One of the most memorable meals we had in New Zealand was, unsurprisingly, at the beach. We rented bikes in Hawkes Bay–big clunky cruiser things–and went wine-tasting along the water. It was a postcard-perfect day, with a sharp blue sky, cottony clouds, and incredible jewel-green water. Needing to fill our bellies before a long afternoon of sipping sauvignon blanc in the vineyards, we stopped at a cafe at the end of the road in Te Awanga. It was a sweet-looking place, with red wooden walls and a gabled roof, overlooking a small cove and a rising mass of cliffs in the distance.
This was a place the bike tour company had recommended. It was also one of the few lunch spots around for miles. Based on those points, I think we were all expecting uninspired, overpriced tourist food. But we were pleasantly surprised: everything we ordered was fresh and tasty, with layers of bold and delicate flavor. We locked up our bikes and ate lunch out on the patio, crowding all nine of us onto a single park bench and watching the clouds drift past the sun.
Because several of us were on a quest to eat as much New Zealand lamb as possible, we ordered lamb burgers. They arrived majestically, each piled high with lettuce, carrots, and feta, and sandwiched between two halves of a pumpkin bun. The burgers themselves were juicy and delicious, of course. But the real surprise were those pumpkin buns. They were deeply orange and just the slightest bit sweet, and each was crowned with a sprinkle of pumpkin seeds that crackled and snapped with each bite. They were a perfect foil for the gamy lamb, with just enough character to be interesting but not enough to overwhelm. None of us had ever had a burger on a pumpkin bun before, and now we all wondered aloud why not, since it was clearly a brilliant idea.
I came home determined to recreate those buns, and after a bit of trial and error, I think I finally managed it. These are so much tastier and more interesting than your average hamburger bun, with just a hint of sugariness from the pumpkin and a welcome crunch from the pumpkin seeds. Skip the dainty turkey or salmon burgers here; these buns can stand up to any number of meaty, gutsy, spicy fillings. Lamb is a natural, of course, as is beef or any other red meat, or portobello mushrooms, or richly spiced legumes, or anything else that’s savory and strong. (In my next post, I’ll introduce my new favorite sloppy joe recipe, which was absolute perfection with these.)
Pumpkin Burger Buns (makes 8 large buns)
Note: You can replace up to 1 cup of the flour with whole wheat flour, if you like; I wouldn’t add any more than that, or the dough will be too heavy to rise properly.
1/3 cup milk
1 (1/4 oz) packet active dry yeast (about 2 1/2 tsp)
1 tsp granulated sugar or raw (turbinado) sugar
3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour, plus more as needed (see note)
1/2 tsp salt
4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted
1 large egg
1 cup pumpkin puree (about half of a 16 oz can)
To finish the buns:
1 large egg
1 tbsp milk
Raw pumpkin seeds (pepitas) for sprinkling
Use a saucepan or the microwave to warm the milk to 100º F, or about body temperature. (I like the baby-bottle test: put a couple drops of milk on the inside of your wrist, and if you can’t feel it, it’s the right temp.) Stir the yeast and sugar into the warm milk, and let stand for 5-10 minutes, or until the mixture is bubbly and foamy.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together flour and salt. Add butter, egg, pumpkin puree, and yeast mixture, and stir until the flour is combined. The dough should be slightly sticky, but not cling to your fingers. If it feels too wet, add a bit of all-purpose flour; if it feels too dry, add a splash of milk.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface and knead for about 10 minutes, adding just enough flour to keep it from sticking to the board. Stop kneading when the dough is soft, supple, and slightly tacky; if you poke it with your finger, it should spring back. (You can also knead the dough for 6-8 minutes in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the dough hook attachment.)
Grease or butter a large bowl. Place the dough in the bowl, and toss to coat evenly with the oil or butter. Cover the bowl loosely with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let the dough rise in a warm place for about 2 hours, or until doubled in size. While the dough rises, lightly grease a baking sheet.
Turn the risen dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and press out any excess air. Divide the dough into 8 even pieces. Working one at a time, roll each piece of dough into a ball, then gently press it into a disc about 1/2 inch thick. Lay the discs of dough out onto the greased baking sheet. Cover loosely with a clean kitchen towel or plastic wrap, and let rise in a warm place for about 1 hour, or until doubled in size. (The buns should now be slightly touching each other.)
Preheat the oven to 375º F, and position a rack in the middle. In a small bowl, beat together egg and milk to make an egg wash. Lightly brush the tops of the buns with the egg wash, being careful not to deflate the dough. Sprinkle a few pumpkin seeds onto the center of each bun, and very gently pat them down to make sure they’ve stuck to the egg wash. Bake for 15-18 minutes, or until the buns are golden on top and firm to the touch.
Remove the baking sheet from the oven. Let the buns cool completely, then gently pull them apart. Slice in half lengthwise, and serve with whatever fillings you like.
To store leftover buns, leave them whole (unsliced). Store in a plastic bag at room temperature for up to 4 days. For longer-term storage, wrap individual buns in plastic wrap, then in aluminum foil, and freeze for up to 3 months.