Pumpkin Comfort

I have never before thought of pumpkins as comforting. They are not cuddly, adorable or delightful bundles of energy like my darling grandbabies. They do not talk me through struggles like a good friend or warm my insides like a good cup of tea. But traipsing through a patch of these characters this past weekend reminded me of another facet of comfort, one that pumpkins embrace wholeheartedly: With all the changes in our world, it was good to see that pumpkins are still mostly orange.

Duh.

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No, I mean it. For those who play with genetic modifications, it must be tempting to make a purple pumpkin or a red one, or to elongate them like way-overgrown zucchinis, the kind that hide under those big leaves and you don’t find until they are as big as a baseball bat. Someone must be working on a seedless variety that will revolutionize the ritual of pumpkin-carving – imagine if you could draw the scary face on the side and be able to cut into it without having to deal with all those stringy, slimy, seedy guts that insist on adhering to the inside flesh?

Lots of things change in this world. They change at an astounding rate. Isn’t it nice to know that some things stay the same? There is comfort in sameness. Sugar is sweet. Rain is wet. Pumpkins are orange. All right, mostly orange. There are a few renegades in every group.

In Snohomish, Washington, we found a wonderful 40-acre pumpkin patch at Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm. Bob’s grows corn and pumpkins, yes, but they seem to make their money (or at least a fair share of it) on people wanting to come and play amidst corn and pumpkins. They have newfangled, farm-themed tire swings

 

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a “trike track” in one of the barns with lots of little tricycles in many sizes

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a gigantic John Deere for climbing into, tubes to slide down, all sorts of yummy fall treats to indulge in (and take home) and a ten-acre corn maze with firepits and private areas for group gatherings. We will come back to the pumpkins, but for the moment, look at the aerial view of the maze and think about this.

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Their web site says, “We have a total of 18 firepits inside the maze which can be rented for private groups and birthday parties. We provide the firewood and tiki torches. We even build and maintain the fire for you, you get to sit back, relax and enjoy the evening.

“Bring your roasting sticks, food and supplies. Leave them at the group check in area on the north side of Bob’s Country store, and we will transport them to your firepit so you don’t have to carry them through the maze.

“When you are finished, leave them at your pit, enjoy the second half of the maze. When you return from the hayride, your supplies will be waiting for you in the group check in area on the north side of Bob’s Country store! How easy is that??”

I want to know: If there are 18 firepits within the maze, how do you find the firepit that has your name on it or that has been otherwise designated for you? Or do you just land at one and let them know you have arrived, and then they bring your stuff?

Wondering about the firepit protocol happened fleetingly for me. I saw the three staff members at the entrance of the maze (a fraction of the total work force present on the day of our visit), heard them telling some other visitors about this opportunity, registered the comments, thought “wow” and promptly transferred my attention to the forty acres of pumpkins next to the corn. Bradley and Piper and I explored a small part of it. Apparently there are 60+ varieties of pumpkins here.

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You have your Classics, and lots of these. They have smooth skin with longitudinal valleys, as if each pumpkin has its own special time zones. The ones we saw were not monster size, but maybe up to about 25 pounds. They are perfect for carving and setting on doorsteps, lots of different sizes. Bob’s gives you a wheelbarrow, by the way, for hauling your picks. I expect they have strong people who will put them in your barrow for you if you want, and probably then in your car.

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You have your Brights. Perhaps a gen-mod engineer had a little fun with this one (below)? It not only leans toward neon but also is rather flattish.

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You have your Gnarlies here and there.  Okay, maybe there’s more genetic modification going on than I thought at first. Just how do they get the green warts?

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I get that Bob’s wants to mix it up a little, so they throw down some seeds of these crazy kinds. This one has yellow warts, making the orange rind seem to veer toward the yellow end of the spectrum.

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If you showed the photo below to a hundred people, I think you would be hard pressed to find most of them saying quickly and definitively, “That’s a pumpkin.” Beth said it looked like a monkey’s butt. It is another orange that is desperately trying to be yellow instead. Just to stand out. You know how pumpkins can be.

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Most of the yellow ones turn orange eventually, the way you can see this green one on its way to becoming orange.

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Real pumpkins, big orange pumpkins, are comforting not only in their sameness. Think about 40 acres of pumpkins – what is going to happen to most of them? For a few weeks, some will decorate entryways, tabletops, fence posts, schools, hotels, stores and offices. Some will become jack-o-lanterns a day or so before Halloween. A few will become delicious pie – but not many. I wonder how many never leave the field they grew in. Think about what pumpkins say about the abundance of food in our land, that so much space can be given over to a crop that provides such a small amount of actual food value. How blessed we are.

A row of pumpkins anywhere, but especially along a cider donut stand, is one of the joys of fall. Maybe you’d like one of Piper’s donuts? Too late! All gone!

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Ela’s Apple Star Bread

I love learning something unexpectedly. Today I helped Ela make a beautiful, sweet, cinnamony, apple bread that is formed in such a cool way!

Ela was my granddaughter Piper’s German au pair from the time Piper was a few months old until this past January. It says a lot about their relationship that she would choose to spend her vacation here in Seattle with the family. I was delighted to finally meet her. This is Ela with Piper yesterday when we went to Bob’s Corn and Pumpkin Farm in Snohomish.

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Ela is not only Piper’s fun friend, she is a great baker! Her apple star bread was devoured after dinner tonight. We all were anxious to dig in. (It’s a pull-apart bread, thus the forks.)

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That shape was so fun to make. I have to show you how it was done. Her recipe might be a little hard to read.

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It says to combine 4 cups flour, 2/3 cup sugar, a package of dry yeast and a bit of salt (say half a teaspoon). In a small pan combine ¾ cup milk with 2 tablespoons butter until just warm. Add the milk, butter and 2 eggs to the dry ingredients. Mix and knead. Ela let the beast of a mixing machine that Brad and Beth have on their counter do the kneading.

Then, and this is the part she says her grandmother always did, put the dough to rest in bed! You read that right. This lump in the bed is hiding the bowl.

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Yes, underneath that lump, deep within the warmth of the bed, is the dough. Ela left it there for a few hours, all covered up.

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While the dough is resting, cut two apples up in small pieces and put them in a saucepan with two cups of sugar and 1 tablespoon cinnamon. Turn on a medium heat and cook until it’s bubbly, like this.

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Cook down until you have a sugar syrup that drips off the spoon like this.

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Do you see how it holds its shape in mid-air? It should do this a few seconds before falling. That’s what you want.

Divide the dough in four parts. One at a time, roll out each quarter of the dough into a circle. Ela put plastic wrap around the board she was rolling on to keep the dough from sticking, then put a piece of waxed paper over it, like this. You want each layer of dough as thin as possible.

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Transfer the dough to a large piece of parchment paper, which we didn’t have. Parchment would have been better because you can more easily cut on it, and there is cutting required later. You shouldn’t cut on silicone mats. Ela put two mats together and placed them directly on the oven rack. She cut very carefully when the time came for cutting.

So, first layer, then spread apples.

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Keep adding spoonfuls of the gooey, sticky apple mixture until the layer is covered.

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Do layer after layer until you have dough-apples-dough-apples-dough-apples-dough.

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You’ll have to press a bit to get the layers to stretch to the edge.

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To make it easier for cutting, we carefully slid the ensemble back to the wooden board she rolled the dough on. Ideally, put this in the refrigerator for an hour or so. It would make the cutting part much easier.

Ela then found a bowl that was as big as the ensemble to give herself a template for cutting a circle. You want as little waste as possible.

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She then (carefully!) cut through the layers of dough until she had a circle. You are going to have leftover. These sugary dough bits look a mess, but just put them in muffin tins and let them rise just the same as the bread and they will taste very fine (not altogether different than the monkey bread we made last week!).

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Ela then found a small cup (a shot glass is about the right size) for the center.

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She then started cutting again (carefully!), first four lines, starting at the cup and working outward.

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Then eight, rotating the board to make it easier.

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Then sixteen. That’s when she took the cup away.

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Now for the funnest part! Take two pieces that are side by side, lift them, twist once,

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And again. You make two full twists.

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And then pinch the ends together.

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Do this all around until it looks kind of like this.

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How beautiful is that!! Ela cleaned up as much of the excess sugary syrup as she could with a paper towel, but when it bakes, some of the sugary syrup is going to leak out anyway. Do the best you can. Let the star rise/rest (not in bed this time!) about an hour, longer if you need to time it so it comes out right as you finish dinner. This is best warm out of the oven. The syrup that leaked out forms thin candy which looks almost burned, but isn’t quite.

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Well, maybe part of it is. If you pull a piece of the star off the pan carefully, it looks kind of like a lobster with claws.  Zach had the best lobster. We all enjoyed this star bread very much! Thank you, Ela!

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