Sweet and spooky apple jack-o’-lanterns


The five biggest shopping days of the year for candy are all in October, thanks to Halloween, which sells more candy than any other holiday.

For the candy industry, Halloween is like Christmas. Big Sugar co-opted the tradition in the 1950s, but the roots of the holiday extend back much further to the Celtic tradition of Samhain, which honors the end of the harvest season and the beginning of winter. Samhain’s founding observers saw it as a time when the boundaries between the living and spirit worlds broke down, allowing the spirits to come bang on doors like neighborhood trick-or-treaters.

As time passed and history was written, Samhain absorbed other holidays that reflected the characteristics of the season, including death, wind and the abundance of sweet fruits dangling from trees. Appropriately enough, after the Celts were conquered by the Romans, Samhain merged with Pomona, a celebration of the Roman goddess of fruit trees and orchards.

Today, as nature’s candy dangles from trees like a real-life fable, we spend more than $9 billion each year on plastic sacks of sugar. The same way Samhain opens the door to the world of the dead, candy opens the floodgates for evil sugar spirits to enter the bodies of children.

The sweetness of an apple, by contrast, doesn’t turn kids into little poltergeists, and the fruit has long been used as a barometer of hunger. Growing up, folks of certain generations were told, “If you aren’t hungry enough to eat an apple, you aren’t really hungry.” Such words have never been said about a Twix bar.

I’m not suggesting people give out apples for Halloween. That would be as creepy as it would be wholesome. By convention, and for everyone’s peace of mind and legal protection, all sugar toxins distributed to trick-or-treaters must be hermetically sealed for safety.

I have a tree that produces McIntosh-like apples with a piercing flavor that’s like an arms race between sweet and tart. Most of them go through the cider press, but I try to save a few boxes of the biggest, most beautiful apples to eat the old-fashioned way. I’ve been thinking a lot about that apple hunger test, and I’ve noticed that when I’m hungry enough to eat an apple, the fruit’s characteristics become extra vivid. The perfume, sharpness and sweetness become all the more enticing.

When you slice an apple, it becomes more edible. I don’t know why, but it’s true. One night not too long ago, I kept slicing apples, and the kids kept eating them. Before we knew it, everyone was full.  And don’t forget pie. My mother-in-law makes hers with tapioca for extra body. So many apples, so little time.

This time of year, the absolute best thing to do with apples is to carve them into jack-o’-lanterns. They look like preserved heads from a cannibal’s trophy case, just in time for Halloween. Apples are softer and more forgiving than pumpkins, and you can snack on the bits that you carve away as you go. When they’re done, enjoy the shrunken apples’ shriveled beauty for a week or two, and then, if you wish, eat them like the dried apples they are.


Apple jack-o’-lanterns

If you live in a sunny climate, you can shrink apple heads on a windowsill in about a week. You can also use an oven on the lowest setting or place them in close proximity to a heater. However, a dehydrator with shelving you can space wide enough to accommodate an entire apple is the device of choice for making these sweet and sassy skulls.

Apples (the bigger the better)

Lime or lemon juice

Peel the apple, going around its “equator,” while leaving a bit of peel around the stem end and its opposite “pole.” Once peeled, look at the apple and decide where the face should be. Place the apple down and see how it rests. If it sits at a tilt,  you’ll want the face on the side that’s tilting up. Well, at least I do. Wherever you decide the face should be, sketch it lightly with the point of a knife.

Use a coring spoon to scoop out the middle of the apple from the side opposite the face, leaving a big hole in the back of the head. Scooping the insides allows the apple to dry more quickly.

Next, carve the mouth. Otherwise, you might not have enough room below the eyes and nose. That’s the extent of any artistic advice I should be giving, other than to make sure the nose is smaller than the eyes.

Rub the carved apple with lemon or lime juice and place it in the center of a dehydrator with the temperature set at 135 degrees for about 12 hours, until it has shrunk to your liking. If using an oven, set it on the lowest setting, with convection on if you’ve got it, and keep a watchful eye for about two to six hours.


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