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Ga Kho Gung - Caramelized Chicken w/ Ginger and Veggie Stir Fry

January 30, 2015
Since my husband has been away on business and El and Lil have been battling different bugs, our meals have been reheated frozen leftovers mostly.  I always make extras of things like Bolognese Sauce or lasagnas or shepard's pies... because it's just so easy to reheat in a pinch.  But last night, I felt motivated to cook the girls something yummy... something they like to eat.  Luckily, the girls are fans of MOST veggies and they love the savory sweetness of a good caramelized chicken or pork.

I found a good recipe to try from Danang Cuisine... I had all the ingredients... and a roast chicken tonight just didn't quite cut it.  I've become bored by roasts this winter for some reason...

The Ingredients

I cut up a fresh chicken into legs, thighs, wings, and boneless breasts cut into thirds.  I removed the backbone and threw that into a bag and into the freezer for a future soup stock.  Hey! Nothing goes to waste!

Next, peel the garlic cloves, peel and roughly chop the ginger and shallots, throw all of your aromatics into a chopper and pulse for a few seconds - voila! A beautiful, uniform mince!!  Man, do I love my little chopper.  It really makes the chopping of veggies or aromatics or nuts so easy and so quick!  I love it so much that I got one for my sister as a Christmas gift.

Prepping the Marinade

Add the minced aromatics, sugar, fish sauce, chicken stock, and pepper to the chicken in a large bowl.  Let it sit for 30 minutes.

While the chicken marinates, grab some veggies - I used broccoli, a carrot, a zucchini, an onion, garlic, and a handful of mushrooms.

The Vegetables

Chop all the veggies into nice bite size pieces, chop the onion into smaller size, and thinly slice the garlic. You are going to do a timed dance with this stir-fry... you can't throw everything in at once because not everything cooks at the same rate.  Now for the Do-Si-Do...

Heat a few tablespoons of olive oil in a pan.  Add the chopped onion and cook on medium high til softened.  Then add the carrots, cos let's face it, those will take the longest.  Cook for a few minutes, then add the chopped broccoli stalks (not the florets).  Cook for a few more minutes, then add the sliced garlic.  I waited for a little to add the garlic.  Typically, they go in after the onions... but I have a bad habit of burning the garlic... so I waited til after the hard stalked veggies got a little softer and then added the garlic.

Cook for a few minutes, then add the broccoli florets.  At this point, things got a little dry and sticky in the pan, so I added 1/4 C of chicken stock to loosen things up and add some steam to help cook the veggies.  Cook for a few minutes and then add the chopped zucchini, and finally the mushrooms.  Add each veggie after a few minutes of adding the previous veggie.  Add some salt and pepper to taste.

In the end, add another 1/4 C of chicken stock, give it a good stir and loosely cover to further fry/steam the veggies.  Keep an eye out on the coloring.  I find that a complete cover of the veggies leads to some really yellow-ish veggies... and nothing is less appealling than that!  So the cover I used was slightly smaller than the pan, which lets the veggies continue to steam but not get over steamed, if you know what I mean!

Put the pan onto low heat and let it gently finish cooking while you get back to working on the chicken.
Heat 1 Tbsp of oil and 2 Tbsp of sugar in a medium sized pot.  Watch the sugar go from white to a dark amber.  Once it starts to smoke and the color is right, throw in the marinated chicken pieces (watch out for the frantic sizzle!) and cook over medium heat til there's no pink showing.  The coloring of the chicken will gradually turn to a lovely caramelized brown.

Once ready, add the 1.5 C of chicken stock and let it cook for 30 - 40 minutes.  The stock will reduce by a third.  The broth will go from a cloudy, watery soupy consistency and reduce down to a nice caramel color sauce.  Spoon out any foam or scum that floats to the surface.

Keep cooking til you get to a saucy consistency... this isn't a soup we are aiming for.  You want to be able to spoon that yummy sauce all over everything because it's soo good!

In the 30 minutes you are waiting for the chicken to finish, make yourself a pot of steaming white rice.  Give the veggies a stir here and there.  Then, voila!, everything will be ready to be plated or set on the table at the same time.

Dinner for Three Girls

This meal definitely makes me feel good - it's yummy, the girls love it, i feel good that the meal is healthy and balanced, and I know my mom would be proud of me to continue the Vietnamese food traditions in my family.

And luckily, this is one of those dishes that I can get a second night of dinners out of... because, lo and behold, now I have this pesky bug... and I definitely won't be up for cooking later tonight.  Achoo!!!


A Taste of Savannah in Austria

January 29, 2015

On my recent trip back home this past Christmas, I remembered my favorite bakery that I worked at as a teenager - Gottlieb's Bakery.  It was a Jewish bakery that was well loved by the community.  It was established in 1884 by Jewish Russian immigrant, Isadore Gottlieb... on the corner of York and Jefferson Streets.

They moved and expanded several times.  I was fortunate to work at one of their newer locations.  It was my first job, and they were always so kind to me.  Unfortunately, they shuttered the bakery doors in the Nineties.

The memory of the original bakery lived on in the namesake restaurant that Mr. Gottlieb's sons opened - backed by culinary expertise from all along the East Coast and by the old and treasured recipes from the bakery.  Unfortunately, I found out on my last visit that it also shuttered its doors. Very sad. 

My biggest memory of Gottlieb's was me running next door after Mass ended to pick up a few of their Chocolate Chewies.  These cookies were famous.  They were, in short, flourless chocolate cookies with a smooth, meringue-like shell with a chewy center studded with chopped pecans.  They were incredible.

With my husband off on a business trip and El and Lil sick with a bug,  I did what any mom would do... I baked some cookies!

And not just any cookies, mind you,  but cookies that would transport me back in time to when I was a young girl back in Savannah, Georgia... And somehow, bring a little of Savannah to me here in Austria.

I found a recipe I liked from Frances Janisch. There are quite a few others out there. Also, I'm sure I have the original recipe somewhere but I just didn't have the motivation to search for it.  So, I stayed with Frances's recipe.

Right off the bat, I must tell you I used sliced almonds instead of pecans... A deviation from the original with minimal disappointment.

Sift the powdered sugar and salt.

Then, sift the cocoa powder.

Mix slowly with whisk or fork... This stuff flies around otherwise.

Stir til it looks like brownie batter.

Add in your nuts.

Pour the batter by spoonfuls onto parchment paper.  These cookies have also been called 'puddle cookies' and now I see why. 

Be sure to give them space or they could look like this:

Mr. Gottlieb is laughing at me!!  (And now you are, too!!)

Bake them for 10-14 min in a pre-heated 350 deg F oven.  Don't over bake.  If you take them out and they are a little bit soft, don't worry,  they will harden as they cool. 

Enjoy with a glass of milk.  Here's to you, Mr. Gottlieb!!

As for my thoughts on these cookies, they were delicious and definitely gave me the warm nostalgic hug I needed today...  But the cookies, although delicious, were not structurally as I had remembered. 

My cookies turned out more hollow from the underside while I remember the original cookies being more full throughout.  I noticed a few recipes that added flour to the mix and maybe that makes the difference.  I don't fault the recipe I used... it's probably something from my end.  But the saga continues!!

I'm going to try again real soon.  Now, what to do with my two orphaned egg yolks??? Hmmm...  I feel a wave of French shortbread cookies coming - Chocolate Ginger Breton cookies, to be exact!  I'll keep you posted!

If anyone is interested in reading the whole history of Gottlieb's Bakery, there's a book for you!  I think I'll pick one up too, because there are a ton of other delicious recipes for breads and sweets.  Their Challah was to die for!


When the cats away... The mice stay indoors!

January 28, 2015
This morning in the wee hours, my husband hopped on a plane to Paris for work, and the girls and I hunkered down for a second day home from school (thank you, stomach bug!).  We awoke to find the world outside snowy and white!!

It takes a bit of planning to keep the girls from going stir-crazy inside the house... And so, after a brief search on Pinterest, I found a fun mid-morning activity for the girls to do.

Crystal Underwood had a great idea which combined the girls' love of painting with playing in the snow! And since they couldn't go out... I brought the snow to them!

I grabbed two glass baking dishes and filled them with snow.  The tools were whatever I could find quickly in my kitchen:

- a spray bottle
- two glass jars
- a turkey baster
- two medicine dispensers
- two Asian soup spoons
- a potato masher
- a set of watercolor paints
- some paint brushes
- some plastic cups from their toy kitchen
- a table cloth or cover

The girls had a fun time with this activity.

Here are a few other ideas for fun with snow:

- in the tub

- if you don't have snow

- if you need a little more 'action'

- if you need to liven up your playdough

- or for an added 'ew' factor


Tuesday Tidbits - Winter State of Mind

January 27, 2015

While we here in Tyrol, Austria, are seeing our own snowy winter, my friends over in the Big Apple are bracing for a greater snow storm.  Stay warm and safe, you guys!!

Here are a few links for those who need to kill time during your 'snow days':

- cooking up a storm for the storm

- the true family portrait captured

- cool, old Georgia ruins

- a rediscovered favorite

- further motivation for rock collecting

- a look at first world problems

- time-saving hacks for the pantry

 - an education in ramen

- saving a hidden gem in Brooklyn

 - our garbage dump on the moon

 - would you like a side of antibiotics with your entree?

- a few comfort casseroles to keep you warm

 - kitchen shape up ideas

 - there can never be enough donuts


Toddler Mittens from Old Onesies

January 26, 2015

I have been collecting a bag of old sweaters for a while now.  Not sure what to do with it other than donating them or dropping them off at our local second hand shop.  However, now that I've been on this kick to up-cycle any old clothes, linens, or just about anything that can be cut and sewn... I decided to make a pair of gloves for Lily.  And, honestly, last week they went outside to play in the snow without gloves... because their only pair of gloves was in their basket at daycare.  So, my next mission was to sew a few gloves for the girls and what better material to use than what I had at home just waiting to be put back into action.

Just grab an old pair of soft, cozy onesies and turn them inside out.  The one I used is a knit material.  Make an mitt outline of your child's hand and give it about a half inch extra space around the fingers and wrist.  The thumb gusset could use a tinier amount of extra space - you can gauge with your own eyes on this one.  

Cut out the pattern and pin to the pant leg.  Cut out a large enough piece from both sides of the pant leg.  From here, you sew along the edge - giving yourself 1/4" seam allowance.  Things may overlap a bit when you get to the area between the thumb and forefinger.   When finished, turn the glove inside out, and, voila, you have your first mitt.  I had a bit of a tough time getting into the tight turn between the thumb and forefinger... the seam opened up after turning it inside out.  So, I just turned it wrong side out and tried it again... and this time the seam stayed put.

If I had a serger machine, I'd probably do the seam edges a bit nicer.  But since I don't have a serger machine, I typically do a zig zag stitch afterwards to make sure the gloves stand up to constant play by the girls.  You can do this too if you'd like to strengthen the seams.

Either way, what a great way to use up an old, beloved sweater or onesie... and create a growing winter accessories collection.  It's hard for me not to look at a sweater or onesie and not anticipate it being outgrown and made into a set of mittens... or a hat!!  I'll save that for another project very soon!!

Knit Fingerless Gloves

January 23, 2015

Last weekend, I knew the weather was going to turn cold and snowy and thus, decided that I needed to knit a pair of fingerless gloves.  I'm a big fan of the fingerless variety because I am always in need of using my fingers for something - pushing strollers, swiping the phone, bagging up dog poo, or handing out cookies.  Taking a glove off constantly is just too much... and living in a house with two toddlers, I am always searching for a missing sock or glove. 

I had been looking for a pattern for some time now and put off knitting a pair of gloves for forever... honestly, I was just scared of doing the thumb gussets.  But necessity was the motivating factor here.

I didn't want a pattern too complicated... or too plain.  I found the perfect pattern with just enough detailing - a single row of cabling front and center.  Done.

As for the thumb gusset, I just closed my eyes and started knitting.  I figured I would deal with it when I got to it.  And really, it's not bad at all!!!

The pattern can be downloaded from Ravelry, a knitting network.  Thanks, Denise! 

Pho Ga - Vietnamese Chicken Noodle Soup

January 20, 2015
During the cold winter months, on days when it's cold and wet, a good bowl of soup is just what the doctor ordered.  I'm a fan of the chunkier soups vs the pureed soups (I get so hungry so fast after, don't you??!).  Since moving to Austria over a year ago, a good bowl of pho isn't often a phone call away or made lovingly by my mother... so, I've had to make it on my own.

I've researched several recipes on pho ga and  Christine Ha's recipe for her 'Mama's Chicken Noodle Soup' has gotten me rave reviews every time.  If you don't know about Christine, you must look her up.  She was the winner of the third season of 'MasterChef' and she's blind.  It's incredible what she does by feel in the kitchen.  Very inspiring!

The Ingredients

Printable Version - click here!

1 yellow onion - peeled and halved
1 piece (4") ginger - unpeeled and halved lengthwise
4 garlic cloves - whole and halved lengthwise
1 medium whole chicken - rinsed and lightly salted
2 star anise
4 whole cloves
12 coriander seeds
12 peppercorns
1 piece (2") cinnamon stick
1 Tbsp salt
1 Tbsp sugar
1/4 cup fish sauce

flat rice noodles
1 small red onion - thinly sliced
3 scallions - mostly green section, thinly sliced
lime/lemon wedges
fresh black pepper

First things first - broil the ginger, garlic, and onions.  I throw them on the highest rack in my oven and turn the heat on full blast (425 deg F).  The trio of scents that fills my kitchen remind me of my childhood home when my mom used to make this for us - ahhh!  This step is important because it greatly adds to the smoky flavor of the pho broth and not to mention the poached chicken.  I've read that you want 50% charring of the aromatics.  But as you can see above,  I barely got any charred bits (because of my oven).  Don't worry trying to get everything nice and charred.  If you do this process with a gas stove, then you will have better results.

Christine also roasts the spices over medium heat.  I skipped this part.

While the broiling is happening in the oven, I give the chicken a nice cold rinse and salt the exterior and interior.  Let the chicken sit while you go flip the aromatics broiling in the oven.

Place the chicken in a large enough stock pot to fit the chicken with enough space for it to turn and do backflips.  Fill with enough cold water to cover the chicken.  Cover with a lid and bring to a boil.   The first few minutes you find a bit of scum float to the surface.  Do your best and spoon this out.  After the first removal of the scum, add the remaining ingredients.  Christine says to put the seasonings into a sachet before putting into the pot.  I don't have a sachet and I'm also too lazy.  I filter out everything in the end with my fine mesh strainer. 

Let the broth come to a complete boil and after a few minutes, turn the heat down to low.  Let the stock sit at a low simmer for 40 minutes to an hour.  I flipped the chicken twice during this time and continued to spoon out any scum from the surface.

Remove the chicken and set it aside to cool slightly.  Once ready, remove the meat from the bones.  I use a fork and pull all of the meat off.  It doesn't need to be pretty.  Later, you will shred the meat further into bite-size pieces.  Put the chicken carcass back into the stock pot and simmer for another two hours.  Taste the broth and adjust for salt, sugar, and fish sauce.  Don't let it boil.

Once ready, use a sieve and remove all of the ingredients from the pot.  All that should remain is a wonderful soup broth, ready to be enjoyed.

Soak the pho noodles in warm water for ten minutes.  Bring a pot of water to a boil and add the noodles.  Boil for 2-3 minutes til al dente.  Don't over boil the noodles - better to be very al dente then too soft because once the hot soup broth enters the picture, soft noodles will fall apart.  You want to maintain a bit of 'bite' in the noodles... but not too chewy.  I know, I know... you gotta have a Goldilocks approach to this... practice makes perfect!

Grab a large soup bowl.  Place the pho noodles in first, then the shredded chicken, and then the broth.  Add the final garnishes and a some fresh ground pepper.  Let your guests add the hoisin or Sriracha sauce at the table.  Voila!

Chicken Pho for the Soul

Malfatti (Spinach & Ricotta Dumplings with Sage & Brown Butter)

January 16, 2015
I first tasted malfatti (aka gnudi) at a dinner party in Munich and fell in love with them immediately.  Even my husband, who isn't a big fan of anything green, was happily having seconds.  I knew right then that this dish would have regular rotation back at our nightly dinner table.

I recently made an attempt to recreate our malfatti experience back in Austria.  I researched around a little and found a recipe by Scarlett Gaus over at fork and flower.  The photos of her finished malfatti looked just like the ones I made and gobbled up before a photo was taken.  Malfatti transforms a hearty bunch of spinach into a deeply satisfying and comforting dish.

Photo Credit: Scarlett Gaus @ fork and flower

In addition to spinach, the other headliner for this dish was ricotta cheese.  My local grocer does not sell ricotta cheese.  So instead of running around to locate another grocer who carries ricotta, I decided to make my own.  I've heard it's super easy... so how hard could it be?  A little more research online and I decided upon Elaine McCardel's recipe for homemade ricotta cheese over at The Italian Dish.

Photo Credit: Elaine McCardel 

I had the whole milk, cream, salt, and fresh lemons.  Good to go.  I brought everything to a nice boil, stirred often, added the lemon juice and lowered the heat.  It was cool to see the pot suddenly change from a smooth to curdled consistency.  Chemistry in action!

When it was time to separate the curds, I didn't have a cheesecloth... so, I poured the mixture directly into a fine sieve/strainer and swirled it around with a spoon to help the whey go through.  I didn't let the mixture drain for an hour as Elaine suggested - ten minutes was good enough for me because I didn't want the ricotta too dry.  You can always tell by your own eye when enough is enough!  Then, I covered the ricotta and placed it in the fridge to chill.  Elaine says this will keep in the fridge for two days.  Mine didn't last the afternoon!

So, back to the malfatti...

Fresh spinach is hard to come by here in my little town of Hall-in-Tyrol but luckily, they sell frozen blanched spinach at my local grocer.  Thaw the spinach and give it a good chop when ready. I didn't do this for my first attempt and realized that no one likes to have spinach stuck in their teeth while at the dinner table.

I now had all of the ingredients.

First, I sauteed the chopped onions and garlic til softened and fragrant.  You'll want to do this step instead of just tossing them raw into the mixture because raw onions/garlic can be overpowering.  Then,  I added the thawed and rinsed spinach to the pan and sauteed for a few minutes longer.  I also added a bit of salt and pepper, a pat of butter, and a splash of white wine to season it a bit more.

I poured the spinach mixture into a large bowl where I added the ricotta and beaten eggs and egg yolk.  Next, a dash or two of nutmeg.  Stir til everything looks nice and consistent. At this point, you can use your eye and see if the mixture is shapeable.  If it looks a bit loose, add in a few spoonfuls of breadcrumbs at a time til you get a thicker, more shapeable mixture. I let this sit in the fridge for about thirty minutes to thicken a little bit more.

Ready? Grab two spoons and start making quenelle shapes with the mixture.   Need to improve your
technique? - go here.  Grab some wine and play a little music while you make your little dumplings.

Roll them in some flour and place them in an oven proof platter.  Brown your butter and add the sage leaves.  Take them off the heat and pour over the dumplings.  Put your platter in the oven and bake for ten to fifteen minutes.  When finished, sprinkle some Parmesan over the malfatti and serve with a warm baguette, a side salad, over some pasta, or with tomato sauce.  

. . .

Remember I mentioned my husband's non-love of things green?  Well, this is a great recipe because you can play with the ratio of the spinach to ricotta.  Next time, I will reduce the spinach and balance with a bit more bread crumbs.  You will soon discover that these dumplings can be all cheese and no greens, as per April Bloomfield.  Have fun with it.  

Amanda Hesser, from The New York Times, says we can freeze these babies for a nice, impromptu (aka last minute) dinner or lunch.  I must admit that I warmed up two of these and sandwiched them between a layer of roasted red peppers and a warm buttered slice of toast for lunch... splendid idea for anyone who is looking for a lunch upgrade.

Curious about the history of malfatti?  My internet search suggested that these dumplings originated in Napa Valley, California in the 1920's. In AMERICA!?   Theresa Tamburelli came up with the idea when she had a baseball team to feed and all she had was ravioli filling. The team loved them and requested more.  Originally, she called them raviolini but then appropriately named them 'malfatti' for 'badly made or a mistake'.  This was definitely one of the yummiest 'mistakes' in culinary history! 

Discovering the history or evolution of food is something that I love so much and can get lost in (sometimes for all day!)... and so imagine my surprise to find April Bloomfield of The Spotted Pig and her gnudi recipe... and a clip from The Mind of a Chef series where she makes her version for the late Marcella Hazan.

Photo Credit: Screenshot Capture from the video

Photo Credit: Screenshot Capture from the video

Gnudi (also known as the naked ravioli!), is another interpretation or variation of bringing the filling into the spotlight.  I could go on and on about all the different ingredients you could use... or the types of sauces... or ways to eat these dumplings, but I must stop here or this post will be never-ending! Buon Appetito!

Malfatti (Spinach & Ricotta Dumplings with Sage & Brown Butter) Serves 6

Print Version

1 medium onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, minced
600g (2 1/2 C) fresh or thawed spinach, chopped
200g (1 C) ricotta
100g (1/2 C) freshly grated Parmesan
2 eggs plus 1 egg yolk gently beaten
1/2 C breadcrumbs, use more or less as needed
1/2 tsp salt
4 + 2 Tbsp butter
200g (1 1/2 C) all purpose flour or semolina flour
a handful of sage leaves

Sweat and soften the onion and garlic in 2 Tbsp butter over medium heat in a pan.  Add the chopped spinach and continue cooking til wilted.  Add a splash of white wine, salt, and pepper to taste.  Pour the spinach into a large bowl.  Add the ricotta, Parmesan, beaten eggs and stir.  Add bread crumbs a little at a time til mixture is shapable by spoon.  Let mixture rest in the fridge for 30 min.

Preheat oven to 175 deg C (350 deg F).

Bring pot of salted water to a gentle simmer.  Do not reach a rapid boil or dumplings will fall apart.  Trust me, I know.  Using two large spoons, make your dumplings into the quenelle shape.  Roll each dumpling into the flour and place into an oven proof dish.

In a saucepan, heat the 4 Tbsp butter til bubbles have subsided.  Add the sage leaves and brown until leaves are slightly crisp.  Do not cook them til they are brown because they will continue to cook in the oven.  Spoon the butter and sage leaves on top of the dumplings and place the dish into a preheated oven.  Bake for 10-15min - you should hear a nice sizzle when they are done.

Dust with more Parmesan cheese and serve immediately with a salad or over pasta with tomato sauce.

Hello, 2015. Happy New Year.

January 13, 2015
Home Sweet Home

Today, it was El & Lil's first day back to daycare.

Today, because it has taken us five days to recover from jet lag.

Jet lag, because we spent three weeks in the States (Georgia, to be precise), for the holidays.

We have lived in the Austria for over a year now.  Last year we spent Christmas in Europe, so this year, we decided to spend it with my family back home.

I was surprised by the culture shock that awaited me. The moment I heard the captain's voice on board the plane was the moment a wave of what felt like relief came over me. Finally, after all this time of living completely immersed in the German language, there was a language that was familiar to me - English! I felt immediately at home... and I was still sitting on the Munich Airport tarmac.

Imagine my delight when the flight attendant asked if I wanted ice (ICE!) for my Coke. In the beginning, I grumbled to myself as to why I couldn't have an iced coffee or how "cold" just wasn't the same as "ice-cold".   Now, I have grown accustomed to having a cold beverage with no ice... and forgotten the refreshing feeling of an ice-cold beverage.

It took us nine and a half hours to land in Philadelphia. The girls were stellar passengers - playing, napping, eating and snacking on the plane food. We had a two-hour layover which didn't last very long since we had to reclaim and recheck our baggage and go through the security check points again. We, finally, made our flight to Atlanta where my family came to pick us up.

Finally, back in the States again!

It was a familiar feeling - like a favorite blanket, like old friends, or like driving on cruise control.

Speaking of which...

Driving on an American highway is way more relaxed than driving on the Autobahn. By far. On the highway, the speed limit is set to 65mph and most people obey it. People seem to mosey along the speed limit. Some faster, some slower.

However, on the Autobahn, where the speed limit fluctuates from 50mph to 75mph to NO speed limit. Drivers can't mosey along. All drivers need to be aware of other drivers around them... particularly those speed demons who come from no where and are on your bumper at any and all speeds above 75mph... flashing at you to get onto the slower right lanes. When there's an accident on the Autobahn, it's usually a very bad one... even fatal.

That being said, the quality of the Autobahn seems better to me. The lanes are constantly under construction and being re-surfaced... resulting in a smoother ride, which is more appreciated if you're driving at obscene speed. The highway to Savannah, I-16, definitely could use a re-surfacing... it was so bumpy! And the Atlanta highways were just as crazy in some spots - watch out for pot holes!

We spent the first half of our holidays in Savannah. Unfortunately, most of that leg of the trip, Lil and I were sick with a cold bug. Bah!

It was nice to spend Christmas with my folks.  The weather was fantastic - mid 60's, T-shirt weather. We had a big tree and lots of gifts and tons of food. My Mom spent so much time cooking and running around... that she's still at home today suffering from a yucky cold and exhaustion. Poor Mom!

Back home, Austria was experiencing its first big snow storm. Phew, can't say I'm sad we missed it.

By the time New Years Eve rolled around, we packed up our stuff and headed back to Atlanta where we spent the remainder of our trip. I threw a small party that night with old friends... struggled to keep my eyes open til midnight (I did it!)... and rang in the new year with old friends and new friends.

We took the girls to the Atlanta Aquarium. If you are ever in Atlanta, you have to check it out. It's the largest aquarium in the world! They have beluga whales! Huge manta rays! Whale sharks! Nemo! Dori!

Shopping back home was different to me now - the sheer volume of selections was astounding. I felt a bit of vertigo shopping in the grocery stores. I stood in awe in front of the yogurt section at the 50+ options I could buy. Back in Austria, my local supermarket is one-fifth the size and gave me only three or four yogurt options to choose from... honestly, it has really one or two options because the other two are just so sugary.

I must confess, I didn't maintain a good eating strategy, and thus, ate for nostalgic reasons, primarily. Chick-fil-A, McDonald's, BBQ, burgers, caramel popcorn, mom's Vietnamese food, Southern food, the list goes on. I gained three pounds on this trip. Oops.

El & Lil didn't eat very well during this trip... I think this shift towards more processed and heavily seasoned or sweetened foods affected their moods. They don't seem to have a taste yet for American foods. El was definitely throwing more tantrums than usual.

El got sick towards the end of the trip... so the remainder of my time there was hanging out with my sister, eating sushi (finally after all this time away!), getting my hair cut, and just mentally preparing for our trip back to Austria.

The flight was quick and lasted only six and a half hours thanks to this... but our jet lag lasted much longer... approximately five days... and we're still dragging our boots behind us.

But, 2015 is a new year... and there will be many adventures ahead...  so, let's get to it!