When I was younger, Halloween reigned as the ultimate kids' night out on the town. Dressed in our homespun scary attire, we begged for as much candy as time allowed. Of course, we fit in a few pit stops at the usual haunts famous for their homemade treats and hot spiced drinks.
Fast forward a generation or two and we find adults have crashed the Halloween party season. Creative and innovative costumes rule these spooky celebrations. As for the food; well the big kids raised the bar on packaged candy and caramel apples.
And the bar keeps rising higher and higher as Halloween provides cooks an opportunity to play fast and loose with a few of the kitchen rules. Guests expect a snazzy trick, but their taste buds look for an unusual treat. For bakers, especially, Halloween allows us to showcase extreme culinary creativity. Usually I advise a light and balanced hand when decorating baked treats for a diverse crowd, however, for Halloween desserts I say pull out all the colored sugar, sprinkles, gummy worms and spooky finishings you can find.
Before you get to the seriously creative fun, it's important to know one kitchen rule never to break at Halloween, or any time for that matter: start with a solid base recipe that is party friendly. This means selecting a recipe that offers a popular flavor theme, relative ease of preparation and service, and most important, does not require refrigeration.
In my kitchen cupcakes often fit that bill. Yes, these diminutive gems have enjoyed more than 15 minutes of fame of late (some pastry chefs feel they overstayed their welcome), but cupcakes remain the best choice for Halloween desserts where the focus lies upon wild and creative decorations.
For the cake base I decided to spice things up a bit. Sidelining the usual chocolate and butter cake recipes, I went with a pumpkin-style batter to fit the fall celebration. I pulled out my tried-and-true pumpkin cake recipe and began to tweak ingredients and mixing styles.
First up I exchanged the traditional oil for very soft unsalted butter as the fat in the batter. Pumpkin puree adds loads of moisture and oil tends to weigh down a cupcake's texture. Butter also imparts smooth cream flavors missing in plain vegetable oils. Bonus!
On the sweetener front, I reduced the amount of sugar overall as pumpkin puree adds a touch of natural sweetness to the batter. My batter recipe called for equal amounts of white and brown sugars, but increased the ratio of brown to white to deepen the harvest hue and infuse a light molasses background flavor.
Pumpkin pie spice offers an easy option to spice recipes. However, I like to control the exact amount of each spice in cake batters, so I went with individual spices and boosted the amount of cinnamon and ground cloves.
My first batch was good -- nice pumpkin and spice flavors -- but not great. Then I got a hauntingly good idea to infuse a dominant, but still complementing, note into the batter. A splash of orange extract adds a mild fruitiness to the cake batter and just a bit in the frosting melds with the sour cream for a memorable dessert.
This little trick created quite a spooktacular Halloween treat. Enjoy!
• Annie Overboe, a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, lives in Villa Park. Write her at email@example.com.