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."