- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 25, 2005

Holidays can be a pain, and Halloween can be among the most problematic.

If you have children, you need to worry about dangers in the treat as well as the trick. Even back in a more innocent era, there was the issue of junk food overload from the candy.

For those of you who don’t have children, does your problem tend to be the doorbell ringing every 32 seconds, with the group on the stoop becoming less cute and more jaded as the evening progresses? Sure, the original intent of Halloween included celebration of the autumn season, the harvest moon and the transcendence of souls.

The holiday has become a festival of movie tie-ins, cheap chocolate and branded packaging, with sugar rushes and cavities in the aftermath. Admittedly, this is a very Scrooge-like attitude. Halloween is fun for many, I know. My point is that it might just be time to return to a more wholesome and low-key experience. An easy way to do this is by celebrating one of Halloween’s richest and life-affirming symbols: the pumpkin.

As part of your holiday ritual this year, consider a family field trip to a pumpkin patch. If that sounds a little remote or sentimental, how about a visit to a pumpkin stand or an autumn farmers market? Ask the grower or purveyor to show you the various kinds of pumpkins.

Larger pumpkins that tend to be stringier in texture make better jack-o-lanterns. Smaller sugar pumpkins, fleshed with more tightly structured fiber and a much sweeter flavor, are the ones to eat.

When you return home, put the carving specimens aside and have an immediate pumpkin-roasting session. It’s fun to learn how to roast fresh pumpkin and toast the seeds, as well as to experience the exquisite, evocative aromas. The seeds can then become healthy snack food and the roasted flesh can be a side dish for dinner or the basis for a fantastic baked item.

To roast a whole pumpkin: Place a 3- to 4-pound sugar pumpkin on a baking tray. Very carefully make several serious slits all the way through the flesh with a sharp knife. (This is not a job for children.) These will be the steam valves. Bake in the center of a preheated 375-degree oven for 45 minutes to an hour, or until a fork or sharp knife slides in easily.

Remove tray from oven and let it cool until pumpkin is comfortable to handle. Then cut pumpkin open and pull out and save the seeds, if desired. You can serve the roasted pumpkin in chunks, still attached to the skin, as a side dish with butter, salt and a little maple syrup, if desired.

You can also mash it for baking. (It needs to be smooth to be a good baking ingredient.) Use a spoon to scrape the flesh from the skin, and mash the flesh with a potato masher or puree in a food processor. A 3-pound sugar pumpkin makes about 3 cups mashed pumpkin.

To roast a halved pumpkin: Line a baking tray with foil and coat it with canola oil. Split a 3- to 4-pound sugar pumpkin and cut out the seeds and their stringy surroundings with scissors. Save the seeds, if desired. Place the cut pumpkin flesh side down on the prepared tray and bake in the center of preheated 375-degree oven for 40 minutes, or until the flesh is fork- or knife-tender. Proceed as directed above.

Pumpkin-orange muffins

Nonstick cooking spray

2 cups unbleached all-purpose flour

teaspoon salt (rounded measure)

1 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoons cinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/4 teaspoon allspice

3 to 4 tablespoons granulated sugar

1 tablespoon coarsely chopped orange zest

1/3 cup (packed) dark brown sugar

1 cup mashed pumpkin

1 large egg

cup milk

1 tablespoon vanilla

4 tablespoons ( stick) unsalted butter, melted

Lightly mist 8 standard-sized (2-inch in diameter) muffin cups with nonstick spray. Combine flour, salt, baking powder, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, granulated sugar to taste and orange zest in a medium-sized bowl.

Crumble in brown sugar and mix with a fork and/or your fingers until thoroughly blended. Measure pumpkin into a second medium-sized bowl. Add egg, milk and vanilla and beat with a fork or a whisk until smooth. Slowly pour this mixture, along with melted butter, into dry ingredients.

Using a spoon or a rubber spatula, stir from bottom of the bowl until dry ingredients are all moistened. Don’t overmix; a few lumps are OK. Spoon batter into prepared muffin cups. For smaller muffins, fill cups about 4/5 of the way.

For larger muffins, fill them even with top of pan. If you have extra batter, spray one or two additional muffin cups with nonstick spray and put in as much batter as you have. Bake on middle rack of preheated 400-degree oven for 20 to 25 minutes, or until lightly browned on top and a toothpick inserted into center comes out clean. Remove pan from oven, then remove muffins from pan and place on a rack to cool. Wait at least 30 minutes before serving. Makes 8 to 10 medium-sized muffins.

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