Let's Talk Food: Pumpkins saved our forefathers and still reign as Midwestern festival fare

Halloween is more than a time to surrender to our fantasies and dress up in intriguing costumes, masking us from the world’s scrutiny. And it is more than goblins and witches, trick or treat and masquerade balls. Halloween is the day before All Saints Day, which follows on Nov. 1.

This Christian holiday combines a religious festival with a pagan parody, coming originally from the Celtics and going back to ancient Rome. The original Halloween was called Pompona, in honor of the goddess of orchards. During the observation of this holiday, the Romans bobbed for apples and also hollowed out gourds and placed a candle or oil-soaked rag inside, starting a tradition that has lasted thousands of years.

Much later, Irish children carved out the centers of large rutabagas, turnips and potatoes. Faces were carved on the surface and candles placed inside. In Finland there is a legend that uses the jack-o’-lantern as a corpse candle to light the soul of a child who has died in the forests. The carved pumpkins were originally called will-o-the-wisps and were believed to be wandering souls that could not find refuge in heaven or hell.

Those pumpkins that we carve up for jack-o’-lanterns have played an important role in American history. The Pilgrims were so grateful to the pumpkin for helping them survive that first winter in 1620 that they wrote a song commemorating it:

We have pumpkin at morning and pumpkin at noon,

If it were not for pumpkin, we would be undoon.

Pumpkins were new to the settlers, who were familiar with sweet and fragrant melons and gourds but had never seen these hardy cousins native to North America. The Indians generously shared their pumpkins with the Pilgrims and showed them how to grow them in between the corn and beans. Before long the ingenious cooks turned this member of the cucumber family into tasty breads, soups, puddings, custards and pies.

Pumpkins are so much a part of America it’s only natural that during the harvest it should be feted and honored. In Circleville, Ohio, they’ve been saluting the pumpkin with an annual festival since 1903. Thousands converge on the town to enjoy the parade, beauty pageant and four days of nonstop entertainment. The biggest attraction is the offering of marvelous culinary creations of pumpkin. There are pies, doughnuts — last year the crowds consumed more than 100,00 of them — along with pumpkin burgers, soup, waffles, cream puffs, ice cream, milk shakes and even pumpkin fudge.

Right after Labor Day the folks in Morton, Ill., welcome the coming of autumn with their annual Pumpkin Festival. The Nestle-Libby pumpkin-packing plant is located in Morton and during the pumpkin season it turns out 30,000 cases or 720,000 cans of pumpkin each day. That would be enough to make pumpkin pies that would stretch 160 miles from Morton to Chicago.

The cooks of Morton have contributed to gastronomy by dreaming up such delectables as pumpkin pancakes and pumpkin chili, and one of the under-12 kids won a cooking contest for his recipe for peanut butter-pumpkin dip which was made with brown sugar served in a pumpkin shell.

When Halloween is over there is no need to waste all that good pumpkin. Cut the pumpkin up and steam or bake it until tender. Puree and then freeze in airtight plastic bags or other containers and you’ll have enough pumpkin for all your holiday pies, cakes and bread.

Here is a recipe that is a change from the usual pumpkin pie. The crust especially is a new version of an old stand-by.

Low-fat pumpkin cheesecake

Ingredients

1 cup cooked couscous (available in most supermarkets and health food stores)

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

24 ounces low-fat cream cheese, softened

6 ounces low-fat sour cream

4 egg yolks

1 cup sugar, divided into halves

8 ounces canned pumpkin

2 tablespoons pure vanilla extract

1 teaspoon orange extract (may substitute orange zest)

4 egg whites

Preparation

* To make the crust, place the couscous in a food processor fitted with the metal blade and process until fine. Add the confectioners’ sugar and cocoa powder and while the blade is turning, add a few drops of water.

* Press the mixture evenly and firmly onto the bottom of a springform pan, making a fist and using the back of your hand and fingers. Refrigerate the crust while making the filling.

* Preheat the oven to 325 degrees.

* With an electric mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Using low speed, add sour cream and the egg yolks, ½ cup of the sugar, the pumpkin and the vanilla and orange extracts.

* In a separate bowl, use an electric mixer with clean, dry beaters to beat the egg whites; starting at low speed and increase the speed as peaks form. Slowly add the remaining ½ cup of sugar.

* When the whites are stiff but not dry, gently fold them in the cream cheese and pumpkin mixture.

* Pour the batter in the prepared crust and bake for about 1 hour or until the cake has risen and browned slightly and it just shimmies when you gently move the pan.

* Turn the heat off and allow the cake to stand in the oven for 1 more hour.

Remove the cake from the oven and let is cool for at least 6 hours before serving. Makes 16 slices.

ASK DORIS

Question: I have lost my recipe for a spinach dip that is served in a hollowed out loaf of bread. Hope you can replace it. -- Muriel Levinthol / Estero

Answer: This recipe calls for a round pumpernickel bread but you can use any kind of round loaf.

Spinach dip In pumpernickel

Ingredients

1 10-ounce package frozen spinach, chopped and well-drained

1 package Knorr’s Swiss Vegetable Soup mix

1 cup mayonnaise

2 cups sour cream

1 8-ounce can water chestnuts, chopped

1 small onion, chopped

1 round pumpernickel loaf, hollowed out

Preparation

* Mix all the ingredients except the bread in a large bowl. Chill for at least 6 or 8 hours before serving.

* Spoon into hollowed pumpernickel round loaf.

May be refrigerated for a week. Reserve remaining bread and cut into squares for dipping or added to soup. Makes 5 cups.

* * *

Doris Reynolds is the author of “When Peacocks Were Roasted and Mullet Was Fried” and “Let’s Talk Food.” They are available for sale in the lobby of the Naples Daily News. Also available is a four-part DVD, “A Walk Down Memory Lane with Doris Reynolds.” For comments and questions regarding today’s column, e-mail foodlvr25aol.com

© 2009 marconews.com. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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