The Dupont Farmer’s Market was abuzz the Sunday before Thanksgiving with shoppers gathering ingredients for this week’s big feast. Despite the advent of winter, stands overflowed with lush vegetables. Hearty winter greens, an array of cooking pumpkins, mounds of crisp apples, rainbow colored turnips, and finger-sized baby sweet potatoes were some of the standouts. As I scanned these seasonal beauties, I thought of new ways to incorporate the bounty of Fall into a Thanksgiving menu.
Specifically, I was mulling over what I could possibly make for dessert. It may surprise you to hear that this is always the most challenging part of the Thanksgiving menu for me. What it boils down to are three things: 1) I have never been a fan of pumpkin pie 2) I am a self-confessed dessert lover who gets depressed at the thought of having unappealing choices on Thanksgiving 3) some members of my family feel strongly that I keep the menu as “traditional” as possible.
Thanksgiving, unlike other major holidays, tends to revolve around the repetition of a very traditional menu. Sometimes this involves recipes that pay homage to the Autumn harvest, and in my opinion these are often the most delicious options. As far as desserts go, the usual suspects are almost always pumpkin, pecan or apple pie. Now, while the two latter pies are among my personal favorites, I loathe the monotony of such a limited dessert selection year after year.
Considering the market’s selection on Sunday, I wondered if there was a way I might incorporate more of the seasonal produce into a sweet, rather than savory, application. I remembered a Jaime Oliver recipe that incorporated pureed butternut squash into a breakfast muffin. The result was an incredibly moist cake with a delicate crumb. I thought the same technique could be applied to a spice cake, substituting the squash for what otherwise might be carrots, and studding the batter with toasted walnuts and cranberries. A tangy cream cheese frosting scented with winter citrus, like Meyer lemon and orange, would create a luscious topping. Tasting the backdrop of buttery squash, laced with sweet spice and citrus, I rushed to snatch up the ingredients I needed to test the cake.
2 ½ C all purpose flour
1 ¼ tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp ground nutmeg
pinch of salt
1 tsp vanilla extract
2 C butternut squash, peeled and seeded
1 C brown sugar
1 C granulated sugar
½ C canola oil
½ C citrus olive oil
½ C dried cranberries, coarsely chopped, plus a handful more for garnish
½ C shelled walnuts, broken into small pieces, plus a handful more for garnish
zest of 1 orange
zest of 1 meyer lemon
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.
Line the bottoms of 2, 9 inch cake pans wih parchment paper then grease the inside of each pan. Sift dry ingredients together in a medium bowl. Puree squash in a food processor, then set aside squash in a small bowl and wipe out the bowl of the machine. Add both sugars, vanilla and the eggs to the machine and process for one minute. With the machine running, drizzle in both oils. Add dry ingredients and pulse just until combined. Empty the contents of the mixer into a large bowl then fold in squash, zest, cranberries and walnuts. Evenly divide the batter between the two pans and bake for approximately 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. The center of the cake should spring back when touched. Allow the cakes to cool in their pans for about 10 minutes, then turn out onto a cooling rack. The cakes should cool to room temperature before you attempt to layer and ice with frosting.
2, 8 oz packages plain cream cheese, softened
1 stick of butter, softened
2 lbs confectioner’s sugar
zest of 1 meyer lemon
zest of 1 small orange
1 Tbsp fresh meyer lemon juice
1 Tbsp vanilla extract
Place the cream cheese and butter into a standing mixer fitted with a paddle attachment and beat until light and creamy, approximately 2 minutes. Gradually add insugar, turning the mixer off between additions and wrapping a tea towel around the top of the bowl as you turn the mixer on to incorporate. This prevents the sugar from flying out. After all of the sugar is mixed in, add zest, juice and vanilla to combine.
To assemble: Dab a small amount of frosting in the center of the area (a flat plate or cutting board) you will frost the cake on to help it stay put while you are layering it. Place one layer down on top of this, keeping the flat side up. Spoon a generous amount of frosting on top of this layer and spread it out evenly (with a rubber or off-set spatula) just to cover the top surface. Place the second layer evenly on top, then begin to spoon some of the remaining frosting on top. Gently spread out frosting again and begin to allow some of the excess to form on the edges. Begin to gradually ice the sides of the cake by using some of this excess frosting, gradually pulling it down, holding your spatula at an angle, from the top of the cake. Use any extra reserved frosting to cover up patches of cake that are still exposed on the sides or bottom. Sprinkle remaining walnut pieces and cranberries over top as a garnish.