Mischief and mayhem abound in any cook’s kitchen about this time of year, with plenty of Halloween-themed treats bubbling, brewing and baking. Wickedly tasty treats are integral to scary and scrumptious entertaining. J.C. Gregg of Covet Bakery and the owners of SmallBatch KC, Angie Fry and Kelly Conwell, offer delicious inspiration to spark your holiday spook-tacular.
John Charles Gregg hovers over a waxed paper-lined tray in his tiny Kansas City North kitchen. Gregg — known as J.C. to friends, family and co-workers at the Overland Park Costco — is eyeball-to-eyeball with the fake peepers he crafts every October from maraschino cherries covered in plump gobs of dry fondant.
Today Gregg painstakingly paints grotesquely enlarged red veins on each cherry with a fine-tipped brush, a road map of jagged lines spidering out from cartoonish green and turquoise pupils. Maraschino cherry stems add to the morbidly delightful effect.
Tools of the home baker’s passion litter the kitchen’s granite countertops: A tin of Valrhona cocoa sits in a pool of brown dust; a well-worn stand mixer is surrounded by cracked eggshells, a bottle of pure vanilla and empty butter wrappers; a spatula with residue from a flourless chocolate cake is propped against a bowl. A hastily scratched-out to-do list rests next to a piping bag: cherry eyeballs, bird beaks, spider web cupcake toppers, Pennywise-sculpted cake.
“Pennywise is a terrifying clown, the antagonist in Stephen King’s novel ‘It,’” says Gregg, a devoted King fan.
Welcome to Halloween, a la Gregg, the holiday where he artfully combines a love for all things gruesome with his penchant for sweet treats. Gregg’s affection for the holiday started during his childhood in Louisburg, Kan.: he loved to be scared and to scare the wits out of his siblings.
With three older brothers, including his twin, and two sisters, Gregg quickly learned the thrill of hiding around corners of the barn on his family’s farm, jumping out and screaming at the top of his lungs.
“My parents, sisters, brothers, it didn’t really matter my target,” Gregg says, stepping back from the tray of eyeballs, surveying his work. “Just to see someone jump out of their skin was the objective.”
A voracious reader, Gregg recalls being around 10 years old when he picked up a book his mother had just finished. “It was ‘The Shining’ by Stephen King,” Gregg says with a chuckle. “I started reading and couldn’t put it down. That was the beginning of my fascination with the macabre.”
Gregg’s imagination conjured vivid visuals of scenes from the book. And he was especially taken by the big-screen portrayal of his favorite sequence from the book: The twin girls dressed in frilly blue dresses tied with pink sashes, ominously standing at the end of the hallway in the spooky abandoned hotel. “I am captivated by twins, since I’m a twin myself and my grandfather, Donald, and father are twins, too,” he says.
In a quest to satisfy his curiosity about Halloween traditions, a 12-year-old Gregg asked the Louisburg Library librarian, Mrs. German, for research assistance. While combing through books, Gregg stumbled on Dia de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, celebrated on Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 and 2. The Mexican holiday focuses on gatherings of family and friends who pray for loved ones who have died.
“I was expecting weird,” Gregg says. “Much to my surprise, it was full of color and beauty.” Drawn to the painted skulls and skeletons typical of Day of the Dead décor, Gregg started sketching, mimicking the pictures he found in books. “Somewhere along the way, I incorporated Day of the Dead into my baking.”
Gregg’s mother, Shirley, was a baker who turned out pies, cakes and cookies for her family of six and a husband, Jerry Lee, who liked three squares a day and lots of dessert. “She let me help her when I was little, cracking eggs, stirring batters, watching things puff up and brown in the oven,” Gregg says. “Rudimentary stuff — but I was hooked on baking.”
Gregg recalls one recipe for a pudding-like chocolate cake. “It was fudgy and magical — you poured boiling water and vinegar over the dry ingredients,” he said. “Since we lived on a farm and had cows and plenty of fresh milk, I cranked homemade ice cream to top the cake.”
Gregg, a 4-H member, went on to enter decorated cakes (“I won a blue ribbon for a Garfield the Cat cake at age 14”) and enrolled in home economics classes in high school to not only hone his skills but also to learn the chemistry behind baking.
Now in his late 40s, Gregg is constantly turning out tortes, cakes, cookies and cupcakes for friends and family, including his 93-year-old grandfather, who lives across the street from Gregg.
“You don’t have to be celebrating anything to get a J.C. original,” he says. “ I live to make people happy through food. The kitchen is my laboratory.”
And, just for the record, not everything Gregg bakes is gothic or twisted. Take, for instance, his current obsession, a flourless chocolate cake with a chocolate cremeux and Nutella ice cream.
He also bestows flavored cupcakes on friends. “Cupcakes such as Orange Dreamsicle and chocolate raspberry truffle with towering buttercream go with me to graduation parties, and I am just getting into pies, after receiving a cookbook from a friend this summer,” he says.
But today Gregg is preparing items from his flour-splattered checklist for a Nov. 2 Day of the Dead party to honor the memory of his mother. Stars of the sweet and savory buffet will be fashioned to provoke shudders and intrigue from guests, including a cream cheese skull and ribs layered from prosciutto, the painted chocolate cherry eyeballs and lifelike bird beaks fashioned from fondant.
After his Day of the Dead soiree, Gregg’s newly licensed cottage bakery will go full-tilt into production for Thanksgiving and Christmas. “My business is called Covet Bakery,” he says. Pausing to add the finishing flourish on a particularly bloodshot chocolate eyeball, Gregg adds, “A devilishly good bakery.”
Sweet childhood memories
Angie Fry and Kelly Conwell, both of Kansas City, are engaged in a good-natured competitive piping war. Spread out in front of the SmallBatch KC business partners are a dozen of their secret-recipe sugar cookies, cut out in pumpkin shapes.
Plastic bags filled with bright Halloween-orange and green frosting are the women’s weapons. Clearly Fry is winning Round 1. “This just isn’t my forte,” admits Conwell, head pastry chef at the newly opened Jax Fish House and Oyster Bar on the Country Club Plaza. “But practice makes perfect.”
Fry decorates her last cookie with a swirl of kelly green frosting, fashioning a curly-cue handle on a sugar-glittered pumpkin.“You’re getting better,” Fry says, nudging Conwell with her elbow and pointing at a cookie with her pastry bag. “The ‘Happy Halloween’ you’ve written looks kind of spooky.”
Fry, a public defender for the State of Missouri and self-described “grandma-trained” home cook, and Conwell joined forces recently to launch SmallBatch KC, a boutique custom sweets and catering company specializing in from-scratch specialty baked goods.
The duo is strategizing their festive Halloween menu, highlighting fall’s signature flavors with ghoulishly good showstoppers: pumpkin pots de crème, s’mores cupcakes, challah doughnuts and a salted caramel apple and pear cobbler adorned with a sweet biscuit topping.
“Kelly and I met at last year’s James Beard dinner at the American restaurant,” Fry says. “She was there, helping pastry chef Nick Wesemann and said hi to Aaron, my husband, who she knew from working at Bluestem.”
There was an instant connection between Fry and Conwell — “We were more like sisters, really, and with our combined drives and abilities, I knew we’d end up doing something special that was food-related together,” Fry says.
Fry and Conwell attended an after-hours party at a Crossroads Arts District bar following the dinner’s conclusion, and an organic bond formed. “We had one long, nonstop conversation that night where we shared our respective food journeys,” Conwell says. “While they were very different, there were striking similarities.”
Doris Jean, Fry’s paternal grandmother, heavily influenced her love for cooking. In a kitchen always infused with tempting smells and stocked with her granddaughter’s favorite foods — apple pie, cinnamon bread, oatmeal-raisin cookies — Doris Jean imparted priceless knowledge and techniques that Fry tucked away for future reference.
“Her food wasn’t fussy or particularly elevated; she was just a great country cook,” Fry says. “Everything was special because she made it with me in mind.”
Fry also learned an important life lesson from Doris Jean. “Preparing and eating food is the equivalent of love,” she says. “It’s the purest way to show appreciation and fondness.”
Conwell was born in Topeka and grew up in Concordia, a small town in the state’s Smoky Hills north-central region, and baked and cooked alongside her mother, Debra, and siblings Matt and Kaylee. “I was in fifth grade when I made my first lasagna, a very traditional recipe,” Conwell says. “My mom coached me on the speaker phone while she was at work. I still make that dish to this day.”
Conwell whipped up cream puffs and pastry cream from Betty Crocker’s classic cookbook, worked as a buser and server at the local country club and eventually was recruited to make the famous cinnamon-and-cheese rolls that club members wolfed down. Conwell went on to enroll in Johnson County Community College’s chef apprentice program, where she was mentored by chef Felix Sturmer and successfully competed internationally with the acclaimed culinary program.
In 2009, Conwell was crowned best student chef in the country by the American Culinary Federation and was on the fast track to a career in the culinary world. After a year in Germany, she moved back to Kansas City, where she worked at Chaz on the Plaza in the Raphael Hotel and at Bluestem.
Today Fry and Conwell are excited about SmallBatch KC’s first Halloween of delivering boxes of cookies and pies to customers. “Always in the forefront of my mind when baking is what I call ‘grandma plus one,’” Fry says. “Apply the quality she taught me and kick it up a notch or two. And, of course, Kelly has the technical knowledge and crazy-good talent.”
Halloween was a cherished holiday for both. Fry’s mother, Barbara, made sugar cookies, and Doris Jean made doughnuts; her dad, Joe, piled Fry and her brother, Joey, in a Radio Flyer wagon to make the neighborhood trick-or-treating rounds. “Afterward we would come home, dump our candy on the floor and sit cross-legged, binge-eating what we collected,” Fry says. “And Doris Jean always made our costumes.”
Conwell’s Halloween experiences included homemade popcorn balls (“the real deal, all gooey”), marching in small-town Halloween parades and trick-or-treating in downtown Concordia. Now an aunt, she makes arts and crafts and cookies with nieces and nephews and sits in front of roaring bonfires with s’mores ingredients at hand — a sweet indulgence Conwell considers the perfect chocolate fall dessert.
“Can never get enough of a s’more,” Conwell says. “I think my love for Halloween is getting stronger the older I get. And this year I have an infant nephew who we’re dressing up as Mickey Mouse. You’re never too young to get into the spirit.”
Kimberly Winter Stern is a freelance food journalist from Overland Park. She writes regularly for The Star’s Food section and the Chow Town blog.
Chocolate-Covered Cherry Eyeballs
Not for the faint of heart, this playful dessert takes time but is worth it for the jaw-dropping effect when Halloween party guests encounter a platter of eyeballs on a buffet. (Note: This is not the same type of fondant that covers a cake; rather it’s fondant found in the center of cream-filled chocolates. Do not water down gel food color or it will bead off the chocolate.)
Makes about 50 eyes
For dry fondant:
1/3 cup butter, softened to room temperature
1/3 cup light corn syrup
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
4 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar, sifted
2 (10-ounce) jars maraschino cherries, with stems, drained and patted dry
1 pound block white chocolate, cut into rough chunks
Gel food color (such as AmeriColor, found at the Sweet Supply Shoppe in Overland Park), in colors of your choice
Red food marker (also available at Sweet Supply Shoppe or other specialty confectioners’ shops)
Line a baking sheet with parchment paper.
To make dry fondant: In a stand mixer with paddle attachment, beat butter, corn syrup, salt and vanilla until smooth. On low speed, add confectioners’ sugar all at once and work up to medium speed until completely blended, about 2 minutes. Put mixture in top of a double boiler and heat until melted, stirring. Once fondant has melted, hold cherries by the stem and dip each one into mixture; place on baking tray and allow fondant to set up.
Once dipped cherries have solidified, melt white chocolate in top of double boiler. Dip fondant-covered cherries in the melted white chocolate and place back on parchment to set up a second time.
To decorate: Dip a very small paintbrush into the gel paste from the bottle and paint the outline of the eyes; use a flat angle brush for the iris. Once the iris and pupils have dried, use a red food marker and, with a light touch, draw the bloody veins round the rest of the cherry. If you press too hard the tip will puncture the chocolate shell and the fondant will drip out once it becomes liquid. Store at room temperature for up to 1 month.
Per eye: 68 calories (16 percent from fat), 1 gram total fat (1 gram saturated), 3 milligrams cholesterol, 14 grams carbohydrates, trace protein, 40 milligrams sodium, trace dietary fiber.
From J.C. Gregg of Covet Bakery
Makes 12 (2-inch) or 6 (4-inch) doughnuts
For yeast mixture:
2 1/4 teaspoons dry active yeast
1/2 teaspoon sugar
3 tablespoons warm water
1/3 cup sugar
1/4 cup vegetable or canola oil
1 tablespoon salt
3/4 cup hot water
3 1/2 to 4 cups all-purpose flour
2 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar
1 1/2 teaspoons vanilla extract
3 tablespoons water
To make the doughnuts: Start the yeast in a small bowl with 1/2 teaspoon sugar and 3 tablespoons warm water. Stir and set aside.
In a large bowl, combine the sugar, oil, salt and hot water. Stir to dissolve the sugar and salt (does not have to be totally dissolved). Add eggs and lightly beat into the mixture. Add the yeast mixture and blend.
Slowly incorporate the flour, 1 cup at a time, until fully incorporated. Knead until smooth and elastic. Place in a clean oiled bowl, cover and let rise until doubled in size, about 30 minutes. Once it rises, punch down dough and transfer to a lightly floured work surface. Roll out dough approximately 3/8-inch thick. Cut out doughnuts using a 2-inch doughnut or biscuit cutter for small doughnuts or a 4-inch cutter for large doughnuts; alternatively use a shot glass or a 1-inch round cutter to make the hole. Transfer to a lightly oiled baking sheet. Spray tops of doughnuts with nonstick cooking spray and cover with plastic wrap. Let rise until almost double in size, about 30 minutes.
Heat about 3 inches of oil in Dutch oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with paper towels and a wire cooling rack. Working in batches, fry until lightly brown, about 11/2 to 2 minutes per side. Transfer to cooling rack and let cool.
To make glaze: Combine all ingredients in bowl, mixing until smooth. Dip cooled doughnuts in glaze. Let sit a few minutes and dip again.
Per doughnut, based on 12: 308 calories (17 percent from fat), 6 grams total fat (1 gram saturated), 35 milligrams cholesterol, 59 grams carbohydrates, 5 grams protein, 546 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
From Angie Fry and Kelly Conwell of SmallBatch KC
Makes 12 servings
2 cups all-purpose flour
2 cups sugar
1/4 cup cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt
16 tablespoons (2 sticks) unsalted butter
1/4 cup brewed coffee, room temperature
1/2 cup warm water
1 cup buttermilk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 (14-ounce) bag individually wrapped caramels, optional
For s’mores ingredients:
1 (16-ounce) bag large marshmallows
6 graham crackers
1/2 cup bittersweet chocolate chips, melted according to package directions
Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
To make cupcakes: In a mixing bowl, stir together flour, sugar, cocoa powder, baking soda and salt. Melt butter and combine with coffee, water, buttermilk, eggs and vanilla. Slowly add flour mixture to butter mixture and stir until thoroughly combined. Pour batter into paper-lined muffin tins. For a gooey surprise in each cupcake, place an unwrapped caramel in the bottom of each of the 12 liners then pour batter evenly into the cups. Bake cupcakes for 15 minutes, or until a toothpick or cake tester comes out clean. Cool slightly and place 1 large marshmallow on top of each, then place back in oven for 3 minutes. Remove from oven and softly smash the warm marshmallow with the back of a spatula and return to the oven until golden brown, about 1 minute.
To decorate: To make “gravestones” out of half a graham cracker, melt bittersweet chocolate, cool slightly. Using a plastic zip-type sandwich bag with a tiny hole cut in one of the bottom corners, pipe sayings on the tombstones, like “RIP.”
Per cupcake: 582 calories (30 percent from fat), 20 grams total fat (12 grams saturated), 78 milligrams cholesterol, 99 grams carbohydrates, 6 grams protein, 570 milligrams sodium, 1 gram dietary fiber.
From Angie Fry and Kelly Conwell of SmallBatch KC