Pumpkin Spice

November 11, 2015, Phoenix, Arizona

Walking through a major grocery store yesterday, I ran into a cardboard island stacked with pumpkin spice marshmallows. They’re orange-brown, squishy, and shaped like little pumpkins. On the package, there’s a cartoon illustration of cinnamon sticks and a piece of pumpkin pie with a stereotypical (and utterly inadequate, IMHO) dollop of whipped cream on top. And, of course, they’re allegedly flavored something like pumpkin pie –or maybe like the Starbucks seasonal latte, which seems to have started the whole “Pumpkin Spice” trend.

For anybody who’s reading this from a cave, there’s a huge, years-long Pumpkin Spice craze going on right now. (John Oliver did a great piece on it here.) A quick Google image search illustrates the extent of the Pumpkin Spice craze by revealing everything from Pumpkin Spice candles, to chocolates and chewing gum to foot powder, along with dozens (hundreds?) of fantasy Pumpkin Spice products, including Pumpkin Spice Doritos, Top Ramen and outrageous Pumpkin Spice personal care products. [Excursus: Though the spice profile is not exactly the same, I can’t help but associate Pumpkin Spice personal care products –fake or not—with the dozens of bottles of Old Spice cologne and aftershave relatives gifted my family with in the 1980’s. –The combined total of which, in turn, I re-gifted to the girl’s dorm one year at summer camp, via their swamp cooler. The “spice” smell was detectable from the highway!]

So what is Pumpkin Spice, and what’s in it? It’s clearly not safe to assume that the flavoring in marshmallows, corporate coffee or foot powder is necessarily found in nature. (Starbucks has announced that the 2015 season’s Pumpkin Spice Latte would contain actual pumpkin, for the first time, though the spices sprinkled on the topping have always been traditional pumpkin pie spices.)

The four basic pumpkin spices are (arguably!) nutmeg, cinnamon, ginger and allspice. To this list, many might add orange peel, mace, vanilla, and especially cloves. Starbucks uses cloves rather than allspice in the mix that tops the Pumpkin Spice Latte, though as both of these spices are generally dominated by the same flavor compound (eugenol), the end result is very similar. –Of course, if what you’re making is not pumpkin based, you may also have to come up with some pumpkin flavor.

I’ve only once produced a “pumpkin spice” flavored creation, the main ingredient of which was not actually pumpkin. Though it was delicious, I’ve not continued to make it for the simple reason that it ended up being powerfully hallucinogenic, and probably deadly.

Lemme ‘splain: A few years ago, I was abducted by a group of charming young women, and under less duress than I will ever, ever, willingly admit, compelled to pass around a box of Kleenex and binge-watch the entire corpus of Anne-of-Green Gables miniseries (also hallucinogenic, BTW). Somewhere in the story, we watched Anne and her friend get bombed on blackberry cordial, which inspired me to an entire summer of producing blackberry and other fruit cordials. The obsession continued well into Autumn, past when fresh fruit was available, so I went on to make a pumpkin pie cordial. As I had earlier done with the berries and fruit, I soaked roast pumpkin and spices in various liquors to extract the flavors, and combined them with brown sugar, &ct. to make a cordial. It was delicious, but after a shot or two, the whole world would close into a portal of wavering light accompanied by paranoia and a sound track of Charlie Brown’s teacher speaking. I attribute this to the primary flavor compound in nutmeg (myristicin) which is alcohol solvent, hallucinogenic, and very poisonous. Alas! The cordial had to be discarded, in favor of some less toxic tipple.

Pumpkin pie is one of my three very favorite foods, and I’ll admit to having tried the Starbucks namesake latte a few years ago (though I don’t remember whether I liked it or not). The Pumpkin Spice trend is crazy huge, and I am the curious type –all of which I say in an attempt to justify having bought the Pumpkin Spice marshmallows. I have eaten a handful of the marshmallows for science and in the name of questionable investigative journalism. I don’t know what I’ll do with the rest, since my nephews won’t eat them, and neither will their dog. Perhaps something involving fire?

As a special gift to celebrate the grand re-opening of this blog, here’s my version of my very own mother’s pumpkin pie recipe. In Portland, I make this with fresh roasted sweetmeat squash from the garden or from the farm stands on Sauvie Island. My mom uses canned pumpkin these days, but when I was a kid, she started with fresh pumpkin – usually from our Halloween jack-o-lantern!

Mom’s Pumpkin Pie

• 1 TBS ground cinnamon
• 1 tsp ground nutmeg
• 1 tsp ground ginger
• 1 tsp ground allspice
• 1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 4 eggs
• 2 lbs. cooked fresh pumpkin (below) or two 15 oz. cans pumpkin
• 2 cans evaporated milk
• 4 homemade (below) or store-bought regular 9-inch pie shells, unbaked

Ahead of time:

Carve out candlewax and any burnt or saggy parts from a Halloween jack-o-lantern. Put remains into a large pot and just cover with water. Simmer until soft, poor off water, remove peel and put through blender. Freeze until holiday season. Lacking an acceptable leftover jack-o-lantern, this can be done with other kinds of baking pumpkin.

Make 4 ugly but delicious & flakey homemade pie shells, using 5 cups flour, 1 and1/3 cups butter, a teaspoon of salt and a cup of ice cold water. In a large bowl, add salt to flour. Cut refrigerator-temperature butter into small chunks, and incorporate into the flour and salt mixture using a pastry blender or fork, until it’s crumbly and mostly mixed. Drizzle the ice water in while stirring with a wooden spoon, until the dough starts to clump or until you’ve added all the water. Form into four dough balls, wrap with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 2 hours. Roll out each cold ball of dough on a floured counter until it’s approximately circular and about 12 inches in diameter. Line pie tins and trim/flute as necessary. You can patch pieces together if you need. Do not roll out the dough more than once, unless you want tough, nasty crusts! Ugly is OK, if it’s also delicious!

Preheat oven to 375° F.

Mix all filling ingredients together in a stand mixer. Pull the oven racks party out, and set the pastry shells on them. Pour the filling into the pastry shells, gently push the racks in, and bake until edges are just starting to burn and a knife inserted into the middle comes out clean –about an hour. Sprinkle pastry scraps left over from making pie shells with cinnamon and sugar, bake on a cookie tray until flakey and crisp and serve immediately to waiting family members.


When I was a kid, our church supplied the pumpkin pies for the local mission’s Thanksgiving meal to the homeless. On the evening before Thanksgiving, the whole church would gather, to bring in the pies and have a pie social of our own. Year after year, I witnessed my mother’s ugly-crusted, odd-colored, recycled jack-o-lantern pumpkin pie outcompete fifty or a hundred other offerings amongst a parade a corpulent, fork-wielding Baptists who clearly knew their pie!

As St. Julia would say: bon apétit!