Pumpkin, Packed with Bread and Cheese: A Recipe in Progress
The idea for this dish came from my friend Catherine in France. Her husband has a farm just outside of Lyon and pumpkin is one of his crops. In true French fashion, Catherine sent me a charming sketch of a recipe and, after I made it, I realized that a sketch is about the best you can do with this tasty dish, since pumpkins come in such imprecise sizes, cheeses differ and baking times depend on how long it takes the pumpkin to get soft enough to prick with a knife. As Catherine said when she turned this family favorite over to me, “I hope you will put it to good use, knowing that it’s destined to evolve — and maybe even be improved.” I hestitate to put what I did in recipe format, since it’s hardly a real recipe, but it was so good that I want you to know about it while pumpkins are plentiful, so here it is:
A ROUGH RECIPE FOR A REALLY GOOD STUFFED PUMPKIN
Makes 2 generous or 4 genteel servings
1 pumpkin, about 2 1/2 to 3 pounds
4 ounces stale bread, sliced thin, then cut into 1/2-inch chunks
4 ounces cheese, such as Gruyere, Swiss, Blue, Cheddar or a combination, cut into 1/2-inch chunks
2-4 cloves garlic (to taste), peeled, germ removed and coarsely chopped
About 1/3 cup heavy cream
Freshly grated nutmeg
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Either line a baking sheet with parchment or a silicone baking mat or find a Dutch oven that’s the same diameter as the pumpkin. (If you bake the pumpkin in a casserole, it will keep its shape, but it will also stick to the casserole, so you’ll have to serve it from the pot, which is a rustic, appealingly homey way to serve it. If you bake it on a sheet, you can present it free-standing, if it doesn’t collapse in the oven. I was lucky this time, but when I make it again tonight with a larger pumpkin, I’m not going to push my luck – I’m going to put it in a Dutch oven.)
Using a very sturdy knife, cut a cap off the top of the pumpkin. This isn’t an easy job – I went around the top of the pumpkin with my knife at a 45-degree angle to get a nice size cap. Clear away any seeds and strings from the cap and hold it aside while you scoop out the seeds and filaments inside the pumpkin. (Hold onto this goop — you can separate the seeds from the filaments and roast them.) Season the inside of the pumpkin with salt and pepper and put it on the sheet or in the casserole.
Now you have a choice, you can either toss the bread, cheese and garlic together in a bowl, then pack it into the pumpkin, or you can alternate layers of bread and cheese and scatter the garlic here and there. (I mixed everything together.) Either way, the filling should go into the pumpkin and fill it well. You might have a little too much filling or you might need to add to it — it’s hard to give exact amounts. Season the cream with salt, pepper and several gratings of fresh nutmeg and pour the cream into the pumpkin. Again, you might have too much or too little. You don’t want the ingredients to swim in cream, but you do want to get a feeling that they’re moistened.
Put the cap back in place and bake the pumpkin for about 2 hours — check after 90 minutes — or until everything inside the pumpkin is bubbly and the flesh of the pumpkin is tender enough to be pierced easily with the tip of a knife. I removed the cap during the last 20 minutes or so of baking so that the top could brown.
As you can see, I cut the pumpkin into wedges, so we could cut a cube of pumpkin and have it with some of the stuffing, but you can also leave the pumpkin whole and use a big spoon to scoop out pumpkin and filling. You could even scrape the pumpkin into the filling and mix it all up.
Caution: If you want to spoon out the pumpkin and the filling or try mixing it, you better bake the pumpkin in a casserole because you’ll need to support the sides.
Playing around: I think you could play around with the filling, adding bacon or ham, herbs (a little thyme might be nice) or nuts.
If you make it, I hope you’ll let me know what you did, how it came out and how you liked it. As Catherine said, the recipe is bound to evolve. It is, after all, a recipe-in-progress and having it be a communal recipe-in-progress can only make it better — and more fun!
LAST NIGHT’S PUMPKIN: I made the pumpkin again last night, adding bacon that I’d cut into slender strips and cooked before mixing it in with the bread, cheese and garlic. I also added thyme and lots of snipped chives. It was so, so good, but here’s what I think made the big difference — the way I served it: I dug into the pumpkin with a big spoon, pulling the pumpkin meat into the filling and then mixing up everything. The consistency was like wonderfully chunky mashed potatoes. Served in hearty portions with or followed by a salad, the dish is a perfect cold-weather main course; served in spoonfuls, it’s going to be great alongside our Thanksgiving’s turkey.