We have crept over the monthly border into November, but my cosy affection for pumpkins and witches still lingers. Now that the threat of horror and gore has passed, I feel quite warm-hearted about Halloween and it’s been on my mind for the last few days. That may have been because of the horror movie I tried to forget as I lay rigid in the dark bedroom on Halloween night, Gaylord snoring gently beside me, utterly useless when it came to any suspicious creaks or whispers. Otherwise my unusual nostalgia could be because of those pumpkin pasties I made. Harry Potter baking needs little encouragement, but Halloween is the best excuse.
October in the south of France doesn’t dress in the usual autumnal colours. This is a sore spot for me as all I want is to crash around in piles of auburn leaves and gustily inhale woodsmoke from nearby bonfires. Instead, this disappointing month hasn’t even required a jacket and I still need to wear sun cream.
Now though, the summer has come to an abrupt end epitomised by the rain that’s hammering down outside right now and the troops of screaming children on their half-term holidays. The merry, head-splitting side to autumn.
October is defined by one date and that happens to be the last one of the month. As a result, all 31 days are an excitable countdown and pumpkins and various orange and black iconography are plastered everywhere.
Halloween in France is a blink-and-you’ll miss-it-event. The chocolate shop in town sells some gruesome chocolate spiders and there’s a forlorn display of various cobwebbed gourds and pumpkins in the supermarket, but that’s about it. For some reason All Saints Day, the 1st November for anyone not in the know, is the bigger celebration – it’s a public holiday. And the French love their public holidays. Any excuse to not go to work. Many shops took the Monday and Tuesday off too because, well why not? Making a living is overrated anyway.
But you know, beyond the window dressing – something they take seriously here, you should have seen the decorations for the rugby world cup which meant numerous rugby balls in the window of my local opticians – the actual day of Halloween drifted by much like any other.
That night, we heard kids’ excitable screams around our building, and we readied ourselves for trick or treaters having bought Haribos in preparation. No one rang the bell though because evidently our child neighbours haven’t warmed to us due to the number of times we’ve had to tell them off for breaking into our garden and hitting their football against the wall, but anyway thank god because I would have jumped out of my skin as we were watching that awful horror movie – a tradition that I don’t fully agree with. And Gaylord will get through all those Haribos no bother.
So, this Halloween is a tale of creepy horror. On the cinema screen. Because my real life Halloween was totally uneventful. The spooky glamour of the occasion came to an abrupt end for me a few years ago. What started with my own childhood trick or treating. something I took very seriously, became university costume parties where drinking in excess (quad vods are literally what the name suggests) protects you from the cold because who needs a coat in frosty Manchester.
Then, before I knew it, I was chaperoning trick or treating, traipsing behind my 14-year-old cousin and her friends who were covered in face paint and, unlike me, not dressed in sensible thick woollens, and oh yeah, taking photos of my costume-attired parents before they swanned out to their own party, and I finally realised with dawning terror the roles had somehow reversed.
Talk about a horror-filled Halloween.
Though, as I quickly discovered, I am fairly comfortable with this current period of anti-social behaviour, as this is the third year in a row that I’ve stayed in on Halloween night. Am I worried for my social life? Yes, reasonably. Am I going to do anything about it? Probably not.
So, Gaylord and I have started our own tradition. We’re both cinephiles – our birthday treat is to choose a film with no vetoes from the other allowed. This is great for me as Gaylord is resolute in his disdain for rom-coms and romantic period dramas but, tough titties buddy, that’s what we’re watching.
He also gets his allowance on Halloween – I see an imbalance here – because he adores scary movies. I couldn’t tell you why because there is literally no appeal in my opinion. What is the purpose of voluntarily creeping yourself out for a couple of hours? Why put on a film that you’re not going to watch because you’re hiding behind a sofa cushion? I guess this is what love is; endurance and calming thoughts as Gaylord implores me to open my eyes because I’m missing it all.
So, we ‘watched’ a ridiculously scary horror movie – it’s called Smile and all I can say is don’t watch it? If you start noticing someone, anyone, grin like a Cheshire cat then you’re doomed. That guy you think is flirting with you? Unfortunately he’s been possessed by a grinning demon and it looks like you’re its next target.
For some reason this wasn’t the only Halloween-themed movie we watched. When it comes to creepy films my tolerance is pitiful. I’ve tried to watch The Nightmare Before Christmas twice and given up both times because I was too scared. Seriously, this is the low bar we’re talking about here. Finally, third time lucky, I got through the whole thing. Now I’m in my thirties, I can apparently handle stop-motion animation movies at long last.
What exactly have I gained from these three years of scary cinematic experiences? Other than sleepless nights. Well, obviously, all houses where there have been mass suicides or murders are most definitely haunted. I have learnt that horror movie victims never turn the lights on. If they just made the most of the light bulbs then that creepy shadow in the corner wouldn’t be there. Whenever there is the slightest noise, they’ve got to go and check it out, even merrily climbing up into the pitch black attic. And if my future child one day talks about and draws their imaginary, ominous older man friend, he probably exists.
These films haven’t been enough though. I needed some good vibes after all that cinematic trauma so Gaylord and I watched Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone. There is something so autumnal about Harry Potter – the start of a new school year at Hogwarts, tankards of Butterbeer, or could it simply be because of the toads, pumpkins and witches and wizards bubbling, toiling and troubling? Is Halloween the eternal indicator of autumn? Cue the pumpkin pasties.
Pumpkin pasties are the first food Harry samples in the magical world – he meets Ron on the Hogwarts Express and then the lady with the trolley trundles by and says, ‘Anything off the trolley dears?’ Ron morosely waves his corned beef sandwiches in regret of his mother’s terrible taste, so Harry impulsively buys as many goodies as he can including pumpkin pasties (in the film, he says ‘We’ll take the lot!’ practically showering Ron in gold coins, teaching children that greed and gluttony are excellent ideas, and also leaving no food for anyone else on the train).
Pumpkin pasties, in my opinion, are savoury. There is a fairly aggressive debate out there in the Harry Potter baking blogging-sphere (a branch of food blogging I’ve only just discovered and I’m prepared for all the hazing and initiations that they will throw my way as I MUST JOIN THEM), are pumpkin pasties sweet or savoury? British readers of Harry Potter – do you agree with me that they are savoury? That is what a pasty is – a pastry parcel of meat and/or vegetables created by the Cornish because the pastry protected the filling when it was chucked down the mines for the workers’ lunches.
On the other hand, American readers probably favour sweet pumpkin pasties because, across the pond, pumpkin is usually gussied up in sugar and spice and made into a pie, cheesecake and/or latte.
The only unfortunate part of pumpkin pasties is the pumpkin. It’s got all those thrillingly gruesome Halloween associations but boy, pumpkin can’t claim it packs a punch of personality or flavour. This king of autumn cuisine needs cinnamon and ginger and maple syrup which may cancel out any nutrition but instead you could drink a glass of nutritious water for all the shared flavour they possess.
A makeover is therefore needed, ideally the equivalent of making the pumpkin remove her glasses to reveal she’s a beauty queen. The ingredient to do that is obviously caramelised onions.
Caramelised onions can save any dish. A scrappy piece of pastry? Slap on some caramelised onions and you have a tart. A boring burger? Fill it with caramelised onions. All my cooking credentials essentially stem down to the amount of caramelised onions I put in everything.
Pumpkin plus sweet caramelised onions needs sage. Besides rosemary which is practically thorns, velvety sage is the hardiest of herbs and is therefore used in everything savoury from now until March. Sage’s fragrance is woody like pine cones and is usually used sparingly because it makes its presence known. However, when pumpkin’s in town, sage’s superpowers are put to the test. Pumpkin is like a giant orange twister, sucking up all flavour then spitting it out in disgust. This pumpkin pasty filling needed 10 – 10! – sage leaves and even then the flavour is a gentle hum because pumpkin wants to share the bland love with everyone.
Somehow though, the pumpkin was tamed. Various seasonings were used – Worcestershire sauce, paprika, a pinch of chilli pepper, at one point Marmite crossed my mind but I hit it back as this is for public consumption – and the final result inside those little pastry pockets was a warm balance of sweet and savoury (I need to keep my American readers happy) thanks to those dreamy caramelised onions and the umami of the seasonings.
Piled inside the buttery hot water pastry, which was an absolute cinch to make by the way, probably the easiest pastry I’ve ever made, each bite of the pumpkin pasties was like a comforting hug on a chilly autumnal day. As cooking from your favourite work of fiction should be.
For the ideal version of Halloween, turn to Harry Potter baking and pumpkin pasties.
For the hot-water pastry:
- 150 g unsalted butter cubed
- 160 ml water
- 375 g flour
- ½ tsp salt
For the pumpkin filling:
- 750 g pumpkin deseeded and peeled
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 2 onions thinly sliced
- 10 large sage leaves thinly sliced – plus some small leaves to decorate
- 40 g sugar
- 40 ml red wine vinegar
- 1 tsp paprika
- A pinch of chilli flakes
- ¼ tsp Worcestershire sauce
- ½ tsp soft brown sugar
- 1 egg beaten
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- First make the hot-water pastry. Warm the water in a medium saucepan over high heat, then once simmering add the butter. Bring to the boil, allowing the butter to melt.
- Remove the pan from the heat, add the flour and salt and stir it all together to create a dough. Tip the dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth. Wrap in cling film and chill in the fridge for 30 minutes.
For the pumpkin filling:
- Preheat the oven to 200°C/180°C fan/390°F. Chop the pumpkin into big chunks and put it all in a big baking dish. Drizzle with a tbsp of the olive oil, and season generously with salt and pepper. When the oven is hot, roast the pumpkin for 40 minutes until soft. Set aside to cool slightly. (Keep the oven on to bake the pasties.)
- Meanwhile, heat the other 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large non-stick frying pan over medium heat. Add the sliced onion and cook, stirring occasionally, for 5-10 minutes, coating them in all the oil. Season with salt and add the sugar and vinegar. Stir to combine and cook for a further 20 minutes over medium-low heat until gently caramelised. Add the shredded sage leaves and stir them into the onions.
- Put all the roasted pumpkin chunks in a bowl and mash into a relatively smooth puree – lumps are allowed although keep 'em small because that pumpkin needs as much flavour as it can get! Add the caramelised onions, along with the paprika, chilli, Worcestershire sauce and brown sugar, along with more salt and pepper. Stir it all together, tasting and seasoning until the flavour is exactly as you want.
Assembling the pumpkin pasties:
- Line a baking tray with baking parchment.
- Take the pastry from the fridge and cut it in half. Roll out one half on a lightly-floured surface until it's around 1-2mm thick. Using either an 8cm cutter for round pasties, or the circumference of large mug or a bowl for the half-moon pasties, cut out rounds from the pastry.
- Fill each round with pumpkin, either in the centre or on one half, keeping a border of pastry around the edge clear. The small ones will be filled with a heaped tbsp, the larger with up to 2 tbsps. Brush the beaten egg around the border.
- Cover the small rounds with another round of pastry, sealing along the egg washed border. For the half-moon shaped pasties, cover with the other half of the pastry circle, first egg washing the border. Press to seal, then crimp with the prongs of a fork. Cut slashes in the top to release steam and brush with more egg wash. Decorate with a small sage leaf.
- Repeat the process with the remaining pastry half.
- Line all the pasties on the prepared baking tray and bake for 15-20 minutes until golden and the juices are bubbling up through the steam holes. You may need to turn the tray in the last 5 minutes of baking to ensure the colour is even. Allow to cool slightly before serving, then tuck in. Eat warm or cold as a snack, lunch or side.