You know those little pumpkins you practically trip over in the supermarket this time of year? It turns out: they're good for more than just Instagram props. With, like, no work, they make a really tasty pumpkin butter you’ll want to have in the fridge all year long. I’m talking about pumpkin butter with the magical spice flavor of pumpkin pie, but simple, less sweet and much more, well, pumpkin-y. Making a batch with “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins is easy because they’re small enough to roast whole in the oven. A slow cooker really does all the work letting the flavor develop a wonderful intensity and a just-right spreadable texture. All you need to do is throw everything in, hit “low” and let it go. All. Night.
Then, in the morning... wow. Delicious brown pumpkin butter. A great little energy booster spread on toast at breakfast. Keep some in the fridge so you can just dig your spoon into it, but keep more in the freezer so it will be ready to serve as a secret ingredient in all kinds of delectable creations.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- A 6-8 quart slow cooker (Crock-Pot) with a “low” heat setting. (Total cooking time will be about 8 hours.)
- A food processor or strong blender
- A hammer and a screwdriver (for venting the pumpkin)
- 3 or 4 resealable half-pint canning jars
- A few zip top bags for freezer storage (sandwich size works great)
- An immersion blender (only if you have one -- completely optional)
- 3 or 4 small pumpkins -- usually labeled “sugar pumpkins” or “pie pumpkins”
- 1 ½ cups brown sugar
- ¼ cup apple juice or cider
- ½ cup maple syrup
- Juice of one lemon (about 2 tablespoons)
- 1 teaspoon salt
The spice mix:
Spices can easily be adjusted based on your preference. Keep in mind, you can always add more of anything right into the slow cooker later if you want a bigger spice punch. Same goes for sweetness. The following amounts are more of a guideline -- no need to be exact.
- 2 cinnamon sticks (or at least 1 tablespoon ground cinnamon)
- 2 teaspoons ground nutmeg (grind fresh if you can)
- 2 teaspoons ground ginger
- 1 teaspoon ground cloves
- 1 teaspoon ground allspice
- >optional: ¼ teaspoon ground cardamom (one pod ground)
Step 1: Bake the pumpkins
Line a large cookie sheet with foil or parchment. Carefully punch 2 ventilation holes near the top (stem) of each pumpkin. A hammer and a clean screwdriver work nicely for this task. (Small pumpkins tend to be very tough and jabbing a knife into these little guys can be ridiculously difficult.) Place whole vented pumpkins on cookie sheet and bake for 45 minutes to an hour at 350º. The pumpkins are done when they darken and are tender when poked with a fork. Be careful not to let them burn or blacken.
Step 2: Prepare spices and additions
While the pumpkin is baking, make sure your slow cooker is ready but don’t fire it up yet. Measure out the brown sugar, the salt, and all the spices into a separate mixing bowl so that everything is ready to add when needed. Separately, measure the juices and maple syrup so that they are also standing by. All of the added ingredients will go into the slow-cooker at the same time.
Step 3: Make the pumpkin puree
Carefully remove pumpkins from the oven and allow to cool completely. Once they are cool enough to handle, use a knife to carefully cut them in half horizontally. Using a tablespoon (or a grapefruit spoon if you have it) scoop out the seeds and all of the stringy matter and set aside (you may want to roast the seeds later). Scoop the remaining pumpkin flesh away from the shells and into the bowl of a food processor. Mix together well until it is a smooth puree. A strong blender will also work for this but you may have to mix in batches.
Step 4: Let the slow cooker do its thing
Put about half of the pumpkin puree into a slow cooker. Add the brown sugar, spices, salt, juices, syrup. Pour the rest of the pumpkin puree over this mixture and stir everything together. If you have an immersion blender, give everything a gentle blend breaking down any residual clumps and smoothing out the texture even more. If you are using whole cinnamon sticks, add them to the blended mixture now. Cover the slow cooker and turn it on the low setting for about 8 hours. If you’re comfortable with your slow cooker’s low heat setting, just let it go all night long. If you’re not sure, it’s always a good idea to check in occasionally to make sure the mixture is not burning along the edges. You may want to stir everything a couple times during the cooking process to help prevent this.
As the cooking time approaches 8 hours, the pumpkin butter should be turning to a darker brown, caramel color. This is a good time for a taste test to check out the spice level and sweetness. Feel free to add more maple syrup or brown sugar (or any sugar) now. Same goes for any additional spiciness you may want to add. Simply stir in and let simmer a little longer. If there is too much liquid in the mixture at this point, let the slow cooker work longer with the lid off.
Step 5: Store in the refrigerator and freezer
When the pumpkin butter is ready, turn off the cooker and let it cool down a bit. Fill up some jars to keep in the fridge or pass along some refrigerated ones to friends. The rest can be stored in the freezer for months. A good way to freeze pumpkin butter is by filling up individual bags with about a jar’s worth in each one. This way you can use one at a time to refill your jar in the fridge or have a perfect portion to use in a different recipe.
In addition to spreading it on toast or a muffin, pumpkin butter works great in raviolis, cheesecakes, soups, sauces, lattes, bread, pizza, cookies and cocktails. My favorite way to use it is on a grilled cheese sandwich made with gruyere. Get creative and enjoy. Cheers.
Yum, right? Here's all those photos all formatted up for social media. Do use a favor and share it on Pinterest, please?
Tom O’Connor is a photographer with a primary interest in food, travel and lifestyle photography. You can view his work here. He recently moved from Brooklyn to Pittsburgh where he is busy navigating his way through the city’s excellent bars and vibrant food scene.