PSL toothpaste? No thanks. Cronuts? Yes please!
Rylan Krause (Cook ’12) isn’t sure who, or what, to believe these days. Fall has arrived and, with it, a deluge of pumpkin spice. Like leaves blown into every corner and cranny, the flavour combination has infiltrated countless, and some of the weirdest, aspects of life and culture.
“When you look these things up, you can’t tell if it’s a parody or not,” says the executive chef of Ernest’s, NAIT’s fine-dining restaurant. As we talk, he Googles items like toothpaste and peanut butter. They check out. And so would lip balm, hummus and deodorant.
“I don’t know why you’d want to smell spicy on top of the smell of human, but maybe it works,” says Krause.
That reluctant openness comes of knowing that pumpkin spice, reviled by some, revered by others, is popular for good reason. The flavours perfectly fit the change of season. Typically a blend that includes cinnamon, nutmeg, clove and ginger, “it’s this deep, deep warmth,” says Krause.
Because of that, he adds, “it’s a unifier for people.” As we may lament the passing of summer, a pumpkin spice latte can be something to look forward to, the scent of it evoking thoughts of Thanksgiving, family, friends – a physical and emotional “warmth” during the switch to a starker season.
But do we really need our breath to be pumpkin-spicy fresh? With the tradition gone trendy, sometimes absurdly, we asked Krause, along with Odd Company brewer Brett Geislinger (Radio and Television – Radio '08) and Farrow head baker Amy Mancor (Baking '08), what it takes to make sure the spice stays nice.
Pair them well
As with most things, balance is key. Also as with most things, balance can be hard to achieve. Pumpkin spice should not be treated like thrown spaghetti, with consumers being the wall, and a hope that some of it sticks.
Krause recalls being recently tempted into trying a pumpkin spice coffee. The bitterness was not complementary. “It was revolting. [The coffee] pulled out the worst parts of all the flavours.” When you add cream and sugar, of course, “I totally get it. The fat and sweetness balance it out and bring out the softer notes.”
Pumpkin spice should not be treated like thrown spaghetti, with consumers being the wall.
More interestingly, says Krause, an Irish whisky or bourbon might also make sense for pumpkin spice. The sweetness of the spirits, says the chef, “could round it out.”
Leave it to experts
As a brewer who has honed his skills working in breweries in the U.K. and across Canada, Geislinger enjoys working with spices – chili and Thai basil being recent examples. He feels they help his beers stand out, and they do. He has a gold medal from the Alberta Beer Awards for an Odd Company mulled wine sour, made with wine must and spices including cinnamon, anise and nutmeg.
With any spiced beer, says Geislinger, including pumpkin seasonals released at this time of year, “the challenge is getting the spice level right. There’s a level at which you can’t perceive them, or they’re barely there and it doesn’t taste like what you want it to. But then there’s this pretty quick flip to where you’ve gone too far.
“With pumpkin spice especially, it needs to be strong and flavourful, but there’s a line where you feel like it’s not really a beer anymore.”
"There’s a line where you feel like it’s not really a beer anymore."
Odd Company isn’t considering a pumpkin spice brew of its own, opting instead to investigate the possibility of a beer hybrid with an Edmonton-based cidery. For Geislinger, apple is another flavour that connects to the changing seasons. While he won’t rule out a pumpkin brew entirely, he’s happy for now to leave the job to local pioneers.
“If I wanted a pumpkin spice beer I would probably go buy Alley Kat’s Pumpkin Pie,” says Geislinger. “They’ve figured it out. They’ve been doing it for what feels like forever.”
Give the people what they want, but better
Over at the Farrow bakery, Mancor sees no harm in indulging in the yearly trend. While the spices can warm the palate, she believes they can also warm the heart.
“I think a lot of the appeal for people is nostalgia,” she says. “They’ve been having pumpkin pie all of their life.”
Mancor is responsible for making hundreds of doughnuts, wildly popular cronuts (“a baby between a doughnut and a croissant,” she explains) and cookies each week for all three Farrow locations. For the past two falls, she’s included a pumpkin caramel cronut to feed customers’ needs to eat their way down memory lane.
“I know that everyone wants something pumpkin, so I figured I would throw it into my most popular pastry.”
Mancor is overly casual in her reference to a treat that qualifies as one of the best pastries this writer, for whom dessert is a high point of the day, has ever eaten. The flakiness of the pastry is a welcome stand-in for pie crust, and the cheesecake-like filling is a thoughtful exercise in restraint, its spices subtle but savoury. The caramel is, literally, the icing on the cronut.
“I don’t mind being another ‘pumpkin spiced latte’ thing,” says Mancor. “A lot of people, I feel, if I didn't have a pumpkin-spiced something, would be like, ‘Where’s your pumpkin thing? It’s October? It’s the season. Where is it?!’
“I didn’t want to leave people disappointed.”
Let the tradition take its course
Krause won’t be having another pumpkin spice coffee, but won’t forego the flavours entirely, either. And Geislinger won’t be soon adding to the available offerings of gourd-flavoured beer. Mancor plans to rein in her own culinary contribution to the season by early November. That kind of artisanal thinking helps to keep the tradition/trend, all peanut butter and toothpaste aside, special. And in check.
“I don’t know if there’s anybody out there crushing pint after pint of pumpkin spice,” says Geislinger. “But I think a nice spiced beer – especially right now: it’s a nice fall day, you have a spiced beer on the patio – goes really well with the season.”
The season will pass, and give way to one that will require more warmth, maybe from sharp peppermint and strong rum. But pumpkin spice, in some forms at least, may have made the transition easier to swallow.
The season will pass, and give way to one that will require more warmth. Pumpkin spice may have made the transition easier to swallow.
“I can completely understand the argument that pumpkin spice is just mass commercialization and the bastardization of an idea,” says Krause. “I can hold that idea and understand that it exists, but also try to spin it into a positive light. What are the nice things about it?
“I don’t want to live in a world that’s always negative. That’s a little too easy, especially right now.”
The proliferation of pumpkin spice is not ruining a tradition or our tastebuds or, for that matter, “the world,” Krause adds. “If anything, it’s just a punchline.”
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