In this celebratory Armenian centerpiece dish, whole pumpkin gets filled with a sweetened, aromatic rice pilaf and baked until the pumpkin flesh is tender and the rice is steamed to fluffy perfection.
Ghapama (Armenian: ղափամա, meaning “cooked with a lid”) is a must-have offering at any Armenian Christmas, New Year’s, wedding or other celebration. It also makes a perfect seasonal side dish for an American-style Thanksgiving meal. It’s a great meatless option for the vegetarians in the family.
4 to 6 servings
- Medium-sized whole pie pumpkin or winter squash (see variations) — 3 to 4 pounds
- Basmati or other long-grain rice — 1 /2 cups
- Lightly salted water — 3 cups
- Dried fruit (see variations) — 1/2 cup
- Walnuts or almonds, toasted — 1/2 cup
- Honey — 1/4 to 1/3 cup
- Cinnamon — 2 teaspoons
- Salt and pepper — to season
- Hot water — 1/4 cup
- Butter — 2 or 3 tablespoons
- Wash the pumpkin well. Cut off the top of the pumpkin to form a lid, cutting at an angle so lid won’t fall in when you replace it. Scoop the seeds and central fiber from the pumpkin using your hands and a spoon. Save the seeds for making roasted pumpkin seeds if you like.
- Preheat oven to 375°F. Heat the 3 cups of lightly salted water in a saucepan over medium-high flame. When the water comes to a boil, stir in the rice. Reduce heat to medium-low and simmer, stirring occasionally, for about 10 minutes. You don’t want to fully cook the rice. The grains should retain a hard center since the rice will finish cooking in the pumpkin. Drain the rice, rinse it with cool water and drain well again.
- Stir the dried fruit, nuts, honey and cinnamon into the rice and season to taste with salt and pepper. Pack the rice mixture into the pumpkin, leaving a little space for the rice to expand. Pour the 1/4 cup of hot water over the rice, and then top the rice with the butter. Replace the pumpkin lid, and place the pumpkin on a baking sheet. Put the baking sheet with the pumpkin into the oven and bake for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, or until the pumpkin is cooked through and tender to the touch. A toothpick will pierce the flesh easily when it is done, and the skin may get quite browned.
- Remove the pumpkin from the oven and let it rest for 10 to 15 minutes. Carefully remove the pumpkin to a large, round serving platter, and use a sharp knife to cut the pumpkin into serving-sized wedges. As you cut, the wedges will fall outward to lay like a sunflower, with the steaming, deliciously scented pilaf piled up in the middle. To serve, each diner gets a wedge of baked pumpkin along with a scoop of the rice pilaf.
- Pumpkin: Use any pumpkin or any winter squash with a center cavity large enough to hold 3 or 4 cups of cooked rice (1 1/2 to 2 cups of uncooked rice). Pie pumpkin, turban, kabocha, and blue Hubbard are good choices. Cavity sizes vary, so to find out how big your pumpkin’s insides are, fill your cleaned pumpkin cavity with water. Then pour the water into a measuring container to see how much rice it will hold. Adjust the amount of rice up or down to accommodate; the pilaf recipe is very forgiving. Some cooks spread the inside of the pumpkin with honey or melted butter before adding the rice. Try making individual ghapamas in acorn squash.
- Fruit: Many different kinds of dried fruit will work in ghapama. Common choices are raisins, sultanas (golden raisins), dried plums, dried cherries, dried apricots, dried cranberries, and dried apples. Use a variety of dried fruit for better flavor and color. You could also add some chopped fresh apples or pomegranate seeds if you like.
- Nuts: Walnuts, almonds, pecans, cashews, hazelnuts or a mix of nuts will all work. Your nuts will taste much better if you toast them lightly in a hot, dry skillet or in a 400°F oven for a few minutes.
- Spices: Cinnamon is the most commonly used spice for ghapama, but you can give your pilaf added complexity of flavor by adding a pinch of ground cloves, nutmeg, allspice or cardamom.
- Ghapama as dessert: Ghapama can be served as part of the main meal or offered afterwards as a dessert. For dessert ghapama, simply add more fruit and honey to the rice to sweeten it up. If you don’t have honey, plain sugar can substitute.
- Ghapama with meat: To add some meat to your ghapama filling, brown a 1/2 pound of ground lamb or beef in a skillet with a little oil, breaking it up as it cooks. Drain off any excess fat, and then stir the browned meat into the par-cooked rice along with the other ingredients.