Monday, October 12, 2009
From the kitchen of One Perfect Bite...We've had large, carving pumpkins in local farmer's markets for weeks now, but this weekend I saw the first of the sugar pumpkins I like to use for baking. Pumpkins are everywhere, and that started me thinking about how they got their name. I guessed it came from England but I was wrong. It originated with the Greeks whose word "pepon" which means large melon. The French played with the word, changed it to "pompon", and passed it on to the English who immediately changed it to "pumpion." As a matter of fact, you'll find references to "pumpion" in Shakespeare's Merry Wives of Windsor. By the time of our forefather's first Thanksgiving, the large orange squash was called a pumpkin. While pumpkin pie originated in the American colonies, the first pumpkin pie was not a pie as we know it today. The colonists sliced off the pumpkin top, removed the seeds, and filled the insides with milk, spices and honey and baked it in hot ashes. Chances are it was very stringy and bland, but the pumpkin was a major source of food for the colonists. Edward Johnson, who wrote the History of New England (1654), thought it important enough to share this admonition, "And let no man make a jest at Pumpkins, for with this fruit the Lord was pleased to feed his people to their good content, till Corne and Cattell were increased." Needless to say, the stern old Pilgrim didn't mention the jack-o-lanterns which people had been making for centuries.
The practice of carving pumpkins originated with an Irish myth about a man called Stingy Jack who invited the Devil to have a drink with him. Jack didn't want to pay for the drinks, so he convinced the Devil to turn himself into a coin that could be used to buy their drinks. The Devil agreed but Jack had a change of heart and decided to keep the coin in his pocket along with a silver cross that prevented the Devil from assuming his original form. Jack eventually freed the Devil, under the condition that he would cause Jack no harm for a year and that, should Jack die, he would not claim his soul. The next year, Jack again tricked the Devil into climbing into a tree to pick a piece of fruit. While he was up in the tree, Jack carved a sign of the cross into the tree's bark so that the Devil could not come down until he promised Jack he would not bother him for ten more years. Soon after, Jack died. As the legend goes, God would not allow such an unsavory figure into heaven. The Devil, upset by the tricks Jack had played on him and keeping his word not to claim his soul, would not allow Jack into hell. He sent Jack off into the dark night with only a burning coal to light his way. Jack put the coal into a carved out turnip and has been roaming the Earth with it ever since. The Irish began to refer to this ghostly figure as "Jack of the Lantern," and then, simply "Jack O'Lantern."
Now back to cooking. When selecting a pumpkin for cooking, your best choice is a "pie pumpkin" or "sweet pumpkin." These are smaller than carving pumpkins and the flesh is sweeter and less watery. It should have a stem that 1 to 2 inches long. Anything less than that will cause the pumpkin to decay quickly. Shape is not important but avoid those that have blemishes and soft spots. You'll need one pound of raw, untrimmed pumpkin for each cup of finished pumpkin puree. To make the puree, remove the stem, cut the pumpkin in half, remove the seeds and fibrous mass and cut the pumpkin into large chunks. I steam mine for about 12 minutes, or until it's fork tender. It could also be boiled, baked or microwaved if you prefer. When it's tender and cool enough to handle, remove the peel with a knife and your fingers. Puree the pumpkin using a food processor, blender or food mill. If you don't want to bother with this, buy a can of solid pack pumpkin and use that instead.
I made pumpkin butter this weekend. My favorite recipe is an old one developed by Martha Stewart and I suspect you've seen it before. I made one small change to her recipe. It calls for 1/2 teaspoon ground cloves. I thought the cloves made last year's batch too bitter, so I cut the measure to 1/4 teaspoon cloves and added 1/4 teaspoon mace to keep the recipe in balance. It's a lovely recipe and, yes, you can used canned pumpkin.
Pumpkin Butter...from the kitchen of One Perfect Bite
1 (28-oz.) can pumpkin puree
3/4 cup apple juice
2 teaspoons ginger
1/4 teaspoon cloves
1/4 teaspoon mace
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon nutmeg
1-1/2 cups granulated sugar
1) Combine all ingredients in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil, then reduce to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for 30 minutes, or until mixture thickens. I cook mine until a spoon pulled through middle of mixture leaves a trail that does not close in upon itself. If you plan to use immediately, let cool to room temperature. Pack into storage containers and refrigerate for up to a month. Pumpkin butter can also be frozen for up to 6 months. Yield: 3 cups.