I cannot honestly say that my love for pumpkins was born the same day as our only child, just shy of Halloween more than 20 years ago. But that’s certainly when it started to grow.
Back then, pumpkins were for carving, not for eating. So that Halloween, when friends came to my wife’s hospital room in Austin, they carried a jack-o’-lantern into which they had carved a simple proclamation: “IT’S A BOY.”
After that, I started noticing pumpkin dishes everywhere: a phenomenal pumpkin flan at the high-end restaurant Jeffrey’s; a marvelous spiced pumpkin cake at a little bakery not far from our house; a lovely pumpkin butter that a friend made.
I’ve made my own dishes with pumpkin over the years, but I never smoked it. The closest I’d gotten was to grill slices of pumpkin and dress them lightly with olive oil and sea salt. I love the char-smudged caramel color and the way the lightly crisped exterior plays against the creamy, sweet interior.
More recently, I thought I’d take a bolder step, extending my reach to full-on smoking. Would pumpkin even take to such a treatment? Or would it dry out or lose its deep, yet delicate, flavor in the process?
I conferred with fellow barbecue hounds and searched the Internet for ideas. Then I went out and messed it up.
My first mistake was in the pumpkin selection itself. I bought a 16-pounder, thinking it could handle the smoke better than a smaller fruit. (Yes, pumpkin, like tomato, is a fruit.)
After pulling out the innards and scraping the flesh clean, I quartered the squash and placed it on the far end of an indirect fire. Thinking that I needed to keep the level of smoke stable throughout the process, I used a half-dozen fist-size apple wood chunks. When, more than two hours later, the sections were finally soft enough to take off the grill, they were so heavily smoked that the fruit had the flavor profile of a forest fire.
I tried again, this time using a smaller “pie pumpkin” and replacing the wood chunks with less-smoky wood chips. The idea, I realized, was not to smoke the squash into submission but to heat it to tenderness, using smoke less as fuel than as flavoring.
It worked. The fruit’s meat turned a caramel hue, and the light smoke deepened its characteristically mild flavor. I used it to make one of my favorite fall dishes, pumpkin soup,whose velvety texture and gorgeous orange-brown color bridge the gap between comfort food and fine dining. I love to eat it for lunch with crusty bread or serve it as a casually elegant starter for a dinner party. Smoking gives the soup another dimension of appearance and flavor.
I wanted to bookend a meal by reprising the pumpkin as an ingredient in the dessert. The idea was to borrow on childhood and the playfulness that Halloween is all about.
Why not s’mores? The idea came to me after visiting a friend who has an 11-year-old daughter. They had been reinventing the s’more in their back yard, using Nutella instead of chocolate and Meyer lemon crackers rather than grahams.
Pumpkin butter struck me as an in-the-spirit seasonal reinvention. I could use leftover pulp from the smoked pumpkin, or I could smoke additional pumpkin. But the whole point of s’mores is that they’re fun. Fiddling with wood chips and the vagaries of charcoal heat, while fine and dandy when barbecuing, struck me as a little too much for the simple campfire classic. Besides, the elements of cooking with fire and smoke were built into the dessert by way of heating the marshmallows over a fire. So, I simply roasted the pumpkin in the oven — although, truth be told, you could use canned pumpkin instead.
Gathering around a grill is a modern, citified way to enjoy a childhood classic. And it’s true that making, not just eating, s’mores turns even adults into kids again.