Carve out some fun with pumpkins this season

Fall is in the air again. The local farm stands are sprinkled with orange, and people are coming from far and wide to engage in the annual fall tradition of pumpkin picking. Delicious pumpkin pies adorn the holiday tables, and pumpkins ranging from miniature to gigantic can be seen on the doorsteps of many houses.

For many, pumpkins may bring to mind memories of cooking a pie with their grandmother. But there may be no fonder memory of fall than the Halloween tradition of carving a pumpkin.

The pumpkin originated in America, but the tradition of carving began long before the pumpkin was even discovered. It is said the practice originally involved the carving of turnips and began in Ireland. It started with a myth about a man named “Stingy Jack,” a man so heinous that, upon his death, neither God nor the devil wanted his soul. Instead, Jack was sent off into the night and forced to roam the earth forever with only a hot coal to light his way. Jack placed the hot coal in a carved out turnip, and hence was called “Jack of the Lantern,” which was shortened in the Irish dialect to “Jack O’Lantern.” When immigrants came to America, they traded their hollow turnips for this strange new fruit known as a pumpkin.

Surprisingly, pumpkin is a fruit – actually a berry – belonging to the gourd family Cucurbitaceae and a distant cousin to the watermelon. There are hundreds of different types and cross-breeds of pumpkins. The type most commonly used for carving and decorating is the Autumn Gold, but choose whichever variety most inspires you.

When it comes to baking, the Small Sugar and New England Pie may be better choices (consider trying the recipe for delicious pumpkin cookies at the end of this column).

The process of growing your pumpkin began in late-May. If planted too early, pumpkins can soften and rot before the Halloween season. Besides, being a very needy fruit, the seeds can be easily injured by frost and often will not germinate if the soil is too cool. During the growing process, local farmers must be alert to some common problems that can inhibit the growth of pumpkins – including powdery mildew which can kill leaves and interfere with ripening, along with certain insects such as the squash bug that attack seedlings and vines.

Whatever your use for pumpkins, there is no better time to get them than right now, as pumpkins that lay in the field too long may soften. For anyone looking to purchase a pumpkin for carving or cooking, there are a few things you should look for. The first is color, which in most cases should be orange and consistent throughout the fruit. Choose a pumpkin that is firm, but whose shell is not too hard to cut with a serrated knife. Tap the pumpkin and listen for a hollow sound. A dense pumpkin is good, but too dense and the walls will be too thick and will block the candle light, and any carving details may be lost. Also, make sure your pumpkin can balance on its base.

Once you’ve finished carving your jack o’ lantern, wait about 30 minutes, and wipe out the inside with a dry cloth. Then, apply a protective cover such as vegetable oil or furniture wax to the outer surface. Or, if you wish to add a fancy finishing touch like experienced pumpkin carvers often do, spray your pumpkin with hair spray. And to help preserve your creation and keep it from drying out too quickly, cover it with a damp towel when it is not being displayed.

PUMPKIN COOKIES

Recipe provided by Lou Seibert Pappas. Servings: about 40.

¾ cup firmly packed light brown sugar

2 Tbsp. honey

1 cup pureed cooked pumpkin

½ cup vegetable oil

1 tsp. vanilla extract

2 cups flour

1 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

½ tsp. salt

½ tsp. ground cinnamon

½ tsp. grated nutmeg

¼ tsp. ground ginger

1 cup pitted prunes or seedless raisins chopped

½ cup chopped walnuts

Place brown sugar, honey, pumpkin, vegetable oil and vanilla extract into a mixing bowl. Beat these ingredients until well blended. In a separate bowl, mix flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. Add the dry ingredients to the pumpkin mixture. Mix well, then stir in the walnuts and prunes or raisins.

Drop the batter by the rounded teaspoonfuls onto a buttered baking sheet. Make sure to space the cookies well apart, as they will expand while baking.

Bake at 350 degrees F for 12-18 minutes, or until the cookies are golden brown. Be sure to cool them on wire racks.

This article was written by Lauria Patz, and edited by Dan Harmon of the Hollis Agricultural Commission. To learn more about the Commission, which promotes local agriculture, go to www.hollisag.org.