Fresh pumpkin in a pie or quick bread is a rare treat--rare for two reasons. First, it is easy to find pumpkin all year around, in cans at the supermarket. Second, fresh pumpkins are here once a year, more or less, in the autumn when the harvest comes in and appears in Tucson's markets. Only at this time of year do we have a real choice as to whether we want to tackle a big, heavy, round pumpkin in our kitchens, or pick a can off the shelf and follow the instructions on the back.
Now, if you do pick a can up to make a pie, please follow my advice on one thing: do not choose any kind of prepared pumpkin pie mix instead of straight pumpkin puree. The classic home-made pumpkin pie can be yours with canned pumpkin puree, but prepared mixes are widely considered to be inferior to it.
If you choose to have a go at a pumpkin, you need to know one thing above all others: like bananas and plantains, there are pumpkins that are meant to be eaten and those that are intended for the fun activities of Halloween, like carving Jack O'Lanterns. So you don't have to dread the process of tackling the huge guys that you see on display in the supermarkets right now.
You will find small-to-medium pumpkins in the supermarkets that are labeled, "Sugar Pumpkins," "Pie Pumpkins," or something like that. Those are the ones that are meant to be made into pie, quick bread and some other dishes. Native American cookery includes pumpkin in many main dishes, and those are made frequently by vegetarians because pumpkins are very nutritious. To find out more about cooking pumpkins (and Native American food in general), you can go to the Southwest Indian Foundation online and look up their cookbooks. This organization features many fine products that bring income to Native Americans, particularly in Arizona, and they fill orders accurately and also ship promptly.
When you get your pumpkin home, it is easier to handle it than you might imagine. All you have to do is turn it on its side and cut it once across, into two halves; use a long, sturdy chef’s knife for this. Scoop the seeds out of each half and lay them cut-side down on a baking sheet that has been prepared with nonstick cooking spray.
Heat your oven to 300 degrees and place the baking sheets in the oven for 1 hour. By that time the pumpkin halves will be very soft, but hot and dangerous. If you don't want to wrestle that hot baking sheet out of the oven, just turn the oven off and leave it until the hot interior and its contents are no longer dangerous.
When you can remove the pumpkin from the oven safely, transfer the baking sheet to the top of your stove (don't light any burners, by the way). Taking the cooked pumpkin halves one at a time, scoop out the pulp into a colander that is contained in your kitchen sink or a larger mixing bowl.
The pumpkin pulp will drain for a few hours, releasing liquid that tends to dilute recipes if you don't allow it to drain from the pulp. So once you have drained and discarded the liquid, you can transfer the pulp to a mixing bowl and stir it with a wooden spoon until you have a rough, chunky puree. At that point you can put it into plastic containers and store in your freezer. I recommend that you freeze in 1-cup quantities for convenience later.
When you are ready to make a pumpkin pie, thaw out 4 cups of pumpkin and make your pie. There will be some pumpkin left over, so refrigerate it and use it up soon.
CLASSIC PUMPKIN PIE
3-1/2 cups pumpkin puree
1-1/2 cups granulated blonde or light-brown sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground cloves
4 large eggs, at room temperature
3 cups half-and-half or light cream
2 unbaked pie shells in containers or 2 prepared pie crusts
Preheat your oven to 425 degrees. Unroll the pie crusts and crimp them into two pie pans. If you are using prepared pie shells, allow them to come to room temperature to facilitate even baking.
In a small mixing bowl, whisk together the spices and sugar.
In your main work bowl, beat the eggs well. Beat in the pumpkin, the cream and then finally the sugar-spice mixture.
Place the two pie shells on a baking sheet and fill them evenly with the pumpkin mixture. Bake the pies for fifteen minutes at 425 and then lower the oven temperature to 350 degrees and bake for 40-50 minutes longer.
The pies are done when the center is firm. If you like them browned around the edges, leave them in the oven for the longer time, but they may be done before they brown. Go by what you like and look at them after 40 minutes to see if they are done and you like the way they look.
By the way, if you are dairy-intolerant, like I am, do not cook with evaporated or condensed milk. And I would add, if you are fine with dairy products and would like to stay that way, avoid evaporated and condensed milk all the same. These concentrated milk products are a short chute to milk allergies, just be advised. If you use light-brown sugar for this recipe, the pie will have a deeper flavor and people will comment that they are better than the average bear. I make pumpkin pies with light cream because it contains less of the milk protein that I am sensitive to, than half-and-half, which is half milk. Makes sense to me.