reason to celebrate

I may be jumping the gun a bit here, but as anyone who knows me well will tell you, I always jump the gun on this particular issue. Because it is Fall!

Well, I know that technically I'm wrong. Kalen's Winnie-the-Pooh calendar, hanging within eyesight, informs me that Fall doesn't begin for two more weeks. But by my own internal calendar, Fall is here. And it's been a dramatic — and near-instant — change-over. Suddenly our nights are cool enough for down comforters, and our noses have picked up the beloved scent of woodsmoke hanging in the air. Culinarily-speaking, I've made the transition seamlessly. I'm done with watermelon and cold salads and smoothies. Give me apple butter bubbling away in the slow-cooker, comforting soups, and roast meats. Even my most recent (and most likely last of the season) ice cream flavor took a sudden turn into Autumn: Spiced Winter Squash.

I just adore this time of year. It may be a family thing, as both of my sisters also agree that it's the best season. Or maybe it's a New England thing, since we certainly get to experience Fall's best attributes. But still, I think Fall holds some universal appeal as well. Fall in Maine demands cozy, comforting, warming activities. It is full of unique feasts for all the senses. Fall provides a great reason to dig out and re-vamp a new wardrobe. And Fall is just plain comfortable. Especially here, right now: we're five days past the end of a record-length heat wave in the state, and this cool, seasonal  weather has felt like the answer to our collective prayer for relief. Suddenly, instead of wilting and withering and finding ourselves stuck to our chairs (and stuck in a heat-induced stupor), we've been re-invigorated, with a restless energy apparently intended to make up for the lack of the same last week. Lots of productivity is happening around here.

Some of it is the boring stuff of life, the laundry and vacuuming and general attempts at keeping house with young boys always under foot. None of it is high on my list of loved activities, but the frazzled, disheveled feeling I get when these things aren't done is worse. So I do them, and am always glad I did, because the mental space that is freed up by looking at a tidy house gives me the enthusiasm and self-permission to head into the kitchen and make.

You already saw the birthday cake. And there was the spiced winter squash ice cream and apple butter I just mentioned. Blueberry pie is on the agenda for tomorrow. But what you might not know is that the day of Wylie's birthday party this past weekend wasn't actually his birthday. That day was yesterday. And so of course we needed yet another treat to celebrate with. This time, however, I wanted something that was semi-acceptable to have for breakfast. There's something charming to me about starting off your birthday morning with a bang, yet even I can't go so far as to actually serve birthday cake for breakfast. Especially not to an already-nonstop two year old.

So I pulled out my fail-proof basic muffin recipe, and turned it into my new favorite fall morning muffin. A muffin that exuded cozy, snuggle-up-with-me scents as it was baking. A muffin that was honestly difficult to photograph, because I was so distracted by that intoxicating smell that I just kept leaning in for one more sniff and almost knocked the tripod over. Several times. This is the muffin that resulted in the epiphany that squash and coffee are a surprisingly perfect combination! Which, of course, means that these muffins are most definitely breakfast food, and will certainly be making future appearances on non-birthday mornings around here.

Now, I've said it before but I think it bears repeating: these muffins are not health food-type muffins. (Despite the fact that they now contain a vegetable. I think the chocolate chips tip the scale back towards too-sugary.) So just be aware of that as you feed them to eager little ones early in the morning. And another note: my recipe for spiced squash purée makes a lot more than you need for these muffins. View this as a good thing. Because now you can make a double batch of muffins, and throw half in the freezer, saving them for a future cool, stormy Fall morning, one on which you're craving muffins but are short on time. These would be perfect for that sure-to-come day. Or you could whisk in some eggs and bake up squash custards. Or squash pie. Or do what I did and make ice cream. You could even decide to just freeze the leftover purée itself, to give yourself a little more time to come up with the absolute perfect vehicle for this creamy goodness (aside, of course, from the already-perfect muffins). So yes, make a full batch of squash purée. You won't regret it. It's a great way to welcome Fall.

Spiced Winter Squash Purée
yields 4 cups

625 grams roasted and cooled winter squash flesh (I used a golden nugget squash. But any medium-sized, starchy, orange-fleshed squash will work)
1 liquid cup whole milk
1/2 cup light brown sugar
1/2 tsp vanilla
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1/2 tsp ground allspice
1/4 + 1/8 tsp freshly grated nutmeg

Combine all ingredients in the bowl of a food processor and purée until the mixture is creamy and smooth. Squash purée keeps for up to one week refrigerated, and for up to six months frozen.

Winter Squash-Chocolate Chip Muffins
yields 18 muffins

133 grams Tara's gluten-free pastry flour mix
133 grams Tara's all-purpose gluten-free flour mix
1 tsp xanthan gum
7 grams baking powder
1/2 tsp fine sea salt
56 grams canola oil
105 grams eggs, room temperature
113 grams buttermilk
7 grams vanilla
56 grams unsalted butter, room temperature
225 grams granulated sugar
245 grams spiced winter squash purée
1 cup bittersweet chocolate chips

Preheat the oven to 350º. Line a muffin pan with paper baking cups.

In a medium-sized bowl, whisk together the flours, xanthan gum, baking powder, and salt. Set aside.

Combine the oil, eggs, buttermilk, and vanilla (I use a liquid measuring cup - less splashing around) and mix lightly. Set aside.

In the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, cream the butter and sugar. (There's not enough butter to really 'cream,' so just get everything blended well and lightened.)

Add the oil mixture in three additions, beating well and scraping the bowl after each one. It should be pretty soupy now.

Add the squash purée and mix to fully combine.

Add the flour mixture and mix on low speed until well-blended.

Add the chocolate chips and mix just until well-distributed.

Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin tin and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until muffins are just beginning to brown and a tester inserted near the center comes out clean. Cool in the pan for 10 minutes, then transfer to a rack to cool completely. Muffins keep, covered and at room temperature, for up to three days. To freeze, wrap cooled muffins tightly in plastic wrap, then place them in a large freezer bag. Frozen muffins keep for up to three months.

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