This post was originally published while I was living in Manchester, on 29th October 2018, and I think these little spiced butternut squash muffins deserve so much more from me than being buried in my archives! Here they are with some updated photos.
The spooky glamour of Halloween ended quite abruptly for me a couple of years ago. After many consecutive years of trick or treating and fancy dress, then parties, drinking and more fancy dress, suddenly one Halloween I was in my pyjamas, taking photographs of my parents in their costumes before they breezed out the door to a party. Then, the following year I supervised trick or treating. Traipsing behind my 14-year-old cousin and her friends who were covered in face paint and, unlike me, not dressed in sensible thick woollens, I realised with dawning horror the roles had somehow reversed.
Gone are the days when my housemates and I themed our dress up – one year we all transformed into Disney characters, my sister and I as the Mad Hatter and March Hare complete with dinky bow tie and cotton tail pinned to my skirt. We then proceeded to drink too many quad-vods (yes, the name tells you all), stumble home and Fiona threw a shoe at my mirror which promptly broke. Her seven years bad luck is nearly over.
One day I might return to the Halloweens of quad-vods [N.B. the Ally of 2022 wearing her favourite slippers can testify that this hasn’t happened] but for now I’m happy with the monstrous inflatables looming over the buildings in Manchester, the creepy green light illuminating the town hall, and maybe a scary film before bed.
I wouldn’t like to think I’ve become an anti-Halloween miser, the Grinch of the spooky scary holiday, but my desire to jump on the Halloween bandwagon when it comes to cooking and baking is off my radar (although I’m entranced by this marshmallow-cobweb idea). My social media feeds are bursting with gory red velvet cakes splattered with blood, spider macarons, meringue bones and these eerily realistic marzipan teeth.
At work last year I wrapped tendrils of leftover croissant pastry around sausages, baked them until golden and buttery, dotted on mustard eyes and served mummy hot dogs, for both children and adults to squeal over. This year, however, the gimmicks and hype of Halloween have lost me along the way. Instead I’m easily pleased, simply bewitched by the incredible colours of autumn, the vivid orange of the sun setting at 4pm, the scent of spice, chewy toffees and fudge, the icy midst at 7 in the morning, the forever growing mounds of leaves covering the pavements, and the enormous sturdy vegetables that cry out for cinnamon and maple syrup.
To celebrate the season of too-much-candy-as-it-is, here’s a cake recipe. If it offers any consolation it contains a vegetable. So really it’s healthy cake, one of your five a day.
With the mornings turning colder I have been craving muffins. Whereas some people can’t eat in the mornings (my colleague can’t touch moist fruit before lunch) I could eat anything, and cake will always get me out of bed. When planning these muffins I was envisaging something stockier than a cupcake, hearty and filling. Thus, the inclusion of grated butternut squash seemed ideal, padding them out with moisture and wholesome flavour much like a carrot cake. The recipe comes from a butternut squash loaf cake by Honey & Co, packed with spicy punch, pecans and dried currants. Mr and Mrs Honey & Co, known as Itamar Srulovich and Sarit Packer, utilise many spices in all their bakes and balance them perfectly, even concocting recipes for sweet and savoury spice mixes. Therefore, these spiced butternut squash muffins were exactly what I had been craving.
Emerging from the oven came 15 molassesy-brown muffins, speckled with nuts. I scoffed one down still warm, the sponge delicate and springy. The next morning I ate one while arranging the rest like models for their photographs. The cake was still unbelievably light, less like a muffin more like a melt-in-the-mouth genoise, the butternut squash seemingly dissolved into the cake, generously imparting its moisture as a gift. Amidst the soft sponge there are crunchy pecans and refreshing bursts of citrus peel from the dried fruit. Before I knew it, mid-photo shoot I was another muffin down. An addictive start to your day… and elevenses… and as an afternoon pick-me-up, all washed down with a cup of tea.
Forget the popcorn, I’ll be stuffing my face with these during my Halloween movie marathon.
[N.B. While 2022 Ally hasn’t changed her opinion on Halloween-themed baking, she did cave this year]
Spiced butternut squash muffins
For the Honey & Co spice mix
- 10 cardamom pods
- 6 cloves
- ½ whole nutmeg
- 1 tsp fennel seeds
- 2 tsp mahleb seeds
- 3 tsp ground ginger
- 4 tsp ground cinnamon
For the muffins
- 250 g dark brown sugar
- 185 ml rapeseed oil
- 2 eggs
- 80 g pecans toasted and roughly chopped – I used half pecans and half almonds
- 175 g plain flour
- 1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
- A pinch of salt
- 2 tsp spice mix
- 80 g dried fruit and mixed peel
- 200 g butternut squash peeled and grated
- To make the spice mix, toast the fennel and mahleb seeds. Allow to cool before grinding.Crack the cardamom pods and scoop out the seeds. Finely grate the nutmeg. Grind all together in a pestle and mortar with the cloves. Mix with the fennel and mahleb, then add the ground ginger and cinnamon. Keep in an airtight container for up to 6 months.
- Preheat the oven to 190°C/170°C fan/375°F. Line the muffin tray with paper cases or grease each hole with a little butter.
- Mix together the sugar and rapeseed oil in a large bowl until combined. Whisk in the eggs one at a time. Mix well and the texture should emulsify becoming thick and glossy.
- Add the remaining ingredients to the bowl; the pecans, flour, bicarbonate of soda, salt, spice mix, dried fruit and butternut squash. Stir to combine everything then spoon out dollops into the muffin holes until almost full.
- Bake for 15-20 minutes until the tops of the muffins are springy, and skewer comes out clean. Leave to cool in the tin, then carefully remove – they are soft and fragile!