Associated in folklore with mischievous ghosts and fairies, “jack-o-lanterns” have been at the center of haunting myths as far back as the 17th-century. The Celtic tribes in Ireland believed that malevolent spirits rose from the graves to walk among the living on one night of the year, prompting farmers to carve faces on turnips and gourds as a way of warding off evil spirits. More than 300 years on, the custom of pumpkin carving has evolved into an art form.
Armed with 20 years of experience, Marc Evans and Chris Soria, founders of the Brooklyn-based Maniac Pumpkin Carvers studio, carve a few hundred pumpkins a year. Still, it’s not just about quantity. “We used to measure success by how many pumpkins we carve a year, but now it’s more about the quality,” explains Marc. A particularly intricate carving can take them up to 10 hours to complete. (During the nine-month off season, they sharpen their artistic skills by painting murals and taking on larger illustration projects.)
We asked them to share some pointers for carving the ultimate jack-o-lantern.
PUMPKIN CARVING IN 5 STEPS
1. Select your pumpkin as you would a fruit. (It is one, afterall). You want the ripest and strongest of the bunch. Avoid ones with nicks, bruises or dry and brittle stems. A healthy stem is the lifeline of the pumpkin, and will continue to provide moisture and nutrients long after it’s cut from the vine.
2. Pick the right size. The bigger the pumpkin, the more work you have ahead of you. Sculpted, three-dimensional designs require heavier pumpkins with more density and thicker walls to sculpt into – whereas lighter and therefore more hollow pumpkins are better suited for traditional jack-o-lantern styles.
3. Arm yourself with the right tools. Rather than cutting around the stem and carving from the top, use a sharp knife to cut an opening in the back of the pumpkin. Scoop out the meat with a large spoon or a sturdy ice cream scoop, and begin drawing the details of your design onto the surface with a sharpie pen or any ink that’s waterproof. By keeping the stem intact, your pumpkin will maintain its freshness and shape longer.
4. Know your techniques. Use a bigger blade to cut along the larger shapes you’ve drawn onto the surface. For more delicate designs, go with a smaller blade. When etching, first lightly remove the outer layer of the pumpkin’s skin using a multi-blade tool for extra precision. Start to apply more pressure as you etch into the deeper layer – but not too much so as to avoid puncturing right through the wall. Practice makes perfect! You’ll get the feel for it the more you go along. Finally, drill or cut holes for the nostrils, eyes and mouth, and any extra details around the face. Varying your etching and cutting allows for different amounts of light to pass through the pumpkin wall, creating an extra spooky effect.
5. Preserve your jack-o-lantern. Store the freshly carved pumpkin until the moment you’re ready for the big unveiling. Keep air exposure to a minimum, if possible. Prevent bacteria or mold by squeezing some lemon juice onto the cut surfaces (essential oils work, too). You can also revive a wilting pumpkin by dunking it into an ice cold bath to revive the fruit’s moisture. Avoid storing it in warm areas, such as a sunny windowsill inside the house, for an extended period of time.
ROASTED PUMPKIN SOUP
What to do with the pumpkins that don’t get carved? The good folks at Bed-Stuy Kitchen:Sustenance by Sara Elise, have a Roasted Pumpkin Soup recipe that’s made for keeping the chill out of autumn.
2-3 lbs fresh pumpkins (sugar or cheese varieties work best for baking)
1 large onion, sliced and divided in half
1 clove garlic, minced
2 sprigs fresh sage
2 sprigs fresh thyme
2 tbsp unsalted butter
3-4 cups homemade or store-bought low-sodium chicken or vegetable stock, to taste
¼ cup heavy cream (optional)
extra virgin olive oil (we use a Spanish evoo that we have infused with dried herbs)
course sea salt, cracked pepper and nutmeg for seasoning
If possible, choose organic and locally sourced ingredients.
This can be done a day ahead and refrigerated until you’re ready to make the soup.
– Preheat your oven to 450 F.
– If you’re not using an already carved-out pumpkin, slice the whole pumpkin in half, scoop out the seeds and set them aside.
– Cut each half of the pumpkin into two-inch chunks.
– Place pumpkin chunks flesh-side-up on a baking sheet, add half an onion and some sprigs of sage. Drizzle with olive oil and season generously with salt, pepper and a pinch of nutmeg.
– Roast the pumpkin until tender, approximately 30-40 minutes.
– Remove from the oven and let cool.
– Peel away the skin and discard, dice pumpkin meat and set aside.
– Preheat your oven to 325 F.
– Fill a pot with water and sea salt, and bring to a boil.
– Meanwhile, rinse the pumpkin seeds you had set aside in a colander, then throw them into the pot of boiling water, and boil for around 10 minutes (this will break down the hard outer shells).
– Air dry the seeds, or pat them with a paper towel to remove excess moisture, then throw the seeds in a bowl and toss with a small amount of olive oil and sea salt.
– Line a baking sheet with the seeds and roast them for around 10 minutes.
– Remove from the oven and stir, roasting for another 7-10 minutes (check frequently to make sure they’re not burning). The seeds should be toasty brown in color, and once cooled, nice and crispy – creating a perfect garnish for your soup and/or a nice snack.
– Cook remaining onion in a saucepan over medium heat with 1 tablespoon butter until softened and slightly brown. Toss in garlic and cook until fragrant.
– Put all roasted and diced pumpkin pieces into the saucepan on medium heat, add two cups stock and bring to a simmer. Let sit until flavors have melded, about 10 minutes.
– Transfer pumpkin to a food processor and purée while adding in the rest of the stock, one cup at a time, until soup is at the desired consistency.
– Put the mixture back into the saucepan over medium heat and simmer, adding more stock or cream, depending on taste.
– Season with salt and pepper.
– Serve warm and garnish with the pumpkin seeds. You can also top with crème fraiche and/or crisped sage.
Do you have a favorite pumpkin dish? Share with us in the comments below.