Tips and treats for your Halloween party
Of course, planning is everything, even when it comes to last-minute get-togethers. A theme helps. For adults, that is, but not for kids since most of them have their Halloween costume figured out months in advance.
But adults responding to your special last-minute theme feel good knowing that just by showing up in the appropriate get-up they're making a major contribution to the festivities.
For last-minute party-givers, it can be as basic as designing a party around a theme of black garbage bags. You'll be amazed at what can be done with them. From a basic black cocktail dress to samurai warrior, it's one costume idea that won't cost your guests much in time or money. And the cleverness that emerges is a sight to behold.
But if you think your guests can cobble together something beyond dumpster attire, then consider a theme based on the '60s, '70s, '80s or late 21st century. Or an Edgar Allan Poe or Agatha Christy party. Or a party based on characters from scary books.
Then there's the wide open theme of a Come As....party. Here are a few you might not have thought of:
As your most ghoulish prom date.
As your favorite fantasy.
As you wish you were.
As your worst nightmare.
As a character from a Stephen King novel.
As an inanimate object.
As your favorite rock 'n roll legend
As a Beatles groupie
As your favorite action adventure hero
And although costumes are entertaining in themselves, to liven up the evening, how about a costume contest?
Have at least five or six catagories, ranging from "least comprehensible," "scariest" and "ugliest" to "amost politically correct" and "funniest."
For prizes hit your local thrift shop to find the most outrageous and tacky presents you can find, such as matching hula boy and girl lamps, or jumping salmon bookends.
Mood is important too. For starters, give whackiness a boost by making sure you've invited enough lunatics to keep things moving. Of course, there are inanimate ways to improve the atmosphere as well:
Cheesecloth is an inexpensive covering for your buffet table and just oozes a feeling of creepiness, from fake spider webs to fake blood (red food coloring) dribbled all over it. You can also tack up shredded sheets of the gauzy material in doorways.
For a haunted house affect, drape sheets over your furniture, fill your vases with wilted roses, and place dozens and dozens of lit candles throughout the house.
If you've got silver candelabras, this is the time to bring them out. Forget the silver polish; it's more effective if they're tarnished.
Make sure your lights are extremely dim or, better yet, put colored lightbulbs in all of your lamps and ceiling fixtures. Orange and blacklights are the most ghoulish.
Float helium-filled black and orange balloons with ribbons dangling down from the ceiling. For a yucky effect, dip the tips of the ribbons in water just before guests arrive. And if you have some of the balloons blown up a day earlier they'll be floating at all levels and not just on the ceiling.
A real creepy prop: plastic rats or aliens in mason jars, filled with green or red colored water.
Have a face or body painting station set up for your creative guests.
Stuff an old shirt and pair of jeans with bubble wrap or newspaper, then place the headless body outside on the limb of a tree near your entryway as a ghoulish greeter.
Encourage low-talking (talking only in hushed tones) for the first 15 minutes of the party.
Have a nonstop selection of scary sounds and music CDs playing. For great gothic horror, Bach's Toccata & Fugue in D Minor is very heavy-duty organ music and sets the stage for all things that go bump in the night.
For visual effect, just put a good old-fashioned scary movie like "Wolfman" or "Frankenstein" in your VCR or DVD player. The effect is great whether guests are watching or not.
If you've got young kids attending your party, then you should plan some appropriate activities. For example, put out bowls of colored frosting, M&Ms, chocolate chips and jelly bellies, along with a tray of plain cupcakes or pumpkin cookies, then let the kids have fun decorating their own treats.
For the punch bowl, make an ice ring with plastic spiders and crawly things in it. And don't forget the instant fog, created by dry ice in a bowl of hot water. Figure on 1/2 pound of dry ice per quart of hot water. As the water cools down you'll need to keep adding hot water or the ice will quit producing fog.
Set it out of sight on your buffet table, perhaps behind a spray of leaves or inside a jack-o'-lantern.
Garnish drinks with Gummi worms, spiders, flies and other creatures.
To encourage mingling and keep your group of gobblins from clumping into cliques, spread out your party fare.
Speaking of party fare, with the witching hour only one day away, you've got limited time to plan and execute a menu or at least the dish or two you've been asked to contribute to someone else's event.
This time of year, and for this kind of gathering, the more informal the offerings -- things that can be eaten out of hand, for example -- are enjoyed the most. Remember, many guests will be contending with fangs, 2-inch long false nails, or an extra latex body, so forks and knives can be unwieldy.
Bowls of spiced popcorn and nuts are an excellent choice, as are flavorful dips and spreads, particularly when they can be assembled in about 10 minutes, which is the case for the following chile con queso recipe, for example.
Consider a batch of caramel apples, which are always a hit. But instead of settling for the instant wrap stuff, or those little commercial celo-wrapped candies, why not go for the real old-fashioned, sugar-butter-vanilla-cream caramel that you can make yourself.
And don't forget the nose-warming beverages. Hot mulled cider is a seasonal must; hot mulled wine -- or some other adult-style concoction -- a civilized necessity.
Chile con queso
2 medium-sized yellow onions, chopped
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
2 (7 ounce) cans chopped green chiles
1/2 cup pickled jalapeno slices (I use Mezzetta brand's deli-sliced "Tamed" Jalapeno Peppers), coarsely chopped
1 (151/2 ounce) can evaporated milk
2 cups shredded Jack cheese
Crisp raw vegetables
In a large skillet, saute onions in the olive oil over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft and translucent. Add the chiles and simmer, stirring, until the juice from the chiles has evaporated (about 5 minutes). Add the evaporated milk and simmer gently, stirring occasionally, until slightly thickened. Remove from heat and cool about 2 minutes, then add the cheese. Stir gently until the cheese has melted. Keep the dip warm over a low flame.
Makes about 31/2 cups.
This is a heavenly recipe for caramel and makes an exquisite wrap for new-crop apples. I'm also including a roasted hazelnut option, which is exceptionally delicious if you want to go the extra mile, so to speak.
The Real Deal caramel apple
11/2 cups granulated sugar
11/2 cups firmly packed golden brown sugar
1 cup butter, cut into chunks
1 cup half & half
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
10-12 small to medium-sized apples (I use Fujis)
12 popcicle sticks (available at most craft stores)
3 cups darkly roasted, skinned, and chopped hazelnuts (optional; see note below)
In a heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan, combine the granulated sugar, brown sugar, butter, half & half, heavy cream, light corn syrup and salt. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally until the butter and sugars have melted and the mixture comes to a gentle boil. This will take about 15 to 20 minutes.
At this point, insert a candy thermometer and continue cooking and stirring occasionally until the temperature reaches between 243 and 245 degrees F. This will take at least another 20 minutes, but I've had batches that have taken up to 40 minutes, it varies due to the amount of moisture in the butter, for one thing. Don't rush it!
Remove from heat immediately and stir in the vanilla.
Take the pot over to your work counter and prop it so that the pan tilts sideways, giving you a deep pool of caramel to dip the apples into.
Poke a popcicle stick into the stem end of each apple. Dip each apple into the caramel, twirling it around and spooning caramel over the top of the apple if necessary to cover it entirely. Place each coated apple on a well-greased cookie sheet (or a cookie sheet with a non-stick coating). When all of the apples are coated, place them in a refrigerator for a few minutes so the caramel gets firm.
Makes 10 to 12 caramel apples.
Roasted hazelnut option: Place 3 cups of raw hazelnut kernels on a rimmed baking sheet and toast in a 350-degree oven for about 15 minutes, or until the skins have darkened and cracked on the majority of the nuts and the centers are a rich golden brown. Remove immediately and let cool. Skin the nuts by one of the following options: 1) Tumble the nuts onto a terry-cloth towel, fold over, and rub vigorously back and forth so the nuts release their skin; or 2) Place the cooled nuts into a large plastic container (that holds at least twice the volume of the nuts) with a tight fitting lid. Shake vigorously back and forth, up and down, and all around to cause the nuts to crash into themselves, and abrade the skin. To remove the loosened skin from either method, spread them out on a large baking sheet, take them outside, and blow. The papery skin will fly away.
Chop the roasted nuts and arrange them in a wide bowl. After dipping each apple in the hot caramel, dip or roll the apple in the chopped nuts. How you coat each apple is up to you: you could just dip the tops, or one side, or the entire apple. You decide!
Jan Roberts-Dominguez is a Corvallis, Ore., food writer, artist, and author of "Oregon Hazelnut Country, the Food, the Drink, the Spirit," and four other cookbooks. Readers can contact her by email at email@example.com, or obtain additional recipes and food tips on her blog at www.janrd.com.
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