Pastry Chef Dan Keenher takes us inside the preparations for this year's Hulaween charity event
Now in its 22nd year, Bette Midler's Halloween party is a New York institution. Considering how many costumes the Divine Miss M herself inspired, it's no surprise that her All Hallow's Eve gala is one of New York's hottest tickets. In partnership with her charity, the New York Restoration Project, and Michael Kors, she's hosting "In the Garden of Earthly Delights" at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine on October 30. We spoke with Dan Keehner, a Union Square Hospitality veteran and pastry chef who will oversee the tricks and treats for this year's "Hulaween" festivities.
Food & Wine: Is this your first "Hulaween?"
Dan Keehner: This is our first Hulaween. My personal style is very traditional European, French, German and Austrian. I'm very much a food geek in the old world sense of the way. This lets me combine that with some fun ideas, too.
F&W: Are you a big Halloween fan?
Keehner: When I was growing up in Mill Basin, my parents would walk in the West Village parade together. I wish I was more of a Halloween person. I never really dressed up. Later, when I was working as a pastry chef in the far West Village, I got to leave the restaurant first every night. On Halloween, I'd walk through the parade and hang out. The next morning I'd arrive first, too, and then I'd see some real sights in the neighborhood.
F&W: How did you choose what to make for Hulaween?
Keehner: We have one to two menu-writing sessions. It's an open forum. Everyone contributes, whether they've been here six months, or they're my sous chef, who has 14 years experience. This was a great example of an event where my entire team came together to put their mark on the menu. At heart, I'm an artist and a teacher, so I can say, "Hey guys, what do we think?" Because I don't have all the answers. It makes me a better pastry chef, too, because I learn from them.
F&W: What caught everyone's eye this year in the planning sessions?
Keehner: It's an evolving process. For example there's a cookie called a langues de chat—you may know it as Pepperidge Farm Milano cookie. I always push putting that on the menu. For Hulaween, one of my sous chefs thought it looks like a tombstone. Then we all decided to put people's name on them. Then another chef put them in a graveyard. We get lost in those processes and play culinary ping pong until we end up with the finished product.
F&W: What menu item got you the most excited?
Keehner: The meringue ghosts are my favorite. I'm a sucker for meringue as a pastry chef. We're doing these small meringues. We piped a mountain of them. Once they're 10 percent dehydrated, we scoop the inside, and make a pavlova. One of my entry level cooks thought it looked like ghost, that's when we were able to take it further. The presentation that we all came up with is charming. I'm not a cutesy guy, but it made me smile.
F&W: How much of the food preparation can be done ahead of time?
Keehner: It depends on the items, on the components involved. We do everything 100 percent by hand in our kitchen, from the simplest brownie to hand-dipped chocolates. We chose to do elevated nostalgia candies, and those can be made a week in advance because we have a temperature-controlled kitchen. It's like planning a war.
F&W: Are there going to be sweets that people will remember from their own trick-or-treating days?
Keehner: Those nostalgia candies: that's something that makes everyone smile. Taffy, toffee, bon bons… we're making gummis, which are a labor of love. Now these things are penny candies, but a hundred years ago people labored over them. Today, you get them at Duane Reade. It gives you a real respect for how charming they are. And they're just as beautiful no matter whether they are fancy or not. We don't cook for glory. The product is eaten by a real human being. I want the food to taste good first.
Bette Midler's Hulaween gala tickets are still available here.