Halloween is over, and you are standing on your stoop with a carving knife, ready to repurpose one of your pumpkins into a batch of muffin batter or pie filling. Don't do it. Spare the porch decor and use a butternut squash instead.
It is true that pumpkins hold a special place in culinary history. Resourceful Colonial Englishwomen quickly figured out how to bake pumpkin pies that bear a strong resemblance to the pies of today.
So why break with tradition? Since the 1970s, when farmers began breeding pumpkins for durability and color, commercial pumpkins have become bland and watery. Pureed pumpkin, fresh or canned, doesn't have a whole lot of taste.
Luckily, other winter squashes have the flavor that today's pumpkins lack. They are easier to prepare and more economical than large, tough-skinned, tasteless pumpkins. They are healthier and fresher-tasting than canned puree. All in all, they make a smart substitution in many recipes.
Any squash with creamy flesh, including butternut, delicata and sweet dumpling, will add flavor, moisture and color to baked goods. Stay away from stringy varieties such as acorn or spaghetti squash. For a cup of puree, you will need a squash that weighs about 1 1/4 pounds.
To get a thick and creamy puree, simply halve and seed your squash, brush the cut sides with a little vegetable oil, and place cut sides down on a foil-lined baking sheet. Roast in a 425-degree oven until a sharp paring knife slips easily through the skin and into the flesh. Roasting time will depend on the variety, shape and size of the squash. Scoop the flesh from the skin and mash it with a fork or a potato masher. When it has cooled to room temperature (you can keep fresh squash puree in the refrigerator for up to 1 day), it is ready to substitute for pumpkin in any recipe you'd like. Just make sure to measure it carefully before adding it to a batter, filling or dough.
Recently, I roasted a sweet dumpling squash and used it to make a simple snacking cake. Chopped sage enhanced the vegetal flavor of the squash. A teaspoon of ginger spiced up the cake without overwhelming it. Chopped walnuts added texture and richness. And a simple icing made with confectioners' sugar and maple syrup gave it a sweet and seasonal finish.
SQUASH AND SAGE CAKE SQUARES WITH MAPLE ICING
For the cake:
1 small (1 1/4-pound) winter squash, halved and seeded
1 teaspoon vegetable oil
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 tablespoon finely chopped fresh sage
1 1/4 cup unbleached all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sugar
1/2 cup packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
1 large egg yolk
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup finely chopped walnuts
For the icing:
2 tablespoons maple syrup, or more
1/2 cup confectioners' sugar
1. For cake: Preheat the oven to 425 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper. Lightly brush cut sides of squash with vegetable oil. Place cut sides down on baking sheet and roast until soft, 30 to 60 minutes. Let cool, scrape flesh from skin, mash with a fork and measure out 1 cup.
2. Turn oven down to 350 degrees. Grease an 8-inch-square baking pan with nonstick cooking spray. Combine butter and sage in a small pan and heat on low until butter is melted. Set aside to cool.
3. Whisk together flour, baking powder, ginger and salt in a medium bowl. Whisk together butter and sage mixture, sugar, brown sugar, 1 cup mashed squash, egg, egg yolk and vanilla in a large mixing bowl. Stir flour mixture into squash mixture until combined. Stir in nuts.
4. Scrape batter into prepared pan. Bake until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean, 30 to 35 minutes. Let cake cool in pan for 15 minutes, invert onto a wire rack, turn right side up on rack and let cool completely.
5. Make icing: Whisk together maple syrup and confectioners' sugar, adding more syrup as necessary to get an icing with a spreadable consistency. Spread over top of cake with a small offset spatula, letting any excess drip over sides. Let stand until icing firms up, about 30 minutes. Cut into 9 squares and serve.
Makes 9 servings.