Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

What is it about pumpkins that symbolizes the best of autumn?  It could be the bright orange colors, the fun of Halloween, or the comfort of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving. Whatever it is, when chilly days arrive in October, my mind and stomach turn to pumpkin. It's almost an instinctual urge, a modern day kick-off to my hibernation rituals of baking and eating comfort foods. Instead of foraging for nuts to hide in a tree trunk, I head to the store to buy canned pumpkin.

In the last month I've made several batches of pumpkin bread, pumpkin caramel custard, pumpkin oatmeal chocolate chip cookies, pumpkin cake roll with cream cheese filling, and pumpkin pie. I can't get enough. Whenever I see something pumpkin flavored, I *need* to get it. This also includes beverages: pumpkin spice lattes at Peet's, smoothies at Jamba Juice, and Keurig coffee pods. Even the frozen yogurt folks get into the mood. I recently had pumpkin frozen yogurt with crushed graham cracker topping at Red Mango in Palo Alto, and thoroughly enjoyed every bite.

Another favorite fall ritual is driving to Half Moon Bay to see the glorious pumpkin patches.  When my kids were littler, they enjoyed going to Lemos Farm to pick pumpkins, ride the little train and ponies, feed the goats, and see how long they could brave the haunted house. Lemos Farm is one of those places that's definitely more fun for little ones than their parents, but their shiny smiles make it worth it (and it's not as excruciating for parents as Chuck E. Cheese's).

Half Moon Bay is a wonderful seaside farm town. Not only do residents there grow pumpkins and host a famous annual Pumpkin Festival, many farmers grow Christmas trees and all kinds of flowers. The majestic blue ocean beckons nearby, both hypnotic and beautiful, but also often cold and windy. Since I grew up in Southern California and frequented the warm water and sand of Newport Beach, I miss being able to go body surfing. But the beauty of Northern California beaches takes your breath away, and the half moon shaped beach that gave the town its name creates a scenic picnic spot and relaxing place to walk in the sand.

Since Half Moon Bay is so well known for its pumpkins, bakeries there specialize in pumpkin goodies during October and November. My favorite HMB bakery is called Moonside Bakery & Cafe. It's always bustling, even on cold mornings. On my recent visit I perused the bakery case for all things pumpkin. In addition to the usual pumpkin bread and pumpkin pie, Moonside offered these goodies:

- Pumpkin cookies with walnuts, raisins, and a coating of maple frosting.
- Pumpkin filled croissants, a flavorful autumn twist on the classic buttery French pastry.
- Pumpkin cheesecake, one of my favorite kinds of cheesecake. It's hard to beat the creamy blend of tart cream cheese and cinnamon-y pumpkin spices. A sophisticated cousin to pumpkin pie, pumpkin cheesecake is a rich, all-around, delicious dessert and not too hard to make.
- Pumpkin bread pudding, a surprisingly tasty concoction with a dense, soft texture, the punch of pumpkin flavor, and a delightfully aromatic nutmeg undertone. It was better than I expected, and something I might try making sometime.

Unfortunately, pumpkin farmers in the Midwest have had an extremely challenging year with cold and rainy weather.  According to the Los Angeles Times, Nestle, which controls 85% of the canned pumpkin market with its Libby brand, issued an apology to consumers for the canned pumpkin shortage, stating that they will stop shipping before Thanksgiving. This means canned pumpkin will likely run out at the stores before the December holidays, and Nestle won't have more pumpkin to harvest until August 2010. As word of the pumpkin scarcity spreads, it's only human nature to run out and hoard some extra cans for the cupboard. I admit I bought five large cans last weekend, and will parcel it out so my favorite autumn flavor lingers for many months to come.

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