I heard that Merriam-Webster recently added “pumpkin spice” as a new term in the dictionary.
It’s not surprising. The rally cry — and answer — for pumpkin spice lattes and more comes earlier and earlier every year. It began this past summer, in early August. Hold up, I said. What makes autumn (and its flavors) special is that it doesn’t start until later in September, when it’s supposed to, and its falling-leaf period is brief and magical. It cannot be summoned two months early with a beverage laden with cinnamon, cloves, ginger and nutmeg.
Or can it? The premature calling up of fall is exactly what the pumpkin spice latte represents. And it’s understandable how, after many days of inferno-level heat, one’s sweaty delirium inspires longing for a drink that symbolizes days cold enough for sweaters and warm socks, of colorful trees and sipping something warm and warming to take off the autumn chill.
Still, August might be a wee bit early.
By October, while so much pumpkin spice saturation (in everything from English muffins to breakfast cereal) sometimes wards me away from it altogether, I’ve recently decided to embrace the spice blend that heralds the season.
Facing it, head-on, I even made my own pumpkin (pie) spice. I already had everything I needed in my own pantry. Try this combination: 2 Tbsp. cinnamon, 1 1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg, 1 1/2 tsp. ground ginger, 1 tsp. ground cloves. Mix the spices together and keep in a lidded jar (this would be enough for at least a few pumpkin pies.)
While the homemade pumpkin spice can be used for pies, cookies, cakes and breads, you can also try it out by making your own pumpkin spice latte (yes, you can!). Making one at home is a win since it’s not always practical or economical to make the trip to a coffee joint or drive-thru to buy these so-called “frou-frou drinks.” Plus, you have control over the levels of sweet, dairy, fat and spice, and even the caffeine.
What is a latte, exactly? In the book “Coffee: A Guide to Buying, Brewing and Enjoying” by Kenneth Davids (101 Productions; 1976), a “Caffe Latte” is described as one or two shots of espresso (a shot being somewhere between 1 and 2 ounces) and three times as much foamed milk.
This season, I made my own test-run of a homemade pumpkin spice latte using homemade pumpkin spice. I don’t have an espresso machine or cappuccino maker or milk steamer, but it can be done without. In a matter of moments, I blended pumpkin puree (who knew there was actual pumpkin in a pumpkin spice latte?), milk, sweetener and spices and then warmed the mixture in the microwave. These were whisked until foamy and added to a cup with a small amount of strong, hot coffee and topped with whipped cream and a sprinkling of more spice — voila! I became a pumpkin spice barista! Sort of. The result was a nicely spiced, softly sweet and creamy nod to fall (see recipe on these pages).
But pumpkin spice isn’t the only way to attain a fall cozy coffeehouse vibe at home. One of my favorite “sweater weather” beverages has always been a mocha — a little bit coffee and a little bit cocoa, or, according to Davids’ book, a mocha is one-third espresso, one-third strong, unsweetened hot chocolate and one-third steamed milk. Add to that some cinnamon and a topping of whipped cream, and you have an irresistible coffeehouse classic, served in your favorite mug.
To me, though, the ultimate (and top choice) for a warm fall beverage is cider, as in hot spiced apple cider (cider being the cloudy, unfiltered, unpasteurized drink found more prevalently in the fall season). The combination of tart and sweet apple cider with a range of spices speaks to the soul of autumn, and in my mind, puts pumpkin spice in the shade. In a pinch and craving cider, I’ve relented and made those spiced ciders from dry mix in a packet, but my favorite way to enjoy hot cider is to mull the real deal with an infusion of spices: cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg. I’ve added lemon and orange juice, too, to brighten up the flavors. And then I simmer it slowly to draw out the anticipation. Because longing for fall — and all of its sip-able flavors — may be what it’s all about.