Saturday, 27 October 2007

Now accepting commissions...

Well, my pumpkins have certainly caused a stir on 'The Loop'... I arrived home from work on Thursday to find a bag on the doorstep, containing a pumpkin, a plastic cleaver and a bottle of fake blood, with a note from our neighbour Jayne asking if I could make a gory pumpkin for her! (Just to clarify, she had asked me about this earlier in the week, and I had happily agreed).
This morning was grey and rainy so I set about creating another 'extreme pumpkin'... As I needed to embed the cleaver into the top of the pumpkin, this time I cut the hole into the base. I thought that putting a candle inside might cause the cleaver to melt and give off noxious burning-plastic fumes (an excellent way to get rid of the trick-or-treaters!), however, Jayne assures me that she will use battery-powered tea-lights instead.

Apart from my nervousness at creating a pumpkin for someone else, this proved a nice easy design. I really enjoyed letting the blood drip down it too; although will they ever get the stains off their doorstep?!

Is it me, or is this scene a little incongruous...? The pumpkin in agony, sitting next to my marvellously retro Crockpot, in which a hearty supper is bubbling away?!

Anyway, Jayne was very pleased with the finished result. Here she is, with her husband Kevin... (Sorry J&K, I had to do it!!)

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Supermarket Sweep

You may think me strange (may...?!) but I love supermarkets. I particularly love supermarkets in foreign countries. Fortunately I am married to someone who feels the same way, so our trips abroad are often punctuated by visits to their equivalent of Tescos. We may both enjoy supermarket shopping, but that's where the similarity ends... if we were both dropped blindfolded into a random foreign supermarket, pursued by the perma-tanned Dale Winton, I can guarantee that within minutes Rob would be enthusiastically perusing the beer section, while I'd be heading for the 'Baking' aisle. I don't suppose either of us would make a diversion towards the fruit and veg section. Except maybe to pick up a lime for a margarita.

Anyway, supermarkets have been much in my thoughts this month as we have just returned from a fabulous trip to New England. This provided opportunities for visiting supermarkets in SIX different US states, and we took full advantage of this. Whether or not you think I am odd for enjoying supermarket shopping, it's becoming apparant to me that my habit of taking my camera into supermarkets to photograph things on the shelves is verging on madness, but I have no shame where this is concerned! Here are a few things that really excited me:

Marshmallow Fluff - food of the Gods! I have previously bought this in the UK, but hadn't appreciated the fact that it came in other flavours too. I bought some of the regular white stuff, Rob having turned his nose up at the jar of raspberry fluff in my shopping basket. I consoled myself by taking a photo instead, to the bafflement of several nearby shoppers.

I had never heard of French's Fried Onions until recently, when I discovered that they are in fact a staple of American retro-cookery. I now have 2 cans in my kitchen cupboard, and I'm trying to pluck up the courage to use them in the slightly-scary-looking 'Green Bean Casserole' recipe on the tin. I like the idea of these Cheddar ones though, especially as a crispy coating for chicken. Sadly the purchase of these was also vetoed by Rob, for the admittedly very good reason that we had barely enough room in the van to sleep, let alone carry bagfuls of trashy American groceries. Spoilsport.

I am an advertising agencies dream as I am SO easily swayed by packaging. I have a cupboard full of 'Jiffy Corn-Muffin Mix', simply because I love the boxes. This Bell's seasoning is beautifully packaged. I love the 'Old Bay' seasoning tins too. And as for this wonderful My-T-Fine' pudding mix - wow! It saddens me that manufacturers feel the need to update their packaging so regularly - I love the fact that this has probably remained unchanged for 30 years.

Back on the Hallowe'en theme again... in the form of the infamous 'Funfetti' cake. More to come on this topic in another post...

This just made us giggle. I'm not sure if the Brawny-man has cause to fear for his job just yet...

And finally, a quick mention for possibly the most fun supermarket in the world, ever - Trader Joe's. I had heard some of my American friends raving about it and we stumbled upon this branch in Massachussetts. It's full of local produce and some really unusual foods, all at excellent prices. I also love to see a retailer with a sense of humour - the food is labelled with variations on the Trader Joe's name; e.g. the Spanish sausages that we bought were 'Trader Jose's', the Clam Chowder 'Pilgrim Joe's', the noodles 'Trader Ming's', etc. It's so good to see the injection of a little humour into the potentially banal job of grocery-shopping. Although when you shop with me it's always fun.

Thursday, 18 October 2007

And I eat them too!

Pumpkins carved and ready I then faced a kitchen work-surface spattered with pumpkin flesh, a bowl of pumpkin-innards (to replenish the 'puke' if necessary!) and a sad-looking tin of pumpkin puree...

Flicking through my Martha Stewart Hallowe'en Holiday Special I came across a recipe for Spiced Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Squares. I love the pumpkin-spiced flavours that are such a culinary feature of this time of year, plus the recipe called for a cup of tinned pumpkin puree, so this seemed like an ideal thing to make. It was simple and delicious - a lovely moist spicy cake which can be cut into squares of whatever size you choose. Martha says it makes 2 dozen squares; I cut 18. Go figure.

Here's the recipe:

Spiced Pumpkin Chocolate Chip Squares

2 cups all-purpose (plain) flour

1 tbsp pumpkin pie spice (or use 1 1/2 tsp cinnamon, 3/4 tsp ginger, 1/2 tsp nutmeg and 1/8 tsp each of allspice and ground cloves)

3/4 tsp salt

1 tsp baking soda

2 sticks (1 cup) unsalted butter, at room temperature

1 1/4 cups of sugar

1 large egg

2 tsp vanilla extract (I used just one as this seemed overly extravagant)

1 cup canned pumpkin puree (not pie filling)

12 oz semi-sweet chocolate chips (I used a mixture of semi-sweet, white and butterscotch chips, to use up 3 already-opened bags)

Preheat oven to 350F/180C. Line bottom and sides of a 9x13" baking pan with parchment paper. Leave an overhang on 2 sides.

Mix together flour, spice, baking soda and salt.
Beat butter and sugar with a mixer on medium speed until pale and fluffy. Beat in egg and vanilla, then the pumpkin puree. The mixture may appear curdled. Reduce speed to low and beat in flour mixture until combined. Fold in chocolate chips.

Spread batter in pan. Bake, rotating halfway through, until edges begin to pull away from the sides of the pan and a toothpick inserted in the centre comes out with a few moist crumbs - about 35 minutes. Let cool in pan on a wire rack.

Using parchment overhang, lift cake from pan. Peel off parchment and cut into squares.

You'll see that it provided an excellent reason to use the seasonal sugar decorations that my friend Christopher sent me!

I then picked through the pumpkin goo to extract a handful of pumpkin seeds. I mixed them with some melted butter, salt and some spices (I used smoked paprika and Old Bay Lemon and Herb seasoning) and roasted them in the oven for half an hour. I really enjoyed them as a nibble-with-beer before supper but Rob said it was like eating cardboard. You can't please everyone, so you may as well please yourself.

I regaled Rob with these facts from the extremepumpkins website, but he was still unconvinced.

Pumpkin Seed Eating Facts:

1. Some types of pumpkin seeds have less husk than others.

2. You can eat the whole seed, husk and all. Don’t worry.

3. 50 grams of seeds has 5 grams of dietary fiber. That will keep you regular.

4. Pumpkin seeds are also said to be good for Gout, Prostate Health and are supposedly an aphrodesiac.

5. Both German and Bulgarian folk medicines say that eating pumpkin seeds prevents impotence.

6. Roasted pumpkin seeds will keep for about a week in the fridge.

Domestic-goddess-like I also whipped up a quick pumpkin soup using some pumpkin flesh, some stock and the rest of the tin of pumpkin. It's in the saucepan in the picture behind, but as it's just orange gloop it doesn't really warrant its own photo. It tastes nice though, and feels virtuously healthy as it contains no fat. I'll put extra butter on the toast that I eat with it to make up for that.


Perhaps it's my Protestant unpbringing, but I've never liked Hallowe'en. I have no interest in evil spirits, mysticism and magic, or feeding large amounts of sugar to the neighbourhood children begging at the door. When I lived in the UK I would hand out fruit. That taught them!

But I've obviously been living in North America for too long...

This year I have thrown aside all my caution and decided that with all its rampant commercialism and ridiculous traditions, I actually like Hallowe'en after all. I love the symbols of autumn and harvest that abound in these months, and figured that it's a short step from an artistic display of pumpkin, squash and gourds to a marvellously tacky carved Jack-O'-Lantern on the doorstep. Plus you get to dress up, and I'm always up for that! So I'm throwing myself into it with gay abandon.

Yesterday I had an unexpected day off work, so had my own personal pumpkin-fest. It's impossible to drive anywhere with me at this time of year without me being seduced by one of the many roadside stalls selling the fruits of the season. Whilst on my way back from town yesterday morning I came across the most amazing stall where I managed to pick up a great selection of pumpkins and squash. Take a look at these babies, lined up ready for the chop! The dollar-store carving-kit sits ready in the foreground. Strangely I also found a tin of pumpkin puree in the kitchen cupboard... yet another of those exciting things that I must have picked up in the supermarket, later realising that I hate pumpkin pie. D'oh!

Being a novice pumpkin-carver, I can't claim to have too many creative ideas for carving, but I can copy pretty well. Last year I went down the 'tasteful' route for my first ever carved pumpkin, and copied a design from the National Trust magazine. I was really pleased with it and displayed it on the doorstep for weeks. Until it rotted actually... Here it is - making a tentative stab at being a bit scary, but cute and smiley too:

This year however, none of that namby-pamby cute-and-smiley crap for me! I stumbled upon a fantastic website here and was immediately inspired. I don't suppose Hallowe'en was ever meant to be 'nice'... When you're up to your elbows in pumpkin-goo (these things are full of slime!) it somehow seems appropriate to make something like the 'Puking Pumpkin':

This was a simple one - little carving talent required - so then I decided to move onto something rather more ambitious... the 'Cannibal Pumpkin':

Boy, this one was trickier, especially those eyes (which I'm still not happy with... but what kind of sap gets too perfectionist about carving vegetables?!). It was a masterpiece of engineering to get that baby pumpkin to stay in its mouth. The scene was completed with the addition of a face to the teeny pumpkin, and a second scared-looking veg:

They're on the doorstep now and - nearly 2 weeks early - I'm ready for Hallowe'en! All thoughts of fruit forgotten, I have a bag of Walmart's best pumpkin-shaped-marshmallows to hand out to the scrounging kids. Their parents can deal with the ensuing sugar-high. My witches hat and wig is ready so, glass of 'blood' (red wine) in hand, I'll toast the Eve of All Hallows with a smile (and a witchy cackle!).