pumpkin

Whipping up your own batch of pumpkin is easy and satisfying.

Ari Levaux, for Lee Montana Newspapers

Some traditions at elk camp are not to be broken. There will be snoring, booze, afternoon naps, dirty dishes, gratuitous belching, and profane utterances that must never be shared outside the sacred wall tent. There may or may not be animals taken, but there will be a party of hunters hitting it hard by day, looking to rest and replenish at night. And there is no prohibition against pumpkin spices. Hunting camp, in fact, is ripe for the spicing.

Until about 14 years ago, pumpkin spices stayed in familiar culinary territory, adding their aromatic flavors to pies, cookies, oatmeal, and the occasional glass of holiday eggnog. It was an open secret among adventurous chefs that the spices could be applied elsewhere, but doing so was rarely the selling point that it is today.

The Pumpkin Spice Latte was introduced by Starbucks Coffee in 2003. Since then more than 200 million PSLs have been sold, and the pumpkin spice umbrella has grown far beyond the green and white curls of the Starbuck’s muse. The pumpkin spices have become a major food trend, worth $500 million annually, and they appear in processed foods like Godiva truffles and Pringles potato chips, as well as the cookies and Pop Tarts I impulse-purchased en-route to hunting camp. The American Option Insurance Agency offers a Pumpkin Spice Coverage, because, you guessed it, pumpkin spices are good on everything.

We know they spice up the morning oatmeal, but would they work in a big greasy breakfast, or a chunky, savory supper? Would the pumpkin spices mix with whatever drink is within arm’s reach of one’s camp chair? That is what I went to hunting camp to investigate.

As I was preparing to get out of town, I decided to calibrate my pumpkin spice meter on the original elixir. But the Starbucks drive-thru line was 16 cars long, spilling out of the drive-thru lane and around the parking lot and onto the street. I wasn’t getting into that, and was afraid if I parked and went inside, my car would get trapped by the ever expanding drive-thru line. I decided to wing it. The clock was ticking and I had to get out of town.

Anyway, Starbucks didn’t even invent the pumpkin spice latte, much less pumpkin spices, which have been used together for centuries. A batch of pumpkin spices is typically about half cinnamon, followed by smaller amounts of ginger and nutmeg, and even less ground allspice and clove. But the formula is most customizable. I was in a rush, so I bought some premixed powder at the store. I also bought a rotisserie chicken. Driving home, the smell of pumpkin spices mingled with the smell of baked chicken, and it was very right.

As I packed my stuff, I followed the guidance of an enthusiastic YouTuber Talk Becky Talk, and learned her method of homemade PSL from scratch. Hers, like the Starbucks version, is prepared by mixing coffee with pre-made pumpkin spice syrup. Her spice mix, nutmeg-heavy and clove-free with added black pepper, demonstrates the range within which this mixture can be customized.

Start with a pie pumpkin — or any other squash that’s good for baking like acorn, kabocha or blue hubbard, to name a few. Peel it with a sturdy, sharp knife, clean out the seeds and innards, and cut up the meat into one-inch chunks.

Arrange a pound of the pumpkin/squash chunks in a baking pan, and sprinkle with ½ teaspoon allspice, a heaping teaspoon cinnamon, ½ teaspoon ground ginger, a pinch of black pepper, and one whole freshly-ground nutmeg. Becky seems to have quite a sweet tooth, and you can follow her as far as you dare. She adds a tablespoon of vanilla extract, three ounces soft brown sugar, and four tablespoons maple syrup. Think sticky caramel. Add ⅓ cup water, stir it up really well with a spatula, cover in foil, and bake at 350 for 50 minutes—until the pumpkin is nice and soft. Allow it to cool to room temperature.

Put the remains in a saucepan and bring to the boil ten minutes, and allow to cool. Add water (I used almond milk) to dilute if it’s too thick, and blend until it is smooth and silky. Pour into a sealable glass jar.

Becky proceeds to make the best PSL ever. I jumped in my rented pick-up and drove through the night to the best hunting camp ever.

They mocked me when I arrived with my spices. Soon enough it was I who was laughing as they lapped my pumpkin spices in whatever form I served them. Breakfast, lunch and dinner, I put my pumpkin spices where I felt like it, and they loved it. The only (pumpkin spice-related) static at camp happened when some barbarian got mayo in the pumpkin spices syrup jar.

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I cooked with the pumpkin spice powder, and used the syrup as a condiment. The syrup made everything taste better to which it was applied, and the boys were particularly interested in the beverages beyond coffee with which it could be mixed. A lot of progress was made.

Cooking with that dry spice powder was at least as rewarding. As soon as the powder hit a greasy pan, a happy smell would permeate the camp, easing the regrets and soothing that whole-body ache that only chasing an elk across miles of rough country can give. At one point, I had this kind of gross remains of a chicken that one of the snowflakes in the tent didn’t want to eat. I fried some bacon, and then added the pieces of chicken I’d pulled off the carcass, and finally some chopped onions, and two tablespoons of pumpkin spice powder. It slowly cooked down into a something very reminiscent of a mole. A dark, complex, rich, delicious chicken and bacon mole. If only I had saved the pumpkin seeds.

I had other grand ambitions as well, of pumpkin spice pizza, mini-muffins, French toast, and perhaps a meal of handmade pumpkin spice gnocchi with sage butter. But after a hard day stalking the wily wapiti, it was all I could do to pour the appropriate form of pumpkin spices onto the appropriate dish, and enjoy.

Nobody complained about pumpkin spices cooked into the spicy elk chili, or on the refried baked chicken, or the bacon and eggs. Nobody minded the syrup in the Greek yogurt, or mixed with rum. That syrup was basically pumpkin pie in a liquid form. I already knew I could live on pumpkin pie, and this was confirmation. Everything else was just condiments.

Alas, we never did get to try the spices pan fried in unpasteurized butter with elk blood. But someday we will, and I don’t expect any complaints. It couldn’t not be delicious.

Ari LeVaux writes Flash in the Pan, a syndicated weekly food column carried in more than 60 newspapers nationwide. Though his audience is national, he says he "always writes about Montana. Usually."

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