Halloween has always been my very favorite holiday. I have a brilliant memory of being four years old and dressed as a bat, holding hands with my sister (dressed as a Rubik’s cube) eating powdered sugar donuts at the local fire station. We stood beside a fire burning inside an old metal barrel, and the flames lit our faces up more beautifully than sunshine. Looking at my sister’s multi-colored smile, I realized that Halloween was the best, most terrific day of the year, and I wished it could be Halloween every day.
But of all the terrific Halloweens—Halloweens when I partied, Halloweens when I dressed up, Halloweens when I trick or treated for charity, all the many glorious Halloweens of the past forty-plus years—the best Halloween was the first one I spent in Ash Valley, Oregon. I was a first-grader, and my family had only moved to town in August. “Town” was a strong word for our community; there was no grocery store or gas station or post office there, only a two-room schoolhouse and a pre-fab shed sheltering the volunteer fire department. About sixty-five people lived in the immediate vicinity, and every holiday they came together at the school for lavish potlucks.
I’d been excited about Halloween right up until the moment it was decided that instead of making me the costume of my choice (I’m pretty sure that year I wanted to go as a mermaid), we were just going to borrow a costume from our neighbors so my mom would have plenty of time to prepare for her first-ever Ash Valley potluck. On Halloween, I sulked around all day, only brightening when my mom let me lick out the mixing bowl. Although when I learned she was making cupcakes—a food that I’d never gotten to eat before—my day was transformed. As was I when I tried on the borrowed costume, which was a perfectly adorable raccoon suit that I looked cute in.
When my sister finished painting on my raccoon mask, I saw the cupcakes my mom had created and nearly burst into tears. Orange frosted and decorated with mini-marshmallow ghosts, they were the single most amazing thing I had ever seen. I couldn’t wait for my friends to see how brilliant my mother was. We did a cursory round of trick or treating (in the car, because the houses were all miles apart) and made our way to the school.
With lights blazing and Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow whirring on the film projector, the school looked nothing like its day-lit self. After dinner (my first potluck, and the first time I ever got to eat two kinds of lasagna in one meal!), adults dressed as witches urged me to go into the basement to check out the haunted house. I held sweaty hands with my best friend and managed to wobble downstairs. More witches attempted to convince me to touch hideous, slimy things. Pirates grabbed at me. A vampire rose from its coffin, making us shriek and run toward the faceless monster rattling in the closet. At the exit, a head on a plate invited us to join them for dinner. I was so terrified I nearly puked.
“Did you recognize my dad?” another student asked, and I nodded. It hadn’t mattered that I’d recognized every face; it had been too much fun letting myself get so scared while I also knew I was perfectly safe. It was the best feeling, and one I’ve spent the rest of my life chasing.
Then Mom gave me one of her cupcakes, and the night got even better. I’ve recreated her recipe below, although I’ve taken the liberty of jazzing up the frosting a little. You’ll notice that the recipe is vegan; it’s supposedly from the Depression, when eggs were often in short supply. This version might be a touch healthier: I’ve swapped out half the oil for applesauce, which lowers the fat a bit, and I use half as much sugar as some versions of the recipe.
Trick or Treat Cupcakes
Preheat oven to 350 degrees; prepare your cupcake pan with liners (or by greasing and flouring). I made 6 regular-sized cupcakes and 12 mini cupcakes.
In a mixing bowl, whisk together:
1 1/2 c flour
3/4 c sugar
6 tb cocoa
1 tsp baking soda
1/8 tsp salt
In another bowl, whisk together:
2 tb applesauce
2 tb light-tasting oil, like corn or canola (honestly, I used part melted vegan butter & part olive, and it was fine)
1 tb vinegar (balsamic is actually a nice touch!)
1 tb Skrewball Peanut Butter Whiskey (or vanilla)
Pour the wet ingredients over the dry and stir to combine. A few small lumps is okay. Fill pans 3/4th full, and bake until a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean: 12-15 minutes for minis and 15-18 minutes for full-sized.
Halloween Peanut Butter Frosting
This tastes like a spreadable Chick-o-stick.
Combine 2 tbs peanut butter with 2 tbs butter (vegan is fine). Add 1 tb vanilla creamer, then add enough powdered sugar to make it smooth and spreadable (about a cup, maybe). Add enough orange food coloring to look seasonal. If the frosting looks too thin, just add a bit more butter and powdered sugar; if it’s too thick, add a bit of milk–make it the texture you like!
I used Dandies vanilla marshmallows, which are vegan and very vanilla-y. Use scissors to make two or three small snips at the bottom of your marshmallow, giving it a “cute but ragged death shroud” look. Use a toothpick dipped in black food coloring to apply eyes.
Assemble to your liking! My mom just put the marshmallows on top of the cupcakes, but it’s also fun to create a haunted cemetery tableau, using graham crackers as headstones and chocolate ganache as fresh churned grave dirt (a sprinkle of crushed chocolate wafers adds a nice touch). Do note that if you put these in a sealed container, the moisture in the air might make your ghosts’ eyes bleed a little, so if you make them in advance, maybe toss one of those moisture-absorbing packets in with them, or leave the lid ajar a bit.
BIO: Wendy N. Wagner is the editor-in-chief of Nightmare Magazine and the managing/senior editor of Lightspeed. Her short stories, essays, and poems run the gamut from horror to environmental literature. Her longer work includes the novella The Secret Skin, the horror novel The Deer Kings, the Locus bestselling SF eco-thriller An Oath of Dogs, and two novels for the Pathfinder role-playing game. She lives in Oregon with her very understanding family, two large cats, and a Muppet disguised as a dog. You can find her at winniewoohoo.com and on Twitter at wnwagner.
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