The Pumpkin Series: "The Housewives manner..."
“With the butcher knife Ma cut the big, orange-colored pumpkins in halves. She cleaned the seeds out of the center and cut the pumpkin into long slices, from which she pared the rind. Laura helped her cut the slices into cubes.
Ma put the cubes into the big iron pot on the stove, poured in some water, and then watched while the pumpkin slowly boiled down, all day long. All the water and the juice must be boiled away, and the pumpkin must never burn.
The pumpkin was a thick, dark, good-smelling mass in the kettle. It did not boil like water, but bubbles came up in it and suddenly exploded, leaving holes that closed quickly. Every time a bubble exploded, the rich, hot, pumpkin smell came out.”
"Little House in the Big Woods"
Laura Ingalls Wilder
Though there was a bit of delay with the Holidays and general family sickness the past few weeks, I'm happy to report that "The Pumpkin Series" shall be continuing!
Or should I say... Pompion!!!
This particular receipt has a special place in my heart. It's really where I first got my start in the great, vast world of pumpkin cooking. I still remember getting a small pumpkin in my Pilgrim foodway's basket sometime in October or November and realizing that today I would be making the dish discussed below. I also loved describing it's taste and texture to diners at our Pilgrim Dinners, as they were often perplexed that the stewed squash should have a bit of vinegar in it. (Mainly to give the dish a bit of a bite, like in apple sauce.) Though this way of cooking pumpkins is common well before the Pilgrims ever set foot in New England, and it remained a popular dish for hundreds of years after (as you can see from the Little House quote), I really feel that pumpkins were the way the new English colonists dealt with the fact that there was a limited amount of apples available through most of the 17th century.
“The Ancient New England standing dish.
But the Housewives manner is to slice them when ripe, and cut them into dice, and so fill a pot with them of two or three Gallons, and stew them upon a gentle fire a whole day, and as they sink, they fill again with fresh Pompions, not putting any liquor to them; and when it is stew'd enough, it will look like bak'd Apples; this they Dish, putting Butter to it, and a little Vinegar, (with some Spice, as Ginger, &c.) which makes it tart like an Apple, and so serve it up to be eaten with Fish or Flesh: It provokes Urine extreamly and is very windy.”
This particular receipt comes from the book "Two Voyages to New England" by John Josselyn. He traveled around New England, twice. The first time was only a few years after the Puritans first settled Boston. The second time was thirty years later (the 1660's). He spent much of his time exploring the flora and fauna of this "new world", but also gave a wonderfully detailed look into the lives of the European settlers in New England. And also giving us one of the earliest recorded recipes for cooking pumpkins! Along with its humoural properties (though it's hard to find something in the 17th century foodways that doesn't "provoke urine" or cause someone to be "very windy".)
For this particular dish I used the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin. First because of it's ancient origins and it was possible they would have used this type as well as any other previous squash. And, secondly, it was the biggest one and it talks about filling the pot with the pumpkin.
When I cut it open I was pleasantly surprised at how dark and earthy the flesh was compared to the outside shell!
I mean, it's such a GORGEOUS color!!! And this picture doesn't even begin to do it justice!
So, being careful to cut away from myself, I used the natural curves of the pumpkin to make wedges, which I then scooped out the seeds and membranes. I didn't do this at the time but if you decide to try this recipe you could save the seeds and toast them later.
Then I got my heavy bottomed dutch oven, figuring that it's the biggest heavy pot I have and it would help protect the pumpkin if I didn't stir it enough.
They honestly looked like cantaloupe slices when I was done cleaning them. Don't you think?
Once the pieces were cleaned I pealed off the outside skin and cut it into cubes. It was fairly easy to do with this pumpkin because the skin was so thin. But, as always, keep yourself safe by cutting on a flat surface and make sure the knife is away from you, in case it slips (which it will very easily when pealing pumpkin). Learned this from several chilly mornings at the Plantation of trying to rush the pealing of the pumpkin. NEVER rush it!
So, once I had the flesh pealed and cubed (which took a good amount of time since it was so big) I put about two thirds of what I had cut into my pot. Though I might have been able to fit all the cubed pumpkin in at once, but I wanted to try out the process of adding more pumpkin cubes as the pumpkin cooked down.
So I set the pot on the back burner on low and began the seven hour process of making an "ancient dish of pompion"!
Something to note here, compared to what a 17th century housewife had to do to make this I had it relatively easy. I didn't have to hang over this or constantly monitor the heat. The automatic low setting, with its constant temperature, allowed me to get up once every half hour or so to stir it and see how things were progressing. I feel like if I was doing it over a fire (which I certainly have done in the past) then I would have to monitor it MUCH more, making sure it didn't burn and that the fire was built up enough to keep it going. Pumpkin, with its high sugar content, will burn easily unless you stir it faithfully. This job was probably given to the young children who could help with the cooking but you didn't want to give something too intricate.
So about every half hour or so I would come back in the kitchen and stir the pumpkin and then go back to doing important things... like thinking about cleaning the house, or playing Star Wars with my son... VERY important things.
The first few hours, not much happened. The cubes started to become soft but mostly kept their shape through each stirring.
But around hour three I started to see the change, with the liquid at the bottom growing and the pumpkin starting to dissolve into it.
It was around hour five that I added half of the extra pumpkin pieces, mainly since the pumpkin had now cooked down to about half of what it was before.
And by the sixth hour the mixture was so hot that the added uncooked pumpkin had cooked through and was breaking down in the liquid as well. It was at this point that I added the rest of the pumpkin pieces.
By hour seven most all of the pumpkin pieces had cooked down and I was ready to add the rest of the ingredients.
It didn't say exactly how much butter, so I just threw in a stick. Don't judge!
To that stick I also added nutmeg, cinnamon and ginger. Since the recipe doesn't call for any particular spices (minus the ginger) I decided to go with the spice combination I like best. And I also added salt at this time (a big mistake I was to soon learn.)
Once the butter melted and the spices were mixed in I added some apple cider vinegar to give it that bite Josselyn talks about. Then I tried it to see how much it would remind me of apple sauce!
So, it was at this point I realized my mistake with the salt. It overwhelmed EVERYTHING. With no sweet component to temper it (and this particular pumpkin had more of a savory, creamy taste) it was very apparent that there was salt in it. The spices and vinegar were sadly lost to it.
But I didn't give up. Adding some sweetness to help temper it, and adding more of the spice and vinegar, I was able to redeem it slightly. Though I feel like it wasn't the truest reflection of what Josselyn writes about. But my husband said it reminded him of very tart pumpkin pie filling, and I think he was on point with that. Not so much like apple sauce.
So, all in all, I must declare it a success. And I can see how this would certainly be a good "standing dish" for any housewife! Though it does make ALOT of stewed pumpkin, most of which is in my freezer as we speak.
Anyone want a tart pumpkin pie?