Thursday, November 30, 2017

Pumpkin Chips: or, These are worth half their weight in sugar

You know those orange things people ritualistically put on their porches every fall?

It's a strange ritual perpetrated here in the United States. Because it is fall, people almost automatically put pumpkins out on their porches every year. I don't mean jack-o-lanterns, I mean just... putting pumpkins in front of the house. Because fall. Did you know you can eat them?
Everyone of course knows about pumpkin pie and the astonishing proliferation of pumpkin spice everything, but it seems few people realize you can make it yourself using those funny orange things they deposited right outside the door.
We at A Book of Cookrye aren't going to make our own pumpkin pie, but we will bravely carry the autumn torch of sugary pumpkin-flavored things even though December is upon us with fake snow and mandatory cheer.
Miss Leslie, Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, 1848

Pumpkin Chips
1 pumpkin
for every pound of cut-up pumpkin:
1 pound (2 cups) sugar
½ c lemon juice

Pare the outer skin off the pumpkin. Your vegetable peeler if you have one will prove useless, so use a paring knife. And have a knife sharpener on hand- you will need to resharpen it about halfway through.
Remove the seeds and strings, then cut the pumpkin into strips about 2 to 4 inches wide. Then cut them into slivers about ⅛" thick.
Weigh the pumpkin, then measure out the lemon juice and sugar (This will be a lot of lemon juice; you may want to just get a bottle instead of squeezing it yourself). Mix everything in the pot you'll be boiling it in, and let it soak overnight in the refrigerator.
The next day, put it on to a moderately fast boil. You don't want it to boil too hard, but don't slowly simmer it either. When the chips are transparent, put them in jars.
These are delicious put in already-baked individual tartlet shells.

Source:Directions for Cookery in its Various Branches, Miss Leslie, 1848

When you read the title of Pumpkin Chips, did you imagine a sort of orange equivalent of kale chips? Well, in 1848, pumpkin chips were boiled in lemon syrup that contains literally their own weight in sugar! You thought the pumpkin spice lattes were diabetes in a caffeinated cup? Miss Leslie and her 1848 cookbook use so much sugar that even the iced pumpkin spice creations with whipped cream on top are practically health food.  Let's get on with it, shall we?

A pumpkin is maddeningly tedious to skin. For one thing, they are really big, so you're going to have a lot of square footage to peel. Furthermore, these things are hard. A vegetable peeler is useless here. And your paring knife will need resharpening at least twice per pumpkin.

Now, when I make preserves, I almost always go through the following thoughts in this order:
1. I probably should make a lot, since I won't be doing this for a long time.
2. (after getting the fruit ready to cook) This is way too much fruit! What was I thinking?
3. (after the fruit shrinks in the syrup) I'm barely going to get one tiny jar of preserves out of this! Why did I work all this time only to get a tiny teacup of preserves?
4. (upon getting the preserves into the jars) There is so much of this! What would anyone do with this much preserves?

With this in mind, and given that not-canned pumpkins are so seasonal, I decided to make chips out of not one but two whole pumpkins. The paring alone took over an hour. Incidentally, a pumpkin without its skin feels surprisingly spongy.
Is this a recipe or a cry for help?

Eventually, we reached the point where we get the pumpkin into slivers.
After carefully trying to scrape off as little rind as possible, this felt so good.

Now, normally making a recipe in large quantity doesn't make it that many times harder. Like, doubling a cake recipe and baking two of them doesn't take twice as long as if you had baked only one. However, in this recipe, we didn't have any such time-saving. You see, it takes exactly twice as long to cut up two pumpkins as it does one.
The knife is included for scale. This is a lot of pumpkin.

I have to admit, at this point I was done. I could take no more and had to call this off for the day. I thought I'd just hack the pumpkins into manageable-sized pieces and finish this project the next night. While there was no reason the pumpkin couldn't spend the night in the refrigerator, even the large gallon bags I'd had in mind for this seemed worthlessly puny in the face of all this pumpkin. However, even that hasty cutting job took longer than an hour.

If you are at home and cooking so much food you must store it in a trash bag, either you have a big party coming up, you're volunteering your kitchen for charity, or something is wrong with you. I should note that this bag was full to the top and so heavy it threatened to rip. Once I forced it to fit in the refrigerator, the shelf sagged unnervingly. I wasn't sure the support brackets would survive the night.
And so, the next day, all of this pumpkin had to be cut into slivers "about as thick as a half dollar." The whole trash bag of pumpkin. I have to think that back in Miss Leslie's day, preserves were a group effort. They had to be. Even in competent hands, this would be at least 4 hours with a knife.  If someone had to make enough preserves to last until fruit came back in season, literally all other housework would have to stop.

Meanwhile, we had to deal with step 2 of this recipe: cooking the chips.
It is a fundamental fact that the modern suburban kitchen is simply not equipped for cooking in quantities to feed a large family of 1800's farmers. Even if someone goes out and buys the sort of massive cauldron you'd need to boil all of this at once, it may not actually fit on the stove. Furthermore, rarely will anyone have the counterspace to handle such a massive undertaking.
Now, it is true that at any point I could have decided I didn't need to make chips of all the pumpkin. Even after reducing all of it to slivers, there are a lot of things you could do with cut-up pumpkin if you wanted to scale down the preserves recipe. Nevertheless, I forged daftly forward with candying all of it.
The first major problem was selecting a suitable pot. I'd hoped that the pumpkin would fit into a much smaller space once it was cut into tiny chips. While it did, two pumpkins make even the big pot your mom boils spaghetti in look puny when you try to fit them inside.
Fortunately, I have Mexican family, which means some of us make tamales! I called my sister asking if I could borrow their massive tamale pot (if you've never seen one, imagine one of the bigger metal buckets from the hardware store, but with pot handles on the sides). Unfortunately, theirs had finally rusted.
This ended up happening instead.

You may think that's a lot of sugar, and you would be right. Ever seen those massive bags of sugar and flour on the very bottom shelf at the grocery store? The ones that look like feed sacks instead of baking ingredients? Making two pumpkins' worth of chips will use up one of those. Let's pull the camera back and see what all this pumpkin and sugar ended up cooking in.

You know what the worst part of this was? If you go up to the recipe, you'll see that you're supposed to measure out the sugar and lemon juice by the weight of the pumpkin. Meaning, you're going to have to weigh the pumpkin.
Before I realized just how much pumpkin I would have on my hands, I'd planned to just take it into the grocery store and use the scales in the produce department. But those tend to have a maximum weight of 10-20 pounds. So I had to get out a bathroom scale and weigh myself- both holding the trash bag full of pumpkin and not. Some quick subtraction yielded the weight of the pumpkin (which was about 30 pounds if you're curious). But let's go back to what happened- I had to weigh myself. If you've had crippling image issues all your life, the act of stepping on a scale and looking down will forever be emotionally fraught.

Yes, that is two roasting pans, each of which is perched on two burners. There's something both delightfully old-fashioned and fiercely intimidating about using a pot that is so big. There was a third pan's worth of pumpkin still bagged in the refrigerator, but I had only two pans and four burners.
Even after an overnight soak, the soaking water tasted like concentrated lemonade with not a slight suggestion of pumpkin flavor. Nor did a pumpkin aroma exude from the pans.
But finally, after all this work, it was time to get these suckers into jars. I don't know the first thing about actual home canning. I've just heard it's reasonably straightforward to do right, but if you do it wrong you will die of botulism. So instead I decided to keep these in the refrigerator. There were... a lot. In case you don't quite realize what you're looking at, this is so many jars of pumpkin chips they do not all fit in the refrigerator door.

But you haven't seen the biggest jars yet. I'd thought these two would actually contain all the chips. But when you're cooking in such massive amounts, absolutely everything in the kitchen- from the massive stewpot to the roaster that held two turkeys in last year- starts to look ridiculously dinky compared to the massive mountain of cut-up pumpkin.

As a helpful tip, clear off absolutely all the counterspace before getting your pumpkin chips from the pot to the jars. You will need more room than you expect. Also, the syrup will get absolutely everywhere. If you have spices, plates, or figurines on the counter, you will have to rinse and wipe them one by one.
But what does one do with all the candied pumpkin chips? Miss Leslie suggests putting them in baked puff-paste shells. I brought some to share with my friends, and having not seen that the recipe suggests making tartlets, they all independently said "These would be really good in little pies!"
I didn't have the time or patience after all this, but for a Thanksgiving gathering I did smush scraps of pie crust into a cupcake pan.

Ain't they pretty?

As for the taste, they were insanely good. Pumpkin and lemon is a surprisingly delicious combination that should appear more often. I'm really glad these are good, because there are... a lot of pumpkin chips waiting in the refrigerator.
In short, this is really tasty. I actually recommend it most highly. However, do not do a whole pumpkin, and under absolutely no circumstances do two at once. Make chips out of maybe one quarter of a single pumpkin, and you'll be delighted with the results without being exhausted getting there.