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Pumpkins are an integral part of our Halloween and Thanksgiving celebrations. Yet the pumpkin's role is very different for each of these holidays. For Halloween the pumpkin is left in its natural state, as a plant, and its outer appearance; its size, shape, color, and stem are the main focus. The taste of its flesh has little importance for the pumpkin is used as a decoration, not as a food. With the aid of a scoop and sharp blade the pumpkin is transformed into a "head".

First the flesh is scooped out and discarded and then a face is carved into the shell. The finishing touch is to illuminate the pumpkin "face" by placing a candle inside.  In this form it is known as a Jack-o'-Lantern. The origins of this name are fairly recent for in the 17th Century, Jack-o'-Lantern meant a night watchman i.e. a man (named Jack) who carried a lantern. 

Thanksgiving, the holiday that symbolizes home and family, uses the pumpkin in a totally different way. The shell of the pumpkin, for this holiday, no longer matters and is discarded. The flesh is now the focus. In fact, the large field pumpkins used for Halloween are replaced by the smaller and sweeter varieties. Although the pumpkin is sometimes used for decoration at Thanksgiving, most importantly, its earthy tasting flesh is transformed into a puree that is used in the traditional pies and well as other sweet and savory dishes. 

The origin of the pumpkin and other squashes date back thousands of years. They are native to America and are from the genus Cururbita. It is believed that Mexico was the first country to cultivate the pumpkin, mainly for its seeds (pepitas). 

In old English the pumpkin is known as "pumpions" or "pompions". The origin of the name "pumpkin" is believed to come from the old French word "pompon", which comes from the classical Greek "pepon". This spherical-shaped, usually orange, winter squash belonging to the gourd family can range from the size of an apple up to hundreds of pounds.  Its ability to grow to such a large size makes it the largest fruit in the plant kingdom. Its flat top and base, hard fluted shell, and thick ridged stem encase a yellow-orange flesh entwined with flat ivory-colored seeds (called pepitas). The pumpkin's hard outer shell protects its flesh from easily spoiling.  In a cool, dry place they should keep for at least a month. 

Field pumpkins, with names like Treat-or-Treat and Spirit, are the most popular for making Halloween Jack-o'-lanterns.   However, their flesh tends to be fibrous and not as tasty for making puree as the smaller, sweeter Sugar Pie, Baby Bear or Cheese Pumpkin. When choosing pumpkins look for ones that feel solid and are heavy for their size, free of blemishes, cracks, and soft spots. 

You can buy excellent brands of canned pure pumpkin or you can make it yourself.  If buying canned pure pumpkin I like to buy plain pumpkin, not pumpkin pie filling, which has the spices added already.

When making your own puree, use the smaller pumpkin varieties (approximately 5-7 lbs., 2 1/2 - 3 1/2 kg.). Cut the pumpkin in half lengthwise, remove seeds and stringy fibers, and place cut-side down on a greased baking sheet. Bake at 350 degrees F (177 degrees C) for approximately 45 minutes to 1 1/4 hours (depending on size) or until easily pierced with a knife.  Scoop out the pulp and puree in a food processor until smooth. You can then strain the puree through cheesecloth to extract all the liquid. Cool before using.

The seeds of the pumpkin (pepitas - pronounced peh-PEE-tah) are used in cooking as well as a snack food. The white hulls enclose a flat, oval shaped, pale green seed that is sweet and nutty in flavor. Pumpkin seeds can be found in health and natural food stores, as well as some grocery stores. They are sold hulled and unhulled. Toasting the seeds gives them a wonderful flavor and crisp texture. 

Pumpkin Recipes:

Pumpkin Pie

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Pumpkin Scones

Pumpkin Spice Cake

Pumpkin Bread

Pumpkin Ice Cream Sandwiches

Pumpkin Muffins

Pumpkin Cranberry Bars


- Pumpkin is a botanical fruit that is a culinary vegetable. 

- Pumpkins are harvested in the Fall when they reach maturity and their shells are hard and inedible. 

- Can be stored for several months after harvest.

- Most pumpkins grown are used for making jack-o-lanterns at Halloween.

- When used in sweet dishes, spices like cinnamon, ginger, cloves and nutmeg are usually added.

- When used in savory dishes, ingredients such as onions, garlic, herbs, and curry complement the sweet earthy flavor of the pumpkin.

- To make your own pumpkin pie spice:  For 1 teaspoon of pumpkin pie spice combine 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/4 teaspoon ground ginger, 1/4 teaspoon ground allspice, and 1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg. 


1 - 5 pound pumpkin = about 4 1/2 cups mashed

1 - 16 ounce can of pure pumpkin = about 2 cups mashed

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