Tips for Picking the Best Pumpkin for Pies or Jack-o'-Lanterns

With dozens of varieties to choose from, know what to look for in a jack-o'-lantern or a pie-making pumpkin.By Terra Brockman

When I see the stacks of orange orbs materializing in front of grocery stores, I can't help but think that pumpkins have been hijacked by October for that trick without a treat, the Halloween jack-o'-lantern. Pumpkins come in dozens of varieties with a wonderful range of shapes, colors and sizes. Most importantly, some are good for decorating, while others are good for eating.

Pumpkins for carving

These pumpkins have been bred not for their texture or flavor, but for qualities that will make them good for carving. Here's what to look for in a potential jack-o'-lantern --

What color they are: Usually the best carving pumpkins are a variation on DayGlo orange.

What their stems are like: Substantial, with the ability to support their weight when lifted by the buyer, and sturdiness so as not to break with multiple ons and offs of the jack-o'-lantern cap.

RELATED: Try spiced pumpkin churros for a treat this fall.

Pumpkins for eating

The rule of thumb for finding a delicious pumpkin is to look for the opposite of the typical jack-o'-lantern pumpkin. Here are some tips for finding the best pumpkins for eating --

What they're called: The best ones are either the small "sugar" or "pie" pumpkins on the one hand, or the quite large "cheese pumpkins" on the other.

What color to look for: Their colors range from light cream to taupe to a dark bronze or a dull orange.

What their stems are like: Their stems may be thin or even broken off. But remember you're buying this pumpkin for its luscious flesh, not for its appendage.

What are they called: The cheese pumpkins are flattened and squat, just like a big round of cheese. Some have vertical pleats running from the stem end to the blossom end. My brother Henry grows the cheese varieties winter luxury, New England, Long Island cheese and Cinderella. He also grows the elongated long pie pumpkin as well as an heirloom variety given to him by a local resident who got it from descendants of the Kickapoo, which was grown for centuries in great swathes of the Midwest.

RELATED: You don't have to choose between apple and pumpkin with this combo pie.

New England pie is the classic orange pie pumpkin. The flesh is a little drier than some of the others, but stringless, making a nice pie consistency without putting it in a blender or food processor.

Winter luxury is my favorite culinary pumpkin, and Amy Goldman, author of "The Compleat Squash," thinks so too. This pumpkin's beauty comes from the russeted, finely-netted soft orange-gray skin. Goldman advises baking the pumpkin whole, pierced with a few tiny vent holes, until it slumps after about an hour at 350 F.

RELATED: What to do with squash.

You then scoop out the flesh and put it in a blender to make what Goldman calls "the smoothest and most velvety pumpkin pie I've ever had … requiring much less in the way of sugar and eggs than other varieties." Don't expect the color of the flesh to be dark orange, though. It is actually quite light but it's the flavor and texture, not the color, that makes the winter luxury pie pumpkin so exceptional.

My Grandma Henrietta always had a tray of frozen pumpkin bars ready for quick thawing and icing and serving should a visitor drop by.

Grandma Henrietta's Pumpkin Raisin Bars

Ingredients

2 cups all purpose flour

2 cups sugar

1 tablespoon ground cinnamon

2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

1 teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground nutmeg

½ teaspoon ground cloves

1¾ cup cooked pumpkin

4 large eggs

¾ cup vegetable oil

1 cup raisins

6 ounces cream cheese, room temperature

1 cup powdered sugar

⅓ cup butter, room temperature

Directions

Preheat the oven to 350 F.

Grease a 15½ x 10½ x 1-inch baking sheet.

Stir the first 8 ingredients in large bowl to blend.

Add pumpkin, eggs, and oil and beat until blended.

Mix in raisins.

Spread batter in prepared pan.

Bake about 25 minutes.

Cool in pan on rack.

Beat cream cheese, powdered sugar and butter in medium bowl to blend into frosting. Spread frosting over cake in thin layer.

Cut cake into bars. Eat some now and freeze some for later.

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Terra Brockman is an author, a speaker and a fourth-generation farmer from central Illinois. Her latest book, "The Seasons on Henry's Farm," now out in paperback, was a finalist for a 2010 James Beard Award.

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