The Best Pumpkin Bread You’ll Ever Have

Remember what I said before about pumpkin being the kind of fall you could eat? Well, it’s still true—only, OK, listen: this hasn’t just been any fall.

This year in Chicago, fall’s gone above and beyond. Literally. Yesterday was the third day in a row where temps soared into the 70s. Yes, you read that right: 70s! In late October! While the trees are already ten shades of orange and red! I went somewhere last night and had to take my sweater off, that’s how warm I was. It’s the kind of thing people talk about wherever you go—church, the grocery store, chatting on the phone—as if, no matter what your feelings or indifference about this crazy gorgeous season that transitions from the long daylight of summer into the snow and frost of winter, one thing remains, at least this year, at least where I live: autumn’s got your attention.

loaf of the BEST pumpkin bread

I guess the same could be said of many things, from football to TV shows to the pleasure of reading a good book: the die-hard lovers will take the good and bad alike. They’ll cheer for their losing team. They’ll watch when no one else is. That’s like me and fall: rain or sun, cold or warm, thick and thin, I’m already sold. It’s many of us and pumpkin, especially this time of year, when we can have the pancakes and the muffins and the carving and the Jack O’ Lanterns. But just like it’s more fun to watch a winning team and just like some Octobers are easier to love than others, some pumpkin recipes are more impressive, more endearing, more oh-my-gosh good.

Like the best pumpkin bread you’ll ever have for example.

pumpkin squash bread

I am so excited about this pumpkin bread. To put it another way, if pumpkin is fall, this pumpkin bread is these last few days of October. It is weather warm enough to mean no jacket. It is driving home with the windows open. It is comfort and daylight and the best of summer with the best of the months after, where the lawns are covered with crunchy leaves and you just step outside and feel the sun on your face.

It doesn’t last long, despite yielding two loaves, but that’s only because it tastes so good and maybe because that’s how the best things go. And over the next few days, as the weather returns to low 40s (or lower! did someone say snow?), I’m going to hold onto the last few slices, savor them the way I do October, and enjoy every bite.

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Seattle Recap! (+ Pumpkin Muffins)

Fresh from four days in Seattle, I can tell you the city was both everything and nothing like I expected, the way most things we envision tend to be, the way you could also describe a certain pumpkin recipe I’d tried before I left.

trees in seattle

I mean, I liked Seattle. But before I went, I envisioned thick forests, days of rain, majestic mountains, lots of coffee, something called a Space Needle—and, I don’t know, people wearing lots of flannel or North Face jackets. In fact, it was all of those things. Despite our trip’s unending sunshine, the effects of rain were all around us: in the canopies of green over city streets, the fall leaves scattered on street corners, the fresh and wet smell throughout beautiful Bainbridge Island. We saw mountain peaks off in the distance, we ate soup with a view of the Space Needle, we passed more Starbucks coffee shops than I could count.

seattle fall leaves

seattle ships

wooded seattle

Indeed, Seattle is Pikes Place Market and the smell of the sea and a need for a jacket everywhere you go. But it is also something else. It is a city, like any other city, filled with tall buildings, urban architecture, the familiar retail shops. It’s hilly, like San Francisco, with steep sidewalks leading up ascending street numbers. It’s a place that makes it easy to eat organic or local or vegan or gluten-free.

seattle pines

organic ice cream

parfait ice cream

delancey pizza

Seattle is a gorgeous farmers market, a crowded Friday morning, a great dinner at Delancey—the Neapolitan-style pizza place I (and every other Orangette lover) watched develop online and now can say I’ve dined at.

Seattle was and wasn’t what I thought it would be, and that was exactly right, which is precisely the story of these muffins.

pumpkin muffins

See, just like you can have visions of a place you’ve never visited, you can have expectations of a recipe you’ve never tried.

whipped cream

And sometimes you bake something, say a cookie, expecting what a cookie recipe normally yields, be it a hard and crunchy biscuit you can dunk in tea, a large and cracked dessert speckled with powder sugar or a crumbly and mouthwatering morsel you can hold in your hand, but when you go to the kitchen, follow a recipe, make some adaptations and bake, you find surprise. What you’ve made aren’t the cookies of your imagination; they’re something else entirely—more like muffins, dense and fluffy, spreading and flattening into wide, round cakes on the baking sheet.

pumpkin muffins with whipped cream

So you pour them into muffin molds as you embrace the reality of what is, accepting and appreciating it. And you realize pumpkin muffins are exactly right.

I guess these are the preconceptions and surprises that make up our lives—be they new cities or new recipes or new faces that become friends. They’re everywhere. They’re worth noticing. I just hope they always involve such good things to eat.

pumpkin muffins

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and here we are, with babka

kite blowing in the breeze

I’m not going to ask where the time went. That’s what everyone says, halfway through summer, after the fireworks and before back-to-school, when we’re finally settled into the heat and humidity, when our arms are bronzed and our long-daylight days have begun to seem commonplace, when we’re looking at the calendar and saying, July 20? July 20! More than halfway through 2010? I am just getting used to it not being 2009! and we think of all the things we still want to do and we think of all the people we want to do them with, and our hearts start to race a little bit. OK, hang on.

How about instead of rushing ahead we just stop, right here and now, and take a look at this day, this July 20, this Tuesday we have and will never get again, and appreciate what’s brought us here?

I’ll start. With chocolate babka.

braided chocolate babka

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how we spend our days (+ announcement!)

June 26

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives” (Annie Dillard)

I read the above quote a few years ago, back when I was compiling a 25th anniversary scrapbook for my parents in which people wrote and told of gifts and memories and experiences they’d had with my mom and my dad, and I was reflecting then the way I’ve been reflecting lately, about what are the most meaningful things we do, about what we really want. I’ve been asking myself: How am I spending my days, since that’s how I’m spending my life? And then, is the way I am spending them good?

cherry chocolate ice cream

Of course the easy way to define our days is by our full-time gigs, be it school or work or motherhood or something else that requires most of our time, and I’ve done that before: I’ve sat down to dinner with friends and explained my class load. I’ve called myself a copywriter. I’ve mentally calculated some kind of personal net worth. But the older I get, the more I see those things—while important—are not the only things.

Now when I look at my days, I look instead at harder questions: how am I pursuing things that matter? what am I accomplishing? where’s my passion? whom do I love? how is my life improving someone else’s?

homemade cherry chocolate ice cream

I am convinced and convicted that these are questions we can ask from a cubicle or a kitchen, in our teens or in old age, no matter where we’re working or whom we’re working with. And in my particular case, these are questions that have prompted some pretty major changes.

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oh, spring

may lilacs

All week, you have been fascinating me with your comments on the giveaway post (where there’s still time to enter!), as you’ve shared who inspires you to cook and/or some teachable kitchen moments you’ve experienced. With the inspiration answers especially, I find myself mentally nodding my head with you, because it’s so true that I get pulled towards cooking via a myriad of sources—my family, other food bloggers, magazines, commercials, TV, something random someone says in the middle of the afternoon. And I think all these things are good to think about, especially so we can remember them on those days when we’re not so eager to cook.

But the inspiration for today’s recipes is something I hadn’t really thought about before, something that several of you said strikes you the same way: this beautiful time of year we call spring.

Oh, spring.

I have been marveling at spring this year: the buds on branches, the evening thunderstorms, the colorful flowers everywhere you turn. And, as it is with some of the best things in life, just when I think I can’t possibly appreciate it anymore than I already do, spring goes and surprises me again.

Untitled

Like last weekend. I had decided to make a quick stop at a local French market that people seem to love on Yelp. I went in with $20 in my purse and a hunger for nothing special, and I came out, in 15 minutes no less, with two boxes of green beans, a pound of asparagus, two bags of mixed greens and a bunch of tall and red fresh rhubarb, for a grand total of $8.50.

Spring! Oh, Spring!

rhubarb on table

This might be a good time to recall that CSA I participated in last summer, which while I loved (and if you have a bigger household, it is really worth looking into), I also struggled with its sheer quantity of vegetables (organic! beautiful! but just too much for one person). That’s why this year’s plan is to shop at more farmers’ markets, to buy locally and seasonally but just less.

If Saturday was any indication, I’d say this plan is going to go very well.

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to bring across state lines (homemade graham crackers)

graham crackers

The night before we left for Nashville, just as I was throwing clothes into my suitcase and packing up a bag of snacks that included carrot sticks, blueberries, strawberries and granola (I know, right? party animal that I am), I got a hankering for graham crackers and then, when I clicked over to Twitter just to check in for a second, there was a link to a new post at Roost for, what else, exactly that.

I enjoy that kind of serendipity in life. It’s like when Becky and I went to Margot Saturday night after being told on the phone there were no openings and then, wouldn’t you know it, someone canceled and we got seated in 10 minutes. Or like a year ago when my car kept putting out smoke and smelling like burnt metal but finally the mechanics saw it was the catalytic converter! all along!, just weeks before my warranty expired, which paid for the entire replacement.

You have to embrace these things, these providences, so that’s what I did last Thursday.

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because it’s April

honey cinnamon ice cream

As I sit at my computer tonight, I hear the rain outside, hitting the window, sloshing on pavement as cars drive by. It smells fresh, earthy, like your hands deep in soil when you’re working in the garden, yet clean, like the glassy drops of dew on grass in the morning. It reminds me this is the time of year when things green, when they begin to grow. All the storms and pounding rain bring us tulips and lilies, leaves on trees, buds on branches.

And it’s funny how, a few months ago, when I scraped ice off my car and skidded down the expressway, I didn’t believe this time would come again. At its darkest, winter was unending, hopeless—in that way, a little like life, sometimes.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been thinking about dreams lately—the big ones we make as children, unashamedly, be they astronaut or firefighter or surgeon. Everything’s sunshine and rainstorms and possibility, then. But as we get older and things seem more difficult, it becomes easier to lose yourself to discouragement, to long, cold afternoons under blankets in bed, metaphorically or not.

Come spring, I think of the cycles of life, the beginning and ending and beginning again. And I see a precious truth that no matter how bad things can seem, they can change.

ice cream on a spoon

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