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A recipe for spiced pumpkin sorbet
A fresh yet very autumnal dessert
This is an old recipe from a blog written when I was a line cook in 2017. I’m sharing here with new footnotes I wrote earlier this week.
It is a Wednesday in October. The first chills of something not summer have hit.1 Candles are set out on bookshelves, cabinets and windowsills. The dance of their light replacing that of curtains in the breeze.
As the dark approaches, so too does the frost. The black radishes, cabbages and kohlrabi have been harvested from the garden of the restaurant where I work before late autumn's icy grip can do them harm.2 Many are destined for winter storage in the root cellar, a place where time's inevitable decay is put on hold3. Others of this crop are bound for pickling, possibly fermentation. A process at once extending the life of vegetables for the barren months, whilst developing flavours so important to Nordic eating.
Yet, even now, with an eye set so firmly on what we can make available to eat months ahead, the opportunity to celebrate this harvest today is not to be missed4.
The flavour of an heirloom pumpkin such as the turban (giraumon) squash manifests a perfect balance of delicate fruit and wholesome vegetable. In as much, I can think of few ingredients that flout the borders between sweet and savoury so wilfully as the winter squashes5.
Today, however, warm inside with the low Stockholm sun still stubbornly shining, I come to think how perfect it would be to play off the fruit's unique and perfumed sweetness. A sorbet to show off my turban squash's delicate, almost melon-like aroma, subtly spiced with two of pumpkin's greatest allies: cinnamon and star anise. This is a truly autumnal sorbet, both fruity-fresh and comfortingly wholesome.6
Spiced winter squash sorbet
500g pumpkin flesh (turban, kabocha or delica pumpkin is best)
Pinch of salt
2 cinnamon sticks
2 star anise
Peel your pumpkin. If you have a turban squash, this will not be easy, the skin is devastatingly hard. I find the easiest way is to cut it into slices and remove the flesh slice by slice. Cut up your pieces and poach slowly in the water (covered with a lid) along with the cinnamon and star anise until the flesh is entirely soft. It should yield with the barest suggestion of a spoon. Sieve the cooked fruit and retain the cooking liquid.
Add this liquid along with the spices to the sugar in a small pan and gently heat until dissolved, then turn the heat up and reduce until you reach what is called “short thread” stage. You will reach this stage when the temperature of the syrup is 108°c or when the syrup draws a “thread” of around 7mm when drawn between two fingers. Do this by dipping a teaspoon into the hot syrup and once cooled a moment take a pinch between thumb and index finger and draw them together and apart to see how long the “thread” of syrup reaches. Set this aside to cool.
Remove the spices and blend the pumpkin with the syrup, the pinch of salt and juice of the lemon. Blend for at least a minute on full to really break down the pumpkin flesh into a fine puree. Check the levels of acidity and add more lemon if required. Pass this through a very fine sieve.
Add this to your ice cream maker and you are done. Otherwise, freeze in a container, then when it is firm, blend it once again until smooth, being sure to stop before it starts to melt, then refreeze.
You will have a wonderfully smooth and delicately spiced sorbet.
Six years have passed since I wrote these words. I was living in Stockholm then. Either the summer lasts longer there or I was
lying exaggerating for effect. Here in Finland in 2023, the first chills of “something not summer” arrived by the end of August. It was my wife (a Finn) that would’ve put the candles out on the shelves, as she still does the moment summer is done. They have little time for sadness at summer’s end, the Finns, just enthusiasm for the coming darkness.
The restaurant I worked at in Stockholm in 2017 (Oaxen) did have their own kitchen garden. But I admit now I had zero to do with this. In autumn 2017 I was only working part-time at Oaxen because they didn’t have a full-time job open. I definitely didn’t help with their gardening. But it reads nice in this blog I guess.
“Time's inevitable decay is put on hold”? Good God, spare me this sub-Nigel Slater melancholia. I really did “overwrite” in 2017. I hope I’m better than that now.
I loved working at Oaxen, I was proud to be working there, and not just because it was one of the city’s most popular restaurants. Oaxen was one of the first restaurants at which I ever dined after moving to Stockholm. That had actually been during my mother’s first trip to visit me. After that first meal at Oaxen, I knew it was the kind of place I’d like to cook. Simple, traditionally Nordic, and so very delicious. I wouldn’t have put up with part-time hours anywhere else. But it did at least give me the time to create the blog this sorbet recipe first appeared on. That blog was called Grilling at Midnight. It was a celebration of the life I shared with my Finnish wife. We had grilled sausages at midnight the first time I went to Finland to visit her in 2013. I know my wife loves simple foods like sausage. But it has been a journey coming to understand more of the food she really loves. It’s always been easier to learn what she hates than what she really likes. The thing is, Finns are very honest people. Very blunt even. I can list a great many ingredients she dislikes, ones she would really rather not eat, but her favourites, even now, I am less sure of. British people can be superlative in their praise. That’s not a habit Finns really share.
The real problem with this sorbet article, this writing, this kind of writer I was trying to be in 2017, is that I just don’t talk this way. It comes off as insincere to me now. Fake. Or at least I do talk that way, but only when I’m very drunk. I don’t drink anymore, but I kinda changed into a wannabe 18th century dandy when I was drunk as a younger man. Either way, this writing reminds me of that drunk version of Wil Reidie and it makes me cringe. Also, why am I calling pumpkins “winter squashes”? If I wrote this now it would, I promise, be a pumpkin sorbet.
I like this final paragraph because it reminds me so viscerally of the kitchen in our old Stockholm flat. It reminds me of a slow and simple time my wife and I shared, before our beautiful kids arrived, during which we were only each other trying to make sense of our new life together.
I am 37 now. I live in Finland. We live next door to my wife’s family and in over ten years I haven’t once heard any of them say “I love you” to each other. And, yes, I know the Finnish for “I love you”. And, maybe because I was so busy saying it myself, it was only recently I realised how little my wife tells me she loves me as well. After I’ve spent hours in the kitchen, the best I get out of her most of the time is a “not bad.”
If there’s one thing I understand better after a few years in Finland, it’s the importance of things done over things said. I asked some Finnish colleagues about it once, if there is a reason why loving words are so rare here. One told me, “Well, if you have said I love you once, we just assume the feelings haven’t changed. Why repeat yourself?”
I couldn’t argue with that.
And I’ve never felt a love as total and safe as the one my wife shows me every day. Without, that is, often speaking that love.
This probably sounds pretty grim to most of you. What’s wrong with telling people you love them everyday? Well, there’s nothing wrong with it. I grew up surrounded by words of love. And I wouldn’t change that. Not everyone lives in Finland where words and people are a little more guarded, a little more reserved. But having needed the words so much my whole life, I’m trying hard not to hide behind them anymore. I’m trying hard to show love in the things I do, and the way I hope to make my loved ones feel.
And I’m trying harder to let myself feel love too, without needing it said.
Anyway, sometimes when I cook something my wife really likes she says it’s tasty. And then I know I’ve made something special.
And, sometimes, she says I love you.