The Last Pumpkins (For a While…)

I’ve been having a great fall teaching classes and testing out endless  butternut squash/apple/turnip/pear/carrot/sweet potato/parsnip/pumpkin combinations in soups, gratins, purees, and stew-like creations. I had a hard time deciding what to share with you before TurkeyDay, the biggest food event of the year.

But the other day I cracked open Dorie Greenspan’s brilliant new cookbook Around My French Table for the first time. This is exactly the book I wish I’d written. Like her perfect Baking from my Home to Yours, the recipes are simple, versatile and flavorful, and the pages are saturated with spectacular pictures and peppered with “bonne idées” – good ideas to make each recipe your own. She takes the mystery out of fabulous French cooking from the simplest home meal to the most intimidating pastries. And so many of her recipes have blunt, adorable names – Spur-of-the Moment Vegetable Soup, Salmon and Potatoes in a Jar.

But once I saw “Pumpkins Stuffed With Everything Good,” I knew I’d found my starting point. The concept, taken from generations of French home cooking, is sheer perfection: so cozy, beautiful, and delicious. As Dorie says, “an outline is about the best you can do with this dish” – because there’s so many ways you can, and often must, vary it. She says she never makes it the same way twice.

It’s sort of like a fondue, only you spoon out the contents not skewer them. The concepts all depend on what you like, and the best thing about it is that you can serve it as an appetizer or a side dish on the Thanksgiving table, perfect for all friends and family. You can even easily make it vegetarian if that’s what makes you happy.

Here’s what you have to do:

You take a bake-able pumpkin, like sugar or Cinderella and cut off the top

scoop out the stringy stuff and the seeds (to toast) (or caramelize)

then crush some garlic, and maybe chop some herbs

fill it with your favorite chunks of bread, cheeses, herbs and a bit of bacon or pancetta or similar if you like

Pour in some cream

And bake it!

That’s it! And this is what you get in the end…

Then you scoop this with some of the pumpkin meat on to small plates. Together with a good glass of white wine and you’re in heaven after one taste. I’m not exaggerating.

Full, concise recipe after the jump!

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Seeds of Sincerity

Fall break finally arrived this past weekend and, while I could have stayed in the city exploring six star restaurants and interviewing famous chefs, like a good, loving little daughter I hopped on the 6:39 to New Haven on Friday evening, and spent four glorious days [eating candy] with my family.

You see, Francesca really wanted to trick or treat with me. And you know how I hate to disappoint her…

This weekend was a like dream. The moment I got home I opened the fridge, out of instinct, but instead of reaching for something I just stood and stared. I couldn’t believe the freshness, the variety, and the general edibility of everything I saw. When I returned to school, I talked with my friend Mia about her trip home and she said she’d experienced the same Fridge-Shock I had. (Unsurprisingly, the very base of our friendship was founded on Dark Chocolate-Sea Salted Almonds and Magnolia banana pudding.) Four soups – pumpkin, broccoli, carrot-ginger and a vibrant pea – met me at the refrigerator door, and as the weekend progressed we added homemade chili, a boeuf en daube, and a plum-vanilla crisp, to the mix. I was able to choose between two apple ciders, spiced and regular, and I could even heat them up if I wanted. In all honesty, and I say this without a hint of irony, I was so overwhelmed by my refrigerator that by Halloween night I’d almost forgotten about candy.

I certainly miss the pumpkins the most (after the sisters I carved them with, of course). There was not a moment when I wasn’t painting, carving, eating, or watching a movie about one. Francesca, Isabella and I spent several hours on the front lawn, freezing our hands off, while mommy scoured the house for melon ballers, 10-inch kitchen knives, awls, cookie cutters, and mini saws.

Francesca instructed me as I carved my first dictated pumpkin (eyes and nose like closed bananas, mouth like an open banana) and she stirred the seeds for the “pumpkin seed stew” while Isabella and I poked, sawed and pared “The Old House in Paris,” a tree, and various unidentifiable swirly things.

When Francesca had finished preparing the seeds (as everyone knows, stirring them is the most important part), we took them inside and began searching high and low for pumpkin seed recipes. But to my shock and dismay, all I could find, no matter how hard I looked, were recipes that called for nothing more than olive oil and sea salt. Yummy, I suppose, but I wasn’t looking to make gourmet potato chips. After a taxing day of carving and playing I needed something sweet as well as salty, and something unmistakably autumn-y.

And so the cinnamon-caramel pumpkin seeds were born. In this recipe, salt and toasty sugar melt with butter and cinnamon to form a new fall classic. They’re cooked first on the stove, to soften the seeds and melt the sugar, and then spread on parchment paper to bake to a crisp. They tend to stick together into a kind of pumpkin brittle, which I like, although you are free to spend the time making sure they are spread out. Of course, they’re very simple (as all good things should be), and very addictive. So as you’re carving your Thanksgiving pumpkins, as I’m sure you plan to do, make sure you save some time to make this modern fall candy. I know you’ll love it and you’ll make me, and the Great Pumpkin, very proud.

We’re All Mad Here

 

We take parties way too seriously at our house, so when Francesca came to us and said she wanted her fifth birthday to be an Alice in Wonderland party it was almost too much excitement for us to take. We wasted no time in beginning plans for desserts and decorations. And this was in January.

 

 

Alice in Wonderland happens to be my second favorite book, and so (since I don’t see a Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh party on the horizon anytime soon) I knew the Mad Tea Party had to be absolutely perfect. Making that happen meant handing off all decorating responsibilities to Mom and Isabella, who in recent weeks has blossomed into quite the artist. Isabella painted white roses red, Mom ordered 24 pink flamingos and a dozen hedgehogs for croquet, and together they set up a tea table that would have made the Mad Hatter and March Hare very proud. They tied ribbons to the (unlit) candles, and Bella made a beautiful runner out of butcher paper, featuring 20 or so quotes from the books. And, of course, they gave every kid got his or her own little tea cup for their iced tea.

 

 

But of course, if we’re being honest with ourselves, really what is a tea birthday party if not just an excellent opportunity to eat dessert?

 

 

To celebrate the black, white and red color scheme we made a red velvet trifle with the Lee Brothers’ perfect red velvet cake (but without the orange zest), cut into cubes and layered with a white chocolate mascarpone mousse (without the pear brandy for the kids) from Bon Appétit, vanilla bean whipped cream (2 cups heavy cream, 3 tbsp sugar and seeds from one vanilla bean, beaten until stiff peaks form) and chocolate chips.

 

 

We found the Lee Brothers’ red velvet cake completely by luck. It’s the most flavorful red velvet cake we’d ever tried, with a vanilla-cocoa flavor that’s deepened by lots of buttermilk. It’s light, tender, moist and completely perfect. We liked it so much, we remade it in the form of “Eat Me” cupcakes. We wrote “Eat Me” on everything – in icing on the cupcakes, and in chocolate chip cookies on the trifle and oversized brown sugar cookies.

 

 

For drinks we took the labels off of Izze bottles and glass Coca-Cola bottles and tied “Drink Me” tags on them…

 

 

…and we rounded off the desserts with a candy table inspired by the graduation.

 

 

We played croquet, had a freeze dance “caucus race,” and finished with a white rabbit-inspired bunny hop red light-green light. And of course, everybody won everything and they all got prizes!

Francesca felt so special in her Alice costume and that night over her celebratory “Chicken Terinaki” she said she had “the best day ever.” And seriously, with trifle, croquet and pink flamingos, what day could possibly be more frabjous?