I love pumpkin for its pretty face, but I can’t see any inspired reason for cooking it fresh. I’m far too lazy for that. Just to be on the safe side, I consulted an expert, this year’s Morton Pumpkin Festival bake-off winner, Carol Plier. She said she cooks with canned pumpkin rather than fresh “because the quality is always the same, there are no surprises and it’s easy.”
As a pastry chef and resident of Morton, Ill., the chief pumpkin-growing area in the United States, Miss Plier has experimented with pumpkin in a variety of recipes.
She has even gone to the trouble of parboiling and baking fresh pumpkin and does not recommend the experience, except as an amusement. “It’s a process that takes way too much time. It was good, but there wasn’t really a lot of difference between it and butternut squash,” which, she pointed out, is smaller and easier to handle.
It’s not that Miss Plier or her family are in the pumpkin business, although their town is surrounded by pumpkin fields, and the Libby’s pumpkin processing plant is a big deal there. (According to the University of Illinois, 90 percent of the pumpkins grown in the United States are grown within a 50-mile radius of Morton, in central Illinois near Peoria.) As a baker, Miss Plier likes to know she’s in control of what’s in the oven.
Her award-winning recipe, layered pumpkin lingonberry tarts, is an example. She says it’s easy because two of the layers can be whipped up in the food processor. In that sense, it is relatively foolproof. But control of the water content in the pumpkin, which varies from pumpkin to pumpkin (if you’re using fresh) and is dependent on, among other things, the way water evaporates during cooking, is essential to the way the tarts set up.
So Miss Plier, who will happily go to any trouble necessary when cooking, prefers canned pumpkin for baking because she knows what to expect of it, time after time. Consistency, she points out, is something bakers, who are chemists in deed if not at heart, depend on.
Brand loyalty is certainly what influences the thoughts of Tim Miller, quality assurance manager at Libby’s, but science is what he refers to when he speaks of the virtues of canned over fresh. “The pumpkin is picked at the peak of ripeness and processed within about 24 hours,” Mr. Miller says. “This keeps the nutrition in. When you cook your own pumpkin from raw, it is probably picked days or weeks before.”
So canned pumpkin probably contains more vitamins and minerals than fresh, with an emphasis on the word “probably” because, Mr. Miller says, in science there are often variables.
Libby’s produces 85 percent of the canned pumpkin sold in the United States. Nearly all of the canned pumpkin the company processes is sold in this country, with a small quantity exported to England, Mr. Miller said.
Whether canned or fresh, pumpkin has nutritional gifts worth celebrating. According to the American Diabetes Association, a pumpkin’s orange pulp is an excellent source of Vitamin A and a great source of fiber and potassium. It’s high in iron and in polyunsaturated fat, which lowers cholesterol levels.
Canned pumpkin comes in two styles: pumpkin puree, which is pumpkin only, and pumpkin-pie mix, which is pumpkin plus spices and sugar. The type to cook with, obviously, depends on the recipe.
Those energetic souls who decide to cook pumpkin at home need to select the proper variety, some pumpkins being perfect for jack-o-lanterns and others produced for dining.
For cooking, search out a sweet pumpkin, which is higher in sugar content and lower in water than the big jack-o-lantern types. Not that we ever would, even if the thought had naturally crossed our minds, but the American Diabetes Association cautions us to never eat a pumpkin that has been carved and used for decoration.
“When a pumpkin has not been refrigerated and has been exposed to candle heat, it can become ideal for bacteria and mold growth and a risk for foodborne illness,” according to ADA literature.
Those who do opt for fresh should know that whole pumpkins store well at home in a cool, dark and dry spot where the temperature range is 50 to 55 degrees. Pumpkins kept thus should last for one or two months. They can be baked, steamed, parboiled or tossed into stews that might otherwise contain butternut squash.
Pumpkin can also be mashed like potatoes. The general estimate is one pound of raw pumpkin for one cup of pumpkin puree. Because pumpkin in the can is generally on sale this time of year, it may be cheaper to buy canned than fresh.
That, as I see it, is another good reason to pull out the can opener and crack open a can.
Layered pumpkin lingonberry tarts
This is Miss Plier’s grand-prize-winning recipe from the 2004 Morton Pumpkin Festival.
cup confectioners’ sugar
1 cups flour
1 sticks unsalted butter, softened
Combine confectioners’ sugar, flour and butter in a food processor until it just comes to a ball. Press into 6 to 8 4-inch removable-bottom tart pans with and up the sides. Prick bottoms with a fork.Roughly chop pecans. Divide among tart pans, gently pressing into bottom of crusts. Bake crusts in preheated 350-degree oven 10 to 15 minutes, or until browned and flaky. Cool on wire rack.
16 ounces cream cheese, room temperature
1 cup pumpkin puree
11/4 cups confectioners’ sugar
2 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice
1/8 teaspoon cloves
Combine cream cheese, pumpkin, confectioners’ sugar, pumpkin-pie spice, cinnamon and cloves in a food processor; refrigerate.
1 14-ounce jar of lingonberry preserves
1 tablespoon cornstarch
In a small saucepan, combine preserves and cornstarch and boil them 2 minutes. Set aside to cool in a glass bowl. Topping will thicken as it cools.
1 cup heavy whipping cream
2 to 3 tablespoons sugar
Whip cream with electric mixer. When frothy, add sugar to taste, a little at a time. Beat to stiff consistency.
Pour pumpkin filling into baked tart shells. Then spread a small amount, about 1 tablespoon, of whipped cream over the top of the filling, almost to the edge. Gently pour lingonberry sauce over center and spread almost to the edge of the whipped cream layer.
Using a bag with a small star tip, pipe a little whipped cream around the edge of the lingonberry filling and then a dollop in the middle. Repeat process with all tarts. Tarts should look like flowers when finished. Refrigerate. Makes 6 to 8 servings.
Note: If desired, smaller tart pans or a large square, round or rectangular tart pan with a removable bottom can be substituted, but carefully watch baking time to make sure crusts cook through but don’t burn.
I love the peppery flavor created by adding crystallized ginger to these pancakes, but my family doesn’t. So if you’re cooking for children or people who prefer mild flavors, you might want to leave it out.
1 cup flour
1/4 cup brown sugar, packed
1 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1/3 cup crystallized ginger chunks, minced, optional
2 eggs at room temperature, separated
cup pumpkin puree
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons melted butter, plus a little more for greasing griddle or frying pan
Fruit of choice
In a medium bowl, whisk together flour, brown sugar, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger (if using). In another bowl, beat egg whites until fluffy. In a third bowl, beat together egg yolks, pumpkin puree, milk and melted butter. Pour egg and milk mixture into dry ingredients and stir just to combine. Fold in egg whites. Do not overmix.
Pour about 1/4 cup batter for each pancake onto griddle or frying pan that has been preheated over medium heat. Unless pan is nonstick, add a little butter to prevent sticking.
Cook until bubbles appear on top of pancakes and bottoms just start to brown, 2 to 4 minutes. Flip over and cook until second sides are lightly browned, 2 to 4 more minutes. Serve immediately or keep warm in 200-degree oven until serving. Sprinkle lightly with confectioners’ sugar, and serve with fruit of choice on the side. Makes about 8 pancakes, or 4 servings.
Pumpkin ravioli with crumbled gingersnaps
1 pound pumpkin ravioli
8 tablespoons (1 stick) butter
1/4 cup fresh sage, shredded, or 1 heaping tablespoon dried sage leaves (not powdered), crumbled
2 tablespoons coarsely chopped salted almonds
2 tablespoons coarsely crushed gingersnap cookies (2 2-inch diameter cookies)
Freshly ground pepper
Bring a Dutch oven filled with salted water to a boil. Add ravioli, and cook until almost tender, 5 to 7 minutes for fresh. Watch carefully. Pasta will continue to cook a bit on its own. Drain.
While pasta is cooking, melt butter with sage and teaspoon salt in a large frying pan.
When pasta is cooked, drain and add to butter. Stir to combine, pour into pasta dish and sprinkle with nuts and crumbled cookies and a few grindings of pepper. Makes 3 or 4 servings as an entree.
Fast pumpkin soup
2 tablespoons corn or canola oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 medium onion, chopped (about 1 cup)
1 teaspoon curry powder
1 teaspoon salt
teaspoon white pepper
1 15-ounce can (13/4 cups) pumpkin puree
1 cup chicken broth
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon honey
1/4 cup whipping cream
Chopped fresh cilantro and red bell pepper for garnish, optional
Heat oil and butter in medium saucepan. Add onion; saute over medium-low heat until soft, about 15 minutes. Stir in curry powder, salt and pepper, and cook, stirring, until fragrance is released, about 1 minute.
Add pumpkin, chicken broth, milk and honey, and stir to combine. Do not heat.
Puree in blender or food processor, or process with a hand-held immersion blender. Return to pan, if necessary, add cream and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until heated through, about 5 minutes. Garnish each serving with a sprinkling of cilantro and red bell pepper, if desired. Makes 4 servings.
Pumpkin chocolate chip muffins
This recipe was adapted from Libby’s pumpkin cranberry bread.
3 cups flour
1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons pumpkin-pie spice
2 teaspoons baking soda
3 cups sugar
1 15-ounce can (13/4 cups) pumpkin puree
1 cup vegetable oil, plus more for greasing muffin tins, if necessary
cup orange juice
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Combine flour, pumpkin-pie spice, baking soda and sugar in a large mixing bowl. In another bowl, mix together pumpkin, eggs, oil and orange juice until smooth.
Pour pumpkin mixture into flour mixture, and stir just to combine. Fold in chocolate chips.
Spoon batter into greased muffin tins or tins lined with paper muffin cups. Bake in preheated 350-degree oven until puffed and golden, about 25 minutes. Remove to wire cooling rack, and let sit for 15 minutes before serving warm. Makes about 30 muffins.
Kim Upton is a freelance writer and editor of Tribune Media Services FoodStyles feature service.