Behold the pumpkin, plump harbinger of autumn, a bright-orange beacon for us all to blah blah blah, yada yada yada.
Look, I was going to write a nice story about pumpkin, everybody’s favorite winter squash, a gourd that is beloved in both pie and jack-o’-lantern forms. I was going to discuss how it spans both Halloween and Thanksgiving and how it is particularly appropriate for Thanksgiving because it is native to North America.
But then I made some Salted Caramel-Swirled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars, and now all I want to write about are Salted Caramel-Swirled Pumpkin Cheesecake Bars.
These things are so good, dentists leave them out in their offices. These things are so good, endocrinologists tell their diabetic patients, “You know what? We all have to go sometime.” These things are so good, just two or three pans of them, properly dispersed, could bring peace to the Middle East.
They are that good.
Salted Caramel-Swirled Cheesecake Bars were apparently invented by a woman with the implausible name of Averie Sunshine (she lives and blogs in San Diego, so perhaps her name isn’t that unusual after all). She unveiled the recipe in her second book, “Cooking With Pumpkin,” and the one recipe by itself may make the book one of those hard-to-find classics in future years that will be auctioned off for thousands of dollars.
The base is a tempting crust of graham cracker crumbs, butter, brown sugar and calories. On top of that is spread a rich mixture of pumpkin puree, softened cream cheese, sugar, pumpkin pie spice, vanilla and calories. And before baking, it is all topped with swirls of caramel sauce — it’s best if you make it yourself — and calories.
These things are so good, they could cure cancer.
But after eating them, I felt as if I needed something more substantial and heartier. I used to get a curried pumpkin dish at an Afghan restaurant in Washington, D.C., and I marveled at the way curry spices blend with the rich pumpkin. So I sought out a curried pumpkin recipe and found one including beef in a new American release of a British book called “Pumpkin: Not Just for Halloween and Thanksgiving!” (one assumes the British title did not include Thanksgiving).
In this delicious dish, the pumpkin is simmered in a broth containing green and red bell peppers, onions, tomatoes and the beef. The curry part comes from coriander seeds, turmeric, ginger and a chile. It’s warm and soothing, and not too hot. It is exactly the kind of meal you want to eat when the weather is chilly enough for pumpkins.
I still wanted something healthful, so I decided to make a pumpkin soup. Because pumpkin is a squash, I essentially decided to make it in much the same way I make butternut squash soup. I sautéed onions and garlic and added flavors that go well with pumpkin — nutmeg, brown sugar, paprika and a hint of cayenne pepper.
Next, I added vegetable stock. Chicken stock would work well, too, but I wanted this version to be vegetarian. And into that went pumpkin that I had roasted and scraped from the skin.
I’m sure canned pumpkin would have worked, too, but it wouldn’t be as good as the real thing. And it is easy to make, too. Just take a pie pumpkin (they’re about 2 pounds, much smaller than jack-o’-lantern pumpkins), cut it into sections, remove the seeds and stringy bits and set it in a 350-degree oven for 30 to 35 minutes.
When all the ingredients had simmered together, blending their flavors, I added a soupçon of coconut milk. Then I pureed it into a hearty, delicious soup that could serve as either a first course or an entrée.
But I wasn’t done with pumpkin yet. But I had one more trick up my sleeve, or at least the sleeve of Ms. Sunshine. Her recipe for Parmesan and Cream Cheese Pumpkin Puffs is easy to make, yet it delivers a huge impact. This is one of those dishes that has a very high flavor-to-effort ratio.
The key is puff pastry. Puff pastry is easy (as long as you buy it frozen) and it makes everything taste great. Just smear it with a mixture of pumpkin purée and softened cream cheese, sprinkle it with seasoning salt (I made my own mixture of pumpkin-friendly spices: nutmeg, allspice, cinnamon and coriander) and add shredded Parmesan cheese.
Roll it all up tightly, slice it thin, and pop it in the oven until it bakes up golden brown. It is a savory treat, but also wonderfully rich.
Pumpkins, the golden orbs of fall, the gourds of glory. Yada, yada, yada. Blah, blah, blah.