Cooking Class: Sugar and spice make pumpkins nice

The popular pie traditionally served during November has inspired all sorts of other desserts.

Pumpkin soup 311 (photo credit: MCT)
Pumpkin soup 311
(photo credit: MCT)
For many Americans, eating pumpkin pie is a must during the fall season. At the end of November, this enthusiasm reaches its peak on the holiday of Thanksgiving, when pumpkin pie is king.
Unlike apple pie, which has a bottom and a top crust, classic pumpkin pie has only a bottom crust. The standard filling is a simple blend of cooked pumpkin with eggs, sugar and milk or cream flavored with a mixture of sweet spices – usually cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg and cloves – which is also sold as pumpkin pie spice.
This popular pie has inspired all sorts of other desserts made of pumpkin and sweet spices, from pumpkin pie mousse to pumpkin pie ice cream and even pumpkin pie latte, made like cappuccino with pumpkin puree added to the foam.
For many, it’s the smooth, sweetly spiced pumpkin filling that is the main attraction of this dessert. Some therefore bake pumpkin pie filling without a crust. The result is pumpkin baked custard.
To make pumpkin flan, Anthony Dias Blue and Kathryn K. Blue, authors of Thanksgiving Dinner, bake such a mixture in a caramel-lined pan. Pumpkin pie filling mixed with bread cubes and a little extra milk bakes to a tasty pumpkin bread pudding.
Pumpkin cheesecake is another well-liked derivative of pumpkin pie. It gains a delicate orange hue from the pumpkin puree and is somewhat lighter than standard versions of cheesecake.
Since my mother didn’t make pumpkin pie when I was a child, the first time I tasted it, as an adult, I found that the flavor of the pumpkin was overpowered by the spices.
Others apparently felt the same way. The Blues substitute freshly ground white pepper for the sweet spices in their favorite pumpkin pie “because it amplifies the true flavor of the pumpkin.” Jimmy Schmidt, author of Cooking for All Seasons, flavors the custard of his pumpkin and maple sugar creme brulee with only vanilla. After baking and chilling the custard, he tops it with maple sugar and caramelizes it in the broiler.
Eventually I grew to like pumpkin with the traditional sweet spices, used singly or as a blend, and I use them in my warm creamy dessert of sweet rice with pumpkin and spice. (The recipe is below.)
In fact, pumpkin pie used to have even more spices. According to Rick Rogers, author of Thanksgiving 101, one of the first recipes appeared in 1655 in a British book. It “represents the then-current taste for highly seasoned foods, and includes thyme, rosemary, cinnamon, nutmeg, pepper, cloves and apple.”
For festive pumpkin desserts, some like to add liqueur or brandy in addition to spice. Marian Morash, author of The Victory Garden Cookbook, flavored her chilled pumpkin souffle with orange liqueur, along with crystallized ginger, cinnamon and allspice. Rum spikes up her pumpkin and sweet potato pudding moistened with coconut milk. Rose Forman Dew, author of A Southern Thanksgiving, likes plenty of flavoring in the mousse-like filling of her pumpkin chiffon pie. She laces it with bourbon whiskey, seasons it generously with cinnamon and nutmeg and also adds ground allspice, cloves and vanilla.
To make these treats, you can use any member of the orange-fleshed, hard-shelled squash family, known also as winter squash, of which pumpkin is a member.
You can cook them using a variety of techniques. Baking the pumpkin or squash gives the richest flavor. You bake the pumpkin pieces with their skin on, and then scoop the cooked pumpkin out of the peel afterward. You can also microwave, steam or boil pumpkin chunks and peel them before or after cooking, depending on what’s easiest.
PUMPKIN PUREE Makes about 2 cups
Cooked pumpkin puree is very versatile.In cakes, it can be used like applesauce to make them more moist and slightly reduce the fat, thus making them healthier. Some vegans use it in baking as an egg replacer. When you cook pumpkin, it often becomes a puree. You can puree it further if you want it very smooth to use in mousses or in pie fillings.
✔About 900 grams pumpkin (Hebrew: dla’at) or hard-shelled squash such as butternut (Hebrew: dalorit)
Simmered Pumpkin or Winter Squash: Peel pumpkin or squash and remove any seeds and stringy flesh. Cut pumpkin in 7.5-cm (3-inch) cubes. Bring 2 cups water to a boil in a medium saucepan and add pumpkin cubes and a pinch of salt. Return to a boil. Cover and simmer over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, for 15 minutes or until cubes are tender when pierced with a knife. Remove pumpkin from water and drain well. Save the cooking liquid for vegetable soups.
Microwaved Pumpkin or Winter Squash: Halve squash lengthwise and remove the seeds. Cut in chunks that fit conveniently in your baking dish. Add about 6 mm (1⁄4 inch) of water. Cover and microwave about 10 minutes or until just tender. Test with a fork. Microwave times vary with size of squash, how dense it is and the wattage of the microwave.
Baked Pumpkin or Squash:
Preheat oven to 190ºC (375ºF). Lightly oil a heavy roasting pan. Add enough water to make about a 6-mm (1⁄4-inch) layer. Halve squash lengthwise and remove the seeds and fibrous parts. Place pumpkin pieces or squash halves cut side down in pan. Bake about 45 minutes or until tender when pierced with fork.
Let pumpkin or squash cool until easy to handle. If you cooked it in the skin, scrape pulp out with a spoon. Puree pumpkin in a food processor until it is as smooth as you like it.
This recipe is from my book The New Casserole.
If rice pudding and pumpkin pie are among your favorite desserts, here’s a little bit of both! Half the creamy rice is left plain, while the other half is mixed with pumpkin, and the two mixtures are layered.
✔ 1 cup Arborio or other short-grain rice ✔ 41⁄2 cups milk✔ 1 vanilla bean, split
✔ pinch of salt ✔ 1⁄3 cup sugar ✔ 1⁄4 cup raisins ✔ 13⁄4 to 2 cups pumpkin puree (see recipe above) ✔ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. ground ginger ✔ 1⁄4 tsp. ground nutmeg ✔ 2 Tbsp. butter, cut in small pieces ✔ Cinnamon for sprinkling (optional)
Bring 2 liters water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan and add rice. Boil uncovered 7 minutes. Drain well. Preheat oven to 175ºC (350ºF). Bring 4 cups milk to a boil in same saucepan over medium-high heat, stirring occasionally. Add vanilla bean, rice and salt. Cook uncovered over medium-low heat, stirring often, about 15 minutes or until rice is very soft and absorbs most of milk. Remove from heat and stir in sugar. Remove vanilla bean.
Mix pumpkin with half the rice pudding. Add cinnamon, ginger and nutmeg. Spoon the pumpkin rice pudding into a buttered 8-cup baking dish. Mix raisins and remaining 1⁄2 cup milk into the white rice mixture. Spoon it over pumpkin mixture. Dot with butter. Bake uncovered 30 minutes or until firm. Serve warm, sprinkled with cinnamon.
Makes 6 servings.
Adapted from The Victory Garden Cookbook by Marian Morash.
This pumpkin mousse, flavored with orange, cinnamon, nutmeg and vanilla, is essentially a rich Bavarian cream mixture made with pumpkin puree.
✔ 21⁄2 tsp. unflavored gelatin ✔ 2 Tbsp. orange juice ✔ 1 cup heavy cream ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. vanilla extract ✔ 4 egg yolks ✔ 5 Tbsp. sugar ✔ 11⁄2 cups pureed cooked pumpkin (see recipe above) ✔ 1 tsp. ground cinnamon ✔ 1⁄2 tsp. ground nutmeg✔ 1 tsp. grated orange zest, or to taste (optional)
Chill a bowl for whipping cream. Combine gelatin and orange juice in a small bowl. Set it above a small saucepan of simmering water and stir until gelatin dissolves. In a small saucepan heat 1⁄4 cup of the cream until nearly boiling; bubbles should form around edge. Add vanilla.
Beat egg yolks and sugar in a medium or large bowl until thick and lemon-colored. Gradually add the hot cream, then the pumpkin and spices. Beat in gelatin mixture and orange zest. Let cool to room temperature. In chilled bowl, whip the remaining cream until it forms soft peaks. Fold whipped cream into pumpkin mixture. Fill individual dishes or a 6-cup mold. Chill thoroughly.
Faye Levy is the author of Fresh from France: Dessert Sensations and of Sefer Hakinuhim (Hebrew).