When I think of the Long Island cheese pumpkin, pie comes to mind; a local variety that is historically known for making this best-tasting fall favorite dessert. And let’s be clear: There is nothing cheesy about this squash except for its squat wheel-of-cheese-rind looks and its stinky reputation for sitting on front porches for Halloween. It’s a shame that a pumpkin with an indelible culinary history became a farm-to-porch decoration due to the modernization of food production, in particular, the canned pumpkin industry. As the seed of the Long Island cheese pumpkin began to dwindle through retailers up until the 1960s, rounder varieties began to boon due to their smooth surface that rolled off conveyor belts with ease for faster processing.
Ken Ettlinger, a local seed saver and former professor at the Suffolk County College in Riverhead has fond childhood memories of his mother’s Thanksgiving pumpkin pie and would scour farms on the East End for this sienna-colored sweet-fleshed pumpkin that was coveted by many for its phenomenal flavor for pie making and savory dishes like soups and stews. In the late 1970s, on his quest to retrieve the cheese pumpkin for the holidays, he noticed that fewer farms were growing the pumpkin due to retailers not selling the seed. He then began to save the seeds from whatever cheese pumpkins he could find, and his efforts later traveled to Maryland, where Curtis Sylvestor Showell, a squash seed breeder, planted Ettlinger’s seeds and grew enough to supply a commercial retailer. It was then that the seed was reintroduced commercially, but it was eclipsed by round usual varieties for culinary uses and gained popularity as an ornamental pumpkin with the generations to follow.
Today, this perception of the Long Island cheese pumpkin still lingers.
In an effort to reclaim this local pumpkin into the culinary vernacular, I collaborated with pioneer farmer Stephanie Gaylor and her partner, Cheryl Frey of Invincible Summer Farms, to start the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project that is championed by the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium, their not-for-profit that is dedicated to education, advocacy and research to foster and nurture local seed systems. The mission of the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project is to preserve, restore and bring culinary awareness of this local variety. The project is made up of various food system shareholders or “Ambassadors”—such as chefs, growers, schools and eaters—who advocate for the dynamic use of this regional pumpkin across a broad spectrum of organizations.
Ambassador and Cutchogue native, chef Stephan Bogardus of the North Fork Table and Inn, recalls the days of his childhood when his mother would seek out the cheese pumpkin at Krupski’s Farm to make pies and stews. “My mom would simply put the pumpkin in the microwave and make a puree out of it and freeze for later use.”
Bogardus’s love and respect for growing and preparing food started at the age of four. His mother would give him his own cutting board and real pairing knife and would slice, dice and chop vegetables like broccoli. Bogardus always felt at kin with the North Fork Table and Inn’s philosophy of supporting local farmers and artisans.
He was one of the first chefs to buy tomatoes from farmer Stephanie Gaylor, whom he respects for her selfless drive to support biodiversity and to grow the most diverse food for the community at large. “I started with four crates of her rare heirloom tomatoes, and before I knew it I was buying 200 pounds a week for the rest of the summer,“ says Bogardus. “Stephanie is meticulous and documents the entire life cycle of an open-pollinated vegetable: She saves the seed, plants it, watches it grow, shares the fruits of her labor and repeats this life cycle in an effort to produce the most pristine and viable seed that will grow the best vegetable or fruit you have ever tasted.”
The Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project is a great example of this effort to support food diversity and to revitalize a pumpkin’s reputation from the porch to the kitchen. Chef Bogardus is honored to be part of such a great project and to educate his diners during the pumpkin season when the North Fork Table and Inn will be hosting a Long Island cheese pumpkin market dinner. Let’s all take the Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Project pledge: to grow, revitalize and preserve the culinary use of this local heirloom squash.
Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Soup
Courtesy of Chef Stephan Bogardus of North Fork Table & Inn
Yield: 64 ounces or eight 8-ounce servings
(Prep time: 30 minutes / Cook time: 30 minutes)
- Long Island cheese pumpkin (4 pounds roughly)
- 1 leek, cut into quarters
- 2 green apples, halved and seeded
- 2 shallots, cut in half
- 2 tablespoons butter
- 1 onion, sliced
- 1 fennel bulb, sliced
- 1 cup orange juice
- 1 quart water
- 1 cup heavy cream
- Nutmeg (to taste)
- Salt (to taste)
- Pepper (to taste)
Cut the pumpkin into quarters and remove the seeds (but be sure to save them for later). Preheat the oven to 400° convection. In a roasting pan, lightly—that is lightly—coated in oil, place the pumpkin, leeks, apples and shallots. Lightly season with salt and pepper. Place in 400° oven and roast until all is golden brown, approximately 30 minutes.
While the pumpkin is roasting in a large pot, melt butter. Begin to cook onion and fennel slices over a low heat, stir as needed and add seasoning lightly. Wash the removed seeds from your Long Island cheese pumpkin and coat well with salt. Place the seeds on a baking tray and keep it close to the oven. Remove the pumpkin from the oven, drop the heat to 300° and put your seeds in. Every 10 minutes, stir the seeds and cook until crisp. Once the pumpkin has cooled, remove the skin from the pumpkins with a spoon and discard. Combine roasted pumpkin and roasted vegetables into the pot of onion mixture. Add orange juice, water and cream. Bring the pot to a boil rapidly and turn down to a simmer. Grate a little nutmeg, salt and black pepper and check your seasoning. Simmer the soup for 20 minutes. Puree in a blender and pass through a fine strainer. Place the soup in your bowl of choice and sprinkle a few seeds on top.
Josephine Columbus Ettlinger’s Long Island Cheese Pumpkin Pie
For the pie crust:
- 1½ cups all-purpose flour, plus more to flour the board
- ½ teaspoon salt
- ¾ cups vegetable shortening
- 1 egg
- ⅓ cup of ice cold water (more or less)
For the pumpkin custard:
- 1 small cheese pumpkin (12 to 14 inches in diameter)
- 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated milk
- ¾ cup sugar
- 3 eggs
- 2 teaspoons cinnamon
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 teaspoon ground ginger
- ½ teaspoon ground cloves
- ½ teaspoon ground allspice
To make the pie crust:
In a large bowl, combine the flour and salt. Cut in the vegetable shortening and add the egg. Moisten with enough water so that dough comes together and you can make a ball. Cut dough in half and, on a floured board, roll out each half to form a 12-inch circle. Transfer to two 8-inch pie plates. (You can also simply press the dough into each pie plate with flour-coated fingers).
To make the custard:
Cut the cheese pumpkin in half; scoop out the seeds and dry them to plant next year. Cut one of the halves into 3- by 4-inch chunks and microwave for 12 minutes until soft. (Reserve other half for another use.) Using a spoon, separate the cooked flesh from the skin (you should have about 2 cups of flesh for the pie). Put the cooked flesh into a food processor or blender and add the evaporated milk, sugar, eggs and spices. Blend until it is a smooth puree.
Pour the pumpkin custard into the uncooked shells and place into a preheated 400° oven. Bake for 15 minutes. Reduce oven temperature to 375° and bake for another hour or until filling has puffed up and solidified. Remove from oven, allow to cool to room temperature and then refrigerate. Serve cold. Makes two standard 8-inch pies or one deep-dish 8- to 9-inch pie.