Friday, 28 October 2011

Hold on, man. We don't go anywhere with "scary," "spooky," "haunted," or "forbidden" in the title…*

It’s the time of year again to make sure you have sufficient supplies of sweets for the ‘trick or treaters’. At the beginning of the week I did have a vast stockpile (a veritable mountain in fact) of drumstick lollipops intended for all the little children who grace our doorstep over the coming days (and are inevitably disappointed when their demands for money are not met – ‘I don’t want sweets… I want money…’ – imagine the outrage last year when we offered them all handfuls of fruit and nuts) – however, this stockpile of sugar, artificial colourings and preservatives seems to have diminished significantly over the course of the week, to the point where my husband has had to hide the Kilner jars that we have been storing them in. It’s ok though, we have plenty of pistachios.

Anyway, that’s enough about ‘trick or treating’… in addition to sweeties or healthy alternatives, but not cold hard cash, Halloween just wouldn’t be Halloween without a pumpkin to scare away the evil spirits. When I was a child, pumpkin carving consisted of simply cutting out triangles for the eyes and nose and a haphazard zigzag for the mouth, but today there is a tendency to go all out and do something a bit more special (and for those with no creative skills whatsoever, to cheat and use a stencil, either hand drawn or downloaded from the internet).

For those of you who are total novices in the fine art of pumpkin carving, outlined below is a step-by-step guide…

When choosing your pumpkin pick one that is tall enough and a good shape (with not too many blemishes) – the width is less important… Carving a pumpkin freehand is the traditional way of doing it - is very easy (if you know how to wield a knife) and only requires a few basic tools. A large spoon, a thin bladed knife and some newspaper will get you started…

1. With a long, thin bladed knife, cut out the top of the pumpkin around the stem (the bit at the top if you have got it the right way round). The hole should be large enough to allow you to scoop out the guts (seeds and stringy membrane) by hand (messy, so no kids…) and with a large spoon (less messy, but probably still no kids). Generally, the size of the hole should be about two-thirds of the diameter of the pumpkin. While you can cut a round circle out, you'll find that cutting a five or six sided opening will work the best. As you cut out the top hole, angle the knife so that the lid and hole will be a bit cone shaped. This will help prevent the lid from falling into the hole when it shrinks a bit a day or two after your piece of art is complete.

2. Now you can use a large spoon (probably the same large spoon that you used for scooping) to scrape the inside walls of the pumpkin clean. Cut away the seeds attached to the bottom of the lid. Clean out all the remaining strings and seeds from inside the pumpkin. Then you can continue to scrape further until the pumpkin wall is about 2.5cm thick. Clean out the inner wall until smooth (or as smooth as possible – it doesn’t need to be perfect) - this can actually be a bit tricky so watch your fingers. Don't forget to scrape the bottom of the pumpkin until it’s flat (for inserting your candles later). After all this, clean out the inside of the pumpkin with some kitchen paper.

3. Now for the fun part (or, for some, the most stressful part) – simply use the knife to carve a truly beautiful and artistic pumpkin freehand... yeah, right. Start by inspecting the pumpkin and deciding upon the best side to carve the face. Either visualise what you want to carve and just go for it (again, watch your fingers) or draw on the face with a marker pen and cut out the individual features – all being well you will end up with your own unique pumpkin! The word ‘unique’ is used quite deliberately – it can also mean ‘completely hopeless’…

Alternatively, you can create a more detailed design using a stencil - either draw your own design on a piece of paper or download one from the many designs that are available on the astonishingly high number of pumpkin carving sites on the internet. Who’d have thought???

4. Attach the stencil to the pumpkin with tape (stating the obvious, but start with the top first and then the bottom and then the sides). You may have to crease the stencil to tape the corners - if so, try to make sure the creases are where the pattern will be distorted the least. With a ‘poker’ (or thick needle as it is more commonly known – just to be clear, not a poker that you use to stoke a fire), poke holes (every 2.5mm or so) along the pattern design outline. The holes should go through the paper and the outer skin of the pumpkin but not all the way through to the inner shell.

5. Remove the stencil and you will see the dots you have made in the outer pumpkin wall. Basically, you're now playing "connect the dots". As a consequence, there is a small piece of technical equipment required for the stenciling option (and something a man would invariably need to add to his collection) – “a pumpkin saw” – who knew such a thing existed, but there are lots available online. Alternatively, and more practically, you can use a knife with a serrated edge. Knives will cut faster, but not quite as accurately. That said, saws are fairly delicate and it may take longer to patiently saw out the outline of the feature. If you choose the saw option some specific technical instructions - saw patiently and carefully along the dotted lines. Saw at a 90° angle to the pumpkin and saw steadily (or the blade will stick). In general, you first saw the smallest pieces (or from the center out) and then work your way to the larger pieces. Push out the cut pieces with your finger and not using your saw blade…

6. When done with sawing or cutting, clean out the carved sections with some kitchen paper. Don't forget to clean out the inner pumpkin as well as bits of cut out pumpkin will end up inside and spoil the effect when the candle is inserted and lit. The pumpkin is now ready for display!

7. The last step in the assembly process is to place the candle inside the pumpkin. Light the candle and let the candle blacken a spot on the lid. You can then saw a chimney in the lid where the blackened spot is to vent smoke and heat.

...there you go - your own Halloween pumpkin! Now go and make some spicy pumpkin soup to warm you up when you get back from trick or treating…

Right, I’m off to give my own freehand pumpkin a go – not sure it will look as fabulous as the images below, but I suspect it will be ‘unique’…



Image from agrablewski

Image from agrablewski

*Shaggy from an unattributed episode of Scooby Doo

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