Sometimes I think the scariest thing about Halloween is the flood of pumpkin-spice products that appear for the season. The fact that pumpkin-spice deodorant exists hints at how ludicrous the craze has become. An essay in the Oct. 12 New York Times revealed how lucrative it is, too: according to the consumer intelligence company NIQ, pumpkin-spice products are a $787-million business.
I was obsessed with the Peanuts cartoon strip as a kid. I was all in on Linus’s mission to grow the sincerest pumpkin patch for the Great Pumpkin’s visit. When he gazes over his field and says, “You can look around and there’s not a sign of hypocrisy,” he speaks to my heart: I want my pumpkin to have some dignity.
Pumpkins come in classic and fanciful shapes, sizes, and colors. Vermillion Cinderella pumpkins or hefty buff-colored fairytale ones look ready to be transformed into the magical carriages of folktales. Squat beige cheese pumpkins mimic wheels of Parmesan. Huge blue Hubbards look like the alien pods from the 1950s Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
On national pumpkin day, Oct. 26, I dream of pumpkin-layered lasagna, Lebanese pumpkin kibbeh, and Mexican candied pumpkin. But I default to a way easier and super comforting pumpkin soup.
Mine is savory; ungarnished, it is fundamentally pumpkin — earthy and slightly sweet. The pumpkin’s mild manner is why the warming spice mix of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg, and ginger has become synonymous with winter squash. But these flavors are just a step away from Indian garam masala, Middle Eastern baharat, and Chinese five-spice blends that are also lovely with pumpkin.
I am not averse to plain canned pumpkin purée, particularly in baking, because the purée is drained of excess water. But when fresh winter squash come to market, I love them for savory dishes — all except the pumpkins grown for carving jack-o-lanterns, which are pretty flavorless. This Great Pumpkin soup is squash-friendly: one variety can be swapped for another.
You can avoid the horror show of peeling pumpkins’ tough, deeply-ridged skins by roasting them before making the soup. Scraping the seeds out first with an ice cream scoop works like a charm.
Pumpkin soup can be vegetarian or made with a meaty broth, but I think water is too often underrated as a soup base, especially for puréed vegetable soups like this one. This soup is velvety without cream, though you might add just a little before serving. A little bit of miso at the end is a secret that adds a savory boost.
Think of this recipe as a basic template. An herb bundle works with the accent of blue cheese. If you want it drizzled with coconut milk, then grated fresh ginger and coriander work well as flavor accents. For garnishes, you can customize each bowl with a flourish of browned butter, a swirl of dark balsamic vinegar or pomegranate molasses, or a dollop of green or red salsa or Chinese chili crisp.
For Halloween suppers, I’ve been known to add cutouts of pumpernickel cats and witches to the garnish. Or a ghostly dollop of unsweetened whipped cream with a dusting of pie spice. As I’m sure Linus would have said, “I don’t see how a pumpkin soup can be more sincere than this one.”
GREAT PUMPKIN SOUP
Makes 4 servings
2 pounds winter squash, such as cheese pumpkin, Hubbard, or kabocha
¼ cup unsalted butter or olive oil
2 leeks, white and light green parts (or 2 medium onions, sliced)
1-2 cloves garlic, smashed
Kosher salt and fresh-ground black pepper
1/3 cup apple cider or white wine
Choose one flavor accent: 1 bundle thyme sprigs with a bay leaf; or a spice mixture including ½ tsp. ground coriander, 2 tsp. grated fresh ginger, ½ tsp curry powder, and ½ tsp. Middle Eastern or five-spice powder
4 cups water or broth
1 Tbsp. white miso
- Roast the squash: Heat the oven to 375° F. Scoop the seeds out and cut the pumpkin in 1-inch- thick wedges. Melt the butter in a soup pot, then brush the pumpkin with some of the butter (alternatively, brush with olive oil). Lay the pieces on a sheet pan, season with salt and pepper, and bake until just tender, about 15 minutes. Cool slightly, then cut the flesh off the skin and into chunks.
- Meanwhile, halve the leeks lengthwise, then chop crosswise into half-moons. Swish the leeks in a large bowl of water to dislodge any dirt. Then lift the leeks from the water and add them to the soup pot along with the garlic. Salt and pepper the aromatics well, then cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until wilted, about 8 minutes. Add the cider or wine and simmer to reduce the liquid by about half. Stir in your flavor accent and cook 1 to 2 minutes more.
- Add the roasted pumpkin to the pot and stir to coat. Add the water or broth and bring the mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Add more salt and pepper, as needed. Adjust the heat so the soup simmers gently until the squash is completely tender, 10 to 15 minutes. Remove the herb bundle if you’ve used one.
- Transfer the soup to a blender. Take care not to overfill the blender; cover the opening in the top with a tea towel to allow hot air to escape. Pulse and then blend the soup until smooth. Return to the pot, whisk in the miso, and check the salt and pepper. The soup will thicken when cooled and reheated — adjust its consistency with water or broth.
THREE TOPPINGS TO TRY
Scallops with Curry and Coconut Cream
Salt and then sear 6 sea scallops in butter in a medium skillet over medium-high heat, turning once until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Set aside on a plate and quarter the scallops. Wipe out the pan. Add a walnut-size piece of butter to the warm pan and a heaping ½ teaspoon of curry powder, swirling until fragrant, about 30 seconds. Divide soup between bowls, top with the scallops, and add a swirl of curry butter and a spoonful of warmed coconut cream. Scatter soup with coriander leaves.
Maple Spiced Bacon, Apple, and Pumpernickel Croutons
Lay 3 slices of bacon on a wire rack on a rimmed baking sheet. Bake 8 minutes at 375° F. Brush bacon with maple syrup and continue baking until caramelized, about 20 minutes, flipping halfway. When it’s crisp, sprinkle both sides with chili powder and cook 1 minute more. Let cool 5 minutes on the racks. Break up the maple-spiced bacon over the soup and add toasted pumpernickel croutons. Scatter diced apple and parsley leaves over the top.
Fried Sage, Blue Cheese, and Balsamic
Heat 2 tablespoons olive oil in a small skillet over medium-high heat. Add sage leaves and swirl until edges are brown and crisp, about 30 seconds. Transfer leaves to a paper towel to drain and season them with salt. Add 1 to 3 teaspoons brandy to the soup and serve. Top each bowl with crumbles of blue cheese, crisp sage leaves, and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.