Sugar Is Sweet; Let’s Make A Pumpkin Pie!
How to grow and when to harvest heirloom pumpkins for tasty baking.
We finally had our first hard freeze here in Northern New Mexico, two weeks late of the average. Now, I’m sure most of you, including those in my beloved former-hometown of Bozeman, MT, are well beyond that point. Anyway it got me to thinking about how closely we’d be listening to weather forecasts in the fall, watching the patterns, and waiting until just the last moment to get in the winter squash and sugar pumpkins. Usually a light frost would first do some damage to the vines, warning enough that it was time to go out with a short, sharp knife and get them in. But sometimes a hard frost would just descend from the sky — like it did here last night — and, well, if caught napping it might mean the loss of one’s valuable crop.
And that got me thinking even further. We always grew pumpkins as a food crop. None of this giant pumpkin stuff for us. Why’s that? Well, truth-be-told, we love pumpkin pie. And that got us thinking even further. Lately, we’ve seen strange heirloom pumpkins offered around town and at Farmer Markets, like the blue Jarrahdale pumpkin from New Zealand, the oblong Rouge Vif d’Etempes and the pale Long Island Cheese pumpkin. But all our lives, we’ve grown only one kind of pumpkin, the ubiquitous small sugar. They’re one of the quicker pumpkins to mature, 95-100 days, which was always a plus. And we found, with a little care (okay, a lot) we could start them indoors and plant them in the garden when all danger of frost was past. There was that one year when it snowed well into June and, and, well… (sob). But our favorite attribute was the fact that their meat, just as advertized, was sweet for pies and other treats. Sometimes we’d roast a pumpkin in the oven and just eat ‘em like squash.
One thing we didn’t know until a few years ago: the small sugar pumpkin is an heirloom, one of the oldest and best distributed of all the heirlooms. According to Marie Iannotti and her excellent book The Beginner’s Guide To Growing Heirloom Vegetables: The 100 Easiest-To-Grow, Tastiest Vegetables For Your Garden, the seeds of the small sugar were among those given to the American colonist by the Indians. “The colonial version of pumpkin pie,” writes Iannotti,” was a hollowed out pumpkin filled with milk and spices, and baked in the ashes of the fire.” (Now isn’t that a conversation starter when dessert is served at Thanksgiving?) The small sugar was listed in seed catalogs as far back as 1860. Here’s the description listed in the 1938 edition of the Abercrombie Seed Company catalog: “Very sweet, fine-grained, golden yellow fruit; the pumpkin for delicious pies and a grand keeper.” Grand, indeed!
Preparing pumpkins for pie making is easy. Just quarter, scoop out the seeds, and bake at 325 degrees for an hour or more. It’s done when it gives very easily to a fork. Because small sugars are heirlooms, you can save the seeds (before baking) and plant them in the garden. Or roast and salt them and eat them… pumpkin seeds are highly nutritious. Everybody’s got their favorite pie recipe. Here’s how to prepare the filling from your fresh baked pumpkin. The rest is as easy as, as… don’t make me say it.