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Pumpkin spice: The flavor of fall and a hint of the past

Once upon a time, pumpkin spice lived pretty much only in pies.

That was a long time ago.

These days, it’s a modifier on a list of foods that grows longer each fall: There are pumpkin spice lattes and breakfast cereals, doughnuts and yogurt-coated pretzels, pancakes and candy, even pizza and beer. In fact, in recent years, the number of pumpkin spice-related items introduced in restaurants and supermarkets has doubled, according to Datassentials, a company that tracks menu trends.

The first reference to what we now know as “pumpkin spice” can be traced back to 1796. That’s the year Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, regarded as the nation’s first cookbook. In it, she includes a recipe for “pompkin pudding,” a pie made with stewed pumpkin and spiced with ginger and nutmeg.

As Americans moved to urban areas during the Industrial Revolution and sought to maintain a connection with agrarian life, pumpkin pie — and the spices used in it — became an essential slice of Americana.

“It represents a sense of goodness, natural abundance and old values that people think are good,” said Cindy Ott, a scholar and author of Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon.

Which is why, perhaps, pumpkin spice lattes bring equal parts devotion and disdain.

“It feels like it goes against these values that aren’t supposed to be commercialized,” Ott said.

The pumpkin occupation already has begun. Dunkin’ Donuts is serving iced pumpkin lattes, doughnuts and muffins. Breweries from Dogfish to Coors are infusing it into beers. And chains like Einstein Bros. Bagels are selling pumpkin-flavored bagels and shmear. Walk down the grocery aisle and be prepared for a pumpkin spice onslaught, with cookies, M&Ms, marshmallows, granola bars, peanut butter, even pumpkin spice-flavored almonds, Pop-Tarts and pancake mix.

Pumpkin-flavored items went from reaching 6 to 14.5 percent of U.S. restaurant menus from 2005 to 2015, according to Datassentials. National chains and fine dining restaurants are the biggest proponents of pumpkin, and when it comes to geography, the northeast tops every other region: 19 percent of restaurant menus there featured at least one item.

Pumpkin season is getting earlier each year, too. And we don’t mean the crop. At major chains, nearly 20 percent of all pumpkin food items now are introduced in August, when temperatures in many parts of the country still are sweltering.

“That number has been slowly rising over the last couple of years,” said Jana Mann, senior director for syndicated services at Datassentials. “It used to be August was a little early and people weren’t ready.”

Starbucks Corp. and Panera Bread Co. both announced in August that their pumpkin spice lattes this year would include actual pumpkin. That came following social media pressure that was critical of Starbucks for its drink’s ingredients. Either way, the drink has its fans. Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte has its own Twitter account with more than 104,000 followers.

Regardless of the current attention, pumpkin spice blends have been a mainstay of spice cabinets for decades. McCormick & Company introduced a pumpkin pie spice blend in 1934. It contained cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice — the same spices used to make pumpkin pie. Through the years it became known more simply as “pumpkin spice” and it remains one of the company’s strongest sellers. McCormick sold nearly 4 million bottles of the spice in 2014 — enough to make nearly 8 million pies stretching from Boston to Chicago.

In the early 1990s, pumpkin spice began trending as a flavoring in coffee, introduced in the fall alongside other seasonal coffee specialties, such as cinnamon-hazelnut and eggnog.

Growth in pumpkin-flavored products has risen steadily over the last decade, with the largest increase between 2012 and 2013, according to Datassentials.

“It helps us get ready for fall and ease into that time of year and the brisk weather and change in fruits and vegetables,” Mann said. “It’s remembering a time when we had it in the past.”

Ott speculates that just like during the Industrial Revolution, when Americans yearned for a seemingly lost connection with nature, people in today’s fast-paced, technology-driven society associate pumpkin with the same feelings of prosperity, home and family. It’s a uniquely American nostalgia: No other country consumes pumpkin as a seasonal food and beverage.

“Americans root themselves in this tradition,” Ott said. “When times feel uncertain they can turn to these things for a sense of comfort and goodness.”

Pumpkins are for more than carving

Those who like to play with their food need look no further than the pumpkin, the most familiar and fun member of the gourd family.

Ranging from softball-sized “pie pumpkins” to the mammoth 2,032-pound, record-breaking gourd raised last year in California, pumpkins come in all sizes — as well as shapes and colors. You can carve them into jack-o-lanterns or simply let them sit around as part of your fall décor.

Best of all, you can eat pumpkins — and you should. Their nutritional value far outweighs their role in fall decorating. Just about every part of a pumpkin is edible, including the shell, the pulp, the seeds, the leaves and even the flowers, which play a significant role in Southwestern and Mexican cuisine.

The orange skin is a dead giveaway that America’s favorite squash is rich in vitamin C and loaded with beta-carotene, which helps reduce the risk of certain types of cancer and protect against heart disease. 

Pumpkin seeds, which so many of us roast and eat, have nutritional value. Second only to peanuts in protein, pumpkin seeds are also an excellent source of Omega-3 fatty acids and zinc.

Farmers in the U.S. produce an estimated 1.5 billion pounds of pumpkins annually, and this year’s crop should be no different. Top states for pumpkin production include Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania and California. In fact, the Illinois Department of Agriculture claims that roughly 95 percent of all pumpkins used to produce canned pie filling come from our southern neighbor. Who knew?

What can you use pumpkin for? Pies, of course, especially since Thanksgiving is not that far away. But there are other uses as well, and here are some recipes to prove that you can have pumpkin for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Savory pumpkin soup

Cold weather means soup to us, and nothing is more appropriate to the season than a robust pumpkin soup to warm you inside and out. You’ll need:


28 oz. fresh pumpkin meat, cubed

2 large red onions, finely chopped

2 carrots, chopped

24 oz. water

2 tbsps. coconut oil

1 tbsp. nutmeg

½ tsp. turmeric

1 tsp. paprika

1 can coconut milk

Pumpkin seeds for garnish


Fry the chopped onions with the coconut oil in a large pan until the onions are soft and slightly translucent. Add pumpkin and carrots and fry for 10 minutes.

Combine the nutmeg, turmeric and paprika with 1 teaspoon of water in a cup, then add to the pan and sautée the vegetables in the spices for one minute.

Add the remaining water and bring to a boil, then reduce the heat and simmer for 20 minutes until the vegetables are tender. Add the can of coconut milk and bring back to a boil 5-10 minutes, then simmer a few minutes more.

Remove from heat and cool. Blend in batches in a food processor to a medium viscosity — too thick, and the flavors will muddle under the texture; too thin, there’s not enough texture to carry them. Serve in bowls or cups with a pumpkin seed garnish.

Pumpkin and black bean burgers

Veggie burgers can be a challenge, but these take the best of the season, mix it with a little Southwestern flavoring and serve it up American style. Whole wheat buns are a must. For the patties, you will need:


½ cup pumpkin purée 

2 tbsps. olive oil

1 tsp. chili powder

¼ tsp. garlic powder, or 2 garlic cloves

½ tsp. cumin

½ tsp. coriander

¾ tsp. sea salt

1 cup cooked and cooled brown rice

1 15-oz. can black beans, rinsed and drained 

2 tbsps. flax meal

1/3 cup oat flour

Coconut oil sufficient to cook the patties


Combine the pumpkin, oil, spices and salt in a food processor and process until smooth. Add the brown rice, flax meal, oat flour and half of the beans and pulse until the mixture is thick and lumpy. Add the rest of the beans and pulse a few times just to break the lumps. 

Divide the mixture into 4-5 patties about ½ inch thick. Place the patties in the freezer for no more than 5 minutes to firm them up. Heat the coconut oil in a skillet and cook the patties for 2-3 minutes on each side until a golden crust forms. Wrap, then refrigerate or freeze any leftovers.  

Pumpkin spice pancakes

We have the inimitable Martha Stewart to thank for the genesis of this recipe, which means you will like it. You will need:


¾ cup all-purpose flour

½ cup whole-wheat flour

2 tbsps. brown sugar

2 tsps. baking powder

¼ tsp. salt

¾ tsp. ground cinnamon

¼ tsp. fresh grated nutmeg

Pinch of ground ginger

Pinch of ground cloves

1 cup milk

½ cup canned pumpkin

1 egg

2 tbsps. vegetable oil or melted butter


Whisk together flours, salt, spices, sugar and baking powder in a medium-sized bowl. In a separate bowl, whisk together milk, egg, pumpkin and vegetable oil or melted butter.

Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until just combined. Don’t overbeat the batter; it’s OK if you have a few lumps. Let the batter sit for 10 minutes while heating the skillet. 

Over low-medium heat, melt a tablespoon of butter or vegetable oil in the pan. Once skillet is hot, spoon a heaping 2 tablespoons of batter per pancake into the skillet. When pancakes start to bubble, carefully flip over.

Once the pancakes are browned and cooked through, place them on a oven-proof plate and place in the oven at 200 degrees to keep them warm while you prepare the rest.

Serve with whipped cream and cinnamon sugar or maple syrup.

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Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate

Autumn arrives with abundance — the fall harvest, colorful foliage and pumpkin beer, for instance. And with each passing season, the pumpkin beer patch continues to grow.

With all the major brands, craft brewers and brewpubs to consider, there’s no shortage of varieties. Beeradvocate.com recently published its list of the top 50 pumpkin beers, a clear indicator that the seasonal pints are multiplying at an impressive pace.

Skeptics who believe pumpkin beer is simply a seasonal novelty could use a history lesson. Brewers have been making pumpkin beer since Colonial times, when the native North American gourd was thought to have medicinal qualities and was often more plentiful than the grain required to brew more traditional varieties of beer. Some early beer recipes replaced the grain entirely with the meat of the pumpkin.

An early American folk song, written in 1643, contains the following lyrics:

If barley be wanting to make into malt,

For we can make liquor to sweeten our lips,

Of pumpkins and parsnips and walnut-          tree chips.

For those who enjoy variety, character and a little exotic seasoning in their brews, pumpkin beer is the perfect libation for a cool fall night. But if you want some, you’d better hurry! The first brands began hitting the shelves in late August and some popular varieties already are out of stock. 

Here are some brews that might be new to Wisconsin drinkers.

Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery consistently receives high marks for its Pumpkin Lager, which is based on one of Thomas Jefferson’s original recipes. Joining this year’s lineup is Lakefront Pumpkin Imperial, a high-octane beer brewed with spices and vanilla and aged in oak brandy barrels. At 9.5 percent alcohol by volume, Imperial is potent. The high alcohol level dominates the flavor profile, obscuring some of the beer’s subtler elements. With that much alcohol, subtle is not what this beer is about.

Milwaukee Brewing Co. has joined the party this year with Sasquash Pumpkin Porter, a darkly spiced beer that combines specialty malts with 400 pounds of pumpkin and 300 pounds of sweet potatoes per batch. Pouring an almost black-brown with a caramel head at 5 percent ABV, the beer offers essences of cocoa and dark chocolate with light carbonation and an earthy quality from the root vegetables.

Speaking of porters, Alaskan Brewing Co. in Juneau, Alaska, offers its first Alaskan Pumpkin Porter this year. At 7 percent ABV, the beer is brewed with pumpkin, brown sugar and spices. It pours a dark brown with a strong pumpkin-and-spice nose. Expect nutmeg, cloves and pumpkin on the palate, with a slightly dry character and pleasant mouthfeel.

Red Hook Brewery in Woodinville, Washington, this year introduced Out of Your Gourd Pumpkin Porter, a 5.8 percent ABV brew made with pumpkin, spice and maple syrup. None of those elements lead; rather, they combine in a brewhouse gestalt of balance and finesse in which the whole is truly better than the sum of its parts.

It stands to reason that the Lexington Brewing and Distilling Co. would produce very powerful beers, and Kentucky Pumpkin Barrel Ale is no exception. At 10 percent ABV, this little darling pours with an orange-ish hue and flavor profile that’s long on cinnamon, along with hints of cloves and nutmeg. The pumpkin flavor comes through, but so does the alcohol in this not-for-the-faint-of-palate libation.

One of our favorites this season has been Wasatch Black o’ Lantern, a pumpkin stout produced by the Utah Brewers Cooperative in Salt Lake City. A blend of Wasatch Pumpkin Ale and Polygamy Porter (we are talking Utah, after all), the 6.5 percent ABV beer pours dark and spicy with an emphasis on nutmeg. Expect a medium-bodied beer with flavors of roasted malt and chocolate blended with pumpkin pie.

A lighter stout and an imperial that’s a little lower in alcohol, the Millstream Brewing Co,’s Great Pumpkin Imperial Stout, brewed in Amana, Iowa, is available only at Brennan’s Market (19000 W. Bluemound Road, Brookfield). At 7.6 percent ABV, it’s not quite imperial strength, and its dry stout character seems to be overbalanced by spices that give it an almost artificial sweetness. But the beer has earthy and roasty malt qualities that come to its rescue, turning it into a nice starter beer for those new to pumpkin brews.

Epic Brewing Co., another Salt Lake City brewer, has combined forces with DC Brau in Washington, D.C., to produce Fermentation Without Representation Imperial Pumpkin Porter. Brewed with 200 pounds of pumpkin, five spices and whole Madagascar vanilla beans, the rich, chocolaty porter weighs in at 8.6 percent ABV. Think chocolate pumpkin pie with whipped topping and an alcoholic bite.

Last year we took a real liking to Pumking, the imperial pumpkin ale from Southern Tier Brewing Co. in Lakewood, New York. This year we found a real friend in Southern Tier Warlock Pumpkin Imperial Stout. At 8.1 percent ABV, Warlock comes on strong, with its “stoutness” playing a supporting role to its roasty malt, pumpkin-forward profile. The huge pumpkin spice aroma, with notes of vanilla and gingerbread, follows through on the palate. If you have ever wondered what roasted pumpkin pie tastes like, this would be about as close as it comes.

Good gourd almighty! Pumpkin beers proliferate

Latkes are for Hanukkah and Thanksgiving

Potato latkes may be the best-known variety of this crispy staple of Hanukkah meals, but don’t feel you need to limit yourself to them.

Though potatoes have their own symbolism for this Jewish holiday, it’s the oil used in the frying that is particularly significant. It symbolizes the long-lasting oil burned in the temple lamps in the Hanukkah story. There are many latke variations, including sweet potato, onion and carrot.

Since the first day of Hanukkah falls on Thanksgiving this year, we drew on a staple of that all-American holiday to make a delicious variation — pumpkin latkes. We top ours with a cranberry-spiked sour cream, but applesauce would be just as delicious.

Pumpkin latkes with spiced cranberry sour cream 

Start to finish: 30 minutes

Servings: 10


1 cup sour cream

¼ cup finely chopped dried cranberries

2 tablespoons packed dark brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

¼ teaspoon nutmeg

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

Vegetable oil

1 medium yellow onion, chopped

1 small sugar pumpkin, peeled, seeded and shredded (about 3 cups)

2 eggs

¼ cup all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground black pepper

Toasted pecans, to garnish


In a small bowl, stir together the sour cream, cranberries, brown sugar, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves. Set aside.

In a medium skillet over medium, heat 1 tablespoon of vegetable oil. Add the onion and cook until very tender and well browned, about 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer the onion (reserving the skillet) to a medium bowl and mix in the shredded pumpkin, eggs, flour, salt and black pepper.

Wipe out the skillet used to cook the onions. Return it to medium-high heat and add ¼ inch of vegetable oil. Working in batches, scoop the pumpkin mixture by the heaping tablespoonful into the pan, 3 or 4 scoops at a time. Flatten each scoop with the back of the spatula and cook until browned on both sides and tender at the center, about 3 minutes per side.

Transfer to a wire rack set over a baking sheet to drain. Serve topped with the cranberry sour cream and garnished with toasted pecans.

Nutrition information per serving: 140 calories; 80 calories from fat (57 percent of total calories); 9 g fat (3.5 g saturated, 0 g trans fats); 50 mg cholesterol; 12 g carbohydrate (1 g fiber, 7 g sugar); 3 g protein; 220 mg sodium.

Latke-crusted apple stuffing 

Part of what makes the traditional Thanksgiving stuffing so irresistible is its delicious blend of the lightly crisped top and sides with the tender and moist inside.

That quality also happens to be the mark of a great fried potato latke, one of the most iconic foods of Hanukkah. We decided to combine these classic comfort foods in one dish.

The result is a wonderfully rich stuffing topped by a crispy layer of fried latkes. It’s so good that you may want to make it for years to come, regardless of when Hanukkah or Thanksgiving fall on the calendar.

Start to finish: 1 hour 10 minutes (30 minutes active)

Servings: 12


2 large russet potatoes

4 eggs, divided

½ cup all-purpose flour

2 tablespoons minced fresh sage

Salt and ground black pepper

Vegetable oil, for frying

1 large yellow onion, roughly chopped

3 stalks celery, roughly chopped

2 carrots, roughly chopped

1 green bell pepper, cored and roughly chopped

¼ cup chopped fresh chives

2 medium apples, peeled and diced

1 large loaf (about 1 pound) challah bread,                      
   cut into ½-inch cubes and toasted

2 cups low-sodium chicken or turkey broth
   or stock


Heat the oven to 350 F. Coat a large casserole dish or a 9-by-13-inch pan with cooking spray.

Into a medium bowl lined with several layers of paper towels or a clean kitchen towel, shred the potatoes. Gather the towels with the potatoes inside and squeeze out as much liquid as possible. Discard the liquid, dry the bowl, then return the potatoes to the bowl, removing the towels. Stir in 2 of the eggs, the flour, sage and a hefty pinch each of salt and pepper.

In a large skillet over medium-high, heat ¼ inch of oil. Working in batches, drop the potato mixture in ¼ cup mounds into the oil, flattening them with the back of a spatula. Cook until golden brown on both sides, about 2 to 3 minutes per side. Transfer the latkes to a paper towel-lined plate and repeat with the remaining potato mixture.

In a food processor, combine the onion, celery, carrots and green pepper. Pulse until finely chopped.

Drain all but ¼ cup of the oil from the pan used to cook the latkes. Set the pan over medium heat, then transfer the vegetable mixture to it and cook until lightly browned and tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Transfer the mixture to a large bowl, then add the chives, apples and challah. Season with a hefty sprinkle each of salt and pepper.

In a small bowl, whisk together the 2 remaining eggs and the broth. Pour over the stuffing mixture and mix well. Spoon the stuffing into the prepared pan. Arrange the latkes over the top. Wrap with foil or cover and bake for 35 minutes. Remove the foil or cover and continue baking for 10 minutes, or until 165 F in the center.

Nutrition information per serving: 260 calories; 50 calories from fat (19 percent of total calories); 6 g fat (1 g saturated; 0 g trans fats); 80 mg cholesterol; 42 g carbohydrate (4 g fiber, 7 g sugar); 8 g protein; 330 mg sodium.

The great pumpkin spirit from Rehorst

In Guy Rehorst’s world, “pumpkin spirit” can be quite intoxicating.

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit is the name of the annual autumn libation from Great Lakes Distillery, the craft distillery Rehorst founded in 2004 that’s currently located in Milwaukee’s Walker’s Point neighborhood at 616 W. Virginia St. This year’s batch, distilled each fall from the Pumpkin Lager produced by Milwaukee’s Lakefront Brewery, is the best one yet, the distiller says.

The idea came to Rehorst and Lakefront owner Russ Klisch four years ago, when a group of brewery and distillery employees were sitting around the brewery’s tasting room, located in a former city waterworks pumping station on the Milwaukee River. Rehorst expressed interest in distilling one of Lakefront’s beers and, since it was fall at the time, Pumpkin Lager came to mind.

The origin of the beer, first brewed two years after the craft brewery opened in 1987, came from a beer recipe attributed to Thomas Jefferson, according to the brewery’s website. Pumpkin Lager – a blend of pumpkin, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves – is one of Lakefront’s most popular seasonals.

Lakefront brews a special batch of the beer without the hops, which would add bitterness to the brew, just for the distillery to use. This year’s batch has resulted in 1,490 bottles, priced at $35 each. The batch is likely to sell out by year’s end, Rehorst says.

“All our spirits start with a beer or wine base, from which we distill the final product,” says Rehorst, a former high-tech entrepreneur who recognized early the growing trend toward craft distilling. “Lakefront delivers its Pumpkin Lager as a completed beer and we take it from there.”

All the elements that make the beer popular also are highlighted in the spirit, which weighs in at 90 proof (45 percent alcohol) compared to the beer’s 6 percent alcohol by volume. Last year’s batch, reviewed by the Beverage Tasting Institute, received 89 points, a Silver Award and a rating of “highly recommended” when compared to similar brands. 

To quote BTI, the spirit has “burnished golden yellow color; bright, sweet aromas of clove, nutmeg, candied ginger, fruitcake, and pumpkin custard with a dryish medium-to-full body and a spicy dusty clove gum and pumpkin cheesecake finish. Very nice.”

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit joins Great Lakes’ growing spirits line, which also includes the recently released Kinnickinnic Whiskey. The whiskey, Great Lakes’ first, is also a first in that it cross-blends contents from two different distilleries, a corporate secret about which master distiller Doug MacKenzie will share little information.

“Cross-distillery blends are not common here in the U.S., but are very common in Scotland. In fact, the term ‘blended scotch’ is typically a blend of single malts from different distilleries,” MacKenzie explains. “All we’re going to say is that the bourbon comes from one of the large distilleries in Kentucky.”

The whiskey, released earlier this year, has already met with an enthusiastic response. Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Vodka, the distillery’s first product, emerged as the top premium brand in southeast Wisconsin. The vodka won a silver medal in the 2007 San Francisco World Spirits Competition and has been ranked as exceptional by BevX.com, an online beverage and lifestyle magazine.

Rehorst Premium Milwaukee Gin, with its unusual botanical blend that includes ginseng and basil, has followed a similar trajectory, getting a nod from BevX and earning double gold in the 2008 San Francisco competition. And last year the distillery’s Amerique Absinthe – both the Verte and Rouge varieties – took home gold medals from the Beverage Tasting Institute.

Pumpkin Seasonal Spirit celebrated its release with a party late last month. While Rehorst says the distillery had no Halloween festivities planned for its tasting room, which will soon expand to accommodate more samplers, the spirit will be available for revelers in many area bars.

“Walker’s Point is the social center of Milwaukee’s gay community and we’re available in many of the bars in the neighborhood,” he said.

For more information and drink recipes, go to www.greatlakesdistillery.com.