 tsp coriander
1/4 tsp allspice
pinch ground cloves
2 tart apples, cored and quartered
1 pears, cored and quartered
1/2 c. pecans, toasted
2 T maple syrup
1/4 c. water
2 tsp salt
2 T. vegetable oil
Remove the seeds from the dried ancho chilies and toast in a 350 degree oven until fragrant, 5-10 minutes. Add to a bowl and add the hot water to cover. Allow to rehydrate for at least 20 mins. In a dry skillet over medium heat char the onion rounds until lightly blacked and soft, 6-8 minutes. Roast the garlic in the same pan by placing unpeeled cloves in the pan until skin starts to darken, turning frequently. Combine chilis, water, onion, garlic, and chipotles in blender, and blend until smooth. Heat the 2 T oil in a large pot until just smoking. Pour in approximately 1 c. of the chili mixture and cook until reduced by half. Add the rest of the chili mixture and turn heat down to low. Cook slowly until reduced by half.
In the meantime, puree pumpkin, water, and spices in the blender, and set aside. When the chili mixture has reduced by half add the pumpkin puree, and continue to reduce. During this time cook the apples and pears in the same pan as the onions and garlic, adding a small amount of water if necessary, until they're soft. Puree them as well, and set aside.
Add the apple and pear mixture once the sauce in the pan has reduced by half, then puree the remaining ingredients. Once again, add once sauce in pot is reduced by half. After adding the nut mixture reduce by half, or until desired consistency is reached. Taste and add more salt if necessary, then blend the finished sauce one more time to ensure it's smooth. This sauce is very adaptable and can be served with chicken, pork, lamb, beef, eggs, folded into mac and cheese (a favorite at The Bees Knees Cafe), or with rice. Store in the refrigerator for up to 10 days, or freeze for up to 6 months.