It's that time of year again.... The leaves are falling, the grapes are a bit surprised at our 60 degree daytime temps and pumpkins are available from the farms. It's Pumpkin Bread time - a 20 year tradition at The Man, The Myth, The Legend. It all started two decades ago when we got coupons to spend at the local farmers market. Not knowing what to spend them on I bought a pumpkin and made bread from a recipe out of the 1971 edition of The Joy of Cooking (not to be confused with the 1969 edition of The Joy of Sex, something you only do once for sure). The bread was not bad and we got to use the pumpkin. In the last 20 years I've cooked pumpkin every way possible, changed recipes, tossed out ingredients, added others and about 10 years ago figured I was done. Since then I've played a bit with baking dishes, clay tiles etc. but the ingredients and methods have been locked in and now is just a tradition that we look forward to. Following is a few tips.
- Don't use Jack-o-lantern pumpkins for anything. No really, don't. They're not food, they're tasteless mass.
- Buy Cinderella Pumpkins no larger than 12 inches in diameter
- Buy your pumpkins from a farm. Most farms have them from late September to Halloween. Not all farms have Cinderellas so you might ask first.
- Don't get pumpkins from the store unless they're Sugar Pie pumpkins (my second choice)
- Do not boil, steam or bake open side up. You actually want to keep the flavor, not disperse with it.
- Don't believe Christopher Kimble and the America's Test Kitchen staff when they say fresh pumpkin isn't worth the effort. The next time I see him I'll bring both canned and fresh to see if I can change his mind.
I've cooked many different types of pumpkins many different ways. If you use Jack-o-lanterns from the store you might as well just pick up a can of pumpkin puree because you won't be able to tell the difference. Cinderellas have consistently won my choice as the best pumpkins for the following reasons.
- Best flavor. Sugar Pie is also good
- Large enough to be worth the trouble. Sugar Pie don't have a lot of meat so take a great deal more work
- They last forever. I don't know why but they do. I've had Cinderellas which were picked in October still be cookable in December. This extends my Pumpkin Bread season.
- They're a flat pumpkin (think Cinderellas Carriage) so you can cook both halves in a standard oven at the same time otherwise it would take 6 hrs which is quite a lot.
- Good texture. If cooked like I outline below the meat nearly has the consistency of applesauce (no strings).
There is ONE way to cook pumpkin and retain as much of the flavor as possible. With the longest stiff knife you own cut the pumpkin around the equator (beltline). If you do it right your blade will return back to where you started in the exact latitude. Sometimes I'm off by an eighth of an inch. In this case cut the surface on both pumpkins so it's as flat as possible. Place them face down on a counter to see if there's any air gaps. Scrape out the strings and seeds until the walls of the pumpkin are smooth and lighter orange colored. The strings and goo attached to it have a deeper orange color. Don't dig too much into the meat, it's precious. The texture of the meat changes depending on the season, how much rain, how early you picked the pumpkin and so on. If it's spongy and dry be especially careful of removing meat. If it's firm the go ahead and scrape the walls smooth. The best meat is around the beltline of the pumpkin so try to keep as much as possible while still leaving a smooth surface.. Once they're flat place them cut side down on a half sheet pan and in an oven at 350 degrees. It will take somewhere near 3 hours to cook. You will get to know when they're done by looking at them. The outside of the pumpkin should be charred a bit but it should still be holding it's shape. The reason for this is if you got a good seal the steam inside the pumpkin holds it up. This is very important because if you didn't get a good seal the steam will escape and the meat of the pumpkin will rest on the pan and burn. Cut it right and it will turn out. If the pumpkin hasn't caved in and you're not sure if it's done leave it in the oven longer. When you think it's done stick a pie server under one edge and lift. A large amount of liquid will come rushing out. Suck this off using a Turkey baster so it doesn't spill when removing the pumpkin from the oven. Remove and let cook.
Once the pumpkins are cool place another half sheet pan on the skin side of the pumpkin sandwiching it between the two half sheet pans. Turn them both over quickly and remove the pan that the pumpkin was cooked on. This will leave the cooked pumpkin facing cut side up which eases the removal of the meat. I've been using a cheese slicer for 20 years to scrape out my pumpkins and sadly this is it's last pumpkin. I've already started looking online to find another. It's the perfect tool because of the round shape of it. You could probably use a large spoon but your goal is to scrape, not scoop because you'll never get the walls smooth and you'll lose too much meat. Perhaps a very shallow spoon would work with a nice defined edge.
As I've said the best pumpkin is around the beltline and I'm a bit picky about the meat near the stem as it's flavor isn't as nice. If your pumpkin is cooked properly you will take the meat around the beltine clear out to the skin. Near the stem go by color. If it's looking a bit dark leave it. It won't hurt you but it's more bitter.
I've experimented with all the liquid that comes out of the pumpkin. It HAS flavor but reducing it with the meat doesn't make enough difference in my opinion to be worth the effort. I'm still looking for a use for it though. I wonder if it could help flavor squash soups etc...
Store the pumpkin in a plastic container with a lid that seals in the refrigerator. I've tried canning and freezing the cooked meat and I lose too much flavor both ways so I've decided that pumpkin bread is seasonal and why not? You have to have something to look forward to in the fall.
Well, that's it. In the next few days I'll be making bread so there will be an article on that.