Somewhere along the line, pumpkins swept me off my feet. A good pumpkin gives me butterflies in my stomach, a quiver in my knees, a deep cozy sense of contentment–all feelings that a squash should and would not generally elicit in a person of saner mind.
I’ve long been smitten with pumpkin sweets. As a very young baker I used to relish the smell of a freshly opened can of pumpkin puree. I am not sure I really realized that “pumpkin” came from pumpkins, but such are the hazards of growing up in the convenience-cooking era of the 1970s. Not to mention that Los Angeles just doesn’t understand fall the same way the Northeast does–LA’s not a very pumpkiny place. Nonetheless, I eventually realized that, yes, canned pumpkin does actually come from pumpkins. I found a pie recipe using fresh pumpkin and tried it with the only pumpkin I knew, a supermarket jack-o-lantern-making pumpkin. The pie was really just disgusting–watery, bland, somehow stringy–a bad experience.
Then I moved to New York and started shopping at the greenmarket. It was then and only then that I begin to understand pumpkins in all of their splendor. I was introduced to a whole world of pumpkins heretofore unimagined. These new-to-me pumpkins were stunning. Beyond pumpkin in a can and banal carving pumpkins, these new pumpkins were loaded with character. Mottled with fabulous color, in crazy shapes and sizes, ribbed and ridged in arresting contortions. I was thrilled. Each trip to the greenmarket found me juggling different types of pumpkins home on the subway. I roasted, broiled, steamed, sauteed. I made pies, pasta, cakes, cookies. I went pumpkin berserk. Some kids leave home and experiment with any number of adult preoccupations–I obsessed over squash.
So here I am, a few decades of wisdom, experience, and pumpkin pies under my belt . It’s late October and hardcore pumpkin season. I am happy. The over-the-top nutso pumpkin lust of my youth has been replaced by a more mature style of understated swooning.
And after trying them all, I have found my pumpkin. After the successive crushes on many of the vibrant and flashy varieties, the one that finally captured my heart was the flat, beige “cheese pumpkin.” Fairly easy to find, somewhat humble. But I think it is the most handsome pumpkin of all. It’s drop-dead elegant in its subtlety–a creamy hued tan that seems like a hand-burnished ceramic glaze, a flat relaxed shape whose proportion is as perfect as if Michelangelo had his hand in designing it, and most of all: Its texture and taste. Silky but toothsome, sweet and floral but earthy. It is the perfect pumpkin. And while I can still remember with fondness the taste and smell of the canned pumpkin of my youth, nothing in the world beats the smell of a fresh cheese pumpkin roasting in the oven, waiting to meet its pie. I heartily recommend trying one–you might even detect a little weakness in your knees.
How to Roast a Pumpkin
Halve the pumpkin crosswise and scoop out the seeds (roast them!) and strings. Place halves, hollow side down, in a large baking pan covered with aluminum foil and add a little water. Bake, uncovered, at 375 degrees for 1˝ to 2 hours or until fork-tender. Remove. When cool, scrape pulp from shells and puree, a little at time, in food processor or blender.
To use pumpkin puree for recipes, it must be drained first: Line a strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth, paper towels or a dish towel and let the pumpkin sit to drain the extra moisture.