It’s that time of year when pumpkin spice invades everything from cookies and coffees to household goods, and piles of gourds sit proudly in front of every market.
Here in Sonoma County, it also means a multitude of pumpkin patches and fall harvest celebrations — almost too many to choose from. And at the center of all this is the star of the season: the pumpkin.
Pumpkins are actually a type of winter squash (and related to cucumbers), and come in all shapes and sizes, from the behemoth prize-winning species like Atlantic Giant right down to the tiny orange and white pumpkins often referred to as Jack Be Littles. There are Halloween jack-o’-lanterns, elegant Cinderella pumpkins, blue-green Jarrahdale varieties, and even warty multi-colored options. All pumpkins are edible but you wouldn’t want to eat just any of them. Large pumpkins tend to be less sweet, and their flesh can turn stringy and watery when cooked. Save those for carving into light-up spectacles perfect for scaring away the ghouls of All Hallows’ Eve (bonus: save the seeds for roasting, see recipe below).
Smaller pumpkins, ideally in the 3- to 8-pound range, have sweeter, smoother flesh ideal for roasting or pureeing. The most common variety you’ll find in supermarkets or at local pumpkin patches are sugar pie pumpkins. It’s worth seeking out other good cooking pumpkins too — especially if you grow your own or frequent local farmers’ market — including New England pie pumpkins, Long Island cheese pumpkins, the aforementioned Cinderella pumpkins, Fairytale pumpkins, and some newer varieties such as Autumn Gold, Baby Pam and Ghost Rider.
Of course, in a pinch, butternut squash makes a terrific alternative in any pumpkin recipe, including those listed in this article (yes, even the pumpkin pie).
You might be surprised to learn that most canned pumpkin puree is made from a winter squash called Winter Dickinson that looks like a cross between a pumpkin and a butternut squash, and is even in the same species as butternut (C. moschata).
So why not just pick up a can of pumpkin puree at the store and forego all this extra effort? Well, fresh pumpkin puree is far more flavorful — especially if it’s made from pumpkins you and your family gather yourself during a fun-filled autumn day at the pumpkin patch.
And it really isn’t that hard! You’ll be rewarded for your effort when you transform it into bread, pie, cake, soup, muffins or any other pumpkin-alicious recipe you love.
Making pumpkin puree
To make pumpkin puree that can be used in myriad recipes, first select a baking pumpkin that is heavy for its size, without any noticeable bruises or soft spots.
You’ll want to stick to the 3- to 8-pound range; bigger pumpkins tend to be less sweet and creamy and can get all weird and stringy.
Preheat your oven to 375 degrees. Use a big, heavy knife to take off the stem end, then use a vegetable peeler to peel the pumpkin.
Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise. Use a large metal spoon to scoop out the seeds. Save the seeds.
Then cut each scooped-out pumpkin into wedges, then into chunks. Place the pieces on a large rimmed baking sheet in an even layer. Bake until completely soft, about 40 minutes. Set aside to cool slightly.