During the holiday season growing up, my mother would make pumpkin bread for all of our neighbors. Just before Thanksgiving, she would spend a weekend with our worn metal tins, baking for the whole neighborhood. When she was finished, she would hand me the loaves and give directions to which neighbors I should deliver the treats to. Still, no neighbor or in-law has ever gotten their hands on our family’s pumpkin bread recipe.
When I asked my mother why she baked for people we rarely talked to, she told me it was to show we cared. As a baker myself, I was not only interested in the emphasis my family placed on the importance of this pumpkin bread, but was also determined to make my pumpkin bread in a way that no one else could.
My primary competition for making the best version of it consisted of my grandmother, my aunts and my mother. We all had our own versions of the recipe. My grandmother added more pumpkin than necessary, which created a mushy center. My aunts played it straight, following the recipe step-by-step without any variation. My mother added toppings to her pumpkin bread, usually chocolate or cream cheese frosting.
I, on the other hand, liked to bake my loaves in smaller pans. Not only was the bake time reduced this way, but there was more bread to go around. These little quirks, while indistinguishable to the normal taster, set each of our baked goods apart from each other.
To accomplish my goal, I began the process of tweaking a recipe that had been passed down for four generations. I added more spices or took them away. I bought a new brand of flour. I even switched up the order that I mixed the ingredients together in. Still, nothing seemed to change. My pumpkin bread tasted the same, and all my hard work seemed fruitless.
However, my experimentation was not for nothing, and I was able to create new recipes. I made pumpkin whoopie-pies with cream cheese frosting as well as pumpkin cookies, all inspired by my great-grandmother's original recipe. I started to gain a certain confidence when it came to going against what a recipe might tell me, or totally rejecting a recipe altogether.
In reworking the family recipe, I learned a lot about baking: specifically about baking pumpkin bread. For starters, sifting is a waste of time. On average, pumpkin bread takes over an hour to bake. So to me, adding even more steps seems unnecessary.
To create the perfect blend of spices in our bread, I include cinnamon, ground cloves, nutmeg and allspice. While baking is usually about exact measurements, I’ve found that eying the spices results in the best tasting pumpkin bread. My most notable discovery has been the necessity of balance between all the ingredients. In other words, they should compliment each other.
Before my family moved back to Maryland from Chicago, we would drive to Frederick, Maryland nearly every Thanksgiving and Christmas to visit my extended family. When we would pack up the car to go back to Chicago, my grandmother would wrap up two loaves of her pumpkin bread and put them in the back seat with me. As we drove through the Appalachian Mountains, I would peel back the tinfoil and snack on the over-the-top pumpkin bread, and I would remind myself not to miss my family as I could visit them anytime I’d like through an old recipe.
In recent years, I’ve started to realize there is no one perfect way to make pumpkin bread because no two bakers are the same. This realization reminded me even if The Great British Baking Show was exciting, baking has never been a competition, but rather an easy way to show your appreciation.