Isn’t it fantastic how some foods just seem to match a certain season? Though I would be loathe to turn down a slice of spice cake when it was hot and sunny outside, somehow that very same spice cake ends up feeling so much more right if offered up on a chilly fall afternoon. Perhaps it is because we have been trained since birth to accept the familiarity of certain foods and flavors during specific seasons and holidays, developing the unwavering sense that gingerbread eaten during the summer is somehow less fitting than gingerbread eaten during the cold and wet months of fall and winter.
I have a different theory, though. I think our predilection for eating certain types of foods during certain types of the year is based not on seasonal availability or a lifelong development of preference, but rather on something more obvious: color.
Just as the crimson fire of a ripe strawberry signals summer, the mellow orange of a squash speaks of autumn leaves turning and the sun setting low in the sky. It’s ingrained within us, I think. When the weather turns cold and the colors around us transform into amber and rust, we reach for ripened apples, golden pears, and the saffron-colored flesh of autumn squash. Dark clouds call for deeply chocolaty cakes and spicy gingerbread. The coolness of snow makes us crave a dollop of whipped cream on top of a cup of rich, warm cocoa. Is it possible that nature is telling us what to eat? Would nature ever really tell us to eat whipped cream? I should hope so.
In keeping with my theory of seasonal color eating, I was struck last week by the desire to make a very autumnal cake. Though most people would think to make a cake of pumpkin when looking for a perfect fall dessert, it just so happened that I had a bit of leftover butternut squash sitting in my refrigerator, courtesy of this dalliance with butternut squash for Portland Farmers Market. Butternut squash and pumpkin are remarkably similar, and I had a hunch that, spiced up and sweetened, they would behave in a very similar manner.
As it turned out, I think butternut squash turns out even better in a cake than pumpkin, more well-rounded somehow, and with a fuller texture. Lightly spread with this unbelievably creamy, gently gingery frosting, it’s a fitting dessert for any fall day, as evidenced (in keeping with my theory) not only by its color, but also (somewhat unrelated to my theory, but equally as important), by the fact that it lasted approximately two days in our house before we managed to eat the whole thing. (We shared a little. Emphasis on little.)
Butternut Squash Cake with Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting
Butternut Squash Cake
1 ½ cups cake flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¼ teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1 ½ teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground powdered ginger
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/3 cup buttermilk or soured milk
½ teaspoon pure vanilla extract
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
2/3 cup white sugar
1/3 cup dark brown sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 cup butternut squash puree (here I have outlined a shortcut to cooking butternut squash in the microwave)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease and flour the bottoms and sides of a 9-inch round cake pan. Line the bottom of the pan with a round of parchment paper.
In a medium bowl, combine the cake flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg. Whisk to combine, then set aside.
In a small bowl or measuring cup, combine buttermilk or soured milk with the vanilla. Mix to combine, and set aside.
In a large bowl, or in the bowl of a stand mixer, beat the butter until creamy, about 30-60 seconds. Gradually add in both the white sugar and dark brown sugar, beating at high speed until the mixture is light and fluffy, about 3-4 minutes. One at a time, beat in the eggs, mixing well after each addition. Reduce the mixer speed to low, and add in the butternut squash puree.
Scrape down the sides and bottom of the bowl. With the mixer on low speed, add in 1/3 of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, mixing until just combined. Add in ½ of the milk mixture, and mix until just combined. Continue adding the flour, then milk, in this manner, mixing after each addition until just combined.
Gently stir the batter one last time by hand, making sure to stir in the contents at the very bottom of the bowl. Pour the batter into the prepared cake pan. Bake in the center of the oven for 30-35 minutes, until a cake tester inserted into the middle of the cake comes out clean, with just a few moist crumbs attached.
Cool the cake in its pan for 5 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack to continue cooling completely.
Ginger Cream Cheese Frosting
3 ounces cream cheese (about 4 tablespoons), at room temperature
6 tablespoons powdered sugar
2 teaspoons freshly squeezed lemon juice
3 tablespoons milk or heavy cream
¼ teaspoon grated fresh ginger
pinch of salt
In a small bowl, whisk together the cream cheese, powdered sugar, lemon juice, and milk or heavy cream. Whisk continually, until the mixture is smooth and creamy, about 2 minutes. Add in the fresh ginger and pinch of salt, then continue whisking until incorporated, about 30 seconds.
When cake has cooled completely, spread frosting over the top of the cake, coaxing the frosting ever-so-slightly down the sides of the cake.