Most people move to distinctly warmer climes when they retire -- Arizona, say, or Florida. Judy Manley isn't one of them. She chose Pomfret, Vermont, a speck on the map in the eastern part of the state, where the winter temperatures are routinely below freezing and the snow-covered woods are right out of a Robert Frost poem. But she hasn't been alone in finding something exhilarating about the area and its annual snowscape. Some of Manley's closest friends from Connecticut, where she lived for 30 years, moved to the nearby Woodstock area around the same time she relocated, eight years ago. The transplants, along with others they've met, get together every few weeks in winter for an outing, choosing a portion of the frosty terrain to traverse by hiking, snowshoeing, or cross-country skiing. The circuit through the snow is almost always followed by a meal at one of their houses.
Today, it's Manley's turn to host. Guests file into her 1710 Cape Cod-style home, which is on 16 acres, down the road from a maple-sugaring farm. The house is soon filled with the smells of an oniony maple-bacon quiche and a maple Bundt cake. "Syrup is a real staple here -- we put it in everything," Manley says. The best type tends to be a matter of taste (and debate). Some locals prefer the delicately flavored pale-amber varieties, labeled grade AA, while others favor robust deep-brown grade B and C ones. Medium-bodied grade A syrup is a good compromise and works well for the recipes here.
Chicken-and-sage sausages frying in a saute pan join the scents floating through the kitchen. The patties are arranged on a sideboard in the dining room, along with the quiche and an escarole salad dotted with caramelized butternut squash. Sunlight, amplified by the snow outside, pours through the windows as guests fill their plates and settle around an antique hutch table. The next time the group gathers may be under slightly different circumstances, Manley says. There's a full moon on the way, which will create the perfect night to don skis and glide across the open fields of deepest winter.
Manley's 18th-century Vermont home (above, left) serves as a welcoming spot for friends. The rooms (middle) are furnished with an extensive collection of early American antiques, including mix-and-match Windsor armchairs in different woods and finishes. A few store-bought items (right) -- whole-grain bread from a local bakery, maple butter, and fruit preserves -- are incorporated into the brunch.
Many components of this winter brunch can be made ahead of time, allowing you to assemble the dishes quickly at the last minutes.
Up to a Day Before
Make the quiche, and refrigerate. Bake the cake. Shape and refrigerate chicken sausages.
A Couple Hours Before
Roast squash, slice cheese, and make dressing.
45 Minutes Before
Assemble drink ingredients. Whip cream for cake. Assemble salad. Saute sausages.
How to Set Up a Buffet
-If you don't have a long table, put two or three small tables end to end. Create a unified look by draping the tables with a large cloth or overlapping smaller ones in the same color.
-Stack plates where guests will start. Place silverware and napkins at the opposite end of the table so guests won't have to hold on to them while serving themselves.
-If guests will be standing during most of the party or balancing plates on their laps while dining, avoid serving anything that requires a knife.
-Use cake stands (you can even stack several on top of one another) and footed compotes to elevate smaller dishes and make room for larger platters underneath.
-Provide at least one serving utensil for each dish. To protect your linens from stains, place the utensils on saucers near the dish so that guests can rest them there between uses.
-Offer food in individual portions to make it easier for guests. Carve meat into slices and ladle soup into mugs before setting them out.
-If you decorate the table with flowers or candles, choose ones that don't have fragrances. That way, they won't compete with the aroma of the food.