Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Fall Fun...Preparing Sugar (a/k/a Pie) Pumpkins!

Fall is here, so I thought it would be appropriate to start with a post about pumpkins!  Pumpkin may not seem like the most exciting thing in the world, but the fact is that it is incredibly nutritious and delicious.  One cup of prepared pumpkin only has about 50 fat free calories, is packed with Potassium and Vitamin A, and is a good source of fiber.

Pumpkin puree is not only for pumpkin pie!  It can be used in fantastic muffins, quick bread, pancakes, waffles, soup, and oatmeal, just to name a few things.  Another thing many people use it for is to replace up to half the fat in recipes for baked goods.  Its relatively mild flavor means that, for example, 1/2 cup mixed into a batch of chocolate chip cookies that calls for 1 cup butter, will not much affect the taste, but will add nutrients and enough moisture that you can reduce the butter to 1/2 cup. 

Of course you can buy the canned pumpkin puree, which isn't a bad product because it does not typically contain lots of additives and chemicals like some packaged foods.  But preparing your own pumpkin puree is incredibly easy and fun, and can be done without fancy gadgets, with kitchen essentials almost everyone already has.  It also comes with an added benefit you can't get from canned pumpkin--seeds to roast!  Yum!  More information on roasting the seeds will follow in a separate post.

I will typically prepare several pumpkins using the method below, then measure the puree into either 1/2 cup or 1 cup portions, put the portions in baggies, put the baggies into a zipper freezer bag, and freeze them for use whenever I need pumpkin.

I believe everybody who is interested in healthy, minimally processed food should try preparing their own pumpkin at least once.  I started doing it last year and am completely hooked!

This is my bounty of sugar pumpkins and butternut squash given to me last weekend by a friend who grows them.

To see my practical, fun, and easy method to prepare the pumpkins (squash coming soon in a separate post), click on the "read more" button!

To prepare sugar pumpkins, the first thing you need to do is make sure you have sugar pumpkins!  "Regular" pumpkins such as those used for Halloween decorations have a much lower sugar content and are stringy.  Save those for your fall decor and seek out sugar (a/k/a pie) pumpkins for cooking.

Now, there are several ways to prepare pumpkins, including boiling, steaming, microwaving, and my favorite, roasting.  I think most people boil them, but as a pragmatist I think that's a hassle.  Is the water at least at a simmer?  Is it boiling too hard?  Oh no, it boiled over!  On top of that, once it's cooked you have to get all that water out of the pumpkin!  No thanks.  Steaming would be okay, but I would constantly be worried about maintaining a water level long enough to last through the whole cooking time.  Microwaving it just seems weird to me.  Roasting is fantastic.  Not only does it really develop the sugars in the pumpkin, you get that nice roasty flavor.  And the best part is that you can just toss it in the oven and completely forget about it for an hour or so!

Step 1:  Preheat your oven to whatever temperature you like between 350 F. and 425 F.  I do mine at 425 F.  If you do it in a cooler oven than that, keep in mind that it will take longer.

Step 2:  Gather together a colander, some cheesecloth, a slew of assorted heavy objects, and something to use as a moisture barrier between the pumpkin (after cooking) and your heavy objects.  Because I have this nifty rectangular colander (which I highly recommend) that I can hang over my sink, I use a cutting board slightly smaller than the colander as the moisture barrier.  If you're using a round colander, something like plastic wrap would be fine.  For the heavy stuff, I used a bag of potatoes, several bags of sugar, and several bags of dried beans.  A lot of TV chefs suggest using heavy cans of food.  Feel free to improvise!

Step 3:  Break off the stem and carefully cut your pumpkin in half through the top and bottom.  Make sure your knife is very sharp, and be VERY careful.

Step 4:  Scoop out the seeds and strings.  You can use anything that works for you.  Again, improvise!  No one will report you to the chef police!  If it works for you, it's fine.  I used an ice cream scoop (not the kind with the slider thing) this time, a lot of times I'll use a regular teaspoon or tablespoon, and I've heard a grapefruit spoon is good but I don't own one so I haven't tried it.  If you are planning on saving and roasting the seeds, actually I found that the way to go is reach in with your hand and kind of sort through the strings and seeds with your fingers.  The seeds come out pretty nice and clean this way.  Once you have your seeds, you can scoop the strings with your implement of choice.

Step 5:  Get an appropriate sized pan, line with a Silpat mat, parchment paper, or foil, and spray with just a little cooking spray.  Place the pumpkins on the pan, cut side down.  If possible, don't do what I usually end up doing, which is using a totally flat cookie sheet.  If you have something with a rim like a jelly roll pan or sheet cake pan, use that.  The problem with flat sheets is that the pumpkins give off juice as they cook that gets on the bottom of your oven.  Because it has a high natural sugar content (well, high for a vegetable), it really smokes, just like a bubbled-over pie!

Step 6:  Put them in your preheated oven and walk away.  Take them out when the look pretty much like the pic below and feel soft, which takes about an hour at 425 F, longer if cooler than that.

Step 7:  When cool enough to touch, peel off the skin.  It's super easy!

Step 8:  Line your colander with a layer of cheesecloth, then place hunks of pumpkin inside.  With my big rectangular colander I can fit two whole pumpkins (four halves) in nicely and the moisture still drains.  With a round one I'm thinking probably one pumpkin will be the limit, just to be sure the moisture comes out.

Step 9:  Place your moisture barrier over the pumpkin.  

Step 10:  Load up your assortment of heavy stuff evenly, and walk away.  Let the pumpkin drain on its own for 8 hours or overnight. 

Step 11:  Remove the heavy stuff, and load the pumpkin into a food processor equipped with the chopping blade, in an amount appropriate to the size of your processor.  If you don't have a food processor, you can use a stand mixer, a hand mixer, or blender (although a blender would probably require some babysitting).  You can possibly also use a hand blender, although it may be a bit heavy for that.  Another great tool if you're not into electrics is a hand cranked food mill (much easier to use than it sounds!).  I will be posting about all kinds of kitchen tools in future posts.

Step 12:  Process, mix, blend, or mill the pumpkin until it becomes a beautiful, velvety puree!  With a food processor this pretty much entails putting on the lid, turning it on, and walking away for a couple of minutes.  If the pumpkin was still a bit firm you may have to stir once or twice, but really, that's about it.  With a stand mixer, again, turn it on, relax for a bit.  Isn't it pretty?!!

And that's it!  You're ready to enjoy your fabulous pumpkin puree in many, many exciting dishes!


  1. Becky -
    What a love about your blog is your descriptions are clear and doable! And the pictures help a little bit too . . . :) Meg

  2. Wow very detailed and informational... I really had no idea Pumpkin was packed with Potassium( since I absolutely despise Bananas)I may be adding more pumpkin to my diet!!! :-) Great Job Becky!!! I'm bookmarking your blog right now...

  3. You did a wonderful job and fresh pie pumpkin beats can pumpkin all the time! An oyster works great for cleaning out the seeds. The shell itself cuts through the stringy part very nicely. I found I like oyster shells for cleaning out squash even better than a bit spoon. I didn't think Ricky was allowed in the kitchen:)

  4. Wow Becky, the way you explain things makes me want to go find sugar pumpkins tonight! Plus I feel like I'm in your kitchen with you. We'll have to get you a grapefruit spoon!

  5. Super good job of explaining things, Becky. Even a kitchen-challenged person like me could follow your directions. (I did enjoy the pictures Ricky.) Your suggestions of what to do with the pumpkin puree make me hungry. Can I come and eat at your house? Seriously, I read and enjoyed every word on your blog and will be following it regularly! By the way, my next batch of cookies is going to have 1/2 cup of pumpkin puree in them.

  6. @Brenda - The oyster shell is a good idea, I can see how that would work well. Usually Ricky's not allowed in the kitchen, but I make an exception when he agrees to shoot blog pics! ;-)

    @Jen - LOL! I follow Alton Brown's rule against "unitaskers" in the kitchen (this will be the subject of a future blog post!), so if I get a grapefruit spoon I'll either have to start eating grapefruit or figure out additional ways to use the spoon! ;-)

    Thanks SO MUCH everybody!!!

  7. WOW!It's a great blog!You're a foodie like Jim. I lost your email. Please email me at virginia53404@yahoo

  8. I love your blog and the way you show and explain how you accomplish your recipes, they make me want to go into the kitchen and start cooking and make them all!! GREAT JOB!!! and GREAT FOOD!!!