Hands down, my favorite flavor of the Fall is pumpkin -- pies, bars, cakes, soups, you name it, I love it. My Autumn baking season, roughly from September until Thanksgiving, is positively dominated by pumpkin in all its many permutations, and this post is no exception. Last year, I modified a pumpkin cookie recipe with great success, so this year I decided to try my hand at some pumpkin bars, which are more like blondies due to their moist, dense texture. I modified a basic recipe from Martha Stewart, changing around the proportion of pumpkin, as well as the amounts and kinds of sugar, spices, and some of the mix-ins. Like my cookies, I added butterscotch chips to these in lieu of the chocolate chips that the original recipe calls for, because the combination of pumpkin and butterscotch is just too darn good to pass up!
Although this recipe is a general Fall recipe, and not Halloween-specific per se, Halloween and pumpkins are intimately linked in North America, so I'd like to take a few moments and delve into another Halloween historical interlude at the point where pumpkins and Halloween converge: the Jack-o'-Lantern.
A popular legend surrounding the Jack-o'-Lantern comes originally from Ireland. Although the specifics of the story can vary, they all follow the same relative story arc, and they all involve a sneaky and rather unsavory individual known as Jack the Smith, or "Stingy Jack." As one version of the story goes, Stingy Jack had a run-in with the Devil, who had determined that it was Jack's time to die. Jack shrewdly requested a last drink at the pub, and the Devil obliged. Since Jack had already frittered away all of his money, he convinced the Devil to change shape into a silver coin in order to pay for the drink. Once the Devil did so, Jack snatched him up and placed him in a wallet next to a crucifix, which sapped the Devil of his powers. In other versions of this story, Jack tricks the Devil into climbing an apple tree and surrounds the base with crosses. But however the story is woven, it always comes to the point where Jack has the Devil trapped and at his mercy. At this point, in exchange for the Devil's freedom, Jack extracted a promise that the Devil will never collect his soul for Hell.
Many years later, Stingy Jack dies, and herein lies the problem: he was too unsavory of a person to go to Heaven, and because of the Devil's promise, he also couldn't go to Hell. Doomed to forever walk in the dark nether region between Heaven and Hell, a frightened Jack asked the Devil how he would be able to see where he was going as he traveled alone, and the Devil tossed him an eternally burning ember from the fires of Hell to light his path and serve as a warning for others. Stingy Jack placed the ember in a hollowed out turnip, and made a lantern to light his way. He became known as "Jack of the Lantern" which was eventually contracted into "Jack-o'-Lantern."
Slightly less glamorous, Jack-o'-Lantern may have also been a generic reference to night watchmen who roamed the streets and castles of the British Isles in the mid-17th century. Whether this practice has its roots in the old Irish legend has not been established.
The term Jack-o'-Lantern has another meaning, the phenomenon of ignis fatuus, the mysterious lights appearing over bogs and marshes which were believed to be ghostly in origin and thought to resemble a flickering candle or lantern. What was once thought to be a byproduct of paranormal activity is today generally attributed to the chemical reactions of the organic decay that occurs in bogs -- the oxidation of phosphine, which is highly combustible in the presence of oxygen, ignites methane and results in ephemeral fires.
The first Jack-o'-Lanterns were carved in the UK out of turnips and swedes during All Hallows Eve, and placed on the doorstep to ward off the evil spirits that would roam the earth on the one night when the veil between worlds was thinnest. When Irish immigrants came to America in the mid-19th century, they brought the tradition with them but transfered the carving to pumpkins, which were larger and plentiful.The first extant reference to Jack-o'-Lanterns being carved vegetable lanterns dates back to 1837, and a specific connection to North American Halloween is established by 1866.
This recipe is fairly easy to make. The ingredients list is long because I always prefer to add individual spices as opposed to using the "pumpkin pie spice" found in stores. But the steps are short and simple.
First, gather everything you need, including the spices. For this recipe, I used a combination of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice, although you can substitute cloves for the allspice if you wish.
You'll notice that I am using whole nutmegs. I really like the flavor (and smell) of freshly ground nutmeg, so I grate it fresh. But you can use the pre-ground stuff, and it'll turn out just fine.
|This is what the inside of a whole nutmeg looks like|
Then, you combine all of the dry ingredients together in a bowl, so that they are well blended.
Cream the butter and sugars together until light and fluffy.
At this point you add in the egg, vanilla, and pumpkin until just combined. It'll look chunky, but it's all good, don't keep beating it trying to make the batter smooth. Add in the dry ingredients and mix until just combined.
Fold in those butterscotch chips and pecans, and spread it in the pan. The batter is thick, so you will have to actively push it to all the corners. Make sure everything is even!
And then you bake them up for about 40 minutes. You'll know they are done when they just start to pull away from the pan. A toothpick inserted in the center should still have just a few moist crumbs.
I'd cool them completely before cutting, because they need to firm up. I'd suggest at least an hour or so at room temp, followed by at least a half hour in the fridge, if not a full hour.
I was a little worried about this recipe at first, because when they baked, they puffed out like pumpkin bread -- which was fine, but I was really hoping for a brownie consistency. But, by the time they cooled, they sank back down into a lovely, dense and moist bar. Once again, I think that the combination of pumpkin and butterscotch chips works wonderfully, these bars were incredibly tasty, and easy to put together and bake. These are a great and quick Fall treat!
- 2 1/3 C flour
- 2 tsp cinnamon
- 1 tsp ginger
- 1/2 tsp nutmeg
- 1/4 tsp allspice
- 1 tsp baking soda
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 2 sticks butter, unsalted, softened
- 1/2 C sugar
- 1 C dark brown sugar (can substitute light)
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp vanilla extract
- 1-15 oz can pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
- 11 oz butterscotch chips
- 1 C chopped pecans
- Preheat oven to 350F, and spray a 9x13" pan with butter spray
- Combine dry ingredients into a bowl (flour, spices, baking soda, salt) and set aside
- Cream butter and sugars together until light and fluffy
- Add in egg, vanilla and pumpkin and beat until combined (mixture may look chunky)
- Add dry ingredients and mix until just combined
- Fold in butterscotch chips and pecans
- Spread batter into prepared pan. The batter is thick by this point, so you will have to push it, but try not to pack it down. Try to spread as evenly as you can, so that the batter is of uniform thickness.
- Bake about 40 minutes. An inserted toothpick should come out almost clean (a few crumbs), and the bars should just begin pulling away from the sides.
- Cool in the pan before cutting. I recommend keeping them in the fridge for at least 30 minutes before cutting them.