The pumpkin spice latte, that pervasive harbinger of fall, turned 20 this season.
Warm spices have been associated with harvest celebrations and winter feasts in the West since the spice trade brought valuable cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice via the Silk Road. Cookbooks dating back to the 1890s reference pumpkin pie spice, and a bottled blend of nine unidentified spices marketed as such was introduced to consumers by Thompson & Taylor 90 years ago, in 1933.
McCormick & Co. followed suit with a blend of cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and allspice in 1934, appealing to home cooks who wanted a more complex pie without buying multiple jars. (Its Apple Pie Spice is the same, minus the ginger.) But pumpkin spice joined the pop-culture zeitgeist when Starbucks rolled out its latte in 2003 to join other seasonal beverages such as the eggnog latte and peppermint mocha.
(For home brewers: Starbucks’ public recipe for homemade pumpkin spice syrup is 1 1/2 cups sugar, 1 1/2 cups water, 1/4 cup pumpkin purée, six cinnamon sticks, two teaspoons ground nutmeg and one teaspoon each ground ginger and cloves, simmered for 20 minutes and strained.)
Marketing is a world full of imitations, but a few products become so entrenched in popular culture and synonymous with a season that they spill out into other industries. And so it was with Starbucks’ creation. At this time of year you might see auto body shops advertising pumpkin spice oil changes and ski shops offering pumpkin spice wax jobs. Pumpkin spice has also generated an exceptional level of ire, representing for some big-box consumerism and cultural vapidity: People love to hate things, and criticize people who love them. (Pumpkin pie itself seems to have dodged the stigma, even the Costco ones that sell by the millions each year.)
Most of us associate food and drinks with seasons and holidays, people and circumstances. There’s enough guilt and shame associated with what we eat. Let people have their small pleasures and their affordable traditions that bring comfort and help them feel grounded in an unstable world, wherever they can find them.
Recipe: Pumpkin Spice Mini Doughnuts
Who needs a doughnut to pair with their PSL? No need for a special cutter; use a shot glass or the rim of an empty small tomato paste can. If you use homemade squash purée, which may be drier than canned, start with 1 1/2 cups of flour and add more if the dough is too sticky to cut.
- 3/4 cup pumpkin or other winter squash purée
- 1/2 cup sugar (white or brown)
- 1 large egg
- 2 tbsp neutral vegetable oil
- 1 tsp vanilla
- 2 cups all-purpose flour
- 2 tsp baking powder
- 2 tsp pumpkin or apple pie spice, or your favourite blend of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and other warm spices
- 1/4 tsp salt
- Canola or other neutral oil, for cooking
Sugar and pumpkin or apple pie spice, or your favourite blend of cinnamon, cardamom, ginger, nutmeg, allspice and other warm spices, for rolling
In a large bowl, combine the pumpkin, sugar, egg, oil and vanilla. In a smaller bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, spices and salt. Add to the pumpkin mixture and stir until you have a soft dough. Cover and let sit (or refrigerate) for at least half an hour.
When you’re ready to make your doughnuts, pat the dough about half an inch thick on a well-floured surface; I like to do this on a rimmed baking sheet to contain the mess. Cut rounds with a shot glass or empty small tomato paste can, dipping the rim in the excess flour on your counter in-between. Poke a hole through the middle of each doughnut with a chopstick or straw, and stretch it out a bit with your finger. Gently reroll any scraps to make as many doughnuts as you can, or just cook the scraps – they tend to have abstract animal shapes.
Heat about an inch of oil in a shallow, heavy pot set over medium-high heat. When it reaches between 350 F and 375 F on a thermometer, or when a scrap of bread or dough sizzles when you dip it in (the oil shouldn’t be smoking), cook your doughnuts in batches, flipping with a slotted spoon or chopstick as they cook, until they’re golden on both sides. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate to drain.
Put about half a cup of sugar into a shallow bowl, and stir in a couple teaspoons of warm spices. Toss the doughnuts in the sugar to coat them while they’re still warm. Serve as soon as possible. Makes about two dozen mini doughnuts, plus scraps.