It's the End of the Great Pumpkin Shortage, Charlie Brown: Pumpkin Plus Bars

Those of you who are not bakers may have been blissfully unaware, but this country has been suffering a terrible canned pumpkin shortage. I have not made any pumpkin baked goods since the beginning of the year because Libby's canned pumpkin -- the gold standard for baking -- has been completely unavailable due to a bad harvest. (You can read more about the problem in this Washington Post article.) I have been clinging to three cans I had leftover from last year, saving them for a pumpkin emergency (like Thanksgiving). But then lo and behold -- two weeks ago I was in Harris Teeter and I saw Libby's back on the shelf! The great pumpkin shortage is over! Now with my canned pumpkin supplies back at comfortable levels (I was able to buy eight additional cans), I can not only return to baking with pumpkin, but I can even spare enough to risk trying out some new pumpkin recipes!

So in this spirit, I decided to try the recipe for Pumpkin Plus Bars from the Fat Witch Brownie cookbook. Let me begin by saying that I may have spoken too soon when I recently decided to give this cookbook another chance. I'm starting to think that this book needs to be permanently benched, because there were multiple aspects of this recipe that were fairly annoying.

This bar contains a layer of pumpkin on top of a layer of chocolate. You mix the chocolate batter (melter butter and bittersweet chocolate chips, sugar, eggs, vanilla, flour, salt, semisweet chocolate chips) and pour it into a pan. Then you mix up the pumpkin batter (butter, sugar, eggs, vanilla, canned pumpkin, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves), pour the pumpkin mixture over the chocolate layer, and bake.

So let me note a few things that are wrong with this recipe.

First, the recipe calls for bittersweet chocolate chips, and your average home baker is not going to be able to find bittersweet (as opposed to semisweet) chips at the neighborhood grocery store. While FDA regulations define semisweet and bittersweet chocolate as equivalent (chocolate with at least 35% chocolate liquor, see 21 CFR 163.123), I'm assuming that the cookbook is using the term "bittersweet" as it is commonly understood -- chocolate containing at least 50% chocolate liquor. After all, this recipe calls for both bittersweet and semisweet chips, so the author must think there is a distinction between the two.

A second related problem is that none of the recipes in the book provide weight alternatives for the chocolate measurements -- they are all given as volume measurements for chips. This is really irritating. I chopped up a bittersweet chocolate bar to use in place of the bittersweet chips, and it would have been a lot easier if I just knew how many ounces of chocolate to weigh out.

Third -- and most egregious -- there is no way to evenly spread the pumpkin batter on top of the chocolate batter. The pumpkin batter is quite thick and completely unpourable. I tried to gently spread the pumpkin into an even layer with an offset spatula, but I could see that the thinner chocolate layer underneath was being pushed into undulating waves, even poking up through the pumpkin layer at some points. Normally, I would have expected that the brownie layer would need to be at least partially baked before adding on the pumpkin layer. I was convinced that there must have been an error in the recipe omitting a direction to pre-bake the chocolate layer; I searched the internet and the cookbook publisher's website for an errata sheet to see if the chocolate layer was supposed to be baked alone first to form a firm crust for the pumpkin layer. I couldn't find anything except a review of the cookbook noting the exact same problem with this recipe.

The line of demarcation between the chocolate and pumpkin layers ended up being a wildly haphazard squiggle throughout the bars; there were also some unwanted air pockets. You can see both of these problems in the photo above. The chocolate layer was excessively fudgy and slightly undercooked; I think that the chocolate layer really does require more baking time than the pumpkin layer. The pumpkin layer was dense and borderline rubbery. The texture was unusual and unlike any pumpkin cake I've ever had before, although the spice flavor was comfortably familiar. I think the superdense brownie layer competed with and eclipsed the pumpkin portion of the bar instead of complementing it.

While I did receive some positive comments about these bars, I feel that the flavors are quite unbalanced, and the bars do not allow the pumpkin to shine. Also, the difficulty in spreading out the pumpkin on top of the chocolate before baking just makes these "Pumpkin Plus Aggravation Bars." At least I still have ten cans of pumpkin on hand, so I'm not too sore about having expended one on this recipe.

Recipe: Pumpkin Plus Bars from Fat Witch Brownies: Brownies, Blondies and Bars from New York's Legendary Fat Witch Bakery, by Patricia Healding.


Tyler Hewitt said…
That recipe sounds good, too bad it didn't work out.

I've never had a problem finding canned pumpkin in Chicago, and thought the shortage was overstated. I buy Trader Joe's organic pumpkin, which is the best tasting canned pumpkin I've used.
Ah yes, I should have mentioned -- the shortage was limited to Libby's. There was always plenty of canned organic pumpkin available. But for those of us used to Libby's, it's just not the same!
Anonymous said…
I have found organic pumpkin to be a bit more watery than the Libby's. I like the idea of organic but I use Libby's because it is reliable and what I am familiar with!
Louise said…
This sounds like you were trying to spread the equivalent of peanut butter on top of jelly. Maybe the recipe should have you put half the chocolate, then the pumpkin, then the rest of the chocolate. I'm sorry for the problem, but it sounds like I don't need this cookbook. I already own 600 cookbooks, so that's not a bad thing. And I'm glad the canned pumpkin shortage has ended. Libby's is all over our stores. :-) I still remember the great fresh cranberry shortage and stock up as soon as I see them.