Cinderella’s Pumpkin Patch
For Pies, Beer, or Jack-O-Lanterns
by Peter William Gribble
The assumption comes easily. When you see Halloween pumpkins in stores by late August, someone’s cost-benefit business sense must be in neurotic agony, fearful of losing a single potential sale. Pie pumpkins are understandable, if you hunger for pumpkin pie with cloves, cinnamon and nutmeg fresh from the oven on a hot, late summer’s eve. But August? It was an omen that Christmas displays would soon follow in September, oblivious of the Rosh Hashanah, Diwali and Remembrance Day festivals and ceremonies preceding it.
If this is due to accelerating effects of global warming, the data has yet to be published.
Whether she started looking in August or not, Cinderella has a tough choice of pumpkins to go to the ball in with all the new varieties in wilder shapes, colours and styles than last year. She’ll worry what the prince will think if she shows up in last year’s model.
I don’t remember seeing Rembrandt Pumpkins last year. These are medium large, striking dusty navy blue pumpkins with orange splotches often between the ribs. The name begs the question: do any of your Rembrandts have pumpkins in them? Mine don’t. Blue Delight is striking, with a floury verdigris over its dark cobalt skin. Winter Luxury isn’t new but is an attractive medium-sized light orange pumpkin with a slight ghosting of shallow frosting as if applied by an interior designer’s antiquing spackle brush. Orange Schoolhouse Pumpkins have been around for years, ideal for painting faces upon, but likely too small for transformations into coaches.
While closely related to squashes and pumpkins, miniature gourds might as well come from another planet. Twisted ghoulish things: fluted, misshapen, scabby, pimply and warty in near fluorescent colours as if harvested near the latest Russian nuclear accident or survivors from the Permian extinction. Their earliest relatives could be fossilized in Burgess shale.
You can grow these botanical gremlins in the Mariana Trench of your garden in spring, but only if you have space and full sun. I have tried growing a few in five-gallon pots but by mid-summer they don’t look especially happy. Alternatively, purchase the gourds themselves at garden centres now for autumnal centre pieces, though the sight of them on the dining room table could compromise digestion. These mini-gourds last for months but by January some will have acquired the additional patinas of damp, mould, and rot. Unless this coordinates with your décor, compost them at this time.
Seeing what’s being created anew each year, I feel possessed by a Frankenstein psychosis to hybridize my own little monsters. I haven’t done it yet but my own little Pokemon Pumpkins? ‘Gotta hybridize them all.’ Thank goodness fresh brains and giga-watts of electricity aren’t needed.
In truth, archaeologists have discovered Cucurbita pepo in the gourd, squash and pumpkin family was being hybridized in Central America at least 8,000 years ago, 4,000 years before the domestication of such crops as maize and beans. Those early hybridizers were after thicker rinds.
Hybridization aside, what is required for all gourds, squashes and pumpkins are space, moisture-retentive soil but well draining as well, and full sun. Configurations in the West End will make this difficult unless you have gardening privileges in one of the precious plots in a community or rooftop garden. This is not the time to plant but the season to be intrigued by next year’s possibilities.
For you who have visions of pumpkins dancing in your heads, the biggest pumpkin you can grow is Cucurbita maxima Dill’s Atlantic Giant. It is Canadian-bred, but requires 130 days to grow to maturity and, in the West End, the 50 foot long vines will stretch across property lines and too many balconies. If you aim to have one on your doorstep as a Halloween Jack-O-Lantern, build a sturdier porch as a weight of 1,000 pounds is not uncommon. If you’re growing Dill’s Atlantic Giant in a rooftop garden, reserve the helicopter now for later transportation. Better for porches is C. maxima Big Max, growing to about 100 pounds with rounder, better shaped pumpkins, although it needs almost as much room as Dill’s Atlantic to grow.
My favourite for the small space is C. pepo Small Sugar. It is so cute and has a surprisingly sweet flavour excellent for pies. Some garden centres will have the potted plant (usually late August, early September) with a pumpkin or two maturing on the vine. If you ever spot one, grab it as these sell fast. Sneak it onto your balcony when nobody’s looking, then tell guests and visitors your doctoral thesis on Pumpkinology is nearing completion.
The French heirloom C. maxima Rouge Vif d’Etampes is the traditional Cinderella pumpkin, the flatter form with intense red-orange colouring and the pronounced ribs. C. mochata Musquee d’Hiver de Provence is another heirloom, but with subdued colouration and can keep until spring. The warty salmon pink surface of C. maxima Galeux d’Eysines belies this pumpkin’s excellent flavour for pies. Seeds for these lovely exotics and many others are available in the spring from West Coast Seeds.
If you are growing pumpkins for the seeds get C. pepo Lady Godiva, or C. pepo Naked Bear. They produce hulless seeds for roasting.
Looking for the tried and true, old fashioned pumpkin pie recipe? Craig Claiborne’s The New York Times Cookbook has something passing for one. He’s not afraid of the usual spices of cinnamon, allspice or cloves, but he betrays modernist shortcuts by suggesting a cup and a half of evaporated milk instead of milk or light cream. I’ll forgive him only because of – three pages earlier – his Eggnog Chiffon Pie, which I may test when the festive season truly begins after November 11.
Old cookbooks are fascinating. The American Frugal Housewife by Mrs. Child, published in 1832, is still available. The appendix has two interesting observations on pumpkins: “It is a great improvement to the flavour of Pumpkin Pies to boil the milk, stir the sifted (strained) pumpkin into it, and let them boil up together once or twice. The pumpkin swells almost as much as Indian meal, and of course absorbs more milk than when stirred cold; but the taste of the pumpkin is much improved.
“Some people cut pumpkin, string it, and dry it like apples. It is a much better way to boil and sift the pumpkin, then spread it out thin in tin plates, and dry hard in a warm oven. It will keep good all the year round, and a little piece boiled up in milk will make a batch of pies.”
Rose Levy Beranbaum has the fairy godmother of pumpkin recipes.
Her sumptuous ‘Great Pumpkin Pie’ is in one of my favourite go-to cookbooks: The Pie and Pastry Bible. My copy automatically falls open to page 198 now. Pumpkin and spices are cooked together for a mellow smoother flavour, then briefly pureed in the food processor before adding milk, cream and eggs and blending the mixture to an exceptional silky texture. While I prefer the flavours of molasses and the stronger spices, in this delectable recipe Beranbaum substitutes light brown sugar and limits spices to cinnamon and ginger. Finely ground ginger snaps and pecans are pressed into the bottom of the pie crust for extra texture and to absorb the extra liquid from the filling. Surprisingly, she is a believer in canned pumpkin (canned usually comes from varieties of C. moschata) over homemade for its consistency in flavour and texture. For the purist, Small Sugar is more than a good substitute for canned. Keep an eye on the pie in the oven. If you spot the characteristic starburst cracking forming in the filling it indicates over-baking.
Among all things pumpkin are pumpkin beers, rum, whiskeys and Bailey’s Pumpkin Spice Limited Edition (said to pair well with pumpkin gingerbread trifle.) These products have been available since mid-September. Before heading out Halloween night, your inner Cinderella may need a fortifying Bourbon pumpkin spice latte poured into a glass slipper to sustain her … at least until midnight.
Once your pies are baked, your porch pumpkin carved and you’ve decided on your conveyance pumpkin to the ball, it may be too late to buy white mice in the convenient six-pack.
They were probably best bought in August.