Did you hear the news from Morton, Illinois, the “Pumpkin Capitol of the World?”
It seems we’ve just been through the Great Pumpkin Crisis of 2009. Excessive rains and a bad harvest season created a shortage of pumpkins in Morton, where Nestle grows them for Libby’s brand of 100% pumpkin packed in 15- and 29-ounce cans. Nestle controls 85 percent of the pumpkin crop for canning. Libby had announced that it would not be canning anymore pumpkin this year.
Actually, I hadn’t even noticed. I prepared my own fresh pumpkin for baking this year.
Whole large pumpkins are wonderful for carving into jack-o-lanterns around Halloween and medium-size ones become charming flower containers during the fall (above photo). Pumpkin pulp can be used in a variety of recipes for pie, cake, pumpkin butter, cookies and soup.
My mother had a holiday ritual of preparing fresh pumpkins for pies. She cooked 1 or 2 small pie pumpkins the day before she began baking and any pulp not used was frozen for another time. Her pumpkin pies were like no other I ever tasted.
Canned pumpkin is a popular product; Libbys estimates that 50 million pumpkin pies are baked each fall. Pumpkin is not just a favorite pie filling for Thanksgiving but for the remainder of the holiday season as well. It’s good to know how to work with fresh pumpkin, especially when canned pumpkin is in short supply. Besides, the flavor of fresh pumpkin adds another dimension and just can’t be beat.
I used the medium-size pumpkin in the photo above as a flower vase at a luncheon. I cut it just before the guests arrived. When the guests departed within two hours, the pumpkin immediately went into the oven for roasting. (I had covered the interior with foil and set a container filled with water inside to hold unsprayed flowers from my yard.) If you intend to roast a cut pumpkin, please do so within a couple of hours. Rinse out the pumpkin before putting it into the oven.
Small sugar pumpkins or New England pie pumpkins (about 3 to 6 pounds) are superior for baking because there is more flesh and they have a sweeter, more intense taste. The flesh color is also deeper orange and less fibrous and watery. Small pumpkins are easier to work with although the outer skin may be hard to cut even after cooking.
Small to medium whole pumpkins can be filled with a savory stew or rice casserole then baked. Served as a baked vegetable side dish, the creamy texture of smaller pumpkins can be enhanced with the addition of butter, brown sugar and spice. Pie pumpkins are easily available at most grocery stores.
Miniatures like the Jack-Be-Little, Jack-Be-Quick or Sweetie Pie pumpkins are good for individual-size portions and can be baked with a custard filling or filled with foods like cranberry sauce. Hollowed-out, unbaked miniature pumpkins make great containers for sauces.
When buying a pumpkin, look for 3 to 4 inches of attached stem. Pumpkins without stems don’t keep as well. Look for good color and a tough skin without soft spots or blemishes.
Peeling a pumpkin seems like an impossible chore and to my way of thinking, too much effort. And forget boiling or pressure cooking. Try roasting a whole pumpkin in the oven instead. All you need to do is cut off the top part or “lid” and put it into the oven. Roasting tends to concentrates the pumpkin flavor and doesn’t introduce additional water.
Boiling is my least favorite way to prepare pumpkin since it becomes watery and much favor is lost. Steaming works well but you need to cut the pumpkin into smaller pieces and again, that’s extra work.
Prepare the pumpkin with a good rinsing then pat dry. Place it on a sturdy cutting surface and with a large, sharp serrated knife, carefully remove the top third. Scrape out as much of the strings and seeds as possible, using an ice cream scoop or large spoon. Discard strings; save seeds and roast for snacks or salads. Or save them to plant pumpkins next year.
If cutting a big pumpkin is too difficult, spread some newspapers on a portion of your patio and simply drop the pumpkin or hit it on the hard surface a time or two. Prepare and bake the pumpkin pieces as directed.
Set whole pumpkin (or pieces) onto a large sturdy roasting pan. Pour a small amount of water into the pan. Place into a preheated 350 degree oven. If too large, the lid can be cut into smaller pieces and place on the side or into another pan. (Lid pictured was cooked in another container.)
Bake pumpkin for 1-1/2 hours OR just until the flesh is very tender when pierced with a fork or knife. Cover with foil if it cooks too much on top. Add more boiling water to the pan as it evaporates to increase steam and prevent burning. When tender, remove pumpkin from the oven and cool until it can be handled.
Cut whole cooked pumpkin into several large pieces. Lightly scrape out and discard any remaining strings. Scrape pulp from the rind and put it into food processor; puree with the steel blade.
If the cooked pumpkin is watery, which is a common problem with large pumpkins, you can do a couple of things. Roasting does help eliminate the problem by not introducing additional water. An easy method for removing the liquid is to put the pulp into a cheesecloth-lined strainer over a bowl and let the excess water drain out for at least an hour, or better, overnight.
You can also put the pulp into a medium pan over a low burner and cook, stirring constantly, to evaporate the moisture and reduce to a thick pulp. Watch carefully or pumpkin will scorch.
Other interesting solutions I heard of include:
- Spreading out pumpkin pulp on multiple layers of paper towels. Or squeeze-dry in layers of cheesecloth.
- Juice the uncooked pumpkin, then reduce the juice and stir it back into the pumpkin.
Pie pumpkins are generally available through December.
Three pounds of small fresh pumpkin will yield about 3 cups of mashed cooked pumpkin.
Can’t find a pumpkin to cook for pie? Try sweet potatoes or winter squash (acorn or Hubbard). A lot of canned pumpkin is made from the butternut variety of squash. Japanese Kabocha squash is a delicious squash with a dryer and sweeter flesh than pumpkin.
Refrigerate pumpkin pulp 3 or 4 days. Package in one cup portions and freeze up to six months.
Use a 9-1/2 inch glass Pyrex pie plate for excellent results. To prevent breakage in the oven, don’t heat pie plate over 400 degrees – and then for only a short time at that temp. You can check the pie plate out here:
PUMPKIN CUSTARD PIE
Fresh pumpkin can be prepared ahead of time. You will have one cup or so of the pie filling left over. Bake a small tart or fill 2 or 3 small custard cups and bake in a water bath. You can use the leftover filling to dip pieces of bread into to make Spiced Pumpkin French Toast, which is delicious with maple syrup. Sprinkle toasted chopped walnuts on top. The pie is lighter and more custard-like than pies made with evaporated milk. The color is also lighter.
1 unbaked pastry (store bought or homemade), to fit a 9-1/2 inch pie plate
4 large eggs
1/2 packed cup light brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2 to 2-1/4 cups fresh concentrated pumpkin pulp (or canned pumpkin)
1 cup half and half
1/4 cup heavy cream
1 tablespoon dark rum or bourbon or heavy cream
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon ground allspice
Prepare pastry. Preheat oven to 400 degrees (200 degrees C). In a large bowl, whisk eggs, then whisk in sugars, pumpkin, half and half, cream and rum until smooth. Mix in remaining ingredients. Pour into pastry shell and place on a heavy duty baking sheet and bake 10 minutes. Reduce heat to 325 (160 degrees C) and cook 40 minutes or until a knife inserted comes out clean. Filling will puff slightly around the outer edge when done. Cool pie at least one hour before cutting. Serve with whipped cream, lightly flavored with confectioners’ sugar and pure vanilla extract.
Hint: Cover edges of pastry with narrow strips of foil to prevent overbrowning. Remove during the last ten minutes of baking.
Photos (except for pumpkin place cards) by Susan Slack.