The Great Pumpkin

The changing of seasons is always accompanied by delicious new smells. As summer warmth gives way to the chill of autumn, I inevitably perk up at the unmistakable aroma of cinnamon scented cider, the deliciously smoky tendrils of last-ditch efforts to squeeze in one more day of grilling before the weather turns, and most prominently, the nutmeg waft of pumpkin coffee in all my favorite shops. When I begin inhaling the aromas of autumn, I am forced to make two crucial decisions in my life: What to be for Halloween this year and what kinds of pumpkins to use this year to decorate my front stoop?

More than any other symbol to me, pumpkins represent all that is great about autumn. From pumpkin pie to carved pumpkins to pumpkin festivals, pumpkins are firmly entrenched in my mind as the symbol of cooler weather delights. Pumpkin-flavored everything starts showing up in coffee shops, bakeries, and restaurants as temperatures in Western New York drop... pumpkin spice lattes, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin pancakes... Getting hungry yet?

Pumpkins are the last great remnant of seasonal food. In days gone by, Americans ate asparagus only in the spring, tomatoes and corn only in the summer, and citrus fruits almost exclusively in the winter. Thanks to technological advances in farming, storage, and shipping, these short windows of availability for many of our favorite fruits and veggies are a thing of the past. Now we can buy tomatoes any day of the year. Ditto for citrus. But not pumpkins... The great orange gourds still have such a strong association with the fall that we don't import them from all corners of the Earth all year round, like just about every other item of produce.

The delights of pumpkin go far beyond porch decoration and pie (although those two items alone would make pumpkins worth getting excited about!). Pumpkin is an awesome ingredient to cook with. If you want to use fresh pumpkin in your recipes, be sure to get your hands on a pumpkin that is actually appropriate for eating. If the name of the pumpkin at the market includes a "food word," then that is a good indication of tastiness. Sugar pumpkins, pie pumpkins, and cheese pumpkins are among the many varieties that are bred for delicious flesh (they all also happen to be smaller pumpkins).

Using fresh pumpkin involves cutting the gourd in half, scooping out the seeds and goop, and roasting the pumpkin halves (cut side down) in a baking pan with about a 1/2" of water (cover the pan with foil) for about an hour, or until the flesh collapses when poked. Let the pumpkin cool, peel away the skin, mash, and voila! Pumpkin that's recipe-ready! Please don't hesitate to use canned pumpkin if all this sounds like a lot of work. It's worth it, but not absolutely necessary for tasty results.
And what about those seeds? Don't even think about tossing them out when you carve your porch pumpkin! Although the huge pumpkins that we use for decoration are far too fibrous and watery to use for culinary purposes, their seeds still make addictively tasty snacks. After cleaning out the pumpkin "guts" in preparation for carving, pick out the seeds and rinse them off in a strainer. Spread them out on paper towels and let them air out overnight (this drying time makes them bake faster and more evenly). From here, use the seeds in any delicious-sounding pumpkin seed recipe you find. I love the ones that combine sweet with spicy-hot. Roasted pumpkin seeds travel well, and I always keep a baggie full of them in my car for emergency noshing.

As much as I love the savory applications of the entire family of gourds (butternut squash ravioli with sage butter is a perennial favorite!) there is no denying the lure of pumpkin-laced sweets. My current favorite version is pumpkin biscotti, perfect to match with an aromatic pumpkin-spiced coffee! This recipe is a great opportunity to introduce whole-wheat flour (and some healthier sugars!) into your repertoire. I love whole-wheat pastry flour (available in the baking aisle of most stores) because it's got the nutrient punch of whole-wheat flour with the light texture of all purpose white flour. The pumpkin and spices in the recipe means your family probably won't even realize they are munching on a whole-wheat sweet! The pumpkin puree seamlessly takes the place of butter in the traditional recipe, an added bonus if you are watching your fat intake!

Get crazy if you want and add some dried cranberries to the recipe. In addition, you can always drizzle the finished biscotti with a little melted dark chocolate if you want to really go all-out Halloween colors with this delicious snack!

Pumpkin Biscotti

Makes about 18

2 eggs
2/3 c pumpkin puree (fresh or canned)
1 c sugar (try a less processed version like turbinado, or sucanat, or maple sugar!)
2 t vanilla
3 cups whole-wheat pastry flour (or regular all-purpose flour)
1 T pumpkin pie spice (or 2 tsp cinnamon + 1/2 tsp ginger + 1/2 tsp nutmeg + a pinch of allspice & ground cloves)
1 tsp baking powder
1/4 tsp salt

1. Preheat your oven to 325
2. Whisk together the eggs, pumpkin, sugar, and vanilla until smooth
3. Stir in the remaining ingredients until a thick dough forms
4. Scoop the dough onto a baking sheet lined with well-sprayed aluminum foil, s
5. Wet your hands (so they don't stick to the dough) and form the dough into a log, about an inch high, about 4 inches wide, and about a foot long
6. Bake the log for 15 minutes, rotate your pan, and bake for another 15 minutes
7. Remove the biscotti log when the center feels firm and not squishy
8. Let the log cool at least 15 minutes
9. Use a serrated bread knife to cut the log into diagonal pieces, about 1/2-1" wide
10. Lay the slices, cut side down, back on the baking sheet
11. Bake the biscotti again for about 8 minutes, flip each biscotti over and bake an additional 8 minutes, or until they start to feel crisp (they will become more crisp as they cool)
12. Let them cool if you can, then dunk in your favorite autumn beverage!

Biscotti have a long shelf life -- they will stay delicious in an airtight container for at least a week. They also travel and ship well, since they are so sturdy. Treat someone you love with a fall pumpkin delight - just in time for Halloween!

Speaking of Halloween, I am going with white pumpkins for my porch this year!

Happy Eating!


JackieFrostJackie Frost lives in downtown Buffalo with her husband, where they cook dinner from scratch almost every night. Lebanese, German, Korean... nothing is off limits at dinnertime! She grew up in Michigan with a big garden, a father who loved to cook, and a mother who loved to can and bake. Her current favorite foods are blackberries and fennel (not necessarily together!) She is a chef at a private foodservice company in Buffalo.

Categories: Healthy Eating
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