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~

Earth Day Cupcakes

This past Thursday had me running around the flower market to prepare for a decorative arts exhibition at Sotheby’s; I was assisting with the styling.  If you haven’t been to New York’s flower district, let me paint a mental picture for you.  The sidewalks are crowded with little pots of blooms, succulents, and wayward branches, all jostling for room.  They seem to be crowding toward the edges of the sidewalk for the most coveted spots, away from the foot traffic of people on their beeline to work.

I love navigating this urban forest.  Another styling assistant friend shared that jobs at studios located in the flower district were a hassle, because it’s hard to wheel the grocery cart through the organic sprawl.  Yeah… I’m pretty sure my wide-eyed flower enthusiasm will wear off pretty quickly, but for now, I’m still enchanted.

So, surrounded by endless flora, it’s safe to say that I have spring and nature on my mind, just in time for Earth Day on Saturday!  In the next few weeks I’d like to go to the Brooklyn Botanic Garden’s cherry blossom festival, and hop aboard New York’s floating garden (which happens to host pop-up events, FYI!).  Be sure to carve out some time to experience and lobby for the photosynthesizers in your life.

Here are some Earth Day Cupcakes, complete with tiny chocolate mushrooms!  The mushroom-shaped chocolate-biscuit combos are one of my favorite Japanese cookies.  There are also bamboo shoot shaped cookies if you want to go really wild for the holiday.  Chocolate tree stumps exist as well, but I suggest saving those for a different day, they might send the wrong message on Earth Day…

These mini cupcakes are matcha flavored and topped with luscious chocolate buttercream.  A sprinkling of matcha dust on top of each cupcake gives the illusion of moss growing on some undergrowth.  Happy Earth Day!