Monday, November 1, 2010

The frost on the pumpkin

Glass pumpkins at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The frost on the pumpkin is a phrase that weathermen and old timers toss about this time of year, but I've never been too sure what it means or the origin of the phrase. If I'd been raised in the Midwest, I may have known it - just like Georgians are schooled on Sidney Lanier's poetry ("Out of the hills of Habersham, Down the valleys of Hall"), apparently Indianans are raised on the poetry of James Whitcomb Riley, the "Hoosier Poet."

The poem concerns the turn of the seasons on a mid-19th century Indiana farm. It's in dialect, but the charm of the lines shines through:

WHEN the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock,
And you hear the kyouck and gobble of the struttin' turkey-cock,
And the clackin' of the guineys, and the cluckin' of the hens,
And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence;
O, it's then the time a feller is a-feelin' at his best,        
With the risin' sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest,
As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
They's something kindo' harty-like about the atmusfere
When the heat of summer's over and the coolin' fall is here— 
Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,
And the mumble of the hummin'-birds and buzzin' of the bees;
But the air's so appetizin'; and the landscape through the haze
Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days
Is a pictur' that no painter has the colorin' to mock— 
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
The husky, rusty russel of the tossels of the corn,
And the raspin' of the tangled leaves as golden as the morn;
The stubble in the furries—kindo' lonesome-like, but still
A-preachin' sermuns to us of the barns they growed to fill; 
The strawstack in the medder, and the reaper in the shed;
The hosses in theyr stalls below—the clover overhead!—
O, it sets my hart a-clickin' like the tickin' of a clock,
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.
Then your apples all is gethered, and the ones a feller keeps 
Is poured around the cellar-floor in red and yaller heaps;
And your cider-makin's over, and your wimmern-folks is through
With theyr mince and apple-butter, and theyr souse and sausage too!...
I don't know how to tell it—but ef such a thing could be
As the angels wantin' boardin', and they'd call around on me— 
I'd want to 'commodate 'em—all the whole-indurin' flock—
When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder's in the shock.

With Riley's words as inspiration, I concocted a dessert of spiced pumpkin custard topped with frost, a billowy pillow of meringue.

Pumpkin custards with meringue. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books

The Frost on the Pumpkin:
Pumpkin Custards with Meringue
Serves 4

1 cup heavy cream

1 egg yolk plus 2 whole eggs, lightly beaten

1/2 cup canned pumpkin puree

2 tablespoons maple syrup

1 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon allspice.

1. Preheat oven to 325. Butter four 1/2 cup custard cups. Fill a teakettle with water and heat to boiling.

2. Heat cream in a small, heavy saucepan. Remove from heat and temper the yolks by slowly pouring half of the cream into the egg yolks, whisking all the while. Pour the yolk mixture into the remaining cream. Stir in pumpkin, maple syrup, sugar, cinnamon and allspice. Strain the mixture and pour into custard cups.

3. Set the custard cups in a baking pan. Place pan  in oven and gently pour boiling water from teakettle into pan, halfway up the sides of the cups, being careful not to splash the custards.

4. Bake at 325 for about 40 minutes, or until set. Remove from oven and let cool. These are delicious at this point, but if you want to gild the lily (or Indiana's state flower, the peony!), add a frosting of meringue.

Digging in to a meringue-topped pumpkin custard. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books


4 egg whites

1/3 teaspoon cream of tartar

7 tablespoons sugar

1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract

Pinch of salt

1. In the very clean bowl of an electric mixer, pour in egg whites and and cream of tartar and whip lightly for a minute. Gradually increase speed of mixer and add sugar one tablespoon at a time until the peaks are stiff and glossy. Stir in vanilla extract and a pinch of salt.

2. Swirl meringues onto pumpkin custards and bake in a preheated 350 degree oven for about 10 minutes or until lightly brown. Serve warm.

A pumpkin from my garden. Lucy Mercer/A Cook and Her Books.

Text & images copyright 2010, Lucy Mercer with the exception of the text of the poem.

"The Frost is on the Punkin" quoted from

The glass pumpkins are from the Cohn-Stone Studios in California and are on display at the Atlanta Botanical Garden. 

The recipes are adapted from the Martha Stewart Cookbook (1995, Clarkson Potter)

1 comment:

Lynn Coulter, online editor, Home Depot Garden Club said...

Lucy, we like your "Frost on the Pumpkin" dish so much, we're pinning it to The Home Depot Garden Club Pinterest board. Thanks for sharing!