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Is it really December 31st?  It feels and looks more like the end of March here in Southern Vermont.  


This morning it was raining, everything covered with ice and the fog was so thick we decided not to finish our drive to Mount Snow to ski.  

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We went out to breakfast, took the dogs for a walk in the woods, played wii, prepped an egg bake for tomorrow's hang-over recovery, um, I mean breakfast and by the afternoon we were stir crazy.  We were also thinking how we'd surely be having more fun if our dear friend Louise was here with us in balmy Vermont.


Luckily Louise sent us a popcorn popper for Christmas.  Guess what it's called?  
The STIR CRAZY!
How appropriate!

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We had some fun experimenting with fancying up the popcorn.  

We tried garlic salt, parmesan cheese, parsley with a little melted butter and tossed well.  Yummy!

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Popcorn was a great distraction.  But we still miss Louise!  We can't wait for her to come visit soon....and we hope snow will come to Vermont soon too!

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No Snow...what the heck!?
 
 
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One of my favorites were these truffled BLTs!

Our little tennis club knows how to do a great "Gourmet/less pay" party.  Every year the fee is nominal since the main stay of the party is provided by everyone who comes...

even better they make it into a contest!  
Every one must bring an appetizer for 30 and when you arrive they take down your name, write down what's in your appetizer and whisk it off to a table of judges to taste.  Once judged it's quickly 
moved to the long tables filled 
with everything we've brought.  

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Decorations are simple, white linens, twinkle lights, glass jars filled with silver balls and everything sprinkled with silver stars.


After an hour of drinking and everyone sampling the food, three top winners are announced and awarded bottles of wine, gift certificates for dinner at a local restaurant and bragging rights!

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Gail's Pumpernickel Toasts
The Truffled BLTs and my friend Gail's Pumpernickel Toasts (click here for the recipe) were my top picks and neither even placed in the top three!  They were robbed...especially since 99% of the time the winners recipe includes bacon!

After the awards the Bartender refills our glasses and the D.J. pumps up the music and gets us out on the dance floor.  As the appetizer plates are emptied their places are replaced 
with (catered) desserts.

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Bacon Wrapped Dates
If you're looking for a delicious and easy way to throw together a party on New Year's Eve....give this idea a try!
XOXO Martha

Also try my recipe for 
Bacon Wrapped Dates:
Cut strips of bacon in half and par cook (cook half way...but leave so it's still pliable and can be wrapped around the date). While the bacon cools, fill pitted dates with gorgonzola cheese or almonds (or both).  Wrap the bacon around the date and secure with a toothpick.  Bake in 375 degree oven for 10 minutes & serve immediately.

 
 
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First off...I am on vacation and continuing to blog...so no jealousy or hating me for my subject matter or insanely picturesque locale.
After finding a last minute sitter to stay with our 4 children (long story), the hubby, our best friends from college and I headed up to Twin Farms, a resort just outside of Woodstock, VT for our (planned ages in advance) 3 day vacation/Christmas present to ourselves!  This place is OMG amazing (but does have the price tag to go along with it).  After a hard day and a half of eating and shopping and making lounging and bathing our top priorities, we just needed to relax after lunch today...

So here we are, roughing it in Vermont.  
Hot buttered rum is best served in a hot tub, snow falling, and within reach of the phone (where you can call for more hot buttered rum) or standing by the roaring fire just inside the door or cooling off tub-side in snow-covered lounge chairs. 
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How to make Hot Buttered Rum:

Here in Vermont: Call the staff and have it delivered in a basket, toot-sweet!

At home:
In a mug or glass add about 2-3 ounces of dark rum, a spoonful of brown sugar, a pat of butter and some spices, like cinnamon or nutmeg.  Pour hot water over it and stir well.

Once the glasses are empty and have frosted over....repeat as often as necessary to achieve complete spoiled relaxation.
XOXO  Martha
 
 
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Christmas Pageants are a wonderful annual tradition.  They are done with the best intentions of bringing out the best in us and often do the opposite and bring out the worst.  Do you see where I'm going with this?  Most people have opinions about their pageant, how it should look, when they like it to be held, etc.  I am no exception to that rule.  In fact I'm probably more opinionated since I was a youth minister for 7 or so years and ran the pageant for more years than that.  

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I'm against the pageant taking place on Christmas eve.  It is awful for the parents, stressful for children and I think a missed opportunity to reach folks who may only come to church once a year to hear a sermon...
however brief or childish.  Plus those Wise Men aren't technically allowed to show up until January 6th, Epiphany!

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Sometimes the years of pageants kind of run together.  Both of my children went through a long "angel phase."  There must have been a good 5 or 6 year run where one or both of them were angels.  I just could not convince them to don a sheep, shepherd or king costume.    Goodness knows I have quite the collection of angel pictures to prove it (above).  But at least I can distinguish some of the years by the collar of the shirt my son wore under his robe!

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One year (no longer the youth minister-just a mom) I wanted to do something different.  We took the kids to a real farm and I photographed scenes (and did a lot of photoshopping!) that we used to make a slide show.  It was a lot of fun and best of all pageant day was a breeze, just a few kids to coordinate as narrators, and hymns to be sung while we watched.

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2005 was the year of the most memorable pageant in the history of our parish.  It was the year that our annual visit from our Bishop coincided with Epiphany. Our Bishop was about to retire, and this would be his last visit to our church. He'd had a rough year, between his wife being ill and deciding it was time to leave the job he loved and did so very well.  So, we decided we were going to pull out all the stops.  The youth minister brought in real donkeys and sheep (borrowed from the farm we visited the year prior!) to ensure that we were going to have the most amazing pageant ever.  We even had several rehearsals (one included the animals and the real baby.) 

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Everything was set, the Bishop was seated in the front row, children were dressed and prepped, animals waiting in the wings, the first hymn began...and that's when it all started to fall apart.
1st Scene: Joseph and Mary (holding a large pillow belly) are supposed to come down the center aisle with their donkey.  It went like this: The donkey reluctantly made it down 1/3 of the center aisle before refusing to go any further.  Joseph tried pulling him, then tried pushing him from behind.  Mary tried helping with her pillow belly shifted to the side, but the mule would not budge.  Mary and Joseph, proceeded to the innkeeper waiting in the chancel and were brought a replacement donkey to complete the scene.

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More issues followed.  It's hard to see from this picture, but basically, there is a little angel about to throw up covering her mouth (center left) and all the other shepherds and angels standing are looking down at the huge pool of terrible smelling pee, courtesy of the sheep on stage.  Most of the shepherds refused to stay stage right as the pool was spreading and running.  The rest of the shepherds held their noses and complained loudly.  The little angel never threw up, but gagged repeatedly throughout the rest of the scene.

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Thank goodness the big scene with the angels is next. Sheep can be moved and cleaned up after and surely, the sweet angel faces and shiny little halos will be able to make up for the animal mishaps.  Apparently not when my two angels are involved.  My daughter had a speaking role and went up to the pulpit to use the microphone.  When she returned her brother had taken her spot on the top step and refused to move back to his place.  They bickered, pushed and eventually broke out into fisticuffs while Angel Gabriel was trying to deliver lines.  The other heavenly host avoided getting socked in the eye by my two "cherubs" while the youth minister had to go intervene.  It was a proud moment for all of us, but especially me.

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Things had certainly not gone as planned.  We'd never had so many mishaps happen in the past 10 years let alone the past 10 minutes.  We all stole glances at the Bishop wondering what on earth he must be thinking.  He was shaking and crying....good gracious we'd done it now...but wait...was he laughing?  Indeed, he was laughing so hard that tears were streaming down his face as he tried not to make it obvious or hurt the children's feelings.  

The real wonder in all this was our baby Jesus. He was serene, peaceful and perfectly behaved.  He sat on Mary's lap staring at her face and was the only thing calm and quiet in the crazy, costumed, smelly, noisy, chaos circling him.  At the time we were horrified, but later we all realized it was probably the most realistic and meaningful pageant we'd ever had.   And thankfully, that was what the Bishop chose to write about in his diocesan letter (on the front cover of our monthly newspaper) the following week.  The animal antics and my angel's fist fight also made it in the piece, but above all else we understood that the world was a crazy, noisy, smelly, mess when Jesus arrived.  His mother was unprepared, clueless visitors were showing up and surely the animals in his barn were not well behaved or any too happy to have a baby in their food trough.  But Jesus was there, a brand new baby, bringing hope and joy that no one at the time could ever imagine.
                                              Merry Christmas! XOXO

 
 
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Chamgane, chambord, and fresh pomegranate at the ready


      Last Friday was the 11th annual cookie party thrown by my dear friend LuAnne Kleppe.  First off:  LuAnne is a gem, the very best kind of friend to have: She's generous, down to earth, creative, fun and best of all when it's time to celebrate, she is one marvelous hostess. My second thought is, "Holy crow! I've been to this party every year for ELEVEN years!?" That is quite a record.
      

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      This party is a welcome respite in the madness of holiday preparations.  Sure you're asked to bake 100+ cookies, but LuAnne makes it optional.  If you don't want to bake, just come and enjoy the company.  This year, bakers were asked to make 12 packages of 8 cookies, plus a dozen or so for the big cookie tray at the party.  Mostly this gathering is about 15-20 women, old friends and new, neighbors, as well as a few out of staters, getting together to reconnect and enjoy each other's company.


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      As ladies arrive they pop their containers of cookies in the shopping bags along the dining room wall, marked with each of our names.  LuAnne always makes sure one bag is to be donated to the interfaith food pantry.
      A beautifully set "bar" tops the dining room table, wine, beer, and the prettiest of holiday cocktails: champagne or prosecco with chambord and "dancing" fresh pomegranate.  The living room is cozy with the fireplace ablaze, tree lit and coffee table filled with appetizers.  My favorites: roasted asparagus wrapped in prosciutto, a cranberry crusted goat cheese, and LuAnne's famous hot artichoke dip.

After a while it's time to bring out the cookies.  We all sample and talk about where we got the recipe, how long they took to bake, and which one is our favorite.  Our hostess eats gluten free so there are always a few GF cookies in the mix, too. 
The night is capped off with coffee or glasses of Bailey's Irish Cream on the rocks.  I'm usually the first guest to arrive and the last one to leave.  I can't help myself, the Kleppe cookie exchange party only happens once a year and I want to enjoy and savor every moment.


Click here to link to the Cyber Cookie Exchange to check out several Cookie Party Recipes
 
 
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I have always loved a good cut out sugar cookie.
 I definitely prefer it to a chocolate chip cookie, and it may just beat out a brownie too.  They are simple, can be made to go with any occasion, and everyone loves them.  But they do have a major flaw:  
My "Martha-ness" takes over when I bake these and they take me 
forever to make!  

I don't just roll 'em out and and slap some icing on top, I have this insane need to make them beautiful.  So, I bake and ice them and then painstakingly "paint" them all with food coloring.  When it come to the christmas cookies I'm even nuttier, I don't want to just make trees or snowmen, I want to make 10 different kinds of shapes.  For the past 5 years or so I've been making these cookies for my dear friend LuAnne's famous annual cookie exchange.  You need to bring about 120 cookies every year and as you can imagine painting 120 of these cookies is a little time consuming.
I've painted cookies that look like all the kids in the class for my children's school birthday treats, dreidels for the Hanukkah party at the temple where my children went to nursery school, and my "church cookies" are always the biggest hit at the bake sales held by our Junior Choir.
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Church Cookies for the jr. choir bake sale.
I get a kick out of folks who don't want to eat their cookie and ruin my little piece of art.  That's when I know someone has truly appreciated their cookie, and that really is what it's all about isn't it?  When people "Ooo" and "Ahh" over the cookies they are giving me back a compliment and a tiny piece of the care I put into them.  In that instant a tedious chore becomes a welcome labor of love.

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My son used to love painting cookies with Mommy!

 I think a little gratitude, thanks and appreciation goes a long way and not just when it's for my cooking.  

There are days when one of my children out of the blue will genuinely thank me for driving them somewhere and it makes my day.  
So, spread the love, this recipe is very easy and the dough is actually better if you make it ahead and let it chill at least a day or freeze it for much later.  
Merry Christmas! 

XO Martha

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dreidel cookies for Hanukkah

2 cups sifted flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 egg
1/4 cup milk
1/2 teaspoon vanilla or lemon or almond extract (I prefer almond)


Sift together the four, baking powder and salt.  Cream together the shortening and sugar, then mix in the egg.  Add the dry ingredients alternately with the milk ad extract and blend well.  Chill dough overnight for best results.

Pre-heat oven to 400 degrees.

Rool dough thin, press out desired shapes with cookie cutters. (Make sure your work surface is well floured.  THese cookies should be thin and you may want to use a spatial to transfer them to the cookie sheet.) Bake 7-10 minutes (check frequently especially if you have shapes with thin ends...the angle wings and reindeer legs tend to cook and brown quickly!) Cool on a wire rack.

Icing:
2 cups (I'm guessing?)
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
a little milk or water
food coloring if desired

Start with one cup of powdered sugar and add the almond extract and a tiny bit of milk.  Stir and add more liquid or more sugar until you reach the right consistency, not runn and not clumpy.  Add coloring and ice away!
 
 
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      In my opinion, Christmas is supposed to smell a certain way.  The base odor should be pine tree, overlapped with gingerbread, oranges, cloves, chocolate, fireplace smoke, floor wax and on christmas morning, bacon, coffee and a freshly baked coffee cake ring.  I like to call it Christmas-whiff.  Note that most of these smells are food...see where my heart lies?
      Outside it should smell dry and crisp.  Thanks to mother nature and several hard frosts this past week, it's smelling just right!  I thought the inside of my house was well on it's way to Christmas-Whiff too.  We put up all the garlands and decorations and most importantly....or most fragrantly, our live tree.  That evergreen smell is an essential ingredient to the Christmas perfume.

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A wretched cousin of my Chrismas-Whiff foiler!
      The day after the tree was decorated I walked into the living room and took a huge breath so I could soak up as much douglas fir Christmas tree smell as possible and....Gag! It smelled like something died.  I knew that smell, it was definitely dead mouse smell.  Usually that's a spring-time smell found in the garage.  This was surely in my living room and it was ruining all my other Christmas smells!  After much furniture moving and crawling around, wearing my "sniffer" out, my husband and I concluded that the odor was coming from the air return register in the floor.  Somehow some little creep got in there and proceeded to drop dead (probably after eating all the poison in the garage, located below the living room!)  We couldn't see it, but we sure could smell it.  It usually only takes 2-3 days for the "dead stink" to go away, if it lingers longer, there's something bigger than a mouse to worry about.  I opened the register grate, stuck my arm in as far as I could, and sprayed a can of lysol in the shaft.  Next I broke out all my frasier fir candles and diffusers.  Thank goodness I have tons of these on hand.  (I gave up on fresh garlands a few years ago, when I discovered my hands break out from touching some kinds of pine needles.  Now we have beautiful fake garlands and I use the candles and diffuser to make everyone think they are real!)  So, did my "cover up the stinky scent plan" work? Not really.  I could smell that critter stench every time I walked in the house for three days...and prayed that on the 4th day I wouldn't have to call the exterminator.  

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      Thankfully with the mousey smell finally gone,  I can move on to layering the proper scents to achieve Christmas-Whiff!  One of the most important smells is that coffee cake ring I mentioned before.  It is my mother's best known accomplishment in baking and it triggers one of my strongest olfactory memories.  So many wonderful times and feelings are attached to it's preparation and that SMELL!  It's made with a yeast dough and is finished off with a glaze with almond extract, so it's a distinct aroma that I can't be without on Christmas morning.  Although my entire family prefers a bunt cake type coffee cake that I make instead, they understand that eating this coffee cake is my way of having my parents with me in spirit on Christmas morning.  We've made some compromises during the years, including making one coffee cake with chopped apples instead of the traditional raisins (on easter you can use jelly beans...they look very pretty, but don't taste so great) but the basic recipe is the same and always contributes the sweetest notes to Christmas-Whiff.


Makes Two Coffee Cakes
3 Tablespoons sugar
1 teaspoon salt
3 Tablespoons shortening
3/4 cup scalded milk
1 packet of yeast
1 egg well beaten
2 3/4 cups flour
2 Tablespoons butter, softened
1/4 cup sugar
2 Tablespoons cinnamon
1 cup raisins (optional, or use cranberries, apples, jelly beans, whatever you like)

Scald the milk, add 3 T of sugar, salt & shortening to milk.  Soften the yeast in a small amount of cooled milk mixture (let proof about 5 minutes) then add to rest of milk mixture.  Add beaten egg and flour.  Mix well and turn out and knead on a floured board until smooth (3-4 minutes).  Place in a greased bowl, cover and allow to rise is a warm place (80-85 degrees) until double in bulk (about 2 hours).  Punch the dough down and divid into two lumps.  One at a time roll out into a rectangle (about a 12 X 18").  Spread butter evenly over the dough.  Blend 1/4 cup sugar and Cinnamon and sprinkle all over the the dough, then sprinkle raisins or other fruit.  Starting at each end (long way) roll up (like a jelly roll) then make the ends meet in a circle.  Place on a greased pan, or pan lined with parchment paper or silpat.  Use scissors and make cuts 1 1/2" apart and twist to the side and press down slightly.  Cover and let rise (1 1/2 hours).  Bake 35 minutes in a 375 oven.  

Make a thin icing with powdered sugar, milk and a dash of almond extract.  Drizzle on top.
 
 
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Do you remember a time when you were sick or extremely pregnant or too busy to cook because you were taking care of an aging relative?  (I'm sure some of you answered yes to all three.) Well, I know just what you needed most: Angel Food!  It's not that wonderful fluffy cake you're thinking of, I'm talking about a hot cooked meal that someone delivered to your doorstep when you were at your wits end.  That truly is food that comes from your angels: your sister, your        friends, your neighbors or your church family.

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      At my church we have an Angel Food ministry.  It's quite simple really, if you are in need, the "head angel" (aka: Peg Aery at St. Peter's in Essex Fells!) is notified by our priest and she rallies the troops (anyone willing to cook, wings and halo aren't required).  Sometimes the angels are just asked for a frozen casserole to fill a freezer, or soup, but sometimes a hot meal is called for...and I got the call this week.  


      My specialty is baked ziti.  It's not hard to do and I always make 2 or 3 times the recipe so I have some extra frozen zitis in my freezer.

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      Try my recipe and think about making an extra pan for a friend or neighbor who could use a little love from your kitchen...be their angel.


To make one large pan you'll need:

1 pound of ziti noodles
3-4 Cups of shredded cheese (mozzarella or I like to use a mixed bag with 4 cheeses including cheddar)

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For the sauce:

1 onion diced
1 pepper diced
1 zucchini cut up
A little olive oil
1 pound of ground beef or turkey
1 28 oz can of diced tomatoes
1 6 oz can of tomato paste
Either 1 jar of store bought sauce or 2-3 cups of homemade sauce

Cook the ziti until aldente.  At the same time...
Brown the ground beef in a pan, drain fat, set aside.
In the bottom of a big pot sauté the veggies until they soften (5 minutes) add the beef, and tomato sauces and heat on a low flame.  When the pasta is done and the sauce is bubbly prepare the pan.  Spread half the ziti in the bottom of the pan and cover with half the sauce and top with half the cheese.  Repeat.  If you're baking right away cook 375 for 20-30 minutes.  If not, wrap and store in fridge until ready to bake, then bake 1 hour at 375.  If you freeze the ziti be sure to thaw completely before you bake.