Pumpkin beer. Pumpkin muffins. Pumpkin ice cream. Pumpkin cheesecake. Pumpkin candles. For three months a year, pumpkins are everywhere. Until we reach Pumpkin Day, otherwise known as Thanksgiving, when by matter of cultural contract we agree to consume, for one extended weekend, the granddaddy of all pumpkin delicacies, pumpkin pie.
And then lose all interest in seeing or eating pumpkins ever again, at least until next fall.
Starbucks this year started selling its famous — or infamous — pumpkin spice latte on Aug. 28, prompting an abundance of “can’t wait!” and “too early!” posts on social media. Because who would dream of finding consensus on Twitter?
There are those who wonder, though, whether all this pumpkinmania isn’t some sort of con. They say it isn’t pumpkins that people fall in love with every fall. They say it is the comforting, warming spices that are typically matched up with pumpkin that give pumpkin dishes their signature aromas and flavors: cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, cardamom, clove.
It wasn’t that long ago most of us were content to see pumpkins in two primary forms: as pie filling; and as the raw material for decorative jack o’lanterns. Maybe pumpkin ravioli was a thing. Maybe someone had a relative whose Halloween party bring-along was pumpkin bread.
But those days are over. It’s a pumpkin-spiced world, and we’d better get used to living in it.
* * * * *
Pumpkin is a winter squash, one of many varieties that reaches maturity in the fall. Other popular varieties include butternut, acorn, spaghetti, delicata and kabocha.
The myth abounds online that pumpkins are not an integral element of pumpkin-flavored food. Even Wikipedia reports that “pumpkin pie-flavored products … are generally not flavored with pumpkins, but rather pumpkin pie spices.” Attentive readers will note that there is no attribution given to this assertion.
Local chefs, bakers and brewers dismiss this notion. They say that pumpkins, or winter squash anyway, are central to all their pumpkin recipes, as are traditional pumpkin pie spices. The two have gone hand in hand for centuries.
What is true is that some preparers rely on commercially produced puree rather than roasted whole pumpkins because of the convenience and consistency of the canned product.
Lisa Parysz is the owner of The Cheesecake Lady in Hamilton. She says she couldn’t imagine making a pumpkin cheesecake without pumpkin, that the spices alone could never transform an ordinary cheesecake base into a convincing pumpkin treat. Pumpkins are necessary for texture and color. She has used fresh roasted pumpkins in the past, but uses canned puree today, saying that there isn’t enough of a difference in flavor to justify the additional time and effort required to roast the pumpkins.
Chris Rakow is head brewer for River Horse Brewing Company in Ewing. Like many breweries these days, River Horse makes a pumpkin ale for release every autumn.
Rakow also uses canned puree, saying it would be impractical for the brewery to roast fresh pumpkins for several reasons. One is that it would need a large commercial kitchen to roast the quantity of pumpkin it needs for the volume of pumpkin ale it produces. Another is that beer takes time to ferment, and fresh pumpkins aren’t yet available in late summer, when the brewing process has to start if the beer is to be ready for fall.
He admits that pumpkins don’t contribute much in the way of fermentable sugar or pumpkin flavor to the beer, which has a brown ale base. But he says they are essential for providing a warm orange hue and distinctive, smooth mouthfeel. River Horse does use whole dried spices, not granulated ones, in its beer.
Gab Carbone is a co-owner of The Bent Spoon in Princeton, a boutique ice cream shop that has become known for its unusual flavors and commitment to using fresh, locally grown ingredients. She says The Bent Spoon does indeed roast fresh cheese pumpkins every year for its pumpkin ice cream.
Cheese pumpkins are so named because they are flattish and yellowish, resembling rounds of cheese, and Carbone feels that they have a more intense pumpkin flavor than other varieties. It’s not easy roasting them, she says, but The Bent Spoon has been making pumpkin ice cream since it opened in 2004, and has the process down by now.
Carbone says pumpkin ice cream is basically a frozen pumpkin custard, and that while quality whole spices are important to the flavor, the texture and earthiness of the custard could only come from actual pumpkin. The Bent Spoon also makes a pumpkin sorbet, the flavor of which she says is even more intense.
She can think of one pumpkin flavor purveyor whose pumpkin-flavored treats don’t contain actual pumpkin: Starbucks. “We all know there’s no pumpkin puree in their coffee,” she says.
* * * * *
New Jersey farmers plant pumpkin seeds in July, anticipating that they will be ready for market by the end of September or early October.
The bulbous, occasionally enormous pumpkins commonly seen on hay rides and grinning from front porches are edible, but they are not the tastiest winter squash in the world. One local farmer calls these “face pumpkins.”
It’s in the subtleties of the flavor differences that chefs and bakers find their favorite squash for culinary use. Face pumpkins have high water content, which makes them inefficient for roasting. Some say that sugar pumpkins, which are typically rounder and more compact than face pumpkins, have the best flavor. Others, like Carbone, prefer cheese pumpkins. The kabocha squash, also known as Japanese pumpkin, is growing in popularity among local chefs.
This year at Great Road Farm in Skillman, farmer Kyle Goedde is growing a lot of cinnamon girl, a kind of sugar pumpkin, as well as some kabocha squash. Goedde says that pumpkins make up about a quarter of the total volume of winter squash he hopes to harvest this year. He’s also growing butternut, kabocha, delicata, spaghetti, and a variety called Blue Hubbard (which, yes, is actually blue).
Great Road Farm is different from most farms in that it has one chief client: Fenwick Hospitality Group. Entrepreneur Jim Nawn owns both operations. For a number of years, most of Great Road Farm’s produce went to one restaurant: Agricola, on Witherspoon Street. But in the last year, Nawn and Fenwick Hospitality Group have added three new restaurants: The Dinky Bar and Kitchen, Cargot Brasserie, and Two Sevens Eatery and Cantina, all in Princeton.
Today Great Road Farm provides all four restaurants, as well as Fenwick’s catering operation, with fresh ingredients. Goedde works with Fenwick’s chefs to decide what crops to grow. “I try to have individual meetings with each of the head chefs of the restaurants,” Goedde says. “They give me ideas about what they want, and I’ll kind of give them back an idea of what we can do.”
One of those who depends on the hard work of Goedde and his staff is Chef Mitresh Saraiya of Agricola, who is getting ready to put some pumpkin and winter squash items on his menu. “At Agricola, we change our menu once every three to four weeks, which allows us to highlight ingredients that are at their peak in that very moment, as well as anything that’s moving out of season,” he says.
With the pumpkin harvest just coming in, Saraiya hasn’t made any dishes with it just yet, but he is making plans.
For this year, Saraiya’s preliminary plans include a a squash or pumpkin soup made with pumpkin spice foam and poached pears. He’s also considering bringing back a dish from last year, squash gnocchi.
Many chefs tend to accent their squash dishes with sage, especially as the days get colder. Saraiya says that is definitely an easy direction to go in, which is why he’s trying to steer clear of it. He wants to give his diners something different to think about.
“I’m leaning more toward tarragon,” he says. “I was working with it (and squash) just a few days ago, and it felt like I want tarragon and squash to be my profile this year.”