In the land of the great pumpkin

When it comes to pumpkins, no place is more passionate about the orange gourd than the Town of Smoky Lake. About an hour’s drive northeast of Edmonton, Smoky Lake has become the pumpkin capital of Alberta and one day it hopes, the world!

Bakery worker Christine Kaminsky shows off some goodies offered during the Great White North Pumpkin Festival.

When it comes to pumpkins, no place is more passionate about the orange gourd than the Town of Smoky Lake. About an hour’s drive northeast of Edmonton, Smoky Lake has become the pumpkin capital of Alberta and one day it hopes, the world!

As you approach the town, a row of giant gourds gives a hint to what this small community is all about.

The festival that put Smoky Lake on the map is the Great White North Pumpkin Fair. This event takes place on the first Saturday in October and brings thousands of people into town. In fact, the population grows from 1,000 to 5,000, just for that one day! Great Pumpkin competitors secretly haul their gourds under tarps to Smoky Lake from across British Columbia, Alberta, and Saskatchewan — all for the chance to be crowned the heaviest pumpkin.

It may be the pumpkin weigh-off festival or the fascination of the giant whimsical pumpkins that draws visitors to the town, but it is the sweet aroma in the air that eventually lures one to the Old Fashioned Bread Bakery. Sitting picturesque on the main street of Smoky Lake, this bakery is where I experienced true pumpkin euphoria.

With a bright, welcoming family atmosphere, the Old Fashioned Bread Bakery feels like a fresher, younger version of “grandma’s kitchen”. The music playing outside the bakery and the tables set up in garden magically take you into a bygone era. The first thing you notice as you step into the bakery is the wonderful air that permeates your senses. And I’m just going to tell you straight up. It was some fine air!

The trays of pumpkin cinnamon buns, warm-out-of-the-oven cookies and the scrumptious looking pumpkin fudge is worthy of an extra half hour on the treadmill.

This little bakery is proudly owned by Renee Cherniwchan. When her parents wanted to sell it, she bought the bakery to carry on with the family business that started 37 years ago. “I have lived here all my life and just wanted to stay,” she explains.

Besides the bakery regulars like breads, doughnuts and pastries, from the month of September to end of October, all things pumpkin are baked in honour of the pumpkin festival.

One might think pumpkin pies but Cherniwchan’s bakery has gone beyond the traditional.

Pumpkin pecan pies, pumpkin jelly rolls, pumpkin muffins, pumpkin doughnuts, pumpkin cheesecake, pumpkin squares, pumpkin tea biscuits, pumpkin fudge, cookies and pumpkin cinnamon buns are just a few items that are baked daily.

You might be wondering how much baked goods can a town of 1,000 eat? Well if the slim pickings that are left behind by the end of the afternoon are any indication, citizens of Smoky Lake love their baked goods!

When asked if she uses real pumpkins in her baking, she stated: “that is just way too much work. We buy a good quality packed can pumpkin. It is just quicker.”

However, Cherniwchan does bake whole pumpkins that are popular during the festival. They take whole small pumpkin, hollow out the cavity, and fill the cavity with fruits like apples, pears, raisins, and orange slices. The fruit is generously sprinkled with brown sugar and pumpkin spice and baked at 375F until the pumpkin has cooked through. Depending on the pumpkin size, this could take a couple of hours.

“It is a festival favourite, “ Cherniwchan explains.

But the most popular item on the day of the festival is the pumpkin muffin. “People can quickly take it with them and not miss the weigh-in event,” says Cherniwchan

Smoky Lake is a bit off the beaten path, but the trip was well worth my visit. And the pumpkin cinnamon buns that Cherniwchan sent with us never did make it home, but I was able to bring back a couple of recipes to help me conjure up the memory of this sweet little town.

Note: The Great White Pumpkin Fair will take place on October 3, 2009 in Smoky Lake.

Pumpkin fudge

The key to this recipe is using a candy thermometer and making sure the thermometer is measuring the correct temperature.

3 cups sugar

3/4 cup butter

2/3 cup evaporated milk

1/2 cup solid packed pumpkin

1 teaspoon pumpkin pie spice

1 teaspoon vanilla

1 package of butterscotch chips

1 7oz jar marshmallow crème

In a heavy saucepan, combine sugar, butter, milk, pumpkin and spice and bring to a boil stirring to 234F. This takes about 10 minutes. Remove from heat and add vanilla, butterscotch chips and marshmallow, mix until well blended. Quickly pour into parchment lined 9X19 pan and spread evenly. Cool at room temperature. Cut into squares. Store in tightly wrapped container in fridge.

Iced Pumpkin Cookies

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1 teaspoon baking soda

2 teaspoons ground cinnamon

1/2 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1/2 teaspoon ground cloves

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 cup butter, softened

1 1/2 cups white sugar

1 cup canned pumpkin puree

1 egg

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Glaze

2 cups confectioners’ sugar

3 tablespoons milk

1 tablespoon melted butter

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Combine flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, nutmeg, ground cloves, and salt; set aside. In a medium bowl, cream together the 1/2 cup of butter and white sugar. Add pumpkin, egg, and 1 teaspoon vanilla to butter mixture, and beat until creamy. Mix in dry ingredients. Drop on cookie sheet by tablespoonfuls; flatten slightly. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes in the preheated oven. Cool cookies, then drizzle glaze with fork.

To make the glaze: Combine confectioners’ sugar, milk, 1 tablespoon melted butter, and 1 teaspoon vanilla. Add milk as needed, to achieve drizzling consistency. Do not store them in an airtight container; they have a lot of moisture from the pumpkin and get moist and mushy. They stay great out on the counter for days. For variation for the glaze, you can drizzle with icing and then sprinkle with nuts or use cream cheese icing.

Pumpkin maple cake

1 1/2 cup flour

2 tablespoon sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/4 tsp cinnamon,

1/4 tsp ginger

2 tablespoon butter, melted

1/4 cup pumpkin puree

1/2 cup milk

Mix dry ingredients together. Then add in butter, pumpkin and milk. Spoon into 8 oven proof dish. Mix 1 cup of pure maple syrup with 1/2cup of water. Pour evenly amongst the eight portions. Bake at 350F for 15-20 minutes. Serve warm topped with whipped cream.

Madhu Badoni is a Red Deer-based freelance food writer. She can be reached at madhubadoni@gmail.com

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