Rescuing October’s star from the seasonal coffee ghetto
Dunkin’ Donuts has a lot to answer for, and not just about the rising obesity rate or their perversion of the word “artisan,” which apparently now refers to absurdly flavored bagel-type foods made from a powdered mix in a warehouse in Darkest Queens. No, their greatest crime is the one they perpetrate every October in the name of pumpkin.
Sure, Starbucks carries some of this blame, as the originators of the great seasonal fraud known as the pumpkin spice latte, but it’s Dunkin’ that has been dancing on pumpkin’s grave for the past five years, with donuts, muffins, cakes, the ubiquitous lattes and, inexplicably, an iced coffee variant.
The problem here is really one of vocabulary. When they say an item is “pumpkin”-flavored, what they really mean is that it’s sweet and cinnamon-flavored. The winding etymological path takes us from pumpkins to pumpkin pie, from which the spice combination is lifted, dosed with a hit of honeyish sweetness and tinted orange for the appropriate visual cues.
Thing is, pumpkins themselves are delicious, and as a seasonal treat are among the best. Even pumpkin pie is pretty great; if only it weren’t being shoved into a white chocolate mocha. Thankfully, intrepid souls in this city willing to escape Dunkin’s tyranny need not look too far to find a real taste of the season.
Of course, there’s always the farmers’ market (check grownyc.org for your closest local), where stands are overflowing with varieties like sugar pie and Japanese kabocha; try slicing them into wedges, roasting skins and all in a 400-degree oven until tender, then topping with a bracing vinaigrette of minced cilantro, jalapeno, lime juice, cumin and a touch of honey. Roasting brings out the vegetable’s natural sweetness, while the citric punch and spice add a savory, unexpected dimension.
Those nostalgic for the good old days of jack-o’-lanterns and the ritual of baking the pumpkin’s seeds after the carving was done may not feel right partaking in the crunchy snack without all the heavy scooping. The rest of us lazy types can skip right to the good stuff with Mexican pepitas, which are so well-loved they’ve become a year-round treat. Find them at Tulcingo del Valle (665 10th Ave., tulcingorestaurant.com), a tiny deli/bodega/restaurant with some of the best hole-in-the-wall mole in town, or go upscale with the pumpkin-seed cake at Empellón Cocina (105 First Ave., empellon.com/cocina), a moist, not-too-sweet cake made even more complex with browned butter and goat’s milk caramel.
Italians have long treated the zucca (what you would call a gourd) with the respect it deserves, and even die-hard Dunkin’ fans can appreciate the charms of pumpkin ravioli, scattered with cheese and brought low with sage, that star of the Thanksgiving stuffing. At Osteria Morini (218 Lafayette St., osteriamorini.com), that flavor combination becomes a topping for crostini, the creamy squash playing even better against crusty, grilled bread. Oh, and the addition of speck doesn’t hurt.
Pumpkin beer presents another level of difficulty for flavor wranglers, as too much sweetness is a surefire ticket to hangover central. Instead, these crafty craftsmen infuse the brew with the gourds themselves, letting them soak up the deep vegetal essence without much tampering. Though their kickoff Pumpkin Picking Party has passed, Idle Hands Bar (25 Ave. B, idlehandsbar.com) is featuring as many of the brews as they can get their hands on throughout the month, both on tap and in bottles. A favorite is the Harpoon UFO Pumpkin, an autumnal variant of their classic wheat beer; on the other end of the spectrum is the Southern Tier Pumking, a deep ale best for fireside sipping.
Once you’ve reminded yourself what pumpkin actually tastes like, you’ll never go back to the land of “pumpkin spice.” Though this means you’ll need to keep your lattes simply coffee-flavored for another few months, don’t worry: Eggnog season is just around the corner.
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