Embark on a Halloween Recipe to Suit Your Fear Factor

A dish best served frightening

Dress like a crazed cook and add a little pizzazz to your fleshy Halloween cheese ball

The delight of Halloween rests in the sweet center of your personal creativity/productivity Venn diagram: It can be anything you wish it to be – your dream, your nightmare, an expression of stuffed-down resentment, or your annual wild howl to the moon. And as with any holiday, food is a critical element of the celebration.

There's plenty about 2020 to inspire some feelings, and for those of us whose love language incorporates nurturing the soul straight through the mouth, it's a prime opportunity to delve into some deep ones – channeling those fears into energy, getting into character, telling a story with your food. Less dramatically, designing a menu on theme is just a great way to break up the boredom with a kitchen project. Of course, with the increasing weight of the world on our collective shoulders, it's also exhausting to envision yet another bullet point on the chore list. As a Halloween nerd myself, I find it obligatory to mention that there is a long and fascinating history education of Halloween (Samhain and paganism) available, but we're here to talk about food, so consider that my rabbit-hole offering.

We most likely all have access to the internet, so instead of offering detailed recipes, I'm here to offer twisted suggestions – based on varying levels of commitment – from my own treasure trove of creepy food experiments to aspirations I've built after hours of web searches. Figure out where your budget, time, and skill levels meet and have some fun. Or, you know, cook while you work through some rage issues with your therapist on Zoom.

Sausage, green chile, and cream cheese Regan MacNeil rolls

Not everyone is down for the hardcore gore, so if you've got super little kids or highly sensitive humans in your Halloween posse, opt for recognizable foods with a little magic or silliness. Add a jack-o'-lantern pie crust to a cherry pie or even a chicken pot pie; have some mummy fun with crescent rolls and turkey dogs, or add some green food dye to sausage and cream cheese-stuffed pastries and you've got "Regan rolls." Make a big pot of super saucy spaghetti and meatballs and adjust your level of creativity with a "bloody worms" arrangement or perhaps some faces on those delicious spheres of ground beef and Italian sausage (frozen store-boughts work, but wouldn't this be a great time to learn to make 'em yourself?). Squid ink pasta always makes for a dramatic but totally normal (and delectable) dish and there are several local Italian restaurants offering it to-go. Jell-O molds abound and with the right shape, lime or cherry jiggles spruce up dessert.

Naturally, Martha Stewart has some Halloween food ideas published widely, like her shrunken heads in cider recipe. Put simply, just cut faces into flat apple slices and bake them forever until they're dehydrated and float them in your punch of choice. If you're candying apples with the littles, string out the process long enough for them to lose interest and sneak some glassy black coating into the mix and mention the witch from Snow White. There's also the tried-and-true Kitty Litter cake. Make your litter box with a cardboard box or new (seriously) plastic pan and line it; whip together some crumbled cookies and cake to replicate the gravel, and twist up a bunch of Tootsie rolls for, you know. For a savory option, prosciutto is your friend. Whip up your best cheese ball recipe and cover it with that fleshy cured meat to make a face. Olives transform wonderfully into pupils, nostrils, or a blackened tooth; lychees, peeled grapes and rambutan are obvious eyeballs. Chopped white hard cheeses and corn kernels can be dentures and stringy corn husks become very creepy (possibly political) hair when utilized to their full potential. Regardless of whether you consume animal products, if you're not molding feetloaf at least once a year, you are not living your best life.

Photo by Getty Images

If you're opting for Halloween to-the-max, consider constructing some edible intestines with puff pastry and chocolate, or pizza dough and bloody bloody marinara. Syringes of edible goo are a must, but honestly, it's a little more fun if you "accidentally" use red food dye that stains. There are a few recipes out there for a tremendously weird main course that really amps up the corpse factor: If you slow roast a matching double rack of barbecued ribs and get it all caramelized and tender, and throw in some dark linked sausage, opportunity awaits. Dates are also a wonderful tool. Which Oct. 31 fan hasn't dreamt of "burst cockroaches" on the buffet? It's just cream cheese-stuffed dates drizzled with caramel and crispy slivers of bacon (legs), weirdo. And of course, the pièce de résistance: a roasted pig. Yes, slow-cooked pork is usually scrumptious, but honestly, at this point in the scope of the planet, it should be a very special occasion meal ... perfect for Halloween. So, why not drive home the point with a horrific story of factory farming and a glistening roasted suckling, or a full hog even, on a ginormous platter? Too harsh? Tone it down with a screening of Hunger Games and a professional vegan cake maker.

Photo by Getty Images

Of course, there's always the option to go super meta and sell whatever "normal" food you make with a wee bit of acting. Make chili or barbecue with a twinkle in your eye and a messy butcher's apron and watch Fried Green Tomatoes, Motel Hell, or Texas Chain Saw Massacre with your crew. And as a person who could discuss traumatic physical injury surgery during dinner, it's rare that I'm startled by food. That said, there are a host of dishes from across the world that I'd like to test myself (and my family) with. Smalahove, or salted and smoked sheep's head, for example. Barbecued bat. Durian.

Last, there's a reason that restaurants are highly critiqued on plating: Presentation can make or break a dish. And for home cooks, it can be a little deflating to spend a bunch of effort and resources on an intricate recipe only to have to slap it onto an ill-fitted paper plate. While you're making your menu, make sure you've got the rights tools for creating and serving your masterpiece. Mostly though, fellow trapped thrill-seekers, we all need a little spark of excitement so just focus on the QT and make the holiday a little special.

In my mind's eye, someday, after this hellstorm has passed and we can throw dinner parties again, I envision having the time and resources to recreate a Pan's Labyrinth-level spread, full of red satin and dry ice and vintage silver platters and huge drip candles and maybe even a mandrake. For now, I'm going to make a trip to the butcher, pick up some puff pastry and produce, and get busy figuring out how to freak out my 11-year-old child.

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