A Halloween pumpkin can be big or little, round or tall. It can be bright orange or a chalk-white “painter” if you don’t trust your kids, or yourself, with a knife. The one thing it can’t be is delicious. A pumpkin grown for eating, known as a pie pumpkin, is a different thing altogether. It too can come in various sizes and colors, but what counts is the richness of its inner flesh.
This year a young friend requested a pumpkin pie at a goodbye lunch in his honor. Although I do cook with pumpkins, I’d never actually made a pie from one, pumpkin being way down on my list of favorites, well below apple and pecan — though not as low as the much-disparaged mince.
Following a recipe from my trusty copy of “The Joy of Cooking,” I had no idea how long the journey to finished pie would be. A crust had to be pre-baked, then the pumpkin roasted, peeled and pureed. If the puree seemed “loose and wet” I was told, I must wrap it in cheesecloth and drain it for up to an hour, weighted, until it reached “the consistency of the canned type.” Never having used the canned type, I had no idea what it looked like, but I was beginning to understand why so many people rely on it to make their pie.
Still, I persevered. I chose to increase the ratio of egg to puree, in pursuit of a custardy rather than firm texture. I cut the suggested amounts of cinnamon, nutmeg and clove in half, because I’m convinced the overuse of spice gives pumpkin pie a bad rap. (Maybe that’s what’s wrong with mince pie, too.) Many miles down the road, finally baked and topped with whipped cream, the pie drew cheers even from the pumpkin-pie-haters in the group, who turned out to be most at the table.
I give some credit to the eggs, which were not only numerous but were laid by pullets — that is, hens less than a year old. Pullet eggs, adorably small, have a large ratio of yolk to white, which imparts not only a brighter orange color in cooking but also makes a dish rise more, if rising is what you’re after, and makes the texture of a custard more creamy and tender.
I also credit the pumpkin, which was an old-fashioned variety we grew called Long Island Cheese, named not for its beige color but for its round, flattened, cheese-wheel shape. You can find it among the old-time pie pumpkins offered by Fedco Seeds, which also sells the tasty Winter Luxury, Young’s Beauty, New England Pie, Rouge Vif d’Etampes and Long Pie, which looks like a zucchini grown to brickbat size. I’ve always found overgrown zucchinis a little unnerving, lurking in the garden under their huge leaves, and I’m thinking that one would make a fine, spooky, jack-o’-lantern — maybe carved like a snake.
Damrosch is a freelance writer and author of “The Garden Primer.”
Plant garlic cloves and shallot bulbs this month and next for harvest in July. Garlic cloves should be planted with the tip about an inch below soil level, and spaced four to six inches apart. Shallot bulbs, planted with the tip emerging from the soil, should be spaced six inches apart. Both need enriched, free-draining soil and even moisture. Supermarket-bought bulbs will work, but if you want to control the type and variety, order from a seed supplier.
— Adrian Higgins