Pumpkin spice is everything nice

September 27, 2019

We’re nowhere near Thanksgiving Day and more than a month away from Halloween, yet the pumpkin pie spice assault has already begun. How did this happen? First, despite its name, the mixture does not contain pumpkin in any form, but refers to the spices typically used to flavor pumpkin pies: cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, ginger, and sometimes mace or allspice.

These are not new ingredients; in fact, nutmeg has been used to flavor foods for close to 3,500 years, based on traces found on ancient pottery shards in Indonesia. Throughout the Asian and European spice trade, these were highly valued commodities. Ultimately they reached America, where newspaper advertisements from as early as 1734 offer nutmeg, cinnamon and allspice for sale.

By the time of her 1796 cookbook, American Cookery (considered the first truly American-based cookbook, not a reprint of English recipes), Amelia Simmons includes two “receipts” for “pompkin” pudding. As written, these are more like a custard baked in a crust, but with ingredients that include mace, allspice, ginger and nutmeg. She expected the home cook to have each of these spices in her pantry.

As a nod to convenience, one of the earliest purveyors of premixed pumpkin pie spice was Thompson & Taylor in 1930, followed by the well-known McCormick brand introduced in 1934. By the 1950s, the mixture’s name was shortened to pumpkin spice, and recipes encouraged using it in all sorts of pumpkin-related dishes from quick breads to muffins and soups.

According to, the first reference to pumpkin spice coffee was in 1996 when Tampa, Florida’s Home Roast Coffee offered flavored beans. Other coffee bean roasters and boutique coffee shops across the country began to feature the fall-favorite pumpkin spice blend, which customers discovered was great when mixed into a milky, sweet latte.

Once Starbucks introduced its version of the pumpkin spice latte in 2004, consumers began to see an avalanche of other pumpkin spice specialities. It’s slightly ironic that the spice blend designed to enliven the bland flavor of pumpkin has become so ubiquitous at this time of the year, sparking debates between those who love it and those who can’t stand it.

Without getting into the debate, I’ll offer my version of the pumpkin pie spice blend, encouraging you to add more or less of the various ingredients to suit your own tastes. Once you’ve stirred the mixture together (or purchased a commercial tin of the blend) you can consider some of the following ways to put your pumpkin spice to work.

The first recipe is for the pumpkin spice waffles in the photo. Starting with a standard waffle recipe, I substituted the pumpkin spice blend for vanilla extract and stirred some pumpkin purée into the batter. The result was waffles with a deeper brown color and delightful, bright flavors. You can do a similar change with muffins.

For a surprising use of pumpkin spice in a savory dish, consider the butternut squash soup where the seasoning creates almost-sweet notes that complement the roasted butternut squash purée. Another savory option is this chili that incorporates both the spice and pumpkin purée into a rich, hearty meal. And, if you want more pumpkin spice in your life, consider a pumpkin spice latte – you can find them everywhere!

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 Waffles

3/4 C flour
1 1/2 t baking powder
1 t baking soda
1 1/2 t pumpkin pie spice
pinch salt
1/2 C pumpkin purée 
1 egg
1 1/2 T melted butter
2 T brown sugar
1/2 C buttermilk

Preheat waffle iron. In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, baking soda, pumpkin pie spice and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, whisk together the pumpkin, egg, butter, sugar and buttermilk. Make a well in the dry ingredients and pour in the wet mixture. Mix together just until combined. Pour 1/2 C batter into each section of the waffle iron and cook until steaming stops. Remove waffles; serve with butter and maple syrup. Yield: 4 Belgian waffles.

Butternut Squash Soup

1 medium butternut squash
olive oil
4 C vegetable broth
1/2 t pumpkin pie spice mix
1/2 t sea salt
plain yogurt, for garnish

Preheat oven to 400 F. Place whole squash on baking sheet and roast until a knife pokes through skin easily, about an hour. Remove from oven and allow to cool. Cut in half lengthwise and scoop out seeds; scoop out flesh into the bowl of a blender or food processor. Add vegetable broth, pumpkin pie spice and salt. Blend until smooth. Transfer to a soup pot and heat over medium until steaming. Ladle into bowls and drizzle with yogurt. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Pumpkin Chili

1 lb lean ground beef
1 chopped onion
1 chopped red bell pepper
1 15-oz can diced tomatoes
1 15-oz can fire-roasted tomatoes
1 15-oz can pumpkin purée
1 15-oz can red kidney beans
1 15-oz can black beans
1 t pumpkin pie spice
3 T chili powder
1/2 t red pepper flakes
1 t cumin
salt & pepper, to taste

In a large skillet, sauté the ground beef over medium. Drain fat and transfer to slow cooker. Add remaining ingredients and stir to combine. Cook on high for 4 hours. To serve, garnish with sour cream and shredded cheese. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

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