Every fall, while my neighbors carve toothy grins into giant orange pumpkins, I stock up on kabocha squash. For me, few things evoke more autumnal spirit.
It's not for carving purposes that I hoard the plant. This winter squash variety, sometimes referred to as Japanese pumpkin, has a dark-green rind with a tough, bumpy surface, which would probably be difficult to artfully chisel. It's a good thing, too — I wouldn't be able to bear wasting any of that beta-carotene-rich, yellow-orange flesh.
For cooking, kabocha squash is one of the most versatile plants out there. The velvety interior lends creaminess to soups and stews. It mashes up into buttery decadence, ideal for spreading onto sandwiches and toast. Cut into slices, it roasts up beautifully for enjoying as a side, in a salad or as a topping on galettes, a stint in the oven coaxing out the squash's syrupy sweetness. And it infuses desserts, from muffins to quick breads to these three-ingredient cakes, with moisture and nuttiness.
So often exalted as among the best of all textural alliances is the hallowed combination of crispy-on-the-outside and chewy-on-the-inside. My favorite way to achieve this symbiotic partnership in a dessert is these tender cakes — known in Chinese as 南瓜饼 (nan gua bing), which means "pumpkin cakes."
Get the recipe:
To make these cakes, get your hands on a kabocha squash. (Alternatively, you can also use red kuri pumpkin.) Slice it, steam it, then mash the flesh into a paste. Next, mix in granulated sugar. Then, add glutinous rice flour (also called sweet rice flour), incorporating it into the squash. When the mixture becomes resistant to stirring, roll up your sleeves and use clean hands to bring everything together and form a dough. Continue incorporating flour a couple tablespoons at a time, until the dough firms up into a consistency resembling playdough. Shape the dough into small discs, then pan-fry the cakes until they're crispy and golden-brown. And that's it! The glutinous rice flour produces a chewy, mochi-like bite, while the squash supplies creaminess and sweetness. Optionally, you can coat the cakes in breadcrumbs before pan-frying, for a bit of extra crunch.
In China, these cakes are a common sweet treat, with different renditions made from other texturally similar gourds or stuffed with fillings like red bean paste. But the ease and simplicity of this three-ingredient version that I've been eating since childhood makes them my go-to. Whip up a batch of these kabocha squash cakes for breakfast or dessert … or just because it's autumn.