Pumpkin Fever

October 7, 2010 § Leave a comment

With Thanksgiving approaching, I always have pumpkin on my mind. The cold crispness of autumn signals the return of piles of shiny orange pumpkins lining the entrances to grocery stores across Ontario – not to mention the delicious return of the Pumpkin Spice Latte at various coffee shops.

There is an abundance of things you can make with a pumpkin: muffins, cookies, soups, scones, pastas, curries, breads – you can think outside of the pie, you can! But something that might be even more exciting is to think outside the can. Roasting a real, round pumpkin and scraping the soft fragrant flesh from skin is very different from the unceremonial plop that processed pumpkin makes as it sucks out of the can.

Pumpkins originate in North American, so historical references to pumpkins are relatively new, tracing back only a few hundred years when they were first referred to as “pompions” by the French, after the Greek “pepons,” meaning large melon. In 1621 at the first American Thanksgiving in Plymouth, the Pilgrims ate pumpkin custard flavoured with maple syrup, which eventually evolved into pumpkin pie.

Pumpkins commonly grown in Ontario include Small Sugar, Spooky and Early Cheyenne Pie pumpkins. These, among other small pumpkin varieties, are bred specially for cooking. Most of the varieties grown are cultivated for decorating and carving, and their flesh is too watery for cooking. Avoid the Jack-o-lantern destined varieties and keep your eye out for any pumpkin labeled “pie pumpkin.”

Using fresh pumpkin is beneficial for a number of reasons. While the common canned variety E.D. Smith claims to be “100% Dickenson pumpkin,” it is still a processed product, which removes many of the nutrients. Fresh pumpkin is sweeter, and has more fiber. In any case, pumpkin is an excellent source of Vitamin A, thiamine and riboflavin. And bonus: if you’re cooking a real pumpkin you can save and bake the seeds, which are high in protein and iron.

Another thing to keep in mind is that using canned pumpkin puts other regional varieties at danger of extinction. Since E.D. Smith canned pumpkin uses only Dickinson pumpkins and is shipped across North America, the widespread use of one regional pumpkin variety puts demand out of Southern Ontario and instead on imported canned pumpkin. To keep Ontario’s Small Sugar, Spooky and Early Cheyenne Pie pumpkins thriving, buy your pumpkins whole and fresh.

When I roasted my own pumpkins for the first time, I didn’t know how much puree each pumpkin would yield, and I hugely overestimated. What puree I didn’t use for pie baking the same day I was able to freeze and use at later date. When you’re selecting your pumpkin keep in mind that a five or six pound pumpkin will yield about 4 cups of puree.

Making your own puree is easy: wash your pumpkin and cut with a large knife down the middle. Scrape out the stringy membranes and seeds, and cut out the stem. Cover each pumpkin half in aluminum foil and bake, foil side up in a 325 degree oven for about an hour an a half, or until the pumpkin flesh is very soft. Scrape the tender pumpkin flesh from the skin and puree in a food processor or blend to make smooth.

If Thanksgiving is a time about being thankful, it is the perfect time to make the extra effort to bake with real ingredients, locally sourced. Whether you obtain your pumpkins directly from the field of a local farm, or from the outdoor bins of a grocery store, following the process from fresh vegetable to warm, cozy food is a satisfying way to appreciate the abundance of local produce Ontario farmers provide.

Once you see how easy and satisfying it is, there is a wealth of pumpkin recipes to try. Isa Chandra Moskowitz, of Vegan Cupcakes Take Over the World and The Post Punk Kitchen fame, has a delicious looking vegan Pumpkin Brownie recipe on her blog, vegancupcakes.wordpress.com. And the incomparable Martha Stewart has an amazing recipe for pumpkin cookies with brown butter icing in Martha Stewart’s Cookies, also available on her website. Local authors Jeff Crump and Bettina Schormann’s new book Earth to Table: Seasonal Recipes from an Organic Farm includes a fabulous looking recipe for an inventive “Mile High Pumpkin pie” that I will be attempting this Thanksgiving weekend.

But for starters, here is a simple pumpkin muffin recipe that is sure to please; the muffins are moist and delicious: I just ate two in rapid succession after they finished baking.

Pumpkin Muffins Recipe

Ingredients:

1 1/2 cups flour
1/2 teaspoon of salt
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 cup pumpkin purée
1/3 cup melted butter
1 egg
1/2 cup cream or milk
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon ground ginger
Optional: raisins, toasted walnuts or pecans, chopped candied ginger

Preheat oven to 350°F. In a medium sized bowl, mix together the flour, salt, sugar, and baking soda.

Mix the pumpkin, melted butter, egg, milk or cream, and spices together, then combine with the dry ingredients, until just incorporated. Do not over-mix. Fold in any additional ingredients, like nuts or raisins.

Spoon mixture into a prepared muffin tin. Bake for 25-30 minutes. Check for doneness with a toothpick inserted into the center of a muffin. If it comes out clean, it’s done. Cool on a rack.

Makes 12 muffins.

Published in InsideOut, The Silhouette, Oct. 7, 2010. Thesil.ca.

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