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Muffin monsters will love these pumpkin-banana delights

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I love the rituals of autumn. All those things and places that mark the passage of time that I wait for all year. Visits to apple orchards, raking leaves, pulling sweaters and sweatshirts from their summer storage, morning walks in the crisp air, apple crisp, weekend drives to enjoy the dazzling colors of fall - all the pleasant delights of the season that seem to slow down the rush and chaos of daily life.

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It's the pumpkins, though, that seem to mark the official "Howdy!" of the season. Pumpkins are everywhere right now.

Members of the genus Cucurbita and the family Cucurbitaceae, pumpkins, as well as all that are collectively referred to as "winter squash" (including such offerings as acorn, butternut, delicata, kabocha, spaghetti, turban and many more) are rich in nutrients, subtle and sweet in flavor and robust in color and ornamentation.

Although I live in the woods in a house that isn't even visible from the road, I still can't stop decorating my front steps with pumpkins of all shapes and sizes and my age-old scarecrow. Indoors, there's a perfectly shaped round, bright orange pumpkin on my dining table with a branch of bittersweet.

My favorite part of the arrival of pumpkins, though, is all the ways they can be turned into edible delights, both sweet and savory. Years ago, my mother-in-law turned small round loaves of sweet and spicy pumpkin bread out of empty vegetable cans. My sister-in-law created uniquely shaped loaves of pumpkin bread by baking the batter in coffee cans. But me? I stick to muffins. I've convinced myself that I am completely unable to bake a beautiful loaf of quick bread. Too many times the loaves I've baked sink in the middle, the gooey underbaked middle collapsing onto itself. Not pretty.

So, my family is comprised of a bunch of muffin monsters. Over the years, I've baked tiny muffins for my two sons and larger muffins for the adults. Now my two sons eat the big muffins and their own children eat the size just perfect for small hands.

Granola-Topped Pumpkin-Banana Muffins began with the banana bread recipe I got many years ago from my neighbor, Hazel. She would deliver a loaf to our door, sometimes still warm, wrapped in waxed paper and foil. It's the best banana bread I've ever eaten. She did give me her recipe, and I do make it sometimes, but it never tastes as good as those loaves she shared with us.

With a little bit of tinkering to Hazel's recipe, an addition of lots of fragrant spices along with some pureed pumpkin, I came up with moist and flavorful muffins that I think my muffin monsters are going to love. The biggest monster of all has already given them his stamp of approval.

Since my grandchildren don't have the same appreciation for nuts that I do, I made a topping similar to granola, with oats and brown sugar and butter. I add broken pecan pieces to half of the granola topping. The nutty topping goes on the large muffins. The nutless topping gets sprinkled over the mini-muffins.

Now we can all be happy as we eat our muffins.

Use canned pumpkin puree or some of your own cooked pumpkin. Butternut squash can easily stand in for the pumpkin.

Leave the chaos behind. And, if you're at all like me, say good-bye to quick bread frustrations, too, and make Granola-Topped Banana-Pumpkin Muffins one of your autumn rituals.

Granola-Topped Pumpkin-Banana Muffins

1 1/2 teaspoons baking soda

3/4 cup buttermilk

3/4 cup butter (12 tablespoons), room temperature

1 1/2 cups sugar

3 large eggs

2 very ripe bananas, mashed

1 cup pureed pumpkin

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

3 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1/4 teaspoon salt

1 cup chopped dates

Granola Topping:

1/4 cup old fashioned oats, uncooked

1/4 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup firmly packed brown sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/4 cup butter, room temperature

1/4 cup chopped pecans

Prepare Granola Topping by combining oats, flour, brown sugar, cinnamon and butter in a small bowl with a pastry blender or clean fingers. Mixture should resemble coarse meal. Add pecans. Set aside.

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a 1-cup glass measure, dissolve baking soda in buttermilk and set aside. In a large mixing bowl, beat 3/4 cup butter with sugar until light colored. Add eggs and beat to incorporate. Add mashed bananas, pumpkin and vanilla and blend.

Sift flour, cinnamon, pumpkin pie spice and salt together. Add all at once to mixture in bowl and stir or beat on low speed just until dry ingredients are moistened. Stir in chopped dates.

Spoon batter into greased muffin pans, filling three-fourths full. Sprinkle Granola Topping evenly over batter in pans. Bake in preheated 400-degree oven for about 15 minutes or until a wooden pick inserted in center of muffin comes out clean. Yields 24 muffins.

Tips from the cook

--Mix your own pumpkin pie spice blend by combining 1/8 teaspoon nutmeg, 1/8 teaspoon allspice, 1/2 teaspoon cinnamon and 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger.

--When the bananas on your kitchen counter become so ripe they turn very, very dark, just seal them into a freezer-strength zip-top bag and freeze them until you are ready to do some baking. Take the bananas you will need from the freezer. Allow them to thaw. Snip through the peel at the top of the bananas with a scissors and squeeze the banana right into your mixing bowl. No need to mash first.

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