Pumpkins - More than just jack o'lanterns

Rima Nickell



The once humble pumpkin, decoratively nestled among stalks of corn or as centerpiece with gourds and Indian corn, now has festivals dedicated to its glories, with everything from soups to cakes to breads and new versions of the Thanksgiving standard: pumpkin pie.

Although we associate the pumpkin mostly with the Halloween jack o'lantern, it was a Johnny-come-lately to that holiday, the origins of which lie at least 2000 years back in the Celtic traditions of the British Isles. Adapted by the Roman conquerors, modified by the Christians and brought to North America mainly by Irish immigrants, Halloween became uniquely American with the addition of the pumpkin, another of the now indispensable contributions of Native American agriculture. Without the pumpkin, we might still be making Jack O'Lanterns with turnips, or more precisely, rutabagas, because the Irish had no pumpkins yet; this would not happen until 16th century Spanish and Portuguese conquerors began their dispersal around the world centuries later.

The Celts, like many ancient peoples of northern countries, sought ways to cope with the approaching winter. People felt at the mercy of both the elements and the powers of unknown forces. The antecedents of Halloween were more about keeping evil spirits and ghosts of the dead at bay on the eve of winter's long, cold embrace. Food left on doorsteps and window sills was the customary way to appease the spirits. There were also times of great poverty and people went door to door begging food presaging the modern custom of trick-or-treating.

Modern autumn festivities and commercialization of Halloween has left those dark memories behind leaving jack o'lanterns and apple bobbing as vestigial reminders of those dark days. Not surprising that apples remain part of the celebration mix as the Roman conquerors of the British Isles followed their commemoration of the dead in late October with celebrations to honor Pomona, their goddess of fruit and trees - likely the origin of bobbing for apples.

Pumpkin and apple festivals abound in autumn. And food is at the heart of Halloween as of all celebrations, in fact, many ancient holidays were called "feasts." The Latin roots are the same for feast and festival. These celebrations on the farms where the pumpkins and apples are grown enable children and families to connect to both the people who raise their food and the land itself.

Pairing Pumpkins with Apples

Sharing autumn harvest time, pumpkins and apples also pair nicely in many recipes, the mellow sweetness of the pumpkin enhanced by the tart-sweetness of the apples. Pumpkins adapt to many recipes and can be substituted for carrots, sweet potatoes, and squash. As always I recommend using whole, unprocessed ingredients including cold pressed (rather than chemically extracted) oils such as safflower, sunflower, whole grain flours; reduced amounts of sweeteners, fats and salt. Enjoy these wholesome, delicious dishes and desserts while the fruits of the harvest are in season.

Pumpkin Soufflé

Serves 6

The apple adds both sweetness and tartness to this simple, but elegant pumpkin dish. Serve as a side dish to a main course or as a main dish with salad and hot bread.

3 cups freshly baked pumpkin, mashed and partially cooled
3 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 beaten egg yolks
1/2 cup applesauce
2 egg whites

To the pumpkin add the butter, salt, egg yolks and applesauce and beat until fluffily. Whip until stiff 2 egg whites. Fold gently into the pumpkin mixture. Pour into a greased 7-inch soufflé dish and bake in a pre-heated 350° oven about 40 minutes. Serve immediately.

Pumpkin-Apple Bread or Muffins

Moist and redolent of pumpkin, vanilla and spice, this bread, although not very sweet satisfies like a cake, warm or cold. Try fresh goat's cheese spread on a warm slice.

1 cup grated raw pumpkin
1/2 cup grated apple
1/3 to 1/2 cup oil
1/3 to 1/2 cup honey, molasses or maple syrup
2 eggs, beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla
1-1/2 cups whole grain flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt or less (optional)
1-1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1.2 cup chopped nuts or sunflower seeds
1/2 cup raisins or chopped dried fruit

Beat together the oil and honey. Add eggs, vanilla, pumpkin and apple. Mix well. Sift dry ingredients together. Add pumpkin mixture to dry ingredients along with nuts and dried fruit.
Stir until just moistened. Bake in a well-greased loaf pan or 8-inch by 8-inch cake pan 45 to 60 minutes until a toothpick inserted in the middle come out clean. Cool in pan a few minutes then turn out onto wire cooling rack. Refrigerate if storing more than a day.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

I adapted this recipe from the Common Ground Dessert Cookbook (Ten-Speed Press, 1983). All the desserts are made from scratch with whole grains and natural sweeteners. It's ok to use canned pumpkin for this, but I like the flavor of freshly cooked pumpkin. I made five of these for our local pumpkin festival. It was a sell-out. Despite the raves, it's rich and something to reserve for a special occasion.

One graham cracker crust in a 10-inch spring form pan

1-3/4 cup fresh cooked pumpkin pulp
1-1/4 pounds Neufchatel (reduced fat) cream cheese
1-1/4 to 1-1/2 cups real maple syrup
2 eggs
1 teaspoon molasses
2 teaspoons arrowroot powder
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon powdered cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon powdered ginger
pinch each of ground cloves and allspice

Beat cream cheese until smooth. Puree the pumpkin pulp with the maple syrup, and the remaining ingredients. Add to the cream cheese and whip until smooth and creamy. Pour the filling into the crust and bake at 375 degrees for 45 to 60 minutes. Do not overcook. Cake is done even if very center is not completely set and will continue to cook after taken from the oven. Allow the cheesecake to cool and set at least two hours. Best if refrigerated overnight. Serves 10 to 12 sinful eaters.

Pumpkin Bars

This recipe is adapted from Whole Foods for the Whole Family, Roberta Bishop Johnson, editor, published by La Leche League International, 1981. It has great recipes for simple family cooking and a center section especially for kids.

1/2 c oil
1/2 c molasses or honey
2 eggs
1 c plus 2T whole grain flour
1.t baking powder
1/2 t baking soda
1.c cooked mashed pumpkin
3/4 t cinnamon
1 T grated fresh ginger or 1/4 powdered ginger
1/8 t clove
1/3 c. chopped nuts (optional)

Beat the oil and molasses together. Add the eggs and pumpkin and beat until thoroughly mixed. Sift or stir the dry ingredients together. Add the pumpkin mixture and nuts Stir lightly but thoroughly. Spread in a 9" by 13" pan. Bake in a pre-heated 350° oven 25 to 30 minutes. Frost, if desired, with cream cheese thinned with orange juice concentrate.

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To learn more about Rima and the Beyond Food series, please click here. Last month's Beyond Food column can be found here.

Finding Farmer's Markets

Nationwide revival of local farmer's market has been taking place for more than a decade. In buying from local farmers, you get fresher products and have a direct connection with the people who grow your food. This peak of season is a good time to stock up on storage vegetables such as squash, onions, potatoes, beets, and carrots. Beside Eastern Market, the 80-year old Royal Oak Farmer's Market and the Ann Arbor Farmer's Market have a variety of vendors and hours to suit different customers. The Master Gardener Society has a directory of southeastern Michigan farmer's markets.

© 2002