RIDGWAY--As summer turns into fall, we begin seeing the first hints that the holidays are just around the corner; no, it's not the subtle diminishment of evening light, nor the chillier mornings; it's not even the changing in the coloring of leaves. It's the beginning of the ads for every pumpkin spice product that enters the market throughout the fall season. While there have always been more seasonal products, like candied fruits and dates, Starbucks unleashed this national nightmare in 2003, leading to today when we have pumpkin spice Cheerios, Frosted Flakes, body washes, and now even Pumpkin Spice White Claw. Not bad for a native North American food that was often used as animal feed.
While baking with pumpkin can be as easy as going to the grocery store and buying a can of pumpkin purée, if you have an extra hour, do it from scratch, and discover the delicious flavors of this often overlooked vegetable. The first step is choosing the right kind of pumpkin.
Those giant pumpkins you see at the pumpkin patch for carving into jack-o'-lanterns may look appealing, but they're the worst for cooking and baking. Yes, they are edible, and you can cook with them, but they are very stringy, bland, and watery. The best pumpkins for baking and cooking with are sweet, flavorful, and have smooth-textured flesh. Pumpkin purée manufacturer Libby's breeds their own select Dickinson pumpkins for their exceptionally smooth texture. Sugar pumpkins, ranging between 2-7 pounds, are the best. Usually, a bit squatter, with clearly defined sections, some even looking like the stem was squashed down on top of them, are your best choice. Find them locally at Elk County Foods, Rich's Farm Market, or the local farmer's markets in Ridgway on Tuesday.
Preheat your oven to 350° F. Split the pumpkin in half from top to bottom, using a large knife.
Scoop out the seeds and fiber with a large metal spoon or ice cream scoop. Cut the threads with kitchen scissors if necessary. Discard the seeds or roast once rinsed and salted at 300 F until golden. Coat the interior and exterior of the pumpkin lightly in neutral oil. Don't use flavored oils like sesame, olive, or even corn and peanut; plain vegetable oil works best here.
Sprinkle the flesh with salt, fresh cracked black pepper (yes pepper, it enhances the flavor, and you don't notice it in the finished product), and other spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice, and even just a pinch of ground cloves. Use the spices sparingly as the oil helps the flavors transfer to the pumpkin. A little brown sugar and some butter will not go wrong either, but it is a matter of personal taste. Lay the halves, rind side down, on a foil-lined half sheet pan. If needed, slice a small end piece off the pumpkin half to make it lay flat. Roast until a paring knife or fork can be easily inserted and removed from the pumpkin, 60-80 minutes. Test in several places to ensure doneness. Allow to cook thoroughly.
Once completely cooled (2 hours) use a large spoon to remove the roasted flesh of the pumpkin from the skin to the bowl of a food processor. (You can also just put it into a large bowl and using a potato masher to smooth it out.)
Process until the flesh is smooth, 3 to 4 minutes. Store in the fridge for up to 1 week or freeze for up to 6 months. Use just like canned pumpkin in your favorite recipes. If using for pie or other recipes and you did sprinkle with spices, adjust the recipe to compensate for their presence in the puree. Then, on Thanksgiving or at another holiday event, just sit back and wait for the compliments from family and friends about the best-tasting pumpkin pie they have ever had.