Am I the only one who sees July 4 as the mid-point of summer? I figure that summer begins with Memorial Day and ends on Labor Day, thus the holiday in the middle, Independence Day, means summer is half over.

I was on vacation last week, which should have been obvious to everyone, since it was cloudy and rainy all week. I managed to read three books, watch a lot of truly trashy TV (Jerry Springer, anyone?) and did absolutely no housework other than vacuuming up the yellow Lab fur tumbleweeds that constantly drift across my hardwood floors and one load of laundry, which I tried to dry on my new clothesline in between rains storms. I took the time to browse the local Dollar Store for clothespins — and ended up with 20 other "can't-live-without-it" items, including red mason jars, decorative pebbles and tea lights to make cheap candles for my deck table.

I attended two Fourth of July get-togethers. One, hosted by my friend Nancy's daughter at her home in Pownal, Vt., and another at a co-worker's home in Lee. And, just as the destinations were polar opposites, so were the dishes I was asked to bring — an appetizer for Lee and a dessert for Pownal. I went searching through my new — and newly reorganized — recipe box and discovered many possibilities for each party. My criteria for narrowing down my choices were: I wanted dishes that were simple to make, they had to be easy to transport, large enough for a crowd and something I had had success with before. It was even better if I had many of the ingredients on hand.

Both of the recipes came from the days of tailgating when our son played college football. The appetizer I chose was Wisconsin Beer Dip, which I may have printed before — it is that good! I used Guinness beer because it was in the refrigerator; a side bonus was the recipe only uses 1/3 cup of it and I got to drink the rest!

Wisconsin beer dip

INGREDIENTS:

2 (8 ounce) packages cream cheese, softened

1 (1 ounce) package ranch dressing mix

2 cups shredded Cheddar cheese

1/3 cup beer

DIRECTIONS:

In a medium bowl, combine cream cheese and dressing mix. Stir in Cheddar cheese, and then beer. The mixture will appear mushy. Cover bowl, and refrigerate for at least 3 hours, overnight if possible. Serve with pretzels.

The winning dessert recipe, Death by Chocolate, came from the girlfriend of a former sports editor at the North Adams Transcript many years ago. In the ensuing years, I've made it many times; using the same technique, but a different flavor cake and pudding and other candy bars or bits. It looks great in a trifle bowl, but for easier transport, I use a 9x13-inch disposable lasagna pan. Heath also now makes toffee bits already crushed, which are next to the chocolate chips in the baking aisle.

Death by Chocolate

Courtesy of Kathleen Houlihan

INGREDIENTS:

1 package chocolate cake mix

2 packages instant chocolate pudding mix

1 (16 ounce) package frozen whipped topping, thawed

6 (1.4 ounce) bars chocolate covered English toffee (Heath bars)

DIRECTIONS:

Prepare cake mix according to package directions. Let cool.

Mix pudding according to package directions.

Layer in the following order: 1/2 of the cake crumbled; 1/2 of the pudding; 2 toffee bars, crushed; 1/2 of the whipped topping.

Repeat layers in the same order. Save the last two toffee bar to crumble and sprinkle on top before serving.

Refrigerate. Best if made the day before you serve it.