Easy treats – and a few tricks – to feed a costumed crowd

Black and orange chili (black bean chili with ground turkey and chunks of sweet potato or butternut squash) can be the focal point of any Halloween buffet.
Black and orange chili (black bean chili with ground turkey and chunks of sweet potato or butternut squash) can be the focal point of any Halloween buffet.

Halloween might be the one night of the year you’re likely to see all your neighbors – but it’s hard to make time for catching up in the trick-or-treating bustle. As any parent of young kids knows, it can also be hard to squeeze in dinner to balance out all that candy. A neighborhood Halloween open house, however, solves both these problems and can quickly turn into a happily haunted tradition.

Cookbook author Charity Ferreira – whose most recent book is “Mon Cher Eclair” (Chronicle Books, $16.95, 112 pages) – has hosted a Halloween night open house in her Bay Area neighborhood for the past 12 years.

“Halloween is the perfect time for an open house, because the activity is already built in,” says Ferreira. “It’s nice for neighbors to have a stop while out trick-or-treating, and I think the adults love it because they don’t have to worry about feeding their kids dinner on a busy Halloween night – that’s my job.”

Sacramento’s leafy streets, mild October weather and easy-to-stroll neighborhoods make a similar party a natural here. Just invite the neighbors to drop in when they’re out and about on their candy rounds – and be sure it’s casual. Ferreira’s best advice? “Keep the food simple. I always make the same menu every year – two giant pots of soup.”

Our easy lineup (see recipes on Page 2D) offers a twist on this repertoire with savory (but not too spicy), satisfying black and orange chili, with turkey, black beans and chunks of butternut squash. Easy to make ahead of time and a snap to scale up, it’s an ideal cornerstone for a simple buffet menu that can accommodate plenty of dashes to open the door for trick-or-treaters. We pair the chili with spicy cheddar biscuits cut into Halloween shapes and a thematic dessert: chewy, gooey brown-butter cookie bars spiked with (what else?) fun-size candy chunks. (Yes, it’s OK to dip into the candy stash to bake them – and steal a nostalgic bar or two for the baker as well.) Ferreira, who trained as a pastry chef, says this party is the one time of year she doesn’t go crazy with sweets, since kids will have plenty of candy; one centerpiece baked good is plenty.

Ferreira adds grilled-cheese sandwiches, made in a panini press (she drafts a couple of willing guests into making them) to round out her menu, or to entice picky kids, but, she says, “We don’t even pretend to have vegetables or salad. We know everybody is there for the cozy main dish and the candy, and it’s just easier that way.”

If your conscience demands that you serve veggies to balance out the sugar, a tray of crudites is appealing and no work – and can work with a seasonal color theme. Try arranging carrots, orange bell peppers, chunks of cauliflower and white fennel on a black platter. For drinks, offer a bubbling cauldron (otherwise known as a slow cooker) of mulled cider, and milk for the kids, keeps things easy and low-sugar on the sweetest night of the year.

Ferreira has been hosting her get-together for 12 years: “We started it as neighborhood party for all the kids to play games and compare candy. The adults can get a glass of wine and a little break from trick-or-treating. The party has grown and changed as the kids have gotten older,” with spookier party decor. The parties have also ended later along with older kids’ bedtimes – though Ferreira still likes to open her doors at the start of trick-or-treat hours, around 5, and close up shop when the trick-or-treat trade tails off, around 9, a schedule that works even when Halloween falls on a school night, as it does this year.

Costumes and candy make the party plenty festive all by themselves, but Ferreira also likes to offer a couple of simple games and activities: “We started having Halloween candy bingo a few years ago,” she says with a laugh. “The kids like bobbing for apples, too. And I like to do a photo booth – the app for them is all the rage now.”

A photo-booth app may be a newfangled spin, but at its heart a Halloween open house – convivial, neighborly, low-fuss – is a very old-fashioned idea.

“It’s a really nice way to spend time with neighbors,” says Ferreira. Now that’s a Halloween tradition that’s as sweet, and fun-sized, as candy.

Black and orange chili

Times: 45 minutes

Serves 8-10

Notes: If you prefer a spicier chili, add more jalapeños or hot chili flakes. For convenience, butternut squash is available precut in the produce aisle, but any other winter squash may be substituted.

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 onions, chopped

1 jalapeño, minced

2 cloves garlic, minced

2 pounds ground turkey

3 tablespoons chili powder

1 tablespoon ground cumin

1 tablespoon unsweetened cocoa powder

2 tablespoons tomato paste

One 12-ounce bottle stout or very dark beer, such as Guinness

Three 15-ounce cans black beans

1 pound cubed butternut squash (about 4 cups)

Sour cream, grated cheese, sliced green onions, and chopped cilantro, for garnish

In a large pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Add the onions and sauté until softened, 10 minutes. Add the jalapeño and garlic and stir until fragrant, 1 minute. Stir in the turkey, spices, cocoa powder, and tomato paste and cook, stirring often to break up meat, until turkey is cooked through, 10 minutes. Meanwhile, drain beans, reserving the liquid from the cans.

Pour in beer and simmer until partially reduced. Lower heat to low, add the reserved bean liquid and butternut squash, cover, and simmer until squash is tender, about 20 minutes. Raise heat to medium, stir in black beans, and cook until flavors are blended, 5 minutes more. Serve in bowls, with garnishes on the side.

Spicy cheddar biscuits

Times: 30 minutes

Makes 18-24 biscuits

Notes: Use a traditional round biscuit cutter or, if desired, simple Halloween shapes (such as ghosts, moons, or pumpkins) for these easy, quick biscuits. They are best served hot; if making ahead, warm them in the oven for a few minutes before serving.

2 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper (or more to taste)

1/2 cup (1 stick) cold butter

1 cup grated sharp Cheddar cheese

1 cup buttermilk

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Line two baking sheets with kitchen parchment. In a bowl, stir together the flour, baking soda, baking powder, salt, and cayenne. With two knives or a pastry blender, cut in the butter until the mixture resembles coarse crumbs. Gently stir in the cheese. Pour in the buttermilk and stir gently until mixture begins to come together.

Turn dough out onto a floured work surface and knead gently to bring together, turning the dough 3 or 4 times. Pat the dough into an even 3/4-inch-thick disk and cut with a small biscuit or cookie cutter into desired shapes. Repeat with dough scraps.

Place biscuits on baking sheets, spacing evenly, and bake until puffed and golden, 15-17 minutes. Serve hot.

Fun-size brown butter cookie bars

Time: 45 minutes

Makes about 4 dozen

Note: Rich and sticky with candy bits, these bar cookies can incorporate any flavors of candy you prefer; chocolate and caramel types go especially well with the rich, nutty depth of the browned butter, which keeps these sweet treats from being cloying.

3/4 cup (1 1/2 sticks) butter

1/2 cup brown sugar

1/3 cup granulated sugar

2 large eggs

1 teaspoon vanilla extract

2 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

3 cups mixed chopped candy bars or candy pieces, such as M&Ms (see note above)

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Butter a 9-by-13-inch baking dish, line with parchment paper, and butter the parchment. In a saucepan over medium heat, melt butter and cook, stirring occasionally, until browned and fragrant, 7-10 minutes. Let cool slightly.

Pour butter into a mixing bowl and stir in both sugars until well combined. Beat in eggs, one at a time, and vanilla. Add flour, baking soda, and salt and stir until well combined. Gently fold in candy pieces, reserving some.

Spread dough in prepared pan and sprinkle with remaining candy pieces. Bake until golden brown, about 25 minutes. Let cool and cut into small squares.