Truly Great Pumpkins

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When I see the stacks of orange orbs materializing in front of grocery stores, I can’t help but think that pumpkins have been hijacked by October for that trick without a treat, the Halloween jack-o’-lantern.

The hijackees have been bred not for their texture or flavor, but for their color (DayGlo orange) and substantial stems, with the ability to support their weight when lifted by the buyer, and sturdiness so as not to break with multiple ons and offs of the jack-o’-lantern cap. Only after the imposters have been duly smashed, trashed or (ideally) composted, can we turn to truly great pumpkins.

The rule of thumb for finding a delicious pumpkin is to look for the opposite of the typical jack-o’-lantern pumpkin. The best ones are either the small “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins on the one hand, or the quite large “cheese pumpkins” on the other. Their colors range from light cream to taupe to a dark bronze or a dull orange. Their stems may be thin or even broken off. But remember you’re buying this pumpkin for its luscious flesh, not for its appendage.

Nearly lost varieties

The cheese pumpkins are flattened and squat, just like a big round of cheese. Some have vertical pleats running from the stem end to the blossom end. My brother Henry grows the cheese varieties winter luxury, New England, Long Island cheese and Cinderella. He also grows the elongated long pie pumpkin as well as an heirloom variety given to him by a local resident who got it from descendants of the Kickapoo, which was grown for centuries in great swathes of the Midwest.

The long pie looks something like a long, fat, orange (sometimes streaked with green) zucchini. This cultivar has a peripatetic history. Once known as the “Long Island pie pumpkin,” it was first recorded growing on the Isle of St. George in Portugal’s Azores islands, from seed brought there some time previously from the Americas. From the Azores, it was brought back to the New World in 1832 by whalers traveling to Nantucket from whence it was carried north to Maine.

Burpee offered it in 1888 as St. George, and by the 1930s, it was well established in certain areas of the northeast as the pie pumpkin. It was said that a Mainer never heard of a round pumpkin unless they moved away from home. Little by little, though, the long pie’s fame faded, and by the 1980s it had reached total obscurity (though the Penobscot and Abenaki tribes still regularly grew it).

It was “rescued” by LeRoy Souther, a native of Livermore Falls, Maine, who had been maintaining it for more than 30 years. Sometime in the late 1980s he brought seeds to cucurbit aficionado John Navazio at his Common Ground Country Fair squash booth. Navazio took them with him to Garden City Seeds in Montana where he reintroduced them to commerce.

New England pie is the classic orange pie pumpkin. The flesh is a little drier than some of the others, but stringless, making a nice pie consistency without putting it in a blender or food processor.pumpkins waiting to be harvested at Henry's Farm in central Illinois

Winter luxury is my favorite culinary pumpkin, and Amy Goldman, author of “The Compleat Squash,” thinks so too.  This pumpkin’s beauty comes from the russeted, finely-netted soft orange-gray skin. Goldman advises baking the pumpkin whole, pierced with a few tiny vent holes, until it slumps after about an hour at 350 F. You then scoop out the flesh and put it in a blender to make what Goldman calls “the smoothest and most velvety pumpkin pie I’ve ever had … requiring much less in the way of sugar and eggs than other varieties.” Don’t expect the color of the flesh to be dark orange, though. It is actually quite light but it’s the flavor and texture, not the color, that makes the winter luxury pie pumpkin so exceptional.

A serious heirloom

The Indian or Kickapoo pumpkin is such a serious heirloom that you’ll find it nowhere else than my brother Henry’s farm, unless you are, perhaps, a member of this central Illinois tribe. The seeds of this precious pumpkin were given to Henry by a woman who knows the chief of a local group of Native Americans. His family has grown it as long as anyone can remember. It is a large, flattened, fluted pumpkin that is a delicate beige/orange/tan. It strikes you as almost too beautiful to be real, more of a carved and polished objet dart for a large country French oak table, than a thing to carve and eat on a dish upon that table.

But this object is no objet, and eat it you must, for it is a thing of beauty with a practical function, which is to feed us, and feed us well. So find a truly great pumpkin, enjoy its deep beauty for a week or two, then sacrifice it for the enjoyment and nourishment of all.

Start by cutting the pumpkin in half, placing the cut sides down on an oiled baking sheet and baking at 350 degrees F until you can easily pierce it with a fork. From this point you can scoop out the flesh and freeze it for later, or make it into a side dish, soup, stew or dessert. Any way you use it, it will make for a deeply satisfying meal on a chilly autumn evening — another reason to revere the great pumpkin and give thanks.

Grandma Henrietta always had a tray of frozen pumpkin bars ready for quick thawing and icing and serving should a visitor drop by.

Grandma Henrietta’s Pumpkin Raisin Bars

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1 tablespoon ground cinnamon
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon ground cloves
1¾ cup cooked pumpkin
4 large eggs
¾ cup vegetable oil
1 cup raisins
6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup powdered sugar
⅓ cup butter, room temperature

Directions

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 F.
  2. Grease a 15½ x 10½ x 1-inch baking sheet.
  3. Stir the first 8 ingredients in large bowl to blend.
  4. Add pumpkin, eggs, and oil and beat until blended.
  5. Mix in raisins.
  6. Spread batter in prepared pan.
  7. Bake about 25 minutes.
  8. Cool in pan on rack.
  9. Beat cream cheese, powdered sugar and butter in medium bowl to blend into frosting. Spread frosting over cake in thin layer.
  10. Cut cake into bars. Eat some now and freeze some for later.

 


Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, “The Seasons on Henry’s Farm,” now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

Photos, from the top:
Small “sugar” or “pie” pumpkins are great for both sweet and savory dishes, from soups to stews to pies and cakes.
Field of dreamy organic pie pumpkins on Henry’s Farm ready to be harvested in October.
Credit: Terra Brockman

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