Holiday Baking: Sweet Squash

by Katherine Sacks
Shannon Sturgis, Kate Telfeyan
December 2011

It’s the time of year when creamy pumpkin butters, latticed pies, and hearty breads fill nearly every menu from New York City to the moon. And while the bright orange stuff may evoke diners’ childhood memories, tossing away the cliché opens up a world of options, including a number of earthy, winter squash varietals. Whether it’s a creative response to a serious pumpkin shortage or simply creativity at its best, pumpkin alternatives deserve an equal place on the sweet side of the menu.

Fromage Blanc Mozzerella with Pecan Meringue and Squash Sherbet by Pastry Chef Chris Ford of Four Seasons Baltimore - Baltimore, MD

Fromage Blanc “Mozzerella” with Pecan Meringue and Squash Sherbet by Pastry Chef Chris Ford of Four Seasons Baltimore – Baltimore, MD

Pastry Chef Chris Ford—who readily inserts savory elements like basil and rosemary into his desserts—loves to substitute deeper squash flavors for overplayed pumpkin in his fall and winter menus (his current favorite is the Red Kuri variety, a Japanese pumpkin look-alike with chestnut undertones).

In his twist on pumpkin pie (his first round submission for the 2nd Annual International Pastry Competition), Ford paired an earthy butternut squash sherbet and toasted pecans with an inventive play on whipped cream. In place of chantilly, Ford topped the dish with a calcified and frozen fromage blanc to create a surprising mozzarella-like texture.

A winter squash, a bite of butternut may be similar in taste and texture to pumpkin, but the bell-shaped gourd is sweeter flavor. At nearly 14 Brix, the pale orange vegetable offers up the same sugar content as orange juice, much higher than the pumpkin’s average 8 to 11 Brix. That higher sugar level means sweeteners get the boot, and the denser, less fibrous meat of the butternut offers up a creamier purée, inspiring chefs to use them for everything from classic soups to more avant-garde applications.

Squash dessert by Pastry Chef Micah Phillips of Fatty ’Cue – New York, NY

"Squash" dessert by Pastry Chef Micah Phillips of Fatty ’Cue – New York, NY

Pastry Chef Micah Phillips of NYC’s Fatty ‘Cue packs tons of flavor into his “Squash” dessert, a delicate study on layered flavors and textures. He combines three different squash varieties—kabocha, hubbard, and butternut—with pumpkin to create a dish that has dark sweetness (from a smoked butternut squash sponge), balance (from a tart hibiscus foam and tangy pickled kabocha), and crunch (from toasted pumpkin seeds and a burnt phyllo “bark”).

Although Phillips likes each gourd on its own, “When you eat all three varieties together, it’s a perfect symbiosis,” he says. “Each has their individual flavor, but they all taste great together.” This time of year, he tries to use the Japanese kabocha in as many dishes as possible—the hearty dense meat from this variety (whose taste is similar to sweet potato) holds up after cooking, making it ideal for everything from pickling to a sauté. The hubbard is a much more gamey variety, says Phillips. “It kind of carries the flavors of the soil.” While the extra-hard skin of hubbards can be a pain when it comes to production, they’ll keep for up to 6 months because of it. Phillips makes use of this muskier taste in his hubbard squash parfait, adding in tamarind and cardamom for sweetness and spiced nuance.

Although Ford encourages the maxim “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” when playing with these flavors—whether by a twist on an old standby, or a complex composition of flavor— these pastry chef’s elegant dishes show the holidays don’t need to be all about the pumpkin in the pie.