Pumpkins, everywhere, in Baltimore restaurants

When did the pumpkin turn into such a laughingstock?

You can't turn on the TV without someone making a stupid pumpkin-spice latte joke. A recent feature on the social media site Buzzfeed was a horrifying gallery of "16 Pumpkin Spice Products That Don't Exist And Should Never Exist," including pumpkin-spice toothpaste, nasal spray and deodorant.


But it's really not pumpkin we've all grown weary of. It's pumpkin-spice, a blend of cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger and allspice, traditionally used in the flavoring of pumpkin pies but now used to flavor everything from, yes, lattes, to Greek yogurt.

"I have not been a fan of pumpkin for a long time," said Josh Hershkovitz, owner and chef at Hersh's in South Baltimore. "But it was really pumpkin pie flavor I didn't like."


Hershkovitz said that pumpkin has a similar flavor profile to other winter squashes, popular varieties like acorn and butternut, that have become standard main ingredients in savory home recipes likes soups and casseroles.

"The winter squash is really different from the summer squash," Hershkovitz said. "You cut open a pumpkin and butternut squash and they'll look very similar."

Hershkovitz has added a roasted pumpkin dish to the fall menu at Hersh's, and other chefs in Baltimore are deploying pumpkin in soups and pasta dishes.

There's still room on the menu for sweet pumpkin desserts. But pastry chefs have been trying to dial down the traditional spicing and coax out the true flavor of pumpkin.


"I find pumpkin to be a magical ingredient because it sings of the season," said Dooby's pastry chef Katie Boyts, who is featuring a pumpkin cake on her dessert menu and an olive-oil pumpkin bread in her bakery case. "And everybody gets so excited about autumn."

We're excited.

We went out and rounded up a bumper crop of savory and sweet pumpkin dishes now appearing in Baltimore restaurants. Some of them are returning favorites, a few are permanent menu items with ardent followings and others are making their debut this year.

Vegan pumpkin curry soup at Golden West Cafe
Owner Thomas Rudis based his recipe for pumpkin soup on one he found in a Southeast Asian cookbook. Seasoned with curry, the soup was introduced in 2011 and has become a favorite at the Hampden cafe, Rudis said. "They want the same thing every week," Rudis said. The soup is particularly popular among Golden West's vegan diners, Rudis said, but he insists he wasn't searching for vegan recipes. "It's coincidentally vegan," he said. Rudis admits to being fatigued with traditionally sweet pumpkin dishes. "There's a reason we don't eat it year round," he said. Flavored with lemon grass and Thai green curry paste, the soup's essential ingredient, Rudis said, is coconut milk. "It's the coconut milk we use that makes it an appropriate dish for all seasons. When I eat it, I think I can see myself eating this at a really good hotel in Bangkok."

$3.95/$5.95. Golden West Cafe, 1105 W. 36th St., Hampden, 410-889-8891, goldenwestcafe.com

Wood-fired baby pumpkin at Hersh's
This is the year of the pumpkin for Hershkovitz, who admits to having avoided the gourd. But now he's a convert. "There's definitely a butteriness to pumpkins," Hershkovitz said. "And roasting really concentrates the flavor." The chef roasts baby sugar pumpkins with sage, which is a traditional pumpkin spice, but also roasted shallots and chilies, which are not. The roasted pumpkin is served with a maple-chili agrodolce, a thick and sticky Italian sweet-and-sour sauce, homemade ricotta cheese and toasted pumpkin seeds. "We're loving pumpkin now," Hershkovitz said.

$8. Hersh's, 1843 Light St., Riverside, 443-438-4948, hershspizza.com

Pumpkin cheesecake at Donna's
Customers at Donna's in Cross Keys mark the arrival of autumn with the return of pastry chef Sabine Breitenstein's pumpkin cheesecake, although they've been rushing the season in recent years, said owner Donna Crivello. "Every year it seems we start making it earlier and earlier," Crivello said. "Customers keep saying, 'When are you going to brink back the pumpkin cheesecake?' Everybody seems to get excited about the combination of spices."

$7, Donna's of Cross Keys, 5100 Falls Road, Cross Keys, 410-532-7611, donnas.com

Pumpkin soup at Cunningham's
Garnished with pumpernickel crumbles, poached cranberries and nutmeg-flavored marshmallow, executive chef Jason Lear's pumpkin soup is making its debut this fall at Cunningham's. For Lear, the process begins with picking out the pumpkins himself, which he does at Cunnigham Farms, the Cockeysville farm that supplies produce, eggs, herbs and flowers to his restaurant and other properties in the Bagby Restaurant Group. "We have so many varieties coming in at Cunningham Farms and each has its own specific flavor and use," said Lear, who is using pumpkin this year not only in the soup but as a topping on appetizer "toasts," and, roasted, as an addition to salads.

$9, Cunningham's, 1 Olympic Place, Towson, 410-339-7730, cunninghamstowson.com

Pumpkin ravioli at The Corner Bistro & Wine Bar
This pumpkin ravioli made its debut last September at Wesley Vaughan's small restaurant near Camden Yards. Vaughan sautes the ravioli with rosemary- and garlic-seared chicken breast sauteed in a nutmeg white-wine cream sauce. One vegetarian couple ordered the ravioli without chicken, Vaughan said, and loved it so much that they booked a party for 20 people, all of whom ordered the pumpkin ravioli. "People really love this dish," he said.

$13.95/$19.95, The Corner Bistro & Wine Bar, 213 Penn St., Ridgeley's Delight, 410-727-1155, cbwinebar.com

Pumpkin sacchetti at Sotto Sopra
It was introduced three years ago as a seasonal item, but Riccardo Bosio's extravagantly rich dish of pumpkin pasta with crumbled sausage and heavy cream is now a permanent menu item. The pumpkin-filled pasta, shaped into small satchels, are little things of beauty, and pulverized almond-flavored cookies add a tantalizing sweetness to the cream sauce. But Bosio says that the "slightly greasy" crumbled sausage is the star of the dish. "It has the appeal of great street food," Bosio said. "I eat stuff like this all the time." For diners, Bosio thinks the appeal is the difficulty factor. "This is not something you can do at home. It takes a ton of time to do it. That's why people to go to restaurants, to get something special."

$24. Sotto Sopra, 405 N. Charles St., Downtown, 410-625-0534, sottosoprainc.com

Pumpkin cake with cream-cheese frosting at Dooby's
Boyts, Dooby's pastry chef, offered some principles for baking with pumpkin. "It adds a lot of flavor if you use really fresh pumpkin, and it add a lot of texture if you don't use too much. Our pumpkin cake is different because it's not super sweet, so you really get a taste of the pumpkin."

$6.50, Dooby's, 802 N. Charles St., Mount Vernon, 410-702-5144, doobyscoffee.com

Pumpkin panna cotta at Birroteca
Birroteca has gone wild with pumpkins this season. Located just outside of Hampden, the restaurant has filled its walls with displays of pumpkins, some of which have signs attached with proclamations like "I'll love you to the end of vine" and "Pie is murder." For diners, Birroteca chefs are promising a long season of pumpkin dishes. First out of the kitchen was a pumpkin panna cotta, made with roasted pumpkins and buttermilk. It's served in a sherbet glass and garnished with candied walnuts.

$9, Birroteca, 1520 Clipper Road, Jones Falls Area, 443-708-1935, bmorebirroteca.com

Fried pumpkin bites at Rusty Scupper
Executive chef Mark Miranda acknowledges being a pumpkin holdout, even within the Cleveland-based restaurant group, Select Restaurants, Inc., that Rusty Scupper is part of. "When I got here five years ago, we were starting with different flavored cheesecakes. I didn't want to be part of the pumpkin crowd." Instead, Miranda did a sweet-potato cheesecake, which has become a Rusty Scupper favorite. But this year, when Select Restaurants added deep-fried cheesecake bites to their dessert menus, Miranda gave in. "I'm very happy with how it all came together," Miranda said. Pumpkin-flavored cheesecake squares and coated with graham crackers and brown sugar, served with vanilla ice cream and topped with praline sauce and fresh whipped cream. "We're having a hard time keeping up with demand for them," he said.

$8. Rusty Scupper, 402 Key Highway, 410-727-3678, rusty-scupper.com

Recommended on Baltimore Sun