Venture into new dessert territory

Pumpkin is also great in a nifty cheesecake, date bread and ‘pie’ with crunchy toffee bits

Published November 15, 2005
The Oregonian/Food Day

I’m a stickler for tradition when it comes to Thanksgiving, but I’m not serving pumpkin pie this year.

I love pie as much as the next guy—I chose it over cake for my wedding—and yet I get a kick out of tweaking tradition when it comes to the final course and offering something that’s essentially pumpkiny but unexpected.

My love for unconventional flavor combinations dates back to my first taste of Grandma Mac’s chocolate-chip-flecked pumpkin cake, redolent with allspice. It was the cake she made for my seventh birthday, and I’ve thought back to it many times.

During my five Thanksgivings as the pastry chef at Higgins restaurant, I tried to strike a balance between tradition and invention. Maple sugar crème brulee, caramel apple bread pudding and cranberry angel food cake were surprisingly popular, even among dedicated fans of pumpkin pie.

Last year, while planning Thanksgiving at home, I thought again about the pumpkin birthday cake with the chocolate chips. A little brainstorming and a handful of homemade toffee chunks resulted in a classically spiced pumpkin filling baked in a chocolate crust sprinkled with crunchy toffee bits. While it’s not pie, exactly, it can be cut in wedges, and one bite will make you forget the pumpkin pies of years past.

I’m giving you two other opportunities to break from tradition this year. Pumpkin cheesecake has all the creaminess of a pumpkin pie but with a tangy kick, and the pumpkin date bread can do double duty over the holidays: Serve a slice with a little butter and a cup of tea as an afternoon snack for visiting relatives, then dress it up with a scoop of ice cream and some caramel sauce for a full fledged dessert.

Canned vs. fresh
How to make pumpkin puree at home

Solid-pack canned pumpkin is one of a few processed foods that rivals fresh for its remarkably consistent color, flavor, and texture. It is an excellent alternative when pressed for time, or looking to satisfy a pumpkin craving out of season. But making your own puree is easy and allows you to explore the available range of colors and flavors that will personalize your pumpkin recipes.

Most supermarkets carry a decent selection of the common smaller varieties of baking pumpkins--sugar, pie, and triple treat are all tasty and easy to use. Don't overlook your farmers' market in the fall, a great source for unusual and lesser- known local varieties. Rouge Vif d'Etampes (better known as Cinderella) and Long Island cheese pumpkins, and sweet dumpling and buttercup squash are some of my favorites for baking. Try to avoid the larger varieties used for carving as they have less flavor and are difficult to handle because of size.

To make a puree from your own pumpkin or squash, cut off the stem and flower ends of the vegetable and cut it in half. Remove the seeds and stringy pulp. (Save the seeds for roasting; they make a great snack.) Place the halves, cut side down, in a shallow pan and bake in a 350 degree oven until they collapse, about 45 minutes to one hour. Remove the slightly cooled flesh from the rind and put it through a food mill, ricer, or fine mesh sieve. Suspend the puree in a sieve or a colander lined with cheesecloth and allow to drain.

Fresh pumpkin puree keeps nicely for four to five days in the refrigerator, and up to six months in the freezer. If you've prepared the puree several days ahead, putting the rest of your recipe together is a snap.