By Mary Ann Ebner
For all its warmth, silky smashed pumpkin, mildly spiced and tucked into a flaky crust, might as well be classified as a health food.
No matter how plentiful the turkey and Brussels sprouts, there’s always room for a velvety slice topped with whipped cream or served a la mode. Few Thanksgiving hosts challenge the pastry’s status as a given for holiday spreads, which is how the traditional pie will manage to keep its place on our table this year, even as we break from family custom and add another dessert — pumpkin cranberry bars.
Combining pumpkin with cranberries brightens any dish with splashes of crimson. Sweetened dried cranberries offer convenience, but they don’t do a baked good justice. A baking occasion calls for the fresh plump sort, the kind that make baked goods pop with color along with bits and pieces of tarty-sweet fruit and skin.
Pick up fresh cranberries just about everywhere this time of year, packaged in small bags at many local markets, including Foodtown. Organic cranberries are also available locally, and Beacon Natural Market carries them in the fresh produce and freezer sections. If you’re cooking for one or two, a bag of berries goes a long way, but if you’re feeding the neighborhood, stock a supply to last the rest of the year. For those with a true cranberry crush … Beacon Natural Market is offering their own fresh organic cranberry sauce spiked with orange and a medley of spices.
To modify my own holiday menu, I’ve adapted a pumpkin bar recipe with the fresh berries and chia seeds. When I set out to include the seeds, I didn’t intend to create a superfood to overshadow the pie. I unexpectedly found myself with a supply of raw seeds on the doorstep — in a box from Amazon. One of my kids received a birthday gift from family friends and when the gift-giver closed out his online shopping cart, the gift and a 2-pound bag of chia seeds were on the way to our address. Once discovered, there was no chance of redirecting the seeds to their rightful recipient, a master when it comes to blending morning smoothies with yogurt, fruit and chia seeds.
Beacon Natural Market carries a selection of chia products ranging from vacuum-packed seeds to miniature single-serving packets in seed and ground form. Kitty Sherpa, market co-owner with her husband LT Sherpa, said the store stocks many brands and quantities of the tiny chia seeds, which according to the Mayo Clinic, date back to ancient Mayan and Aztec civilizations as a dietary staple.
“The health benefits of chia have become popular over the last 10 years,” Kitty Sherpa said. “It’s high in protein and fiber and provides omega-3 fatty acids. It’s also high in antioxidants and a good source of calcium, magnesium and copper.”
With their healthy reputation, I couldn’t bear to let the seeds age on the kitchen counter, and they’ve been making their way into brownies and biscuits. When chia seeds sit in liquid for a short time, the combination thickens and takes on a gelatinous form that folds into batters just as naturally as eggs, with a much lower dose of fat and cholesterol.
“With chia coming into prominence,” Kitty Sherpa said, “for things like baking, as an egg replacer, it’s a great way to use it. And it has such a mild flavor that it’s almost a hidden ingredient.”
It may take more time for chia seeds to land on the average shopping list and pumpkin bars could never replace pumpkin pie, but cranberries — packed with their own nutritional benefits — remind us to count our blessings, sweet and savory.
Cranberry Pumpkin Chia Bars
Yield: 3 dozen bars
1 ¾ cups flour
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon salt
1 ½ cups mashed pumpkin (use sweet sugar pie pumpkins or canned pumpkin)
½ cup canola oil
¼ cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
*2 tablespoons chia seeds
*½ cup water
3 cups fresh cranberries, rinsed and dried
½ cup butterscotch chips
Choose a 3- to 4-pound sugar pie pumpkin. Cut pumpkin in half and remove seeds (save seeds for roasting). Place split pumpkin on baking sheet and bake at 350 degrees for 45 minutes. Cool. Scoop out pumpkin and mash or puree.
In a small bowl, add water to chia seeds. Let stand 10 minutes and stir. Seeds and water will take on a gelatinous consistency. In a large bowl, mix flour, sugar, baking soda and salt. In another bowl, combine chia seed mixture, pumpkin, oil, buttermilk and vanilla. Add to flour mixture, stirring just until moistened. Fold in fresh cranberries and butterscotch chips. Pour into a greased jelly roll baking pan or cookie sheet. Bake at 350 degrees for 30 minutes or until the surface bounces back from touch. Cool completely and cut into single-serving bars.
*In place of chia seeds and water, substitute two beaten eggs.
Photos by M.A. Ebner