When Paula and I were children, there were a lot of Southerners who didn’t go in for all that much trick-or-treating. It wasn’t that we didn’t want to, but in rural farming communities where houses were half a mile or more apart, accomplishing door-to-door treat-trolling could be a bit of a challenge. Well do I remember the freedom after we moved in to town, where we were allowed to roam at will with our trick-or-treat bags.
That didn’t mean Halloween wasn’t a big deal out in the country. There was this big carnival at the school house, complete with orange and black crepe decorations, jack-o-lantern carving contests, and a spooky haunted house rigged up by imaginative parents and teenagers who did disgusting things with ketchup and peeled grapes.
When I was four, I was actually crowned King of that carnival. It has been downhill ever since. Anyway—we got to dress up in costumes and stuff ourselves with mostly homemade Halloween treats—chewy fudge, crisp popcorn balls, caramel coated apples, and, of course, ghoulishly decorated cookies cut into creepy shapes from bats and arch-backed cats to jack-o-lanterns, ghosts, and broom-riding witches.
The tradition for Halloween-decorated cookies goes back a lot further than you might think—there are vintage Halloween-themed cutters dating from at least the early nineteen-hundreds. Now that there’s been a revival of neighborhood Halloween carnivals, grim-shaped cookies are easy themed treats for a crowd of ghouls, whether they are six or sixty.
Cheese Cats, Bats, and Jack-O’-Lanterns
Yields: about 10 dozen depending on the size of your cookie cutters
Traditionally, cheese straws are extruded from a cookie press, but they’re really just a savory shortbread, and can be cut into shapes like any other cookie. These may seem like grown-up Halloween treats, but try to name a child who doesn’t love cheese.
¾ pound (12 ounces) well-aged, extra-sharp cheddar, grated
¼ pound (4 ounces) Parmigiano Reggiano, finely grated
¼ pound (½ cup or 1 stick) unsalted butter, softened
1 generous teaspoon ground cayenne pepper, or more, to taste
½ teaspoon salt
10 ounces (about 2 cups) all-purpose flour
In a food processor fitted with a steel blade or with a stand mixer, cream both cheeses with the butter until fluffy and smooth.
Whisk together the cayenne, salt, and flour in a separate bowl. Add it all to the processor or in batches to the mixer and work into a smooth dough. Gather into a ball, wrap well in plastic wrap, and chill 30 minutes. Don’t let it chill hard. If you make it ahead, soften at room temperature for 30 minutes.
Position a rack in the center of the oven and preheat to 325° F. Roll out the dough on a lightly flour a work surface about 1/8-inch thick and cut into shapes with cookie cutters. If you don’t have a jack-o’-lantern cutter, use a pumpkin cutter and cut out a face with a sharp paring knife dipped in flour.
Bake 16 to 18 minutes, being careful not to let them brown. The bottoms should be golden but the tops and sides should not color. Cool on wire racks. Store in airtight tins.