On Saturday I hosted my first large gathering. We were ‘breaking in’ the new house, so to speak, with an all-day Housewarming Party… open-house style!
At first I was excited to have the space to invite over a crowd and share with them my home and my food. It’s a bit of a selfish thing: I want people to taste my food, eager to see what others think of it and if there are any improvements I could make to the recipes. But true to form, anxiety began to swell up in my gut. How much should I make? I wasn’t completely sure how many people would show up, and I didn’t want to spend too much on food just to have it all go to waste… Or, heaven forbid, not have enough food and run out before six.
What about flavors? That was another issue completely. Usually I cook for the adventurous eater, with plenty of spice and powerful flavors. With a nervous glance to the fresh pot of chili in the fridge, I knew it would probably be a notch to spicy to the average eater’s taste. What is the best thing to make to please a crowd, and a ton of varying tastes?
A glance to my cookbook shelf gave me the answer I needed.
Classic recipes with a modern touch. All rich and buttery, and sure to happily feed a broad spectrum of people. I thumbed through the pages for something fall-flavored, and like any other baker in early November, I gravitated toward the pumpkin recipe. Best of all, the recipe was big enough to slice into modest squares. Perfect!
This isn’t your typical pumpkin pie. It begins with a lightly sweetened, buttery shortbread crust, though if you wanted to kick up the indulgence, I’m sure a gingersnap or graham cracker crust would do well with these bars… just make sure you cut the sugar content in the filling. While the crust bakes and cools, you mix up a rich and indulgent pumpkin filling. Instead of evaporated milk or sweetened condensed milk, you use a mixture of butter and cream cheese. Make sure your cream cheese is completely at room temperature before you mix it up; I left mine on the counter for six hours before tackling this (still wrapped in the package, of course, to protect it from hungry kitties on the prowl). If it is not completely soft, you will have a lumpy batter. This isn’t a cake – the lumps won’t disappear during baking.
Eggs give the batter structure and produce that wonderfully smooth, custardy texture without an ‘eggy’ taste. Watch out! By this time, the batter is going to be pretty sloshy. Keep your splashguard handy or wear an apron; start out slow and build up the mixer speed as it incorporates. A healthy teaspoon each of cinnamon and nutmeg warm it up, and it’s good to go. I even managed to resist all temptation to mess with the recipe, and stuck very close to the Days’ instructions.
If you don’t have mace, don’t worry about it. No one will notice anything missing.
A good thing I did (mostly) stick to the written word, too. These bars were a hit. And luckily, they came at a time before everyone is completely pumpkin’d out by the autumn season. Pumpkin treats are always fair game before Thanksgiving, right?
Even though we have leftovers enough to feed myself and the husband for a good week or more, none of the food will go to waste. We hope. Or, well, at least these pumpkin bars are very near to gone. To give them a try at home, here is the recipe, shockingly unadulterated by my fussing in the kitchen:Back in the Day Bakery Cookbook. Get it.
For the Crust
1/2 pound (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups all purpose flour
For the Filling
One 8-oz package cream cheese, at room temperature
One 15-oz can pumpkin puree (NOT pumpkin pie filling)
8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled slightly
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
One 1-pound box (4 cups) confectioner’s sugar
1/2 teaspoon ground mace (optional, I omitted)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
3 large eggs
Fresh, Lightly-Sweetened Whipped Cream, for topping (optional)
Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 9 x 13 x 2 inch pan and line with parchment, allowing the paper to hang over the edges. Grease again.
To make the crust:
Put the butter in a large heatproof bowl, set the bowl over a saucepan of barely simmering water, and stir frequently until melted (Note: I used the microwave to melt it and really didn’t have a problem.). Remove from heat and stir in the sugar, vanilla, and salt. Add the flour all at once and mix until just incorporated.
Press the dough evenly into the bottom of the prepared pan. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes, until golden brown on the edges but still light in the center. Let the crust cool for at least 30 minutes.
To make the filling:
In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment (or in a medium mixing bowl using a hand mixer), beat the cream cheese on medium speed until smooth and creamy, 5 to 7 minutes (Don’t skimp! You really want the filling to be lump-free!). Add the pumpkin and mix thoroughly, scraping down the sides of the bowl from time to time, about 5 minutes. Turn the speed to low, add the melted butter and vanilla, and mix until combined, 2 to 3 minutes. Add the confectioner’s sugar, mace (if using), cinnamon, nutmeg, and eggs, beating until all the ingredients are thoroughly combined. Continue to mix on medium speed until smooth, about 5 minutes.
Pour into the pre baked crust. Bake for 50 minutes to 1 hour, until the center is firm (Note: Start checking at 40 minutes. Mine was done just a little bit sooner than 50 minutes.). Let cool to room temperature, then refrigerate.
Cut the bars into squares and serve chilled with the whipped cream, if desired. Bars will keep in an airtight container in the fridge for 3 days.