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Friday, October 1, 2010

Quick and Dirty Creepy Treats: Easy Halloween Food Ideas

Now that October is here, I'll still be posting Autumn-themed stuff, obviously, but I also wanted to get started on some Halloween-themed posts. So, for the next 4 weeks, my posts will be Halloween-centric with some smatterings of Halloween history and lore thrown into each post.

For this post, I am dusting off some really old ideas and pics (I was notoriously bad about documenting my creations before I became a blogger) of quick and easy Halloween treats that come together in a snap but are super fun to do. These treats are collected from ones that I and my friend Lauren made years ago when our lab hosted our Department's Halloween Social. Everyone in my lab pitched in and made Fall and/or Halloween-themed desserts, and this post is dedicated to just a few of them, the "quick and dirty" treats, to borrow a phrase we use often in lab. They are not very sophisticated, but they are cute and easy, and would make a great starting point for brainstorming new Halloween treats. These are all great ideas especially if you want something to do with little kids, because they are all decorating-oriented and not oven-oriented. For this post, we have quick Witch Hats, Critters, Ghosts, and Dirt. Unfortunately, I made these a while ago, so I don't have pictures of intermediate steps, but the directions are straightforward so this shouldn't be a problem. To be honest, they are so simple that, in most cases, you can just figure out how to assemble them from the pictures!

But before we get to that,  let's take a brief moment to chat about:
Halloween has its roots in the pagan Celtic harvest festivals of Samhain ("summer's end") and Nos Calan Gaeaf ("eve before the beginning of winter"), celebrated at the changing of the seasons and the start of winter -- literally going from the "lighter half" of the year to the "darker half" of the year. During this transition, the veil separating this world from the Otherworld was thought to be thin enough to allow spirits (both good and bad) to pass through. This supernatural association and its proximity to the Christian Holiday of All Saints Day (or All Hallows Day) on November 1st, led to a blending of the two into a kind of harvest festival of the dead: All-Hallows-Even (the night before All Hallows Day) became shortened to Hallowe'en and finally to Halloween sometime in the 16th century. Many of the traditional Halloween festivities that we engage in today have their roots in this blending of superstition and spirituality. Interestingly, many cultures hold festivals of the dead in the transition from October to November, including the Japanese, Incans, Hindus, ancient Romans, ancient Egyptians, ancient Persians, Mayans and modern-day Mexicans and most of northern Europe.

One of the most enduring traditions of American Halloween is the practice of Trick or Treating, knocking on doors in costume, and asking for treats in return for not performing a "trick" on the owner of the house. This tradition has several different origins that, over time, merged into one. The practice of dressing in costumes to fool the spirits, also known as "guising", is an ancient practice that has impacted many cultural traditions over the centuries, and was particularly prevalent in medieval times. Since Halloween was the one night of the year when spirits were most prone to walk the earth, it was doubly important on this night to fool them. The other part of the tradition, asking for food or "treats" also has several different predecessors. On Samhain, the Druids believed that any evil spirits walking the earth when the veil was thin would wreak havoc on mankind unless placated with food. In addition, there was the medieval practice (9th century onward) of "souling": when poor people went door-to-door on All Hallows Day (Nov. 1) and asked for food in return for saying prayers for the dead on All Souls Day (Nov. 2). Most of the early food given out were "soul cakes" -- bread squares with currants baked into them. Over time, this morphed into the modern day Halloween traditions we all enjoy.  In America (ever since at least 1927 which is the first example of the phrase in print), Trick or Treating has come to mean candy, candy, and more candy! Halloween traditions vary greatly by region -- some countries give out fruit and nuts, and some require children to actually perform a trick (like a riddle or a song). Interestingly, the medieval practice of dressing up in costume and going door-to-door performing tricks or services for food has another modern descendant -- Christmas wassailing, or Christmas caroling!

Stay tuned to future October posts for other tidbits of Halloween lore, including Jack-o-Lanterns, vampire lore, haunted houses and witches!! Now, on to the creepy critters!

Like I said, the pictures aren't great and I didn't document very well, because at the time it didn't occur to me that I might end up as a food blogger someday. None of these creations were original ideas, they have been floating around in various mini recipe magazines (like the ones by the checkout counters in supermarkets) for years. And if you look around online, you will see far more elaborate offerings in terms of decorating ideas, the ones that I posted are really the simplest iteration on the theme of quick Halloween treats -- the fastest way to put something together that works both visually and time-wise. If you are chronically short on time but over-extended, as I always seem to be, then these are the treats for you. And if you have a little more time, these treats offer many opportunities to be expanded upon.

For witch hats, you only need 3 Ingredients:

  • 1 package of Fudge Shoppe Fudge Stripe Cookies
  • 1 package of Hershey's Kisses, unwrapped (any flavor)
  • 1 package of Betty Crocker purple squeeze icing, or other color of your choice
The directions are very simple:

  1. Melt a few kisses in the microwave, you will need some melted chocolate to attach kisses to the cookies.
  2. Invert the cookies so that the chocolate coated side is facing up. Dip the bottom of a Hershey's kiss into the melted chocolate, and place in the center of the cookie, covering the cookie's hole. Don't use tons of chocolate, otherwise it will squish out the sides.
  3. Take your icing, and pipe a ribbon around where the edge of where the kiss meets the cookie, finishing off in a decorative bow if you desire. I made trailing ribbons on mine, but you could easily omit that and just pipe a band around the kiss and use a large yellow sprinkle for a hat buckle.
  4. Let them cool and harden, so they won't fall apart.
What you end up with is something like this:
Fast and easy witch hats that could easily be embellished if you so desire!

Creepy critters are also easy treats that come together in a snap! 

  • 1 package of Nutter Butter cookies
  • 1 package of pretzels
  • 1 package of M&M's (plain or dark chocolate, you want the round ones)
  • Melted chocolate or chocolate flavored wafers
  1. Cut the pretzels with a knife so that each pretzel yields 3 curved pieces (follow the schematic left). Each pretzel will yield three legs (1-3) and two antennae (A)
  2. Dip the Nutter Butters into the chocolate so that they are completely covered. Set on wax paper when finished.
  3. For the legs, dip one end of the pretzel piece in melted chocolate, and attach to the body. Attach 3 legs per side of the critter.
  4. Choose an end to be the "front" and attach the antennae to the top of the critter using melted chocolate. They should stick out into the air.
  5. Dip one side of the M&M's in chocolate and attach to the critter on the front end, in front of the antennae. Let harden to set.
When you are done, you end up with something like this:
This particular picture doesn't have antennae, the critters look good with or without. The antennae take a little more time, because you have to hold them for a bit and let them set before you let go, otherwise they might fall over. I leave the decision up to you whether you want to use them. You could also make larger bugs by joining three or more coated Nutter Butters in a row, and although those would be easily breakable, they would also be easy to repair with some melted chocolate.

Making the quick ghosts is very similar to making the critters because they both use Nutter Butters dipped in chocolate, only this time it is white chocolate. And they both use M&M's. An easy thing to do is to split the package of cookies, and use half for critters and half for ghosts!

  • 1 package of Nutter Butters
  • Melted white chocolate or white candy melts
  • M&M's, brown
  1. Dip the Nutter Butters in the melted white chocolate to coat completely.
  2. While the coating is still wet, push 2 brown M&M's into one end for the eyes.
Following these directions, you get these googly-eyed ghosts, which can be embellished with more elaborate decorations if you wish! They could also easily be made into mummies from this point with some well-applied icing strips to look like bandages.
Nutter Butters are very versatile templates for easy treats, they can also be Santas and reindeer at Christmas, which I am hoping to demonstrate in 2 months!

Stick all the critters on the same plate, and you have a cute-looking tray of Halloween offerings:
Angela's pumpkin cheesecake is to the right. Some questionable brownies I made which were supposed to have orange swirls of cheesecake are to the left. They tasted fine, but didn't look like the vision that was in my head...

Like the others, this next entry isn't a recipe, but rather directions for assembly. Anyone can make easy "dirt" pudding using nothing more than chocolate pudding (ready-made or instant), crushed Oreos, and various other accoutrements such as tombstones, gummy worms, etc. The decorating techniques described here could also be used on an iced chocolate cake, covered with crushed Oreos. The particular Dirt pictured below is one that my friend Lauren made.

  • Chocolate pudding (ready-made or instant)
  • 1 package of Oreos, crushed
  • Edible accessories: tombstones, gummy worms, etc
  • Creepy container
  1. For this particular treat, the container matters. A lot. This is supposed to be dirt, or better yet a graveyard, so don't assemble it in a run-of-the-mill tupperware container. Try to find a nice Halloween-themed dish (or at least a plain black one), either round or square, and embellish as much as you can. The dollar store normally has several options. If you really want to get nuts, you can use glass and make a 3-dimensional space where you show the goings on underneath the surface (coffins, zombies in the process of climbing out of graves, etc). How great would it be to have the zombie hand sticking out of the surface of the "dirt" and have the rest of the zombie visible just underneath??
  2. Decide on a theme and plan it out first. Do you want to just have quick basic Dirt with worms? Do you want to do an elaborate haunted cemetery? A pumpkin patch? Gather what you need before you start.  You can even make use of the critters and ghosts you made from Nutter Butters! For the example below, Lauren used gummy worms, some of my critters, and tombstones that were really Milano cookies dipped in white chocolate.
  3. Layer the pudding on the bottom of your dish, and sprinkle the crushed Oreos on top so that the pudding is not visible.
  4. Add your decorations (i.e. worms poking out of the dirt, etc).
You end up with a version of this:

Depending on how crazy you want to get, the Dirt can be the quickest or the most time-consuming out of all the treats listed in this post. Lauren did a beautiful job! She also made a gorgeous pumpkin cake using the Williams-Sonoma Great Pumpkin pan, but that definitely doesn't qualify as a quick treat! Likewise for the pumpkin pie and pumpkin cheesecake Angela made, the chocolate and peanut butter fudge Jenny made, or the pecan pie I made. I also made chocolate chip cookies with black and orange M&M's substituted for the chips, which does qualify as quick and dirty but doesn't deserve its own entry. Everyone's effort was how our lab ended up hosting the best Halloween Social in the history of the Molecular Genetics, Microbiology and Immunology Department!

(L - R) Me, Angela, Nick, Lauren and Jenny.

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