Out of Their Gourds
Slate taste-tests the pumpkin-flavored offerings at Pinkberry, Dunkin Donuts, and other chain eateries.
When you get right down to it, pumpkins are a pain in the ass. Cumbersome and heavy, standoffish on the outside and stringy on the inside, they're also sort of disgusting. It's so difficult to convert pumpkin into an edible substance that most resort just to roasting its seeds, and even fancy-cookbook writers recommend buying canned pumpkin for pies instead of scooping out the meat yourself. But around Halloween, this otherwise useless gourd becomes a fast-food stalwart. Pumpkins are everywhere, not just on front stoops and secretaries' sweatshirts but in yogurt, doughnuts, and all sorts of other inappropriate places.
Are any of these season-specific, pumpkin-flavored foods good? I visited various chain eateries to see which, if any, were palatable.
Red Mango's limited edition Pumpkin Spice yogurt comes sprinkled with graham-cracker crumbs smashed so finely you might accidentally inhale them. Sadly, snorting graham-cracker dust would probably provide more pleasure than eating this cipher of a dessert. If not for its light orange hue, you would have no way of knowing it was supposed to be pumpkin-flavored. The yogurt tastes of neither pumpkin nor spice but of sour milk, just like all Red Mango products. At least it's probiotic, whatever that means.
Red Mango competitor Pinkberry tried harder with its limited-time Pumpkin Pinkberry yogurt, which comes accessorized with cinnamon powder, actual bite-size pieces of honey graham cracker, and "Pinkberry original swirly whip" (read: whipped cream). But the different elements don't blend so much as compete. Depending on how you structure your spoonful, you're either tasting graham cracker or tasting cinnamon— never a harmonious whole. And, as with Red Mango's seasonal offering, this product doesn't taste like pumpkin. Note to fancy yogurt companies: The "pumpkin flavoring" you are using appears actually to be orange food coloring. I suspect you may have been swindled by an unscrupulous extract salesman.
The Jamba Juice that I visited featured a sign claiming that its limited-time Pumpkin Smash smoothie was made from "real pumpkin and pumpkin pie spices" and tasted "like grandma's homemade pumpkin pie." Well, out of the three frozen desserts I tried, this one certainly tasted the most like pumpkin. It also tasted terrible. Rich and cloying, numbingly spiced, this thick smoothie just got worse as it went on, much like the Halloween series. But its chalky aftertaste is a more harrowing fate than any Michael Myers could mete out.
Getting back to the drink's pumpkininity, the ad at the Jamba Juice store claimed that the chain uses real pumpkin—but the Jamba Juice Web site shows that the smoothie contains "pumpkin spice base, frozen yogurt, soymilk, ice," and that's it. I puzzled over what was actually in the base, because while it was more convincing than what Red Mango and Pinkberry had on offer, it tasted slightly abnormal, like a simulacrum of pumpkin pie made by someone who had never tasted it. My best guess: The mix contains a lot of chai tea. If chai reminds you of your grandmother's pumpkin pie, then your grandmother is either a molecular gastronomist or, simply, a bad cook.
Some Dunkin Donuts executive must have a brother in the pumpkin business, because this year the chain is offering a pumpkin doughnut, a pumpkin muffin, a "fall harvest" doughnut (a cake doughnut with a bright orange glaze), a pumpkin latte, and pumpkin-flavored coffee. I tested the pumpkin doughnut and muffin.
The former has a light sugared glaze and a dark orange interior. While this was a good doughnut, it really didn't taste like pumpkin at all. It didn't taste like pumpkin pie spices, either—just a normal cake doughnut, dyed orange. (What is it with all of these not-pumpkin pumpkin foodstuffs? We can put a man on the moon, but we can't make an authentically pumpkin-tasting doughnut, or yogurt, or smoothie?) The online ingredient list confirmed my suspicions: The doughnut contains less than 2 percent pumpkin and is otherwise essentially the same as a normal cake doughnut, except that it contains 20 fewer calories. Dieters, treat yourselves!
The pumpkin muffin was another story. Drizzled with brown sugar and frosting in a waxy lattice pattern, the muffin was much more obviously pumpkin-tasting than its doughnut counterpart. Although it looked as if it had been sitting out for a few days, it was actually very moist, with a nicely balanced pumpkin flavor that didn't taste like chai tea or chemicals. As I ate, the brown sugar crumbles on the top fell down into the muffin itself, creating a nice, sweet, crunchy texture. I kept on waiting to be disappointed, but I never was. Dunkin Donuts' Pumpkin Muffin is legitimately good.
Starbucks, like Dunkin Donuts, is also suffering from pumpkin overkill, with pumpkin bread, a pumpkin cream-cheese muffin, a pumpkin scone, a pumpkin-themed Norah Jones album, and the longtime seasonal favorite pumpkin-spice latte. I have always thought that a scone is just a biscuit that's trying too hard, and I wanted no part of its efforts at upward mobility, so I just tested the bread and the muffin.
Starbucks' pumpkin bread was studded with pumpkin seeds—a welcome savory aspect to a taste-test process that, thus far, had been unremittingly sweet. The flavors were actually layered, which I couldn't say for anything else I had tried: the savory seeds led into sweet pumpkin and then, at the end, a hint of spice. This was a foodstuff made for adults, not just children and aspiring diabetics.
The Pumpkin cream-cheese muffin, which has a big dollop of sugary cream cheese frosting right in the center, is like a Twinkie for yuppies. It tasted like pumpkin, and was appropriately moist—so far, so good. But the cream cheese flavor was just overwhelming. Look, it's good frosting, but there's too much of it. If all I wanted was cream cheese, I'd order a bagel.
Final analysis? I can't really recommend any of the frozen desserts that I tried. Starbucks' pumpkin bread is good, and so is Dunkin Donuts' pumpkin muffin, if you want something a little bit sweeter. Really, though, nothing here can compare to a piece of pumpkin pie.
Justin Peters is Slate’s crime correspondent.