My Dry Year: Third Quarter Report

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Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through my New Year’s resolution to not drink alcohol in 2014, it’s time for a quick update to the “Dry Year” thread of this blog.

SCF last drink

First of all, I’m very proud to report that I am still dry and I don’t miss drinking.  It’s true that I missed it early on, had mild withdrawal symptoms the first few weeks, and even had a nightmare in which I broke my resolution by inadvertently drinking a glass of wine. It also took longer than I had expected to develop the new habit of not drinking.

By the end of May, I had already achieved my goal weight and lost a total of 30 pounds (when you include the 7 pounds I lost last year). I explained exactly how I did it in this blog post.Although I had a few challenges along the way, I’m pleased to report that four months later, I am holding steady at 135 pounds, which is a few pounds below the goal weight I had set for myself.

June 2014 (after) CROPPED

In the first half of the year, I had also already achieved my personal record (or “PR”) marathon time. How I did that is explained here. It should be no surprise that, just as I had predicted early on, losing so much weight was the biggest contributor.

SCF with pace group

After achieving these two main goals so early in the year, I wrestled with the question of whether or not I want to start drinking again when 2015 rolls around. In the end, I decided that I want to have a glass of very nice champagne at midnight this coming New Year’s Eve and then play it by ear after that.

I also decided to add a stretch goal into the mix for the second half of 2014: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  My first “BQ” attempt — as qualifying for the Boston Marathon is known to avid runners — on my 46th birthday in July was a real disaster. Despite that, it was an unforgettable experience to cross the finish line with a very close friend, no matter how long it took us.

This brings us to today.  This morning, I completed my last race of the season by trying one more time to BQ. I was very happy with my training plan, picked a course that had a nice sloping downhill, went to the race properly hydrated and fueled, and even wore a temporary tattoo with my mile-by-mile race plan on my forearm. All signs pointed to a great day on the course.

What was the result? I really killed the first half of the race, achieving a PR half-marathon time of 01:51:55 and stayed on my planned pace through 20 miles. Then, it got very hot and I started to slow and I worried that I might over-heat. Although I didn’t qualify for Boston, I am extremely proud of myself for pushing through the last several miles to the finish line and cutting another 19 minutes off my best marathon time.

887_Marathon_283 (Clarence Demar - Keene - 09-28-14)

As far as qualifying for Boston is concerned, that’s a goal I will happily carry with me into 2015. If you have any other ideas for New Year’s resolutions for 2015 for me, please leave those as comments to today’s blog post.

LET THEM EAT CAKE (AGAIN)

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A few weeks ago, we were visiting some of my husband’s family in Maine. For brunch, my sister-in-law made an amazing lobster eggs Benedict. She had made way too much hollandaise sauce than we needed and mused out loud about what could be done with it. I immediately suggested that we call my mother and reached for the phone.

Why call her? You might ask. Because, after serving to dinner guests for over 35 years, my mom knows her way around the kitchen and has many useful tips for saving and re-purposing leftovers. If there’s anyone who knows if hollandaise sauce can be frozen and re-served or repurposed in some other way, it’s my mom. And, the answer? “Hollandaise freezes very well. When you heat it on the stove, stir constantly and add a bit of lemon juice and warm water to help re-constitute it,” Mom advised my sister-in-law.

Lobster Eggs Bennedict

In last week’s blog post, I alluded to two of mom’s other secrets:  which cheeses freeze well and what to do with leftover cake.  As promised, here are all the details, as well as my mom’s recipes to make the most of them.

Just like you might not expect that hollandaise sauce can be successfully frozen and reused, many people shy away from freezing cheese. It is true that the texture changes when you bring it back up to room temperature. For that reason, my mom exclusively uses leftover and frozen cheeses to make her legendary macaroni and cheese recipe. A favorite of kids and adult guests alike, mom is continually asked for this recipe. However, it is truly never the same dish twice! The only type of cheese that my mother won’t freeze is fresh goat cheese. As for the others, she reckons that she’s frozen them all: American, Swiss, Cheddar, and even Brie.

Macaroni & Cheese

Ingredients:
7 ounces elbow macaroni (about 2 cups uncooked)
3 tablespoon butter
3 tablespoon flour
3/4 teaspoon salt
dash pepper
2 cups milk
2 cups shredded cheddar, American or both (or whatever other types of cheese you froze!)
1/4 cup bread crumbs
1 tablespoon melted butter

Method:
Cook macaroni, following directions on package. Rinse in cold water and drain. Melt butter in saucepan, blend in flour, salt, and pepper. Add milk, cook on stovetop, stirring frequently until mixture is thick. Combine 1/2 of cheese mixture and macaroni. Then fold in remaining shredded cheese. Pour into a greased 2-quart casserole dish. Sprinkle the top with crumbs and melted butter. Bake 350 degrees for 30 to 40 minutes, until bubbly and lightly browned on top.

Saving leftover cake to make the dessert called “trifle” is another one of my mom’s guilty secrets.  You can save pretty much any cake and freeze it. Once, she even drove over to another inn to take home the leftovers of an entire wedding cake, when she heard the bride wasn’t keeping it.

According to my mom, “The key is to remove all of the frosting. I think vanilla cake makes the best trifle, but I’ve also done it with chocolate and other flavors.” After removing the frosting, just freeze the chunks or slices or whole pieces of cake in gallon sized freezer bags. You can keep it this way for up to one year.

The recipe for my mom’s cake trifle has never been written down before. That makes this the world premiere of the written record for this most excellent dessert.

Ruth’s Leftover Cake Trifle

Ingredients:
1 pound leftover cake
1 cup fruit-based liquor (mom suggests this cassis from the Putney Mountain Winery)
1 cup jam (mom uses her homemade peach or strawberry jam)
1 package vanilla pudding mix
2 cups fresh berries
Fresh whipped cream

Method:
The day you plan to make the trifle, take the bags of frozen cake pieces out of the freezer and let them come to room temperature. Be sure to wash your hands well and use them to break the cake into approximately one inch cubes and set aside in a large bowl.

Use a large square or rectangular cake pan to assemble two layers of the dessert. Cover the bottom of the pan with cake pieces (only using half of the cake). Add half of the liquor. A fruit-based liquor like cassis, which is made from blackberries, is what mother usually uses. Then layer in the jam. Mix up a package of instant vanilla pudding with one cup of milk or half-and-half, making a custard. Put half over the layer of jam. Repeat all steps so that you have two layers, substituting the fresh fruit on the top, instead of jam. Use whatever fresh berries are in season. Refrigerate until ready to serve.

Just before serving, top each serving with freshly made whip cream (1 cup of heavy cream whipped with a table spoon of powdered confectioner’s sugar and a teaspoon of vanilla). If you don’t use up all of the whipped cream, remember that it also freezes very well!

Although it doesn’t involve previously frozen ingredients, another of Mom’s extremely popular time-saving dessert recipes is her “paper bag apple pie.” She’s been making this for over 25 years. During my interview with Mom this morning, I was so captivated by this recipe, that I goaded her into making it with me today during half-time of the Patriot’s game. I’m not exaggerating when I say that the prep time for this delicious rendition of apple pie is less than 10 minutes.

Paper Bag Apple Pie

Ingredients:
4-5 apples, cored, peeled, and sliced
1 pie shell
1 cup sugar
1/8 teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon cinnamon
5 tablespoon flour
3 tablespoon water, apple cider, or apple juice

Topping:
½ cup brown sugar
½ quick oats
1 stick of margarine or butter
¼ cup chopped nuts (optional)

Method:
Place apples in pie shell. Sprinkle with remaining ingredients. Combine topping ingredients to make a crumbly mixture. Spread on top of apples in pie. Place shell with all ingredients in large brown paper bag. Use either paper clips or stapler to bind airtight. Bake 1 hour at 375°. Serve with vanilla ice cream or whipped cream. Serves 8-10.

Mom making bag apple pie

  Into the bagSeal the bagFinished pie

You can find several of the inn’s other recipes on their website here. If you have any questions about these recipes or the inn’s other kitchen secrets or cooking tips, please post them as comments and we promise to get back to you.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

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My mother is a very good cook. It’s hard to replicate her cooking, because she’s one part Alice Waters, with her emphasis on fresh, local ingredients; one part Rachael Ray, with her mantra that “easy-to-do” is almost always best; one part Martha Stewart, thanks to her kitchen cleverness; and one part MacGyver, no explanation necessary. Another time, I’ll post some of her time-honored cooking and meal planning tips, such as her advice on which types of cheeses can be successfully frozen and re-served and what to do with leftover cake. This post, however, isn’t directly about Mom’s cooking. It’s about a recipe and, as it turns out, human nature.

Tante Evelyn

“Tante Evelyn”

The most requested recipe in my mother’s large repertoire, bar none, is a cookie recipe that we call “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” which was named after my mother’s French-Canadian aunt. Like many immigrant women of her generation, it seemed that the only way Tante Evelyn knew how to show love was through her cooking. Visiting her was always popular when we were children, because she never failed to have multiple homemade sweets freshly baked in her kitchen, that she insisted we eat to our little hearts’ content.

After we opened the inn, it was likewise a treat for all of us when Tante Evelyn visited from New Hampshire to stay with us, share in the cooking chores and generally amuse us with her no-nonsense personality. When she visited near the holidays, she would make batches and batches of her graham cracker treats. A mixture of melted butter and brown sugar is poured over a sheet of graham cracker pieces and, after a mere 10 minutes in the oven, they turn into delicious, praline-type candied crackers. Tante Evelyn would make enough in one afternoon so that my mom could freeze them and have them on hand for an entire year. The days she baked these cookies were, for us kids, always the highlights of her trip to the inn.

Evelyn died many years ago, so we’ll never know exactly how she came about creating her recipe. Nowadays, you can find variations of it all over the Internet, like this one that adds vanilla and pecans and earns a five-star rating from Betty Crocker.  A look through my mom’s ancient Betty Crocker bible that’s now held together by duct tape does not, however, contain this recipe.

Betty Crocker Cookbook

(We don’t know the origin of Tante Evelyn’s recipe. We looked everywhere, including in here.)

Meanwhile, like every other industry, inn-keeping has affiliations and organizations. In the ski region in south-central Vermont where our inn is located, there was once a group called “Snowtown Inns” that was later renamed the ”Okemo Valley Hospitality Association.” In the 1980s, there were 16 inns and motels in the area that were members of this group, which, by the way, is now absorbed into the regional chamber of commerce. My mother was an executive officer of the group and still has a large drawer full of envelopes bearing the group’s logo.

The group met a few times per year and members took turns hosting the meetings. One day, in the late 1980s, it was with much “to-do” that my mother and father hosted the group. After the business was done, they served coffee with an impressive array of nut breads and desserts. I have no doubt that everything was delicious. However, everyone in the group raved about one particular cookie and wondered how my mother made them. Of course, these were the famous Tante Evelyn’s Treats.

When one of the other innkeepers asked for the recipe, my mom was so pleased that her peers loved her beloved aunt’s cookies that she immediately went into her office, printed out the recipe, and made a copy for everyone.

Tante Evelyn’s Treats

Ingredients:
1 package of graham crackers
1 1/2 sticks of butter
1/2 cup of brown sugar
1/2 cup of finely chopped nuts

Method:
Break graham crackers in half (along perforation) and place flat on a greased cookie sheet. Melt butter and brown sugar in a saucepan for five to six minutes, stirring constantly. Pour over crackers and sprinkle with nuts. Bake at 350 degrees for nine minutes. Remove from oven and allow to cool. If desired, sprinkle with mini chocolate chips when cookies are removed from oven and still hot.

Okemo Valley Hospitality

(There used to be an active industry association in the area just for innkeepers and other motel and lodge owners.)

I was away at college and had no idea that this meeting had taken place, until about a year later when I received a phone call from my mother. She was crying and so terribly upset that it was difficult to understand her. After she calmed down, my mother explained that she had just received her latest issue of Yankee Magazine in the mail. In it, one of the competing inns in her hospitality group had won a recipe contest for……guess what? A delicious graham cracker cookie recipe that was remarkably like “Tante Evelyn’s Treats,” but under a different name with slightly more butter.  Otherwise, it was exactly the same!

I insisted that mom defend her honor and write to the editors. But she’s simply not that kind of person. She bore her disappointment and fury in silence and never even mentioned it to the other innkeeper, who is no longer in Vermont and has been long out of the inn business.

The story reminds me of something my mother once told me when I was a young girl. After observing my mom busy in the inn’s kitchen one afternoon, I had complained bitterly, “I don’t know how to cook!” She stopped what she was doing and put her arms around me and said, “Sharon, if you can read, you can cook.”

I appreciated the gesture, but I know today, just as I did back then, that my mother was wrong. There’s a lot more to good cooking than being able to read or following what might in fact be a great recipe. My mom will always be a better cook and innkeeper than her ruthless competitor and, no matter the variations of it that might be out in the larger world, this particular cookie recipe is best when called “Tante Evelyn’s Treats.”

A LITTLE PRIVACY PLEASE!

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In my last blog post, I left you with the image of a woman from Manhattan who had hiked through snow and up a fire escape in heels, entered my parents’ inn on the second story, and found her way to their bedroom. At least she knocked. Believe it or not, there have been several guests through the years who just walked right in. 

winter CFI

Once, during ski season, my mother was enjoying precious time by herself while all of the guests were skiing. She took her ritual afternoon bath, settled into bed with a good book and had fallen asleep. She opened her eyes to see a man standing in her bedroom, just three feet away, looking down at her.

When he saw her open her eyes, he said, in a heavy French accent, “I looked for you all over!” Then, “Are you a Combes?”  Before my mother had a chance to answer, he started babbling excitedly, “My name is Combes. I’m French. I wonder if you are French,” and so on. Mom pulled herself together and suggested that he go downstairs, promising that she would join him there in just a moment.

She took a few moments to get dressed and brush her hair, all the while lamenting the abrupt end of her relaxation. She closed the door of her sanctuary and she joined “Monsieur Combes” from France in the sitting room, where they talked for well over an hour about his family and how he happened past the inn, surprised to see a big sign emblazoned with “The Combes Family Inn.” When darkness began to fall, he stood up, kissed her on both cheeks and left. We never heard from him again.

Then there was the time that Room #8 (The Wildflower Suite) was rented to two nuns from Pennsylvania who were in the area to spend time at the Weston Priory. One of the nuns was in her late 70s, while the other was probably around 50 years old.

At about two in the morning, my mother was awakened by a vague noise and then the sight of the older of the two nuns standing over the bed, looking closely at her through the darkness. When my mother tells this story, she laughs as she says, “There was your father lying on top of the covers in his skivvies. Actually, I’m not even sure that he had his skivvies on!”

“May I help you?” my mother asked the old sister, who meekly replied, “I am looking for the bathroom.”

Mom said to me as she told the story, “I guess I was a really good innkeeper back then. I simply got up and took her by the hand and walked her back down the hallway to the bathroom connected to her room at the other end of the hallway.”

At breakfast the next morning, the younger of the two nuns pulled my mother aside and asked about what had happened during the night, evidently aware of the rustling in the room in the middle of the night. It turns out that her companion was known to be a sleep walker and that’s probably how she ended up in my parents’ bedroom!

It’s certainly a significant invasion of privacy to have people walk right into your bedroom, especially when it’s the only space in the whole house that is not open to the guests. However, that’s not the only way that our family gave up privacy through the years. 

It was also very difficult for our family to have private time, especially around the holidays when the ski season was in full swing. In 1999, several of us actually celebrated Christmas day at the inn. My mother claims that this was the only Christmas she and my father ever spent with their grandchildren on Christmas Day.

In fact, it was my nephew Liam’s first Christmas. Liam’s dad — my brother Billy — and his whole family were there. I was finally back from living overseas and also made it back to Vermont for Christmas for a change. It was a rare time in all of the years since my family opened the inn back in 1978 that many of us had the opportunity to celebrate together on Christmas Day.

Of course, it being a significant winter holiday, the inn had several guests, all of whom, save one, were off skiing. Would you believe that rather than reading in the living room or doing some other personal thing, the woman guest sat with us all morning long? She was there next to each of us as we opened every last gift, even peering along with us into our Christmas stockings. My mom’s favorite part of this story is that this woman –who only visited the inn that one time and whose name no one remembers — is, quite literally, in every single photo we took that Christmas morning.

Looking back on these and several other stories and my mother tells about the loss of privacy inherent in having opened our home as an inn for guests all of these years, it strikes me that we gained so much more than we ever gave up.