Pumpkins are the fruit of a large herbaceous plant with long, vinelike shoots and curling tendrils. They have a silky, bright orange pulp that adds a delicate flavor and moisture to quick breads. Use a fresh Sugar Pie pumpkin (the small compact ones, not the Jack o’Lanterns) or other winter squash, such as a large Blue Hubbard, for the best flavor when making your own purée, although commercially canned pumpkin is also an excellent alternative. One of the most important techniques in baking quick loaves is beating the wet ingredients with a whisk or electric mixer to aerate and expand their total volume. The mixture will double, becoming thick and creamy at the same time. The dry ingredients are mixed separately, with all the leavenings evenly distributed. All intense beating is done while these two mixtures are separate. The dry and the wet ingredients are then mixed together with a quick and light hand (never beaten unless specifically directed to do so) to avoid activating the gluten in the flour. Recipes need to be followed exactly, with the mixing done in the manner outlined in each recipe. The proper oven temperature is important for “oven spring,” the final expanding of the dough when in contact with heat. Bake on the middle shelves with at least two inches of space between each pan to allow the heat to circulate. A quick loaf is finished baking when the top looks and feels firm and dry; when the edges pull slightly away from the sides of the pan; when it is evenly browned; and when a cake tester inserted into the center comes out dry. If the center is still gooey, continue to bake another 5 to 8 minutes.
3¾ cups all-purpose flour
2 cups packed light brown sugar
2 tsp. baking soda
1 tsp. non-aluminum baking powder
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 tsp. ground allspice
½ tsp. ground cloves
1 can (15 ounces) pumpkin purée
1 cup light olive oil
⅓ cup pure maple syrup
⅓ cup water
1 cup chopped pecans
8 whole pecan halves, for garnish
Place a rack in the center of the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease and flour two 8-by-4-by-3-inch loaf pans and set them aside.
In a large bowl, whisk together the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and spices. In a medium bowl, carefully whisk together the pumpkin purée, oil, maple syrup, and water.
Add the oil mixture all at once to the flour mixture. Use a spatula to fold the ingredients together. Make sure to scrape the bottom of the bowl well, finding any stray bits of flour and sugar that might have been left behind. Fold in the chopped pecans.
Divide the batter between the prepared pans and arrange 4 whole pecan halves on the top down the center of each loaf.
Bake 60 to 70 minutes, or until a skewer inserted into the center of each loaf comes out clean. Remove from the oven. Let rest in the pans for 20 minutes, then invert onto a cooling rack.
Serve the bread warm, in thick slices. Loaves can be wrapped and kept at room temperature for up to 5 days. These loaves freeze well and can be left at room temperature to thaw and enjoy. Makes two 8-by-4-by-3-inch loaves.