As long as we're talking pumpkin pie, if you're planning on coming to my house for Thanksgiving this year (2008), just show up sometime around noon and bring what you brought last year. That will save us all a bunch of phone calls. It's not like I want to talk to you people ahead of time. If you didn't come last year and you want to, call me. The more the merrier. Or just show up, unless you're some creepy internet stalker stranger. If you're a creepy internet stalker and you do show up, you'll have to do the dishes and serve the pie.
Pumpkin: From Seed to Pie
"Fresh pumpkin is so difficult to use that few modern cooks go down this road." (The New Best Recipe, by the editors of Cook's Illustrated Magazine, p. 903)
I'm crunching the last of our crispy salty pumpkins seeds as I type. Tuesday we scooped the seeds out of our little pie pumpkins, Wednesday we roasted seeds and baked and pureed pumpkin, and by yesterday's Thanksgiving feast, the tiny pie pumpkins were creamy pumpkin pies.
Wednesday evening I was making pumpkin pies, stirring the pumpkin in a pan on the stove, and I wondered idly aloud, "Why do I have to stir the filling until it's glossy? What purpose does this step serve?" One of my favorite things about The New Best Recipe is the blurb before the actual recipe explaining why the recipe works, and Mom was there to read to me while I stirred. Well, first she read the above sentence to me, the one about modern cooks not using that difficult fresh pumpkin. Then she found the part about the stovetop stirring. Here's why you're supposed to cook the pumpkin and spices ahead of time (from the same page of the cookbook): "You can freshen the taste of canned pumpkin by cooking it with the sugar and spices before combining it with the custard ingredients. As the pumpkin simmers, you can actually smell the unwelcome canned odor give way to the sweet scent of fresh squash."
I still wouldn't skip this step when using fresh pumpkin. Combining the pumpkin, brown sugar and pie spices then cooking them for a few minutes on the stove while your pie crust is prebaking deepens the flavor of the fresh pumpkin, giving you rich dark orangey deliciousness. Then stir in the cream and the eggs and pour into a hot partially-baked pie crust for a creamy-custardy filling in a crust that stays crispy instead of getting mushy.
And the second thing I'd say is...really? Honestly, I was a little taken aback by the idea of fresh pumpkin being difficult. Preparing fresh pumpkin is almost as easy as baking and mashing a potato, and it's delicious.
From Seed to Pie: Fresh Pumpkin
Growing the Pumpkin: For best results, you really can't just cook any old pumpkin. Even pumpkins labeled "pie pumpkins" at the grocery store aren't necessarily sweet sugar pumpkins, though they are still much tastier than the larger jack-o-lantern pumpkins you'll find at the pumpkin patch that are perfect for carving. You can also substitute a sweet winter squash, like acorn squash, for a perfectly lovely "pumpkin" pie. If you're growing your own pumpkins, look for pumpkin seeds labeled "sugar pumpkin." They will typically be much smaller than jack-o-lantern pumpkins, but because they're intended for eating, they're selected for flavor and sweetness rather than size and decorativeness.
I'm not even close to being a Master Gardener, but I'll tell you how I grow pumpkins. I'd suggest doing a little more thorough reading elsewhere if you've never grown anything before in your life. I buy my seeds, plant them in one end of one of my garden boxes, and check them every few days to see if they've sprouted. If they haven't sprouted or something has munched them, I plant a few more seeds. I pull weeds once in a while. When I get around to it in the fall, around the time it starts getting cold but before it frosts, I pick the pumpkins and put them in the cool but dry garage until I'm ready to use them. Pumpkins are perfect for the lackadaisical gardener because that's pretty much it, and I always have enough pumpkin for Thanksgiving pies and more. (Yearning for better directions? More than you ever wanted to know about growing pumpkins at Pumpkin Nook.)
(Cooking directions cut and pasted and slightly modified from an August '06 Poohsticks post, What's That Squash?)
How to get from pie pumpkin to pumpkin puree: Heat your oven to 400 degrees. Halve your pumpkin(s) and take out the seeds and slimy bits. Set the seeds aside for roasting later. Brush the cut edges of the pumpkin with a bit of oil and place on a rimmed baking sheet with the cut side down. Bake for about 40 minutes (for small pumpkins) to 1 hour (for larger). When done the flesh of the pumpkin should be soft when pierced with a fork, and the outer shell should be pulling away from the flesh. Let cool until you can handle it without burning yourself, then peel the shell off of the pumpkin. Puree the pumpkin flesh in the food processor.
Using your puree: You can serve the puree as is with a little butter and brown sugar, as though it's mashed/pureed squash (because it is). If you would like to use your puree in your favorite recipes for pie, scones (my favorite!) or pumpkin bread, let it cool then put it in the fridge for a few hours, or even overnight, if you can. Some of the liquid will separate from the puree, allowing you to skim it away so that your puree is just a bit thicker.
I disagree with The New Best Recipe contention that fresh pumpkin is difficult to work with; however, the moisture content is difficult to predict. Particularly when making baked goods, you may need to adjust recipe ingredients slightly to compensate for the fact that fresh pumpkin is a little more liquid than the thicker canned pumpkin, but that's a fairly simple adjustment. I usually cut back on the liquid and/or add a little more flour, depending on the recipe. You can call it by...well, by eye rather than by ear, I guess, if you're familiar with the basic consistency of muffin or pancake batter or whatever you're making. Taking the time to experiment and get comfortable cooking with fresh pumpkin is worth the payoff, because it is delicious!