It’s October. You can’t walk 2 feet into a store without running into pumpkins or pumpkin flavored food items. Orange is everywhere.
My kids began asking for pumpkin baked goods as soon as Trader Joe’s started in with their fall displays back in September. So I took that into consideration when trying to decide which recipe to make with them during our next baking class, and finally settled on Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake.
Pumpkin. And chocolate. A win-win in my book. More importantly, it continues to build on the baking concepts we have already covered.
Because the ingredient list was pretty lengthy compared to our first two baking projects, I gathered everything in advance.
As the kids crowded around my kitchen table, I explained that the cake we would be making fell into the category of “quick breads”. Usually the method for mixing these kind of items, (banana bread is another example), involves just mixing “wet” ingredients in one bowl, “dry” ingredients in another, then combining the two. Easy peasy.
The kids separated all the ingredients into the two categories. I reminded them how important it was to read their recipe through first, as sometimes it might call for an ingredient to be added out of the usual order.
They all remembered how to measure flour, and took focused turns scooping and leveling.
We talked about how two 1/2 cup measures would fit into one 1 cup measure. Everyone seemed clear on that. Three quarters of a cup took a bit more thinking.
Me: “The recipe calls for 3/4 cup of brown sugar, but my measuring cups only say 1 cup, 1/2 cup, 1/3 cup and 1/4 cup.”
Younger girl: “You could use three of these.” (1/4 cup)
Older boy: “You could also use one of these and one of those.” (1/2 cup and 1/4 cup)
They were all tickled by measuring the brown sugar, “like you’re making a sand castle at the beach!”, and each time the cup was flipped over to reveal a perfect cylinder of sugar, we heard a round of “ooohh”. Simple pleasures.
We had another discussion about equivalent fractions in figuring out how to add 3/4 teaspoon of salt, then it was back on easy street when we only had to use one spoon to measure each of the spices.
There was plenty of sniffing of the contents of the spice jars. Cinnamon was generally well favored, while ginger and clove garnered very strong opinions.
Then, “Is nutmeg a nut?”
(FYI nutmeg is a seed.)
Time to mix in the butter. This is where this recipe differs from the usual quick bread recipes where the butter is either creamed with the sugar or melted and added to the wet ingredients.
Cutting the butter into the dry ingredients serves two purposes here. We are making the crumb topping, aka streusel, but we are also insuring that our cake will be super tender. How?
I referred to our first two classes. When we made our pretzels we mixed flour with water and kneaded the resulting dough. When we mixed our pate a choux we stirred our flour into the liquid ingredients and cooked it on the stove. In both instances the goal was to activate and strengthen the gluten necessary to help leaven our product. In the pretzel dough it provided the structure needed to capture the carbon dioxide expelled by the yeast, and in the pate a choux it provided the structure needed to trap the burst of steam that created our puffs.
But we don’t always need or want a lot of gluten development in our baked goods because it makes things chewy. It is desirable in sourdough bread for example, but I can’t think of anybody who likes chewy muffins or chewy birthday cake.
The kids all agreed wholeheartedly with this statement.
Now that we knew how to create gluten, (adding liquid and physical manipulation), we could discuss how not to create gluten.
Back to the butter.
I explained that since we would be adding liquid to our dry ingredients we could help protect our cake batter from forming too much gluten by covering the flour granules with fat, kind of like outfitting them in itty bitty raincoats. This, along with minimal mixing, would insure that our cake would be far from chewy.
Once that was finished we removed part of the mixture to use later as our crumb topping.
Next, chocolate chips were
eaten added to the remainder of the crumb mixture in the bowl.
Then we turned our attention to the wet ingredients.
The kids remembered that liquids always get measured in a liquid measuring cup and viewed at eye level.
“But what about the pumpkin?”
The puree is wet but it wouldn’t pour and settle into the pitcher like the buttermilk. One could measure it in the dry cups and level it with a knife, but if one doesn’t enjoy washing extra dishes (me) and can employ a little math, (1 cup buttermilk + 1 1/4 c pumpkin puree = 2 1/4 c total volume), then it would be easy to measure it directly into the pitcher.
The kids understood this to mean that, as we added it, the pumpkin puree would cause the level of the buttermilk in the pitcher to rise and we would just stop adding when it reached 2 1/4 cups. Ta da!
Vanilla was a much coveted item. More sniffing of the contents of the bottle.
Lastly, we added the baking soda to our wet ingredients. This would provide the leavening in this recipe.
Fortunately, the kids had all experienced the vinegar/baking soda reaction before via some version of the volcano project, so they already knew that the baking soda would react with, well, something in our cake batter, but what?
We discussed how baking soda, a base, requires an acid to react with to create the carbon dioxide bubbles that would leaven our cake. But we definitely didn’t have vinegar in there.
Me: “Acids taste sour. What else did we add that was sour, or tangy?”
Me: “What else could we use from our kitchen if we don’t have buttermilk on hand?”
Kids: “Juice?” “Lemon?” “Pickle juice?”
Me: “Well that’s basically vinegar”
Kids: “That would be gross anyway”
Me: “What about sour cream? or yogurt? or even milk with vinegar or lemon juice added to it?”
Other mom: “or kefir?”
Yep, all those would work. Basically anytime baking soda is the sole leavening agent, an acidic ingredient is required.
We could see very fine bubbles form in our liquid mixture once our baking soda was added.
We gently mixed our wet ingredients into our dries.
At this point we were less worried about over mixing causing toughness than over mixing deflating our batter. When baking soda is the only leavening agent it’s best to get the product into the oven as soon as possible, before the bubbles make their way out of the pan.
The cake batter went into the baking dish, was topped with the reserved streusel and slipped into the hot oven. About 30 minutes later, kids began wandering in and out of the kitchen, noses in the air. It smelled just like fall.
This recipe is heavily adapted from the Quintessential Coffee Cake recipe in Richard Sax’s Classic Home Desserts.
Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Crumb Cake
2 ½ c whole wheat pastry flour
¾ c firmly packed golden brown sugar
¾ t sea salt
¾ c (1 ½ sticks) unsalted butter, cut into cubes
1 t ground cinnamon
1 t ground ginger
½ t freshly grated nutmeg
⅛ t ground clove
1 c finely chopped chocolate or chocolate chips
1 c buttermilk
1 ¼ c pumpkin puree
1 t vanilla
1 large egg
1 t baking soda
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a medium bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, salt and spices. Cut the butter into the flour mixture with a pastry blender or 2 knives until crumbly. Remove and reserve 1 cup of the mixture for the topping. Mix chocolate into the remaining flour mixture and set aside. In a separate container, mix the buttermilk, pumpkin puree, vanilla and egg together. Beat the baking soda into the buttermilk mixture and add to the flour and chocolate bowl. Fold to combine. Scrape the batter into a 9” x 13” pan and smooth the top. Sprinkle the reserved crumb mixture over all. Bake the cake until golden brown, about 35 minutes. It should feel firm but spring back to the touch. Cool to lukewarm.
** I get asked a lot about gluten-free recipes. This recipe works just fine with gluten-free flours, just be sure that if you are using a packaged flour blend that it doesn’t already contain any kind of leavening.
Photo credits: 3,6,7,13 by Helena Ottoson