Pumpkin cheating is an acceptable trick for great treats

October 27, 2023

I usually stay away from boxed cake and cookie mixes or packaged side dishes. I prefer to have control over the salt and seasonings, and I like to avoid additives or preservatives. However, sometimes I’m in a hurry and want something that can come together quickly when I need to bring a dish or dessert to a last-minute gathering. I’ve found a few recipes that are great when I’m willing to cheat a bit.

First of all, we’re talking about pumpkin recipes, since we’re on the brink of Halloween and pumpkins are stacked everywhere from the supermarket bins to your neighbors’ porches. For those of you unfamiliar with pumpkin, it is botanically considered a winter squash, with a hard shell, central seeds and tough flesh. Pumpkins and other squashes originated in Central America and were a staple food for the Incas and Aztecs thousands of years ago.

Some early explorers brought pumpkins and other winter squashes back with them when they returned to Europe, but the vegetable never became very popular and did not appear as an ingredient in cookbooks of the time. When European colonists settled in North America, they brought along cookbooks that had been published in England, featuring foods common on that continent, still with no mention of pumpkin.

The first time pumpkin appeared in an American cookbook was in Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, published in 1796, the first of its kind. Many of the other recipes were copied from earlier English sources, but her new cookbook featured foods not typically found on European menus. Among these were the first version of “Pompkin” pudding, baked as we would a pumpkin pie or steamed over a fire in the shell of a pumpkin.

Simmons might be considered the source for one of the earliest versions of what we now call “pumpkin spice.” Her seasoning recipe combined mace, allspice, nutmeg and ginger, not unlike the modern recipe (below). According to food historians, the American spice company McCormick introduced its tinned version of the spice mixture in 1934. Now we have Starbucks and Dunkin’ to thank for the seasonal popularity of their blends.

What is it about these flavors that we associate with pumpkin? The flesh of cooked pumpkin is rather bland, its rich color brings to mind warmth, and we’re in the first chilly days of autumn, so the deep and sharp notes in the spice blend meld perfectly and bring the pumpkin to life. If you’ve ever had pumpkin crab soup, you’ll find paprika as the most common spice, again to add brightness to the flavor profile.

Now, back to my plan for easy treats with a boxed cake mix – the pumpkin muffins in the photo. If you read the back of the box, instructions have you whisk together water, vegetable oil and eggs before adding the contents of the dry mix. To make the muffins, simply substitute a 15-ounce can of pumpkin puree for the other three ingredients, stir in some spice and you have a muffin batter. These were topped with a bit of brown sugar, and the seasoning blend was pumpkin pie spice, of course.

Another way to take a shortcut is to make pumpkin cheesecake muffins instead of the more complicated cheesecake that requires baking in a water bath. This version layers a mixture of crushed graham crackers and butter on the bottom of the muffin cup, then mixes cream cheese and pumpkin puree into a smooth batter. A large dollop of whipped cream is the perfect finishing touch.

Pumpkin Pie Spice

3 t ground cinnamon
2 t ground ginger
2 t ground nutmeg
1 t ground cloves
1 t ground allspice

Combine ingredients and stir thoroughly. Store in an airtight container. Yield: 3 T spice blend.

Pumpkin Muffins

1 boxed cake mix*
15-oz can pumpkin puree
2 t pumpkin pie spice
3 T brown sugar, optional

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cups or coat with nonstick cooking spray; set aside. In a large mixing bowl combine the cake mix and pumpkin (do not add other ingredients listed on the box instructions). When the batter is smooth, add spice mixture and stir to combine thoroughly. Spoon batter into cups to 2/3 full. Sprinkle muffin tops with brown sugar, if using. Bake until a tester comes out clean, about 20 minutes. *Note: Vanilla or yellow mix will work best.

Pumpkin Cheesecake Muffins

1 sleeve graham crackers
1/4 C sugar 
3 T melted butter
16 oz cream cheese, softened
1/2 C brown sugar
1/4 C sugar
2 eggs
1 t vanilla
1 1/2 t pumpkin pie spice
1 C pumpkin puree
whipped cream, for serving

Preheat oven to 350 F. Line a 12-cup muffin tin with paper cups; set aside. Place the graham crackers in a zip-top bag and crush into uniform crumbs. Place in a small bowl; mix with sugar and melted butter. Divide the mixture evenly across the 12 muffin cups, using the base of a glass to press the crust into a smooth layer. In a large mixing bowl, combine the cream cheese, sugars, eggs, vanilla and spice. Use a mixer to beat the ingredients together until smooth. Add pumpkin puree and mix to combine thoroughly. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups and bake until set, about 18 minutes. Once cooled to room temperature, refrigerate for about three hours. Garnish with whipped cream to serve.

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