Thanksgiving is less than two weeks away, and there are probably many cooks out there who would like to try their hand at preparing their pumpkin pie with fresh pumpkin. Since making your own pumpkin purée—at least of a quality that is appropriate for baked goods—is not as straightforward of a process as most cookbooks would lead you to believe, I thought now would be a good time to write a short tutorial on how to make pumpkin purée from a fresh pumpkin.
Standard recipes for fresh pumpkin purée go something like this: Cook the pumpkin (by steaming, boiling, baking/roasting). Purée the cooked pumpkin (discarding the skin and seeds)—either in a food processor or by pressing through a sieve or food mill. Use the pumpkin in your pie (or cake, muffin, bread, custard...) just as you would use "solid pack" canned pumpkin.
Almost everyone I know who has dutifully followed these instructions has confessed that they were disappointed in the pumpkin pie (or other dessert) made from the fresh purée. Most of the time the complaint is that it just didn't taste "pumpkin-y" enough. It is with some reluctance of course that people will admit to this, because fresh is always supposed to be better.
The problem people are encountering is a result of a couple of things. First of all, in my experience, the flesh of a pumpkin is quite watery. If you follow the standard recipe (outlined above), you will actually be able to see the water—the fresh purée will bleed and you will notice pools of yellow liquid around the edges of the container or anywhere there is a divot on the surface of the purée.
Obviously if the purée is watery, it will have a watered down taste (it won't be as "pumpkin-y"). The solution to this is to either drain the pumpkin (in a cheesecloth, for example), or to dry it out. I dry the purée out by spreading it in a gratin-style dish (a large, shallow casserole) and placing it in a low oven where the excess water will slowly evaporate.
The second "problem" encountered with fresh pumpkin is the very fact that it is a fresh vegetable. As a living thing that takes its nourishment from its environment, it is naturally greatly affected by its growing conditions. Location, climate and weather are significant. Two identical cultivars, grown in different places (or the same place in different years) will not have the same moisture content, sweetness, starchiness, etc. Pumpkins grown in the New England states or California may indeed be naturally dense and sweet with little excess moisture. It is also entirely possible that I live in a region that just tends to produce watery pumpkins.
No matter where you live, the fresh pumpkins will vary in their water content from year to year and farm to farm. Every time you prepare a fresh pumpkin purée, you will need to do what you do whenever you cook anything: use your senses to produce a final product that looks and behaves the way you want it to. Some pumpkins will need little or no time in the oven to dry....others may need more than an hour. The first time I began to experiment with this process, my goal was to continue to dry the pumpkin until it looked more like the stuff that comes out of the can: thick enough to stand up on a spoon, dry (it shouldn't "weep" liquid) and deeply orange in color. This should be your guide too. The pumpkin you use may never obtain the deep orange color of the canned "solid pack" pumpkin—but it should not have a pale or translucent look to it.
I don't know why I have never seen this issue addressed in any cookbook (maybe I haven't looked at enough cookbooks), but it seems to me that it makes a substantial difference in the taste and consistency of the final purée. Recently I roasted a pumpkin that weighed 4 lbs., 14 ounces. The initial purée weighed 2 lbs. 12 ounces and measured a little over 5 cups. After drying, the remaining purée weighed 1 lb. 13 ounces and measured about 3 1/3 cups. For those doing the math, you will have noticed that there was almost a full pound (2 cups) of excess water in my original purée. If I had used 15 ounces (the standard amount that most pies call for) of the original purée in a pie, about a third of that would have been water.
|Canned on the left; Fresh purée, before "drying", on the right|
|Canned on the left; Fresh purée, after "drying", on the right|
By writing this post, I am not trying to discourage anyone from baking with fresh pumpkin. Rather, my goal is to help those who want to use fresh pumpkin in their holiday baked goods to be able to do so with good success. Most recipes for pumpkin baked goods (bread, cake, pie, custard, etc.) have been developed to use the "solid pack" pumpkin that comes out of a can. If you bake with something that has a substantially higher water content than the canned product, your recipe won't perform the way it was intended to, and you will probably be disappointed in the result.
To prepare fresh pumpkin purée to be used in baked goods: Use a sugar pumpkin or something that is specifically labeled "pie pumpkin". Choose one that feels heavy for its size. I prefer to bake or roast pumpkin that will be made into a purée, because this method doesn't introduce any more water. To bake the pumpkin, cut the pumpkin in half and scoop out the seeds.
Place the pumpkin halves cut side down on a greased rimmed baking sheet.
Bake in a 350° oven until very tender (pumpkin may begin to collapse)—about 1 hour, depending on the size of the pumpkin. Remove from the oven and carefully turn the halves over so the flesh is exposed and can "steam dry" a bit.
Allow the pumpkin to cool. Separate the flesh from the skin and discard the skin. Purée the flesh in the food processor or pass through a food mill fitted with the fine disc.
Dry the purée by spreading it in a shallow pan and baking at 300°, stirring occasionally with a heat-proof rubber spatula (scrape the sides well so the purée won't burn around the edges), until the desired consistency is reached—it will darken a little, will no longer "bleed" water and a clear path will remain when you draw a spatula through the purée.
A medium-sized pumpkin (2 1/3 to 2 1/2 lbs.) will produce a 10 to 12 oz., or about 1 1/4 to 1 1/2 cups, of purée.
Before I end this post, I wanted to mention that there are lots of recipes on my blog—particularly from last November and December—for things that would make wonderful additions to your Thanksgiving celebrations. I hope you will take a minute to look through some of these old posts as you plan your holiday menu. You will find very traditional recipes (a scratch version of Green Bean Casserole, Brussels sprouts with Chestnuts), traditional ingredients used in not-so-traditional ways (Winter Squash Pizza, Spicy Roasted Sweet Potatoes, Butternut Squash and Bulgur Pilaf, Savory Kale & Chestnut Bread Pudding) and of course lots of baked goods and desserts (Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Muffins, Pumpkin-Cranberry Scones, Pumpkin Pot de Crème, Brandied Apple & Currant Crumb Tart). Additionally, over the next few weeks, I will keep doing my best to post recipes that will fill your tables with good things to eat as you gather with your families and friends this year. Happy Holidays!