Dulce de zapallo, also known as zapallo con miel de panela, is an Ecuadorian dessert that consists of squash or pumpkin simmered in a syrup made with panela/piloncillo or hard brown cane sugar and spices.
This Latin dessert uses simple ingredients and is very easy to make. I am one of those people who like sweets, but I get overwhelmed if it is too sweet. It’s very common in Ecuador to make these type of caramelized or candied desserts using fruits/vegetables. On their own they are very sweet, but the traditional way to serve them is with a slice of fresh cheese. The sweetness of the candied pumpkin or squash is neutralized when served this way. It provides a nice contrast to the sweetness of the squash and the spiciness of the syrup. You can use fresh farmer’s cheese or queso fresco or fresh mozzarella.
If you are in the Seattle area I recently discovered a local artisan cheese maker called Samish Bay Cheese that makes a cheese very similar to quesillo – a very fresh cheese we have in Ecuador-, they call it Ladysmith and it is very creamy and goes perfect with this dulce de zapallo. They also make a delicious queso fresco. They have a stand at some of the local farmers markets and are also sometimes at Pike Place Market on weekends. You can also visit their farm in Bow (WA). At the local latin grocery stores (as well as PCC and Whole Foods) you can also find a queso fresco brand called Don Froylan, made in Oregon, which also one of my favorites.
You can serve the dulce de zapallo as the main dessert or also as an introductory dessert or as part of a cheese course. I also like to use dulce de zapallo or candied squash as a replacement for pumpkin puree in desserts like pumpkin pie or pumpkin tart. It also works great for pumpkin flan or as a filling for pumpkin empanadas. The spiced pumpkin panela syrup is also delicious drizzled on top of pancakes/waffles, cakes, and ice cream.
The type of squash used to make this dessert in Ecuador has a green-colored skin –very similar to a kubota squash – but larger with a shape similar to an imperfectly round pumpkin. The flesh is yellowish orange, closer to a pumpkin or a butternut squash. Since the varieties of squash here are different I tried making the dulce de zapallo with different types to see which works best. I tried pumpkin, butternut squash, and acorn squash.
The dulce de zapallo made with pumpkin was very good –should probably call it dulce de calabaza. The acorn squash wasn’t as good, it lacked flavor and didn’t absorb the panela and spices compared to the butternut squash which had great flavor, perfect consistency, and a nice color. So I recommend trying this with butternut squash or pumpkin (when they are in season). I also recommend buying an organic squash or pumpkin for this dessert since you will cook the skin.
Dulce de zapallo or candied squash in spiced syrup
- 1 medium squash or small pumpkin about 2 lbs – organic if possible
- 1 lb panela or piloncillo broken into chunks – can substitute with 1.5 cups of dark brown sugar
- 5 cinnamon sticks
- 5 cloves
- 3 all spice peppers
- ~ 3 cups water
- Fresh cheese slices can use quesillo or queso fresco or fresh mozzarella
- Wash the squash well, slice it open and remove all the seeds and membranes.
- Cut the squash into medium sized pieces and place them in a large pot with the chunks of panela and spices.
- Add the water and bring to a boil over medium heat, boil for about 30 minutes with the lid on.
- Uncover and simmer for about 1 hour or until the syrup thickens.
- Remove from heat.
- Can be served warm or room temperature with a slice of fresh cheese. Can also be used as a filling for empanadas and tarts or pies.