If you, like us, have a pile of gourds left from your farmshare, or if you just want an extra-autumnal treat for a chilly day, we know you’ll enjoy this redaction of a medieval gourd (pumpkin) pudding recipe from Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps!
It is entirely possible that future food historians will write about our present day cookery “at some point large numbers of people substituted pumpkin spice for every flavor value, but why this particular combination became the basis for a new, if somewhat unsustainable cuisine, no one knows.” All I know is that towards late summer large numbers of people begin to chatter enthusiastically about pumpkin spice flavor, and posting memes of this kind of food items on Facebook.
I’m not hostile to the idea, only a bit perplexed. A simple crème brulee trumps any latte with pumpkin spice, as would a berry tart. For me there is simply no contest, and apparently, for them, the obverse is equally true.
In the spirit of reconciliation and in the interest of spreading the joys of medieval desserts from the Middle East, let’s walk through the process of making a satisfying pudding that will delight everyone in the pumpkin spice fan club, and yet not horrify the others who find pumpkin spice a bit too cloying.
Valencia Pumpkin Pudding neither originated in Valencia, Spain, nor was its main component initially the pumpkin we revere (or, admittedly, some loathe) today. This pudding is a cousin of a dessert covered earlier in this series, khabis, which take a number of forms and use a wide variety of ingredients. The pudding we are discussing presently was made from some type of gourd, although in medieval times the pumpkin we would recognize was evolving from the numerous hybrids cropping up in every garden from eastern Persia to western Spain.
What we know as a pumpkin today is the result of thousands of years of farming gourds, as are our cantaloupes, cucumbers and watermelons. One big, confused, watery family, some bitter, some unpalatable and only good when hollowed out and used for storage. Some which displayed wonderful capacity for sweetness.
Our pumpkin pudding was originally made from the flesh of mild fleshed gourd that was simmered in honey or a sugar syrup until the pulp was soft and sweet. Another method of doing this was cooking carrots in a sweet broth, sometimes with milk added. Its earliest iterations point to Persia or Syria.
Neither is it likely that the dish had its origins in Valencia, but was more probably named after that city by an anonymous scribe who added it to a collection of recipes. If so, he had probably enjoyed it there.
In order to enjoy it here and now, you will need the following ingredients:
- one pound of canned pure pumpkin (16 oz can)
- one large egg
- zest of half of a lemon
- ¼ teaspoon each of ground cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon
- ½ cup of sugar
- ½ cup of almonds, slipped and finely crushed
- 20 additional almonds, slipped and set aside for garnish.
Begin by slipping the almond skins from the nuts. If you haven’t done this before, it’s a very easy process. Place the almonds in pan and cover them with water. Bring the water to a boil. As the water boils, pull the almonds from the heat, drain and let cool. You should be able to slip the almonds out of their skins quite easily.
Grind the almonds in a food processor until fine, or if you’re a purist, grind them by hand using a mortar and pestle. Remember to set aside your garnish almonds.
While the almonds are cooling, take a zester and remove the peel from half of a lemon.
Place the ground almonds and the lemon peel in a bowl. Mix in the dried spices and let this sit for an hour. This step is not absolutely necessary but it allows the almonds to absorb the other scents and flavors. It also makes your kitchen smell good.
Beat the egg and add it, along with the pumpkin to your dry mix. Mix it thoroughly, and then pour this into a well greased 8”x 1” round tin. A nine inch pie tin will serve.
Bake for an hour at 375 degrees F.
[ed. note: recipe continues below]
Now that the pudding is baking, let’s think about the relation of the spices used with our primary ingredient. All gourds, (qar in Arabic) are classified by the humoral system of medicine as being wet and cold in nature. Therefore cooking gourds is a necessity, even if one could eat a raw gourd, this would not be desirable from a medical standpoint. It would engender bad humors within the body. This means, among other things, that digestion would be poor. Your thinking would be hampered by the difficulties your system was having trying to digest the food. Finally, the undigested remnants of the food would clog your body. A lifetime of eating this way can lead, it was thought, to potentially fatal conditions.
The exceptions to the cooking rule for gourds are the sweet ones, such as cantaloupe and watermelons, and the sweet melons of Persia. This is not explained by the wise ancient physicians, but for whatever reason, everyone came to their senses and decided not to cook these wonderful types of gourds.
Happily, the pumpkin is not only cooked to pulp, but is also being baked. In addition, the spices used – cloves, nutmeg, and cinnamon – all are noted by physicians to have heating properties. That they happen to combine well with squashes when baked is a delicious coincidence, but now you have an insight into the baking of the first pumpkin pies. That combination has not changed in nearly a thousand years, and it remains satisfying.
The use of qar medicinally makes use of its cold properties. It is recommended for lowering a fever. The seeds and oil of qar were thought make people sleepy and ingesting this makes it a good treatment for insomnia. This, undoubtedly, is why people fall asleep after dessert at Thanksgiving dinner. It’s not the tryptophan in the turkey – it’s the cold humors of the pumpkin at work.
An Arabic gentleman worthy of the name was expected to be able to compose poems on specific topics. Food was very much one of these topics. In the case of Abu I-Fath Kushajim, a tenth century scribe and astrologer, gourds provoked these lines from his pen:
You, who plucks the melon from its vine,
You harvest the fruit of praise.
Before you brought it to me
I’d never smelled fragrances purer than ambergris.
With a skin coarser than a hedgehog’s
And flesh softer than butter
It’s as though the knife reveals it to be
Saffron mixed with honey.
We still have the better part of an hour before the baking is done, and you could busy yourself by working on your own poem.
After removing the dish from the oven, let it cool slightly. Take your reserved slipped almonds and push them into the surface of the pudding. I prefer the mild sweetness already provided with no further additions, but some people sprinkle the top with confectioner’s sugar.
Then refrigerate your dish for another hour or so. It’s best served chilled, but unlike revenge, it should prove agreeable when presented.
Maitre Gilles de Beauchamps OC,OP, OL
Annals of the Caliph’s Kitchens: Ibn Sayyar al-Warraq’s Tenth Century Baghdadi Cookbook; Nawal Nasrarallah Brill 2010.
Scents and Flowers: A Syrian Cookbook; Charles Perry; New York University
Sweet Delights From a Thousand and One Nights: The Story of Traditional
Arab Sweets ; Habeeb Salloum, Muna Salloum, Leila Salloum Elias; I.B. Tauris 2013
The Ultimate Ambition in the Arts of Erudition ; Shihab al-din al-Nuwayri;
Penguin Classics 2016