With plenty of pumpkins, think outside the pie shell

October 21, 2022

We were barely past Labor Day when the pumpkins began piling up. Fast-food outlets are offering pumpkin lattes on special. Farmers markets, local produce stands, supermarkets and even hardware stores are selling pumpkins of every stripe, shape and size.

While I’m not a fan of carving jack o’lanterns (too much mess for my taste), I do enjoy the earthy flavor of roasted pumpkin. All you need is a very sharp knife and a roasting pan to hold the chunks of de-seeded and unstrung raw pumpkin. Add some water to the bottom of the pan, cover with aluminum foil and roast for about 30 minutes.  Once you’ve cooked the tough flesh and it’s cool enough to handle, you can separate it from the skin and start thinking about how you’d like to use the tender orange pulp. Easy options include a simple mash with butter for a creamy side dish or adding the pumpkin to an onion-scented pureed vegetable soup.

Looking around for novel ways to use my pumpkin, I was intrigued by the many versions of pumpkin-ricotta gnocchi. Many people consider gnocchi a slimy blob of potato and a poor substitute for mashed russets. We’re in the other school and love the way this potato-pasta combination carries sauces so well.

Gnocchi are typically made from riced potatoes, flour and eggs. Recipes are notoriously vague, with references to humidity and temperature as factors affecting the texture. The specific amount of flour to use is often couched as a personal preference to balance between a result that can be too wet and soft or too hard and tough.

Having never before made gnocchi, I was convinced by various enthusiasts who insisted this was easier to make than spaghetti, and especially simple with the substitution of pumpkin and ricotta cheese for the delicately prepared boiled potatoes.

I gathered six different sets of instructions and read through them to see where they differed and where they shared the same steps. Some added pumpkin pie spice (a mixture of nutmeg, cinnamon, mace and cloves), but I opted to limit the spices to salt, pepper and a little bit of freshly ground nutmeg.

Most of the versions used as much as four cups of flour, and some predicted better results if type “00” pizza flour was used instead of regular unbleached flour. Whole-milk ricotta received a nod from several cooks, while others didn’t seem to care if skim-milk ricotta entered the mix.

After my experiment, successful based on the taste test of the pumpkin gnocchi in the photo, I’d offer a few guidelines. First, always have the pot of boiling water ready when you start rolling out the strings of dough. This lets you experiment with the first few to make sure they’ve got enough body or if they need more flour.

The next strategy is to have a foil-lined cookie sheet brushed with olive oil nearby. Set it next to the pot of boiling water as a stick-free zone to place the gnocchi after they’ve boiled and before they’re introduced to the next step (either ladled with sauce or sautéed with herbs and butter).

As you’re rolling the dough, remember these small nuggets will grow to double their size in the boiling step, so try to keep them as close to the size of your thumbnail as possible. And, finally, you don’t have to press them with fork tines to make ridges, but it will give the sauce ideal locations to collect.

If you’re not interested in making soup or pie or gnocchi with your pumpkin, or if you have some left over from another cooking project, consider using it in place of the oil in your brownies or quick bread. The subtle flavor is just a hint behind the chocolate in fudge brownies and a nice companion to the bananas and nuts in a breakfast bread.

The gnocchi turned out to be quite simple to make, just a bit messy from all the flour on the kitchen counter. I’ve also included a hearty muffin recipe that replaces sweetener with sage, so you have another savory way to keep that pumpkin out of a pie.

Pumpkin Gnocchi

1 t salt
1 T olive oil
1 C pumpkin puree
1 C ricotta cheese
1/4 C Parmesan cheese
3 egg yolks
1/2 t nutmeg
3 1/2 C flour
1/4 C butter
3 t minced sage
salt & pepper, to taste

Fill a large pot with water and add 1 t salt. Bring to a boil over high and keep at a simmer while preparing the gnocchi. Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil and brush with olive oil; set aside. Combine the pumpkin, ricotta, Parmesan, egg yolks and nutmeg in a large bowl, mixing thoroughly with a wooden spoon until smooth. Add 2 C of flour and continue mixing until flour is incorporated. Add another 1/2 C of flour and work it into the dough. Spread 1/2 C flour over a flat workspace and form dough into a log on top of the flour. Pinch off a chunk of the log and form into a thin cylinder, about 1/2-inch thick, adding more flour as necessary to keep dough from crumbling. Cut dough into pieces the size of your thumbnail and press each gently with the tines of a fork.

Collect about a dozen of the formed gnocchi with a slotted spoon and drop them into the boiling water. Boil the gnocchi until they float to the top; remove them to the prepared cookie sheet with a slotted spoon. Repeat with the remaining gnocchi, keeping the batches small enough to prevent sticking.

Once all the gnocchi have been boiled, melt the butter in a skillet over medium high. Add just enough cooked gnocchi to form a single layer. Sauté, shaking the pan often, until lightly browned and almost crisp, about 3 minutes,. Sprinkle with sage during the last minute of cooking. Repeat until all the gnocchi have been browned. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Pumpkin Sage Muffins

3 T chopped sage
2 C pumpkin puree
2 T olive oil
2 T buttermilk
1 T apple cider vinegar
1 C whole wheat flour
1/2 C rolled oats
1 t baking soda
1 t baking powder
1 t salt

Preheat oven to 325 F. Coat the inside of a muffin pan with nonstick cooking spray or paper liners; set aside. In a bowl, whisk together the sage, pumpkin, olive oil, buttermilk and vinegar; set aside. Combine the dry ingredients in a large bowl and make a well in the center. Pour in the pumpkin mixture and stir just until combined. Pour batter into the prepared muffin pan and bake until tester comes out clean, about 35 minutes. Yield: one dozen.

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