I feel cheated out of Winter. It was my choice to head to New Zealand for these past months and the beaches, friendly people, mild temperatures and incredible landscape have been worth every effort. I was, of course, quite aware that it would be Spring and early Summer throughout my stay but I underestimated the pains of missing an English Winter. As the humidity, lethal sunshine (much stronger UV here than in the UK) and electric thunderstorms have increased so has my longing for cosy, dark evenings, the smell of wood fires and cold, blustery weather. I love the turning of the season in October when the air becomes fresher and the leaves fall red and rusty only to, come December, become a tawny mulch in the gutters. Growing up in and around small English villages means that the smell of woodsmoke is something I will always associate with ‘home’ and with bleak November afternoons.
The reason I adore such misery from the elements is because it encourages an inward gaze, a focus on the intrinsic. Winter’s brooding cold gives us permission to stay in, to put on hold the relentless search for life changing, photo-ready moments and an opportunity to nurture the foundations of our little worlds; our families, our creative projects, our homes. The beauty of eating is that there is always cause for enthusiasm; a passion for food follows seasonal themes, loyally bringing with it a seemingly endless, shifting breadth of new ideas and inspiration. Food for dark days is particularly special though, in fact, I’d go as far as to say it is the most nurturing of all culinary behaviours. The winter months cast a twinkly light upon the ‘drop-scone’ family (crumpets, piklets, pancakes, waffles, farls and muffins) and mashed potato covers everything like a claggy, furrowed cloud. Sweet spices come alive in their warm, soothing droves. Winter encourages the baking and consumption of biscuits, snappy with ginger or chewy with oats. Cold evenings mean nutmeg-speckled rice pudding and mornings demand thick, buttered wedges of toast. Dinner calls for slow-cooked cast iron pots of gently blipping tender meat and sweet vegetables. There is no other season so apt for comfort in soft, buttered sustenance.
Although being in a New Zealand Spring means daily avocados, peaches and lemon sprinkled salads I see images of home and still feel the tug of spices and crumb. Whilst stirring a chilli-flecked, ginger-infused pumpkin soup I daydreamed into the silken texture and knew I wanted to create something Autumnal with sweet, baked pumpkin. I used my Banana Bread recipe as a base and replaced banana with pumpkin, included cardamom and allspice and a dose of rich cocoa. Baked as muffins this mixture yields a moist crumb, an initial hit of intense cocoa followed by a lingering warm tinge of spices. These dark, aromatic, buttery cakes are for eating next to the first crackling hearth fire of Winter.
Spiced (Pumpkin) Cocoa Muffins
1 1/4 cups wholemeal flour
1/4 cup cocoa
1tsp baking soda
1 tsp ginger
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp cardamom
1 tsp allspice
1 tsp vanilla extract
1/4 tsp salt
1 cup baked, puréed pumpkin
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1 cup softened butter (use oil if preferred)
1/4 cup full fat Greek yoghurt
Preheat oven to 180 degrees. Makes 8 large or up to 16 small muffins.
1.Cream butter and sugar until pale then add Greek yoghurt and vanilla
2.Sieve all dry ingredients together
3. Add eggs into butter and sugar one at a time, adding a spoonful of dry ingredients at each addition (this is just to prevent any curdling and keep the mixture smooth)
4. Once eggs are combined fold in the rest of the dry ingredients
5. Divide into muffin cases
6. Bake for 30-35 minutes for large muffins, 15-20 for smaller. Insert a skewer or knife into centre, the muffins are baked when the skewer comes out clean.
If I’d had any pecans I would most certainly have lightly toasted them and added them to the batter. The topping is simple due to the intense cocoa taste but, if making these `without cocoa then a cream cheese icing would be heavenly.