Tips for hosting a spicy and spirited fall gathering.
October's arrival signals afternoon hayrides at the farm, haunted houses and the glow of jack o' lanterns on decorated doorsteps. Carving pumpkins evokes childhood memories of Halloween and Trick or Treating, but why should kids have all the fun? Invite over some friends, roll up your sleeves and start slicing. Read on for tips to let creativity flow while keeping the mess to a minimum, along with recipes for fall-inspired cocktails and foods to make your gathering a cut above.
Select a date for your event no longer than a week or so before Halloween; otherwise the carved jack o' lanterns won't last. Instruct guests to BYOP—bring their own pumpkin, and tuck a design template in with the invitations for inspiration before they even pick up the carving tools. (Google "pumpkin template" for free downloads.)
Creating masterpieces with those orange orbs can be messy work. Weather permitting, set up folding tables outside or in the garage. Danny Bortnick, chef at Washington, DC's Firefly restaurant (and self-proclaimed jack o' lantern junkie) covers surfaces with reusable vinyl tablecloths for easy cleanup. Keep large trash cans handy, and place a big bucket in the middle of tables with utensils, including dry erase markers to trace templates or guests' unique designs.
Bortnick suggests eschewing those flimsy carving kits for serrated knives, heavy metal spoons and paring knives. Serious artists can "bust out the power tools. Drills and scroll saws really help speed up the process and help stretch the imagination." For a three-dimensional look, use Japanese vegetable carving kits, which allow you to scrape away skin and flesh without cutting through the entire way. Purchase a few extra pumpkins (and pre-scoop them) for last-minute guests or those who forgot to bring one. Give small sugar pumpkins to little guests to decorate with markers, googly eyes, and natural elements like gourds, dried pasta, pine cones, sticks and rocks. "Don't just think about what you can cut out from the pumpkin design-wise," Bortnick says, "but what you can add to it."
Display the finished products (with cinnamon scented tea lights for the full effect, if the party lasts until dark,) and have guests vote for the scariest, silliest, most elaborate and most unique designs. Distribute seasonal prizes for the winners: mulled wine spice packets or harvest/pumpkin ales for grown-ups; and candy or pumpkin cookies for kids.
Fall for Seasonal Sips and Bites
Legend has it, the jack o' lantern derives from the Irish legend of Stingy Jack. "He was a thieving, greedy, hard-boozin' old farmer who tricked the devil into climbing a tree and then placed crosses on the tree to trap him," explains mixologist Rachel Sergi of Washington, DC's tapas restaurant Zaytinya. "Seeking revenge, the devil cursed Jack by having him wander the earth at night forever, with the tiniest of light—a candle inside of a hollowed out turnip. As the Irish started immigrating, they found the pumpkin to be much easier to hollow out." Fall is Sergi's favorite season, and her (Not So) Stingy Jack cocktail was inspired by the Irish rogue. Hosts can prep these spicy, aromatic drinks ahead of time, and then stir with ice either one at a time or in batches. Replacing the infused vodka with the same amount of freshly squeezed apple juice makes the (Not So) Stingy Jack a drink everyone can enjoy.
For a liquid version of pumpkin pie, try the Pumpkin Daiquiri from Stefan Trummer of the recently opened Trummer's on Main in Clifton, Virginia. Dark rum spiked with cinnamon sticks is joined with a house made spiced simple syrup, pumpkin purée, maple syrup and the rich vanilla flavor of Tuaca.
Serve food that's no fuss and can be prepped in advance, like a big stockpot of chili, or Porcini and Pumpkin Risotto. Round out the casual meal with fresh bread or cornbread, crudités, and pumpkin cheesecake bars or molasses cookies.
Recipe: Pumpkin Daiquiri
Courtesy of Stefan Trummer, Trummer's on Main, Clifton, VA
2Â½ oz spiced dark rum*
1 tbsp. canned pumpkin purée
1 oz. spiced simple syrup**
1 oz. limejuice (slightly sweetened with a little sugar, to taste)
1 oz. Tuaca
1 oz. maple syrup
Toasted marshmallow (for garnish)
Add all ingredients (except toasted marshmallow) to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Shake and strain into a cocktail glass. Garnish with the toasted marshmallow. (This can be made in batches and shaken with ice right before serving.)
*For spiced rum, add 2 cinnamon sticks to a bottle of dark rum. Let steep for 3-4 days.
**For 1 cup of spiced simple syrup, add Â½ cup sugar, Â½ cup water, 1 cinnamon stick, 4 cloves, 2 allspice pods and grated nutmeg to a saucepan. Bring to a boil to dissolve sugar, and then simmer for 10 minutes. Remove from heat and let steep for 1-2 days (you can use it right away, but should set for a few days for the most pronounced flavor). Strain out solids. Syrup will keep refrigerated in a container with a tightly fitting lid for up to two weeks.
Recipe: The (Not So) Stingy Jack
Courtesy of Rachel Sergi, Zaytinya, Washington, DC
2 oz. Macintosh Apple Infused 42 Below Vodka*
1 Â¾ oz. cardamom scented black tea**
Juice of Â¼ lemon
Cinnamon sugar rim (for garnish, see recipe below)
Put the cinnamon sugar mixture in a plastic container with a mouth as wide as your cocktail glass or Champagne coupe. Use a wedge of lemon to moisten the glass's rim, and then dip the rim of the glass into the cinnamon sugar mixture until coated. Set aside.
Add first three ingredients to a cocktail shaker filled with ice. Stir with long-handled spoon to mix and chill. Strain into the prepared coupe. (For a non-alcoholic version, replace the vodka with 2 oz. of apple juice and proceed with the rest of the directions.)
*For the infused vodka, core and slice 2 Macintosh apples, and place them in a bottle of vodka for at least 5 days (removing some vodka to allow for increased volume). Strain to remove solids, pour into any clean glass receptacle, and tightly cap.
**For the tea, take 16 oz. of cold water, add 2 black tea bags and 3 cardamom pods, and steep to taste.
For the Cinnamon Sugar Rim:
â…” cup brown sugar
â…“ cup granulated white sugar
2 tbsp. ground cinnamon
Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Mix sugars and cinnamon, and spread out on a baking sheet lined with wax paper. Back for 7-9 minutes until a bit crunchy. Remove from oven and allow to cool.
Recipe: Porcini & Pumpkin Risotto
Courtesy of Danny Bortnick, Firefly, Washington, DC
1 c. finely diced yellow onion
1 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil
2 c. Carnaroli (or Arborio) rice
2 c. white wine
8 c. vegetable stock
1 lb. porcini mushrooms (frozen or dried)
2 c. neck pumpkin, peeled, diced and roasted with extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper (also called crookneck squash; can substitute butternut squash)
2 tbsp. butter
2 tbsp. shredded Parmesan cheese
2 tbsp. fine herbs (minced chives, thyme and parsley)
Salt and pepper to taste
Place the vegetable stock in a pot with the porcini mushroom pieces and bring to a simmer. Sauté the onion in the oil in a large sauté pan on medium heat until translucent. Add the rice and stir with rubber spatula until lightly toasted. Add white wine and reduce while stirring. Keep the rice on medium-low heat, while adding small amounts of the heated vegetable stock/porcini mushroom mixture. Stir occasionally, making sure the liquid is absorbed before adding more. Repeat until rice is creamy in texture, like oatmeal. Add the pumpkin or squash, butter, Parmesan and herbs, and season with salt and pepper to taste. Reduce to low heat and stir until all the butter and cheese is absorbed. Final risotto consistency should be like runny oatmeal. Yields 6 portions.
Recipe: Molasses Cookies
Courtesy of Danny Bortnick, Firefly, Washington, DC
12 oz. butter at room temperature
2 c. granulated sugar
Â½ c. molasses
4 c. all purpose flour
2 tsp. ground ginger
2 tsp. baking soda
3 tsp. ground cinnamon
1 t. salt
Â½ t. ground cloves
Sugar (for rolling)
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Using a stand or hand mixer, cream the butter, sugar and eggs until light and fluffy. Add all dry ingredients and mix well. Chill in refrigerator.
Use small scoop to scoop out cookie dough. Roll into balls, and roll in sugar. Place on wax paper covered baking sheet. Bake at 350 for 9 minutes. Remove from baking sheet, and allow to cool. Makes 36 cookies.
Kelly Magyarics is a wine and spirits writer, and wine educator, in the Washington, DC area. She can be reached through her website, www.trywine.net.