In the Pumpkin Shell

Author: Alecia Pirulis  

Pumpkins

It’s time to pick a peck of pumpkins! (Or pick up two or three at the store or farmer’s market.) Packed with vitamins A and C, pumpkins are good for you! Even the seeds provide zinc. And if you are dieting, pumpkins are high in fiber and will curb your appetite. And while you may not want 14 pounds of pumpkin, these useful orange orbs are iconic symbols of fall.

Every year my family starts asking for their favorite dish, pumpkin cheesecake. Usually, I buy canned pumpkin. This year, I am going to make my cheesecake with homemade pumpkin puree. It will put all of the pumpkins I’m buying to good use and I like the idea of using fresh ingredients in my baking. And, you can freeze it in small freezer bags to use in recipes all year long.

Making your own pumpkin puree is easy. First, you need to know which pumpkins to buy. There are several different kinds of pumpkin, but the two types I’m most interested in this time of year are the big carving pumpkins (which are not that tasty – I’ve cooked with them and they tend to get mushy and lack flavor) and the small, heavy, smooth “sugar pumpkins” that are meant for cooking. I love these little pumpkins – they are the perfect size for setting on my kitchen table on a bed of colorful leaves. They are sometimes called “pie pumpkins” or “baking pumpkins.” They are as cute as they are flavorful, so they look great sitting around until you are ready to use them.

Take your sugar pumpkins and cut the top off near the stem. Cut the pumpkins in half and scoop out the seeds and such (the “and such” is that stringy stuff that is in with the seeds). Save the seeds in a bowl so you can roast them later.

There are several different methods you can use to cook your pumpkin. Place them on a baking sheet and roast them for about an hour on 350 degrees (the skin will peel off nicely once they are cooked). Or cut the pumpkin off the skin and put the chunks in boiling water, cooking until tender. You can also place the pumpkin in the microwave – roughly seven minutes per pound, turning every so often.

Once your pumpkin is cooked and free of skin, place it in a food processor or blender. (If you don’t have either, you can also mash them by hand with a potato masher.) Depending on your pumpkin, you may need to add a tablespoon or two of water as you are blending – don’t add too much, just enough to make a smooth puree. If you get your pumpkin too watery, you can save it by straining it through cheesecloth.

Now, what do you do with it? You can make pumpkin bread, pumpkin pie, pumpkin scones, pumpkin cupcakes — the recipes are limitless. If you don’t want to puree your pumpkin, you can still cook with it – make a pot of pumpkin soup.

Back to the seeds – roast them! Roasted pumpkin seeds are delicious and easy: Wash them. Put them on a baking sheet. Sprinkle some salt on them. Bake at 350 degrees for about 20 minutes. Check one. If it is dry inside, they are done. That’s the basic idea – you can also soak them in saltwater overnight before roasting them. You can sprinkle them with everything from garlic salt to cinnamon and sugar. Just keep an eye on them when they are in the oven so they don’t burn. Some people shake them up a bit during the cooking process. Some people prefer to take off the outer shell prior to baking. And if you want, you can coat the seeds in olive oil before sprinkling with salt and baking. When your seeds are done, eat them as a snack, put them in a fall salad, use them as a garnish – it’s up to you.

And while baking with pumpkin is fun, healthy, and delicious, let’s not forget the traditional Jack-o’-Lantern! Find a nice-sized carving pumpkin. Cut off the top (I like to leave a little “notch” while cutting so I can easily fit the “lid” back on) and clean it out. Be sure to get as much out as you can. With a marker, draw a face (be sure to keep it simple and remember – if it isn’t attached to the pumpkin, it will fall off). Then, use a pumpkin carver or knife to cut out the face. If you want something a little more intricate, use a stencil. Tape the stencil onto the pumpkin. Using a nail, follow along the outline of the stencil and poke through the pumpkin. When you remove the stencil, you’ll have a dot-image of the stencil. Just cut along the dots and you’ll have a unique image on your pumpkin.

Unless you have a balcony or front stoop, you may not be able to place your Jack-o’-Lantern outside – that’s okay! Use it as a centerpiece on your kitchen table. Light the candle and you’ll have a spooky ambiance for dinner parties! If you have space in a window, put your pumpkin there. You might want to choose a flameless candle for safety.

With so much you can do with pumpkins, you may decide on picking a peck, after all!