This fall, there is no other ingredient working it quite as hard as pumpkin. With little concern for overexposure, it makes appearances everywhere, from cocktails to dessert. Thanksgiving, of course, kicks off a few weeks when normally tempered appetites turn to splurges; and food professionals are eager to use pumpkin’s nostalgic charms to drum up holiday overindulgence, adding it to everything from ravioli to brewskis. By the end of November, pumpkin’s been so overhyped, it’s practically a Kardashian.
Its omnipresence is understandable, in some ways. Pumpkins are jolly, bright, and quintessentially autumnal. Every child looks a little cuter photographed in a pumpkin patch. Pumpkins conjure a jack-o’-lantern’s smile, and they lend a cheery spray-tan glow to whatever they are blended into. These days, our pumpkin appetites are whetted as early as September, when drugstores display their plastic pumpkins, and quirky heirloom rouge vif d’etampes pumpkins pile up on well-appointed porches.
Pumpkins, which are a subcategory of squash, are the quintessential New World food. Historians believe they were first grown in Central America, five millennia BCE, and thanks to their versatility and long-term storability, they spread widely throughout the continent. Soon after Columbus led European adventurers to the New World and back, pumpkin vines twined their way into European gardens, and the squashes were prevalent in Europe decades before the Pilgrims first gave thanks in Massachusetts.
Pumpkin pie, with its sweet spicing, is the true star of the pumpkin world, and it shares a flavor profile with older sweetmeats like gingerbread and mince pie. Though the Plymouth colonists likely ate pumpkin at early harvest celebrations, pumpkin pies weren’t on the first Thanksgiving menus (no ovens, for starters). Versions of it did show up in European cookbooks in the 17th century, and a 1796 version of the first American cookbook, Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery, included a “pompkin” pudding that was baked in a dough crust. Today, of course, pumpkin pie is a near-requisite dessert on the Thanksgiving table, and the Libby company, a subsidiary of Nestle, plants approximately 5,000 acres of pumpkins to fill its cans of pumpkin puree. (Last year, by the way? Terrible for pumpkins. You’ll be spending a little more on your canned pumpkin this year.)
But as fond as we all are of pumpkins, they can be a problematic ingredient. Jane Grigson, the seminal British food writer who was always frank about an ingredient’s shortcomings, wrote that “careless cooking can make it seem wet and pointless as a form of nourishment.” Undercooked or raw pumpkin can have a weird tooth-gripping tannic quality. In the ultimate blow, last year Cook’s Illustrated decided that pumpkin alone couldn’t carry off an ideal pumpkin pie. In order to truly shine, Cook’s concluded, it needed a hidden foundation of candied yams.
Used well, however, pumpkins can bring a lot of pleasure. I spent two weeks saying yes to pumpkin in almost every form (both homemade goods and store bought) to determine the best ways to channel our Thanksgiving-tide enthusiasm for the squash. Herewith, my findings.
Don’t fret about the can.
Recipe writers often claim canned pumpkin does quite nicely—certainly much better than the wet and stringy pulp of a decorative Jack-o’-lantern pumpkin. (Libby uses a decidedly homely, dun-colored pumpkin breed, Select Dickinson, for its canning purposes.) I double-checked this assertion by making side-by-side pumpkin pies, one with a puree of a roasted “cheese” pumpkin (considered a fine cooking pumpkin), and one with a can of pre-processed puree. And, in fact, the canned pumpkin was more charismatic in flavor and hue. The main exceptions to the go-with-the can rule are recipes, particularly savory ones, where you might want a little more body from the squash: gratins, soups, or ravioli. (In these cases, I’d actually be more inclined to use a different squash altogether—Hubbard, buttercup, or butternut—and call it pumpkin for festive purposes. Don’t worry; plenty of chefs do the same thing).
Do use pumpkin as a savory ingredient.
European cooks have a lot of dynamic pumpkin recipes that rely less on sweet spice and more on the pumpkin’s own sunny flavor: Think of the stuffed Mantuan pasta that Mario Batali popularized at Babbo. Filled with pumpkin and seasoned with sage and the bitter almond taste of amaretti cookies, it’s a dish that, when well-made, dances nimbly between sweet and savory. Sage is indeed a brilliant friend to pumpkin, as are cheese, ham, and/or a little bit of chili spice, combinations that can easily be worked into a soup. If you’re looking for a less traditional pumpkin side dish for your Thanksgiving table, I love to add little bits of roasted pumpkin (or other squash) to a green salad, especially if I throw in some pomegranate seeds or fuyu persimmon as a tangy-sweet counterbalance. In my weeks of pumpkin proliferation, I also had good luck with prosciutto-pumpkin gnocchi and, even better, a leek, pumpkin, and cheese gratin from Richard Olney’s Provence: The Beautiful Cookbook that even won over my squash-averse husband. It, or a similar casserole like this tian of pumpkin, would make a swell Thanksgiving side dish.
Don’t overdo the spice.
My theory is that people don’t actually like the flavor of pumpkin quite as much as they love Thanksgiving itself, and the aroma of the sweet spices—ginger, cinnamon, and clove—used in traditional pumpkin pies. As such, many pumpkin specialties and recipes add so much spice to the mix that they both drown out the pumpkin and add an acrid flavor to the item in question. If you see a recipe with more than a teaspoon or more of cinnamon, be wary.
Don’t overdo the cream.
A huge number of new-school pumpkin desserts that have found their way into Thanksgiving recipe compilations—flans, crème brulées, mousses, and cheesecakes—try to make pumpkin lighter in texture and richer in mouthfeel by piling on the cream and eggs. I made as sophisticated a pumpkin cheesecake as possible (from cake guru Rose Levy Berenbaum’s new book, Rose’s Heavenly Cakes), but as elegant as the texture was, I felt the pumpkin was lost in all the unctuous dairy—the squash was essentially a sunny food coloring. I tend to prefer pumpkin desserts that have at least as much pumpkin as cream in them—like Claudia Fleming’s pumpkin clafouti. (When I made it, I actually goosed the quantity of pumpkin puree by another one-third of a cup.) It has an old-fashioned vibe that seems right for the potbellied squash.
Sugar, on the other hand, is good.
Pumpkin preserves are a little-explored territory, but they are among my favorite ways to get a sweet autumnal flavor hit. I cooked up a couple of jars of French pumpkin-lemon jam, which pits tiny cubes of pumpkin against the bright tang of lemon zest, flesh, and juice. (Mine was from an old French cookbook, but similar to this recipe.) In a darker mode, there is a Mexican spoon sweet made with pumpkin, raw sugar (piloncillo), and anise seeds, which is dark magic served over ice cream. (If you don’t feel like cooking it yourself, you can find a similar flavor in arrop, the Spanish pumpkin preserve.)
In general, don’t drink pumpkins (with one exception).
American microbrew drinkers seem to go nuts for a seasonal ale, and I tasted three pumpkin beers over the course of the week (this Elysian one was my favorite, if you can call it that). While I didn’t hate any of them, they had a sort of tinny vegetal backnote that turned me off (and I found the inevitable spices a little distracting). But the pumpkin brews were nectar compared with my one and only pumpkin latte from Starbucks, a sweet, frothy, orange affair that tasted sugary and pinched at the same time, like a potable scented holiday candle. There is one exception to my liquid pumpkin rule: It actually works in smoothies. I tried a commercial pumpkin protein drink after a long run and didn’t hate it, despite my historic disdain for sports beverages. Even better was the one I made for myself out of canned pumpkin, plain yogurt, maple syrup, milk, and a whisper of nutmeg.
Pumpkin bread will change your life.
OK, that may be overstating it, but for me, pumpkin shines most in a slightly sweet bready environment (including cakes). I whipped up this teacake/bread recipe from a terrific Seattle bakery, and it was so good—really squashy, just the right amount of sweet indulgence, and lots of crunchy nuts and seeds to glam it up. I also loved slightly sweet, yeasted pumpkin dinner rolls from one of my all-time favorite cookbook authors, Bert Greene. (Here’s a similar recipe.) Fortified with pumpkin, a dash of whole-wheat flour, and maple syrup, they had a more muted pumpkin presence, but they were jolly, fragrant, and warm. They are such an inessential but delightful little treat that they might be the ideal gift-in-hand for the Thanksgiving host who has taken on the rest of the meal unassisted.
Don’t overlook the seeds or oil.
Toasted pumpkin seeds bring green color and crunch to granolas, breads (like the ones above), soups, or an empty snack bowl. I recently had a spectacular pumpkin danish at New York’s Bouchon Bakery that fairly bristled with seeds. And loden-green pumpkin seed oil is a fancy Austrian specialty that adds a distinctive brooding nuttiness to salads or bread.
Don’t take pumpkin too seriously.