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Winter weekends in New England: fireside meals, sleigh rides

Even on the chilliest winter mornings, breakfasters at the Publick House find plenty of warmth and cheer from the blazing fire in the inn's enormous walk-in fireplace.

Just what culinary devices the inn uses to soften the impact of dropping temperatures was delightfully evident at a recent sampling of the Yankee Winter Weekends, January-to-March occurrences that combine lodging, banquet-style meals , and visits to nearby Old Sturbridge Village.

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Unlike the village buildings, which were dismantled and brought in from other places, the Publick House, founded in 1771 by Ebenezer Crafts, has always beckoned travelers from the same site.

My particular group of travelers found that the array of delicious edibles began within minutes after we arrived late on a Friday afternoon. Descending the stairs into a cozy little parlour furnished with period antiques we were greeted by Swanee, a gentleman resplendent in the highly starched, many-buttoned garb of the early 1800s.

After accepting Swanee's kind offer to sample some creamy clam chowder and Joe Froggers, soft molasses cookies popular with Colonial sailors, we headed for the dining room and a gargantuan buffet.

Pecan rolls, breads, and corn-bread sticks cascaded out of a golden horn of plenty fashioned and baked from dough. Hams and turkeys were festooned with fruit designs, pineapple shells housed the dressing for the huge molded salad. In the center of it all stood Ebenezer Crafts, on horseback, carved in ice.

The next morning, sitting close to the aforementioned fireplace, we perused a breakfast menu that, in addition to the usual list of food and prices, imparted anecdotes about life in 1771. One was that a Colonial breakfast was a substantial meal meant to fortify one for eight or so hours of hard work before the midday meal.

Hot deep-dish apple pie served with a wedge of cheddar cheese is a common part of the large Colonial breakfasts. So may have been other offerings on the menu, such as Red Flannel (corned beef) Hash, fried corn meal mush, porridge with hot maple syrup, hot mulled cider, and pumpkin muffins. These last are particularly good - moist and spicy and full of raisins and walnuts.

Although our group did not follow the Colonial-style breakfast with Colonial-style labor, we did break up a day of sightseeing at Sturbridge to lunch at the Village Tavern. The kitchen at the Publick House is responsible for the tavern's luncheon buffet, which that day featured a flaky chicken pie and Boston Baked Beans.

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But the culinary highlight of the weekend was yet to come - Saturday night's game dinner back at the Publick House. This began with a pate of wild boar, baked in a crust and served with garnet-colored Cumberland sauce. Those who wielded their forks with some trepidation were surpised to find the pate as mild and palatable as more familiar varieties.

This was followed by a flavorful hot pheasant consomme with tiny liver dumplings. The main course featured slices of lean, tender venison from New Zealand, where it is grown for commercial consumption. The meat had been marinated, and was served on a slice of apple and topped with a sweet-and-sour sauce and bacon bits.

While the game dinner is served only as part of the special winter-weekend package, the inn serves its other Colonial-influenced meals every day of the year. The following are a few of the traditional recipes from the Publick House kitchen. Pumpkin Muffins 2 cups sugar 1/2 cup vegetable oil 3 eggs 1 1/2 cups canned pumpkin 1/2 cup water 3 cups bread flour 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder 1 teaspoon baking soda 1/2 teaspoon cloves 3/4 teaspoon cinnamon 1 teaspoon nutmeg 1 teaspoon salt 1 1/2 cups raisins 1 cup walnuts

Place sugar, oil, eggs, pumpkin, and water in a bowl and mix. Sift flour, baking powder, soda, salt, and spices. Add to first mixture and mix. Add raisins and walnuts. Let stand 1 hour at room temperature.

Place in greased muffin pans. Bake in preheated oven at 400 degrees F. approximately 15 minutes. Makes 2 dozen. Old-Fashioned Chicken Pie 6 cups chicken stock 6 tablespoons butter 3 cups plus 6 tablespoons flour 1 1/2 cups shortening 1 teaspoon salt 1 5-pound chicken 1 onion 1 carrot 1 stalk celery

Boil the chicken in a large pot with the onion, celery, and carrot until tender. When cooked, remove chicken and cut into large pieces. In a saucepan, bring the chicken stock to a boil and add butter and 6 tablespoons of the flour. Cook until thickened. Put the chicken meat in a baking dish and pour the gravy over it.

In a bowl, mix together remaining flour, shortening, and salt. Add sufficient milk to make paste. Spread over top of pan. Bake at 375 degrees F. until chicken and gravy are sizzling hot and pastry is browned. Yankee Corn Sticks 2 3/4 cups all-purpose flour 1 cup cornmeal 2 tablespoons baking powder 2 teaspoons salt 3/4 cup sugar 2 eggs 1 cup cream-style corn 1/4 cup vegetable oil 1 1/2 cups milk

Stir together the flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt. Stir in cornmeal. Beat the eggs and blend with corn, milk, and oil. Add to dry ingredients. Stir until just moistened.

Preheat corn-stick pans in moderate oven and then grease. Fill two-thirds full with batter. Bake for 20 minutes in an oven heated at 425 degrees F. Makes 2 dozen.

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