Have you purchased your supply of cucurbita pepo yet?
In spite of rumors to the contrary, there seem to be plenty available, but just to be sure I bought a half dozen yesterday: a couple of small ones, easy to prepare in several dishes I have planned, a couple larger ones for jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween, and a couple mediums which I’ll decide how to use later.
I’m talking about pumpkins, of course, which I’m sure you’ve guessed. Cucurbita pepo may be its technical name, but I much prefer just plain old “pumpkin.” It’s one of my favorite fall vegetables out of the whole family we refer to as “winter squash,” and one of the most versatile as well. When it’s ripe and ready to use, pumpkin can be steamed, boiled, baked or roasted, and virtually every part of the gourd can be used, including the flowers, which are much loved in Mexico dipped in batter and fried.
Pumpkins are native to and grown throughout North America and have spread to all parts of the world. They’re very popular, especially in Asian cuisine, but one of the best pumpkin dishes I ever devoured was in Florence, Italy. Pumpkin ravioli; fat squares of pasta stuffed with a spicy/sweet pumpkin filling and smothered in a rich, creamy sauce. (My mouth began to water as I typed those words.) I’ve come close to repeating it at home, but it’s never been quite as delicious as that first pumpkin ravioli experience.
Of course, there are many things to be done with pumpkins besides eating them. Cinderella’s good fairy turned one into a coach for her to ride in (but only until midnight); Harry Potter and his buddies all frequently drank pumpkin juice at Hogwart’s; Linus and friends wait every year for the Great Pumpkin magically to appear; I recall a bumbling character in the Oz books called Jack Pumpkinhead; and a pumpkin-headed scarecrow was turned into a man by a witch in one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s tales. Then, in 2003, Starbucks introduced us to pumpkin spice lattes and ever since then, every October there are more and more odd pumpkin items for sale, some of them quite unimpressive.
For most of us, it’s canned pumpkin we choose to buy for our baking, especially pies, but it’s really not difficult to turn your cucurbita pepo into a smooth, spiced-to-your-liking puree you can use for pies, cakes, muffins, cookies, soups, casseroles, and one of my favorites, pumpkin ice cream. Keep in mind, too, that pumpkin is loaded with Vitamin A, with smaller amounts of potassium, Vitamin B5, and no fat, which makes it a first-class health food, right?
Finally, I’d like to ask readers if any of you recall a nonsense rhyme of many, many years ago, involving a pumpkin. It’s been running through my head the entire time I’ve been writing this column, and I’d like to find out if I imagined this or if others may also remember this senseless ditty:
“Peter Peter pumpkin eater, had a wife but couldn’t keep her; he put her in a pumpkin shell, and there he kept her very well.”
Please tell me I didn’t make this up.
Where to begin; there are so many ways to enjoy pumpkin and I’m wondering why we seem to relegate it primarily to October and November. But first, if you don’t know how to make your own fresh pumpkin puree (which is so much better than the canned), I won’t take up space here, but if you email me at firstname.lastname@example.org, I’ll be happy to email you instructions. It’s not hard to do.
Let’s begin with a rich, delicious pumpkin soup, great on a Thanksgiving buffet, but welcome on any chilly winter evening.
SIMPLE PUMPKIN SOUP
2 cups pumpkin pulp (scooped from inside a baked pumpkin)
1 cup grated carrot
1 onion, finely chopped
2 T. butter
Pinch of curry powder (to taste)
4-6 cups vegetable or chicken stock, (depending upon desired thickness)
½ t. finely grated fresh ginger (I use more because I love ginger, especially with pumpkin)
Kosher or sea salt and white pepper, to taste
½ cup creme fraiche (or heavy cream), plus a bit more for garnish when serving
Blanched almonds, lightly toasted, to garnish
In a large heavy pan (or Dutch oven), cook the chopped onion in the butter over low heat, stirring until onion is softened. Add the carrot, curry powder and ginger, stirring to mix, then add the broth and simmer the mixture until the carrots are tender.
Place the pumpkin pulp and the carrot/onion mixture in a blender (in batches) or a food processor and puree until mixture is smooth, returning the puree to the cooking pot after processing.
When all the pumpkin and carrot mixture is processed and smooth and back in the pot, add the cream and salt and pepper to taste. If the mixture is too thick for your taste, add more stock. Heat soup over low heat until soup reaches desired temperature, but DO NOT ALLOW IT TO BOIL. Serve immediately in heated bowls, garnished with a tablespoon of lightly toasted thin almond slices, or you can garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds. Swirl a small bit of cream decoratively through the soup for an elegant presentation, if you wish.
As much as I like dear old pumpkin pie, I inevitably end up making this pumpkin pecan cake during the holidays; it’s addictive.
PUMPKIN PECAN CAKE
3 cups flour
3 cups sugar
3 t. baking soda
2 t. ground cinnamon
½ t. ground cloves
¼ t. ground nutmeg
1 ½ cups vegetable (corn) oil
2 t. vanilla extract
2 cups cooked pumpkin puree (preferably freshly made)
8 oz. crushed pineapple, drained
1 ½ cups chopped pecans, plus halves for decoration on top
For the frosting: 8 oz. cream cheese at room temp.
½ cup unsalted butter, at room temp.
3 cups sifted powdered sugar
1 t. vanilla extract
In a large bowl, combine the flour, sugar, baking soda and spices. Add the oil, eggs and vanilla; beat well. Add the pumpkin, pineapple and pecans and mix to combine well. Pour the batter into two 9-inch buttered and floured round cake pans. Bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for 30-35 min. or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Let cool for 5 min., remove from pans and let cool completely on a wire rack.
To make the frosting: In a bowl, cream the cream cheese and butter until light and smooth. Add the powdered sugar gradually and beat until smooth and creamy. Stir in the vanilla. If frosting is too soft, gradually add more powdered sugar until desired consistency is reached.
Spread some frosting on one layer and place the second layer on top. Frost the sides and top of the cake, swirling it decoratively a bit on the top. Let cake sit a bit for the frosting to set before cutting. If desired you can add pecan halves on top as additional decoration. Serves 12.
Do you remember those cream filled cookies called Whoopie Pies? Well, these Pumpkin Whoopie Pies far surpass those; kids love these but I find most of them end up in adult hands.
PUMPKIN WHOOPIE PIES
For the filling: 2 pkgs. cream cheese (8 oz. each), at room temp.
1 cup sifted powdered sugar
½ cup unsalted butter, room temp.
2 t. vanilla extract
For the cookies: 2 ¾ cup flour
4 ½ t. ground cinnamon
2 t. baking powder
1 ½ t. ground nutmeg
1 ½ t. ground ginger
1 t. baking soda
1 t. salt
½ t. ground cloves
1 ¼ cups unsalted butter, at room temp.
1 ½ cups sugar
3 T. dark molasses
2 t. vanilla extract
4 large eggs
1 ¼ cups pumpkin puree
½ cup buttermilk
Make the filling: Beat the cream cheese, powdered sugar, butter and vanilla in a med. bowl until smooth. Set aside.
Preheat oven to 325. Whisk first 8 cookie ingredients together in a bowl.
With an electric mixer, beat butter, sugar, molasses and vanilla until blended. Add eggs, one at a time, beating until blended after each addition. Beat in pumpkin.
Beat in dry ingredients in 3 additions, alternating with buttermilk in 2 additions, beating until just combined. Line 2 rimmed baking sheets with parchment paper. Drop dough by rounded tablespoons onto the sheets, spacing two inches apart. Bake cookies one sheet at a time, for about 13 min., or until a toothpick inserted in center comes out clean. Repeat with remaining dough until all is used. Let cookies cool on sheet before removing them. (Can be made ahead; let stand at room temp. until ready to assemble cookies.)
Spread 2 T. of the filling on the flat side of a cookie and top with a second cookie, forming a sandwich. Whoopie pies are ready to eat! Makes about two dozen.