It was time to take the pumpkin out of the pot and eat it. In the final analysis, that was what solved these big problems of life. You could think and think and get nowhere, but you still had to eat your pumpkin. That brought you down to earth. That gave you a reason for going on. Pumpkin.
–Mma Ramotswe, The #1 Ladies’ Detective Agency
Pumpkins are one of my absolute favorite things to grow. When people visit my garden and see the long vines with their ripening green and orange orbs, they often say, “I would grow pumpkins, but I don’t have enough room.” A common misconception! Unlike a summer squash, say a zucchini, that takes up a whole world of garden, sugar pie pumpkin vines can be planted at the corner of a bed, then their vines trained around the edges. When the summer garden begins its descent into depressing barren brown-ness, the pumpkin vines will be graced with gorgeous orange fruits that turn our minds to cozy things–tea during a rainstorm, books by the fire, and of course pumpkin pie. Preferably with hazelnut-rum whipped cream.
For best color, nutrition, and storage, pick your pumpkins when they are fully mature. The stems should start to feel corky rather than moist and fleshy, the fruits should be full sized, and the skins should be rather tough–it will be hard to poke your thumbnail into it. Cut them leaving several inches of stem, and keep them in the garden for a few days to “cure” before preserving.
Even if you didn’t grow pumpkins this year, you might find it satisfying to choose some pretty ones from your local farm and preserve them for winter cooking. When you see the gorgeous yellow-orange puree you produce, you will never want to open a can of that brown Libby’s stuff ever again.
Pumpkins are not very acidic, so they cannot be safely canned in a water bath. If you want beautiful canned pumpkin puree, you will have to pressure can it, and since I have a subrational fear of pressure canners, I freeze my pumpkin, which works perfectly well, even if it isn’t as pretty. (For directions on pressure canning pumpkin, check the indispensable Ball Complete Book of Home Preserving.)
There are two ways to prepare the pumpkin for pureeing: roasting or boiling. To boil, use a sharp serrated knife to cut the pumpkin into halves or quarters, scoop out the innards, save a little handful of seeds for next year’s planting, and the rest for roasting (the innards and a few skins can go to the chickens), then cut into large chunks and pop into a big pot of boiling water until soft enough to poke easily with a fork. Let cool, then skin. The combination of a tough-skinned squash and me wielding a giant sharp knife strikes fear into the heart of my long-suffering husband (with good reason, I admit), so I personally use the roasting method: use a fork to poke holes into the skins, then pop the pumpkins into a 350 degree oven for up to an hour, until soft. Protected by their skins, the pumpkins are actually steamed, rather than roasted. Let cool until easily handled. Slice the fruits and remove the innards. The skins will slip right off, and the pumpkins will slice like butter. Many hands make light work, and it was fun to prepare pumpkins alongside my daughter. Claire de-gunked the pumpkins and saved the seeds, while I sliced, both of us singing along with Abigail Washburn and her banjo.
One way or another, you now have soft, skinned pumpkin, ready to puree. The intrepid may use a potato masher, but the rest of us will prefer a blender or food processor. Having tried all three ways, I go with the food processor. The processing should be easy, and the fruit should quickly puree into a soft, smooth, orange puddingy mixture. If it seems to take forever, the pumpkin may still be too hard. Even if you roasted it to begin with, hard pumpkin chucks can be popped back into boiling water if need be.
Freeze in containers or freezer bags. Our freezer space is limited, so I use bags because they take up less room. Be sure to label the containers with the contents, date, and amount stored, and fill them in the amounts you most often use. I pack most of mine with one cup of puree for pumpkin bread, and a few with two cups for my favorite pie recipe. For easy storage in a crowded freezer, smash the bags flat, pile them on a cookie sheet, and freeze into a nice, stackable shape.
Be sure to save a cup of two for a batch of fresh bread! Here’s my favorite recipe–all spices are “to taste,” and Claire, like many children, prefers it with fewer spices in general. I have grown to enjoy a nice gingery flavor alongside squash, but the cinnamon and ginger measurements could be reversed if you prefer. This recipe works well with any kind of winter squash, yams, or sweet potatoes, but I like it best with nice orange pumpkin. If you use white whole wheat flour, the bread is even better the day after baking; the germ will have melded with the moisture of the pumpkin, the milk, and the spices. So lovely.
Tangled Nest Pumpkin Bread
1 1/2 cups flour (white whole wheat, all-purpose, or a mixture)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon salt
1-1/1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
3/4 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon cloves
In a liquid measuring cup stir together:
1/3 cup milk (or substitute water, soy, or rice milk)
1/2 teaspoon vanilla
In a large bowl, or the bowl of your mixer fitted with the paddle attachment, beat until creamy:
6 tablespoons butter, preferably unsalted
Add, and then beat until smooth (about 3 minutes):
1 cup sugar, and 1/3 cup brown sugar (light or dark)
Beat in 2 eggs, one at a time
Add, and beat until just blended:
1 cup of your beautiful pumpkin puree
Add the flour mixture in 3 parts, alternating with the milk/vanilla mixture. Beat only as much as necessary, but scrape the bowl sides and bottom as needed to blend all the butter/sugar.
Fold in 3/4 cup chopped walnuts
You can also add a handful of raisins if you don’t mind squishy things hiding in your food. (If I liked such things, I think I would try golden raisins.)
Spread evenly into a 9×5 greased bread pan, and sprinkle more chopped walnuts or pepitos on top. Bake in a 350 degree oven, until a tester comes out clean, about an hour. You may need to put foil over the top to keep it from over-browning in the last 15 minutes of baking. Let cool in the pan for five minutes before turning out to cool completely. Meanwhile, luxuriate in the incredible pumpkin-spicy fragrance of your kitchen.
And here’s how we roast seeds: wash the seeds, remove most of the pumpkin gunk, pat off excess water, and let them air dry on a dish towel for an hour or so. Saute in a little butter, soy sauce, and splash of worcestershire sauce until the liquids start to cling to the seeds. Transfer to a baking sheet and roast at 350 until beginning to plump and brown–somewhere between 7 and 15 minutes.
They are best eaten warm from the oven. So delicious! And, as Mma Ramotswe says, they’re a reminder of the simple, most peaceful, most essential things in life.
Favorite pumpkin recipe? Please share!
November 2012: This post was originally published on October 20, 2009. This year, after harvesting the few little sugar pie pumpkins from our garden, I find myself turning to the instructions on my own blog for a reminder of the best way to prepare them for baking and freezing. I see that this archive post has been popular as autumn moves into glorious fullness so I’m pushing it to the front page again. Enjoy.