On the Grill in Autumn: Julia Child’s Soup in a Pumpkin

Rumor has it that one time when Julia Child made this recipe for dinner guests, she overcooked the pumpkin and the whole entire bottom of it fell out onto the floor on its way to the table. I mention this right off the bat, not to illicit alarm as to the perils that might befall cooks who attempt this recipe, but to demonstrate the joy of Julia in all her humanness. Isn’t that what was so endearing about her to begin with? As experienced as she became, as attentive a cook as she was, as precise she always endeavored to be, Julie was still fallible just like the rest of us.

Julia in her kitchen in Cambridge, MA circa 1980s. Photo credit: Jim Scherer

Cooking mishaps and all, Julia’s golden rule in the kitchen was to have fun and enjoy the pleasures of preparing food and feeding people. Pour a glass of wine, engage in a little chit-chat, chop some vegetables, create a convivial environment. That was Julia’s way. Cooking is fun. Whatever situations happen along the path to culinary creation is part of the adventure.

That being said, this vintage recipe is one of the most interesting we have made on the blog to date. In part, because it is very fitting with the season which makes it very fun for fall, but also in part because we added a little twist, a bit of experimentation, based on our current kitchen renovation constraints. The recipe that we are making today, the one that hopefully will not end up on your kitchen floor, is Julia’s Soup in A Pumpkin from her 1989 The Way to Cook book…

Julia published this cookbook twenty-eight years after Mastering the Art of French Cooking debuted – the book which set her on the path to international acclaim. By the time The Way to Cook came out, Julia was in her late 70s and was most interested in producing a cookbook that showcased creativity in the kitchen for a younger generation. One that might not have experienced some of her older work. Based on her signature time-honored techniques, Julia featured a looser, more casual style of cooking instead of precise by-the-book formalities. More aware of health-conscious choices, she slimmed down butter usage and altered heavier recipes turning them into lighter, leaner, but still equally delicious offerings. She encouraged independent variety by suggesting alternative ways to serve dishes and was cognisant of budget and time-saving methods that would appeal to busy cooks who didn’t want to sacrifice quality meals for lack of adequate funds or hectic schedules. At the turn of every chapter, she championed experimentation and creativity.

In true spirit of the cookbook and Julia’s encouragement to amend, invent, and explore new ways of approaching meal preparation, we took her lead and added our own twist to her recipe by grilling the pumpkin outdoors instead of baking it in the oven indoors as Julia did.

While we have the ceiling in, the pantry framed out, and the exterior walls sealed up for the winter ahead, we are still hard at work on our kitchen renovations in the 1750 House. Photos of our work will be coming soon! In the meantime, currently, our fridge is in the living room, our sink is in the basement and we are without a stove, so the choice to grill the pumpkin came out of necessity but also curiosity. Can you even grill a pumpkin? We weren’t sure but we had Julia’s confidence and joie de vivre on our side, so we were ready to experiment with our trusty grill that has yet to disappoint us.

Rest assured, despite our change in cooking method and Julia’s tipple, this is not a difficult recipe to make and you don’t need to be nervous about executing it. It actually is quite a fun cooking adventure.

Soup in a Pumpkin made on the grill.

Full of autumn color and flavor from start to finish, the seasonal joy of this vintage meal starts with picking out your pumpkin. We are very lucky here in Connecticut to have this really gorgeous nursery just a few minutes from the house that has a dazzling display of just about every plant and homegrown pumpkin you could ever want in a New England garden. Right now there are mums for miles…

And rows of squash and gourds and pumpkins in all different shapes and shades…

So many beautiful pumpkins to choose from!

Since Julia didn’t specify what type of pumpkin to use, we had our choice of over a dozen varieties to pick from at the nursery. While all pumpkins are edible, even the little minis, for this recipe, we chose the sugar variety which is the preferred pumpkin for baking.

Sugar pumpkins!

Also known as pie pumpkins, they come in smaller sizes – an ideal factor for this recipe since we had to make sure it would fit on the grill. When you are selecting your pumpkins, look for ones that are of equal size and shape and that sit flat and balanced on the counter.

It is important to note that sugar pumpkins have thicker skin, and less stringy fibers, making them a good choice for roasting whole. A part of the American diet since the 1800s, they are ideally suited for baking and pie-making thanks to their slightly sweeter flesh. Larger carving pumpkins, on the other hand, have thinner skin, which makes them best for Halloween carvings but less stable in the oven or on the grill due to their more fragile composition. Instead of one 7-pound pumpkin that would serve 8-10 people as Julia recommended, we picked two 2 lb. sugar pumpkins that would serve two to four people and then cut Julia’s recipe in half.

When Julia was preparing The Way To Cook, she was living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She noted that this recipe was a delightful start to any fall dinner but also that it held its weight as a main course. “A real rib sticker,” she called it. I couldn’t agree more. It’s a meal just calling out for cold, blustery days and hearty appetites. Filling and full of flavor, while it is cooked in a pumpkin, this is not a typical pumpkin soup that has been pureed in a pot and accented with aromatic seasonal spices. This soup is chunky and layered. More like onion meets squash, it’s a veritable hot pot that contains all the delicate, deconstructed elements of French Onion soup with bites of pumpkin that you scrape from the inner walls while you eat. Swiss cheese and heavy cream add a bit of rich flavor. Toasted bread crumbs, garden herbs, and chicken broth add depth, and the pumpkin itself adds color and dimension when presented at table.

I love the fact that the pumpkin is an individual-sized serving bowl and that it really keeps the soup hot and insulated for quite a length of time. Since it cooks on the grill in a simmering bath of butter, broth, and the onion, cheese and herb mixture, the pumpkin soaks up all the savory flavor components making it taste bright and vibrant, instead of what sometimes can be a bland vegetable when eaten on its own. Grilling the soup outdoors made for a real sensory experience between the cool weather, the falling leaves, and the excitement of trying something new.

The recipe below is adapted for the grill but continue reading all the way to the end and you’ll also learn how to easily return the recipe to Julia’s original design.

Soup In A Pumpkin On A Grill

Serves 2-4

1 1/4 cups fresh country-style white bread, cubed for crouton-style bread crumbs

1 cup sweet Vidalia onion, minced

2 oz. butter (1/2 stick) plus 1 tbsp soft butter

2 two-pound sugar pumpkins

3/4 cup coarsely grated Swiss Cheese

2 cups chicken stock

Salt

Freshly ground pepper

8-10 fresh sage leaves, finely chopped

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/4 cup fresh parsley for garnish

Heat the grill to 400 degrees. Preheat a medium cast iron pan. Cut the bread into crouton-style cubes, about 1/2 inch in size. Spread crumbs in one single layer in the pan and toast for two minutes with the grill lid open. Remove from heat and set crumbs to cool in a single layer on a plate. Cover the grill to keep warm and maintain the 400-degree internal temperature.

Toasted bread crumbs.

In a pan on the stovetop (or in our case an electric hot plate!), melt the 1/2 stick of butter. Add the minced onion and cook over medium-low heat until the onions are translucent and tender (about 15 minutes). Add the toasted bread crumbs to the onion mixture, toss them completely, and cook for an additional three minutes. Remove from heat.

Rinse the outside of your pumpkins with warm water to remove dirt and dust and towel dry. Cut a lid out of the top of each pumpkin in the same way you would carve a hat for a jack-o-lantern. Remove all the seeds from the interior of each pumpkin and scrape the inner walls to remove the pumpkin strings. Rub the interior of each pumpkin with the remaining tablespoon of butter. Place the prepared pumpkins on a large flat cast iron pan or tray.

Add the onion/breadcrumb mixture to the inside of each pumpkin, making sure the mixture is evenly distributed between the pumpkins. Repeat with the grated cheese.

In a separate pan, bring the chicken broth to a boil. Once it is hot remove from heat and fill each pumpkin cavity with the broth. Make sure to leave at least two inches of space from the broth line to the top rim of the pumpkin so that the soup does not boil over onto the grill while cooking. Season each pumpkin with salt, pepper, and sage. I used about 1/2 teaspoon of freshly ground sea salt and about 1/4 teaspoon of freshly ground pepper per pumpkin. Depending on your taste and the saltiness of your broth you may want to add more or less according to your preference. Place the pumpkin top lids back on the pumpkins.

Making sure the grill is still holding an even 400-degree internal temperature, elevate the cooking pan or tray holding the pumpkins so that it is not sitting directly on the grill rack. We did this using a brick wrapped in tin foil and then placing the pumpkin pan on top of that, but whatever system you can manage to achieve indirect heat for the pumpkin pan is fine just as long as the pumpkin pan is not sitting directly on the grill rack.

Cover the grill and cook the pumpkins for 30 minutes. It is important not to overcook the pumpkins or you will wind up with weak bottoms and your soup might fall out like Julia’s did all over the floor. At the 30-minute mark, check the pumpkins to see if the outer skin has softened to the touch. Instinct will definitely guide you here. When you press the outer skin you want it to give but not collapse. You are looking for a similar firmness to a semi-deflated basketball or a just-about-ripe avocado. If the pumpkins are not quite soft enough, lower the grill lid and keep checking them every five minutes. As a reference guide, one of our pumpkins wound up taking 35 minutes to cook and the other 40 minutes.

When they are ready, remove the pumpkins from the heat to small plates (bread and butter size) and serve immediately. If one of your pumpkins is ready before the other, you can remove it from the grill to a plate and cover it in tin foil until the other pumpkin is ready. But do not let the pumpkins sit on their own for an extended amount of time before serving. As they cool, the pumpkins will eventually start to sink into the plate. Rest assured though, there is plenty of time to enjoy your soup before the pumpkin begins slumping so if you are worried about table presentation, don’t fret, you should be able to get through all of your meal before the pumpkins start to droop.

Cheesy, warm, and brothy, all you need is a soup spoon in the flatware department for this meal. The inner walls of the pumpkins will be soft enough to scrape with just the edge of the spoon. No forks or knives required for this dish!

Since presentation is a big part of the fun of this recipe, it is best enjoyed on the day of, hot off the grill. If you have leftovers, the soup is still delicious the next day but the breadcrumbs will continue to soak up the broth, so you will need to add more broth and a dash of cream if you choose to reheat it. Also, the pumpkin bowl will not keep its shape well overnight, so it is recommended to scoop out any leftovers, discard the pumpkins and store the soup in a separate container in the fridge.

If you choose to make this recipe using Julia Child’s oven method. Follow the instructions exactly but set your oven to 350 degrees to toast the bread crumbs and then to 400 degrees to roast the pumpkins. And if you choose to use one big pumpkin like Julia’s below, then double the number of ingredients for a 6-7 lb pumpkin which will serve 8-10 people.

Julia Child’s Soup in a Pumpkin utilizing one 8lb pumpkin circa 1989. Photo courtesy of her book,The Way to Cook.

Either way you cook it… oven vs grill… big pumpkin vs. small pumpkins… I hope you love this recipe just as much as we did. As we enjoy the autumn weather, this pumpkin soup is lovely outdoor party food and also tailgate fare for all you sports enthusiasts who like to gather around a grill while cheering on your team. Celebrate beforehand with an autumn-themed cocktail or serve a glass of wine with your soup and you’ll be warm and full of autumn joy by meal’s end. This soup pairs especially well with red or white wine. I recommend Cabernet Sauvignon or Chardonnay depending on your preference. Add some fall leaves to your table for decoration and you’ll have an easily put-together autumnal feast accented by Mother Nature. Come winter, this soup will fuel you through the holidays and snow shoveling season with aplomb. It might even inspire you to plant a few pumpkin seeds next spring, so that you can continue this creative cooking endeavor year-round and grow your own serving bowls for next fall.

Cheers to a happy Autumn and to loveable Julia who always paves the way to wonderfully delicious dining experiences.

Autumn has officially arrived in our neighborhood! Keep up with us on Instagram to see how the sugar maples are changing day by day in the yard of 1750 House.