Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Pumpkin Spice Lattes are afoot, and Halloween cards and plastic pumpkin pails are already on jaunty display at your local Target wonderland.  ‘Tis the season for garish pumpkin goodness!  In order to welcome autumn without making my readers roll their eyes, I decided to make some muffins using kabocha squash, a sweet and subtle reminder of chillier days to come.  My first bite of sweet kabocha squash took place in the mountains just outside of Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

I lived with various host families during my two years in Japan.  More than one of my host mothers teased me that I have the sweet tooth of a Japanese grandmother… It’s no secret that I’m still crazy about the depth in flavor and texture of red bean paste, black sesame, and satsumaimo sweet potatoes.  Kabocha is another flavor that I’ve learned that I can’t live without, especially when autumn rolls around.

The taste of kabocha is a food memory forever linked with a pottery class that my host family and I took together in the aforementioned mountain hideaway.  After crafting a beautiful mug and candle cover with the help of the pottery senseis, I made a bowl modeled after the sprightly forest spirit Totoro, the Studio Ghibli character, with my extra clay.  After the focused pottery session, we went to the adjacent cafe to rest up and refuel before our journey back to Tokyo.  The cafe’s menu was seasonal and earthy; it transported me to a lush world where Studio Ghibli sprites might actually emerge from underneath the teapot or from behind the salt shaker.  Of course, all of the utensils and tableware at this gorgeous cafe were handmade in the pottery studio by more adept craftsmen than myself.  Rich kabocha soup and roasted kabocha were served alongside other autumnal dishes.  This lavish and hearty meal remains a flashpoint of Japan’s seasonal care and attention to detail in my memory.

This caramelized kabocha muffin recipe captures the sweet kabocha essence without overpowering it with too much sugar.  The chunk of roasted kabocha on top of each muffin has a soft and chewy texture that balances the muffin crumb.  After baking the muffins, let them cool and top them with a few pinches of coarse turbinado sugar.  Blast the sugar with a culinary torch until the sugar melts and caramelizes.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Some treasures from a pottery studio hidden in the mountains outside of Tokyo!

Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 cup (240ml) vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup (200g) packed light or dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 kabocha squash
  • turbinado sugar, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease muffin tins.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice together in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk the oil, eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla extract together until combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined.
  3. Cut the kabocha squash into chunks, about 1/2 inch thick.
  4. Roast the kabocha for 30 minutes in the oven.
  5. Spread batter into the cupcake pan. Place one piece of kabocha in the center of each muffin.  Bake for 30 minutes. Baking time may vary based on your oven. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Take the muffins out of their pan an let cool on a cooling rack.
  7. Sprinkle each muffin with a large pinch of turbinado sugar.
  8. Torch the turbinado until it melts.
  9. Let cool and enjoy!  Itadakimasu~

Furikake French Fries

When this past Saturday rolled around, I didn’t have energy to cook ANYTHING. I woke up at a defeating 11:45 am. The snacking situation was bleak; there were no sweets lying around because lately I’ve been too exhausted to cook dinner, let alone bake.  With the snack supply from my recent Japan trip already dwindling, I decided to pop out to Sunrise Mart, a local Japanese grocery store, looking for a quick fix.

I decided to blend American junk food with wholesome Japanese goodness by making these Furikake French Fries.  Furikake is a dry topping that commonly goes on top of rice or onigiri rice balls.  You can find many variations of it; my favorite are noritamago (seaweed and egg), shake (salmon) and umejiso (plum and shiso).  I made variations of my Japanese sweet potato (satsumaimo) fry recipe to create three salty twists on the vegetable that I like to feature in many of my pastry projects.  With savory toppings featuring miso, Kewpie mayo, and spicy Korean Gochujang hot chili paste, one simple spud was turned into three brave new worlds of sweet and salty harmony.

Prep time can’t get any quicker than the few minutes that it takes to throw together this recipe.  While munching on these addictive fries and plowing through Season 2 of Westworld, all was right with my world.  I want to create more easy umami moments like this.  It doesn’t take too much effort to add flavor and creative depth to even your laziest moments.  Convenience is key, so go stock up on toppings.  Scroll down for my recipe!

Ingredients:

  • Satsumaimo sweet potato (1 large or two small)
  • Furikake topping (I used noritamago, umejizo, and shake to create three different versions of my recipe.)
  • Miso paste
  • Kewpie mayonnaise
  • Gochujang hot chili paste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat your oven to 400 degrees.
  2. Cut one large satsumaimo potato into similarly sized strips.  Let the strips soak in cold water for twenty minutes to remove some of their starch.  Drain and pat dry.  This soaking process will make your fries less soggy after cooking!
  3. Coat the fries in a little bit of olive oil.  Make sure to cover all sides.
  4. Spread the strips evenly on a baking sheet and roast for 20 minutes.
  5. Take fries out and jostle so that all sides cook.  Roast for another 10 to 15 minutes.
  6. To create an umami miso sauce, mix equal parts white miso with Kewpie mayonnaise.  This combination can be on the salty side (how I like it!), but consider adding slightly more mayonnaise than miso.  For the spicy sauce, mix 1/4 part Gochujang chili paste with 3/4 part Kewpie mayonnaise.
  7. Pair these sauces with your favorite furikake flavors!  The fry/furikake combination tastes great with unflavored mayonnaise as well… no need to whip up the sauces.