It’s officially fall. And for many, the seasonal change has nothing to do with the weather or a date on the calendar. Fall is here because Starbucks is once again offering its signature pumpkin spice latte.
Never mind that the iconic latte doesn’t actually contain any pumpkin. The signature flavoring is all in the spice blend. And it works. Starbucks has sold more than 200 million of the popular drinks since its introduction in 2003.
The exact blend varies: Cinnamon. Nutmeg. Ginger. Allspice. Perhaps a little clove. Maybe a touch of mace. But while pumpkin spice may be most closely associated with pie, it’s far from a one-trick pony. Once relegated to candles, lotions and potpourri, it’s become the seasonal darling of the food world, flavoring coffee, gum, doughnuts, chips, creamer and more. Even Oreos have entered the fray.
Admittedly, some flavor pairings are better or, perhaps, more natural than others.
Take candied nuts. Pumpkin spice has warm, earthy notes, and the blend pairs perfectly with nuts, particularly pecans. To candy the nuts, simmer a pound or so of pecans in simple syrup until softened, then toss them in sugar flavored with pumpkin spice. Spread them out on a baking sheet and gently toast until completely dried. The nuts make a great snack on their own, though they also lend great crunch and flavor to fall salads. Or toss them with dried fruit for a simple party or trail mix.
And take French toast. Where most recipes are flavored simply with cinnamon, add a pumpkin spice blend, along with pumpkin puree, to the custard base. Soak thick slices of brioche or challah bread in the mix, and fry the slices up. It almost tastes like you’re eating pumpkin pie for breakfast.
A quick note on canned pumpkin puree. While a great pumpkin can yield great homemade puree, I often reach for canned when fixing a dish. It is readily available and consistent in flavor, texture and moisture content, whereas actual squash varies.
Pumpkin spice works equally well with savories. In fact, add a little garlic, lime and hot chili to the standard pumpkin spice blend and you already have the start of a great Caribbean marinade.
Pork pairs particularly well with pumpkin spice. Combine the spice blend with a little garlic, maple syrup and oil, and rub the mixture over a couple of pork tenderloins. Roast the tenderloins with apples, then serve alongside a pumpkin risotto if you want the squash, as well as its seasonings, represented in the meal.
This may sound heretical, but I’m not the biggest pumpkin spice latte fan. Instead, I love adding the spice to cocktails when the season is right. One of my favorites is a take on Gray Kunz and Peter Kaminsky’s excellent eggnog in “The Elements of Taste.” Egg yolks, sugar and rum are cooked to a creamy zabaglionelike custard, then folded together with pumpkin spice meringue and whipped cream for a light and fluffy take on the holiday drink. Finally, whisk in pumpkin puree for a fall drink that’s a perfect way to toast the spice blend of the season.