Pumpkins hold a unique cultural significance in this country. They are a symbol of both a holiday and a season. If a terrible blight were to wipe out the species, American childhood and Thanksgiving would never be the same. With fall being my favorite season, I’ll admit to being nearly irrationally obsessed with them. Perhaps it began with Peanuts when I was six or seven. Linus and I share a love for the sound of autumn leaves when you kick them in the air as well as a love of fields full of pumpkins. I make an annual trek to Fall City Farms to hunt the Great Pumpkin in the wild and haul my prizes home to end up on the doorstep or the table in either cooked or raw form.
Nearly every year for more than a decade I’ve hosted a pumpkin carving party and soup dinner at my home on a Sunday before Halloween. The week before the dinner is spent making stocks and then the four or five soups and stews that will serve as the entire meal, accompanied only by wooden boards full of crusty bread and glasses of wine or cider. This year I was particularly inspired, (or obsessed as some of my friends might say) and ended up making seven different pots of steaming comfort.
Each year the goal is to carve enough of the orange orbs to be able to dine by jack-o-lantern light alone. I’ve lost count of how many of the cheerful squashes I’ve bought this year, both from the farm and in stores in the city. The huge boxes of them on palettes outside of the QFC and the mound of heirloom varieties just inside the door of Trader Joe’s are more than I can resist. Each time I see them at the grocery store, on a doorstep or in the center of my dinner table, I can’t help but smile regardless of how grey the weather or my day has been. Sure, there are other crops or livestock which are grown or raised for their place in our cultural life. Fir trees for Christmas, long-stem roses for Valentine’s Day, and turkeys for Thanksgiving are a few that come immediately to mind. But the pumpkin is the only edible symbol which is grown primarily for its ornamental quality.
In Spain pumpkins are called calabazas; the “z” is pronounced with the “th” of the Castillian lisp. Calabaza is also what they call every other kind of winter squash, and they are grown only for their culinary qualities. They’re most often used to make sweets of one sort or another. You won’t find pumpkin pie or muffins on the Iberian peninsula, but flan, yeasted sweet breads, dessert fritters, cookies and preserves all make use of my beloved autumn crop there. One of my favorite recipes is Cabello de Angel, which means “angel hair”: a sweet preserve of spaghetti squash. It’s technically not a pumpkin dish, I know, but if the Spaniards call every species in the genus a “pumpkin”, so will I. This beautiful lemon and cinnamon-scented preserve is made in a number of regions throughout Spain. In Majorca it’s famous for filling ensaimadas, the delicate buns whose dough is similar to brioche that has been enrobed with butter in a spiral, rather than in horizontal layers. At The Harvest Vine I use it to fill crepes which are finished with a drizzle of caramel sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. Cabello de Angel also makes a happy accompaniment to cheese, sheep’s milk cheeses in particular.
Next week I’ll begin mixing and frying Chulas de Calabaza. In contrast to the creamy, cool, heirloom pumpkin flan I’ve been making for weeks, these sweet, pumpkin fritters from Galicia should add a nice warmth to the dessert menu as the evenings get colder. Whether in a soup bowl, atop a morsel of cheese, folded into pastry or grinning from the centerpiece, these comical vegetables extend a welcome invitation to gather ’round the table even a child couldn’t resist.