For New England bakers, the time of year has come when pumpkin makes its appearance on the menu. These goodies are invariably accompanied by crisp, autumn days, clear blue skies and beautiful fall foliage.
I recently learned that canned pumpkin in the supermarket is not a reduced form of jack o’ lanterns. What you get in those cans is a type of squash, just not the one we cut up and decorate for Halloween.
In the US, about 80 percent of the canned pumpkin market is held by Libby’s and they use something called the Dickinson pumpkin, which is paler and a bit more oblong than jack o’ lantern pumpkins.
Usually Libby’s harvests enough to supply pumpkin year-round but poor weather conditions meant that they shipped their entire 2009 harvest prior to Thanksgiving last year. This year, fortunately, it looks as though there is going to be a good harvest.
So, what does the term “pumpkin” actually designate if it does not specifically mean the bright orange jack o’ lantern squash? According to Vegetables: From Amaranth to Zucchini by Elizabeth Schneider, there is no official botanical definition. In fact, definitions for “pumpkin” often vary from country to country and region to region. In general, however, it is safe to say that “pumpkin” is used to refer to hard-skinned “winter” squash (e.g. Butternut or Hubbards) as opposed to tender “summer” squash (e.g. zucchini or Pattypan).
Alice Waters gives a good breakdown of the squash/pumpkin family tree in her book, Chez Panisse Vegetables (see chart below). She suggests that midseason squash, generally harvested from October to March, are usually the best for eating. As well, the flavor of many varieties improves after a couple of weeks of storage. When shopping for winter squash, look for hard and heavy vegetables, and avoid any squash that have “blemishes or bruises.”
Ms. Waters does not advise storing squash in the fridge, but instead keeping them uncut in a cool place, sometimes for several months (although usage within a matter of weeks is recommended).
Just the other day, our head baker made the season’s first batch of Pumpkin-Currant cookies and it might have been that which jump-started my own pumpkin inquiry. Or perhaps it was the sight of some apple pies and the notion that Thanksgiving will be upon us faster than expected. From there, my thoughts wandered to last year when, inspired by our cooks, I took to roasting Acorn squash slathered with butter, maple syrup and brown sugar. About the same time of the year, I was also prepping for Halloween and toasting my own pumpkin seeds. Despite my research, “pumpkin” to me will always evoke images of jack o’ lanterns!