Kate's Queen City Notes

Blundering through Cincinnati, laughing all the way

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Pumpkin Misadventures

Why do I do this to myself? That was my thought while I was putting the last batch of pumpkin in the pressure canner at 3am. The first two batches leeched out so much liquid that most of the jars were suited to the trash. I had little hope for this last batch.

See that liquid level? Not ok. Any food that isn't submerged in liquid has a good chance of rotting. A can that looks like this shouldn't be put up.

See that liquid level? Not ok. Any food that isn’t submerged in liquid has a good chance of rotting. A can that looks like this shouldn’t be put up.

Pumpkin doesn’t have the acidity of tomatoes, nor the sugar of jams, nor the salt of pickles; that makes it an attractive home to botulism, or any bacteria for that matter. Technically, this was my third time working with the pressure canner. My current pumpkin crisis wasn’t a huge surprise. Fluid has leeched out of everything that we’ve pressure canned in the past. It’s just that the prior two sessions resulted in minor amounts of liquid lost to leeching.

When I finally crawled into bed at 5am, I put off dealing with the worthless jars of pumpkin. Because I am morphing into an 80 year-old, sunlight was piercing my skull at 9am and additional sleep was not happening. After some coffee I biked up to Findlay Market for Pho Lang (mega-yummy Vietnamese place) and whined about my less than pleasant experience to my canning partner.

She was just coming off misadventures with pumpkin gnocchi. And this brings me to a point that people don’t often acknowledge. Anyone who spends time in a kitchen will tell you that failure is frequent. I screwed up caramelizing sugar the first four times that I tried. I screwed up strawberry jam, twice, two years in a row. Let’s not talk about the vast number of things that I’ve burned. I can’t manage to make a calzone that doesn’t explode while baking.

She talked me down from throwing all the jars in the trash. She pointed out that I already did the hard work of gutting and skinning the pumpkin. And, indeed, that was no fun. We set about processing them a second time. We opened the jars and added more boiled water. The first batch we pulled pumpkin out so that we left a mix of one inch and two inches of head room. I wasn’t convinced that head room was my problem, but we figured it was worth a shot.

nine pumpkins of the pressure canner apocalypse.

nine pumpkins of the pressure canner apocalypse.

So much pumpkin innards. So much. Skinning and gutting these took about an hour.

So much pumpkin innards. So much. Skinning and gutting these took about an hour.

We put the jars back in the canner with extra head room. They came out with little to no leeching. We reprocessed the remaining batches without adding more headroom and just topping off the missing liquid with boiling water. These jars too came out of the canner with little to no leeching.

In the interests of helping others avoid my mistakes, I will tell you what I suspect was happening. I suspect that the jars were a little too hot, ergo too pressurized. On my first round of canning, the contents of the jar boiled on the counter for about 30 minutes after I pulled them out of the canner. On our second session, the contents of the jars only boiled for a few minutes.

All the food is below the liquid level. This can is in good shape.

All the food is below the liquid level. This can is in good shape.

Why do you mock me?

Why do you mock me?

The pumpkin after it was steamed and cubed.

What am I going to do differently next time? I will be more careful about checking in on the pressure release valve. It’s only supposed to rattle a couple times a minute. It’s totally plausible that the longer the canner is on the element the more heat builds up in the canner. Will that fix my problem? Who knows, but I know that I will keep trying.

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Calabaza Pura Pie, Anyone?

A very pedantic gentleman next to me at the bar at The Senate a few weeks ago stated that commercially canned pumpkin isn’t actually pumpkin. My bullshit meter gave a mild blip, mostly due to what I know about food labeling laws. I asked how they could still label it pumpkin, when the can did not, in fact, contain pumpkin. He didn’t respond to my question, which made my bullshit meter whoop wildly. I dropped the topic.

This prompted me to dig through my cabinets for commercially canned pumpkin. This turned up. It’s 100% Calabaza pura. But what is Calabaza? It’s what’s going into your pumpkin pies this Thanksgiving. It is a gourd, but it is decidedly not pumpkin. This might explain why my home canned pumpkin is significantly different in color and taste from commercially canned pumpkin.

What is in the can? Not pumpkin.

Even on this Wikipedia page it states that most commercially canned pumpkin isn’t actually, pumpkin, but a mix of winter squashes. So, what gives with this labeling? Why is it acceptable to label this as pumpkin? I suppose the food processors are banking on people failing to notice the difference. What I don’t understand is how they are getting around the labeling laws.

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The Cushaw: My Moby Dick of Gourds

I’ve heard rumors that a gourd exists that would taste better in pumpkin pie than pumpkin. I’ve heard these rumors for some years. As described in an earlier blog post, I’ve established a fledgling relationship with a few farmers at the Lunken Farmers Market. They are crusty old men who seem to grow the food they are selling, no wholesalers here. When I picked up 9 pumpkins for canning, one of the old curmudgeons pointed to a very large green and white gourd and asked if I’ve ever made a pie with one. Pretentiousness is pointless with curmudgeon, so admitted that I’d never seen one of those before. As soon as he said that it would make a better pumpkin pie than pumpkin, I knew a new cooking adventure must happen.

The gourd in question is called a cushaw; it’s a winter squash. The internets tells me they are more common in the south. I don’t know how these turned up in Cincinnati. Geographically speaking, calling Cincinnati part of The South is nonsense. If you want to read a bit more about cushaws try this blog out.

The cushaw before I started hacking away at it.

The cushaw before I started hacking away at it.

If you have ever engaged in the laborious process of getting pumpkin puree out of a fresh pumpkin, you know that only an intense love of pumpkin can drive you to such lengths. The cushaw has one obvious and one not so obvious advantage over pumpkins in terms of getting them to an edible status. The cushaw’s shape and structure matches that of a butternut squash; so gourd for gourd the cushaw is going to yield considerably more puree than a pumpkin due to the cushaw’s seed cavity taking up considerably less volume. The not so obvious advantage is that the cushaw was much easier to cut through than pumpkin. My cushaw was about 16 inches tall and 10 inches in diameter at its widest. I had visions of getting out my Dewalt reciprocating saw to hack that thing apart. I was pleasantly surprised to find it quite easy to cut through. Cushaw FTW in prep round.

The cushaw with seeds intact.

The cushaw with seeds intact.

I split the cushaw. I scraped out the seeds. I put them cut side down on cookie sheets with a bit of olive oil to prevent sticking. I roasted them in the oven on 350 for a little over 1 hour. We scraped out the pulp and ran it through the food processor. Oops. I skipped the part where I ate forkfuls of the pulp out of the roasted gourd, still seaming from the oven. I also skipped the part where we spooned the puree into our mouths. This gourd is tasty. This gourd is tasty without additional embellishments, like pie crusts or cinnamon.

The scraped cushaw.

The scraped cushaw.

My writing skills are not quite up to the task of describing how cushaw is different from butternut squash or pumpkin. Cushaw is creamy but more neutral in flavor than pumpkin, acorn, or butternut squash. Whipping cream doesn’t so much have a flavor as it has a mouth-feel. Cushaw has a similar effect. It’s not as sweet as pumpkin, and it’s lacking that distinctive pumpkin flavor. This gourd is a little more like a blank canvas that will reflect the ingredients you pair it with. A creamy canvas.

The puree that didn’t make it to my belly went into three recipes. I used recipes that I have made many times with pumpkin. I felt like this would be the most direct comparison.

Libby’s standard pumpkin pie recipe

Pumpkin bread

Pumpkin roll

The pie was excellent. It turned out a delicate custard. It was rich without being overwhelming. It completely lacked that mealy quality that canned pumpkin pies typically have.

Here's what the pies looked like right out of the oven.

Here’s what the pies looked like right out of the oven.

The pumpkin bread was interesting. Because the cushaw lacks pumpkin flavor, the bread tasted more like chai spice bread than pumpkin bread only with the same dense, rich texture that squashes add to breads. This recipe was excellent, although, if you are jonesing for pumpkin bread, I don’t think this bread will satisfy your desire.

The pumpkin roll was tricky. I think the recipe should have been amended such that the cake stayed in the oven a bit longer. The cushaw seemed to make the cake stickier than it turns out with canned pumpkin. So, the pumpkin rolls turned out pretty ugly. But for what they lacked in beauty, they made up for in taste. Longer cooking time, and maybe draining the cushaw would have helped this recipe out a bit.

The verdict is that the pie was better. The roll and the bread were good, but I wouldn’t say they directly compete with pumpkin. I feel like they were more like new recipes with cushaw in them as opposed to subtly different forms of their pumpkin counterparts.

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Pressure Canning: Shit Just Got Real

I have been canning for a few years. I knew this day would come. I bought a pressure canner. Pumpkin is what sealed this deal. Stocks and meats just don’t excite me like pumpkin. When faced with the possibility of using that sad, metallic-tasting paste that comes out of a can for another year, I went to the internets in search of pressure canners.

The first thing you should know about this canner is that it looks like it is not to be trifled with. The second thing you should know is that after perusing the directions I became anxious that I could literally cause an explosion in my kitchen. Looks, in this case, were not deceiving.

Pressure Canner


This was our most ambitious canning session to date. We planned to can a couple of varieties of apple sauce, apple butter, pumpkin butter, and pumpkin cubes. Note that we chose to can cubes because it’s not advisable to can pumpkin puree at home. The cubes will just need to be run through my food processor before they are added to my favorite recipes.

We started off with a half bushel of apples and nine pumpkins. Here’s the recipes/instructions for what we did.

Big pot of apples.

Here’s the apples when we were cooking them down. After this we put the apples through a food mill. We brought the resulting sauce back to boiling before canning it.

Here's the apples after we processed about half of them.

Here’s the apples after we processed about half of them.

These pumpkins looked amazing.

These pumpkins looked amazing.

Pumpkin cubes: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/he266

Apple sauce: http://www.freshpreserving.com/recipe.aspx?r=126 (we made half the batch plain as instructed here except with less sugar. We got golden delicious apples, and they were pretty sweet without the sugar. We made the other half the batch with cinnamon and vanilla bean w/ seeds.

Apple butter: http://www.canningacrossamerica.com/recipes/apple-butter/

Pumpkin butter: http://allrecipes.com/recipe/pumpkin-butter/

Here’s the random things that we learned. I think we accidentally put 2 tsps of nutmeg in the pumpkin butter as opposed to the 1 tsp that the recipe called for. Two tsps is great if you want the nutmeg to overwhelm all the other flavors including the pumpkin. (FAIL) The pumpkin butter thickened really quickly on the stove. I don’t think we cooked it for more than 20 minutes, and in that time the concoction got much darker and thicker.

Finished jars of apple butter.

Finished jars of apple butter.

Here's a jar of apple butter coming out of the pot after processing.

Here’s a jar of apple butter coming out of the pot after processing.

The apple sauce was excellent. It was so excellent that we needed to stop ourselves from eating it before it made to the jars. If we do another fall canning session, it will be to do more apple sauce.

The pumpkin that we canned bears almost no resemblance to what comes out of store-bought cans. The color is a bright yellow and the flavor is closer to acorn or butternut squash. This made me wonder what they do to the pumpkin to get it that color and to get that mealy flavor. I don’t know if you have ever eaten a spoonful of pumpkin from the can, but it has that non-taste that commercial baby food often has. The pumpkin that we put in the jars had this slightly sweet, creamy flavor.


I mentioned in a past blog that I get my produce for canning at the Lunken Airport farmers market (if you aren’t from Cincinnati just ignore that last sentence). The people who go there aren’t wholesalers; they are the actual farmers. For what they may lack in customer service skills, they more than make up for it with knowledge about the produce. The old curmudgeon farmer that I work with most often, while doubtful of my intentions at first, has now warmed to my tattooed self. It seems like I keep clearing hurdles with him. On my pumpkin purchase, he seemed pleased that I recognized the pie pumpkins from the mess of decorative gourds and pumpkins.

While we were bagging up my pumpkins he pointed to a huge green and white mottled gourd. He asked if I had ever made pie with one of those. I said no, because I had never seen this type of gourd before. He pushed his vintage (NOT RETRO) John Deere hat further back on his head and said, “Once you make pie with one of those, you’ll never want a pumpkin again.” I have heard of a gourd that is fabled to be more tasty than pumpkin. I’m pretty sure curmudgeon farmer just pointed out my gourd Moby Dick. Needless to say I will be going back next week to get one of those gourds. Be on the look out for the Moby Dick gourd blog post next week.