by: REVIEW PHOTO: BARB RANDALL - Santa and Reese Randall get acquainted on The Polar Express. Reese's mom, Laurie looks on. Ordinarily, I like to celebrate holidays in chronological order. I cringe when I see retail stores decorated for Christmas before Halloween and insist that we wait to put up outdoor Christmas lights until at least Thanksgiving afternoon.

I like to make sure each holiday gets its due, as they only come around once a year. However, this year I got a jump start on Christmas. I was presented an opportunity to bring a handful of guests on the opening run of Mt. Hood Railroad’s Polar Express train ride.

Based on Van Allsburg’s book, “The Polar Express” and the Warner Bros. movie of the same name, the story is about a doubting boy who boards a magical train ride on Christmas Eve which takes him to the North Pole where he receives a special gift from Santa. The story is heart warming and reminds us to believe in the magic of Christmas. It is one of my family’s all time favorite books.

Who should make the trip with me? That was easy. The first person on my guest list was Reese Randall, who, at two-and-a-half, was at the perfect age to appreciate a magical ride to the North Pole. Her mom and dad, Travis and Laurie Randall, couldn’t be left out of the fun and I invited my son Dave — just because he would enjoy the magic, too.

The week before our excursion, Laurie and Travis began laying the groundwork to make the adventure more meaningful to Reese. They read the beloved holiday story to Reese and watched the video more times than they wish to admit, I am sure.

Kids are encouraged to ride the Polar Express wearing their pajamas, just as they do in the story. Since it was still a little early for Christmas merchandise, Laurie had to really shop to find new Christmas pajamas for Reese, but in the end, she was successful.

Since it was the opening run of the season, festivities were planned at the depot before we departed for our ride to the North Pole at 2 p.m. A large crowd of pajama clad kids and parents were already in the depot, writing letters to Santa, eating cookies, drinking hot cocoa and munching on candy canes. We were greeted by several of Santa’s elves, the conductor, the doubting hobo character from the movie and jolly old Santa himself. When the conductor finally gave the “All aboard!” we found our seats and The Polar Express pulled out of the station headed to the North Pole.

On the way, we sipped more hot cocoa from very special mugs, ate molasses cookies, listened to Christmas music and heard “The Polar Express” read through the speaker system while in each car servers flipped the pages to show the illustrations to the children as they followed along. Finally we arrived at the North Pole!

The anticipation of the children is truly dear, and when they finally get a glimpse of Santa the air filled with shouts of joy! Santa got on board at the North Pole, visited with each child and gave each their own “First Gift of Christmas.” The kids’ smiles and eyes were wide with delight and we headed back to Hood River depot all a little cheerier.

If it had been snowing, the excursion would have been absolutely perfect. I might suggest that you schedule your ride for 4:30 or 7 p.m., as the dark will surely enhance the magical quality.

The Polar Express runs now through Dec. 28, with 11:30 a.m., 2 p.m., 4:30 p.m. and 7 p.m. excursions. Check the website, for ticket prices and seat availability.

For several days afterward I caught myself humming tunes from the video and had to smile. Maybe all these years I have been cheating myself from an extra dose of holiday cheer by celebrating holiday chronologically. I’ll never know. At any rate, riding the Polar Express was a wonderful way to start the holiday season — try it!

And now that Thanksgiving has come and passed it is officially time to start celebrating Christmas. Making North Pole Hot Cocoa Mix and Soft as Clouds Marshmallows will signal to one and all that the fun has begun!

Bon Appetit! Eat something wonderful!

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Santa waves goodbye to those aboard the Polar Express.

North Pole Hot Cocoa Mix

Makes enough for 8 to 10 thirsty elves

1/2 cup Dutch process cocoa powder

1/2 cup sugar

1/8 teaspoon salt

2 quarts cold milk

In a medium bowl stir together the cocoa, sugar and salt. Add 1/3 cup milk, stir until a smooth paste forms. Bring remaining milk to a simmer in a large saucepan over medium-high heat. Whisk in cocoa mixture until combined. Serve hot with marshmallows.

Soft as Clouds Marshmallows

Makes 2 dozen, 2-inch square marshmallows

These marshmallows are so much more delicious than store bought. Cut them smaller if you like.

1 1/2 cups cold water

4 envelopes unflavored gelatin (about 3 1/2 tablespoons)

3 cups granulated sugar

1 1/4 cups light corn syrup

1/4 teaspoon salt

2 teaspoons vanilla extract

1 cup confectioners’ sugar

Brush a 9x13 inch glass baking dish with vegetable oil; set aside.

Pour 3/4 cups water in the bowl of an electric mixer and sprinkle with gelatin; let stand until softened about 5 minutes.

Place the granulated sugar, corn syrup, salt and remaining 3/4 cup water in a medium saucepan and bring to a boil over high heat.

Clip a candy thermometer to the side of the pan; cook until the mixture reaches the softball stage, 238ºF to 240ºF.

Remove from heat. With mixer on low speed and using the whisk attachment, carefully add hot syrup to gelatin mixture, pouring it down the side of the bowl to prevent splattering.

Gradually increase speed to high and continue beating until the mixture is cool and stiff peaks form, about 30 minutes. Beat in the vanilla.

Pour mixture into the prepared dish; smooth top with an offset spatula.

Let stand uncovered at room temperature until firm, at least 3 hours or overnight. Sift 1/2 cup confectioners’ sugar onto a clean work surface.

Invert baking dish onto sugar, and lift to remove. Lightly brush a sharp knife with oil and cut marshmallows into 2 inch squares. S

ift remaining 1 1/2 cups confectioners’ sugar into a bowl and roll marshmallows in sugar to coat evenly.

Randall welcomes your food questions and research suggestions. She can be reached at 503-636-1281 ext 101 or by email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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