November 1, 2009

The Great Pumpkin

I love Halloween.

When I was a kid, it was all about homemade costumes, made-from-scratch popcorn balls and hometown Halloween fests where you bobbed for apples and watched your sister win the prize for most creative costume. She was a turtleneck-headed monster with a mask made from styrofoam bits, construction paper and tinfoil, and she was awesome.

I was a princess. I was always a princess. Of course, I was a princess in a dress brought back from India with my face "hennaed" in waterproof eyeliner by my artist mom. But still, a princess.

I'm not so much into the commercial bits of Halloween - the big puffy air-blown pumpkins and cemeteries in the front yard, the giant Halloween stores with countless cheaply-made costumes and scary rubber masks, the oceans and oceans of candy. But I don't mind them. The way we celebrate as a society, it's very American. And it's kinda cool.

For me, though, Halloween is something more than ghosts and chocolate and dry ice. It's also about my Oma, who passed away in 2000 after a long and interesting life. I think of her nearly every day, but more, of course, on her birthday. Yesterday, on Halloween, she would have been 101 years old.

So now, with the kids, Halloween is a chance to share the values I learned from my Oma, passed along through my own parents. We knock out some of the commercialism and take some time together. Each year, my kids & I pick costumes we can create by hand (though sometimes the drive to be a character means we pick up a superhero suit at Target). We bake cookies shaped like little black cats and send them off to school parties. We pick pumpkins from a pumpkin patch, draw faces on them with Sharpies and then carve them out meticulously and light them up.

It's still about the costumes, the candy haul and the sugar high. But it's also about spending time together, creating and planning, doing things for each other. Now granted, it's often me doing most of the work on this stuff - my kids are fabulous and talented, but they're still a bit young to handle a sewing machine. The idea that we're thinking and creating and being together, though - that's still important, and it's what they get out of this. At least, I hope they do.

I do love Halloween.

Oh, and bonus for the food fans: you, too, can make black cat cookies! I got this recipe from Taste of Home's Halloween Party Favorites in 2005 and have made it every year since. The cookies are not terribly sweet - but, the dough is stiff and these shape beautifully.

1 cup butter, softened
2 cups sugar
2 eggs
3 tsp vanilla extract
3 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup baking cocoa
1/2 tsp baking powder
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/2 tsp salt
24 wooden craft or popsicle sticks (I usually leave these out)
24 red hot candies
48 pieces candy corn (be careful - I'm a candy corn fiend, so if you buy these too early, I might just come to your house and eat all your candy corn before you're ready to bake ... that's what happens at my house, anyway)

In a mixing bowl, cream butter and sugar. Beat in eggs and vanilla. Combine the flour, cocoa, baking powder, baking soda and salt; gradually add to the creamed mixture. Roll dough into 1-1/2 inch balls. Place 3 in. apart on lightly greased baking sheets (I just use parchment paper & skip the greasing). Insert a wooden stick into each cookie. Flatten with a glass dipped in sugar. Pinch top of cookie to form ears. For whiskers, press a fork twice into each cookie. Bake at 350 F for 10-12 minutes or until cookies are set. Remove from the oven; immediately press on candy corn for eyes and red-hot candies for noses. Remove to wire racks to cool. Yield: 2 dozen.

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