Everybody likes the sound of pumpkin bread (that is, if they like pumpkins). Pumpkins are non-threatening and jolly, we make faces on them and eat them, and they are generally accepted into the world of sweets with open mouths. Pumpkin pie is perhaps the most heartily welcomed dish at Thanksgiving. Yet if you plunked down a butternut squash pie in the middle of the dessert table at your next family gathering, you may very well be bumped back down to the kids’ table and kindly asked to refrain from bringing dessert ever again. What about acorn squash cookies or red kuri cupcakes? There are so many delicious winter squash with sweet, easily mash-able flesh that play second fiddle to the pumpkin in the baked goods orchestra. Perhaps I am wrong, and there are lots of folks who are welcomed by eager eaters when they show up at Thanksgiving with a sweet delicata pie, but I feel that winter squash sweets, if not under the guise of the great pumpkin, are looked at suspiciously.
With this in mind, please don’t gag when I tell you that today’s bread is a sweet maple butternut loaf. Since enriched breads don’t require as much time–as the flavor comes largely from the additions, rather than from long flavor-inducing fermentation periods–I thought that a squashy loaf would be perfect for a lazy, low-effort Sunday. I had a couple of butternut squash hanging around, so I chopped up, boiled and mashed the smaller of the two. The flesh was nice and sweet and a beautiful dark orange. I flipped to a pumpkin bread recipe (again with the pumpkin) in Bread by Eric Treuille & Ursula Ferrigno to give me a procedural guideline. The recipe is mostly theirs, although I thought maple syrup would be a nice substitution for honey, and I measured by weight instead of by cup.
I began by dissolving 2 tsp. yeast in 2 oz. water (I think next time, I will use milk instead of water to make a more rich and flavorful crumb, since I’m already going the sweet route).
To this I added 2 tsp. maple syrup (again, next time I will add a bit more sweetener to make a richer loaf, although 2 tsp. sweetener makes a very pleasant loaf with mild sweetness). Then I mixed in about 10 oz. of mashed butternut squash, but any sweet winter squash will do. Finally, I added 2 tsp. salt, a dash of cinnamon for good measure, and 16.5 oz. bread flour at which point the dough felt just right, and I gave it a good kneading.
The butternut lent the dough a very lovely color and a supple softness that made it quite pleasing to knead. I let the little orange dough ball rise for about 2 hours, at which point I shaped it into a boule, and let it proof for another hour or so. Just before popping it into a 425 degree oven, I brushed the top with maple syrup to give it a nice shine and to reinforce the maple flavor that I had only hinted at in the dough.
After about twenty minutes in the oven, the loaf had turned a beautiful deep brown, and sounded hollow when given a good rapping on the bottom.
Just to be extravagant, I brushed the hot loaf with another coating of maple syrup, and waited impatiently for the bread to cool down enough for me to judge its tastiness.
Despite my extreme lack of hunger after a very large and delicious breakfast, I couldn’t resist nibbling away at the first slice of rich, moist, deep orange bread that was steaming away on my countertop. One look at the cross-section was enough to fill me with momentary fake hunger, and I munched away happily.
Sure, butternut squash bread may sound a bit weird, but let me tell you of its many agreeable attributes that performed a lovely song and dance on my palate as I snacked away. To begin with, the moisture of the squash made the most tender, slightly chewy crumb you could ever wish for. Then you have the sweetness of the squash–encouraged but by no means masked by a small amount of maple syrup–that infused each bite with a rich and deep, yet not overwhelmingly squashy flavor. Finally, the color of the squash made me want to consume the loaf with my eyes, and its comforting fragrance kept me sniffing around my kitchen all morning. The maple glaze not only finished the loaf off with a nice shiny and crunchy crust, but its sweet burst hinted at the subtle maple flavors within the bread.
This loaf could definitely be made into more of a typical “sweet bread” by adding a little more syrup or honey, maybe a little more cinnamon, and substituting milk for water, but I found that its mellow flavor made it more versatile. Not only was it a nice accompaniment for a hearty vegetable stew, but it could easily be spread with honey for a sweet snack, or grilled with cheese for a savory lunch. So, in conclusion, don’t play favorites with the pumpkin–its many brothers and sisters in the winter squash family are a talented and delicious bunch, and they are tired of being relegated to the savory table.