When pumpkins make an appearance in the autumn, two seasonal rituals come to mind: sculpting Jack-o’-lanterns on Halloween and baking pumpkin pies.
Jack-o’-lanterns — those whimsical hand-carved pumpkin heads with toothy grins — serve as the standard for princesses and caped crusaders who go trick-or-treating on Halloween.
Pumpkin pie, the classic American dessert, makes its official yearly debut on Thanksgiving Day. The pumpkin’s usefulness goes far beyond its role as a decorative holiday symbol or an annual slice of pie for it’s featured in countless dishes around the world.
For many people, the holiday fun includes a trip to the pumpkin patch to pick a pumpkin right off the vine. This tradition helps Americans stay connected to farming roots and the fall harvest, and it maintains the rhythm of the season.
Sliced, cubed and puréed fresh pumpkin can be used in soups, entrées, side dishes, pickles, breads, cakes and ice cream. For an edible bowl, cut the pumpkin’s top off for a lid, then scoop out the seeds. Bake or steam the pumpkin with some butter just until fork-tender; fill with dishes like stew, Parmesan risotto or prepared bread stuffing. Pies made with homemade pumpkin purée have a fresh flavor and lighter texture.
Commercial canned pumpkin purée has been cooked down for a thick, even consistency with concentrated flavor. The popular brand Libby’s Pumpkin, a subsidiary of Nestlé®, uses a proprietary fruit that is a variant of the Dickinson Select, a naturally-sweet, meaty, butternut squash-type pumpkin. Unsweetened canned pumpkin works in any recipe calling for purée, and is available year-round. Don’t substitute the canned pie mix; it is presweetened and spiced.
Fresh Pumpkin Purée
Pumpkin and other winter squash purées aren’t difficult to prepare, but there are caveats associated with the type of pumpkin to use and how to prepare it. A small to mid-size pumpkin yields about 3 cups purée. Acorn squash can be substituted. Some cooks prefer a pumpkin and acorn squash blend for pie.
Pumpkin is about 90 percent water. Boiling the pumpkin flesh isn’t recommended; it becomes waterlogged and dilutes the flavor. For best results, steam or roast pumpkin in a hot oven, around 400 degrees. The high heat helps remove moisture from the flesh.
To cook a pumpkin (or two), preheat oven to 400 degrees. Cut it in half; scrape out seeds and strings. Put pumpkin, cut-sides-down in a heavy, shallow roasting pan or on a sturdy foil-lined baking sheet. Add a little water, just to cover the bottom of the pan. Bake 45 to 60 minutes or until you can easily insert a knife into the flesh.
Alternately, you can roast pumpkin quarters, cut-sides-up until tender and slightly caramelized, which intensifies the flavor. Cool pumpkin; scoop flesh from the rind. Press through a cone-shape food mill or ricer, using a pestle. Or process in a food processor just until smooth.
If cooked pumpkin purée seems thin or watery, concentrate the flavor by straining it in a cheesecloth-lined sieve 4 to 6 hours. You can place a small plate on top with a weight to help press out liquid. (Add the nutrient-rich liquid to other recipes.) Or cook pumpkin in a saucepan over low heat to reduce it down. Stir often to prevent scorching.
Use purée at once or refrigerate for a day or two. For longer storage, freeze in two-cup batches in airtight containers. One pound of pumpkin yields about 1 cup purée. You need two cups purée for a well-filled, 9-inch pie pastry.
Fried Pumpkin Blossoms
Every part of the pumpkin plant has a utilitarian use, including the blossoms. Twice the size of squash blossoms, they can be battered and deep-fried. To make fried pumpkin blossoms, heat enough peanut or canola oil to 375 degrees in a wok or deep skillet for shallow frying. Whisk together one cup of cake flour and 1/8 teaspoon sea salt with 1 tablespoon potato flour, rice flour or cornstarch. Pour in 1 cup sparkling water, briefly blending with a fork. Like a tempura batter, the mixture should be under mixed and lumpy. Dip 1 or 2 blossoms into the batter at a time; shake off the excess. Deep fry blossoms in oil, turning 1 or 2 times, until crispy and golden brown. Drain and serve at once. Variation: Stuff pumpkin or squash blossoms with a thick mixture of goat cheese, ricotta and fresh herbs before dipping into the batter.
Pumpkin Seed Crunch
Pumpkin seeds are iron-rich and a good source of the mineral zinc. They are valued for their anti-microbial benefits, including anti-fungal and anti-viral properties. When recipes call for pepitas, it usually means the flat, dark-green, inner kernel of hulled pumpkin seeds. They are available in supermarkets and Hispanic groceries. Some hybrid pumpkins like Lady Godiva produce edible seeds covered with thin cellophane film instead of tough hulls. The pumpkin is grown for the tasty seeds, but the flesh is acceptable for recipes like quick bread. To toast whole, unshelled pumpkin seeds, wash them in a bowl of water, pat dry and spread over a baking sheet to dry overnight. Coat lightly with olive oil and salt. Toast in a 325 degree oven 25 minutes, stirring occasionally, until golden brown.
2 cups green hulled pumpkin seeds, like pepitas
1/3 cup sesame seeds
1/2 cup unsweetened coconut flakes
1 to 2 tablespoons sesame oil, to taste
1/2 cup honey
1 teaspoon dried, chopped rosemary or marjoram or grated rind of 1 small orange
Ground hot pepper, to taste
Sea salt, to taste
Preheat oven to 325 degrees. Toss pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds and coconut in a bowl. In a medium nonstick skillet, heat sesame oil with honey, rosemary, and hot pepper over low heat. When hot, stir in pumpkin seed blend and stir well. Spread on a parchment lined baking sheet; bake 10 to 12 minutes. Sprinkle with salt. When cool, break into pieces; store in an airtight tin.
Braised Pumpkin and Fruit Loaf
Add a single type of dried fruit to this moist, flavorful bread or choose up to three. Additionally, you could add 1/2 cup finely chopped nuts like pecans or walnuts.
1 cup finely chopped dried fruits (cranberries, raisins, dates, prunes, apricots)
1/3 cup orange juice
1 cup pumpkin purée
1/2 cup canola oil
2 large eggs
1/4 cup orange juice or water
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 teaspoon each cinnamon and nutmeg
1/8 teaspoon cloves
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon baking soda
2 cups all-purpose flour
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a 9 by 5 by 3-1/2 inch loaf pan with parchment paper. In a small bowl, mix fruits and orange juice; heat in the microwave 1-1/2 minutes. Let the fruit sit 10 to 15 minutes as you prepare the remaining ingredients. In a large bowl, whisk pumpkin, oil, eggs, water, sugar, spices and salt. Mix in the soaked fruit with any liquid. Sprinkle in baking soda and stir thoroughly. Add flour; stir briefly with a large spoon just until ingredients form a batter. Pour into the baking pan and bake 40 to 45 minutes or until the bread tests done. The top may crack slightly. Cool then remove from the pan. Wrap and refrigerate leftovers or freeze. Makes 1 loaf.
Cushaw Custard Pie
Cushaw is a teardrop-shape “pumpkin-squash” with a crooked neck. One of the oldest Native American crops, the name derives from the Algonquian language. Cushaw is grown in Southern states, including South Carolina. The mild, sweet flesh is meatier than many other pumpkins. It descends from an exceptional pumpkin grown by Thomas Jefferson, who called it a “potatoe-pumpkin [sic].” The green striped cushaw is known as the “Tennessee sweet potato,” with a flavor that resembles the starchy vegetable. Cushaw makes a tasty side dish for venison and game birds when baked with butter and cinnamon.
1 (9- to 10-inch) chilled pie crust (homemade or store bought)
2 cups thick, dense purée of cushaw or pumpkin or acorn squash
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 packed cup light brown sugar
3/4 cup heavy cream
3/4 cup whole milk
3 large eggs
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 tablespoon fresh pumpkin pie spice
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Whipped cream topping
Make and roll out pie pastry. Fit it into the pan, shaping a flat decorative edge. Cover well with plastic wrap and chill up to 24 hours. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. With a whisk, blend the remaining ingredients together in a large bowl. Pour into the chilled pastry shell. On the lowest oven rack, bake pie one hour or until a toothpick inserted into the filling comes out clean. The edges will be slightly puffy; the center barely firm. Cool to room temperature. Serve each piece with a spoonful of vanilla or rum-flavored, lightly sweetened whipped cream. Serves 8.
Turkey Pumpkin Chili
The star ingredients in this dish — turkey, pumpkin and hominy — are traditional Native American foods. Serve bowls of this hearty chili with toppings that might include sour cream, crushed corn chips, shredded cheese, sliced green onion and fresh cilantro leaves.
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, chopped
1 red bell pepper, seeded and chopped
1/2 jalapeños, seeded and minced
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 pound ground turkey
1 tablespoon chili powder
2 teaspoons ground cumin
1 (14 1/2-ounce) can diced tomatoes, with liquid
2 to 3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup homemade or canned pumpkin purée
1-1/2 cup chicken broth or water, or more, if needed
1 (15-ounce) can black beans, preferably low-sodium (pinto beans, kidney beans or drained black beans)
1 (15-ounce) can drained yellow hominy
1/2 teaspoon sea salt and black pepper, or to taste
1/2 cup chopped fresh cilantro
In a large pot, heat oil over medium high heat. Add onion, bell pepper, jalapeños and garlic. Cook and stir until vegetables are tender, about 5 minutes. Add turkey, chili powder, chile pepper and cumin. Cook and stir until crumbly and lightly browned. Add tomatoes, tomato paste, pumpkin and broth; bring to a boil. Reduce heat to medium-low; stir in beans and corn. Add salt, pepper and cilantro. Cover and simmer, stirring occasionally, for 30 minutes. Add additional stock if too thick. Serve with desired toppings. Serves 4 to 6.
Notes: McCormick Chili Powder, used for making dishes like chili, is a ground chile and spice blend that lends a deep, rich flavor to dishes. McCormick Ancho Chile Pepper is pure, ground ancho chiles that are mildly hot. The dried ancho chile adds earthy, fruity, tobacco and jalapeño flavor-notes to dishes. McCormick Chipotle Chile Pepper is pure, ground, dried jalapeños that have been smoked.
Pumpkin Fennel Soup
For additional flavor, sauté one diced, tart apple in butter until soft; stir into the soup after it is blended. Embellish each portion with a garnish like fresh basil leaves, snipped fennel fronds, red bell pepper strips or pepitas (hulled, roasted pumpkin seeds).
3 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 small fennel bulb, trimmed, chopped
1 medium to large sweet onion, chopped
1 medium red bell pepper, seeded, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
3 cups canned or fresh pumpkin purée
6 cups homemade or canned chicken broth
1 to 2 cups heavy cream, as desired
Sea salt and black pepper, to taste
Heat olive oil in a medium pot over medium-low heat; sauté fennel, onion, bell pepper and garlic until very soft and golden. Add pumpkin, basil and chicken broth. Simmer about 15 minutes. Blend soup in batches (or use an immersion blender) until smooth. Return to the pot; heat over medium heat. Add cream, salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg. Do not boil soup. Serve hot.
Pumpkin Pecan Pancakes
Serve these puffy pancakes with butter and maple syrup. To make maple bourbon syrup, stir 2 tablespoons bourbon into each cup maple syrup. Pancakes are also delicious spread with pumpkin or apple butter.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 tablespoons brown sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon each nutmeg and ground ginger
1-3/4 cup buttermilk, room temperature
2/3 cup fresh or canned pumpkin purée
1 large or jumbo egg, room temperature
2 tablespoons melted butter
1/3 cup chopped roasted pecans
In a large bowl, whisk together flour, sugar, baking powder, baking soda, salt and three spices for 30 seconds. In another bowl, whisk together buttermilk, pumpkin, egg and butter. Pour pumpkin mixture and roasted pecans into the flour mixture, stirring with a wooden spoon until a moist, lumpy batter forms. Do not over mix. Let the batter stand 5 to 10 minutes. Lightly coat a griddle or large skillet with oil or cooking spray; place over medium heat. Using a 1/3-cup measure, pour batter onto hot griddle, adjusting the heat, as necessary. Cook until bubbles form on top. Turn pancake over; cook 1-1/2 minutes or until golden brown on the other side. Don’t turn again. Keep warm while cooking the remaining pancakes. Serves 8 or 9 (4-inch) pancakes.
Pumpkin Cranberry Bread
This tasty harvest loaf contains pumpkin and fresh cranberries. You can also use dried cranberries. Mix them into the dough when you add in the final amount of flour. The dough is braided and coiled into a decorative loaf, but you can shape 1 or 2 simple, round loaves instead. Put on a heavy-duty cookie sheet to rise and bake.
1 cup canned pumpkin, drained in a sieve lined with cheesecloth or a paper coffee filter
1 cup warm water (105 to 110 degrees)
1 package active dry yeast (2 1/4 teaspoons)
3 tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon each ground cardamom and nutmeg
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
1 1/2 teaspoons sea salt
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 cup fresh, firm cranberries, plus extra
1 large egg, beaten with a fork
Drain pumpkin one hour or overnight; discard liquid. In a large mixing bowl of an electric mixer, stir together water, yeast and one teaspoon of the sugar. Proof yeast about 5 minutes until foamy. Add pumpkin, remaining sugar, spices, salt, butter and 1 cup of the flour. Beat with the mixer on medium-low until smooth. Slowly beat in 2 cups flour. Add another 1/2 cup flour, or as needed for the dough to begin pulling away from the bowl sides. Raise mixer speed to medium-high; beat 3 minutes more. Remove dough and place into a greased bowl, turning to grease top. Cover and let rise 1-1/2 hours or until doubled. Punch dough down; cover and let rise again until doubled. Turn dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Divide into 3 portions; shape each into a rope about 10-inches long. Flatten each rope and top evenly with cranberries. Pull up a long side of each piece and roll up into a rope, enclosing cranberries. Seal tightly. Form 3 ropes into a braid then wrap braid around itself into a tight coil, pinching ends securely. Place on a greased baking sheet. Decorate with a few whole cranberries. Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Let dough rise about 40 minutes. Brush lightly with egg wash. Bake 30 to 40 minutes or until medium golden brown. Cool completely on a wire rack. Makes 1 round loaf.