When Eleni and I were little, we liked the leaves.
All kids like the leaves, I guess, but for two mildly obsessive-compulsive sorts, as sisters come, I find it funny now. That mom and dad would haul rakes to Jackson Park, and we’d rake and rake and rake and jump with abandon into the great piles of leaves (piles taller than us) – and heaven knows what else. We’d keep going, jumping and re-heaping and squealing for Baba to rake faster, to maximize our dwindling minutes. My mom would have her big black camcorder stuck to her eyeball documenting each leap. We’d do this a couple times in the season. Fall brought nothing nicer than the raking and the jumping on repeat.
There’s something about the smell of fallen leaves, right? All that rot and acridity and dampness, but in the nicest way imaginable. And then laying flat, placid for a moment, staring at the sky and its clear grey cast that makes everything prettier, more saturated, incredibly fall-like. Atop my crunchy-soft bed, and I’d tuck away the prettiest unblemished crimson leaves to take home (which, looking on my desk at the neat stack of drying maple leaves, I still do).
Inevitably, little hands became cold, and we’d trudge home weary and wasted and hair full of leaf-crumbs. Sometimes (most of the time) mom would have a thermos of hot chocolate for the walk. I suspect this is what began my affinity for cocoa-based drinks, that sweet-but-not-too-sweet sludge down my throat that tasted so good straight from the slender container.
In my twenty-three years, I’ve seen many hot chocolates. The Carnation variety in packets with little dehydrated marshmallows that melt into the hot liquid; chocolate syrup stirred into warm whole milk; my Papou’s ascetic version – just a spoonful of the best raw cacao in boiled water; and demitasses of drinking chocolate made of melted bars and heavy cream.
But there’s one recipe that I keep around, the kind I sip from a big white mug in the window as the wind blusters the leaves, and take in sitting on a bench in the dog park, something with enough sass and panache that friends declare it the best hot cocoa they’ve ever had. It’s a riff on those thermoses of cocoa and walks home from the park, reminds me of times sprawled in the leaves with my sister.
Childhood as I know it: bundling up and building paper mountains and diving into them without reservation. Knowing there’s someone to carry me home, and someone else to bring warmth and a little sweetness on the way.
(makes one big mug)
This takes just a few moments to stir in a mug, but for a really special frothy version, give the mixture a whirl in the blender for about 30 seconds, taking care to let the steam escape.
2Tbsp your best cocoa (see this post for favourites)
1Tbsp brown sugar
2Tbsp plus 1c boiling water
1/4c your favourite milk, warmed (I use almond milk)
wee pinch cayenne pepper (optional)
In a warm mug, stir together well the cocoa, sugar, cayenne and 2Tbsp of water to make a paste. Slowly add the hot water, then top off with warmed milk. Put on mittens and a sturdy coat and meander through these last days of fall, cocoa in hand.
The air is brisk. Pumpkins start to arrive on grocery shelves and in market stalls. I pull tweed and sweaters from storage, at last. Everything is to love about fall. It’s dismal and rainy, yes – and the hours of sunshine through chilled air are few at best. But maybe it’s the student in me that sees autumn as a fresh slate, purging summer heat to make way for snow and new memories.
I’ve been thinking about transition a lot lately. Seasons encapsulate transition, I think. As much as I get dreamy-eyed about year-long sunshine or living somewhere more temperate, I need the seasons, so reliably ephemeral: summers marked by icy watermelon, fall’s cider, cocoa and chestnuts with the snow, and spring’s first asparagus.
Each season with its new bounty, some small cause for joy.
Come fall, I’m smitten for squash. It’s such a comforting, warming food and I love its versatility. Sweet or savoury, in a soup, roasted, stirred into oatmeal – it’s comforting and tastes like the season. And there’s something pleasantly humble about squashes: knobbly and imperfect, economical, best prepared simply.
When we recently gathered to celebrate my dear friend and a soon-to-be bride, I knew I’d bring something squash-filled along. And with Thanksgiving next weekend, pumpkin is everywhere. Tiny roasting ones, even tinier ones to display, and whole shelves lined with the pureed kind in cans … some tucked into my cart to share.
A botched streetcar ride, torrential downpour, subway interchange and short walk later, my pumpkin spice pastries arrived to the party miraculously intact, if a few minutes late. Imagine pumpkin pie rolled into a neat bundle of phyllo pastry: slightly spiced, crinkly under tooth, just sweet from brown sugar.
A dessert, I’d say, fit for transition.
Pumpkin spice pastries
(makes 10 large pieces)
A note on phyllo
Phyllo is one of those falsely intimidating doughs. But it’s actually very simple to work with. A few tips for using it successfully:
1) Cover it well with a damp dish towel as you work. This keeps it pliant and prevents cracking.
2) It’s forgiving! My Yia-Yia taught me how easy it is to patch pieces together and just keep folding. Once it’s baked, no one is the wiser that dough surgery was performed.
3) Brush the pastry with enough fat, be it butter or a neutral oil. This keeps it supple and flaky as it bakes.
A note on canned pumpkin
Don’t feel you have to laboriously roast, peel and puree pumpkin for a good filling. Pumpkins are sometimes unreliable with bitter flesh. Canned is usually good quality (I like E.D. Smith or Whole Foods’ 365 house brand). Look for 100% pureed pumpkin, and not varieties that have been mixed with other squash, and don’t mistake pure pumpkin for pre-sweetened pie filling.
2c pureed pumpkin
3/4c brown sugar
<2tsp pumpkin pie spice (mine is a combination of ground clove, ginger cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice)
1/4tsp fine sea salt
2 eggs, beaten
10 pieces phyllo pastry
1/4c melted butter (salted is okay)
additional cinnamon and brown sugar to sprinkle
1 cookie sheet, parchment paper, pastry brush
Preheat oven to 375 degrees F. Line a cookie sheet with parchment paper.
In a bowl, combine pumpkin, brown sugar, spices and salt. Gently incorporate the eggs. Cover and chill in fridge while you prepare your workstation for folding.
Melt the butter over low heat. Ensure your work-surface is very clean. Remove the phyllo from its packaging and unfold, covering with a damp dish towel. In a line, set the butter, pastry brush, cinnamon and a small bowl of brown sugar.
Remove the pumpkin mixture from the fridge. It will seem runny, but not to worry – it will set up nicely to a custard-like consistency once baked.
Brush one sheet of phyllo with butter and sprinkle lightly with cinnamon and brown sugar. Fold the sheet in half lengthwise. Dollop about 2Tbsp of filling at the bottom centre. Fold in the sides lengthwise and loosely roll the package upward until you have a cylinder, as you would with a cabbage roll or stuffed grape leaf. Place the pastry on cookie sheet. Repeat for remaining sheets of phyllo.
Before baking, brush pastries with butter and sprinkle with more cinnamon. Bake in a preheated oven for approx. 20-25 minutes, or until the pastry is puffed and golden. Serve warm or at room temperature.