Chocolate Pumpkin Cake

Aside from the obvious link between October and pumpkin season, there's another great reason for slipping some pumpkin into your baked goods this year. It's extremely low in calories, and canned pumpkin can act as the "fat" in many recipes, replacing butter and oil. Try making boxed brownies with pumpkin: to one box of store bought brownie mix, add a can of pumpkin and nothing else, and bake as directed on the box. Bet you'll never know the difference.

Of course, when you slather a pumpkin buttercream over the cake, you've pretty much negated any benefits to replacing butter and oil with pumpkin inside the cake, but outside of this lovely season, how many other times of the year do you really feel like digging into pumpkin anything?

Ah, autumn. The great justifier in orange sweets.

For the cake, you will need:

1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 large egg
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup Dutch cocoa powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 14-ounce can pure pumpkin (not pumpkin pie filling), 2 tablespoons reserved for buttercream
1 tablespoon pumpkin pie spice

For the pumpkin buttercream:

2 sticks unsalted butter, softened
2 tablespoons canned pumpkin
1/4 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice
5 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk

Preheat the oven to 325°F. Butter and lightly flour a 9×5x3-inch loaf pan.

In the bowl of a stand mixer on medium speed (or in a large bowl if using a hand mixer), cream the butter until smooth. Add the sugars and beat until fluffy, about 3 minutes. Add the egg and beat well, then the buttermilk and vanilla. Sift the flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt together and add to wet ingredients. Stir pumpkin in with a spoon until well-blended, but do not overmix.

Pour the batter into the prepared loaf pan. Bake for 60 to 70 minutes, or until a cake tester inserted into the center of the loaf comes out clean. Cool in pan on a rack for about 10 to 15 minutes, then flip onto a plate for further cooling.

While cake is cooling, prepare buttercream. Cream butter in a bowl until smooth on medium speed. Turn off mixer and add half of powdered sugar. Turn mixer on lowest speed to combine (otherwise powdered sugar will fly all over your kitchen). Turn mixer off and add second half of sugar, beating on low until combined. Add vanilla and milk and mix on low speed until completely combined. Stir pumpkin and pie spice in with a spoon until blended.

Once cake is completely cooled, spread buttercream on thick with an offset spatula or butter knife. Serve immediately or refrigerate.

Panzanella Salad

Panzanella, while generally a summer dish during the height of tomato season, is also a great way to use up the last of early fall's puny tomatoes.

From what I understand, the dish was created for using up day-old bread, though typically I purposely buy a loaf of fresh bread specifically for making Panzanella and dry it out in the oven. It's basically a deconstructed bruschetta - tomatoes, onions, garlic, basil - just about any typical Italian ingredient is welcome here. I keep meaning to try it with chunks of salami and pearls of Mozzarella.

You will need:
1 loaf crusty bread (Italian or French)
Salt and pepper to taste
Garlic powder to taste
2 pints cherry tomatoes or 8 medium tomatoes, cut into chunks and seeded if you have the patience*
1 small red onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, very finely minced or grated
6 ounces Parmesan, grated  
3 tablespoons plus 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
2 tablespoons white balsamic or white wine vinegar
Handful basil
Handful parsley
2-3 hours before serving, prepare tomatoes. If using whole tomatoes, place chopped tomatoes into a strainer fit over a bowl. Season the tomatoes with salt and pepper and toss to coat. Add onions, garlic, basil and parsley. Place in the refrigerator and let tomatoes drain for 2-3 hours.
Preheat oven to 225 degrees. Cut bread into 1-2 inch cubes and arrange on a sheet tray. Drizzle on 2 tablespoons of olive oil, and sprinkle with salt, pepper and garlic powder. Toss bread cubes to coat and place in oven for 20-30 minutes. Allow to cool.
Meanwhile, remove tomatoes from fridge and adjust seasonings if necessary. Discard tomato juices. Add oil, vinegar and Parmesan and toss to combine. Once bread chunks have cooled, toss bread with tomato mixture. Serve immediately.

Cheesecake-Stuffed Strawberries

It has been well-documented that my favorite thing to do, any day of the week, any hour of the day, is cook. I've become known as the one who will never show up empty handed to a get-together and will never let you leave my house hungry. But I also have a tendency to be a "behind-the-scenes" cook - meaning when guests arrive I have been so busy cooking that I usually don't have anything for them to help me with.

So when I received a text from my friend Missy, an aspiring home cook herself, simply stating "I have a recipe I want to do with you," I was thrilled that not only would I get the chance to try something new, I'd get to try it with my girlfriends and hang out in the kitchen for a couple of hours. What could be better than that?

These strawberries may have been better than that. They're incredibly simple but I would imagine people would think you spent a lot more time on them than they actually take. Add a couple of friends, a bottle of wine, and some finger foods and it sure beats a night out - with no money spent and without fighting for a parking spot!

You will need:

2 lbs strawberries, trimmed and hulled
1 8-ounce brick cream cheese, softened
4 tablespoons powdered sugar, sifted
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 cup crushed graham crackers
Mint leaves, for garnishing (optional)

Wash, trim and hull strawberries to create a bowl in the center of the strawberry. If you want to stand yours up (which I recommend as it's easier to fill and present), slice off about a quarter inch of the bottom of the strawberry so it will lie flat. Dry strawberries and arrange them on your serving plate.

In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese (make sure it is very soft), powdered sugar and vanilla extract. Stir until the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. Spoon cream cheese mixture into a piping bag (or Ziploc bag with a corner snipped off) and fill strawberries until the cream cheese just crests the tops of the strawberries.

Add the crushed graham crackers into a small bowl. Immediately roll the tops of the strawberries in the graham crackers, coating the cream cheese, and return to serving plate. If desired, garnish each strawberry with a mint leaf.