Happy Halloween! This is my favorite, favorite holiday, and I’m so excited. We did go out last Saturday, when it was pouring rain, and today we are waking up to snow, so… welcome to Halloween in the Midwest.
Today we’re going to talk a little bit about the origins of Halloween in the United States, many of which we owe to ancient traditions in Ireland and Scotland. The origins of Halloween can be traced back to the pre-Christian Gaelic festival of Samhain, or summer’s end. While Samhain was determined by the end of the harvest, it was also known as a time when feasts were held for dead loved ones, and the spirits of the Otherworld could enter this world. Because of this belief, bonfires were a common part of a Samhain celebration, as they were thought to protect humans and ward off any evil spirits who crossed the boundary.
Because fire was regarded as protective, in Ireland, root vegetables were carved–mostly turnips in Scotland–into faces, and a light was placed inside to ward off evil spirits. Still used today, the name Jack O’Lantern comes from an Irish legend about a man named “Stingy Jack,” a drunk with such a bad reputation that the devil himself sought him out. According to some variations of the story, Jack twice tricked the devil into buying him food and drink, both times escaping the devil’s plans for him. Tricking the devil again by striking a deal that he would never be taken to Hell, Jack lived to old age. However, at his death, he was turned away from the gates of Heaven for his bad lifestyle. He then attempted to enter Hell, but was also turned away, the devil now keeping his promise to never take him. So Stingy Jack is forced to wander the netherworld for eternity, with only an ember inside of a turnip to light his way.
Even trick-or-treating has its origins in Samhain. Known as “mumming” or “guising,” the practice involved people dressing in costume and going door to door to receive treats. It’s said that the disguises were worn in an attempt to walk among the supernatural beings who had entered the world through the weakened threshold. Later, this became a practice for children, who would go door to door, sometimes performing songs or tricks in exchange for treats or coins.
Over time, with the arrival of Christianity, the celebrations of Samhain began to meld with All Hallow’s Eve, which was the night before the celebration of All Saints’ Day on November 1st. Halloween traditions gained traction in the United States with the mass arrival of Irish and Scottish immigrants in the 19th century.
In honor of the festival of Samhain, today’s recipe is a treat from Britain often called a fruit slice, but alternatively known by the ghoulish name, “flies’ graveyard.” (Maybe Halloween is the only day I could get away with making such a gross and peculiar dessert. Halloween is good for so many reasons.) This dessert, also known as a flies’ cemetery, is called such because the filling, which is usually composed of currants or raisins, looks like dead flies caught in a trap. Yum.
Makes 9-16 squares.
For pastry: 1 3/4 cups flour, plus more for rolling dough
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 tsp baking powder
1/2 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
1/2 cup confectioner’s sugar
3/4 tsp lemon zest
3/4 tsp vanilla extract
For filling: 2 1/4 cups cranberries
1 1/4 cup dark raisins
1/3 cup water
3/4 cup brown sugar
1 tbsp, plus 2 tsp all-purpose flour
1 tsp lemon juice
1/8 tsp lemon zest
1/8 tsp salt
1/2 tsp vanilla
For top of pastry: 1 egg
1 tbsp milk or cream
2 tsp sugar
In a medium bowl, sift together flour, salt, and baking soda.
Add butter and sugar to a large bowl and beat until very smooth and almost completely white in color, about five minutes.
Add the lemon zest, vanilla, and egg, and beat until just incorporated.
Add the flour mixture to the sugar mixture in three batches, beating each batch until it’s just incorporated.
After you’ve added all the flour, begin pulling the mixture together. Divide in half. Form both portions into a disk. Wrap the two disks with plastic wrap and refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours, or as long as overnight.
Place the cranberries into a food processor (you can also chop by hand). Buzz a few times until the cranberries are in smaller pieces, but not yet purified. Add the raisins (if using a food processor) and buzz just a time or two to slightly break up the raisins. Add both to a heavy bottomed saucepan. To the saucepan, add water, sugar, flour, lemon juice, lemon zest, and salt. Mix together and then bring to a boil over medium heat, for about 15 minutes total cook time. Remove from heat and stir in vanilla. Allow to cool to room temperature.
While the filling is cooling, roll out one of the disks 1/8-inch thick and place in the bottom of a 8 x 8-inch pan. Gently press to fit the pan, and cut an edge about 1 centimeter up the sides of the pan. Fill this pastry with the cooled filling and spread smooth.
Roll the second disk 1/8-inch thick. Lay it over the pastry filling. Cut the edges off and gently press to the bottom pastry edges to seal it.
Beat the egg with the heavy cream and brush it over the top. Sprinkle with sugar.
Place the pastry in the freezer as you preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Bake for 30-35 minutes, until the top is golden brown.
Allow to cool completely before cutting and serving.
For my version of this flies’ graveyard, I used a combination of cranberries and raisins–and fly’s eyes, newt’s noses, frog’s ears, and whatever else was on sale during October.
What are you doing for Halloween this year? Do you have kiddies who are dressed to mingle safely with the wandering ghosts? Did you carve any lanterns in honor of the lost soul of Stingy Jack? Will you catch a few flies in your pastry and bake them up crisp? God I love Halloween. Happy ghouling!