World of Mouth: Trick or Treat

The column that brings you food festivals from around the world; This week: The history and recipes for your favorite Halloween sweets.

By JOHANNA BAILEY
October 26, 2010 13:01
Pumpkin Cookie

Pumpkin Cookie 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)

Johanna Bailey is a blogger, freelance writer and student at the Hofmann Culinary School in Barcelona, Spain.

For many, the word Halloween conjures up either images of cinematic psychos in hockey masks, or costumed North American children plodding from house to house toting sacks weighted down with store-bought sugary treats while their parents hover back on sidewalks, visions of exorbitant dental bills dancing through their heads.

Without a doubt, the Americans have taken this holiday, dipped it in copious amounts of commercially manufactured chocolate, and run with it (often while covered in fake ketchup blood). Halloween did not start in North America however, and it is still celebrated in various forms in a number of places throughout the world.

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Most believe that Halloween has its origins with the Irish Celts and the festival of Samhain (“Summer’s End” in Gaelic), a time during which it was believed that the veil between the living and the dead was very thin. However, many traditional Halloween practices are also related to the Catholic traditions of All Saints Day (a day for honoring the saints) on November 1, and All Souls Day (a day for honoring the deceased) on November 2.  For example, it is thought that trick-or-treating is descended from the British or Irish medieval practice of “souling” where poor people and children would go from door to door on November 1, asking for food in exchange for prayers for the dead.

Often the “soulers” would be given “soul cakes,” and each cake eaten would supposedly save a soul. Recipes for these cakes vary but in general, they are more cookie than cake (I suppose “soul cookie” just don’t have quite the same ring), and they usually include egg yolks, currants and spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, allspice or saffron (so now, if nothing else, you now know what Sting is talking about in this song).

In Ireland (which outside of the US, is definitely the place where Halloween is most celebrated), the festivities include bonfires, apple-bobbing, trick-or-treating and a variety of delicious traditional Halloween dishes. However, as is perhaps to be expected, the foods are not without their controversies. Take “Colcannon,” for example, a hearty mash of potatoes butter and kale. Or should it be cabbage? There is apparently bitter debate over the question with the two sides falling into what the Irish blog “The Evening Hérault” refers to as “The Traditional Camp” (the kaleists) and “The Other Crowd” (the cabbageites).

And then there’s Barnback (or “Barmback”?). It appears that they can’t agree upon even the name of this traditional Irish Halloween fruitcake. Actually it seems that there is very little that can be agreed upon when it comes to Barnback/Barmback. As The Evening Herault writes, “The consensus is that you start by soaking the dried fruit in tea. But that’s it. The tea should be weak (or is it strong?), and cold (or is it hot?), and the soaking should be overnight (or six and a half hours?). Well, soak it in some kind of tea for some time anyway, we can at least agree on that. Then do you use yeast or baking powder (or self-raising flour)? Sultanas AND raisins OR just sultanas OR raisins? Candied orange peel? Or…” It’s clear that the matter is complicated but the cake sounds tasty however you make it.

Many other countries in Europe have their own unique dishes that are made especially around this time of year, most often in association with All Saints and All Souls Days. In Spain, “huesos de santo” (Bones of the Saints), cylindrical marzipan pastries filled with custard, and “Buñuelos,” a fritter-like pastry made with a choux dough and then filled with cream, are both traditionally eaten on November 1. In the Catalonian region, the holiday is typically celebrated with “castañadas” (chestnut parties) and “panellets,” (little breads) made from sugar, ground almonds and potatoes (or sweet potatoes) and then flavored with ingredients such as cocoa, coconut, pine nuts, anise, cinnamon, coffee or lemon zest.

In Italy, “Ossa di Morti” (Bones of the Dead) cookies are prepared to celebrate the days of All Souls and All Saints. Depending on the region, the cookies may be made with wheat flour or polenta, and then flavored with a variety of ingredients including anise, cloves, cinnamon, lemon peel, almonds and vanilla.

Meanwhile in Mexico, “El Dia de los Muertos” (The Day of the Dead) is a three-day celebration of All Souls/All Saints that begins on the evening of October 31. Favorite foods are made as offerings to the deceased and popular treats include “calabaza en tacha” (candied pumpkin made with cinnamon and brown sugar), skulls made from sugar and “pan de muerto,” an egg-rich bread which is often molded into decorative shapes and flavored with anise seeds.

While it may still be only in the US that one can hardly turn around without upsetting a bowl of miniature Snickers bars or becoming entangled in a plastic skeleton, the Americanized version of Halloween is nevertheless slowly spreading its sticky web over much of the rest of the world.  My Colombian husband claims that costumed trick-or-treaters fill the streets of Bogota every October 31, and indeed, it isn’t at all unusual to see small gangs of rogue trick-or-treaters meandering through the streets of a number of European countries where the practice is not all a traditional activity. It’s a bit nervy to be sure but hey, you never know which kindly neighbor might have a few stale packets of Oreos hidden in the back of her cupboard.

Unsurprisingly, the Japanese have jumped on the bandwagon with their own unique brand of Halloween cheer which includes Halloween themed origami, Halloween Hello Kitty, and to eat, Pumpkin flavored Kit Kats. 

A much more appetizing use for pumpkin might be to try your hand at this “Calabaza en Tacha” recipe from Jude Cabal of the food blog Apple Pie, Patis and Pâté.

Calabaza en Tacha

Ingredients:

1 medium pumpkin, about 5 pounds
8 cups water
1 1/2 pounds piloncillo/panela or dark brown sugar, about 4 cups
2 cinnamon sticks, about 3 to 4 inches each
10 guavas (optional)

Notes: The original recipe calls for simmering the seeds, pulp, and flesh in the syrup. I usually reserve the seeds for other things. Keep the rind on to prevent the pumpkin slices from disintegrating during the long simmer.

Instructions:
1. Stab the pumpkin in several places to allow the syrup to penetrate the flesh.
2. Cleave the pumpkin and guavas in half lengthwise.
3. Disembowel the pumpkin.
4. Hack the pumpkin into 3-inch chunks or crescent-shaped slivers.
5. In a wide and heavy cauldron, add the pumpkin pieces, guavas, raw sugar, and cinnamon sticks. Add enough water to drown the pumpkin pieces and guavas, about 8 cups. Bring to a boil.
6. Cover the pot and cook the pumpkin and guavas over medium-high heat for about 15 minutes.
7. Remove the lid and simmer until the liquid is reduced to a thick syrup and the pumpkin and guavas are glazed, about 1 to 2 hours.

To Serve:
Serve warm or chilled with milk or ice cream. Drizzle with some of the reserved syrup.



Read more of Johanna's thoughts on food at: http://www.barcelonabites.com


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