Thursday, November 28, 2013

One Thing for Which We're Thankful: Squash Butter

We don't panic often here at the Lab, but last week we had an event that nearly warranted such behavior.  Reaching into the pantry for a new jar of jam, we realized that we were only two jars away from being completely out of homemade jam!  Such an event has not occurred since, well, ever, as far as we can remember.  A lack of homemade jam is a serious situation around here, because it means that Jake, being a strict PBJ-ivore for lunch, would be down to two meals a day until it's fixed.

Fortuantely, we stocked up on various flavors of squash and pumpkins earlier this fall.  That fact alone kept us from launching into full-blown panic.  Calm and collectedly, the following conversation ensued:

Jake: We should make pumpkin butter!

Katie: But we've only got two pumpkins, and I was going to stuff those for supper some night soon.  If you make pumpkin butter, we won't be able to eat them for supper!

Jake: But! But! But this is serious!  We're almost out of jam! (contemplative look, followed by light bulb appearing over head) Hey!  I wonder if we could make squash butter instead!

Katie: Yeah!  We have lots of squashes! Let's try that!

(lots of googling)

Jake: Yes!  Let's do that!  Let's start baking the squashes! (opens oven) You're making biscotti again?

Katie: Yeah, since you ate all of the last batch already.

Jake: Fair enough.  I guess we'll have to get creative!

20 minutes of research turned up four recipes we liked (specifically here, here, here, and here), so we took our favorite elements from each and, well, squashed them together.

Here's all the ingredients we used: two butternut squashes, 2-3 lbs each, about a teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves, a half-teaspoon each of ground allspice, and nutmeg, 1 cup brown sugar, half cup maple syrup, butter and fruit.  Various recipes call for adding apple juice or citrus juice to increase the acidity; we didn't have the juice on-hand, but we had the real fruit!  Also, we didn't use the whole stick of butter--just two tablespoons.
We started by slicing the squashes in half and cleaning out the seeds.  Don't throw those seeds in the compost!  Put 'em in a bowl or something for the time being.  Man, those squashes are orange.  They must have been free-range.
Since the oven is occupied and we're short on time, we peeled the squash raw.  First we cut it into pieces along the contours to make the skinning easier--like a watermelon!
Everything goes into the crock pot, along with half a cup of water.  (Peel the orange and core the apples first.)  We'll mash it down in a minute (once we set the camera down), then let it cook on high for about 12 hours, or whenever we get to it tomorrow.
Time to roast the seeds!  The best way we've found of cleaning them off is to put them in a screened colander thing under a stream of running water, like so.  With our other hand, as long as it's not holding a camera, we swish the seeds around and rub them along the sides, which dislodges the most of the squash boogers from the seeds (you can call them something else if you like).  The smaller bits of squash rinse through, and the bigger ones we just pick out (heh).
Then we put them on a cookie sheet (or some other kind of flat plate thing if Katie has filled all the cookie sheets with biscotti), sprinkle with salt, and bake at 300 °F for 20-30 min.  We used to do it at 400 °F, but a lot of the seeds would explode like popcorn.  That doesn't seem to happen as much at 300 °F.
When the squash and everything else got tender, we hit it with a stick blender and puree everything.  We also added a tablespoon or so of vanilla extract.  If necessary, we'd adjust the seasonings and add water to get the desired consistency, then pour into hot sterilized jars, wipe the rim, and seal with a lid per the manufacturer's instructions.  When we've canned pumpkin butter in the past, we've used the inversion method, which evidently is not recommended these days. (A boiling water bath is preferred instead).  So, given that we won't be able to heat it up to the botulism-killing temperature anyway (see next paragraph), a boiling water bath for 16 minutes it is!

 Home canning of pumpkin/squash butter is actually not recommended at all because the high viscosity (which in this case accompanies a low heat transfer coefficient) makes it very difficult to get the center of the jars up to the 240 °F needed to kill botulism spores. At normal canning temperatures/pressures, the process is limited by heat transfer through the pumpkin.  Any engineer will tell you that if you keep the pressure canner, which completely surrounds the jars, above 240 °F long enough, the whole jar will eventually get to the required temp.  But it might take a really long time.  Keeping the canner at a higher temperature can speed things up, but the consistency and flavor of the pumpkin/squash butter might change as the stuff closer to the outside of the jar reaches a higher temperature and starts to break down. We don't know for sure how much things would change (we've never tried it), but hey, maybe we'll do an experiment sometime.  In any case, to keep botulism from growing (if it's present), the jar's contents must be below 38 °F (i.e., in a cold fridge or freezer), above 122 °F (i.e., hotter than we'd ever want to store it) or below pH 4.6*.  The acid in the apple and citrus juice in many recipes helps with regards to the pH, but apparently the natural acidity of squash/pumpkins varies too much for the authorities to be able to make a solid recommendation on how much acid to add to a batch.
We optimistically sterilized twelve half-pint jars...
...only to find out that our recipe only makes seven.  Oh well. That should keep us in the sandwiches for at least three months, at which point...well...we'll cross that bridge when we come to it.  Just like Congress!
The finished squash butter.  Sure looks good!
Now if only we had a way to test the pH of a representative sample...yikes! The pH is 5.4!  Looks like we'll be storing this batch in the fridge. (The pH might actually be lower than that since we had to dilute the leftover squash butter with water (at pH > 6) to fill the jar, but first!)
The final test: does it make a good sandwich with peanut butter?  Happily, yes.  We were a full three bites in before we remembered to take a picture.  Coincidentally, it's also good on biscotti.  Fun fact: if you don't wait for the squash butter to fully cool before making a sandwich with it, it will melt the peanut butter and ooze out onto the plate.  In any case, squash butter passes the sandwich test with flying colors.  Crisis averted.

*Note that even if the bulk pH is in the correct range, any bacteria, mold, or yeast that may have survived our sterilization procedure (cleaning with soap and water, then boiling in the canner) can alter a small part of the pumpkin/squash butter right around them (i.e., their microenvironment) in a way that increases the pH to a level that botulism can grow.  To be completely safe, store the stuff in the fridge or freezer.  For us, if this batch would have been below pH 4.6, we'd be taking a calculated risk by storing it in the pantry at room temp.  Good sanitation + low pH + low risk of botulism to begin with = very very low risk of getting botulism.  However, if it happens sometime in the future, we'll have our next-of-kin update this post.

Also, Happy Thanksgiving Everyone!

EDIT: Can't believe we forgot to put the recipe at the bottom!  Here it is...

Two butternut squashes, 2-3 lbs each
1 teaspoon each of cinnamon, ginger, and ground cloves
0.5 teaspoons ground allspice, and nutmeg
1 cup brown sugar
0.5 cup maple syrup
2 Tablespoons butter
2 Granny smith apples
1 medium orange

Skin the squashes, peel the oranges, and core the apple.  Save the squash seeds for later.  Add the good parts, along with everything else, to a 4-quart or larger crock pot, put the lid on, and cook on high for 12 h or so, until the squash is very soft.  Blend with stick blender, regular blender, or if ambitions and energy are running high, an old-fashioned egg beater.  Can in a boiling water bath for 11 minutes, plus 1 min for every 1000 feet of altitude above sea level.  Don't count on the canning process guaranteeing the squash butter's safety (see the note in the post above)--store the jars below 38 °F to be completely safe.

Clean the seeds and spread them out on a cookie sheet, pie plate, or some other oven-safe dish.  Sprinkle lightly with salt and bake at 300 °F for 20-30 min until lightly browned.

Have you made pumpkin or squash butter before?  What's your favorite recipe?  Let us know in the comments section below!

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