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Old-Fashioned Treats for Tricksters

Caramel Apple snapshot by Lori Grossman

When I was a kid, the countdown started months in advance. I couldn't wait for all the fun of getting together with friends, dressing up, and savoring all the sweet treats. We're not talking Christmas here; my favorite holiday was Halloween!

Of course, Halloween was much different back in the 1960s. It was a more innocent time (or so it seems, compared with today). Once in a while, some smart-alecky kid would string wire across his front yard to trip other kids, but that's the worst I remember. Mostly, it was a fun-filled night spent with friends and family.

During summer vacation, I'd start thinking about a costume. Ignoring my older brother's suggestion that I'd scare people more if I went as myself, I usually dressed as a witch. Elizabeth Montgomery's portrayal of a beautiful, good witch on TV’s "Bewitched" probably inspired me.

I knew Halloween was right around the corner when decorations, candy and costumes appeared in our neighborhood five-and-dime store. Oh, the dreams that filled my head as I roamed the aisles! One year, I went "artsy-craftsy" and made a jack-o'-lantern out of paper maché.

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My dad accompanied me when I was a novice trick-or-treater. When I grew older, I went with a group of friends and one long-suffering grown-up who trailed along behind us.

My favorite treat was candy corn, but candy bars were the most prized. Back then, people gave out some homemade treats, too, like popcorn balls or cookies. We weren't driven around either – we walked! And if we were lucky enough to have the holiday fall on a Friday or Saturday night, we stayed out for hours.

One girl I knew had a birthday close to October 31, so she had a Halloween-themed party. Her mom made the most delicious devil's food cake for her. I've included a similar recipe here. My elementary school held a Fall Carnival, where I discovered caramel apples and pumpkin bar cookies. The recipe for Pumpkin Spice Bars would be great for a Halloween party, or any time.

Caramel Apples
That first bite will bring back memories of Halloween and school carnivals.
  • 1 cup granulated sugar
  • 1/2 cup boiling water
  • 1 cup light brown sugar, packed
  • 1/2 cup heavy cream
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 6 craft or Popsicle-style sticks
  • 6 tart red apples, such as Jonathan or Winesap
  • 1/2 cup unsalted dry-roasted peanuts, chopped
  • Ice water
Have a bowl of ice water ready. Line a baking sheet with parchment or waxed paper and set aside.

To make simple syrup, place 1/2 cup of the granulated sugar in a small, heavy saucepan and melt it over medium-high heat. Pour in the boiling water and boil until you have a smooth syrup (about 2 minutes). Keep warm.

Make the second syrup. In a medium-size, heavy saucepan, blend the remaining 1/2 cup of granulated sugar, the brown sugar, heavy cream, and butter over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil and keep boiling until the syrup reaches 236°F on a candy thermometer (approximately 7 minutes).

Pour the warm caramel into the sugar-and-water mixture and cook to 250°F on a candy thermometer, or to the soft-ball stage (when a drop of hot syrup makes a soft ball when dropped into a glass of water). Remove from heat and let cool to lukewarm.

Insert a stick from the bottom up to the center of each apple and push about 2 inches into the apple core. Twirl the apples, stem-end facing down, in the lukewarm caramel until well coated. Dip each coated apple in ice water to harden. Press some chopped peanuts into each apple and place the apples, stick-side up, on the prepared baking sheet to finish hardening and drying. This takes about 1 hour. The apples will keep at room temperature for about 1 week. Makes 6 apples.

Pumpkin Spice Bars
These are delicious and a healthy alternative to candy overload.

  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1-1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup canola or vegetable oil
  • One 15-ounce can pumpkin purée
  • 2 large eggs, lightly beaten
  • 1/2 cup chopped pecans or raisins (optional)
Preheat the oven to 325°F. Coat a 9x13-inch sheet pan with nonstick cooking spray or line with parchment paper. Set aside.

Sift together the sugar, flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, and salt into a large mixing bowl. Add the oil and beat with an electric mixer until the dry ingredients are moistened. Add the pumpkin purée and beat until smooth. Add the eggs and beat for 1 minute. Fold in the nuts or raisins, if desired.

Pour the batter into the prepared pan and smooth with a spatula so that the bars will be level when baked. Bake until a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean (about 30 minutes). Allow bars to cool in the pan. Makes 16 bars.

Cream Cheese Frosting (optional)
  • One 3-ounce package cream cheese at room temperature
  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 cups confectioners' sugar
Put the cream cheese, butter, and vanilla extract in a large mixing bowl. With an electric mixer, beat until light and fluffy. Sift in the confectioners' sugar, about 1 cup at a time, beating well after each addition. Continue beating until the frosting is smooth and thick. When the bars have cooled, use a spatula to apply frosting.

Devil's Food Cake with Creamy Chocolate Frosting
Devil's food cake and Halloween – the perfect pairing!

  • 1/2 cup (1 stick) unsalted butter at room temperature
  • 2 cups sifted cake flour
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1-1/4 cups sugar
  • 3/4 cup milk
  • 3 ounces unsweetened chocolate, melted
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease and flour two 9-inch round cake pans, tapping out the excess flour. Set aside.

Put the butter in a medium-size mixing bowl. Sift the flour, salt, baking soda, and sugar over the butter. Add the milk and beat with an electric mixer until the batter is smooth. Beat in the melted chocolate, vanilla, and eggs and continue beating until smooth. Divide the batter evenly between the prepared cake pans.

Bake the layers until they have shrunk from the sides of the pans and a cake tester inserted in the center comes out clean (about 25 minutes). Invert the cakes onto wire racks, then immediately turn right-side up. Let cool completely before frosting. Makes 8 servings.

Creamy Chocolate Frosting
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup cake flour
  • 4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, cut into small pieces
  • 1-1/2 cups milk
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
Whisk together the sugar, flour, and chocolate in a medium-size saucepan over medium-high heat. Pour in the milk and continue to whisk until the mixture thickens and the chocolate melts.

Remove from the heat and whisk in the butter. Continue whisking until it melts and the frosting is smooth and creamy. Let cool, then frost the cake.

Halloween comes only once a year, so forget your diet for one night and enjoy yourself!

Don’t let the kids have all the fun. Throw a costume party, play Halloween music (like "Monster Mash," "Spooky" or the Michael Jackson hit "Thriller" – complete with a guest appearance by horror movie star Vincent Price), dance, and eat lots of sweet treats. Happy Halloween!

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