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In the fall, as the days shorten and the sunlight slants low across the sky, cooking instructor Kay Baumhefner brings the earthy flavors of autumn into the kitchen with savory soups made with slow-cooked onions, winter squash and dark winter greens.

As the onions braise, the house warms up and entices guests with their mouthwatering aromas, leaving the chef's hands free to work on other dishes.

For a recent "Come Home to Cooking" class in her Petaluma home, Baumhefner helped students prepare an autumnal supper she designed to evoke a walk in the woods after the first rain.

"You're going for a mushroom hunt, and you smell the oil in the trees and the light is golden," she said. "So I wanted a golden soup with some braising greens."

Baumhefner created a Roasted Butternut Squash with Spinach and a choice of tasty garnishes: pine nuts and bacon, truffle oil and truffle salt.

"For me, this soup really feels like autumn," she said. "Especially with the toasted pine nuts and smoky bacon on top."

The chef was known for her deeply satisfying bowls of soup when she worked at Della Fattoria caf?in Petaluma, as well as for her tasty sandwiches. So she paired the squash soup with Sauteed Mushroom and Melted Cheese Toasties, an upscale version of mom's grilled cheese sandwich.

"I love the dance around the palate and the textural contrast of the crunchy bread with the creamy cheese," she said. "And the mushrooms are woodsy and earthy."

Together, the soup and sandwich would make a hearty lunch or dinner, or you could simply serve the soup enhanced with spinach or mustard, kale or chard.

"The greens add color, texture and B vitamins," she said. "You could just have a piece of bread with it, and it would make a whole meal."

The meal isn't complicated, but it requires sourcing the best ingredients possible. Baumhefner likes to shop at the Marin Farmers Market in San Rafael.

"I have a lot of good relationships with vendors there," she said. "There's a lot of organic produce."

For the menu, she picked up an heirloom butternut squash with a green skin and a dense flesh, along with some chanterelle mushrooms from Shasta County and a wedge of Wagon Wheel cheese from Cowgirl Creamery.

Then she pulled out some homemade chicken stock from her freezer. Having staples like chicken stock on hand can save a lot of time and make cooking more fun, Baumhefner said.

To make the soup, Baumhefner blends the butternut squash with garnet yams in order to boost the flavor.

"The winter squashes can be granular and bland," she said. "The yams are a thickener and a sweetener."

She braises the onions long and slow, for about a half hour, then adds in the roasted squash and yams and purees the mixture with an immersion blender, adding in the hot stock little by little.

"Start with the least amount of liquid so everything is pureed together, and you're not left with chunks of squash," she said. "You want the soup texture satiny smooth, so that it would coat a spoon."

At the very end, she throws in a little cream, which helps bind the liquid and the solids together.

"It's not so much for richness," she said. "The cream acts as a liaison."

To saute the mushrooms, she starts with a hot pan, then heats some olive oil and butter.

"Don't crowd the pan," she said. "Or they will stew instead of saute."

After the mushrooms start browning, she adds some red onions for sweetness, then drizzles in more oil. At the very end, she adds garlic crushed with salt, so that the garlic does not overcook and turn bitter.

At the very end, she deglazes the pan with chicken stock, to rehydrate the mushrooms.

To make the sandwich, she brushes the bread with oil, layers on the mushrooms and cheese, and toasts it in a skillet.

If you can't find wild mushrooms at the market, you can substitute a crimini mushroom.

"The chanterelles are a real treat," she said. "But why not?"

For a more elaborate feast, Baumhefner said you could serve the cheese toastie as an appetizer, and add a braised pork shoulder with simmered cannellini beans on the side.

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The following recipes are from Kay Baumhefner of "Come Home to Cooking." You can find truffle oil in specialty food stores.

<strong>Butternut Squash and Spinach Soup</strong>

<em> Makes 8 servings</em>

5 pounds butternut squash

2 large garnet yams

2 tablespoons oil

2 tablespoons butter

4 cups thinly sliced onions (2 large onions)

1 bay leaf

1 small bundle fresh thyme, tied with string (or 1 teaspoon dried thyme)

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

2 teaspoons grey salt

8 grinds white pepper

2 tablespoons Grand Marnier

8-10 cups hot, homemade chicken stock

1/2 cup heavy cream

8 loose cups baby spinach leaves

Heavy cream or truffle oil, as optional garnish

Cooked bacon bits or toasted pine nuts, as optional garnish

Cut several small slits in the butternut squash and yams and roast whole on a sheet pan in a 400 degree oven until completely tender.

Meanwhile, in a large heavy pot over medium heat, melt the oil & butter. Add the onions and herbs, stirring well to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cover to cook the onions, stirring occasionally, until they are completely tender, about 30 minutes.

Remove the bay leaf & thyme, stir in the spices and Grand Marnier. Raise the heat to medium and add 1 cup of the chicken stock to deglaze the pan and soften the onions. Turn off the heat.

Peel and seed the roasted squash & yams, reserving any juices. Cut across the fiber into small chunks and add to the cooked onions along with the reserved juices.

Off heat, pur? the onions, squash & yams together with an immersion blender until absolutely smooth, gradually adding stock only as needed to liquify.

Whisk in enough of the hot stock to create a nice consistency. Then simmer, lid askew, to combine and thicken slightly, about 15 to 30 minutes.

Taste carefully for salt & white pepper, add the heavy cream, and stir in the spinach just to wilt. Garnish as desired and serve.

--

<strong>Melted Cheese and Mushroom Toasty</strong>

<em> Makes 4 sandwiches or 36 appetizer bites</em>

For the saut?d mushrooms:

1 to 2 tablespoons regular olive oil

1 to 2 tablespoons unsalted butter

1 pound mushrooms, thinly sliced (see note below)

1 medium-large red onion, thinly sliced

2 large cloves garlic, peeled, pressed or pounded

6 grinds black pepper

1 teaspoon salt

1/4-1/2 cup chicken stock (or white wine or water)

1-2 tablespoons chopped fresh herbs (see note below)

8 slices best sandwich bread (see note below)

2 tablespoons salted butter, melted, with 2 tablespoons regular olive oil

6 ounces good melting cheese, grated or thinly sliced (see note below)

In a large heavy skillet over high heat, saut?the mushrooms in some of the oil and butter, stirring frequently, until all their moisture is released and evaporated.

Add the onion and more oil and butter as needed, reduce the heat to medium high and continue cooking and stirring until a deep golden brown.

Stir in the garlic, salt and pepper to evenly flavor, and then stir in the stock to deglaze the pan, reduce, and be absorbed by the mushrooms.

Taste carefully for salt and pepper, then stir in the herbs.

Divide the bread slices into four pairs and brush the external sides with the melted butter and oil.

Evenly distribute the cooked mushroom mixture on one inside half of each bread pair, and then layer on the cheese. Top with the matched slices and press together.

Place either in a panini machine/sandwich toaster, which will grill both sides at once, or in a covered skillet over medium-low heat, turning once to brown the second side. Cook until the cheese melts and the bread toasts golden brown, which will take about 5 minutes a side in a skillet. Watch carefully so they don't suddenly burn.

Remove to set a few minutes before cutting in half or into small bite-sized pieces.

<strong>Notes</strong>: For a balanced and harmonious combination, select the bread and cheese to match the sweetness or strength of the freshest mushrooms you can find.

<strong>Suggested mushrooms</strong>: chanterelle, crimini, or porcini.

<strong>Suggested herbs:</strong> parsley, thyme and/or sage.

<strong>Suggested bread:</strong> Fairly tight-grained boule or pullman loaf. I prefer an earthy, partially whole-wheat levain-style, country French, polenta or semolina bread.

<strong>Suggested cheeses:</strong> Cheese: Cowgirl Wagon Wheel, Bellwether Carmody, French comt?or raclette, Italian fontal or fontina, Swiss cave-aged gruyere, or the best quality jack or cheddar.

<em>You can reach Staff Writer Diane Peterson at 521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com</em>