Harry Potter has one. So did Hecate, goddess of the underworld. With that kind of pedigree, it's time the owl got some of the spotlight. So forget about ghosts and goblins-this year, throw an owl-themed Halloween party with all-ages appeal.
Before trick-or-treaters head into the night, invite parents and kids over for a casual buffet that's perfect for the season. Offer spinach salad laced with ribbons of raw pumpkin and a bruschetta bar with a trio of savory toppings on crisp toasts. There's hot cider for all (grown-ups can spike the brew with pumpkin- and spice-infused vodka). Set out a platter of owl-shaped cookies with candy-corn beaks. And send guests home with owl goodie bags to start the night on just the right hoot.
Owl masks. Before the kids arrive, use a craft knife to cut out mask pieces from thin foam paper (available from Michaels, www.michaels.com or 800/642-4235 for store locations). While the adults mingle, let the younger set glue the pieces together. Use a large needle to thread thin elastic through the mask, knotting elastic at each end to create a band.
Most of this menu can be prepared in advance. The bruschetta bar serves 12; you'll probably have leftover toppings.
• 4 days ahead (or up to 3 months before Halloween): Start infusing the vodka.
• 2 days before the party: Make the cookies.
• 1 day in advance: Prepare toppings for the bruschetta bar.
• 4 hours before guests arrive: Slice and toast baguettes.
• 1 hour before guests arrive: Set out refrigerated mushroom pâté and sweet onions and peppers (keep chicken-cress salad refrigerated until ready to serve), and prepare spinach and pumpkin salad. Start cider; as it's heating, plate cookies and set out toasted baguettes.
Arrange sweet onions and peppers, chicken-cress salad, and mushroom pâté (recipes follow), plus bowls of peanut butter, whipped cream cheese, and jam, on buffet alongside toasted baguette slices (you'll need about 3 baguettes).
PREP AND COOK TIME:
MAKES: About 2 cups
NOTES: You can make the pâté up to 1 day ahead; cover and chill. Let come to room temperature to serve.
1. Rinse and trim discolored ends from 2 pounds crimini, oyster, or common mushrooms (or a mixture) and coarsely chop.
2. In a 6-quart pan over high heat, melt ½ cup (¼ lb.) butter. Add mushrooms, 1 cup chopped shallots, 4 peeled and minced cloves garlic, and 11⁄2 teaspoons each ground cumin and ground coriander. Cook, stirring often, until liquid has evaporated and mixture is lightly browned, 20 to 30 minutes.
3. In a food processor, whirl mushroom mixture until smooth. Mix in salt and pepper to taste. Mound in a bowl. Sprinkle with chopped parsley.
Per 2 tablespoons: 72 cal., 72% (52 cal.) from fat; 1.7 g protein; 5.8 g fat (3.6 g sat.); 4.2 g carbo (0.4 g fiber); 63 mg sodium; 16 mg chol.
PREP TIME: About 15 minutes
MAKES: About 3½ cups
NOTES: You can make salad up to 1 day ahead; cover and chill.
1. In a bowl, whisk together 3 tablespoons mayonnaise, 2 tablespoons white wine vinegar, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, 1 tablespoon fresh thyme leaves (or 2 teaspoons dried thyme), and ¼ teaspoon fresh-ground pepper.
2. Add 3 cups shredded cold cooked chicken, ¾ cup chopped watercress or Italian parsley, and 2 tablespoons chopped shallots. Stir in salt to taste.
Per 2 tablespoons: 40 cal., 53% (21 cal.) from fat; 4.4 g protein; 2.3 g fat (0.5 g sat.); 0.2 g carbo (0 g fiber); 35 mg sodium; 14 mg chol.
Sweet Onions and Peppers
PREP AND COOK TIME: 1 hour
MAKES: About 3 cups
NOTES: You can make this topping up to 1 day ahead; cover and chill. Let come to room temperature to serve.
1. Peel 4 onions (8 oz. each) and sliver lengthwise. Rinse, stem, and seed 2 red bell peppers (1 lb. total); sliver lengthwise.
2. In a 6-quart pan over medium-high heat, mix 3 tablespoons olive oil and 2 teaspoons caraway seeds with onions, bell peppers, and 3 tablespoons water. Cover and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are limp, 12 to 15 minutes.
3. Uncover and stir often over medium heat until liquid has evaporated and vegetables begin to brown and taste sweet, 20 to 25 minutes. Stir in 1 tablespoon balsamic vinegar and salt and pepper to taste.
Per 2 tablespoons: 33 cal., 48% (16 cal.) from fat; 0.6 g protein; 1.8 g fat (0.2 g sat.); 4 g carbo (0.9 g fiber); 1.4 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.
MORE RECIPES >>
Spinach and Pumpkin Salad
PREP TIME: About 25 minutes
MAKES: About 12 servings
NOTES: We adapted this recipe from Cetrella Bistro and Café in Half Moon Bay, California, where executive chef Lewis Rossman adds shavings of raw pumpkin to spinach salad for his special October menu. Look for toasted pumpkin-seed oil at natural- and specialty-food stores.
½ cup pomegranate juice
¼ cup red wine vinegar
¼ cup toasted pumpkin-seed oil or extra-virgin olive oil
6 to 8 ounces pumpkin, such as Sugar Pie, or banana squash
6 quarts baby spinach leaves (1 lb.), rinsed and crisped
Salt and pepper
½ cup salted, roasted shelled pumpkin seeds
1. In a large serving bowl, whisk together pomegranate juice, vinegar, and oil.
2. Peel pumpkin. With a vegetable peeler, cut raw pumpkin into paper-thin 1- by 3-inch strips; you'll need about 2 ½ cups. Add pumpkin shavings to pomegranate vinaigrette and mix gently.
3. Add spinach and mix to coat; add salt and pepper to taste. Sprinkle with pumpkin seeds.
Per serving: 117 cal., 67% (78 cal.) from fat; 4.1 g protein; 8.7 g fat (1.4 g sat.); 8.3 g carbo (2.6 g fiber); 126 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.
Sleepy Hollow Cider
PREP AND COOK TIME: 15 minutes
MAKES: About 16 cups; 12 to 16 servings
NOTES: This recipe is from the Luna Park restaurants in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where chefs add pumpkin- and vanilla bean-infused vodka to spiced cider. Serve the cider hot, and let guests add the vodka to taste.
2 bottles (64 oz. each) apple cider or juice
2 cinnamon sticks (3 in.)
¾ teaspoon whole cloves
½ of a whole nutmeg
Pumpkin spice-infused vodka (recipe follows; optional) In a 5- to 6-quart pan, combine apple cider, cinnamon sticks, cloves, and nutmeg. Cook, covered, over medium-high heat until steaming, about 14 minutes. Reduce heat to low to keep hot. Set pan on a tabletop burner or warming tray. Or pour into a thermos or insulated pitcher. Ladle or pour into cups and add vodka to taste (if desired).
Per serving: 118 cal., 2.3% (2.7 cal.) from fat; 0.1 g protein; 0.3 g fat (0.1 g sat.); 29 g carbo (0.2 g fiber); 7.7 mg sodium; 0 mg chol.
Pumpkin spice-infused vodka. Cut 1 vanilla bean (6 in.) in half lengthwise. With a vegetable peeler, shave 12 thin ribbons (4 to 6 in. long and about 1 in. wide) off a rinsed piece of pumpkin or banana squash. In a 1- to 1½-quart jar, combine vanilla, pumpkin, ½ of a whole nutmeg, and 1 bottle (750 ml. or 1 qt.) vodka. Seal jar and let stand at least 4 days or up to 3 months. The flavor intensifies the longer it stands; remove flavorings once vodka tastes as strong as you like.
PREP AND COOK TIME: 1½ hours, plus at least 45 minutes to chill
MAKES: About 33 cookies
NOTES: Trace an owl-shaped pattern (for a template, see www. sunset.com/owl) on heavy paper or lightweight cardboard, or use cookie cutters in any shape. You can make the cookies up to 2 days ahead; store airtight.
1 1⁄3 cups butter, at room temperature
¾ cup granulated sugar
¾ cup firmly packed brown sugar
2 large egg
2 teaspoons vanilla
3 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
1 teaspoon ground nutmeg
½ teaspoon salt
Icing (recipe follows)
Miniature chocolate chips
1. Preheat oven to 350° (325° if using convection heat).
2. In a bowl, with a mixer on medium speed, beat butter, granulated sugar, and brown sugar until blended, then beat on high speed until creamy. Add eggs and vanilla and beat until well blended. Add flour, baking powder, cinnamon, nutmeg, and salt; beat on low speed until combined, then on medium speed until well blended. Divide dough into three portions.
3. Place each portion between two sheets of floured plastic wrap. Roll dough evenly into flat rounds about ¼ inch thick. Stack rounds on a baking sheet and chill until firm, at least 45 minutes, or up to 2 days.
4. Working with one portion of dough at a time (keep remaining chilled), peel off top sheet of plastic wrap. Set floured pattern (see notes) on dough and cut around edges. Or with floured round cookie cutters (3-in. diameter), cut out cookies, placing cutters as close together as possible. Transfer to cooking parchment-lined or ungreased baking sheets, placing cookies about 1 inch apart. Repeat with remaining dough rounds. Gather up scraps and press together into a ball. If dough is still cold, roll and cut out remaining cookies. If it's soft and sticky, repeat step 3.
5. Bake cookies until firm to touch and slightly darker brown around edges, 8 or 9 minutes; if baking more than one sheet at a time in one oven, switch positions halfway through baking. Slide parchment with cookies off sheets onto racks or counter to cool, then remove from parchment. Or cool on pans about 1 minute and then transfer to racks to cool completely. If not using cooking parchment, wipe off baking sheets after each batch. Cool sheets before filling with more cookies.
6. Spread icing over cookies and decorate with candies, using candy corn for a beak and chocolate chips for eyes (see photograph on page 147). Let stand until icing is firm, about 5 minutes.
Per cookie: 185 cal., 38% (71 cal.) from fat; 1.8 g protein; 7.9 g fat (4.8 g sat.); 27 g carbo (0.4 g fiber); 147 mg sodium; 33 mg chol.
Icing. In a small bowl, stir together 2 cups powdered sugar and just enough milk (about 3 tablespoons) to make a spreadable icing. If desired, tint with food coloring. If icing thickens as it stands, stir in a few more drops of milk.