Something tells me that writing a post about butternut squash isn't exactly seasonally appropriate (who, after all, wants to think about a winter squash when there are artichokes and asparagus and strawberries?), but, nevertheless, I will tell you about it anyway. Not only is it a unique way of preparing butternut squash, a real game changer if you will, but I also fear that if I don't write about it now, it will become one of those posts that will, despite my best intentions simply fall to the wayside--like the Rye Bread with Cocoa Powder, Strawberry Jam Popovers and Chocolate Avocado Tart that came before it; unfortunately, I've got more than a few of those in my blog archives, but that's often the problem--and the joy--of trying lots of new recipes...You find yourself smitten, you vow to share your feelings with the world and then, before you know it, you're already in love with the sound of another dish, cooking method or world cuisine. Let me just say that this is one of the few areas in my life where I allow myself to be hopelessly fickle; while I'm a loyal friend and a complete fan girl when it comes to quality books and TV, when dealing with recipes and cookbooks, I am easily swayed by the promise of something new.
In my defense of this untimely post, I will also add one thing: Although the calendar tells me it's spring, I find that living in the Bay Area makes things confusing. Just last week, we had lots of rain, it was quite chilly and I returned from the noble act of picking up the CSA box both drenched and disappointed to discover that yet another pair of supposedly sturdy boots had sprung a leak. On that same rainy evening we had Ottolenghi's Ultimate Winter Couscous (with more seasonally inappropriate butternut squash!) for supper, followed by steaming mugs of rich hot chocolate for dessert. Then, in a matter of days, the weather turned boiling and sunny and, during an outdoor excursion, I had the misfortune to forget to wear sunscreen and now resemble an overdone chicken. It's clear that I'll never understand the weather here; even after seven years, I still manage to get it all wrong. Given this, it's hardly surprising that I'm still cooking with squash. More importantly, I think that there's often more overlap between the seasons than we like to think. We, quite literally, want to "spring into spring," leaving winter and all that it symbolizes behind us.
This post will hopefully give you pause, however. Maybe it will even make you longingly glance at the hardy squash that continue to appear at the farmer's markets and grocery stores (somebody has to take pity and eat them!) and reconsider their place on the spring table. You see, what I'm offering you today is not just a vegetable side, although these too can be vibrant and flavorful, but a butternut squash dessert. I first discovered butternut squash's hidden potential when I was flipping through Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen. A recipe for Turkish Candied Squash caught my eye, which called for the butternut squash to be macerated. I had never imagined that adding sugar to cubed squash would lead to the same result as sprinkling sugar on strawberries, but I trusted both Paula and the Turks not to lead me astray.
I finally got an opportunity to try it a few weeks ago when the Greek was in Texas and I invited some friends over to try a recipe for a Greek cheese pie and wanted to make something simple for dessert. This recipe really fits the bill; the most difficult thing about making it is peeling and cubing the squash (Wolfert also says that a Hubbard squash could be used, but that peeling process is much more labor intensive; butternut seems like the easiest way to go here); after that, the magic of maceration does all the work for you. It's amazing to see just how much juice the squash will release when mixed with sugar; truly, it practically glistens. Then, the squash is slowly roasted in the oven with a wet sheet of parchment loosely bunched over it; by the time it comes out, it's nothing but softened, syrupy sweetness. In fact, it reminded me of a Greek spoon sweet, but one that is roasted, rather than boiled (the Greeks actually have a pumpkin spoon sweet, but I've never tried it and can't really compare it to this; I imagine it's quite similar).
There was a brief moment when I wanted to transform this dish into a butternut squash crumble--a long-held fantasy of mine--but I resisted the impulse. I think it's a good thing I did, too; given the overwhelmingly syrupy texture of the dish, I think any oat topping that would have baked on top of it would have lost the crisp textural contrast I was seeking. Although Wolfert suggested a simple topping of walnuts toasted in butter and creme fraiche, I decided, after much consideration, to approach the dessert like a pastry chef, i.e. in components and layers (I was inspired by my trip to Chikalicious in New York, where I had a banana and pineapple fruit salad on top of a crunchy nest of kadaifi, thin "noodles" of phyllo dough), and made a small batch of savory granola made with olive oil, saffron and Aleppo pepper (Turkish crushed chili) to sprinkle on top. Not only did it add a bit of necessary crunch to the softened squash, but its flavors also contrasted its sweetness and amplified its Turkishness. That being said, I did follow Wolfert's advice and added the requisite dollop of creme fraiche for a final tangy zing, although I do think that a spoonful of thick labneh (strained yogurt, which can be easily made at home) would do the trick as well.
adapted from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
I ended up doubling Wolfert's recipe, but this can easily be halved. If you have a lot of squash on your hands that you want to use up, this dessert is a good way to go.
I wanted to make the granola with pistachios, but, when I opened the bag of pistachios I had been storing in the back of the refrigerator, I realized that they had seen better days. This is why I ended up using pecans; while the flavor combination worked nicely, I still think I would prefer pistachios or walnuts. In a pinch, however, almost any nut would do.
For the squash:
roughly 2 1/2 pounds of butternut squash
1 cup caster sugar
-Peel and trim the squash. You should be left with about 2 pounds. Cut the squash into 1-inch pieces (cubes would be preferable, but I am not a consistent cutter and my shapes varied).
-Then, mix the cubed squash with the sugar in a baking dish and let stand, covered, for at least 30 minutes or until the sugar has melted and a liquid has been formed.
-Preheat the oven to 300 F and, using a wooden spoon, mix the squash and sugar.
-Wet a sheet of parchment paper (I put one under the tap) and then crumple it; place the crumbled and wet parchment loosely over the parchment and put the baking dish in the oven. Bake for 1 1/2 hours or until the juices have come to a boil and the squash is tender.
-Then, turn off the oven and leave the baking dish inside until completely cool (Wolfert says that the squash will continue to re-absorb its syrupy juices).
-Remove from oven and store in a cool place.
For the granola:
1 teaspoon natural cane or granulated sugar
1 pinch saffron
1 cup rolled (not quick-cooking) oats
1/3 cup nuts (pecans, pistachios, walnuts, hazelnuts), roughly chopped
1/8 teaspoon Aleppo pepper, plus an additional pinch
1/4 teaspoon Kosher salt, plus an additional pinch
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 tablespoons honey (I used wildflower)
-Preheat the oven to 325 F and line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicon baking mat.
-Using a mortar and pestle, grind the pinch of saffron (about 8-10 threads) and the sugar together.
-Then, add the saffron sugar mixture, the rolled oats, chopped nuts, Aleppo pepper and Kosher salt to a small bowl and whisk to combine them.
-Add the olive oil and honey and stir to combine with a wooden spoon.
-Spread the oats on the prepared baking sheet and, before placing in the oven, sprinkle an additional pinch of Aleppo pepper and Kosher salt over the mixture.
-Stirring once or twice, bake the oats for 15-20 minutes, or until lightly golden and fragrant (depending on your oven, it make take an additional 5 minutes; just make sure that you stir regularly, so that the nuts don't burn).
-Spoon some of the squash and its syrup onto a small dessert plate or into a small bowl. Top with two tablespoons of the granola, making sure to sprinkle the squash liberally. Place a dollop of creme fraiche or labneh on top of the oats and serve.