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The beginning of a new year is worthy of a great celebration, but as the busy holiday season comes to a close, the thought of another party can seem overwhelming. It doesn't have to be. This year, stay home for the holiday. Invite some friends to join you -- or don't, and have a romantic dinner for two instead.

Here are three very different but very easy ways to ring in the new year. I've included a recipe or project for each one, guaranteed to make the occasion even more memorable.

A cozy dinner with friends

A simple but elegant dinner party with just a few close friends is my idea of a perfect New Year's Eve.

Instead of a big, multicourse meal -- which may make everyone drowsy before the clock strikes 12 -- serve casual courses throughout the evening: Offer mugs of soup as guests arrive; make omelets or individual pizzas and Caesar salads to order; and at midnight, surprise everyone with dramatic, oversize homemade fortune cookies. The guests can break them open and read aloud the fortunes that you wrote just for them.


Non-stick cooking spray

5 tablespoons unsalted butter

4 large egg whites

1 cup superfine sugar

1 cup all-purpose flour, sifted

Pinch of salt

3 tablespoons heavy cream

1 teaspoon almond extract
Heat oven to 400 degrees. Spray a cookie sheet liberally with cooking spray.

Melt butter in a small saucepan over low heat; set aside.

In the bowl of an electric mixer, combine egg whites and sugar and beat on medium speed for about 30 seconds. Add flour and salt and beat until combined. Add butter, heavy cream and almond extract and beat until combined, about 30 seconds.

Pour 1 tablespoon batter onto half of the baking sheet, and spread with the back of the spoon into a thin 5-inch circle; repeat on the other half of the sheet. Bake until the edges turn golden brown, about 8 minutes.

Transfer baking sheet to a heat-resistant surface. Working as quickly as possible, slide a spatula (an offset spatula, available at specialty kitchen shops, works best) under one cookie. Place it on a clean kitchen towel.

Using your fingers, fold cookie loosely in half, pinching the top together to form a taco shape. Insert your index fingers into each open end, and press your thumbs gently into the center of the folded edge while bringing the two open ends toward each other, forming the shape of a fortune cookie. This whole process should take about 10 seconds. Once the cookie hardens, which begins to happen almost immediately, you cannot fold it.

Place the cookie on the kitchen towel to cool and shape the second cookie. Repeat until all the batter is used up. To avoid wasting batter, try the shaping process with a circle of paper first.

Write out fortunes on strips of paper, and thread through the cooled cookies. Makes 15 cookies.

Dinner for two

You don't even need to set the table for this intimate little party. Make a decadent boxed dinner for two, and enjoy it in the most comfortable spot in the house -- such as in front of the fire or even the television, if you've rented some favorite films.

Fill lunch boxes, a picnic basket or a white cardboard cake box with luxurious foods that you can snack on all night: a tin of caviar, hard-boiled quail eggs, olives, pate, assorted cheeses and crackers, paper-thin slices of prosciutto, fresh fruit, spiced nuts, chocolate truffles, miniature tarts and cookies.

Wrap your best silver in your prettiest napkins, and tie with ribbon.

Make the evening even more festive by serving champagne cocktails: Place a sugar cube in a champagne flute, add a dash of Angostura bitters, and pour champagne over. As the sugar cube dissolves, thedrink will take on a rosy glow and deli-cious flavor.

New Year's Day open house

A relaxed, informal gathering on Jan. 1 is a wonderful way to share the new year with friends, family and neighbors. Invite a big group -- at an open house, people will come and go at different times.

For almost effortless entertaining, let your local specialty stores do much of the work for you: Buy your favorite prepared foods, and you can set up a sumptuous buffet with almost no cooking. Offer a glazed ham or roast turkey accompanied by baskets of rolls and bread, a variety of mustards and chutneys, and wedges of unusual cheeses. Make or buy quiches, frittatas and savory tarts, which are all great at room temperature.

Serve robust salads made with ingredients such as couscous, wheatberries or wild rice.

Because the buffet is so easy, why not take a few minutes to make a festive citrus centerpiece? With pedestal cake stands in graduated sizes, it's also simple.

Stack three stands, and place a wineglass or tumbler on the top one. Pile the stands with citrus fruits, such as naval oranges, blood oranges, lemons, limes, clementines and kumquats. Place a single fruit in the glass on top.

Slice some fruits in half, and use a citrus stripper to carve others in a spiral pattern, which will give you long, thin strips of zest over the entire arrangement.

Questions should be addressed to Martha Stewart, care of the New York Times Syndication Sales Corp., 122 E. 42nd St., New York, N.Y. 10168. Questions may also be sent by electronic mail: Questions of general interest will be answered in this column; Martha Stewart regrets that unpublished letters cannot be answered individually.