Confection Section: Tips and Trick-or-Treats

Because I’m a first-year teacher (for this blog, not in real life – at least not yet), I’m subject to a lot of in-service time off, which I spend on researching and planning my next lesson, which is why the time between my first and second lessons was very long. On top of that, I have writing work over at another food blog called munchbrothers.org, so balancing between time here and time with the Munch Brothers is hard, but I manage.

Anyway, I’m back. I was planning on continuing my “Take Back the Basics” lessons (it was going to be about appliances and what you need if you’re a first-time cook), but it’s Halloween weekend and, really, what food blog would be complete without a blog about Halloween and Halloween candy, so I brought back Confection Section.

Even if you’re too old to trick or treat and going to costume parties isn’t your (trick-or-treat) bag, you can still make your own candy (it’s kind of too late to do it now, but, hey, you’ll have something for next year) – either to give to trick-or-treaters, as part of a spooky house party, or just to have as a change of pace from bingeing on M&Ms, Snickers, and Milk Duds.

As I said before in the first Confection Section (https://phillyfoodie85.wordpress.com/2014/07/08/confection-section-salt-water-taffy/), making candy by hand seems like one of those old-fashioned traditions that went out with typewriters, spats, and seeing women as little more than housewives and broodmare (Okay, it’s not in those exact words, but it’s close), but most candy shops that specialize in “from scratch” confections (particularly the boardwalk candy shops and any shop owned and operated by Amish farmers and their wives at the Reading Terminal Market in Center City) do keep taffy pulling and making candy by hand alive while kitchen supply and craft stores such as Sur La Table and Michaels’ have candy-making molds, tools, and guide books, so you can make confections of all kinds at home.

Before we get to how to make some Halloween treats, I’d like to tell you a spooky tale on how this holiday came to be. You probably never really sat down and asked yourself, “What’s up with this holiday? What’s with the bobbing for apples and dressing in costumes to bilk the neighborhood out of candy (and, on some unfortunate occasions, mini-toothpaste, pennies, floss, reflective tape, apples with razor blades in them, gift certificates to McDonalds [or any fast-food place near you], written advice, expired medication, or worst case scenario, nothing)? Who came up with it?” Asking that makes you look like you’re an alien, from a country that doesn’t celebrate Halloween, or socially ignorant (like, Aspergers’ syndrome-level socially ignorant), so you just go along with the tradition. And besides, who are you to turn down free candy (unless it’s from a local creepy pedophile)?

Well, I got the answers for you on what Halloween is and why we have these crazy traditions. So hit the lights and hand me the flashlight so I can put it under my chin:

Halloween and its traditions have strong roots in three autumn celebrations: Samhain, Pomona, and All Saints’ Day (or All Soul’s Day, depending on where you live). If you’re Catholic (or know anything about Catholic holidays), you probably have some idea of what All Saints’/Souls’ Day is (I’ll still go over it for the benefit of the curious/non-religious), but not the first two holidays. Samhain? Pomona? Separately, they sound like the names of second-rate state universities, and together, it sounds like the name of an Irish-Italian supermodel/actress (“Samhain Pomona” – I gotta get that down for one of my stories). Well, they’re neither. Samhain and Pomona are ancient autumn harvest holidays from Europe.

Samhain (meaning “summer’s end” in Gaelic) is an ancient Celtic festival that marked the end of summer and the harvest season and the upcoming arrival of winter. Celts living in Scotland, Wales, Ireland, England, and Northern France (specifically the Brittany region) got their food from herding and hunting, and when summer came to a close, the healthiest animals in the herds were taken to a winter shelter, while the rest were cooked and eaten. Samhain was also seen by the Celts as a time when the spirits of their deceased ancestors were free to roam among the living. These spirits were thought to possess powers of fortunetelling, warning the living of trouble ahead*. The villagers made offerings of food and wine to their ancestors, hoping to make contact with their departed family members. To avoid visits from any unwanted spirits, the living would wear “ghoulish disguises” so they can fool others into thinking they’re the spirits. The costumed villagers would then form a parade as a way to lead the unwanted spirits out of their village.

Pomona, in contrast, didn’t have any macabre undertones. In fact, Pomona was a wood nymph who was worshipped as the Roman goddess of bountiful abundance, especially when it came to growing crops. November 1st was the day when ancient Romans celebrated her with offerings of nuts, apples, and other orchard fruits, as if to say, “Praise Pomona for keeping us mortals fed and prosperous.”

So far, you’re seeing the “tricks” and the pageantry behind Halloween and the importance of fall harvest celebrations, but how did Halloween as the modern age knows it come to be?

Well, because of the Pomona festival’s proximity to Samhain, the two holidays converged after the Romans invaded Britain in 43 A.D. The Romans and Celts intermingled over the following centuries, turning Samhain and Pomona into a single holiday.

When Christianity began to grow throughout Europe, the previous harvest holidays became a Christian celebration known as “the feasts of All Saints and All Souls.” 835 A.D. saw the Roman Catholic Church officially making the first of November a religious holiday to honor the saints. Instead of offering food and wine to the spirits of ancestors, villagers baked “soul cakes,” spiced biscuit-like cakes offered to the poor, who, in turn, would pray for the deceased to find peace in the afterlife…unless, of course, they were doomed to burn in Hell.

As the tradition grew in later years, young men would travel door-to-door singing songs in exchange for money, food or ale, which, to me, sounds more like a Christmas tradition than a Halloween/fall festival one, because who among you hasn’t wanted to give Christmas carolers money, food, or booze just so they’ll stop singing? And, before you ask, yes, this tradition is the ancestor to trick-or-treating. The practice of wearing costumes while doing this was a way to honor the saints, rather than warding off unwelcome spirits**. The more extravagant churches would display relics of the saints on All Saints’ Day, while poorer churches would encourage the parishioners to dress up as saints in lieu of displaying relics. I remember my Catholic school doing something like this when I was enrolled there. I don’t know the specifics, sadly, but my second grade class was involved with it.

Several of the ancient traditions associated with Samhain, Pomona, and All Saints’ Day were brought to the United States when Irish immigrants came to the United States in the 19th century. The tradition of pumpkin carving stemmed from Irish immigrants carving faces onto potatoes and turnips as a means to welcome in spirits of deceased family members. Yes, I know it sounds like a stereotype, but it is true. Besides, carving faces into potatoes and turnips sounds more like Europe trying to copy voodooism. The pumpkin just feels more right. I don’t want to have to re-imagine the legend of The Headless Horseman with a turnip for a head. It’s not as scary as a flaming jack-o-lantern.

Halloween as an American holiday finally became what it is today in the post-World War II world, when the holiday was aimed at the younger crowd and people put out cookies and cupcakes — as well as whatever candies were popular back then, like Atomic Fireballs, Charleston Chews, candy corn, and Candy Cigarettes [now changed to Candy Sticks or not sold at all due to worries over tobacco companies encouraging minors to smoke] – to kids roaming the streets dressed as witches, vampires, or Frankenstein’s monster***, among other things.

Halloween tradition has evolved from a fall harvest/occult celebration to a children’s celebration to a holiday for all ages, whether your taking your younger sibling through the neighborhood to get candy or you’re shaking it in your hospital hottie/naughty nurse costume at an all-night costume party.

But it all boils down to…the treats.

The amount of candy eaten on Halloween has long outnumbered the amount eaten at Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Heck, even Easter has nothing on Halloween when it comes to candy consumption. In 2011, $2.3 billion was spent on Halloween candy and the entire Halloween candy industry is worth eight billion. It has grown significantly since then. A recent survey from the National Confectioners Association states that 72% of all money spent on candy this Halloween will be on chocolate. Last year, more than $12.6 billion was spent on chocolate in the United States, which is 3.8% more than the year before. Americans spent $3.9 billion to buy 3.5 billion chocolate bars, bags and boxes under 3.5 ounces, the standard size consumers pick up at a grocery store checkout. Reese’s candies (peanut butter cups, pieces, and their ilk) and M&Ms (all kinds) each accounted for more than $500 million in sales.

The chocolate industry is extremely concentrated among just a few competitors. Hershey and Mars are the two heavyweights in the chocolate industry, not just in America, but throughout the world. The nation’s oldest top-seller, Hershey’s brand chocolate, has been available since 1900 (that’s 114 years of soaring blood sugar and chocolatey goodness) while Mars has been around since 1911 (which is 103 years of the same thing as Hershey’s). These brands not only compete for customer dollars at the checkout line, they also sell their products in snack sizes (those miniature versions of full-size candy bars and packs that are usually seen in Halloween candy bags). While most of the top standard size brands also rank among the highest for sales of snack-size chocolate, there are some exceptions. M&Ms and 3 Musketeers are relatively less popular in snack size than in the standard size****.

So, how are you gonna compete with Hershey’s and Mars to get trick-or-treaters’ attention? You probably won’t, but with quality ingredients, trial and error, and a lot of imagination (especially when it comes to packaging), you can make Halloween treats that will have all the little witches cackling and werewolves howling.

Caramel Apples

My first recipe is a Halloween/fall traditional treat: caramel apples. They’re hard to eat, will rot your teeth (or cause you to lose a baby tooth – or a permanent one), and do take a little time to prepare, but they are good…for some people. I don’t like the taste of the buttery caramel mixed with the tart Granny Smith apple. I like caramel and Granny Smith apples, but not together. On top of that, those type of apples are already sweet. Adding sugary stuff to it just serves to increase your waistline, but I know there are people out there who don’t care and like caramel apples regardless. So here’s the recipe, courtesy of CookingLight.com (it’s 221 calories, even if you try to make it healthy):

Ingredients

small apples, chilled (green/Granny Smith apples preferred, though you can experiment with Red Delicious, Gala, Fuji, whichever you like)

2 cups granulated sugar

½ cup light-colored corn syrup (or simple syrup)

½ cup water

2 cups half-and-half

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

¼ teaspoon salt

Supplies Needed

Wooden sticks

Candy thermometer

Large saucepan or Dutch oven

Teaspoons

Measuring cups

Wooden spoon for stirring

Bowls for hot water bath

Baking sheet lined with wax/parchment paper

Preparation

1. Push wooden sticks into the top of chilled apples. Return apples to the refrigerator until caramel is ready for dipping.

2. Place sugar, corn syrup, and water in a large saucepan; boil, stirring until dissolved. Boil, without stirring, 9 minutes or until light golden.

3. Combine half-and-half, vanilla, and salt; slowly stir into pan. Boil until candy thermometer reaches 235° (45 minutes), stirring frequently.

4. Pour caramel into a bowl sitting in a hot water bath. Swirl apples in caramel, and place on baking sheet lined with wax paper.

The next candy recipe is a favorite of mine and one of many reasons why I wanted to start this blog: to show that it is possible to make store-bought foods from scratch. This is the recipe for homemade Reese’s peanut butter cups. They make look hard to make, but they’re really not. Credit goes to www.fifteenspatulas.com


Homemade Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups

Ingredients:

2 (12 oz.) bags semisweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup creamy peanut butter
1/4 cup powdered sugar
2 Tablespoons unsalted butter, softened

Supplies Needed

Muffin tin

Paper muffin cups (12 large or 24 miniature)

Small spoon or cookie scoop

Airtight container for storage

Double boiler or large saucepan filled with boiling water with heatproof bowl on top (or microwaveable bowl)

Electric hand mixer

Directions:

Line a standard 12-cup muffin tin with paper liners.

Melt one (12 oz.) bag of chocolate either in a double boiler or by microwaving in short increments, stirring after 30 seconds, for about 2 minutes.

With a small spoon or cookie scoop, evenly distribute melted chocolate into each muffin cup. Drop pan repeatedly on the counter to help chocolate flatten and smooth out. Freeze whole pan for 15 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine peanut butter, powdered sugar and butter. Whip with an electric hand mixer until smooth. If your peanut butter mixture is not completely smooth, stir in an additional teaspoon of melted butter or vegetable/canola oil.

Remove pan from freezer and place small spoonfuls of peanut butter mixture on top of each chocolate layer. Drop pan repeatedly on the counter again, to help flatten peanut butter layer. Freeze whole pan for 15 minutes.

Melt remaining 12 oz. bag of chocolate. Working quickly, portion small spoonfuls of chocolate into each cups, three cups at a time, immediately dropping the pan repeatedly on the counter to flatten cups (or the 24 mini). Freeze whole pan for 15 minutes to set the top layer of chocolate.

For a peanut butter cup with a firmer texture, serve chilled. For a softer, creamier texture, serve at room temperature. Store refrigerated in an airtight container up to 5 days. Don’t fret if they don’t look exactly like a Reese’s cup. That’s how they’re supposed to look.

This final candy recipe is another chocolate delight, hailing all the way from Brazil. It’s called a brigadeiro. I have had Brazilian chocolate before (it was a chocolate bonbon whose name meant “Dancing and Dreaming” in Portuguese, which, like Spanish, is different in Europe than it is in South America. I’m not all experienced at speaking Portuguese, but I can recognize what it looks like. The same can also be said for the following languages I have seen and tried to learn: Russian, Korean, Chinese, Japanese, Turkish, Greek, Polish, Thai, and Swedish) – very creamy mouthfeel, is better than American chocolate, but it was not as decadent as Belgian or French chocolate. Of course, that’s not what they look like originally. This is what you can do with them to freak out trick-or-treaters.

Olho Brigadeiros

Ingredients

1 (14 ounce) can sweetened condensed milk

½ cup Dutch-process cocoa powder

2 tablespoons unsalted butter

12 oz. (one bag) white chocolate chips or white chocolate melting chocolate

1 teaspoon red food coloring, or as needed

1 teaspoon blue food coloring, or as needed

1 teaspoon black food coloring, or as needed

Supplies Needed:

Medium saucepot

Rubber spatula

8″x8″ baking dish (greased)

Double boiler or boiling saucepot of water with heatproof bowl fitted over it

Tablespoon

Thin paintbrushes

Instructions

1. Combine sweetened condensed milk, cocoa powder, and butter in medium saucepot over medium-low heat.

2. Cook, stirring frequently, until mixture is very thick and rubber spatula holds its line across bottom of pan, about 25 minutes. Pour into a greased 8″x8″ baking dish and refrigerate until cooled, at least 30 minutes.

3. Working with approximately 1 tablespoon pieces at a time, roll into 1-inch balls. Set aside

4. Melt white chocolate chips or discs in double boiler or in bowl over boiling saucepot. Stir until thoroughly melted.

5. Dip 1-inch balls in white chocolate. Freeze until hard (anywhere from an hour to four, depending)

6. Paint white chocolate-dipped balls with food coloring to make it look like an eyeball.

7. Freeze again, this time for 30 minutes or until food coloring does not run

NOTE: If you really want your candy eyeballs to raise eyebrows (and some people’s lunches), use colored royal icing for the eye detail to make it more realistic. If you’re putting them in a bowl, I recommend smearing them in strawberry or cherry jelly/preserves, for that pulpy, bloody look.

Well, that’s it for my Halloween candy lesson. Good night, happy eating, and, if you’re out partying and need a 2:00am spot to eat, stop on by the Diner of the Living Dead…if you dare!

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*Irish/Celtic culture has a lot of stories about spirits warning mortals of death and future misfortune. Ever hear of banshees?

**And I’ll bet the ancient peoples who did this didn’t have to deal with people wearing sleazy, moronic, or insane costumes like people today do – or, at least, knew how to publicly humiliate the ones who had the sack to do so

***A little literary trivia: even though Frankenstein’s monster is known as Frankenstein, his name in the actual novel by Mary Shelley was Thomas [pronounced “Toe-ma,” because he was French]. Frankenstein was actually the last name of his creator, Dr. Victor Frankenstein.

**** As someone who has eaten both M&Ms and 3 Musketeers in standard and snack sizes, I can tell you snack sizes just isn’t enough for M&Ms and 3 Musketeers…and neither are Snickers bars or 100 Grand bars.

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Happy Holidays To All My Readers

I think the title says it all. The next blog post won’t come until next week, since it’s going to be New Years’ and what better way to start the new year than with a new blog post?

I also got an early Christmas present on Monday when I got an acceptance email to Philadelphia’s COOK Masters program for cooks (and now food writers) who have the drive and culinary skills, but need more experience and professional connections. Here’s a look at what the program is like: http://vimeo.com/61282616

I start the program on January 13th.

In the mean time, enjoy these photos of the food I made when I was at Job Corps:

Breast Cancer Remission Celebration Cake with Coffee Frosting Foreclosed Gingerbread House 1 Foreclosed Gingerbread House 2 Shrimp and Lime Pate en Croute Sopa and Fried Plantain Platter Stuffed Mussels and Polenta

Happy holidays and happy 2014!

The First Post

My two years spent outside of Pennsylvania learning culinary arts at two Job Corps centers (and getting my driver’s license, strengthening my communication skills with people, and trying to be a more well-rounded person with a wider circle of friends, but mostly it was learning culinary arts and everything it entails — sanitation, teamwork, knife skills, etc) has left me wanting homemade meals and “from scratch” versions of foods that I could easily get at any restaurant, supermarket, or convenience store. While most will argue it’s because of health reasons and how pre-made stuff comes loaded with artificial ingredients and high fructose corn syrup and other things that are contributing to the obesity epidemic in this country, my reason for wanting to cook things from scratch is simply because it tastes better. Sure, I’ll enjoy the occasional take-out or freezer appetizer, but these days, it’s more out of obligation to my family rather than laziness. I don’t want to live that way anymore — and neither should you.

That’s why I named this blog, Take Back the Kitchen. Because you — my reading audience — and I — the writer — want to rebel against the iron grip that fast and frozen convenience foods have had on our shelves, pantries, and refrigerators. You want to know what you’re eating, whether you want to eat healthy for life or turn your home menu around and give yourself and/or your roommates/family something good to eat that doesn’t require you uttering the words, “Hello, do you deliver?” or “Yes, I would like fries with that.”

Now, I don’t expect you to change your eating habits overnight. Don’t firebomb a ShopRite just because I spent time in San Francisco with the granola crowd at the bayside farmer’s market and am telling you that organic, grass-fed beef beats the cornfed, hormone-pumped stuff any day of the week. I don’t want to hear that I inspired a jihad against people who prefer McDonalds over Trader Joe’s. This blog isn’t about that. It’s more about being more mindful about what you put in your body. As someone who has worked in a kitchen setting both on and off the Job Corps Center campuses, I’ll be there to not only give you good recipes, but also helpful tips and tricks of the kitchen so, with a little practice and ingenuity, you won’t have to use convenience food as a last resort (unless you really, really screw up — and, don’t worry, it happens to the best of us).