Creamy, bright orange pumpkin purée can seem all but forgotten after the last slice of pie disappears from the Thanksgiving table. Pumpkin spice everything is still available, but very little actual pumpkin shows up on our plates. Even the pumpkin that finds its way into baked goods like pumpkin bread takes a backseat flavor-wise to cinnamon, ginger, clove, and plenty of sugar.
Pumpkin jam keeps real pumpkin at the forefront – in flavor, texture, and color – so I wanted to create a holiday cookie to showcase it. Classic linzer cookies with their peekaboo windows seemed like a good stylistic bet. The challenge would be balancing the sugar and spices so that pumpkin was the star of the show.
Perfecting Pumpkin Jam
The most basic pumpkin jam is simply pumpkin purée and sugar, cooked over low heat. Recipes for pumpkin jam call for different blends of sweeteners, including honey, maple syrup, and brown sugar. I did test batches with all white sugar, all brown sugar, and a 50-50 mix. The molasses in the brown sugar overpowered the pumpkin even in smaller quantities. I tried making a light caramel with white sugar to see if it would add depth, but it contributed just a one-note aftertaste. To keep focus on the pumpkin flavor, white sugar was clearly the way to go since it added only sweetness. As a bonus, it made for the brightest orange jam.
With the base of the jam settled, it was time for some fine tuning. I had initially used the standard jam-making formula of equal weights of sugar and fruit, but I found that reducing the sugar by 25 percent provided a more balanced sweetness while maintaining the jelly-like sheen. Using a technique for rounding out the flavor of butterscotch, I added lemon juice for brightness and maple syrup for depth to subsequent batches. In small amounts, they add the right complexity without being individually identifiable. Finally, cinnamon and ginger brought a hint of classic pumpkin pie spice.
No Tough Cookies
I had originally imagined a classic ginger spice cookie base, but test batches of gingerbread and spice cookies fell short. Both required a heavy hand with spices to compete with the molasses in the dough. No pumpkin jam could stand up to those assertive flavors. Plus, neither provided the right crisp-but-not-crumbly base for a sandwich cookie.
Shortbread provided a neutral, buttery canvas and the right texture. Molasses was definitely out, but I missed its savory depth. Drawing inspiration from Scandinavian baking, I incorporated some dark rye flour into the dough, which provides a subtle nutty flavor and slightly heartier texture. After playing with a few blends of spices, I found that finely ground black pepper added further complexity to the standard cinnamon, ginger, and clove. With these additions, the texture remained light and the cookies provided a balance of sweetness and spice to showcase the pumpkin jam.
Bringing It All Together
With the jam and cookies ready to go, it was time to move on to construction. I rolled out the dough and tested a few sizes of round cutters. At two inches in diameter, the filled cookies held up well and provided a satisfying two or three bites. Larger cookies also worked, but they felt excessive given the thickness of the assembled sandwich. I also happily discovered that the thick consistency of the pumpkin jam allowed me to use more filling than in a traditional jelly-filled linzer cookie. You can spread a generous teaspoon of jam between two cookies without causing any to ooze out when biting into the cookie. The resulting cookie has even more pumpkin flavor and a creamier mouthfeel. These cookies make pumpkin the star of the show.
It takes very little to send me into an obsessive recipe-research mode. Last week, I started thinking about soft pretzels (and then rye pretzels and then rye pretzels with caraway seeds) and, after discovering that none of my bread-focused cookbooks cover them in sufficient detail, was trying to learn all the things the internet wanted to tell me. I promptly came to an impasse – to lye or not to lye?
Traditional soft pretzels are treated before baking with a lye or baking soda bath, which gives them their distinctive flavor and texture through a Maillard reaction. Lye is said to produce the darkest, crackliest, pretzeliest pretzels. But many recipes substitute baking soda as a milder, alternative alkali because lye has to be handled with care – gloves and goggles come recommended — to avoid chemical burns.
In the end, my impatience made the decision for me. Getting food-grade lye was going to take a week or more. Baking soda was already waiting in the kitchen.
So I got to work kneading and shaping. The dough came together quickly and was easy to roll out and shape. I didn’t need additional flour to prevent sticking. The boiling baking soda bath was quicker and easier than I’d expected. The pretzels poached for 30 seconds per side, drained briefly on a kitchen towel, and then needed only a sprinkle of flaky sea salt before baking. I topped half of my pretzels with caraway seeds, which are traditional in rye breads and I highly recommend.
Maybe my pretzel standards aren’t as high as they should be, but I was thrilled at the result. These rye pretzels have the perfect chew and pretzel flavor. I’m already dreaming of more pretzels — stuffed pretzel bites, sourdough pretzel sticks — and possibly some bagel experiments, given my new enthusiasm for poaching dough.