For pumpkin pies, most cookbooks advise that canned pumpkin is equal in flavor to, easier to work with, and/or more consistent than fresh pumpkin. For my company, I use fresh, local, and organic ingredients whenever I can, so since there are such squash at my local farmers market, I felt compelled to work with them for the Spiced Pumpkin Caramel in my Pumpkin Pie Candy Bar.
I was most concerned with the consistency issue. Anyone who’s ever bought fresh produce knows that every piece is different — or at least, should be. I think of that as a good thing, and I thought about how each piece could be analyzed in the interest of consistency. So, I’ve been using my refractometer to measure the sugar content of every batch of puree that I make. Refractometers are most often used in wine and sorbet-making to measure the percentage of sugar in terms of units of Brix. A liquid that reads 25 Brix would have 25 grams of sugar and 75 grams of water per 100 grams — in other words, it’s 25 percent sugar. A typical sorbet base would have a Brix reading of 27-29. To take a reading, all you do is put a dot of matter/liquid onto the surface of the refractometer, and look through the eyehole to read the level of sugar that it reaches.
My squash readings so far have been very telling. There are three farms at the Santa Monica Farmers Market that sells organic butternut squash. The Brix reading has varied between 11-14. When pureed, its purely-scientific-not-artistic photo looks like this.
You can see how it’s quite thick, falling into a mound in the bowl. I once bought an organic butternut squash from a supermarket when I was testing recipes, and it had a Brix of 5 — which means that it had a lot more water. When scraped it into the bowl, it flowed like soup. So… that’s what I used it for. I knew that using that squash would produce a different result. Technically, to make the caramel, the squash is boiled to a certain temperature with the caramelized sugar and dairy, and at that temperature it should have the same percentage of water no matter the original water content; the mixture reaches that temperature because it boils away the moisture to a certain percentage.
At this point in my thinking, the idea of Brix gets a little existential. Where does the flavor come from? Is it from a high sugar content? Or is it in the matter itself, regardless of sugar? An average simple syrup used by pastry chefs is half sugar and half water, which would give it a Brix of 50. But even the 5 Brix butternut squash had more flavor than the 50 Brix simple syrup.
Last summer, when I reveled in buying, tasting, and cooking all the amazing fruit from the farmers market, I took some Brix readings. Looking back at my notes, I jotted down that fresh-squeezed juice from Valencia oranges was at 14 Brix, Santa Rosa Plums had Brixes btw 11-14, Blenheim Apricots were at 17 Brix, Bing Cherries were at 16 Brix, etc. But even this is a little suspect, because I’ve since realized that the sugar content of fruit can vary depending in where you take the reading. For instance, near the end of the summer, I recorded that a cantaloupe melon had a reading of 7 Brix near the rind and a reading of 11 for the juice that had gathered in the center after scooping out the seeds. So, I feel that readings of purees and juices gives a better idea of Brix because it’s a blend of all of the fruit.
It’s really pretty amazing that my preferred butternut squash produces a puree at 11-14 Brix. That’s in line with much of the fruit mentioned above. Who would have thought that a butternut squash and orange juice have the same percentage of sugar? And again… where is the flavor really coming from? And incidentally, the Sugar Pie Pumpkin that I bought from the same farm as the 14 Brix butternut squash had a Brix of 4.
So, anyway, every time I introduce a new product, I feel a kind of lucky that I get to work with a few new ingredients and see how they work, from batch to batch, week to week. I only use a limited number of ingredients, but they all have their unique qualities, alone and when used in combination with other ingredients; when I develop recipes, I see an analogy between the recipe and screenwriting — whether you change an ingredient or a plot-point, you usually have to make adjustments at other points, too, in order to make a coherent finished product — because everything works together and must make sense together.
And for all the technicality, things get distilled. I’ll still take Brix readings of my squash, but I also know now: mounding equals good, and soup equals soup.
And as far as the difference between the fresh that I have available to me and canned? My pumpkin and butternut squash purees are tasty and practically incandescent — much brighter than anything I’ve ever seen come out of a can. And I’m not completely crazy to fabricate them myself for the caramels — I don’t need nearly as much squash for them as I would for pumpkin pies, so I can manage it ok… I hope!