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Thursday, Oct. 24, 2013 12:01 am

Trick-or-treating country style



Trick-or-treating is different when you’re a country kid. But when I was very young, I wasn’t aware of any difference. After supper, I’d put on my costume and head out with my mom in the car. These days, North Cotton Hill Road is a different scene, with subdivisions galore, but back then there were only a handful of houses, all too far apart for grade-school children to traverse alone. There were a couple of old farmhouses. The one closest to us was familiar: I regularly played with the farmer’s granddaughter when she visited. But the other was a perfect Halloween haunt: a little eerie and spooky, complete with a dour farmer and his wife, but not too much for a young child. Later it would become known as The Fort, a sort of commune in the 1960s and 70s.

After I’d plunged the possibilities of North Cotton Hill Road, we’d head to the lake and stop at a few houses, most of whose inhabitants we knew. Then it was back home, knocking on my grandparents’ door. They never recognized me and would be hugely surprised when I revealed myself, contributing a bunch of stuff to my bag. There’d be some candy, but mostly small toys, coloring books, etc.

By middle school, I’d become jealous of my friends’ enormous Halloween hauls, mostly as a matter of prestige. I was picky about candy; there were just a few kinds I liked. When I became too old to trick-or-treat, I graduated to handing out the goodies at home, but usually the only trick-or-treaters would be our neighbors’ three kids.

As Halloween approached the first year we lived in Oak Park, I became increasingly excited. At last I’d get to be a part of a truly neighborhood Halloween, opening the door to multitudes of cute kids in wacky costumes. Even though we lived up a steep set of stairs and I was eight months pregnant, I put the treats in a huge bowl and started preparing a simple supper so I’d be ready to start answering the doorbell.

It began ringing at 3:30. Thinking it was a delivery, I trudged down the stairs sans candy. There stood my first trick-or-treaters. I stared at them crossly, “I don’t have anything. It’s not time yet.” They looked at me strangely and left. I trudged back up the stairs thinking, “Greedy little monsters! They’re starting early to get more candy than anyone else.”

But as soon as I reached the top of the stairs, the bell rang again. I looked out the front window of our apartment. The entire street was crawling with kids in costume.

“I can’t believe it,” I thought. Do these kids’ parents even know their little darlings have already begun? Well, I’m not answering the door until it gets dark – that’s when trick-or-treating starts!”

And I didn’t. The bell continued ringing almost nonstop for two hours while I continued to fume. But when dusk turned to darkness, the ringing stopped. Minutes later, my husband came home. As I indignantly told him about the afternoon, Peter, who grew up in suburban Arlington Heights, raised his eyebrows. “The kids came during the day because they’re not supposed to be out after dark. Around here it’s not considered safe. Maybe it’s OK back in Springfield, but not here.”

Duh! That hadn’t even occurred to me. The next year I was ready and waiting. Finally I got to have my neighborhood Halloween experience, although then I was trudging up and down the stairs with not only a bowl of treats, but also with a baby!

These days, trick-or-treaters are told not to accept homemade treats. While tales of poisoned candy and razors in apples turn out to largely be urban myths, it’s still a good idea to use caution. Here are two sweet treats for familiar neighbors and friends, whether young or old.

Salted pumpkin caramels

Salted pumpkin caramels
• 2/3 c. unsalted pepitas
• 1 1/2 c. heavy cream
• 2/3 c. pumpkin puree
• 1/2 tsp. cinnamon
• 1/4 tsp. freshly grated nutmeg
• 2 c. white sugar
• 1/2 c. light corn syrup
• 1/3 c. pure maple syrup
• 1/4 c. water
• 4 T. unsalted butter, cut in chunks
• 1 tsp. lemon juice
• 1 tsp. coarse sea salt

In a skillet set over medium-high heat, toast the pepitas, stirring constantly, until they start to pop.

Line the bottom and the sides of an 8-inch square baking pan with parchment. Butter the parchment on the sides of the pan. Evenly spread out the toasted pepitas on the bottom of the pan, on top of the parchment.

In a saucepan, combine heavy cream, pumpkin puree and spices. Heat over medium-high heat just until a few bubbles begin to appear. It should not boil. Set aside and keep warm.

In a second heavy bottomed pan, with sides at least 4 inches high, combine the sugar, both syrups and water. Stir until the sugars are melted, Then let it boil until it reaches 244 F. (the soft ball point on a candy thermometer). Then very carefully add the cream and pumpkin mixture, and slowly bring this mixture to 240 F. as registered on a candy thermometer. This can take awhile – 30 minutes or a bit more – but don’t leave the kitchen. Watch it carefully. Once it hits 230 F., stir frequently to keep it from burning at the bottom of the pan. Typically, caramel mixtures hover just below the 240 F. mark for several minutes, then jump quickly to 240 F.

As soon as it reaches 240 F., immediately pull it off the heat and stir in the butter and lemon juice. Stir vigorously until the butter is fully incorporated.

Pour the mixture slowly into the prepared pan so the pepitas don’t get shifted around. Let cool 30 minutes and then sprinkle the salt over the top, pressing the salt crystals gently – and gingerly, the caramels will still be hot. Let the caramels fully set. (This will take at least 2 hours.)

To cut the caramels into individual pieces, Turn the square of caramels onto a piece of parchment, loosening the sides as needed. Dip a sharp knife into hot water, and then dry it off, then use it to cut the caramel block into 1-inch squares. Wrap them individually in waxed or parchment paper.

Caramel corn
• 3-4 quarts freshly popped, unseasoned popcorn
• 1/2 c. unsalted butter
• 1 c. firmly packed dark brown sugar
• 1/4 c. dark corn syrup or maple syrup
• 1 tsp. salt
• 1 tsp. vanilla
• 1/2 tsp baking soda

Preheat the oven to 250 F. Spread the popcorn (and nuts if using, see below) in a large shallow pan, such as a rimmed baking sheet. Spray a cooking spoon or spatula with cooking spray and set aside.

In a large saucepan melt the butter, then add the brown sugar, syrup and salt. Over high heat, bring to a boil, stirring constantly (with a spoon/spatula other than the sprayed one).

Reduce the heat to low and now without stirring, cook for 5 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla and baking soda. The mixture will foam up. When the foaming subsides, usually after a couple of minutes, pour the mixture over the popcorn (and nuts if using) tossing with the sprayed spoon until everything is coated. Spread the mixture evenly in the pan.

Bake at 250 F. for 1 hour, stirring every 15 minutes. Remove from the oven and let stand just until it’s cool enough to handle, then break into pieces. Don’t let the caramel corn cool completely, or it will be difficult to get out of the pan.

To make Cracker jack or caramel corn with nuts:

3 c. raw nuts: peanuts, cashews, pecans, walnuts, hazelnuts, etc., either singly or in combination.

Contact Julianne Glatz at realcuisine.jg@gmail.com.

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