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At one time, if I wanted a handful of airy, pearl-sugar-encrusted chouquettes, I’d have to either scrimp and save for a trip to France or break down and make these sweets myself.
For centuries these petite, round pastries have been a mainstay of French bakeries and patisseries. Like clockwork, each day bakers tumble a dozen or so soft chouquettes into small paper bags and, handing over the baked goods, send hungry but happy customers on their way. Simple yet satisfying, chouquettes have long served as an afternoon snack or a means of tiding over famished French diners until dinnertime.
In recent months I started to notice this beloved treat appearing in bakeries and shops in my New York City neighborhood. Piled high on trays inside glass cases or displayed in wicker baskets, as they are in France, chouquettes have begun to insinuate their way into international markets and hearts.
Like many newcomers to the chouquette, I originally mistook it for a French take on the American doughnut hole. Because the two were comparable in size and shape, I assumed they would also have a similar taste. One bite of the chouquette’s soft, mildly sweet and eggy dough and its crunchy sugar topping, and all comparisons to that greasy, occasionally gooey confection ended.
Chouquettes born during the Renaissance
Unlike doughnuts, which are a relatively modern creation, chouquettes date back to Renaissance France. Historians point to the 16th century and a chef, a man known as Panterelli, whom Catherine de Medici had brought with her to France, as the inventor of the first chouquette.
Panterelli had crafted an unusual dough that consisted of flour, water, eggs and butter. Although it lacked such leavening agents as yeast, baking powder or baking soda, the dough still rose in a hot oven. This resulted from its high moisture content, which, when heated, produced steam that, in turn, caused the pastry to swell. Note that his dough, or pâte, is not to be confused with puff pastry, which contains layers of buttery dough and, as a result, has a flaky texture.
In the 18th century, French bakers began shaping this pâte into tiny buns that, after baking, resembled little cabbages. The French word for “cabbage” is choux. Pair that with Panterelli’s pâte and you have the classic dough for chouquettes and assortment of other desserts, pâte a choux.
During the 19th century, the renowned Parisian chef Marie-Antoine Carême tweaked this recipe yet again. It is his take on pâte a choux that I enjoy today in my neighborhood chouquettes.
While I appreciate the convenience of walking a few blocks to fetch a bag of fresh chouquettes, I continue to bake my own, too. Quick and simple to make, they always dazzle my friends and family. Then again, who wouldn’t be impressed by a platter of homemade, pearl-sugar-studded French pastries?
A different kind of dough
Pâte a choux is the rare dough that is cooked before being baked. To make a batch of chouquettes, I first melt butter in a saucepan with water, sugar and salt. To this I add flour. I then stir the ingredients together until a soft, malleable dough forms. The eggs are the final addition to the saucepan and make the dough wet and a bit sticky. This moisture is what gives chouquettes their light consistency.
After being spooned onto parchment paper and decorated with pearl sugar, the chouquettes are baked until puffy and golden brown. If, after being removed from the oven, the pint-sized treats collapse, I just put them back in the hot oven for a few more minutes.
Because chouquettes are hollow inside, they can be filled with an array of ingredients, such as custard, chocolate or jam. I, however, am a purist and prefer to leave them as they are. I love them most when they’ve been adorned with those chunky, white sugar crystals and, if I’m feeling really adventurous, a smidgen of ground cinnamon.
Prep time: 10 minutes
Bake time: 20 to 25 minutes
Total time: 35 minutes
Yield: 3 dozen
For the dough:
1 cup water
1 tablespoon granulated sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 cup all-purpose flour
4 large eggs, at room temperature
For the topping:
1 egg yolk
1 teaspoon water
2/3 cup pearl sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Line two baking sheets with parchment paper and set aside.
Place the water, sugar, salt and butter in a small saucepan and heat over medium. Stir the ingredients together until the butter has melted.
Remove the pan from the heat and stir in the flour. Mix until a soft, malleable dough has formed.
Add the eggs one at a time, stirring briskly with each addition until the eggs are completely incorporated. When finished, the dough will be sticky.
Using a tablespoon or a small disher that holds roughly 1 tablespoon, scoop out and place equal portions of dough on the parchment-lined baking sheets. Leave about 1 inch between each chouquette.
In a small bowl whisk together the egg yolk and water. In another small bowl mix the pearl sugar with the ground cinnamon.
Brush the tops of the chouquettes with egg wash, then sprinkle cinnamon sugar over top of each.
Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until the chouquettes are puffed up, golden brown and dry in appearance. Remove them from the oven and cool for 1 to 2 minutes before serving.
Note: When stored in an airtight container, chouquettes will keep for up to three days. However, they are best when consumed on the day they’re baked.
Main image: Cinnamon chouquettes. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
By now, most consumers have heard about community-supported agriculture, or CSA. With a CSA you purchase a share in a local farm at the start of the growing season and, in return, receive a weekly allotment of fresh produce. This system, which arrived in the U.S. in the 1980s, ensures farmers earn fair wages for their harvests and guarantees fresh, often organically grown, vegetables and fruit for their supporters.
While CSAs may have become commonplace, the public remains less aware of community-supported fisheries, or CSFs. Granted, CSFs have not been in existence as long. The first, Port Clyde Fresh Catch, began in Maine in 2007. As of September 2015, the number had grown to 39 in North America.
Supporting local fishermen
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Applying the CSA premise to seafood, CSF subscribers buy a share in a fishery. This payment goes directly to local fishermen. Direct payment usually cuts out costly middlemen such as processors and distributors. It also offers income stability for the anglers.
In return for this money, the fishermen provide a weekly or biweekly supply of fresh-from-the-boat seafood for their patrons. They also give peace of mind about food sourcing. With this system people know who caught their fish and where, when and how it was obtained.
Along with promising information and a steady market for their catches, CSFs allow fishermen to seek out unusual and abundant seafood. “They honor the diversity of catch of smaller-scale fisheries. These are the mainstays of fishing communities and have the smallest ecological footprint,” said Niaz Dorry, director of the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance in Gloucester, Massachusetts. Dorry has been a driving force in the creation and continuation of community-supported fisheries.
Dorry points out that while New England fishermen bring in roughly 60 species of fish and shellfish, supermarkets carry, at most, 12. As a result, only the longstanding favorites get purchased and consumed. Deemed bycatch or unwanted by consumers, the remaining species are discarded.
Instead of fixating on overly popular, exploited seafood, CSF fishermen seek out healthy sustainable stocks and sell all the fish they catch. They also target invasive species such as green crabs and Asian carp. They work with, rather than against, the environment, allowing overfished populations to rebound and reducing, if not eliminating, predatory alien marine life.
Regardless of the good that a CSF can do, consumers may still shy away from joining one. Intimidated by the thought of by receiving an exotic crustacean or whole carp to cook, some may opt for the usual imported shrimp or filleted farmed-raised salmon from the grocery store.
Although store-bought offerings may feel more familiar and manageable, they won’t be as fresh. Rarely are they local; according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fish Watch, 90 percent of all seafood consumed in the U.S. has been imported. Along with possessing a bigger carbon footprint than locally sourced goods, seafood shipped in from overseas tends to come from less sustainable fisheries.
Community-supported fisheries aim to educate
To combat this reliance on a chosen, foreign few, consumers must be educated.
“People haven’t had enough exposure to other fish. This is why we give a suggested recipe each day, so that people know what to do with their pollock, hake, sole, redfish or monkfish,” said Donna Marshall, director of Cape Ann Fresh Catch, a 4,500-member CSF in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
For members who feel squeamish about looking their fish in the eye, Cape Ann provides the choice of receiving whole or filleted fish. For more daring cooks it offers truck-side filleting demonstrations. On designated pickup days it sends all participants an email detailing the seafood and on which of the 17 participating fishing boats their portions were caught.
Whether you belong to a community-supported fishery or not, Marshall says the public should become informed and know where their seafood comes from. “Go to any restaurant and ask where your fish is from. If it’s not local, why isn’t it? We must start insisting that we eat fresh local fish,” she said.
CSFs part of the local food movement
Demanding access to local seafood seems like a no-brainer. So, too, does backing a community-supported fishery. It helps a region’s fishing community, fosters working waterfronts and boosts the area’s economy. It embraces seafood diversity, reduces the likelihood of overfishing and delivers extremely fresh food. Ultimately, it can provide a win for fishermen, consumers and the oceans.
For those curious about whether a CSF exists near their town, LocalCatch.org has created an online interactive map of “boat-to-fork seafood.” LocalCatch.org is a network of North American fishermen, researchers, organizers and consumers devoted to the growth and maintenance of community-supported fisheries.
Its locator presents information on CSFs, farmers and fish markets, boat-to-school cafeteria programs and small fishing crews that sell dockside and directly to the public.
Main photo: Fresh mackerel. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
It’s the side dish of my childhood, what school cafeterias invariably paired with burgers, sloppy Joes, hot ham-and-cheese sandwiches and sundry other entrée staples. Growing up, I must have eaten Tater Tots at least once a week, but after college I turned my back on those golden brown, crunchy-yet-soft, mild-yet-savory fried potato puffs.
While I never would have guessed that we’d be reunited, tastes and times have changed with the re-invention of my old school friend. Today these potatoes are no longer relegated to institutional fare. Tots appear everywhere from upscale, New American-style restaurants to bars, burger joints and food trucks. Nor are they merely side dishes for hot sandwiches. Chefs partner them with omelets, pulled pork and fried chicken or serve them on their own as a hearty appetizer or entrée.
Fond memories of Tater Tots
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Nostalgia drives this renewed passion for Tater Tots, said Julie Crist, owner of The Tot Cart in Philadelphia. “Parents used to make Tater Tots for their kids. Now they have souped-up versions of those elementary school lunches,” she said.
Among The Tot Cart’s offerings are “chicken tot pies,” which feature chicken potpie filling layered over potatoes, and a dessert tot consisting of tots tossed in cinnamon sugar and drizzled in dulce de leche. “The salty-sweet mixture makes tots ideal for dessert. With their crispy outsides you really can put anything on them,” said Crist, who serves more than 100 types of tots from her food truck in Pennsylvania, New Jersey and Delaware.
At Alexander’s Tavern in Baltimore, tots are the house specialty. “Tots play on Alexander’s theme of taking a childhood classic and giving it an adult twist,” said executive chef Faith Paulick.
Alexander’s Tavern diners nosh on “tot-chos,” potatoes smothered in queso and jack cheeses, salsa, sour cream and jalapenos, as well as chili- and cheese-covered tots and BBQ sweet potato tots. The best-selling item on the menu is Maryland tots, Paulick said. These are tots blanketed with lump crab meat, crab dip and Old Bay seasoning.
To keep tabs on the food’s popularity, Alexander’s Tavern maintains a “tots sold” counter on its website. To date, the restaurant has sold more than 3 million.
Tater Tots a boon to profits
Although Tater Tots now feature in an array of clever dishes, they had far humbler beginnings. They simply were a way to use the scraps from freshly cut french fries.
In 1952 F. Nephi Grigg of Nampa, Idaho, began considering how he and his brother Golden could turn the leftover slivers at their potato-processing plant into something more profitable. At that time the cuttings were being sold as livestock feed. Grigg decided to try grinding up the pieces, mixing in some spices, pushing the concoction through a form and then deep-frying the bite-sized chunks. With that, Grigg created the first batch of Tater Tots.
He premiered his invention at the 1953 National Potato Convention in Miami, and the tots were an instant hit.
Thanks to Tater Tots, by the late 1950s the Grigg brothers possessed a quarter of America’s frozen potato market. In 1960 the brothers changed their company name from Oregon Frozen Foods to Ore-Ida, a nod to their facility’s proximity to the Oregon-Idaho border.
Five years and multiple new facilities later, the Griggs sold Ore-Ida and its Tater Tots to the H.J. Heinz Co. for $31 million. Heinz, in turn, made these frozen potatoes a staple of American kitchens, cafeterias and childhoods.
While I may have been raised on those mass-produced, frozen tots, I now prefer to make my own. It’s not a complicated or labor-intensive process. In fact, I only need a few ingredients — potatoes, flour, salt, pepper and oil — and a grater, a slotted spoon and a deep pot.
As I’ve learned through trial and error, the key to good tots is to fry rather than bake them. The difference between those two techniques is night and day, Paulick said.
“Frying gives you nice, even cooking. The potatoes are crispy on the outside and cooked completely on the inside. Unfortunately, you don’t get the same result when you bake tots,” she said.
Crunchy tots allow you to pile on a host of ingredients, including cheeses, meats and sauces. They also enable you to serve them school-cafeteria-style, unadorned except for a dusting of salt and pepper.
Scallion Potato Tots
Prep time: 40 minutes
Cook time: 5 minutes
Total time: 45 minutes
Yield: Makes 6 servings
2 pounds Russet potatoes, washed
1/4 cup all-purpose flour
1 1/2 teaspoons onion powder
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon white ground pepper
3 tablespoons minced scallion, whites only
Grapeseed or canola oil, for frying
Preheat the oven to 425 F. Prick the potatoes with a fork and place them in the oven. Bake for 30 minutes. Remove them from the oven and allow them to cool for 10 to 15 minutes, until they are no longer too hot to touch.
Using a pairing knife, peel off and discard the potato skins. With a box grater, grate the potatoes into a bowl.
Add the flour, onion powder, salt, white pepper and minced scallion and, using a fork, toss together until evenly combined.
Fill a deep pot with 2 1/2 to 3 inches of oil. Heat the oil on medium-high until it reaches 350 F on a thermometer.
Drop the tots into the oil one at a time. Cook until golden, 3 to 5 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, scoop out the cooked tots and place them on a clean, dry cloth to drain. Repeat until all the tots have been fried.
Sprinkle a smidgen of salt over them, if desired. Serve warm.
Main image: Tater Tots, long a staple of school lunches, have been elevated to gourmet fare by some chefs. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
For as long as I can remember, I’ve encouraged cooking students, friends and fellow diners to opt for squid over octopus. In return they usually say they have never tried it or they like deep-fried octopus too much to give up “calamari.” Besides, does anyone really know what to do with that freakish, tentacle-waving thing?
It turns out quite a few people and cultures know how to prepare squid. Japanese cooks slice it and serve it raw with grated ginger and soy sauce, or they batter it, deep-fry it and offer it as tempura. In Southeast Asia, chefs add it to curries and stir-fries, while in the Mediterranean they may stew, stuff, grill or fry it.
As for that beloved, deep-fried appetizer calamari, it’s not octopus that diners dunk into bowls of tomato, cocktail or tartar sauce. Whether calamar in Spanish, calamaro in Italian or calamari on restaurant menus, the name refers to the same thing: squid.
The cephalopod family
I can understand the confusion surrounding squid and octopus. Both are cephalopods from the mollusk family, a family that also includes clams, snails, cuttlefish and abalone. Both possess eight sucker-lined arms, three hearts, two eyes and a large head. Both have been dubbed head-footed, meaning their heads attach, loosely speaking, to their feet. Saltwater creatures, both live in tropical to temperate zones and propel themselves by sucking in and pushing out water.
While they do have many physical similarities, the two differ in one crucial aspect. Generally, squid possesses a better sustainability ranking than octopus.
Squid fisheries, particularly those dedicated to the longfin species, tend to be well managed. They track and restrict commercial landings and monitor habitat damage and bycatch. The fisheries also have the squid’s prolific reproduction and rapid growth rates in their favor; these traits make squid less susceptible to overfishing. Meanwhile, octopus fisheries are notorious for exploiting populations, harming habitats and hauling in large amounts of bycatch.
Sustainability and versatility are why I choose squid. Along with being fried, stewed or grilled, squid does well when braised, broiled, roasted, sautéed, steamed or served raw in sashimi or ceviche. Octopus, on the other hand, performs best with three techniques: braising, stewing or grilling.
With squid you can eat everything — eight arms, two tentacles, head, ink — but its beak, eyes and thin, hard, transparent interior bone. These should be removed and discarded before cooking.
The cigar-shaped head can be stuffed and cooked whole or sliced into strips, flat pieces or rings. Depending upon their length, the arms and tentacles can be cooked whole or halved and then cooked.
Squid’s sweetly salty, black ink, which it uses for defense, remains a prized flavoring. You can add it to homemade pasta dough for a touch of color and taste, incorporate it into a sauce, simmer it in rice dish or dress other seafood with it. Spaniards pair the ink with white rice, garlic, green peppers and squid or its close relation cuttlefish for the paella-like specialty arròs negre. In Italy, squid and ink partner with risotto, white wine, shallots, parmesan, parsley and shrimp for riso el al nero di seppia.
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Squid goes especially well with such ingredients as celery, garlic, ginger, lemon, lime, onion, scallions, shallot, peppers, tomatoes, olives, pine nuts, walnuts, pasta, rice, polenta, couscous, fish and shellfish. Its mild flavor complements bay leaf, cilantro, honey, marjoram, mayonnaise, olive oil, parsley, ground pepper, saffron, sesame, soy sauce, thyme, vinegar and white wine.
Shopping for squid couldn’t be easier. Select fresh, slightly sweet-smelling squid with bright eyes and, if its been cleaned, a glistening, white body. If your fishmonger hasn’t cleaned it, the squid will have a purplish-brown membrane over it.
Of the species sold in markets, longfin is preferable. Along with being environmentally sound, it has fine, tender flesh and a delicate flavor. The same holds true for young or small squid, which can be as little as 1 inch long.
The majority of squid grow no larger than 2 feet long, but giant squid can reach up to 40 feet. Bigger squid are tougher in texture and should be used for stuffing, stewing or braising.
In all likelihood, what you purchase at your local market will have arrived there frozen and been defrosted before being put on display. If you purchase frozen squid, you should place it in a bowl on ice in your refrigerator and allow it to defrost overnight. Use it within one day of buying or defrosting.
The next time that you’re out for dinner or shopping at your local market, go for the more sustainable and adaptable seafood choice. Skip the octopus and ask for squid instead.
Salt ‘n’ Pink Pepper Squid
From “Fish Market” (Running Press, 2013)
To boost the flavor of this simple but delicious dish, set out a small bowl of hot sauce for dipping.
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 4 minutes
Total time: 9 minutes
Yield: Makes 4 servings
1 1/4 teaspoons coarse sea salt
1 tablespoon pink or red peppercorns
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 pound cleaned squid
Sesame oil, for dressing
Hot sauce for serving (optional)
1. Using a mortar and pestle, crush the salt and peppercorns together so you have a rough mixture of the two.
2. Heat the olive oil in a large frying pan on medium-high.
3. Using a knife, score one side of the squid sections in a crisscross pattern. Cut the squid into four equal, bite-sized sections; if you have small squid, just cut them in half. Season the squid on both sides with the salt-and-pepper mixture. Shake off any excess coating and place the squid in the pan.
4. Cook until the pieces start to curl up on the edges or bulge in the center, 1 to 2 minutes. Flip over and cook on the other side until it also curls, about 1 minute. Remove and place the squid on a platter. Drizzle sesame oil to taste over the squid. Serve immediately.
Main image: Squid stir-fry. Credit: Copyright 2016 Kathy Hunt
In spite of recent tragedies and unrest in Europe, a beloved, centuries-old tradition continues this holiday season. From the United Kingdom to Eastern Europe and myriad countries in between, the annual outdoor Christmas markets are now in full swing.
Beginning in the early Middle Ages, the original markets were established to provide meat and other provisions for Christmas dinner. Some, such as Striezelmarkt in Dresden, Germany, lasted only one day. Others, including Christkindlmarkt in Vienna, Austria, stayed open through Advent. Today, they generally run from mid-November to Jan. 1.
Although dozens of cities host seasonal bazaars, several stand out for their old-world charm, delicious foods and exceptional handicrafts. You can banish the thought of buying tchotchkes mass-produced in faraway lands. The specialties offered at these markets are local and handcrafted.
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In Vienna, roughly 20 Advent fairs dot the cityscape. However, if you want to experience a market in all its glittering glory, head to the 19th-century Rathausplatz, or Town Hall Square. At Rathausplatz, twinkling lights, carolers, puppet shows and a young, blond woman playing Christkindl, the market’s Christ child, join 150 merchant stalls in celebrating the season. As of Nov. 19, as an act of European solidarity, the square’s towering Christmas tree now displays the blue, white and red colors of the French flag.
With Vienna’s ornate, neo-Gothic city hall, or Rathaus, looming behind them, shoppers stock up on wooden toys, glass ornaments, beeswax candles, candied fruits, roasted chestnuts and glasses or 750-mililiter bottles of weihnachtspunsch. Comprising red wine, brandy, rum, oranges, cloves, cinnamon and other spices, this heated punch is a warming, seasonal treat.
Prague, Czech Republic
The striking Czech Republic capital of Prague sponsors five Christmas markets. One of the largest takes place in the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, or UNESCO, World Heritage site of Old Town Square. Surrounded by Baroque and Gothic architecture, a medieval astronomical clock and the imposing, 14th-century Church of Our Lady before Tyn, this is an especially festive event. Solo musicians, folk bands and choirs perform daily. Horse-drawn carriage rides; a nativity scene; stabled sheep, donkeys and goats; and an enormous Christmas tree enhance the merry mood.
Similar to the other Prague markets, Old Town Square vendors showcase Bohemian crystal, garnet and amber jewelry; carved wooden toys; ornaments; marionettes; and sundry Czech goods. They also provide ample opportunities to nosh on grilled sausages, potato pancakes, deep-fried flatbread called langos and the sweet pastry known as trdelnìk. Coiled around a metal spit, rotated over an open fire until browned and then rolled in a mixture of sugar and nuts or cinnamon, trdelnìk is a must for hungry patrons.
While Dresden’s Striezelmarkt may be the country’s oldest, Germany boasts of an array of atmospheric marketplaces. This includes the seven Weihnachtsmarkte of Cologne.
The grandest happens in front of the 13th-century Roman Catholic, Gothic cathedral and UNESCO World Heritage site, Cologne Cathedral. More than 160 wooden stalls filled with German lacework, blown glass, nutcrackers, leather goods, woodcrafts, roasted nuts, bratwurst, beer, mulled wine, gingerbread and fruitcake line the cathedral square.
Along with regional crafts and cuisine, the Cathedral Weihnachtsmarkt contains western Germany’s largest Christmas tree. Roughly 82 feet tall, this Nordmann fir shimmers with more than 50,000 LED lights. For a bird’s-eye view of the sparkling tree and city, climb the 553 steps of the cathedral’s south tower. The brave can take in these breathtaking sights from a 328-foot-high observation platform.
Stockholm, Sweden’s first holiday market occurred on Stortorget in the city’s Old Town, or Gamla Stan, more than 500 years ago. Located outside the Nobel Museum near the Royal Palace, today’s Christmas mart features authentic Swedish pottery; glassware; knitted accessories; mulled wine, or glögg; pepparkakor, or ginger cookies; saffron buns; elk meat; and reindeer sausage. Whatever you do, just don’t tell children where the sausage came from.
In addition to these locales, travelers will find charming, historic expos in Amsterdam, Netherlands; Antwerp, Belgium; Barcelona, Spain; Budapest, Hungary; and Copenhagen, Denmark, among others. Some, such as the market in Frankfurt, Germany, date back hundreds of years. Others, such as in Manchester, England, have existed for merely a decade or two. All include the traditional foods and arts of their regions.
Main image: The Christmas market in Antwerp, Belgium. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt
It’s once again time to greet the coming of winter with rounds of sugary treats, pranks, parades and parties. Yes, Halloween has arrived.
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Our sugar-sweet revelry hasn’t always been the standard, though. Centuries ago the ancient Celts marked the end of the harvest season and start of winter not with tricks and ghoulish outfits but with a sacred observance known as Samhain. On that day they held feasts, lit enormous bonfires and made sacrifices of crops and livestock to protect them during “the darker half” of the year. Believing that the doors to the afterlife opened Oct. 31, they also saw Samhain as the time to communicate with the dead.
As time passed and the pagan Celts converted to Christianity, their sober holiday took on a new name and a few new traditions. All Hallows’ Eve kept the fall fare and communing with spirits, but it replaced the fiery activities with bobbing for apples and lighting lanterns crafted from root vegetables.
Over the years All Hallows’ Eve evolved into a day of tricks and sweet treats. However, if you crave a more authentic, wholesome Halloween, feature an assortment of harvest foods and activities at your next holiday fete.
Pumpkins have a storied history
Who hasn’t helped a family member or teacher turn an everyday pumpkin into a spooky jack-o’-lantern? In America carving a pumpkin borders on a rite of passage. The ritual stems from the “neep lanterns” of medieval Europe. Made from hollowed-out potatoes, turnips, rutabagas and beets, these lamps were placed on gravestones and in the windows of homes to welcome back deceased family and friends.
While the exteriors of the vegetables beckoned the dead, the interiors appeared at seasonal, medieval feasts. Leftover potatoes were made into such Irish specialties as champ and colcannon — a mixture of potatoes, cabbage and onion, while turnips and rutabaga were simply mashed and served.
When Halloween washed up on American shores, the root vegetables were swapped out for plump pumpkins. The seeds, rather than the flesh, of the pumpkin were what people consumed. Roasted in the oven and sprinkled with salt, pumpkin seeds remain a mainstay of Halloween gatherings.
A spicy Halloween treat
For a spicier take on the usual roasted treat, preheat your oven to 350 F. Evenly spread 3 cups roasted pumpkin seeds over a shallow baking sheet and toast for 10 minutes. Note that if you are using seeds taken directly from a pumpkin, you will need to roast the seeds for 90 minutes at 250 F before moving onto this step.
As the seeds are toasting, melt 1 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter. Place the butter, 2 tablespoons light brown sugar, 1 teaspoon ground cinnamon, 1/2 teaspoon salt, 1/4 teaspoon ground cardamom and 1/4 teaspoon allspice in a large bowl and stir until well combined. Add the hot pumpkin seeds, toss to coat and allow the seeds to cool before serving.
Apples also played an important part in Samhain. The Celts believed that, based on the number of seeds it contained, a sliced apple could predict marriage and wealth. This soothsaying evolved into the British game of unmarried people attempting to bite an apple floating in water to determine who would be their spouse.
Along with bobbing for apples on All Hallows’ Eve, the Irish played snap apple. In this game partygoers tried to bite an apple suspended from a doorframe or tree limb. Whoever bit or ate the entire apple first won.
To add an American twist to snap apple, dangle a caramel, rather than plain, apple from the string. Hard, glossy candy apples work, too, but prove a bit more painful to the teeth.
In addition to acting as prognosticators and games, apples were a staple of autumn meals. They were eaten raw as well as boiled, mashed or baked in breads, cakes, dumplings and pies. Placed between wooden presses and squeezed of their liquid, they were drunk as juice and cider. In modern times they serve an even sweeter role, starring in the aforementioned caramel and candy apples.
Beyond pumpkins and apples
No celebration of the fall harvest would be complete without a nod to grains. Porridge, flat bread, buns and the unleavened, pan-fried bread of wheat and barley called bannock were among the early grain-based fare.
While porridge and bread may not impress 21st century Halloween guests, spicy barmbrack will. Reminiscent of fruitcake, Irish barmbrack contains cloth- or paper-wrapped objects — a coin, ring, dried bean or pea — said to predict the future of those who find them. For original Halloween fun, add fortune-telling bread to your menu.
The same can be said of cookies cut out in the shapes of ghosts, pumpkins, witches, cats and other scary creatures. When the American custom of trick-or-treating began in the late 1930s, children often received homemade pumpkin-shaped cookies. To spruce up this traditional sugar cookie, add two teaspoons of almond, lemon or orange extract to your dough and swap out that tired pumpkin for an array of unusual cookie cutters.
Prep time: 30 minutes
Cook time: 40 minutes
Total time: 70 minutes
Yield: One 8-inch, round loaf
3/4 cup dark raisins
1/4 cup golden raisins
1/4 cup dried cranberries
1/4 cup roughly chopped dates
1 1/4 cups hot black tea
Dried bean, ring and penny (optional)
Parchment paper (optional)
1/4 cup firmly packed dark brown sugar
3 tablespoons granulated sugar
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking soda
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1/4 teaspoon ground nutmeg
1/4 teaspoon allspice
1 large egg, at room temperature
5 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted
1/3 cup milk, warmed slightly
1.Place the raisins, cranberries and dates in a medium bowl. Pour the hot tea over the fruit and set aside. Allow the fruit to steep for 20 to 30 minutes.
2. Preheat the oven to 350 F. Grease and line an 8-inch cake pan with parchment paper and set aside. If adding favors to the bread, tightly wrap the dried bean, ring and coin in separate strips of parchment paper and set aside.
3. In a large bowl whisk together the sugars, flour, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, nutmeg and allspice until well combined.
4. In a small bowl mix together the egg, melted butter and milk.
5. Make a well in the flour mixture and pour the liquids into the center. Using a spatula or spoon, mix the dry and wet ingredients together.
6. Drain the dried fruit and add it to the dough, stirring well to combine. Spread the dough evenly in the pan. If using the optional favors in the bread, stick them into the dough now and place the bread into the oven. Lower the temperature to 325 F and bake for 40 minutes.
7. Remove the bread from the oven and allow it to cool for 5 minutes before removing it from the pan. Cool the barmbrack completely on a wire rack before cutting and serving.
Main photo: Skeletons in a Halloween-themed parade. Credit: Copyright 2015 Kathy Hunt