What is it about fall? Really. I can’t get over it. There is something so splendid, so unabashedly glorious about this time of year that I feel almost ready to pop with abundance and contentment each time I put on a sweater, step outside, and feel the soft voluminousness of the clear fall air. I love the colors – deeper, from brilliant to brooding. I love the nostalgia. I love sweater weather. I love the cold that is just enough to most definitely require snuggling. I love the expanse of an electric blue fall sky. I love how spacious fall weekend days feel, even though the evening closes in earlier. I love the coziness of eating supper when it’s dark out. I love the smells and sounds of leaves. I want to bundle fall up in a fuzzy sweater and give it a hug. It makes me want to sing happy songs and write sonnets to it. Except that nobody – least of all fall – will be done any favors by my attempting to write sonnets. So, instead I cook to it.
Fall calls for food that is encased in dough, or splashed with some cream (in case work actually listens to your petition and lets you hibernate this year), or dashed with some nutmeg, or drizzled with some maple syrup. Food filled with all the deep colors and vibrant yet mellow flavors that echo the way fall feels. And lots and lots and lots of winter squash. There is almost nothing more autumnal than a butternut, or acorn, or kabocha, or buttercup squash. They just keep filing in from my farm share, and with all their different shapes, colors, and sizes, the pile of them in my pantry is starting to look like line up of circus characters. It’s truly fabulous.
The flavors of winter squash are so adaptable and amenable to both savory and sweet dishes, I’ve been enjoying them in practically everything. Calzones, soups, pasta, tarts… If the beta-carotene in squash can turn you orange like that in carrots – which, let’s face it, it can because beta-carotene is beta-carotene – I think I may be well on my way. And I’m okay with that.
Although I have not yet run out of ideas for how to use my squash, I’m still always on the lookout for something new, so when I saw some pumpkin and feta muffins on 101 cookbooks, I thought, ‘yes! I will cook something like that.’ The original, however, looked to me like it would taste just a little too healthy. Too many seedy kinds of things. Not quite enough cheese, hehe. Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for healthy and for things tasting that way. But, I like it to come through in the freshness of vibrancy of the flavors, not in some sort of penitently crunchy way. It’s like that fine line between really caring for the environment by using alternative transport, unplugging everything all the time, and eating sustainably grown food, versus doing this and ceasing to use deoderant, wearing burlap sacks, and subsisting on tofu and seaweed. Well, okay, maybe that’s a little extreme. (Also, I totally respect the latter and am good friends with people who choose to go all the way like that. It’s just not for me. Like I’ve said, I can be a little lazy .) Anyway, I’m probably digging myself into some hole here, but suffice it to say, I’m sure the original recipe would have turned out awesome. But, I tweaked it, and it also turned out really, really awesome. Like, really.
These muffins are a tapestry of colors, textures, and flavors. They have some of the rich, lovable, cheesy elements of cheese puffs or those famous biscuits from Red Lobster. But, then you get bursts of briny feta, sweet squash, tender spinach, and an aromatic kick of black pepper. One or two of these along with a bowl of soup or a salad (and a rich autumn ale) and you have yourself a satisfying fall meal, right there. They’ll also make you very popular at potlucks!
- 2 Tbs. olive oil
- 1 medium winter squash (like butternut, pumpkin, or kabocha – I used butternut) peeled, seeds removed, and cut into approximately half-inch cubes – you should have about 2 cups. If you have extra, you can reserve it and use it for other yummy things.
- a sprinkling of salt and pepper
- a couple of handfuls of spinach, washed and chopped
- 3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- ¾ cup crumbled (in large crumbles) feta cheese
- 2 tsp. of whole grain mustard (German style)
- 2 eggs
- ¾ cup milk (I might also try this again with buttermilk, just for kicks)
- 2 cups regular flour (I bet you could also use a gluten-free flour blend with good results)
- 4 tsp. baking powder
- 1 tsp. salt
- coarsely ground black pepper
- Heat your oven to 425F. Toss the squash cubes with the olive oil and a sprinkling of salt and pepper. Spread them in a single layer on a baking sheet and roast in the oven, stirring them up a couple of times, until they are tender through (easily pierced with a fork – I usually take one out, blow on it, and taste it to see if it’s done), and getting a little golden brown on the outside. Remove from the oven and set aside to cool.
- Turn the oven down to 405F. Grease a muffin tin well with oil or butter. In a large mixing bowl, stir together about two-thirds of the squash, the spinach, Parmesan, and ½ a cup of the Feta. In a small bowl, beat together the milk, eggs, and mustard until well combined. Pour this into the bowl with the squash and spinach.
- Sprinkle the flour, baking powder, and 1 tsp. salt onto the squash and wet ingredients mixture. Gently stir this all together until just combined. Spoon the batter into the prepared muffin pan – it will fill the holes pretty generously.
- Sprinkle the tops of the batter-filled holes generously with freshly ground black pepper. Then, press the remaining feta crumbles and squash cubes gently into the tops of the batter. Bake for 20 minutes, until the muffins are golden and a toothpick inserted into one comes out with no batter on it (it may come out with some melted feta on it, though!). Remove from the oven, allow to cool for about 5 minutes, then run a knife around the sides of each muffin and gently use the knife to lift them out and on to a cooling rack.
- The muffins are delicious warm or cold, so don’t scruple to eat them whenever you please!