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Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 30, 2012

For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off


For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off photo
Laura Joseph’s Halloween party is no small affair. She’s been hosting it for 22 years at her big white house near Zilker Park. Kids and adults from the neighborhood and across Austin come to celebrate Halloween with games, food, costumes, punch, a pumpkin bake-off and, yes, candy.
For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off photo
Laura Joseph, right, hosts parties throughout the year, including Halloween and Easter, which are open to both kids and adults who are looking for a chance to celebrate with the neighborhood.
For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off photo
Pumpkin spice cake, kibbi, cheesecake and hummus are among the winning dishes from the pumpkin bake-off.
For more than 20 years, hundreds gather for South Austin Halloween party and pumpkin bake-off photo
Pumpkin spice cake, kibbi, cheesecake and hummus are among the winning dishes from the pumpkin bake-off.

By Addie Broyles

American-Statesman Staff

One of the biggest, longest-running Halloween parties in Austin has its roots at the White House.

When Laura Joseph was a child, her family lived near Washington, D.C., and one spring, when President Lyndon B. Johnson was in office, her family was invited to attend the annual Easter Egg Roll.

Celebrating a holiday on such a grand scale was a feeling she never forgot, and for more than 20 years, she and her husband, Cater, have been re-creating that community experience for both Easter and Halloween in her own white house, a grand Greek Revival home built in 1875 in the Zilker neighborhood just south of Lady Bird Lake.

“When I moved to a white house with a big lawn, I started to host,” says Joseph, a master gardener whose historic property is also known for its elaborate gardens and a large purple martin sanctuary.

The fall festivities started as a relatively simple pumpkin-carving party under the carport in the early ’90s, but it evolved as the neighborhood kids who attended grew and word of the fun spread.

Not long after the party started, Joseph — a three-time winner of the Statesman’s Christmas cooking contest, coordinated by former food writer Kitty Crider — added a pumpkin bake-off that has grown to now include more than 40 entries a year.

This wasn’t her first bake-off to coordinate, though. As the daughter of sweet potato farmers from Big Sandy in East Texas, Joseph had started a well-received sweet potato cook-off in the Eanes School District, where she worked. “I thought, ‘Why not try pumpkin?’’’ The response was overwhelming. “There are people who work on their dishes all year,” she says. The winning cooks take home bragging rights and a 4-foot-tall trophy that rotates between winners.

For the past two years, I’ve helped judge the contest, eating my weight in pumpkin bread, pie, bars, cookies, soup, hummus and even pumpkin kibbeh, a vegetarian spin on a popular Lebanese dish, and pumpkin mac and cheese, a winner at this year’s party. But not every dish has been so great. Joseph recalls a “really awful” seven-layer dip that used pumpkin instead of avocado. “There was so much of it,” she says. “People tried to eat it, though.”

Even her own pumpkin contribution — a drink she called PumpkinPalooza Punch, which she serves in a carved-out pumpkin and gourd — has evolved over the years. “Less pumpkin, that’s the key.”

Everyone pitches in to put on the event, which takes place sometime in the week before Halloween. Neighbor Tom Giebink has been “the pumpkinmeister” for more than a decade, helping children of all ages clean and carve pumpkins to take home. “Tom can find the most glorious things to say about a little pumpkin that just has two eyes,” Joseph says. “The kids just adore him.”

Joseph and friend David Gordon, who is also the chef at the Hilton downtown, have perfected the art of making spaghetti for hundreds in her regular-size kitchen, but this year, she hired the Peached Tortilla to serve tacos.

Even though she’s retired from the school district and her own children have careers and kids of their own, the parties continue. The Easter Egg Roll includes a visit from the Easter bunny, an egg hunt with dozens and dozens of plastic eggs, a puppet show and games, and Joseph hires a band for the Halloween extravaganza. (Joseph met this year’s band, the Coffee Sergeants, by chance. They’d just released an album called “Purple Martin Sanctuary,” which Joseph stumbled upon when searching for something related to the gourd birdhouses.)

Neighbor Charlotte Boyle says that hardly a month goes by that Joseph isn’t hosting some kind of party, either with fellow gardeners or just family who live nearby. Janice Morgan put it this way: “She’s the pied piper of the community.”

Joseph says that she and her husband see the parties as part of their obligation to give back to the neighborhood. “We are both really thrilled to be part of the neighborhood and in a historical home,” she says. “We love to share it.”

It’s their gift of an extravagant holiday experience, just like the one she experienced when she was a child. “I just love any excuse to get the neighbors together.”

PumpkinPalooza Punch

This is an easy and delicious punch to double or triple for a crowd. Laura Joseph makes 10 batches for her Halloween party, some with rum, some without.

1 (15-oz.) can pumpkin puree

1 cup brown sugar

1 tsp. cinnamon

1 tsp. ground ginger

½ tsp. nutmeg

¼ tsp. ground cloves

½ gallon apple cider

1 liter ginger ale, chilled

1 cup spiced rum (optional)

Whisk pumpkin, brown sugar and spices together in medium bowl. Slowly pour in apple cider and whisk until sugar is dissolved and smooth. Chill.

In large punch bowl or hollowed pumpkin, gently stir together pumpkin cider mix, ginger ale and rum, if using. Serve with or without ice. Serves 24.

—Laura Joseph

Halloween Hummus

1 tsp. cumin seeds

1 tsp. coriander seeds

½ tsp. allspice berries

4 cloves garlic

1 (15 oz.) can garbanzo beans, rinsed and drained

8 oz. unsweetened pumpkin puree (about 1/2 can)

1/4 cup tahini

Juice of 3 lemons, or more to taste

Salt and pepper, to taste

Olive oil, cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds, for garnish

In a skillet over medium-high heat, toast the cumin and coriander seeds briefly until fragrant. Set aside. When cool, grind the toasted seeds with the allspice in an electric spice grinder, and set aside. Using a food processor, pulse the garlic until pureed and then add garbanzo beans, pumpkin, tahini, lemon juice, ground spices and salt and pepper, to taste. Process until combined. Chill for several hours, then garnish with olive oil, cilantro and toasted pumpkin seeds, if using. Serve with tortilla or pita chips.

— Adapted by Claire M. Shia from a recipe by Lucinda Hutson

Spiced Pumpkin Cake

3 cups all purpose flour, plus additional for dusting pans

2 tsp. baking powder

1 tsp. baking soda

1 Tbsp. ground cinnamon

2 tsp. ground ginger

1 3/4 tsp. ground allspice

1 tsp. salt

1/2 tsp. ground nutmeg

1 1/2 cups sugar

1 cup (packed) golden brown sugar

1 cup canola oil

4 large eggs

1 (15-oz.) can pumpkin puree

1 Tbsp. vanilla extract

1 Tbsp. grated orange peel

3/4 cup raisins

3/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut, plus additional for garnish

For frosting:

2 8-oz. package cream cheese, room temperature

2 1/2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature

2 Tbsp. dark rum

2 tsp. vanilla extract or vanilla paste

9 cups powdered sugar (measured, then sifted)

For ganache:

8 oz. semi-sweet chocolate

3/4 cup heavy cream

2 Tbsp. butter

1 Tbsp. brandy (optional)

Position rack in center of oven and preheat to 350 degrees. Butter two 9-inch-diameter cake pans with 1 1/2-inch-high sides. Line bottom of pans with parchment paper and dust with flour. Sift 3 cups flour, baking powder, baking soda, cinnamon, ginger, allspice, salt and nutmeg into medium bowl. Using electric mixer, beat both sugars and oil in another large bowl until combined (mixture will look grainy). Add eggs one at a time, beating until well blended after each addition. Add pumpkin, vanilla and orange peel; beat until well blended. Add flour mixture; beat just until incorporated. Stir in raisins and 3/4 cup coconut. Divide batter between prepared pans. Smooth tops.

Bake cakes until tester inserted into center comes out clean, about 1 hour. Cool cakes completely in pans on rack. Run knife around cakes to loosen. Invert cakes onto racks; remove parchment paper. Turn cakes over, rounded side up.

For frosting, beat cream cheese and butter in large bowl until smooth with an electric mixter. Beat in dark rum and vanilla. Add powdered sugar in 3 additions, beating just until frosting is smooth after each addition (do not overbeat or frosting may become too soft to spread). For ganache, place chocolate in a medium heat-proof bowl and set aside. Heat cream and butter over medium heat (or you can microwave) just to a boil and then pour over chocolate. Let stand, without stirring, for a few minutes and then gently stir. Add brandy, if using.

Cut each cake layer in half horizontally, using strong thread or dental floss. Assemble cake with alternating frostings, starting with ganache and ending with the cream cheese frosting. Finish icing the top and sides of assembled cake with cream cheese frosting.

After icing cake, chill for two hours. To decorate with a spider web, put the leftover ganache into a decorator’s bag with a small round tip and pipe a spider web design on top of the cake. You can also build a spider out of marzipan, if desired, or top with a plastic, inedible one.

—Adapted by Diane Riehs from a recipe in Bon Appétit

Pumpkin Kibbeh Balls

Kibbeh is a Middle Eastern appetizer traditionally made with meat, but this vegetarian version uses pumpkin puree to add flavor and moisture.

1 ¼ cups diced yellow onion

1 (15-ounce) can pumpkin puree

1 ½ cups fine bulgar

1/3 cup all-purpose flour

1 ¼ tsp. salt

½ tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

½ tsp. ground allspice

¼ tsp. ground cinnamon

3 cups canola oil, for frying

For filling:

2 Tbsp. extra-virgin olive oil

3 cups thinly sliced yellow onion

½ cup coarsely chopped walnuts

¾ tsp. salt

¼ tsp. coarsely ground black pepper

1 Tbsp. freshly squeezed lemon juice

2 Tbsp. pomegranate molasses (available in specialty stores)

¼ cup pomegranate seeds (optional)

A day before you plan to fry the kibbeh, process the diced onion in a food processor until it turns into a pulp. Combine the onion pulp with pumpkin, bulgar, flour, salt, pepper, allspice and cinnamon in a medium bowl. Mix well, and pat the mixture down. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, sealing it around the edges. Refrigerate overnight, allowing the bulgar to expand.

To prepare the filling, heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add the sliced onions, walnuts, salt, pepper and lemon juice. Stir well. Reduce the heat to medium-low and sauté until the onions are limp and tender. Remove from the heat. Add the pomegranate molasses and seeds, if using. Mix well and set aside to cool uncovered.

Remove the kibbeh mixture from the refrigerator and pass it through a meat grinder fitted with a fine-cutting plate. Measure the ground mixture into ¼-cup portions. On a flat surface, use your hands to roll and shape each portion into a 3-inch-long cylinder (Do not skip this step; rolling them into cylinders makes opening them easier.) Cut each cylinder in half widthwise; each half will be a portion. Drape plastic wrap over the portions to prevent drying.

Set a small bowl of cold water within reach. Place one portion of kibbeh in the palm of one hand. With your other hand, dip your index finger in the water and rub some on the palm of the hand that is holding the portion. Insert your index finger into the circular top of the portion (not the side), making a hole through the bottom or sides. Expand the opening to form a cavity by gently pressing against the side of the portion with your finger and shaping it in your palm. Dip your finger in water once again to dampen your palm and finger so the kibbeh will not stick to your palm or finger. The opened kibbeh ball should have the shape of a football that is 2 ½ to 3 inches long and about 1 ½ inches around with walls that are about ¼ inch thick. Repeat with the remaining portions.

Use a small demitasse spoon to fill the kibbeh balls. They should be full but not stuffed, and avoid getting filling on and around the lip. To close the kibbeh ball, hold it in one hand, and with your other hand dip your index finger in the water and dampen the ridge between your index finger and thumb. Using the ridge between your index finger and thumb, apply pressure to the top of the kibbeh and press the edges together until they are sealed. Repeat with the remaining kibbeh balls.

Heat the oil to 375 degrees in a medium saucepan over medium-high heat, using a candy/fry thermometer to measure the temperature of the oil for accuracy. Fry the kibbeh to a rich golden color. Remove from the oil, drain on a paper towel and serve. The kibbeh can be served warm or at room temperature.

— Adapted by Margie Joseph from “Classic Lebanese Cuisine” by Kamal Al-Faqih

Pumpkin Crunch

1 (15 oz.) can pumpkin puree

1 (12 oz.) can evaporated milk

2 tsp. cinnamon

2 tsp. nutmeg

1 cup sugar

3 eggs

1 box yellow cake mix

1 cup chopped pecans

2 sticks butter, melted

1 (8 oz.) pkg. softened cream cheese

1 (8 oz.) container Cool Whip

1 cup powdered sugar

Orange sprinkles or sugar crystals, for garnish (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Mix pumpkin, milk, cinnamon, nutmeg, sugar and egg together in a large bowl. Pour mixture into a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan lined with parchment paper. Sprinkle cake mix evenly over pumpkin mixture. Then sprinkle nuts over cake mix and pour melted butter evenly over all. Bake for 50 minutes. Cool in pan. While cake is baking, use an electric mixer to blend together the cream cheese, Cool Whip and powdered sugar in a large bowl.

When cooled, lift cake out of pan with the parchment paper and place on serving tray. Spread frosting over cake. Decorate with sprinkles or crystals, if using. Refrigerate for 1 to 2 hours. Cut into squares and serve. Keeps several days in refrigerator.

— Patti Hirsh

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