Thursday, December 22, 2011

Feliz Navidad!

We're off to meet my family in Barcelona for Christmas! Wishing you and your loved ones the happiest of holidays. I'll be back in 2012 with stories and photos of our trip... 

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! 
auste & didz

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Cologne: part 2

It's been a couple days - but I think I'm *still* recovering from our amazing weekend in Germany (read part 1 here)... the packed itinerary, making perfume, sightseeing, drinking Gl├╝hwein, dancing at a club til 4 in the morning, facing my fear of heights on top of the cathedral, wandering through the Christmas markets... it was exhausting! But so incredible.

One of the highlights was definitely the rooftop tour of the Cologne Cathedral. The cathedral has a long and interesting history, its construction spanning 600 years (1248-1880 with a three hundred year pause in the middle). It houses the relics of the Three Kings and has been an important pilgrimage sight for many Christians. After WWII, when most of Cologne was left in shambles, the Cathedral remained standing, and we had the opportunity to discover its beauty from an entirely different point of view: the top. 

The foundation responsible for the maintenance and restoration of the Cathedral leads these tours, and though I was absolutely terrified on the way up in the rickety construction elevator, and standing in the freezing wind on a bunch of scaffolding, I'm very glad I made it through the entire tour. 

The super scary elevator

Up, up, up, up beyond the gargoyles
On the scaffolding (I was terrified - that's the only smile I could muster)

An engineering masterpiece - HANGING scaffolding
Narrow walkways, cold wind

Christmas Market from above

After the tour, we warmed up with more wine and mushrooms before heading to dinner.... 

... where we ate chestnut soup, steak and traditional Christmas goose, and drank prosecco, beer and wine and then danced the night away. 

It was a fabulous weekend - thank you to our wonderful hosts, Christian and Anna. We can't wait to go back (when it's a little warmer)... 

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Cologne: part 1

This past weekend our friend Christian organized a trip to his hometown in Cologne, Germany. With about a million residents, Cologne is the fourth largest city in Germany - it's small enough to get around easily, but has enough big city "buzz" to make it feel like a bustling metropolis. And, I admit, I was lured by the 4 Starbucks we saw - yes, we went (twice) - but in my defense, I needed a little sip of home in one of those red holiday cups! Plus, one day it was so bloody cold the Starbucks was like a warm beacon of light inviting us in to defrost.

Aside from our (two) visits to the green mermaid, we had a wonderfully packed itinerary that Christian planned for us - including a visit to 4711 to make our own perfume/cologne, and a rooftop tour of the Cologne cathedral, not to mention the whole point of taking the trip: exploring the Christmas markets.

Up first: Our guesthouse, and perfume-making:

Our little pension was charming and inviting and included a perfect European breakfast consisting of fresh rolls, cheeses, jam, soft-boiled eggs, juice and coffee. The perfect way to start the day!

Not sure why Didz was hiding in the closet...

Our scent-making seminar was fascinating, and so much fun. After a short presentation, and gaining a basic understanding of "base" smells vs. "stinkers", we were set free to smell, combine, mix, blend and create our own perfume. 

Eau de Cito - a blend of bergamot, sweet orange, mandarin, and green tea
I passed! This is also the only document that exists that lists me as Auste Didzbalis. 

After our perfume seminar, we walked through one of the Christmas Markets to get traditional sauteed mushrooms and the most incredible pork sandwiches for lunch. 

I have about a million more pictures to sort through, so I'll post part 2 - our unbelievable (and somewhat terrifying) rooftop tour of the cathedral, and our fabulous dinner Saturday night a little later. 

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

A Pre-Christmas Gift

Didz has been busy with final exams and projects this week - trying to get over the last hurdle before the much anticipated winter break (hellooooo barcelona!)... I decided to let him open one of his Christmas gifts a couple weeks early, hoping it would help him blow off some steam and refocus for the home stretch...

His reaction?

"Aw, Sweet! I'm gonna take it to school tomorrow!"....

I'm married to a five year old.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

On the first date of Christmas....

Saturday night was Date Night. Didz had been planning it for a week and wouldn't reveal anything to me - making the anticipation and the long wait for the weekend to arrive almost unbearable.

We took the train into Brussels and walked down into the Grand Place. I was immediately awe-struck by the scene before us. Tall beams surrounding the enormous Christmas tree in the center of the square were projecting lights into the sky. Set to a classical music soundtrack that echoed loudly through the square, the lights would turn, dance across the buildings of the Grand Place, and around again as crowds of people gazed upwards, delighted by the spectacle. It was beautiful. I found myself completely enchanted by the show, holding Didz's hand, smiling, and filled with love - in that moment, there were no worries, no concerns, no stress about the uncertainty of the future - just beauty. And complete contentment.

Didz bought us some hot, mulled wine to keep us warm and we continued strolling through the Christmas Market - weaving through the crowds of people and passing by all the vendors selling food, drinks, trinkets, chocolate and toys... It was simply joyful. 

Then Didz led us to part two of the evening - a charming little champagne shop with tables in the back to stay, sip and enjoy your purchase. The menu of bottles hung along the walls, with patches of exposed brick and dim, romantic lighting. 

It was lovely, and charming, and bubbly and delicious... and exactly what I was hoping our Date Night would be... He knows me too well. 

I didn't want our dreamy little evening to come to an end... but the train back to Leuven was our reality check, and we had to go.

Before we got married, at my bachelorette weekend in Malibu, Annie raised her glass to us saying, "May you never stop dating each other"...

So far, so good.

Monday, December 12, 2011

Effortless Entertaining

At least once a week we have friends over - either for a casual beer, or for dinner. Most of the time these evenings are unplanned or thrown together at the last minute - Didz invites a couple guys over for a drink after class, or I invite the wife-less men over for a proper meal because I worry they'll die of malnutrition.

Friday evening we threw together an impromptu cocktail party. A few years ago this may have cause me to panic - having only a couple hours to prepare, and an empty refrigerator with nothing to offer our guests (gasp!)... but in the past couple years, I've discovered a very easy formula for effortless entertaining, and welcome the challenge of preparing a party in 30 minutes or less.

I break it down to two main categories: FOOD & MOOD

FOOD: Charcuterie and cheese boards are simple, easy to throw together, and are always a crowd pleaser. I like to include a mix of soft and hard cheeses, and a couple different meats and often some grapes or pear slices as sweet garnishes. I serve them with a couple different types of crackers, or a fresh baguette with a grainy mustard on the side. I also like to serve one warm or homemade snack - on Friday I prepared a zucchini galette (it's a favorite among a few of our friends - I made it once back in September and they still talk about it). And then I usually have a little something sweet on hand. Since I didn't have time to bake something - I placed a bowl of orangettes (candied orange peels dipped in chocolate) on the table, too.

MOOD: Light some candles and turn down the lights - it instantly transforms any space. I like to throw together a playlist as well, so that I wouldn't have to worry about jumping up to change the music after a song ends. And, my favorite trick to help my guests feel welcome and relaxed - I wear slippers! (I recently read that the Barefoot Contessa, Ina Garten, does this when she entertains, too.)

As long as there's wine, beer, or cocktails flowing (don't forget the lemons and limes to garnish your drinks!), and you're surrounded by friends, a good time is a sure thing.

Just keep an eye on your Christmas tree - otherwise the crazy Estonian guy might try to leave with it... (Thank you Kirsten, for ensuring our tree stayed put.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Perfect Port Toddy

I've been feeling a little under the weather this week, and I just want to hide under a big, warm comforter and be consoled by old friends like Harry and Sally, Holly Golightly, and Noah Calhoun and Allie Hamilton*.... 
One (very) good thing has come from this sore throat, however, and I feel it is my Holiday duty to share it with you. My darling friend Allyson passed this recipe along after hearing I wasn't feeling well, and last night Didz made it for me. 

It comes from chef Michael Chernow (of The Meatball Shop fame), and it goes like this:

Port Toddy
1 c. hot water
1 bag chamomile tea
1-2 tbsp of honey
Juice from 1/2 a lemon
3 oz. ruby port 
2 cinnamon sticks

1. In a medium-size mug combine water, tea, and honey. Stir and let tea steep for about two minutes before removing tea bag. 
2. Add juice, port, and cinnamon sticks. 
3. Snuggle up on the couch and enjoy. 

It's cinnamon-y and sweet, and just boozy enough to warm you up on the inside... Sore throat or not, this is sure to make a regular appearance in our home. 

*(Can you name those movies?)

Tuesday, December 6, 2011


There's something warm and cozy that's associated with a roasted butternut squash in the cold weather. When I sloshed through the rain to the market Saturday morning, I knew that a warm roasted squash was exactly what I needed. I didn't have a plan when I bought it - I even discussed it with Annie over Skype when I got home - but after browsing several recipes, I'm happy to say I've found a new fall favorite. This Butternut Squash and Caramelized Onion Galette is really easy (especially if you cheat and buy the pastry dough) - but it feels special with a sort of rustic elegance that would be perfect for a fall dinner party. I would slice it up and serve it as a lovely appetizer for my guests.

The most difficult part (by far) was peeling and chopping the squash - NOT an easy feat when you have the dullest knives in the world to work with. I'm actually surprised I didn't lose a finger (or ten), but I did come away with a blister on my palm from literally sawing away at the squash with a bread knife. So, should you try this recipe at home, please use a real knife, and please be careful.

As I went along, I made a couple slight changes and substitutions - gouda, thyme and I added a little extra kick with an additional sprinkling of cayenne pepper once it was all combined in the bowl. The good thing about galettes is that there are endless combinations and the end result is always delicious.

 And, what's more, it doesn't have to look perfect - it's supposed to look homemade, that's part of the charm. 

Didz came home just as I pulled it out of the oven, our interaction went something like this:

D: Alright! Pizza!
A: No, it's a galette. 
D: A whatette? 
A: Ga-lette.
D: Uh... 
A: Yes, darling, it's pizza.... 


(Oh! Don't forget to roast the seeds too! We ate them as a healthy snack with a little salt & pepper.)

Monday, December 5, 2011

Happy at home

After a few weekends away, spending the weekend at home was a very welcome change of pace. It was rainy and gray and rather miserable for the majority of the weekend - the perfect excuse to stay snuggled up on the couch, reading, drinking tea, cooking, writing postcards, listening to music and watching movies.

I hope you had a relaxing weekend, as well!

(And congrats to Sigita for launching her much anticipated blog, Sigicakes! Can't wait to see more!)

Friday, December 2, 2011

Our First Christmas Tree

I have about a million memories attached to decorating Christmas trees - unwrapping all of my mom's beautiful ornaments one by one, listening to my favorite Christmas album, sipping hot mulled wine (though that's more recent in the timeline of holiday memories), the careful placement of the ornaments on the tree, laughing at the popsicle stick decorations my brothers and I made in grade school that my mom has kept all these years.... and then, once the tree has been decorated, snuggling up on the couch with my parents by the warmth of the fireplace and enjoying what I consider the official opening of the season.

This year, Didz and I decorated our own little tree, and (though I got a little bit nostalgic) I grew increasingly excited about all the future Christmas memories we'll be making as a new family.

We'll have our own little traditions, our own collection of our children's handmade ornaments and keepsakes, our own fireplace to cuddle up by... and Cito, who will knock down the tree in a matter of seconds (Mama, if you're reading this - be warned, Cito loves playing with Christmas decorations). 

Our little tree is such a perfect addition to our home. It is such a welcome reminder of how wonderful life is - getting to share in the joy of the season with Didz, and beginning to create our own collection of holiday memories.