After a gorgeous weekend of blue skies and hot, sunny days, I feel a bit thrown off. Is it fall, or are we heading back into summer? I'm not complaining–this is certainly preferable to the bone-chilling winter ahead–but it sort of makes it difficult to get excited about hearty stews when it's 80 degrees outside. (Not to mention the weirdness of wearing flip flops and sundresses in October!) But one thing assures me that it is decidedly is fall: I've got pumpkin on the brain.

About this time every year–when pumpkins start popping up in the market, cans of it appear in the grocery store, and Starbucks starts serving their pumpkin lattes–the craving hits. Every day I wake up and nothing sounds quite as good as a warm pumpkin muffin and a steaming cup of coffee. Over the past week, I searched my neighborhood in vain for some homemade pumpkin goodies and, finding none, decided just to make my own. (The sweet smells of pumpkin, cinnamon, ginger, and nutmeg wafting from the oven were just an added bonus.)

The bad thing about this craving is that it doesn't go away after October. It sticks around long into the winter. As long as the weather is cool and there is canned pumpkin available in the grocery stores, I am game for a pumpkin baking project. Years ago I set out to find the perfect recipe for a pumpkin layer cake. I wanted a cake that was tender yet resilient, moist, flavorful–full of spices and studded with nuts–and slathered in tangy cream cheese frosting.

The recipe that did the trick (and has since become my standby) was from...drum roll please...Betty Crocker! (And no, it does not involve a cake mix.) Her Harvest Pumpkin Spice Bars not only met every single one of my criteria, but the recipe is extremely versatile. I have tweaked the recipe over the years (taken the sugar down a bit, added some spices, and played around with adding things like chocolate chips and cranberries) and have discovered that it works equally well as layer cake, bundt cake, muffins (or cupcakes, depending on whether you use frosting), or loaf bread.

Yesterday I decided to make muffins and a loaf of bread–the recipe below makes enough batter for two dozen muffins or one dozen muffins + one loaf pan. Making both muffins and bread is nice, because you can either eat the warm muffins and give the loaf away, or vice versa. The bread freezes really well, so if you prefer not to eat it all in one sitting (which I do not recommend!), wrap up the loaf as soon as it cools and stash it away in the freezer for a future unorthodox pumpkin craving.

PUMPKIN SPICE MUFFINS (AND BREAD)Makes 12 muffins and 1 9x5" loaf of bread (or 24 muffins, or 2 9x5" loaves)

(Scroll down for the Madeleine Variation)

4 eggs

1 3/4 cups granulated sugar

1 cup vegetable oil

1 (15-ounce) can pureed pumpkin (NOT pumpkin pie mix)

2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tsp baking powder

1 tsp baking soda

1/2 tsp salt

2 tsp cinnamon

1/2 tsp ginger

1/4 tsp nutmeg

1/4 tsp cloves

1 cup golden raisins*

1/2 cup chopped walnuts (optional)

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a 12-cup muffin tin and a 9x5" loaf pan.

Beat the eggs, sugar, oil, and pumpkin in a large bowl until smooth, using a hand-held mixer. In a separate bowl, combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, and cloves.

With the mixer on low speed, add half the flour mixture to the pumpkin mixture and mix until almost combine. Add the rest of the flour mixture and mix until smooth. Stir in the raisins and the walnuts.

Fill the muffin cups 3/4 full and pour the remaining batter into the loaf pan. Place the muffins and the loaf pan on the center rack in the preheated oven.

Bake the muffins for about 20-25 minutes or until the tops are puffed up and a toothpick comes out clean. Leave the bread in the oven for an additional 35-40 minutes or until the top has risen and is lightly browned and a toothpick inserted into the middle comes out clean.

For both the muffins and the bread, let cool for 5-10 minutes in the pan, then turn out onto a cooling rack to continue cooling.

*Try substituting the golden raisins for dried cranberries or chocolate chips!

VARIATION: Pumpkin Madeleines – Make the batter without the raisins or walnuts. Place heaping tablespoons (probably more like 2 tablespoons for each) in a greased madeleine tin. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes until puffed up and a toothpick inserted into the center of one comes out clean. Cool for a few minutes in the tin, then turn out onto a cooling rack to finish cooling. Dust with powdered sugar before serving. (Makes about 48 madeleines)