They are lumpy globes scattered along twisting vines, ripening even as other crops yield to frosts.
Deep-orange, white, and tan varieties of these fruits large and small are just waiting to become all manner of fall dishes.
The pulp is the star, elevated by America’s craving for the pumpkin spice anything.
Lest you doubt the pumpkin's star power:
• There are more than 45 varieties of pumpkins, according to Good Housekeeping magazine.
• Americans eat 50 million pumpkin pies at Thanksgiving. So says healthdiaries.com.
• Like to eat the crust first? You're among 9 percent of Americans who do, says the American Pie Council.
And pie is only the beginning of the ways to enjoy this squash, if the offerings at Region diners and bakeries are any indication.
Miner Dunn in Highland has been known for its burgers since 1932. But the restaurant offers so much more than that, including homemade pies. The pumpkin pies are made from scratch, including the butter crust.
“Butter helps create the air pockets that contribute to a flakier, more delicate crust,” says Ben Samara, restaurant manager and son of owner Joe Samara. Not in the mood for pie? Samara will pop a slice into a blender, crust and all, and whip it into a milkshake. “It’s amazing and customers love it.”
He recommends that home bakers resist the urge to over-spice a pumpkin pie. “Put in just enough to give it a nice flavor. And not too much sugar or it’ll take away from the flavor,” says Samara.
Creating flavor profiles for desserts is like a hobby for Samara. “I’ll look at a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and think, ‘Maybe I can make a pie like a PB and J.’ "
This time of year, though, “it’s satisfying to see people enjoying the traditional pumpkin pie.”
Mom’s merry method
Owners Jean and Dennis Theile at Branya’s in St. John use pumpkin in pies, rolls, pumpkin-sage bisque and mini bundt cakes. The bundts make Jean chuckle as she tells how Dennis’s mom, Judy Theile, would bake anything in a bundt pan. The she'd cut little wedges out for herself, sliding the sides together. But by the time Dennis got home from school, the cake was solid without the bundt's center hole.
Today Branya’s keeps most of the tradition alive with mini pumpkin bundts — with centers. Dennis says people like to grab one for a snack or serve them as individual desserts.
But it's Branya's signature pumpkin roll with cream cheese filling and optional walnuts that outsold pumpkin pies last year. Dennis's secret? He rolls up the delicate cake in a tea towel.
Want to know how to make a really good pie crust? Branya’s offers a class in November; check branyasbakery.com for dates and age groups.
Rolling with it
Pumpkin treats in the display cases at Calumet Bakery in Lansing include cake doughnuts, pie, bars with cream cheese frosting, slices, and rolls. Owner Kerry Moore notes that in making the roll, the sponge cake has to be soft enough to roll and not too hot nor too cool — just warm, “Or it may crack,” she cautions.
For the pumpkin pie, over-mixing the crust results in a tough crust, she warns. Calumet Bakery’s little extra for a great crust: Sprinkle graham cracker crumbs on the bottom of the pie pan, then lay the crust over it. “It bakes better, with a little air in there,” says Moore. As for the filling, use brown sugar, not white.
Calumet Bakery has kept customers coming back for 37 years even in the face of increasingly sophisticated competition from grocery stores. “And a bakery is a labor-intensive business. A lot of people want to be at parties and such on the weekends, not baking,” says Moore.
But as long as her customers are happy, “that’s the main thing, and the connection with our customers.”
Pumpkin bread, squares, rolls, and cake with cream cheese frosting, mascarpone filling and white chocolate ganache are waiting at Marilyn’s Bakery in Hobart.
The pumpkin flavoring is a personal thing, says Barbara Tracy, who runs the store for her mother, Marilyn Johnson Pearson. Pearson doesn’t use cloves because they're too strong for some people.
If you’re yearning to use fresh pumpkin for a pie, it needs to be riced for the right consistency. For any pie crust, “you can use butter or shortening, but the most important thing is to not overwork it. And you don’t want the fat to be soft, you want to be able to cut the fat into the dough so you can still almost see it.”
Marilyn’s uses parchment paper for baking and rolling pumpkin rolls, which are great for freezing, says Tracy. Just before dinner, take it out of the freezer and cut it, so you don’t smash it. “By the time you’re done with dinner, the slices are beautiful.”
For Tracy, the most rewarding aspect of the bakery is hearing a story about a family get-together. “Maybe Grandma used to make something that was a favorite dish, and they order it, and that food connects them to those memories. It’s more than the pie, it’s celebrating the person."