A couple of weeks ago, I was flipping through Baked Explorations and I came across a recipe for Pumpkin Cheddar Muffins. There was no picture accompanying the recipe, but the headnote drew me in with shout outs to every great thing about fall: crackling fires, leaf peeping, pumpkin recipes, and cheddar cheese. (I’m still not sure why cheddar is on that list, but I find myself agreeing that it’s autumnal. The color, perhaps?). The muffin recipe itself was very unusual. Cheddar and a good dose of spice made it savory and the pumpkin and dark brown sugar made it sweet. As eager as I was to pull out my mixing bowls and make a fall treat, I thought maybe this was too weird. On the one hand, of course it’s not, because as Jessica reminded us earlier this week, squash and cheese are meant to be. But together in a baked good? It’s weird, right?
Jessica and I texted about these muffins when I was still contemplating whether they’d be a good bet. I told her I hadn’t been able to stop thinking about them and she said, “Doooooo it! Sounds so weird/possibly delish!” And that was my thought, exactly.
They came together easily. The batter was a bit thicker than most other muffins I’ve made, so I used extra caution not to overmix it. While baking, they smelled like absolute joy: melty cheese, spice, sugary pumpkin. I waited just shy of the minimum cooling time before ripping into one. Delicious. Not weird. I want to use words that have nothing to do with food to describe them: compelling, intriguing, engaging. I am not talking about some lazy-flavored muffins that are content to rest on their dainty vanilla-scented crumb. These bad boys are loud and hot, but they have a tender side that makes you want to get to know them better. They are more interesting than other savory breads because of the pumpkin. I’ve spent a good amount of time smacking my lips trying to find words that describe what the pumpkin is up to in this muffin. Together with the brown sugar, it comes close to bringing in a caramel flavor, but it’s not *too* sweet. The rough-cracked black pepper and cayenne give every bite a spicy jab, the cheddar mellows things out, and the pumpkin gives the whole thing sweet, earthy depth.
The muffins are moist and soft with a nice chewiness. I enjoyed eating these for breakfast and snack, but they are probably best as dinner rolls. They would be perfect for a fall brunch or tailgating. Ed happened upon the genius combination of these muffins and the chili of Ms. Betty Phillips. He also commented that the spicy-sweet flavors are made for pairing with bar-b-que. I agree.
The spice is important, so if you can coarsely crack the black pepper, it will be worth the extra effort. I used my mortar and pestle, but you could smash some peppercorns with the back of a skillet for a similar effect. I was torn on whether to add the pepitas as a topping, so I did half and half. Both are good, but the double toasted crunch of the pepitas adds a welcome textural contrast and even more delicious flavor.
One caveat about these muffins: they are best the day they are baked and are not as good at room temperature as they age. Warming up is a necessity after day one (unless you plan to crumble them into chili, then no need to reheat). I microwave them for 15-20 seconds and they are as good as new. If you want to warm up a bunch, the Baked authors suggest reheating in a 200-degree oven. They freeze perfectly.
pumpkin cheddar muffins
adapted from Baked Explorations, by Matt Lewis and Renato Poliafito.
Makes 12 muffins
1 cup canned solid-pack pumpkin puree
3 tbsp sour cream (room temperature)
2 large eggs (room temperature)
1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter, melted and cooled to room temp.
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 1/2 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
1 1/2 tsp salt
1 1/2 tsp freshly, coarsely ground black pepper
1/2 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
1 1/4 cups (4 ounces) grated extra sharp cheddar cheese
2 tbsp pumpkin seeds (pepitas), optional
- Toast the pepitas in a single layer in a skillet over medium heat for 4-5 minutes, until they start to pop and become fragrant. Remove pepitas from pan immediately to stop them from burning. Set aside.
- Preheat oven to 400° F. Liberally spray a muffin pan with cooking oil, making sure to coat the cups and flat surface of the pan.
- In a large bowl, whisk together the dry ingredients: flour, baking powder, cayenne, salt, black pepper, and brown sugar.
- In another bowl, whisk together the pumpkin and sour cream until well blended. Whisk in the eggs and butter until combined.
- Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and gently pour in the pumpkin mixture. Fold together gently until combined and you no longer see streaks of white flour. The mixture will be thick, but don’t work it too much or it might result in a tough muffin. Fold in about 3/4ths of the cheese. Again, be gentle.
- Scoop the batter into the prepared muffin pan. Sprinkle the tops with the remaining cheese and top with the toasted pepitas.
- Bake for about 20 minutes. Start checking at 15 minutes, especially if your oven runs hot. The muffins are done when a toothpick comes out clean or with a couple of moist crumbs.
- Let muffins cool in the pan on a rack for 10 minutes, then turn them out to continue cooling on a rack. Best served warm.