An impressive start and finish to an autumn dinner—roasted baby pumpkins filled with mushrooms and shallots, topped with Gruyere for the first course and sinful white chocolate with candied orange peel, roasted pecans and reduced maple syrup for dessert. Recipes below.
Our last Halloween party some years ago was the kind of party that makes us call the police now. Seventy-five or so people overflowing from our apartment into the hall and onto the fire escape out back. About two in the morning, I started turning the music down out of some drunken semblance of courtesy to our neighbors. I turned it down three or four times, in fact. But at 4:30, when the last guests left and I turned it off, it was still impossibly loud.
Still, we have fond if blurry memories of that party—and a soft spot for Halloween in general. In many ways, it is the perfect holiday. It appeals to all ages and doesn’t involve the potential emotional landmines of exchanging gifts. And it’s scary, but in a fun way, not in an Earth Day way.
As our Halloween celebrations have gotten a little quieter, our ideas for Halloween treats have become a little more refined. (Not that we’re opposed to nabbing a few fun-sized candy bars when they come our way, mind you.) The two recipes here are perfect examples. The first takes advantage of the seasonal appearance of baby pumpkins, elevating them from mere table decorations to charming savory starters that will surprise and delight guests right up through Thanksgiving.
The second recipe can be called candy, I suppose, but it’s candy all dressed up for the grown-up table, a sophisticated sweet/salty/fruity treat worthy of serving as the perfect end to a company dinner. Candied orange peel gives it a splash of Halloween color, but it too can live well beyond the spooky holiday.
Roasted Baby Pumpkins with Mushrooms
Serves 4 as a first course
4 baby pumpkins
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 cups roughly chopped mushrooms (I used baby bellas)
1 cup sliced shallots (or yellow onion)
1 clove garlic, minced
1 teaspoon herbes de Provence
freshly ground black pepper
1/4 cup brandy
grated fresh Gruyere cheese
Preheat oven to 350ºF with rack in middle position. Rinse baby pumpkins and dry with a dish towel. Carefully slice the tops from the pumpkins (see photo above). Using a spoon, scoop out the seeds and pulp. Brush/rub pumpkins inside and out with olive oil and arrange them on a nonstick baking sheet with tops in place. Place in the oven and roast for 30 to 45 minutes, until tender when pierced with a sharp knife.
Meanwhile, heat a large nonstick skillet over a medium flame. Add one tablespoon of olive oil and tablespoon of butter, swirling pan to mix oil and butter as it melts. Add mushrooms to pan and toss to coat with oil and butter. The mushrooms will probably soak up much of the fat in the pan; if so, drizzle in a little more oil, then add the shallots and toss to mix. Cook until tender, 7 to 10 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent burning (lower heat if necessary).
Stir garlic and herbes de Provence into mushroom mixture and cook until fragrant, about 45 seconds. Season with salt and pepper and add brandy to pan. Cook, stirring, until brandy is absorbed/evaporated, about a minute or two. Remove from heat.
Remove pumpkins from the oven, leaving them on the baking sheet. Stir a generous 1/4 cup of grated Gruyere into the mushroom mixture. Set pumpkin caps aside and spoon mixture into the pumpkins, mounding it slightly. Sprinkle a heaping teaspoon of of grated Gruyere on top of the mixture in each pumpkin and return the baking sheet to the oven. Heat pumpkins until cheese is melted, 1 to 2 minutes.
Place pumpkins on serving plates, adding tops leaning against them. Serve.
White Chocolate with Candied Orange Peel, Pecans
and Reduced Maple Syrup
Marion created this delicious sweet/salty dessert. I’ll let her tell you about it.
Besides a dinner dessert, this is an awesome party treat and something excellent to take to your office. It’s not so good to drop into the bags of trick or treaters.
White Chocolate with Candied Orange Peel, Pecans
and Reduced Maple Syrup
Makes about 20 3-inch candies
18 ounces good-quality white chocolate
3/4 cup maple syrup
Black lava sea salt
Salt-roasted pecans (about 1/4 pound or so depending on your lavishness—see recipe below)
1/2 cup candied orange peel, cut into very fine bits (store bought or see recipe below)
Cover two baking sheets or pizza pans with parchment paper. Have at hand the diced orange peels, the pecans and the sea salt.
Break the white chocolate chunks into the top of a double boiler, or into a small heavy bottomed saucepan.
Prepare the maple syrup—pour the 3/4 cup into a small heavy saucepan and simmer it to reduce it by about a third. Don’t let it foam up and boil like crazy—work carefully so it does not crystallize.
Meanwhile, turn on the heat beneath the bottom of the double boiler, or a separate large saucepan, with about an inch of water in the bottom. When the water starts to simmer, melt the white chocolate, stirring with a silicon or rubber spatula. Melt it over gently simmering water, stirring with a silicon or rubber spatula. Don’t let the pot with the chocolate in it touch the simmering water. And keep an eye on the maple syrup—you want it to reduce so it is thicker, but not so much that it turns into maple sugar (see Kitchen Notes).
When the white chocolate is entirely melted, begin creating the individual candies. Form the base by spooning about two tablespoons of white chocolate onto the parchment paper and spreading it with the back of the spoon into a roundish shape about 3 inches across. It should be about 1/3 inch thick. When all the chocolate is parceled out, working quickly, add pecans to each coin. Five or six should do, but you can jam in more if you wish. I chose not to crowd them in because of all the other things I wanted to add. Next, dot each piece with bits of orange peel, then sprinkle on the black salt. Finally, drizzle with the reduced maple syrup, making streaks in places and allowing it to make little pools here and there.
When it’s all on there, admire your work for a moment. Then slide the sheets into the refrigerator for half an hour or so to set up. When the candy is set, lift it up from the parchment paper, peeling off the paper. At this point, store it in an airtight container in the fridge.
In the great culinary tradition of taking something already fatty and adding fat to it, these are crazy good on their own—for instance, as a cocktail party snack. This recipe makes more than you’ll need for the candy recipe above. You can thank me later.
1 pound raw pecan halves
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
2 teaspoons salt (For this, we like La Baleine fine sea salt, but any fine-grained salt works)
Preheat the oven to 325ºF. Pour the raw pecan halves into a bowl. Melt the butter and pour it all over the pecan halves. Gently fold and stir until the pecans are coated with the melted butter. Sprinkle the salt all over.
Pour the pecans onto a baking sheet with a low rim. They should be in a single layer. Bake for 12 to 16 minutes —at the 12-minute mark, start checking and tasting (cautiously!). Don’t let them get dark because they continue to roast after they have been removed from the oven. Before using for the candy, cool them completely.
Candied Orange Peel
Candied orange peel is widely available—for instance, you can even buy it through Amazon—but it is gratifying to learn how to make it yourself from something you’d otherwise toss out. Make this at least a day ahead to allow it to dry. When it is dry, put it in an airtight container. It may be stored at room temperature for a month or so, or in the freezer for six months.
3 navel oranges—choose unblemished, plump oranges, organic if you can find them, with peel that feels soft and moist (not dry and like it is separating from the fruit within)
2-1/4 cups sugar
3/4 cup water plus lots more water
Cut the ends off the orange and discard (i.e., put in your compost pile). Incise four cuts longitudinally on the orange—don’t cut into the fruit if you can avoid it. Remove the peel from the fruit. Set aside the fruit for another use. (For instance, you can cut it into chunks and add it to Terry’s Endive Salad with Blue Cheese and Walnuts.) Scrape the pith off the peel (I used a grapefruit spoon to do this) and add the pith to your compost pile. Cut the peel into long, very skinny strips and put them into a heavy saucepan. Cover with cold water, bring to a boil, and pour off the water. Do this twice more.
Put the peel into a bowl and wash out the saucepan. Then put the pan back on the stove and pour in the sugar and the 3/4 cup water. Bring to a gentle boil, stirring with a whisk when the water starts to warm to mix everything together. Simmer this gently about 8 to 10 minutes, then add the peel. You are going to simmer the peel for about 45 minutes or so, until it is very tender. You don’t have to hover over the stove, but I do recommend checking frequently to make sure the syrup isn’t boiling too fast or that you are not burning the peel. Also, do not stir the peel—if you are worried about the way it is distributed, shake the pot gently; if something is protruding above the fray, poke it back in with the end of a spoon. No stirring! Or you may cause sugar crystals to form. When you get to the 45-minute mark, take out a strip of peel, let it cool for a moment, and then taste to check for appropriate tenderness.
One thing to do while you are passing the time waiting for the peel to be done is to line a pan—a cookie sheet or a pizza pan—with foil. Another is to eat the orange segments you saved earlier. We did.
When the orange peel is ready, turn off the heat. (At this point, some people like to put the peel in a bowl and toss it with more sugar. I don’t care for this, so I skip it. ) Using chopsticks or tongs, set out the orange peel onto the foil-lined surface and allow it to dry for at least a day.
Maple syrup vs. maple sugar. If you overboil the maple syrup and it starts to crystallize into sugar, add a dash of water and stir gently over low heat—it should dissolve into syrup again.
This is a palette—feel free to experiment. You can add other toppings depending on your supplies and the season. There are versions of this candy around that call for Halloween extras like candy corn and factory-baked cookies. People, please. Some of the ingredients I am aiming to try include dried cherries cut into bits, candied grapefruit or lemon peel, coarse ground pepper and, whenever summer gets back, marigold petals and very finely minced rosemary.
One or many? You can also make this as a bark. Pour the white chocolate all at once onto a papered cookie sheet, spread it with an angled spatula and then add the toppings. After it sets, break it into chunks.