January 19, 2020

Pumpkins: Food for the Soul

Is it September already? Are the High Holy Days almost here? Are they already serving pumpkin spice lattes? 

For many people, pumpkins are just pumpkins but for Jews, pumpkins are simanim —  symbolic foods for the New Year. We use what’s growing right here and right now. These foods inspire us to ask the Almighty to give us what we need to thrive.

I believe there is something to be learned from admiring, cooking and eating each food. What can we learn from the pumpkin?

The pumpkin is beautiful, but it is formidable. It is a hard vegetable to cut into and carve. Grown with care and skill, the pumpkin vine is hearty and its harvest is profuse. Anyone who listens to the story of Jonah on Yom Kippur knows how fast a gourd vine can grow. And anyone who has been to a county fair knows how huge a pumpkin can get. The tough skin and flesh of the pumpkin are its present, the part of the pumpkin we eat now. They protect the seeds deep inside the pumpkin, because seeds are the future of that plant. Just as a thick covering protects the pumpkin, we pray that the Almighty will strengthen us, protect us and protect our future.

In Hebrew, the word kraa — pumpkin or gourd, sounds similar to tikraa — to be torn up. The resulting pun is the literary inspiration of the pumpkin’s symbolism.  We pray that any evil decrees against us be torn up and that our merits be read before the Almighty.

Blessing a pair of golden challahs traditionally starts the Rosh Hashanah meal, but this special challah is just a little more golden and aromatic than your basic challah. Inspired by a Turkish menu for Rosh Hashanah from “Sephardic Holiday Cooking” by Gilda Angel, this particular challah is downright celebratory.

Pumpkin Challah
From “Sephardic Holiday Cooking” by Gilda Angel

4 1/2 cups Better for Bread flour
1/4 cup sugar
1 tablespoon Rapid Rise yeast
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cardamom
1/4 teaspoon ground ginger
1 egg
1/4 cup oil
1/2 cup canned pumpkin
1 cup water
Egg wash (1 egg yolk beaten with 1 tablespoon water)
Garnish: Sesame seeds or shelled pepitas  (pumpkin seeds) or turbinado sugar

In the work bowl of a 14-cup (large) food processor, combine the flour, sugar, yeast, salt, cardamom and ginger.

Add egg, oil, pumpkin and water and process until the mixture forms a ball. Continue processing 60 seconds more. If kneading this dough by hand, knead in a large mixing bowl for 15-20 minutes.

Place the ball of dough in a large greased bowl. Turn the dough so its entire surface is lightly greased. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and allow the dough to rise until doubled in volume, about 1 hour.

Spray 2 8-inch round cake pans with nonstick cooking spray and dust the bottom of the pans with cornmeal. Punch down the dough and divide it in half. Take the first half of the dough, separate off about a quarter of that dough, and flatten it into a 7-inch disc. Place it in the pan.

Roll the remaining piece of dough into a long, fat snake that tapers at one end. Place the big end of the snake on the edge of the disc and lay down the dough in an upward coil, to form a beehive shape. Lightly press the shape together to secure. Repeat.

Spray the loaves with non-stick cooking spray, cover them lightly with plastic wrap and allow them to rise about an hour or until nearly doubled in volume.

Preheat the oven to 375 F.

Paint the top of each loaf with egg wash and sprinkle generously with a garnish if desired. Bake on a rack about 1/3 from the bottom of the preheated oven for about 30-35 minutes, or until golden. Gently remove the breads from their pans and cool on a rack. Serve warm. 

To freeze, completely cool the bread and double-wrap it in foil. Place in a plastic bag and freeze.

To serve after freezing, defrost the bread for an hour. One hour before serving, place wrapped bread in a warm (250 to 300 F) oven for up to 30 minutes. Unwrap and serve warm. This challah can be frozen for up to 3 weeks.

Makes 2 medium-sized loaves.

Golden Rings of Butternut Squash
4 tablespoons canola or grapeseed oil
1/4 cup packed brown sugar
1 long 3-pound butternut squash

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Line a cookie sheet that has a lip with aluminum foil. Spread oil on the foil and sprinkle evenly with brown sugar. 

Cut off the stem and the bottom end of the squash and discard. With a vegetable peeler, peel the squash completely, removing the skin and any green fibers, so it is bright orange.

Carefully cut the narrow part of the squash into 1/2-inch-thick slices. Gently scoop the seeds out of the cavity. Slice the round end of the squash into 1/2-inch-thick, O-shaped slices. 

Arrange the squash slices on the prepared foil in a single layer.

Place the pan in the center of the preheated oven and bake for 1 hour or until the sugar is bubbly and the bottoms of the rings are caramelized.

With a thin spatula, place the squash slices, caramelized side up, onto a serving platter. Serve hot. Can be reheated.

Serves 10-12.

Pumpkin Mushroom Bisque
This recipe can be doubled.

1/2 cup chopped brown onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
8 ounces sliced mushrooms (white, cremini, baby portobellos and shiitakes are fine)
2 tablespoons flour
Up to 1 tablespoon curry powder (spicy) or 1 teaspoon (mild)
3 cups chicken or vegetable stock
1 15-ounce can pumpkin puree
1 tablespoon honey
Kosher salt, to taste
Ground white pepper, to taste
1 cup almond milk or oat milk (or whole milk, for a dairy soup)
Garnishes: Seasoned croutons, toasted pumpkin seeds and/or chopped flat leaf parsley

Sauté the chopped onion in the olive oil until softened. Add the mushrooms and continue to sauté over moderate heat for three minutes.

Add flour and curry powder and continue sautéing the mixture over low heat, stirring constantly for five minutes. (During the last couple minutes, when flour mixture begins to brown, add a bit of broth sparingly, a tablespoon at a time, to prevent burning.)

Remove pan from burner and whisk in stock in a steady stream. Whisk in the pumpkin and the honey. Season with kosher salt and ground white pepper to taste.

Gently simmer bisque for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir in the milk and heat gently, being careful not to let the bisque boil.

Serve hot. May be reheated. Serve with seasoned croutons, toasted pumpkin seeds or maybe a sprinkling of parsley.

To freeze this bisque, first cool it completely and then freeze it in a freezer-safe bag or container for up to a month.

Pumpkin Flan
1/2 cup granulated sugar
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon ground ginger
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 cup canned, cooked pumpkin
5 eggs, lightly beaten
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups almond milk or oat milk
Pareve whipped cream for garnish

Preheat oven to 350 F and place a 9-inch cake pan on rack at center of the heating oven.

While the cake pan heats, in a heavy skillet, melt granulated sugar over moderate heat until just golden, stirring with a fork at the end to make sure sugar melts evenly. Wearing oven mitts, remove the hot pan from the oven and quickly pour the melted sugar into the hot pan. Swirl the sugar to completely coat the bottom of the pan.

In a mixing bowl, combine the brown sugar, ground cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, salt, pumpkin and eggs and blend.

Whisk in the vanilla extract and creamer or milk until well combined.

Pour the pumpkin mixture through a strainer into the prepared pan.

Set the cake pan in a larger pan and add hot water until it comes halfway up the side of the cake pan. Place in center of preheated oven.

Bake the flan for 1 hour and 10-15 minutes, or until the center is barely firm. Cool. Chill in the refrigerator at least 3 hours or overnight. 

Before serving, loosen the sides of the flan with a knife and carefully invert onto a serving dish. Decorate with pareve whipped cream and a dash of cinnamon sugar or nutmeg. Serve cold or at room temperature.

Double-wrapped in foil, this dessert can also be frozen for up to 3 weeks. 

Serves 8-10.

Debby Segura lives in Los Angeles. She designs dinnerware and textiles, and teaches cooking classes.