WRITTEN ON October 28th, 2010 BY Meredith AND STORED IN Baking, Breakfast, Dessert, Fruit, Holiday, Italian

I always loved Halloween as a kid.  It was the highlight of the fall.  And I don’t even like candy.

I had the kind of mom who’d make my costumes herself.  There were never any store bought mermaid or Miss America costume-in-a-bag outfits in our house. I think the best costume I ever had was the Witch in the Candy House, from Hansel and Gretel. Underneath, I dressed as a witch, and my mom made a two sided cardboard “house” strung together by ribbons slung over my shoulders.  She spent God knows how long gluing all sorts of candy to it, creating shutters, a walkway with candy flowers on the sides, front and back door, chimney. Though as it turned out, the hardest part was keeping my little brother from eating all the candy off the cardboard as she worked.

I also had a pretty slammin’ Strawberry Shortcake costume, courtesy of my grandmother (known around these parts as Dot), I was a Gibson Girl one year (a costume pieced together from the bridesmaid dresses from my Aunt’s wedding. What?  It’s not like Mom was ever going to wear it again), and a very sneaky gypsy a couple years running (what can I say, I loved the 70’s knee high boots and the huge gold hoops I got to wear as part of the look).

I was thinking back on all of this the other day while wandering the isles of the local Ricky’s costume shop.  Standing there aghast at what constitutes as a costume these days (why does every single woman’s costume and half the girls costumes look like something you’d find in a catalouge for strippers?), I started to wonder when the shift occurred from homemade handiwork to cheap polyester in a plastic bag.  If you think about it, the gotta get it fast costume mentality kind of mirrors the fast food, pre-made, store bought trajectory of what many of us eat these days.

There was a time when it was okay to give out homemade cookies and candy apples to the neighborhood trick or treaters. Some loony with a razor blade screwed that one up for us. I remember the year in the early ’80s when the sealed candy craze began. PSA’s, teachers and school administrators all warned of the dangers lurking in that snickerdoodle from the little old lady across the street. In fact, I had to empty my loot bag at the kitchen table as soon as I cleared the front door.  Any handmade goodies were confiscated (and enjoyed with a big glass of cold milk by my father once we were happily distracted by our M&M’s and Butterfingers). Still, my next door neighbor, Mrs. Long (incidentally, a caterer), would keep a small basket of goodies for just a select few of us. She’d let us take all the regular candy we wanted and then she’d pull out her secret stash of homemade fudge, or cookies, or candy apples.  Mom always let us keep those. They were my favorite treat of the night, by far.

On Halloween this year I’ll be handing out the requisite sealed candy: mini-chocolate bars, Reeces Pieces, Dum-Dum lolipops, Sour Patch Kids and Swedish Fish. But I’ve made some mini-pumpkin muffins, just for the kids that I already know.  I hope they’ll be allowed to eat them. Kevin and I will be enjoying an Italian plum tart, using the last of these tiny, sweet little beauties. It’s getting to be that time for hunkering down, for heartier, heavier food.  This tart is the perfect nod to the last of the late summer produce, yet it looks so gorgeous and festive you can’t help but think of all the holiday times ahead.  It’s the perfect kick off to a season of homemade treats .

I understand that people are busier now.  That in most households, both parents work and have little time for family meals and costumes that don’t come off a rack.  Maybe it was always so, and I was just lucky enough to grow up in a household where these things were important, regardless of how hard my mom worked as a full time teacher.  Either way, I hope I never get so busy that I forget to stop and take time to enjoy the little things, like a bangin’ handmade Strawberry Shortcake hat, or a sweet treat that doesn’t come from a Costco value bag. Maybe that’s why I always loved Halloween so much: on that day, it was very, very clear how much I was loved and spoiled and yes, over-indulged.

Plum gorgeous

Candied Plum Tart (makes one 8 inch round tart)
20 Italian plums, halved and pitted
3 tbsp light brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1 tsp nutmeg
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 cup raspberry jam
For pastry:
11/2 cups flour
11/2 sticks cold butter, cut into small cubes
1 tsp salt
5 tbsp ice water
In food processor, pulse flour, butter and salt until it is well incorporated, and the consistency of sand. Slowly add ice water, by the tablespoon full (not all at once) and pulse until the mixture just forms a loose ball. Turn out of processor and lightly mold into a flat, round disk.  Wrap in plastic, chill for 20 minutes.  Dust your countertop with flour.  Remove pastry from fridge, unwrap, and dust with flour.  Dust your rolling pin with flour too.  Begin to roll out your dough, turning after each roll of the pin, 1/4 turn.  This will keep the dough round and will keep it from sticking (if it gets sticky on the bottom just add more flour to the counter top). Once it is about 1/4 thick, place in your tart pan and gently press the edges into the pan.  Trim the top, leaving about an inch extra dough around the entire tart (dough will shrink when cooked).  Chill 30 minutes. In the meantime: Preheat oven to 375. Toss plums with cinnamon, brown sugar, nutmeg and salt. Spread on baking sheets, flesh side down, and roast about 15-20 minutes until soft and caramelized.  Remove tart shell from fridge, cover with parchment paper and fill with pie weights or dried beans.  Place on a baking sheet and bake in oven about 20 minutes until crust firm and chalky in color. Remove from oven, gently remove pie weights.  Place back into oven for another 10 minutes until lightly golden and firm. Cool. Arrange plum halves in a decorative pattern in tart shell. Melt jam in a small saucepan and, using a brush, gently brush the top of the plums to create a glaze.  Serve with vanilla ice cream.

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