I know some of you may be confused by the idea of this pumpkin bread. The phrase "pumpkin bread" itself suggests a cousin of banana bread, some quick-bread in the style of pumpkin muffins or scones. But this? This here is clearly a yeast-raised sandwich loaf, without any nuts or spices in sight.
We may be primed to expect our pumpkin-flavored foods to be sweet, or outright savory, but let's get real for a second: Pumpkin doesn't taste like a whole lot. Whether in a latte or pie, our concept of pumpkin flavor revolves almost entirely around added sugar and spice.
Without those things, pumpkin purée functions much like water when used to make a classic sandwich loaf. Sure, the color's great and it adds a nominal dose of vitamin A and fiber, but the pumpkin doesn't do much in the flavor department except add a hint of earthiness to the bread. So what's the point of using it at all?
Aside from the joy of embracing seasonal ingredients, pumpkin's subtle complexity is exactly what's needed in a fast-rising sandwich loaf, one that doesn't undergo the sort of slow fermentation required to develop a more nuanced flavor of its own. That means you can make a loaf of really delicious bread in five hours from start to finish, without babysitting a starter or waiting on some 36-hour rise. It doesn't taste pumpkin-y, per se, but it certainly doesn't taste like a ho-hum loaf of bread. It's got character.
The loaf bakes up fluffy and light with a relatively fine crumb, making it soft and tender enough to enjoy in thick slabs with butter and jam (or griddled up as French toast), but it has enough structure to slice thinly for sandwiches, whether for PB&Js or a grilled cheese. (And, let me just say, it makes a phenomenal grilled cheese.)
From a technical perspective, the recipe looks a lot like any other sandwich loaf: flour, water, salt, and yeast, plus a little fat and sugar. With pumpkin purée in place of water, butter (or roasted pumpkin seed oil) instead of a neutral fat, and maple syrup to replace white sugar.
It's way less fat than you'd see with an enriched dough like challah or brioche, just enough to lend a bit of softness to the crumb. Butter is an easy option that can also help improve flavor and browning, while roasted pumpkin seed oil is a delicious (and vegan-friendly) way add a bit of nuttiness while playing up the pumpkin theme.
The recipe may include a bit of maple syrup, but this bread is by no means sweet. Maple syrup is some 33% water, so it lends a bit of moisture to the dough while contributing more complexity and less sweetness than an equal amount of sugar. It gives the loaf a greater depth of flavor, and a subtle sweetness to enhance its flavor and rise.
Ultimately, those ingredients all work together to make a fairly classic sandwich loaf, but it takes some special handling to get there. Because pumpkin purée brings fibrous solid matter into the mix along with its natural water content, the dough feels horrifically dry and crumbly when worked by hand. Meanwhile, the dough hook of a stand mixer will only push lumps of flour-coated purée around the bowl, which will eventually form a crumbly mass at best.
But a food processor? A food processor will turn that seemingly dry mass of pumpkin-stained flour into a smooth and supple dough in 75 seconds flat.
Of course, the exact timing will vary depending on the size and power of a given machine, but I've tested the dough on several of our favorite food processors and found 75 seconds to be a reasonable average, but texture is more important than time.
The dough should process until a small chunk can be gently pulled in all directions to form a translucent sheet or, in baker-speak, a windowpane. But you don't need to be a professional baker to perform the test; it's not any more complicated than playing with a wad of chewing gum.
When the gluten isn't sufficiently developed, the dough will only shred or tear, so if it doesn't pass the "windowpane test" the loaf won't have the structure it needs to rise high—another reason the food processor is such a champ with this recipe. That level of gluten development would require the workout of a lifetime to knead by hand.
Once the gluten is properly developed, transfer the dough to a lightly greased bowl, cover, and proof until puffy, light, and roughly doubled in bulk.
This takes about 2 hours at 72°F, so keep a sharp eye on it in warmer environments, and take a more patient approach when it's cool. (Alternatively, you can set up a warmer environment for the dough; for example, I've found that microwaving a mug full of water until boiling creates a perfectly serviceable impromptu proof box, into which you can slide your bowl of dough.)
After the initial rise, turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead briefly to deflate. Degassing the dough at this stage ensures a more even crumb structure in the finished loaf, free from giant rogue bubbles that might form beneath the crust.
To shape the loaf, pat the dough into a roughly 7-inch square, then fold the top edge down toward the middle, sealing it in place with your heel.
Fold the log down toward the bottom edge, and seal it again. Remember that shaping a loaf is more than a physical process; it is a skill, and it can take a few rounds of practice to really get the hang of it. So if the first try looks a little lumpy or uneven, chalk it up to experience and know that future rounds will be even better.
Nestle the dough into a lightly greased 8-inch loaf pan (also known as a "one pound loaf"), cover, and proof as before—until the dough is roughly doubled in bulk, or crowning at about 2-inches above the pan. This is a bit higher than you can expect from most recipes, because I use a higher proportion of dough in order to achieve the sort of comically domed loaf you'd see in a cartoon.
As before, this will take about 2 hours at cool room temperature, with quite a bit of leeway on either side depending on how warm or cool your kitchen is. In a truly hot environment, it may be best to move that second rise into the fridge to prevent an explosive or uneven rise from deforming the loaf.
Thanks to its natural color, and the sugar in the dough, the bread will brown nicely in the oven on its own, so there's no need to brush it with anything prior to baking. Just pop it in the oven and bake to an internal temperature of about 205°F, or until the loaf is well-risen, golden brown, and hollow-sounding when thumped. In an oven that runs true to dial, this will take about 45 minutes at 350°F, but the time can vary depending on the dough temperature, degree of proofing, and the loaf pan's specific size, shape, and material (as well as gauge), so keep a close eye on the loaf as it bakes.
As soon as it comes out of the oven, turn the hot loaf out onto a wire cooling rack so it won't steam itself in the pan.
While hot, the interior crumb will be fragile and soft, so resist the temptation to dig in right away; the bread will only seem gummy and wet. Once cool, however, it will have enough structure that it should be easy to cut it into ultra-thin sandwich slices (provided your bread knife is up to the task; if yours can't manage to slice anything less than 1/2-inch thick, it may be time to investigate our guide to buying the right bread knife).
It's a simple yet classic loaf that makes a fun addition to anyone's holiday baking roster, whether enjoyed with a generous smear of butter, turned into sandwiches, or torn apart for the most autumnal Thanksgiving stuffing of all.