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From the Pastry Dungeon: Sticky Pumpkin Cake with Hard Cider Caramel

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[Photograph: Anna Markow]

Summer is by far my favorite season, but I've never met anyone who bakes who doesn't love fall. Even ripe peaches and juicy blackberries can get tiresome, and we're all looking for an excuse to put something fragrant and spiced in the oven after the hot weather recedes. I tend to start with an apple dessert in the fall—maybe something that also uses figs, persimmons, or concord grapes. But I recently realized that I had never actually done a pumpkin dessert for any of my work menus, anywhere, and I had to rectify that.

This year there has been a lot of controversy over "the pumpkin spice delusion." People recently figured out that their pumpkin spice lattes contain no pumpkin whatsoever, instead relying on an over-spiced syrup to trick them into thinking their 500 calorie drinks contained the beloved gourd. On the flip side, many people claim to not like pumpkin just because its delicate flavor is always obscured by too much spice.

When I do make pumpkin desserts (usually pie, cupcakes, or cookies), I tend to go light on the spices. Cinnamon is the dominant flavor, and I always include ginger, nutmeg, and allspice. I skip cloves when it comes to pumpkin because they have a very loud, sharp flavor that can easily overpower other flavors, even in tiny amounts. Things like molasses, orange, and cranberry can stand up to cloves, but pumpkin not so much. In fact, my personal blend of pumpkin spice includes nine (yes, nine) different spices, and none of them are clove.

Another issue that pumpkin desserts tend to have is a lack of balance. They are often too rich, too sweet, and too flat. Pumpkin wants a nice acidic or bitter counterbalance to its sweetness, and my current personal favorite ingredient to fill that role is apple cider. It's seasonal, it's acidic, and in small amounts it brings enough contrast to the pumpkin party without masking other flavors. And if hard cider is used, it also contributes a nice adult note.

So, if you divide the spice, swap out the cloves, increase the lightness, and add hard cider, what do you get?

Fluffy steamed pumpkin cakes with a rich hard cider caramel sauce, a unique way to celebrate fall and a lovely Halloween dinner party dessert.

About the Author: Anna Markow is a pastry chef obsessed with doing things that no one else does and giving unusual ingredients their time to shine. You can follow her sometimes-pastry-related thoughts on Twitter @VerySmallAnna.

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