“I am more modest now, but I still think that one of the pleasantest of all emotions is to know that I, I with my brain and my hands, have nourished my beloved few, that I have concocted a stew or a story, a rarity or a plain dish, to sustain them truly against the hungers of the world.” (M.F.K Fisher, The Gastronomical Me (1943), 18)
I am now working my way through yet another volume of M.F.K. Fisher’s works. So powerfully written is Fisher’s work that it actually drew tears from me as I read about the sad fate of the oyster in Consider the Oyster . I gained a deeper knowledge of culinary history when I read Fisher’s Serve It Forth, I laughed my way through Fisher’s How To Cook A Wolf, despite its being an instruction manual for people who want to cook healthy, delicious meals during times of dire economic hardship and scarcity. Her off-handed, witty observations about the eating habits of certain types of people and her [Fisher’s] own attitude toward certain foods keep the serious subject of eating on a tight budget from weighing down the reader with despair. No matter the topic of Fisher’s writing, her appreciation of the transcendent role food plays in meeting the spiritual and social needs of human beings is implicit in her descriptions of food, the stories she tells as she discusses food, and even her historical account of food.
In the essay titled “The Measure of My Powers” in her work The Gastronomical Me, Fisher recounts her entry into the kitchen the first time as a cook, as her mother recovers from giving birth to Fisher’s younger brother. Despite some mis-fires, some “hideous mistakes” with sauces and such in her debut as family cook on the family cook’s nights off, Fisher quickly learns that “the stove, the bins, the cupboards” make an “inviolable throne room” from which she “ruled” and “temporarily controlled.” As Fisher reminisces about the power she felt when she prepared the family meals, she relates that among her most pleasant discoveries from that time is to know that, whether she cooks a rare dish or a plain one, she provides her loved ones sustenance against “the hungers of the world.” This passage is only one of countless passages in which Fisher notes a clear relationship between the preparation of food and one’s love for others. Fisher’s work resonates with me for many reasons, but especially for this reason. When I prepare a meal, a dessert, or a baked treat, I do enjoy the process of creation that cooking and baking entails. The process itself, however, would lose some of its richness were I not preparing the dish or meal for someone specific: a person or people for whom I care. Cooking for people is one way I show my fondness and love for them.
One recent day, I had a chance to provide a gastronomical sign of my love for my daughter. Elizabeth and her husband are expecting their third child: a third son! As is common with pregnant women, Elizabeth has had cravings throughout her pregnancy. One day she mentioned having a craving for a seasonal dessert: pumpkin bars. She’s actually an excellent, talented cook, but with two toddler boys keeping her busy, she hasn’t the time to bake that she used to.
Even though Elizabeth has children of her own, she’s still very much a child to Phillip and me, as adult daughters usually are in their parents’ eyes. I knew I had to bake some pumpkin bars for her. She MUST have her craving satisfied! The pumpkin bars had to be gluten-free, of course, since Elizabeth is also Celiac. I found a recipe for regular pumpkin bars that sounded good so I deglutenized it for Elizabeth. I have nothing against grain flours or grain carbs; I often use gluten-free grain flours when I bake. For these bars, given Elizabeth’s current “delicate” condition (as they used to call pregnancy in the old days!), I decided to make the pumpkin bars with flours higher in protein and nutrients than the typical brown rice / tapioca starch / potato starch flour blend.
I used a blend of almond flour, pumpkin seed flour, and mesquite flour. I used almond flour in the largest measure, for it has a less grainy texture than pumpkin seed flour. Mesquite flour has a cinnamon-y flavor that would complement the pumpkin in the bars; however, it must be used in small measure for it can leave an after-taste. Therefore, I used mesquite flour in the smallest measure of the three. Pumpkin seed flour, like almond flour, has a rather transparent flavor. I used it for the nutrients it provides. For the sweetener, I used organic coconut sugar. For the frosting, I followed the exact instructions of the recipe I had deglutenized for the pumpkin bars. The bars were dense, rich, and tasted delicious.
I was in San Antonio but planning to leave for Austin the day I baked the pumpkin bars. I had already told Elizabeth I would arrive in Austin, pumpkin bars in hand. I was at Nacogdoches and I-35 en route to Austin, thirty minutes from our house, when I realized with a start that I had forgotten the pumpkin bars! I called Elizabeth at that point, thinking I would turn around and get the pumpkin bars, but the traffic on I-35 heading South was at a stand-still. Getting back to the house would be a challenge. She encouraged me to continue on my way, and to just recreate the bars when I got to Austin. I continued to Austin, went to Elizabeth’s house, and raided her pantry to bake another batch. She had mesquite flour and sweet potato flour in addition to the more common gluten-free flours one finds in a gluten-free kitchen. Deglutenizing the same recipe I had used for my first batch, I used a mix of brown rice flour, sweet potato flour, and mesquite flour to bake a second batch at her house. Sweet potato flour is not transparent, but the flavor is mild and sweet, and complimented the pumpkin in the bars. The cinnamon-y flavor of the mesquite flour complemented the flavor of the sweet potato flour, so it worked well this this second batch of pumpkin bars. Those bars turned out as delicious as the first batch. The texture was rich, but less dense, than the first batch of the recipe I made. Both versions of the bars tasted wonderful. I’m including both recipes in this post for those people who may prefer the lighter texture of the sweet potato flour / mesquite flour / brown rice flour version of these pumpkin bars.
In addition to substituting gluten-free flours for the wheat flour in this recipe, I changed it in the following ways: increased the amount of baking powder, used real butter instead of oil, used Ceylon, or real, cinnamon, and used Himalayan pink salt instead of table salt. I omitted the baking powder; it seems an unnecessary addition, even to a gluten-free recipe. The bars rose perfectly without it.
375 g Organic coconut sugar
227 g (8 oz) Organic butter, melted
15-ounce can 365 brand pumpkin puree
130 g Almond flour
70 g Pumpkin seed flour
50 g mesquite flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
2 teaspoons ground Ceylon (true) cinnamon
1 teaspoon Himalayan pink salt
Cream Cheese Frosting:
8-ounce package 365 or Organic Valley cream cheese, softened
113.5 g (or 4 oz) butter, softened
230 g sifted confectioners’ sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 13 by 9-inch baking pan.
In a bowl, combine the eggs, sugar, butter and pumpkin. Beat with a mixer until light and fluffy.
In a large bowl whisk together the almond, pumpkin seed, and mesquite flours, baking powder, cinnamon, and salt.
Hand mix the dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture until just combined. Spread the batter into the prepared 13 by 9-inch baking pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean. Transfer to a wire rack and allow to cool completely.
Combine the cream cheese and butter in a bowl. Beat until smooth. Add the sugar and mix at low speed until combined. Stir in the vanilla and mix again. Spread on cooled pumpkin bars.
****For pumpkin bars using brown rice, sweet potato, and mesquite flours, follow the recipe above, changing the flours as such: 125 g brown rice flour, 75 g sweet potato flour, and 50g mesquite flour. Follow the rest of the recipe as written.