Lifestyle

An autumn abundance, pumpkin adds flavor, color to main dish or dessert

Pumpkin pancakes make the perfect autumn breakfast treat. They are best served with warm syrup and butter. - Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter
Pumpkin pancakes make the perfect autumn breakfast treat. They are best served with warm syrup and butter.
— image credit: Chad Coleman/Mercer Island Reporter

An abundance of pumpkins of all sizes and shapes are prominently displayed inside and outside of grocery stores this time of year. For most of us, the vision of pumpkins stirs up wonderful memories of fall and one of my favorite holidays of the year: Halloween.

Aside from being a festive decoration, pumpkin is a versatile squash to cook with, having the flexibility to go from breakfast through dinner and on to dessert.

In addition to great taste, pumpkin is nutritionally good for us, containing large amounts of antioxidants and beta-carotene, both of which help to strengthen our immune system and reduce the risk of cancer and other life-threatening diseases.

I have cooked with both fresh pumpkin and the canned version, and can honestly say that they both taste the same. When you purchase canned pumpkin, make sure you’re picking up the plain kind and not pumpkin fie filling. If you have the time and want to make your own fresh pumpkin puree, you need to choose from a much smaller sized variety called a sugar pumpkin, and not the larger kind you put at your front door for Halloween.

I find that the easiest way to cook pumpkin is to first wash it and bake it on a cookie sheet in the oven for about an hour and a half at 350 degrees. When it’s cooled, cut it in half, scrape out its seeds and string, remove the skin, and puree it in the food processor. Even if you want to use it in a sliced or cubed form, baking it first until it softens makes cutting the pumpkin much easier. I follow this same process for every variety of squash that I cook with because they are much too difficult to cut when raw.

I am a soup lover, and I adore pumpkin soup. When I was recently in Jamaica, where they use pumpkin regularly in many of their dishes, I had the pleasure of eating a traditional Jamaican soup that took my love of pumpkin soup to a whole new level. This version is savory, as opposed to the sweet varieties that I’m used to. It’s a satisfying combination of beef and vegetables floating in a lightly seasoned sea of pumpkin bisque, creating a meal in itself. Here’s my own version of that interesting and delicious Jamaican soup.

Jamaican Pumpkin Soup With Beef

6-8 servings

¾ to 1 pound of lean beef sirloin, cut into bite-sized pieces

1 small onion, chopped

3 garlic cloves, minced

3 tablespoons olive oil

8 cups of chicken or vegetable broth (2 1-quart boxes)

3 cups pumpkin puree, which equals 2 15-ounce cans

1 cup carrots, sliced into small pieces

2 cups sweet potato (not yams), peeled and cut into cubes

¾ cup frozen peas (optional)

2 teaspoons salt

2 teaspoons ground curry powder

½ teaspoon ground allspice

Ground pepper to taste

In a large soup pot, heat oil and sauté the onion until softened, add garlic and stir. Next, add the meat and cook until half done, basically just browning it. Pour in the broth and bring to a low boil. Lower heat to medium, stir in pumpkin and blend well. Add the carrots, sweet potatoes and spices. Cook until carrots and potatoes are tender, then add peas and cook for an additional five minutes.

Lazy, cold weekend mornings wouldn’t be complete without big satisfying breakfast items, like a wonderful-tasting batch of pancakes. I was first introduced to pumpkin pancakes over 25 years ago at Hugo’s on Santa Monica Boulevard in West Hollywood, Calif., and it was love at first bite. In my opinion, every weekend should include pancakes, and this time of year is perfect for serving up pumpkin pancakes.

Pumpkin Pancakes

Serves 4

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons baking powder

¼ teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 cup pumpkin puree

1 cup low fat buttermilk

2 eggs

2 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 teaspoon vanilla

Butter for cooking

Pure maple syrup for topping (warmed on the stove or in the microwave)

In a large bowl, place the flour, sugar, baking soda, baking powder, salt, cinnamon and pumpkin pie spice and mix together with a fork. In another bowl, blend the buttermilk, pumpkin puree, eggs, oil and vanilla so it is all blended well.

Add the wet ingredients to the dry ingredients and stir just until mixed together, but not to get the lumps out. Melt some butter on a large grill or frying pan on medium-high heat. Pour about a quarter cup of pancake batter onto the grill. Because the batter is a little thick, you’ll need to spread it out some, being careful not to place too close together. When bubbles start to form on top of the pancake, they are ready to flip. I then lower the temperature to make sure they cook through without getting overly done on the outside.

These pancakes are rich enough that they don’t need any butter on top, but feel free to indulge. Top with warm, pure maple syrup.

I’ve been serving pumpkin cheesecake for many years, and my family and friends always rave about it. The addition of pumpkin gives this cheesecake a wonderful flavor and makes it much less heavy than a traditional New York-style cheesecake because it uses less cream cheese than most classic cheesecake recipes call for.

It has a traditional graham cracker crust. Because I love the taste combination of chocolate with pumpkin, I have used chocolate graham crackers on occasion for that added dimension of taste.

I often will prepare this cheesecake ahead of time and freeze it, putting the whipped cream topping on the day I serve it.

Pumpkin Cheesecake

Serves 10-12

Crust:

1 ½ cups graham cracker crumbs

½ cube butter, melted

Pumpkin Filling:

2 eight-ounce packages of cream cheese, softened

1 cup sugar

1 15-ounce can pumpkin

¾ cup sour cream

1 tablespoon vanilla extract

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

½ teaspoon ground ginger

½ teaspoon ground allspice

¼ teaspoon salt

4 large eggs

Topping:

½ pint heavy whipping cream

2 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, sifted

½ teaspoon vanilla extract

Cinnamon for sprinkling

Crust: Begin by preheating the oven to 350 degrees with the rack in the middle. Prepare a 9-inch spring-form pan by spraying it, then tightly wrapping heavy-duty aluminum foil on the outside (to prevent water from leaking in when it is baking in a water bath).

Next, combine the graham cracker crumbs with the melted butter and stir with a fork until moistened. Press this mixture evenly onto the bottom of the pan and up a little on the sides. Bake for 10 minutes, then cool on a wire rack.

Filling: In a large bowl, with the mixer on medium speed, beat the cream cheese until very smooth and even. If you’re using a free-standing mixer, it’s always best to use the paddle attachment for making cheesecake. Beat in the sugar until well blended, for about 1 minute, scraping the bowl with a spatula. Reduce speed to low, then beat in pumpkin puree, sour cream, vanilla, cinnamon, allspice, ginger and salt until mixed well.

Add the eggs, one at a time, beating just until blended. Pour this filling mixture onto the crust and set the spring-form pan into a large roasting pan; set it on the oven rack and carefully pour very hot water into the roasting pan one inch up the sides of the spring-form pan.

It’s best to have water already heated on the top of the stove. Bake until the center of the cake barely jiggles, for about 1 hour and 10 minutes. Remove cheesecake from water bath and transfer to a wire rack, then carefully remove foil. Cool completely in pan on rack.

Cover and refrigerate until well chilled: at least 6 hours, preferably overnight.

Topping: Whip cream with sifted confectioners’ sugar and vanilla until it forms soft peaks.

Remove the outside of the spring-form pan and leave its bottom on. Place the cheesecake on a serving plate. With a spatula, spread the whipped cream evenly on top of the cheesecake, not quite to the outside edges, and sprinkle with a little cinnamon.

This cheesecake is best when served directly out of the refrigerator, instead of letting it sit out.

Enjoy!

Cynthia Shifrin can be reached by e-mail at cyns0117@aol.com.

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