Sure, Halloween is prime time for all things spooky and scary, but it’s also become a time for lots of tackiness. It doesn’t have to be that way!
We’re not total snob-goblins—we love dressing up, carving pumpkins, playing scary games, and eating candy. And we’re not opposed to having fun with our food (or drinks, for that matter), but we don’t always want something cutesy, and too much store-bought spookiness can quickly accumulate into something cheesy. We want to have a good time, but we also want to remember that we’re grown-ups, and we want to be a little genuinely uneasy. That’s what Halloween’s all about, right? Finding the fun in the phantasmagoric.
If crawling plastic zombies and sexy food costumes are your jam, of course, that’s totally cool, but if you’re pining for something a little more refined, you’re in luck. Here are some tips for throwing a Halloween party that’s both creepy and classy.
Turn To Nature
This applies to both food and decor for your party. On the food front, there are tons of options that don’t require artificial coloring: pumpkins and squash, of course, plus carrots and yams and even mango for orange, perfect for pairing with naturally black snacks like sesame seeds, super dark chocolate, black beans, beluga lentils, black rice, black quinoa, black truffles (if you’ve got bank), and black olives (if you like that sort of thing). For bloody-looking bites, dark cherries and cherry preserves, raspberry coulis and jam, Black Mission figs, blood oranges, beets, pomegranate juice, and blackberries can all help you out. Baby beets make beautiful little anatomical hearts for garnishing cocktails, or whatever else you like. For witchy green and purple food hues, use matcha powder and ube.
The most obvious item on the list of natural objects ripe for picking is the pumpkin. The reigning symbol of fall is fit for decorating in any form—turned into jack-o-lanterns, yes, but also arranged au naturel, in any shade from orange to white to warty green. (And don’t forget gourds!) You can also simply paint them coordinating solid colors—black and gold, for instance—in which case, put a premium on a pleasing shape and a nice stem. Pumpkins are good eating too, from soups to pies, and when it comes to the former, you can even use the pumpkins themselves as the serving vessels. Small pumpkins can be hollowed out and roasted, then used as soup bowls; larger ones can be used to serve the entire pot of soup or chili, or scooped out into a raw shell that conceals a punch bowl. Neat trick, huh?
As for natural, non-edible decor, collect gnarled branches and spray paint them matte black or metallic gold to use in centerpieces. And while you won’t be picking up actual crows, owls, snakes, bats, rats, and bugs outdoors (we hope), you can focus on purchasing or making decorations in their images, for a naturally sinister effect. Making sure they’re all the exact same shade heightens the effect, but you can take care of that later, once you’ve amassed your menagerie; more on that below.
Orange and black is the classic Halloween color palette, and if you stick to just those two (as much as possible), they can be really striking, but a more streamlined option is to channel The Addams Family and go (mostly) monochrome. Specifically, back to black. Spray paint can be your best friend here—look how it transforms dollar store ceramic houses and figurines. You can do the same thing with thrift store vases, picture frames, fake flowers, the aforementioned bats, rats, snakes (as in this simple but striking wreath), and so on. When keeping to one color, play up different textures: velvet, lace, tulle, feathers. Pick an accent color like red or purple and use it judiciously, or add in subtle shades of gray and even sparing pops of gold or silver and you’ll easily achieve eerie elegance.
In the same Gothic vein, decorate with lots of skulls: flocked velour, for example, or matte black—or, if the idea doesn’t make you too squeamish, you may be able to find actual animal bones at an antiques store (skulls, jaws, and antlers). Maybe you even have some hanging around after an ambitious cooking project! If not, while you’re at the antiques mall, look for any other items that would be at home in atmospheric Wunderkammer-style vignettes, like old mannequin hands, heads, and torsos, worn birdcages, musty books, black and white photos. Another good antiques store option is old bottles, which are usually fairly cheap, and come in lots of interesting shapes and colors; vintage medicine bottles in particular, arranged on a shelf or in a glass-fronted cabinet, make intriguing apothecary-style displays. Sprinkle in some bones, dried flowers, peacock feathers, and/or minerals and you have a display that’s super moody without being run of the mill.
If that’s a bit too much for you, we’ve got lots of other non-tacky decor tips that don’t involve antiques or vintage…specimens. More of a Hellraiser? These nail-punctured candles are a cheap but effective addition to your tableaux. Floating candles will work for any aesthetic, whether you’re paying homage to Harry Potter or just going for a levitating haunted house effect.
Once you’ve set your scene, it’s time to set your menu. Consider serving offal; for many, it has an inherent spookiness, but it also stars in some of the most refined dishes that exist, and is legit delicious. Bonus points if you plate it in the extra-elegant and baroque (yet still delightfully ooky) style of the late great Hannibal TV show. You can go for a classic organ preparation, such as liver sautéed with mushrooms and onions, or chicken liver-Port pate for an appetizer. Or try chicken feet in black bean sauce, hefty roasted marrow bones split lengthwise (like something an ogre would eat), or tongue (which you can make in the slow cooker and turn into tacos). Beef heart skewers are a traditional Peruvian dish that would make a great party platter. But if you can’t stomach the thought of eating, well, stomach (or any other offal bits), ribs are a good safe choice that still carry a certain creep factor, at least in the context of your Halloween table, and especially if they’re slathered in a nice, sticky, dark red sauce. Just have lots of napkins ready. If you’re still unsure about organ meats and messy ribs, check out the recipes below for alternative inspiration.
Since pretty much everyone takes photos on their phones these days, download some apps that will add extra holiday flair to your soirée snaps, dim the lights, and put on some atmospheric tunes (horror movie soundtracks are always a good choice). Then shake up a fall flavored cocktail, and settle in for a scarily sophisticated evening.
Because Jello shots just won’t cut it (although, our Hurricane Jelly Shots recipe turns out fancier and bloody pretty versions). This inky cocktail was created for the total solar eclipse earlier this year, but it also works well for Halloween. A soupçon of activated charcoal accounts for the pitch black color, while the flavor is spiced rum and blackberries with a little simple syrup and lemon juice. Get the recipe.
If you’re more of a wine drinker, try this black sangria, which has the bonus of being made in batches, and is accented with black currant liqueur. Cram as much dark fruit into the pitcher as you can find, and beware of the brandy; this one could sneak up on you. Get the recipe.
Being a staple autumn ingredient and a rich shade of orange, butternut squash is a natural for Halloween parties. This hummus-esque spread is rich and creamy with a piquant lashing of date syrup, and black sesame seed speckles to complete the classic color scheme. Put out black bean tortilla chips or dark pumpernickel crisps for color-coordinated dipping. Get the recipe.
What’s classier than baked brie? And what’s more appropriate for Halloween than a rich, red, syrupy puddle of edible
blood fruit? This is beautiful and warm and gooey and the sweet, tangy berries perfectly complement the creamy, nutty brie. Plus, it’s dead simple to make. Get the recipe.
If you’re more comfortable with orange snacks, these crispy sweet potato chips are a fantastic choice. The accompanying aioli is flavored with fall herbs like sage and thyme, and has enough garlic to ward off vampires, which is handy on Halloween. Get our Sweet Potato Chips with Fall Herb Aioli recipe.
If you’re feeding a crowd but you want something a bit a more impressive than crockpot chili (which is undoubtedly delicious), why not cook up a big, primal hunk of meat? You could do a dark and sticky grilled ribeye with a soy-butter glaze, or a coffee-rubbed prime rib roast, but a pork shoulder is more economical and no less stunning. This version is covered in a spicy, thick red chile paste with garlic, cumin, coriander, and bay leaf, and slow roasted until it’s ultra tender. Get our Slow Cooked Carne Adovada recipe.
If you want to skew a bit more elegant, make a pot of squid ink pasta. You can get a similar, though not as dark, result with gluten-free black bean pasta, and toss either sort of strands with any number of toppings: roasted squash cubes for that color contrast, kalamata olive pesto for the monochrome menu, or seafood for a little extra luxury. This version is nice and simple with tomatoes, garlic, and white wine. Get the recipe.
And now for dessert. These matcha and chocolate tarts are undeniably elegant, yet also a little squirm-inducing with their moldy-mossy decoration of green tea powder—without being flat-out disgusting like a lot of Halloween treats. The flavors and textures of the barely sweet, crispy chocolate shell and smooth, creamy layers of white chocolate-matcha and semisweet chocolate ganache will surely cast a spell on you. Get the recipe.
If you’re a fan of the bloody look, but you still want something classy (and the baked brie wasn’t enough for you), look no further than this Red Wedding cake—which happens to be vegan too. The red velvet cake layers are frosted with vegan buttercream, and topped with an oozy, boozy cherry-Amaretto mixture. Unlike the cake served at another colorful Game of Thrones wedding, the only secret ingredient in this one is beet juice, which provides natural food coloring. Get the recipe.
Okay, okay, we can’t resist all of the more traditional trappings of Halloween, but there are still more stylish ways to rework them, like these surprisingly easy-to-make swirled sugar cookies. They evoke the festive colors of candy corn but thankfully don’t taste anything like them. Get the recipe.
We may not get to go trick-or-treating anymore, but these dangerously easy-to-make confections are way better than anything that’s ever been dropped into a plastic pumpkin anyway. You just toss 5 ingredients—pumpkin seeds (très autumnal), pretzels (for the salt, of course), semisweet chocolate, butterscotch chips, and peanut butter (yes)—into your slow cooker, let it melt and get cozy for a while, then spread it out to set, and devour like a fiend. Get the recipe.
Header image courtesy of Jungalow.