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 2017 Kathy Hunt