Often used in fall holiday décor as well as pie making, the Long Island cheese pumpkin looks like a squat, anemic pumpkin with subtle ribbing and buff color. Or, to some, like a wheel of cheese. To Rainbow Farms owners Tina and Larry Klco, this gourd is one of their favorite substitutions for the traditional pumpkin pie.
For the past half-dozen or so years, Tina has used the pumpkin, which she also refers to as Long Island cheese squash, to make 40 Thanksgiving pies for family, CSA subscribers, and special customers. The end result may look like a traditional pumpkin pie, but when it comes to taste, dessert lovers are in for a revelation.
“I’ve used real pumpkin in my pies, but I’m really stuck on the Long Island cheese squash,” Tina says. “It tastes better. It reminds me of a pumpkin crème brulée.”
In addition to making 40 squash pies, Tina and a handful of helpers make 60 apple pies on the Tuesday before Thanksgiving. The 100-pie process takes two days. First, Tina roasts the cheese pumpkin, drains its excess liquid, scrapes flesh from the delicate shell, and uses a food processor to purée it. Then the liquid is drained a second time, and the purée is refrigerated until the pie-making begins, at 5:30am the following day.
While Tina makes homemade pie dough, helpers peel apples, mix sugar, milk, cream, and spices into the filling. The entire production continues until the last pie is baked, often close to midnight.
Historians believe that explorers and traders brought the Long Island cheese pumpkin from Central or South America to the East Coast. It first appeared in an 1807 seed catalog in Philadelphia, but lost favor in the 1960s because of food industrialization. It seems that round, smooth pumpkins roll off conveyors more easily and peel more quickly. In short, round pumpkins met the needs of the canned pumpkin industry, and so the Long Island heirloom diminished in use.
But seed savers weren’t ready to let the cheese pumpkin fade into history. In the 1970s, members of the Long Island Seed Project saved seeds. Today, the cheese pumpkin is available from specialty seed catalogs like Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. And, it’s listed on Slow Food’s Ark of Taste, a program designed to bring awareness and preservation to disappearing varieties.
For Larry and Tina, the pumpkin alternative was a shared discovery. “Larry and I grow heirloom produce because it has better flavor,” says Tina. “Some heirlooms are difficult to grow. They don’t hold up well, don’t pick well, or have limited yields, but they’re delicious, and so we grow them.”
Cheese squash pies are available to order through the Rainbow Farms’ CSA. Or, make your own. You can adapt your favorite pumpkin recipe by substituting the pumpkin with the squash and by cutting the sugar by ⅓ to ½. The squash is sweeter than pumpkin.