The calendar boldly states that Autumn is in full blast. The orange of pumpkins is splashed all around me, at supermarkets, farmers markets, in front of the stores, on tresholds and in yards. But I live in Southern California and the summer does not seem willing to yield. I yearn for the steady patter of the October rain from my childhood, the smell of wet leaves the color of fire and clay, and the northern wind which brings with its chill the promise of snowflakes.
A few days ago, I bought a pumpkin for jack o’ lantern, enthusiastic and eager to start cutting, as if the mere act of personalizing a gourd could miraculously turn the planet on its axis and bring us a few days of real fall. I looked at it every time I went in and out of the apartment, and in the end decided that I will carve another pumpkin some time later. This one is all mine, destined to end up in our bellies.
I remember afternoons when the sky was the color of pewter and lead, skeletal tree branches suddenly void of leaves, and the icy touch of the rain drops against my skin. The light from the orange globe hanging in our kitchen was like a beacon, steady and warm, promising shelter and comfort. And on some of those afternoons I would open the kitchen door coming back from school and inhale the aroma of cinnamon coming out of the oven, where Mother had thick pieces of brightly orange pumpkin baking, shiny from the sugar caramelizing on the edges.
Even though I tried not to buy the biggest pumpkin at the store, baking it in pieces would yield too much. I opted to make “tikvanjik” or “bundevara”, Serbian pumpkin strudel that uses pureed pumpkin. That way I can freeze a bag or two of puree and make it again in the winter, when pumpkins are forgotten, and some people somewhere sit by the fireplaces, while the snow slowly wafts just beyond their windows.
My daughters don’t remember where I keep the umbrellas and a few puffy, white clouds we occasionally see marring the eternal Technicolor blue of southern California skies can hardly be considered threatening. But I bet that they are going to dive nose-first into the kitchen, led by the comforting and warm smell of cinnamon coming out of my oven.
PUMPKIN STRUDEL (TIKVANJIK*)
The pumpkin puree when baked becomes creamy and custard-like, giving a nice contrast to crunchy and flaky phyllo dough.
*In northern part of the country, Vojvodina, where my mother comes from, it is called “bundevara”.
- 2 lbs pumpkin puree*
- 3 eggs, slightly beaten
- 1 ½ tsp cinnamon
- ½ cup sugar
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 500gr (1 pound) phyllo dough, extra thin (approximately 20 sheets)
- ¾ cup sunflower oil (or any neutral oil)
*To make pumpkin puree, you need a pumpkin of any size. Preheat the oven to 400F. Cut the pumpkin in halves and then into wedges. Lay the slices into a heavy baking pan and pour some water to cover the bottom. Bake for 1 hour, until fork tender. Let it cool and scrape the pulp into a bowl. Measure 2 pounds and reserve the rest for another use – I am thinking pumpkin gnocchi. Puree in the food processor until smooth.
Preheat the oven to 375F. Brush a 9×13 baking pan with oil.
Mix the pumpkin puree, eggs, cinnamon, sugar, and baking powder. Open the phyllo dough package and lay the sheets on the counter, longer side facing you. Place 6 sheets on the cutting board, brushing each with some oil. Place another sheet on top and spread 1/3 of the filling all over it, leaving an inch filling-free on each long side. Carefully roll the dough away from you, with the seem on the bottom (my dough sheets were 3 inches longer than my pan, and I had to cut off that much from my roll to fit). Transfer to the baking pan. Repeat two more times for three rolls. Brush the tops with oil and bake for 45-60 minutes, depending on your oven, until golden brown and delicious (I just love Alton Brown!). Let it rest for 15 minutes and cut into squares. Sprinkle with powder sugar and serve at room temperature.