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HOW THE JACK-O-LANTERN TURNED UP, LEERING, UNDER THE CHRISTMAS TREE

"Why waste that jack-o-lantern when it could be a pumpkin pie? I asked my wife, Lyn.

She rolled her eyes. "You said something like that when you brought home all those pumpkins from your cousin's Halloween party in 1959. You try it."

Maybe I will," I said.

"Just open a can. It's the same stuff."

Alex, my 2-year-old grandson, and I had bought the pumpkin. The smile we had carved on our jack-o-lantern listed kind of sideways. Alex had squealed when we lit a candle inside it. I was taken a little aback by its animated expression, but in the end we both were delighted with the flickering, leering face we had created, and Alex asked to have Jack-o lighted whenever he came to visit.

Now it was almost Christmas, but Jack-o was still at the door.

About 10:30 at night, I determined to turn Jack-o into pumpkin pie on my own. I rifled Lyn's cookbook drawer for a pie recipe to adapt to my specifications.

The bottom crust of pumpkin pie is invariably a touch soggy. I would correct this blemish by dividing the operation in two. Filling tonight, crust tomorrow.

A modern wrinkle I intended to employ was the microwave oven, which I understood to be a great time saver. I considered stuffing Jack-o in there whole to soften him up, but Lyn had urged me to use containers in the microwave since that time I reheated lasagna on a napkin.

I hacked Jack-o into chunks, packed him into our largest mixing bowl and zapped him full power for five minutes. This treatment barely took off the chill. I cooked Jack-o in lengthening increments and grew less and less impressed with microwave technology. Eventually he softened enough so that I could get the tough hide off the flesh.

Lyn, with her food mill and a few flicks of the wrist, turns a peck of apples into a bowl of applesauce. Jack-o did not strain through the mill with anywhere near that ease. I took the potato masher to him and turned his pumpkin flesh into something a lot mushier than bird shot, but stringy.

I measured about a cup-and-a-half of him back into the bowl and tossed in about a cup of sugar, being careful not to be too accurate. Really good cooks use only approximate measures.

There was no way I was going to cholesterol-poison myself with the yolks of three eggs that my recipe required. But all of our Eggbeaters were frozen solid. I quick-defrosted a container of them in the microwave, but I overdid it and stirred in the not-quite-scrambled eggs. We had no condensed milk. Reasoning that it was very, very condensed milk, I substituted a handful of powdered skim milk. Still it did not seem quite right, so I added several dollops of yogurt.

Only too late did I remember the sourness of yogurt. I compensated with sugar. Then I remembered some chemistry. I needed alkali, but which -- baking soda or baking powder -- and how much? I tried a rounded spoonful of each. Boy, did it foam.

The recipe gave leeway in spices: I like cinnamon, so I gave it a good dose, then a pinch of nutmeg and, to cover the rest, allspice.

I placed my bowl of fragrant yellow-brown tweed-like matter in the microwave on full blast for 30 minutes and went channel-surfing. I tasted the part that had boiled over and congealed. It tasted a lot like pumpkin pie. Most of the filling in the bowl remained liquid. I cooked it on and on. About midnight, intuition and fatigue told me it must be done.

Making the crust next day was more straightforward except for a little too much salt. The dough rolled out oddly. I cut off some corners, rolled some more and patched in the thin spots till I had something resembling a map of what has become of the old Soviet Union. It covered most of the plate.

Before dinner, I stirred back in the liquid that had formed in a pit at the filling's center, reheated it and poured it into the waiting shell. The filling did not set up well. When I served it, I had to move very quickly to maintain the semblance of a wedge. Lyn ate a small piece, smothered in whipped topping, and said, "It's good." Though as she was eating, she stopped me from telling the part about the foaming yogurt. I had two pieces.

There was still half a pie in the fridge when Alex came the next day. Unfortunately, my theory of a crispier crust had succumbed to the liquid in my filling; still I was eager to share my handiwork with him.

Before I had the chance, he grabbed me by the finger and started tugging toward the front of the house, saying, "Jack-o, Jack-o."

I tried to distract him. "Alex, come, look at the Christmas tree."

"Jack-o, Jack-o," he cried and tugged at my finger, pointing us for the front door.

Alex and I spent the afternoon in the Christmas rush hunting for another pumpkin. By the light of a new leering jack-o-lantern placed under our Christmas tree, I swore never again to tamper with that symbolic vegetable. Alex and Jack-o had taught me. A jack-o-lantern is a jack-o-lantern, and pumpkin pie comes from a can.

LARRY BEAHAN's Christmas jack-o-lantern glows in ...