The smell in the house would last for days. It was warm, inviting, and made our house so cozy. Early on I needed her help with all aspects. I was too young to cook by myself, but she let me be part of every step. Each October, as the seasons change, I am flooded with early memories of making pumpkin bread with my mother, Martha. The mess we made; finally being allowed to hold the mixer by myself; waiting impatiently for the buzzer to go off on the stove; using a toothpick to see if it was ready; the eternity it took for the bread to cool; and then, finally, the much anticipated warm slice of heaven slathered with butter. This was, and is, Fall. Because of Martha, and her damn good pumpkin bread.
Growing up in New England, fall provided a background for countless memories of football games, an endless palette of colorful leaves, brisk walks on the beach with the dog, and comfort food. Still today, I look forward to this season more than any other. Ok, if you asked me in the dead of winter, I may say Spring or Summer…but I truly enjoy all that fall has to bring. My mother was not necessarily known for her cooking. She had her staples which she made with great consistency and nourished us well. However, I must give credit where credit is due. She made a damn good pumpkin bread. The smell this bread produces encapsulates you, warms you to your toes, and immediately makes you smile, while salivating. This can sometimes be messy. But you are not the first to happily drool, nor will you be the last.
During Thanksgiving and Christmas, pumpkin bread was always on the table. For breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack, dinner, or dessert; this pumpkin bread has no culinary rules. It receives all open armed at any time. I made pumpkin bread with my mother a lot growing up. Many times it was my duty while my brothers had to rake the leaves. Rarely it paid to be the youngest and a girl…this was a perk. I now cherish the index card on which her hand writing describes this recipe. It lives safely in a ziplock bag in my recipe box. I remember seeing her put the water in the can of pumpkin to get the last of the pumpkin out. I remember seeing her masterpieces all lined up wrapped in tinfoil adorned with red and green ribbon as yearly she would bring these gems to her coworkers or our teachers. Pumpkin bread was an important part of my childhood; like my gymnastics, Madonna, and Dirty Dancing.
When my mother passed away, I made it my mission to ensure that her pumpkin bread would continue. It was the one thing I had in my control over the first holidays we endured without her. I can’t say my versions of her bread have always been…well, edible. One year I didn’t have shortening; how was I supposed to know grocery stores were closed on Thanksgiving? Apple sauce did not cut it. Another year I didn’t exactly mix the batter well enough so my loaves were speckled with white flour zits. Not appealing. And of course there were the years I unintentionally made Cajun inspired pumpkin bread. I appreciate my family members who put a brave face on and ate these lackluster loaves. Chris, my dear brother, you do not fall in this category. I forgive you. Sort of.
But I must say, in the recent years, now that I have a kitchen with plenty of baking staples, my loaves have been rather consistently delicious. Last year I even made a cinnamon compound butter to accompany the bread. It was received well. I just made a few loaves today as my boyfriend has requested them to give to his clients over the holidays. It fills me with the sincerest of joy to think that my mother continues to put smiles on peoples’ faces when her daughter doesn’t screw up the recipe.
Food has the incredible ability to create, maintain, influence, and satiate nostalgia. I take refuge in the fact that my nephews, none of whom ever met their grandmother/grandaunt, eat this by the loaf load. Each year, I have an opportunity to give them a piece of her which warms my heart and brings me closer to the woman I lost too soon. One of whom, Sean, makes his own pumpkin bread now. I adore the fact that he will continue this tradition on. I know Martha does too.
Recipes are stories that tell traditions in a magical way. They create tangible evidence of those who may not be with us anymore; they give us a moment to reflect and savor our loved ones. If I were to ask my family members about this bread, all would have a story. It most likely wouldn’t be about the actual loaf, but it would most definitely transport them back to a moment in time with Martha. Now that’s some damn good pumpkin bread, Martha.
Martha’s Damn Good Pumpkin Bread
2 2⁄3 cups of sugar
2⁄3 cup of shortening
16 ounces of pumpkin puree
2⁄3 cup of water
3 1⁄3 cups of flour
1 1⁄2 tsp of salt
2 tsp of baking soda
1⁄2 tsp of baking powder
1 tsp of cinnamon
Preheat oven to 350 degrees and grease two 9x5x3 loaf pans. In the bowl of a stand mixer (or use a hand held mixer), combine shortening and sugar until it resembles coarse sand. Blend in eggs, one at a time, followed by pumpkin puree, and then water.
In a separate bowl, combine the rest of the ingredients well. Little by little, mix the dry ingredients into the wet ingredients, until fully mixed. Pour mixture evenly into loaf pans and bake for 45 minutes. Check and then cook longer as necessary, typically 60-70 minutes total depending upon oven.
Breads are done once an inserted toothpick emerges clean. When bread is ready, remove from oven and allow to cool to handle before transferring to a wire baking rack.
Enjoy with butter, cream cheese, mascarpone, peanut butter…or simply by itself. Because it’s that damn good.