TRAVERSE CITY — Caramel apples and popcorn balls are out. Forked eyeballs and skull cupcakes are in.
When it comes to creating Halloween treats for kids and their classroom parties, the spookier the better.
"A lot of times I put in too much intricate detail," said Karen Mast, a stay-at-home mom of four who revels in cooking and throwing creative parties. "I have more time on my hands and I'm willing to invest it."
In years past, Mast was an Eastern Elementary School room parent — "the one in charge of parties," she said.
Though free from those duties this year, she's still on the lookout for treats she can bring to son Stevie's fourth-grade Halloween party.
Contenders so far include cupcakes iced in candy corn colors, finger-shaped cookies complete with almond "fingernails" and red punch with a floating ice "hand" made from water frozen in a surgical glove.
"Sometimes it doesn't always turn out as you hoped, but you improvise," said Mast, who searches for scary food ideas on Pinterest.com, an online "pinboard" that allows users to organize and share things they find on the web. "I'm big into cookies and I do cake pops, round balls of cake on a stick, that are dipped in chocolate, that you can decorate in really fun ways. I get carried away sometimes."
Jessica West turned to Spoonful.com for the "Sweet Skull" cupcakes she and daughter Hannah, 6, made for St. Mary-Hannah Elementary School's October sweet sale.
The white cupcakes topped with white frosting used half a marshmallow to form a "jaw," chocolate-covered raisins and chocolate-covered dried cherries for eyes, a chocolate chip for a nose and slivered almonds for teeth.
"The recipe called for Junior Mints for the eyes but I couldn't find any, so I improvised," said West, a pharmacist whose son, Mason, 7, also attends St. Mary-Hannah. "The teeth got a little wild and crazy."
West said the school's three classrooms take turns hosting the 25-cent sale, which almost always attracts Halloween-theme treats in the fall.
Besides the skull cupcakes, October sweets included "forked eyeballs" made from doughnut holes dipped in white chocolate and decorated with chocolate chip "pupils" and squiggly red decorator frosting "veins."
Halloween is big at West's Interlochen home, where pumpkins and gourds decorate the porch, "ghosts" swing from trees and skeletal "hands" claw at the earth.
But nothing screams the holiday better than freaky foods.
"Hannah likes to help in the kitchen a lot, so we try to find creative things where she can put her skills to use," said West, whose mealtime creations in the weeks leading up to the holiday include Mummy Hot Dogs and Salty Bones, both using prepared refrigerator breadsticks or breadstick dough. "During Halloween, we have fun trying to come up with something different."
Coming up with something different can be tricky for Sonja Olshove, whose daughter, Kiersten, 9, also an Eastern Elementary student, has Type I diabetes and celiac disease.
"She's allowed to have sugar at the parties. I just give her a bigger shot," said Olshove, a social science instructor at Northwestern Michigan College. "The harder part is gluten because almost everything kids bring in has gluten."
For an alternative Halloween treat, Olshove creates creepy cats using a cat-shaped cookie cutter and gluten-free brownie mixes carried at local grocery and health food stores.
Gluten-free cake mixes also are available for cakes and cupcakes, which can be frosted imaginatively with standard frosting.
"For parties, I find out what the others kids are bringing and I bring the same thing — gluten-free — for her," Olshove said.