Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For years I lived with the mistaken assumption that Starbucks’ original pumpkin spice latte was made with actual pumpkin. I had never tasted the stuff, but it just seemed logical it would. So I was scandalized when a friend eventually corrected me. “You mean they call it pumpkin spice latte and there’s not a drop of pumpkin?” I demanded. “Yeah,” the friend said. “It’s just the spice.”

Apparently, I wasn’t the only one this didn’t sit well with, since Starbucks changed their recipe several years ago to include some pumpkin puree—number three in their “pumpkin spice sauce” ingredient list after sugar and condensed skim milk…not the ratios I personally would want to see. But by then I’d started making my own. Not often, maybe once a year, I’d simmer real pumpkin in the form of butternut or red kuri squash with milk and spices, blend it into a thickened, frothy cream, and drink that for a treat. The combination of roasty coffee with earthy-sweet squash and warm fall spices is so good, it’s almost comical Starbucks managed to invent this drink and miss the best part.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

About the Starbucks version, though: It’s not fair for me to malign their drink without ever actually trying it, so I very recently did, and I have to cut them some slack. It’s pretty tasty, and I can see why it has become so popular. It’s sweeter than I would prefer, but it’s not aggressively so, and the spices are dialed in to taste exactly like they should for a product like this, which is basically the edible version of the scented candle version of the edible version.

I’m not likely to become a regular drinker of either Starbucks or my own recipe—they’re both a once-in-a-while kind of thing—but I think there’s space in the world for both. Theirs is exactly what most of you already know it to be, mine is more like a not-too-sweet, not-too-thick pumpkin pie in a cup (with coffee). Mine also has some distinct advantages I want to point out.

The Key to My Creamy, Frothy PSL

One of the advantages of having never tried the real Starbucks PSL until after I’d developed my own recipe is that I was uninfluenced by any preexisting idea of what it was supposed to be. I didn’t realize that Starbucks makes something that’s more like a pumpkin-tinged, spiced syrup to add to a cup of milky coffee and then top with whipped cream.

So when I set out to make my own, I took a completely different path that solves a lot of technical issues while getting you much closer to a real steamed-milk, espresso-based drink. To make mine, instead of a syrup, I simmer cubes of butternut or red kuri squash (butternut squash is usually the “pumpkin” in a can of pumpkin puree) in milk with a little sweetener (either maple syrup or sugar) and the warm, autumnal spices that go into pumpkin pie recipes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Once tender, I blend this mixture up until smooth and frothy; a high-speed blender does this best, creating the smoothest, frothiest pumpkin-spice cream, but an immersion blender works too. The beauty of it is that the fiber from the squash, once blended, lightly thickens the milk, making it seem richer and creamer. At the same time, that added fiber helps the milk trap and retain more air bubbles from the blending, giving it a frothy texture that is remarkably similar to milk that’s been steamed to a dense foam—expensive espresso equipment not required.

Poured on top of a dose of coffee, which honestly can be anything from a shot of espresso to some strongly brewed coffee or even regular brewed coffee for a lighter coffee flavor, the effect says “latte” a lot more than the Starbucks version I’ve tasted does. It’s also much easier than making a pumpkin-spice syrup, which seems to be the move many other recipes make in an attempt to create their own homemade versions of a PSL. Plus, it achieves more of the goals of this type of drink with less work.

The result? A PSL that puts the P first.

In a large saucepan, stir together squash, milk, cinnamon, star anise, ground ginger, cloves, cardamom, nutmeg, maple syrup (or sugar), and salt; if desired, prepare a spice sachet of cheesecloth or in a tea strainer to make removal of whole spices easier. Set over medium heat and bring to a simmer, then lower heat to maintain a bare simmer and cook, stirring and scraping frequently, until squash is very soft, abou 30 minutes.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Remove and discard whole spices. Transfer to a blender jar, or use an immersion blender to blend directly in the saucepan, and blend, starting and low speed and increasing to high speed, until squash is fully pureed and a thick, frothy liquid has formed.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

For each serving of coffee, pour a shot of espresso or strong coffee (roughly 1 fluid ounce; 30ml) into a mug. Add 6 to 8 fluid ounces (175-235ml) hot spiced pumpkin cream on top and serve. Garnish with a pinch of ground spices (cinnamon, nutmeg, etc.), if desired.

Serious Eats / Amanda Suarez

Make Ahead and Storage

The pumpkin cream can be refrigerated for up to 5 days. Reheat in a small saucepan, frothing in a blender again if needed before serving.

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