Everything you want to know about pumpkins

By Tina Wasserman

The first chill has been in the air, and Halloween and Thanksgiving will be here before you know it, so I decided that now is the perfect time to learn about pumpkins.
The pumpkin is a member of the squash family, whose origins can be traced back over 9,000 years to Mexico. They are also thought to be part of the gourd family grown in India, but this isn’t true. The round orange globes are actually related to cucumber and cantaloupe.
Growing on vines up to 12 feet wide, pumpkins are a fruit, not a vegetable. Pumpkin seeds were brought from the “new world” by Columbus to Spain and were initially grown only to feed swine. The widespread Mediterranean use of pumpkin for human food can be attributed to the Jews from Spain and Portugal in the late 15th century.
Initially the Jewish immigrants from Spain were the only people to eat the cheap and humble squash. The golden pumpkin was symbolic of prosperity and fertility, and often found its place on the ceremonial tables during Rosh Hashanah. Most pumpkin recipes that you find in Italian cookbooks owe their ancestry to the Jewish migration.
Human consumption of pumpkin has also been attributed to ancient times in Asia, and it is possible that the Arab armies brought the fruit to its conquered lands as well. It wasn’t until Columbus introduced pumpkin that it got its name and European recognition.
The name, pumpkin, is derived from the Greek Pepon, which means large melon. The French called it “Pompon” and, owing to the nasal pronunciation, the English adapted it to “Pumpion,” and colonists in America called it “Pumpkin.”
When the Native American Indians first introduced the Colonists to pumpkin, they were roasting strips of the fruit over fire as a food and weaving dried strips of pumpkin to make mats.
It was the Colonists who found a diverse use for the pumpkin. Hollowed pumpkins were turned upside down over a person’s head to provide a straight line to follow when cutting hair. That’s how they got the name pumpkin head.
The pumpkin pie finds its origin in the cooking technique of the Colonists, who cut the top off the pumpkin, removed the seeds, filled the inside with milk, honey and spices, then baked it until the meat of the pumpkin was soft and well flavored.
Speaking of cutting a pumpkin, I recently saw a suggestion for preserving the life of your jack-o’-lantern so it doesn’t rot before the end of October. If you cut a large hole in the bottom of the pumpkin and scrape out the insides well, you just need to place the carved decorative pumpkin over the candle on a plate.

Cooking with Pumpkins

All pumpkins may be eaten but it is the smaller, more rounded sugar pie pumpkins or “pie” pumpkins that will yield a dense, drier cooked flesh similar to canned pumpkin. Larger pumpkins will be stringy and more like acorn or spaghetti squash. Always buy a pumpkin whose stems are attached and those that feel heavy for their size.
Pumpkin can be cooked like you would any squash: Peel, seed, cut into chunks and simmer in a small amount of salted water for 20-40 minutes; or peel, cube and season before lightly tossing with olive oil and roast in a 350-degree oven until soft and golden.
To roast pumpkin seeds, rinse them thoroughly to remove any strings, then soak for 15 minutes in salted water. Drain and then roast in a 250-degree oven until golden. Season with a little oil and salt and pepper if you like after you roast or for the last 5 minutes.
If you are displaying pumpkins outside in the sun, bring them in at night, if you can, to prevent rotting. Pumpkins can be ripened off the vine if they are exposed to sunlight.
I love pumpkin pie, but unless the crust is super-delicious and sweet, I feel guilty eating all that fat-saturated dough. Here’s a recipe that is light, less caloric (believe it or not) and can be made in advance without getting soggy, flat or losing its flavor.

Pumpkin Mousse

2 teaspoons unflavored kosher gelatin
2 tablespoons dark rum
1 cup canned unsweetened pumpkin
½ cup sugar
1 egg yolk
1/8 teaspoon nutmeg
Pinch of allspice
½ teaspoon cinnamon
¼ teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon vanilla
¼ teaspoon salt
1 cup heavy cream
1. Sprinkle the gelatin over the rum in a small Pyrex custard cup and let it soften for a few minutes.
2. Combine the remaining ingredients except the heavy cream in a medium bowl.
3. Place the Pyrex dish with the rum and gelatin in a skillet that contains ½ inch of simmering water. Stir the mixture until the gelatin is dissolved.
4. Whisk the hot gelatin mixture into the pumpkin until thoroughly combined.
5. Whip the cream in a small bowl until it forms soft peaks, then fold it carefully into the pumpkin mixture.
6. Spoon into six 4-ounce ramekins and refrigerate until set, about 3 to 4 hours.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• Gelatin tends to clump when initially hydrated. That is fine, but don’t let the mixture sit for more than a minute, or it will be very hard to successfully dissolve it.
• If alcohol is present in a recipe, it often serves to “cook” the raw egg to prevent it from growing bacteria.

Pumpkin Bread

The following recipe is a variation of the pumpkin bread that Joanne Orlando brought to my classroom when I was her junior high home economics teacher. I threatened to flunk her if she didn’t give me the recipe.
I still have her hand-written index card for a memento, and Joanne, who is now probably 60, did get an A in the class, but not because of the recipe.
This is still the all-time favorite in my house or at any pre-school snack time when I made them into mini-muffins. It is such a good way to get some great nutrients into your family.
This recipe may be doubled and the baked breads freeze beautifully.
1½ cups sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
½ teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1¼ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole-wheat flour
½ cup raisins
½ cup chopped walnuts, optional
2 eggs
1 stick butter, melted, or ½ cup coconut oil for a dairy-free version
1/3 cup water
1 cup canned pumpkin
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1. Grease 2 coffee cans, or 1 loaf pan, or 2 mini-loaf pans and some muffin tins or a combination of each.
2. Heat the oven to 350 degrees.
3. Into a large 3-quart mixing bowl, add the first nine ingredients (eight if omitting nuts). Stir to combine. Combine all of the remaining ingredients in a 1-quart bowl and add to the dry ingredients. Stir until with a rubber spatula until well blended.
4. Pour into the prepared pans and bake as follows:
Mini muffins: 12-15 minutes
Cupcakes: 20-25 minutes
Mini loaf pans: 35-40 minutes
Loaf pans: 45-60 minutes
Coffee cans: 60-75 minutes
Ginger Orange Spread
8 ounces cream cheese
1 tablespoon frozen orange juice concentrate
2 tablespoons milk
1 tablespoon brown sugar
1 tablespoon crystallized ginger, chopped
1. Combine all of the ingredients in a processor work bowl and process until smooth.
Tina’s Tidbits:
When buying canned pumpkin, make sure you are not buying pumpkin pie substitute.
• When a recipe calls for combining all of the ingredients into a bowl, always add the dry ingredients first so you don’t activate the baking soda or powder with the wet ingredients until the last.
• Gluten-free flour may be substituted, but xanthan gum does not need to also be added since the pumpkin puree adds fiber and structure to the recipe.

Jamaican Pumpkin Pancakes

These pancakes have always been a hit with my students as well as my family. Not very sweet, but loaded with good taste and lots of good vitamin A. Add a little maple syrup, and you can pretend you’re a Pilgrim, too.
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
½ teaspoon ground allspice
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
2 eggs
1½ cups buttermilk
3 tablespoons cold water
1 cup pumpkin puree
½ stick unsalted butter, melted
1. Combine the flour, baking powder, baking soda, allspice, salt and cinnamon in a medium-sized bowl. Set aside.
2. Beat the eggs in a large bowl with a whisk until foamy. Beat in the buttermilk, cold water and pumpkin puree. Refrigerate until needed or proceed with Step 3.
3. Add the melted butter to the pumpkin mixture, then fold the dry ingredients into the pumpkin mixture until the batter is smooth.
4. Lightly grease a large skillet with additional butter and allow the pan to get fairly hot. Drop the batter by scant ¼ cups onto the griddle and cook until the pancake is golden on the bottom and air pockets appear on the dry top. Flip the pancakes over and cook one more minute until underside is golden.
5. Serve hot with butter and syrup.
Tina’s Tidbits:
• As long as no liquid comes in contact with baking powder or baking soda, your dry ingredients can be pre-measured the night before.
• If you don’t have buttermilk in the house, add a teaspoon of vinegar or lemon juice to milk and set aside for 5 minutes before using in your recipe. Any type of milk may be used.
• Despite its name, buttermilk does not contain fat. It is more like skim milk in fat content.

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