Updated 1 October 2010
No Halloween celebration worthy of its name would be complete without carving a scary face into a gourd-like squash. This Entry tells you how to safely create a perfect Halloween pumpkin. There's also a tasty recipe below which makes great use of your leftover pumpkin bits.
Picking Out the Perfect Pumpkin
Firstly, before you can carve your marvellous creation, you must ensure you pick the perfect pumpkin. Not just any old pumpkin will do. You should first start off deciding which design you are going to cut out as this is a strong determining element in what size and shape of pumpkin you are going to purchase. There is no use in buying a small, compact pumpkin if you plan to carve out a complex design.
When you purchase your pumpkin, you should make sure it is free of nicks and cuts as this could reduce the lifespan of your creation. Nicks will foster mould early, something which creeps up on all carved pumpkins eventually, unless they get smashed1. Try to get a pumpkin with a stalk if possible as this adds to the aesthetics of the traditional pumpkin. If you are creating a witch, a pumpkin with little abnormal nodules on the surface makes for great warts.
Before you finally decide on your perfect pumpkin, you should study it meticulously to determine where the picture or face should go. Usually the side that has the widest surface area is best. If you have an actual drawing or rough sketch of the image you plan to carve, now is the time to hold it against the pumpkin to see if it meets your needs.
Below you'll find described both simple and advanced techniques for carving your perfectly scary pumpkin.
With a marker pen, draw a line around the pumpkin, about two inches from the top.
Put the pumpkin on its side and carefully cut along the line with a sharp knife. Do remember to be careful, though - Halloween's scary enough without the added gore of you slicing off your fingers by mistake. It's perhaps wise to get someone to hold the pumpkin still for you while you carve your design. Remove the top of the pumpkin, and note the colour of the seeds: if they're green, the pumpkin's ripe; if they're not green, well, it means it's probably not.
Put the top of the pumpkin, back in place and wipe away the black marker line.
Now with your hand, pull out the seeds, and all the fibrous innards. You can also use a teaspoon to help you with this.
Now cut out all the flesh from the inside and leave it aside for the scrumptious pumpkin soup you're about to make (see below).
Cut a scary Freddy Kreuger-style face onto the pumpkin. You are going have to cut along these lines so make sure that what you draw is reasonably simple and not too fussy.
Very carefully cut out the features. Do this slowly. You started this whole process with ten fingers and, ideally, you should still have ten when you've finished.
After cutting out the features, wipe away any black marker ink and place a lighted tea-light inside the hollowed-out head.
There is much to be said regarding this method and means of carving a pumpkin. The current instructions given above handle carving of a more simplistic and basic nature, but there are other details that could be added for those seeking to rise to a higher level. Professional pumpkin artistry comes with time, experience, and the right tools.
Tools and Carving Implements
There are many implements that could be used to carve a pumpkin. However, there are specialized sets you can buy that have, among other pieces, the ideal little hacksaw-type knife that works perfectly. Any thin sharp kitchen knife (such as a paring knife) would also do the trick unless you are creating a really intricate design.
You will initially need a big butcher-style knife for slicing off the top and a good strong metal spoon or plastic scraper from a commercial pumpkin carving kit for scraping out the insides. A popular and very useful item that has been found to work brilliantly for scraping out pumpkins is the ice cream paddle. This looks like a heavy metal trowel-type implement and is perfect for scraping the insides of pumpkins to perfection2.
If you are creating a masterpiece you will definitely need a template3 and a pricker. The latter tool should come in any standard custom pumpkin carving set. A suitable alternative is a toothpick or skewer. Whatever you use you should take care to only puncture your pumpkin and not your fingers.
Finally, unless you want to spend hours scraping dried pumpkin goo off your kitchen surface, newspapers, or some other form of disposable cover, are also advisable.
The Carving Process
First of all, place down a large surface area of newspaper, or similar disposable cover material. Pumpkin innards have a tendency to launch out at incredible speed and distance from the pumpkin during the carving process and therefore it is useful to be able to dump the innards onto a cover as you scrape them out.
Once you have removed the top of the skull and pulled out the innards with your hands4 you want to scrape the flesh with your paddle/scraper/spoon. There is a reason for this other than just digging the 'brains' out. When you are cutting your design, it makes the carving process easier if you have thinner walls to carve through. Most perfectionists would scrape the whole diameter inside of the pumpkin until it is down to about three-quarters of an inch in thickness. A little tip is that you could just scrape out the side you are carving and this will save some time.
If you have decided on the traditional Jack-o-Lantern-style face, then a kitchen knife will suffice. You cut out your pumpkin's eyes, nose, and mouth with a minimum of artistic flourish. However, there are bound to be those who won't settle for anything less than a work of art. In this instance you need to follow these steps:
Take your template and position it on the surface of the pumpkin where you want to place the carving and secure it with sticky tape.
Then take your pricker and prick holes along the silhouette outline, approximately 3 millimetres apart. For small or larger areas, you may want to space it more or less accordingly.
Remove your stencil and using your carving hacksaw knife start carving using your stencil as a guide. You should cut out around the shaded areas of your design, starting with the larger parts working down to the smaller holes.
Once you've completed the initial work you may want to fine-tune your design and cut away excess pumpkin flesh so your holes are more visible.
On the subject of using candles with your masterpiece, the best ones to use are the tea-light variety that sit in their own little metal holders. These are inexpensive, meaning you can have a whole box of them at hand to replace the ones that go out. They also perhaps present slightly less of a fire hazard than other larger candles might. Even after the candle has melted into a liquid, they stay alight until it's all burnt off leaving an empty holder. Most pumpkins are okay with just one candle, but you may need two or three for larger pumpkins to be able to better show off your design. If you go with other votive candles, without any sort of holder, you tend to end up with a glob of wax at the bottom of the pumpkin and most do not stay alight for very long.
If you have an extremely large pumpkin, you may opt to go with the smaller household emergency candle variety. You can find wire spring holders that screw into the pumpkin into which you can place your candle. You can usually find these around Halloween time. Scrunching a large wad of foil around the bottom of the candle and placing it into the pumpkin can also work, or else using a small candle holder5.
It is really important to note that using a large candle can be a fire hazard if not properly secured within the pumpkin.
While completing the carving take care that you do not cut your holes too close together or else your edges may collapse. There is nothing worse than taking hours over your work of pumpkin art only for the whole thing to collapse in on itself just before you put the candles inside.
Now that you have a perfectly carved pumpkin, you will have a lot of flesh lying around. Whatever you do, don't throw it away. You will have enough to make a delicious pumpkin soup that will suitably warm up your kids and line their bellies with goodness before they set off trick or treating.
- The flesh of one recently hollowed out Halloween pumpkin
- 2 potatoes, diced
- 2 onions, finely chopped
- 5 cloves of garlic, crushed
- 5cm/1.5 inches fresh stem ginger, grated
- 2 handfuls of coriander leaves
- 1 pint coconut milk
- 500g of crème fraîche
- 1 chilli, seeded and chopped
- Salt and pepper to taste
- Grated cheese to garnish
Heat a few glugs of oil in a heavy-bottomed pan and throw in the onions. Let the onions sweat for a few minutes on a low heat.
Add the garlic, ginger and chilli and sweat for a further 2 or 3 minutes.
Add the pumpkin and potatoes. Cook on a relatively high heat until the potatoes start to crisp at the edges.
Add the coconut milk, reduce the heat and simmer for 15 minutes.
Add salt and pepper to taste.
Now add half the fresh coriander and simmer for a further 5 minutes.
Check to see that the potatoes and pumpkin are cooked.
Once cooked, add the remainder of the coriander.
Transfer the soup into a blender and whizz it up. You may have to do this in stages. If you don't have a food processor, mash it up with a potato masher.
Once the soup has been liquidized, stir in the crème fraîche.
Serve with warm crusty bread to the side and grated cheese on top.
If your soup looks a little watery, simply take some of the liquid and mix it with some corn flour. Once you have a smooth paste, start reheating the soup and add the paste, bit by bit, stirring all the time. Gradually the soup will thicken up.
1 It is a common practical joke among children, mainly teenage boys, to steal pumpkins from houses on Halloween and smash them to bits.
2 Also note that with the wide thick handle, it doesn't have the tendency to bend as a spoon would, thus saving your cutlery.
3 A paper with your silhouette design printed on it, with shaded areas to cut out. You can create your own or buy commercially printed ones.
4 This is the far best and most fun way of doing it.
5 It is not recommended to use any sort of glass candle holder, unless your pumpkin is placed in a reasonably secure location, free from the attentions of thieves or being smashed onto the street.