Halloween Food

One of the things I try to do every year is to send some treats to school with my kids for Halloween. Some years those treats aren’t food, and instead come in the form of seasonal trinkets such as erasers and pencils (especially the stacking point kind because it brings back so many happy memories from my childhood). If I choose to send along food, I prefer for it not to be straight-up candy, since I know that the kids will be getting enough of that when it comes time for trick-or-treating. This year, Thing 2 requested that I whip up another batch of her favourite Graveyard Five-Layer Dip, which was an easy enough wish to grant. But since Thing 1’s favourite thing is, in her words, “chocolate with chocolate in it and chocolate on top,” I had to make something else for her.

I was inspired by Delish’s Pumpkin Patch Brownies for Thing 2’s dish, enough so that I even baked a second batch for her to take to her Girl Guides Halloween party as well. However, I wanted to make the brownies themselves from scratch instead of from a boxed mix. (I generally find that if a boxed mix requires additional eggs, water, and oil, you’re really just paying a lot extra per pound to have someone pre-mix your dried ingredients for you.) I used the Book Club Brownies recipe on page 762 of the Joy of Cooking (75th Anniversary Edition, Rombauer & Becker, 2006). It’s a solid recipe that is based on the Brownies Cockaigne that has appeared in Joy since the original 1931 edition. Since I knew that these brownies would be eaten in a classroom, I opted for making them slightly less messy by not adding the frosting and Oreo “dirt”. Instead, I just traced the “vines” on with green icing and made sure that every square got a pumpkin — since every kid argues about which piece is “better” based on number of toppings.

As can be surmised from my Happy Halloween! post, we also carved our pumpkins this year. In an attempt to waste as little food as possible, I had the girls separate the guts from the seeds while I cleaned out the pumpkins. Then I roasted the seeds with a drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of salt, on a sheet pan in the oven for about 30 minutes at 300°F (150°C), checking every ten minutes or so. They turned out lovely and will make a wonderfully crunchy, salty snack while they last. It always surprises me how few seeds you get from a single pumpkin! This is the result of five quite large gourds, and it probably won’t last us a week.

Graveyard Five-Layer Dip a.k.a. Wacko Taco Dip

Every year for our family Halloween party, Thing 2 gets really excited when I tell her that I’m going to make what she calls “Graveyard Dip”. It’s really just a basic five-layer dip that I learned how to make from my cousin, decorated a bit to fit the Halloween theme. My cousin calls it “Wacko Taco Dip”, which is what we call it the rest of the year when I bring it to parties without the “gravestones”. It’s really quick and simple to make, and can be made the night before (or even a few nights before) if you’re well-prepared, or immediately before an event if you’re not. It will taste just as good either way. The measurements of the recipe may seem kind of arbitrary at first glance, but they’re made to be the size of a single package of that ingredient. If you’re doling out the ingredients from larger containers, don’t be too worried that your measurements are totally precise, since this recipe is very forgiving.

When I discovered that I was lactose intolerant, one of the reasons I was sad was that I couldn’t have this dip any more. However, I’ve discovered that it’s now possible to buy lactose-free cream cheese, lactose-free sour cream, and lactose-free cheddar cheese. I substitute them in equal quantities for their counterparts in the recipe and it doesn’t bother my tummy at all!

Graveyard Five-Layer Dip a.k.a. Wacko Taco Dip
Yields one 9″ X 13″ pan of dip

Ensuring that it is broken into small pieces, fry until lightly browned and cooked through:
450g lean or extra lean ground beef
Pour off fat. Line a plate with paper towels. Put ground beef on paper towels to soak up any residual fat.
In a small mixing bowl, mix until smooth:
250mL sour cream
227g cream cheese
Spread mixture evenly on the bottom of a 9″ x 14″ pan. Glass is preferable for looks alone; plastic or metal work just as well.
Sprinkle cooked ground beef evenly over the mixture as the second layer.
For the third layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
650mL salsa
For the fourth layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
320g Tex Mex shredded cheese
For the fifth layer, spread evenly over the contents of the pan:
227g shredded iceberg lettuce

If making Wacko Taco dip, the dish is complete! Serve alongside a bowl of your favourite tortilla chips.

If making Graveyard Five-Layer Dip, take:
10 to 12 round tortilla chips
On each of them, write “RIP” with a:
black, fine-tipped edible marker
Push each of these chips into the dip halfway so that the “RIP” is visible on the top. Now you have your gravestones. Serve alongside a bowl of your favourite tortilla chips.

Pumpkin Spice Muffins & Cheerios

It’s no secret that I love pumpkin spice. A lot of people joke that it’s a flavouring made specifically for white women, and there may be some substance to that. After all, it does smell distinctly like the pumpkin pie that was a treat in my family around Thanksgiving and Christmas, so I’m guessing that other people of a similar background have similar nostalgia. They say that smell has a great deal of power when it comes to memory, at any rate.

When I was growing up, though, pumpkin spice wasn’t in everything come fall. Pumpkin pie and pumpkin bread, if you were lucky, and that was about it. The popularity of Starbucks’ pumpkin spice latte is what really got the ball rolling, at least around here. I’m not a coffee drinker, so I was later than many about hopping on the bandwagon. I really rather liked the Oreos and the Kahlua. That being said, I firmly believe that some things really don’t need to be pumpkin spice flavoured, or have been poorly done, so I like to try out a few new dishes every autumn as a kind of experiment.

The first dish that I tried this week was pumpkin spice muffins baked from Krusteaz Pumpkin Spice Quick Bread Mix, which I bought from Costco on a recent trip. The box says that you can make loaves, pancakes, cookies, and muffins, but I was feeling lazy so I just made the muffins. They rose nicely and looked great in the pan, but they fell and became rather overly moist once they left the oven, despite being cooked through. Even so, they were fairly tasty; the kids especially liked them.

For my part, I think I will stick to the Joy of Cooking‘s Pumpkin Bread recipe for this kind of muffin. I’ve had better luck with this recipe in the past. However, I do wonder, in the case of the mix, if it’s trying to do too many things — or if a different preparation might suit the mix better? At any rate, I have three more packages of mix to cook, so I should be able to try them all out.

I also tried some Pumpkin Spice Cheerios. These are definitely a sweet cereal, which to me isn’t suited to breakfast at all. Actually, I found them quite cloying in (unsweetened almond) milk. However, they’re not half bad dry, and make quite a nice snack. However, if I’m going for a sweet Cheerio, I much prefer Apple Cinnamon Cheerios. They came out in 1988, so they have a place in my heart as being a special treat from my childhood (we weren’t allowed sugary cereal except on special occasions). Also, I just find that they taste less sweet and cloying, which is funny because according to the nutrition info, pumpkin spice has 8g of sugar per serving, and apple cinnamon has 9g. Maybe it’s how it’s cooked, or just the spice mixture? It’s even stranger when you realize that one of the major components in pumpkin spice is actually cinnamon. At any rate, I still like Apple Cinnamon Cheerios better.

Sick Day

I was sick yesterday. It’s just a cold: body aches, chills, sinus pressure, and a headache. Nothing major, but pretty miserable. I’d planned on heading out to the Ottawa Antique and Vintage Market, but after taking Thing 1 out to shop for Christmas gifts at a school craft fair, I was beat. I curled up in bed, unable to quite feel warm, until dinner time.

Needless to say, I wasn’t up to cooking. My husband, an unenthusiastic cook at best, thought that I should have soup for dinner to help me feel better. He reheated some frozen shoyu broth I’d made a while back, to which he added ramen noodles, shrimp, soft-boiled eggs, enoki mushrooms, and a square of nori. It was exactly what the doctor ordered.

After dinner, and after the kids were put to wrangled into bed, he also made me a hot apple cider (non-alcoholic; I know in some places calling it “apple cider” presumes an alcohol content, but around that we call it “hard apple cider” to differentiate). He also looted me a few mini chocolate bars from the kids’ extra Halloween candy. I feel very loved. It’s nice to be taken care of every once and a while. Now, if only the cold would disappear as quickly as my hunger did.

Halloween Aftermath

I hope everyone had a great Halloween! I took my kids trick-or-treating for two hours and saw all kinds of houses that were decorated to within an inch of their lives. The rain stopped before sunset, although it remained quite windy. The temperature went down to freezing by the time I turned off the porch lights, but we were all bundled up appropriately so our night wasn’t cut short. We all had a great time!

I’d wanted to wear my Discworld Death costume out to trick-or-treat with the kiddies, but with the stiff wind and threat of rain (we’d even had hail earlier in the day), I didn’t want to subject it to the weather. The head and hands are mostly paper mache, after all. Instead, I propped it up on an old camera tripod and put it in a window to loom over trick-or-treaters.

Pumpkin-headed Reapers remain one of my kids’ absolute favourite Halloween decorations, no matter where we see them.

And my kids had a fantastic candy/chip haul. Some of these treats just may “disappear”… I doubt the girls will even notice. In our house, candy is only allowed to be eaten for a week, after which point it is given away. If I didn’t do this, the kids would be snacking on sugar until well after Christmas.

It does make me wonder what the contents of trick-or-treat bags look like in other countries, though? I mean, obviously not everyone participates in this holiday, but a comparison with other countries that do would be interesting. For example, I know other countries don’t get Crispy Crunch bars…

Halloween Party Food

I hosted our family’s annual Halloween party this past Saturday, and of course that meant lots of food. I put out bowls of chips, Cheetos (the “Bag of Bones” kind that are shaped like dismembered skeletons), pretzels, cheese & crackers, a shrimp ring, a meat tray, a veggie tray, and fruit. And then I added the food that I’d actually cooked.

Salsa and guacamole served with black corn chips are a perennial favourite, but I had fun with the presentation this year. I got the idea to use the “puking” pumpkin from a BuzzFeed 7 Terrifying Halloween Food Ideas video. The guacamole was store-bought, but the salsa was the Blender Salsa (page 92, Preserving by the Pint: Quick Seasonal Canning for Small Spaces (Marisa McClellan, 2014)) that I’d canned earlier this season. I did want to try the “Rotten Deviled Eggs” from the same BuzzFeed video, but I ran out of time and just ended up making normal deviled eggs instead. They went over well anyway, and disappeared quickly.

I did a huge amount (at least for me) of baking in the days leading up to the party so that I could serve a wide variety of sweets. I made Applesauce Cake (page 720, Joy of Cooking by Irma S. Rombauer et al, 2006 edition) into cupcakes, which I iced with Quick Brown Butter Icing (page 794, Joy of Cooking). When I was preparing the batter for the cupcakes, I put the margarine (which I had substituted for butter) in the microwave to soften it… And then I forgot about it. I didn’t realize I’d left it out of the batter until the cupcakes were already baking in the oven. They turned out okay anyway, but they were a little drier than I’d have liked.

I made pumpkin pie tarts using the Purity Pastry crust (page 73, The All New Purity Cook Book (Elizabeth Driver, 2001)) and Pumpkin or Squash Pie filling (page 686, Joy of Cooking). To make the pie dairy-free, I used canned coconut milk instead of heavy cream or evaporated milk. I wasn’t the only person who was going to be at the party who has issues with dairy, so I tried to avoid it whenever possible when cooking this time.

I forgot to include this find when I wrote about thrifting a while back, but I did find a cookie press for about $4.00. I’ve always loved spritz cookies; they were a favourite when I went to bake sales and bazaars, but I couldn’t make them at home since I didn’t have the appropriate tools.

I guess most people would associate this kind of cookie with Christmas rather than Halloween, but there’s nothing saying they can’t be eaten any time, really. I used the Spritz Cookies recipe from page 248 of The Canadian Living Cookbook (Carol Ferguson, 1987), which calls for butter, but I substituted margarine. Not surprisingly, the cookies weren’t as buttery as they could have been, but they were still pretty darned good.

Some time ago I asked one of my friends for her all-time favourite cookie recipe, and she said it was Elevator Lady Spice Cookies on page 99 of The I hate to Cook Book (1966 edition). I’d been looking for an excuse to try them out. Given the powdered cloves and ginger in the recipe, these cookies remind me a bit of a ginger snap in flavour, but with a less brittle texture. As a bonus, this recipe doesn’t contain any dairy in the first place, so I didn’t have to make any substitutions (like many older recipes it uses lard instead of butter as the fat, since it is cheaper).

I made these soft, moist cookies using the Pumpkin Cookies recipe from the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum. To make them dairy-free, I substituted margarine for butter and almond milk for cow’s milk. These were a big hit and a number of my friends asked if they could take a few home with them!

I splurged at the dollar store and bought some mini muffin tins so that I could make some miniature Double Chocolate Zucchini Muffins. Since there is milk in the chocolate chips and these wouldn’t be the same without them, I didn’t even try to make this recipe dairy-free. They’re still a fan favourite; out of three dozen mini muffins, I only had three left over after the party, which all mysteriously disappeared first thing the next morning.

At my friends’ request, I made up another loaf of Voodoo Bread. I learned from my mistakes and used gloves when I kneaded the bread this time. I still didn’t get the well-defined swirl that I was looking for, but it was still a really cool-looking bread.

Not pictured because I forgot, I also had three bread machines going at the same time and made three different kinds of bread, all from Bread Machine: How to Prepare and Bake the Perfect Loaf (Jennie Shapter, 2002):

– Egg-Enriched White Loaf (page 67), where I substituted equal amounts of olive oil for the butter in the original recipe.
– Light Rye and Caraway Bread (page 75), where I substituted canola oil for sunflower oil (I have a friend who is violently allergic to sunflowers), and I omitted skimmed milk powder, simply adding 1 Tbsp water.
– Golden Pumpkin Bread (page 167), where I made a lot of changes because I was missing a bunch of the ingredients called for in the recipe. I substituted whole wheat flour for cornmeal, maple syrup for golden syrup, almond milk for buttermilk, and I omitted the pumpkin seeds. Despite all of the changes, it still turned out great!

Last but not least, I made up a batch of Cookie Monster’s Famous Cookie Dough, which is a favourite recipe of mine since my childhood. I used margarine instead of butter, but the recipe calls for either, so it still tastes nigh on identical to what I remember. With my parents’ help, my kids rolled out the dough, cut it out, and then painted it with a glaze made of egg whites/yolks (depending on the colour) mixed with food colouring. Even with all of the different dishes that I put out for this party, the Cookie Monster Cookies were my favourite. All of the other food was good, but you can’t beat nostalgia.

Another dish I would like to try, but I ran out of time, was Tasty’s Peek-A-Boo Pound Cake. Perhaps I could make something similar for Christmas with a different shape inside?

First Day of School

The first day of school for the public school board in Ontario is always the day after Labour Day, which this year ends up being today. My girls are back to school, and although part of me is sighing in relief that they’ll be in someone else’s care for a couple of hours every day, I know the house will also seem echoingly empty without them around. I think I’ll learn to live with it, though.


Thing 1 and Thing 2’s lunches for the first day of school.

School-provided lunches really aren’t a thing around here; heck, the school doesn’t even have a cafeteria. Everyone brown bags it, although some kids do get a special lunch delivered by the “Lunch Lady” once or twice a week, which has never really seemed like value for money to me. Most of the year my girls pack their own lunches the night before, and they have almost since they started to go to school. I tried to pack Thing 1’s lunches for her starting in Junior Kindergarten, but too often more than half of the food came back home – although her teachers reported that she was complaining of hunger. Once Thing 1 made her own lunch, a lot less of the food came back home, and the complaints became rare. I had to help her out a lot at first, but by the time Thing 2 started school, she wanted to make her own lunch to be just like Thing 1. I’m not saying that it’s not a struggle sometimes. What should be a short and simple process can take ages when the kids do it themselves. Sometimes they are more interested in doing just about anything else and getting them to make their lunches can be a seemingly endless argument. But in the end, I think that the independence is important, and that it’s a good thing that my children learn basic food handling and prep early on. My husband and I are always nearby to make sure that they make healthy choices — and to ensure that they don’t accidentally bring anything with tree nuts or peanuts to school.


Thing 2’s lunch.

However, on the first day of school, for a special treat, I like to pack their lunches for them. I made up some fresh whole wheat bread using the Nan’s Pan Rolls recipe, and I also threw together some Blueberry Bran Muffins. The bread I used to make Hungarian salami sandwiches with mayonnaise (even though I prefer mustard myself). Each girl also got Goldfish, strawberries, vanilla yogurt, and string cheese. I packed Thing 2 a container of sliced English cucumber, while Thing 1 prefers an apple.

Am I the only one who finds those “school lunches in other countries” videos and articles interesting? I don’t know if you could consider this to be a typical Canadian lunch, though. I remember being very interested in my classmates’ lunches when I went to school because they were all so different. Some of them contained Wonder Bread sandwiches with peanut butter and jam or bologna and mayonnaise; others ate crusty French bread, sharp cheese, and cherry tomatoes; others always contained a thermos of soup and a travel package of crackers; others had warm dishes of rice and curry and spice. Some kids ate the same thing religiously, others had an entirely different daily menu. I think our household was somewhat between those extremes, with recurring favourites alongside seasonal and leftover dinner fare.


Thing 1 and Thing 2’s school bags, packed and ready to go.

At any rate, my kids’ lunches and supplies were ready the night before. New-ish outdoor shoes were set by the front door, brand new sneakers were in their backpacks, packages of markers and pencil crayons and duotangs and paper filled up the rest of their bags. Their lunches and water bottles were in the fridge, waiting to be grabbed on the way to the door. Hopefully all of this preparation will set a positive tone for the rest of the year. Will they like their new teachers? Will they get along with their classmates? Will they enjoy the new challenges that their schooling puts in front of them? Who knows? There’s really nothing I can do to influence most of that. But lunch, though, lunch I can do. And no matter how the first day turns out, it always goes better on a full stomach.