Austria (at last)

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Back in August I left behind good ol' 'Merica and took off across the pond to the country of my birth — Austria. 

Anyway, I have a hard time whenever I get home from Austria because to me it's not just a vacation. I go there to visit and soak up as much time with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins as possible. I'd be silly to ignore the fact that I get a lovely vacation and intimate view of life in another country while there. However, when I get back it's hard for me to want to edit the pictures or write a blog post, because the pain of leaving and not knowing when I'll go back is still raw.

Lucky for you, I have to make my annual photobook around this time of the year and that meant I had to edit my pictures and since they're done I figured I should share some of the beauty. As the first snowflakes fall here in Michigan, let's take a little trip back to the summer when the days were long and warm.

While I was there this time my plan was just to tag along with whatever my family was up to and not worry about doing specifically tourist things. I hadn't been over there in the summer in 7 years and somehow I had forgotten how beautiful the entire country is in summertime. I highly recommend just going over there and striking out into the countryside to experience the charm of the land.


Gmunden/Traunsee:

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Family and the Mühlviertel region:

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Innsbruck, Austria:

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Freistadt, Austria:

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Create: Austrian Linzer Cookies (+Recipe)

While I was growing up, my family didn't du much Christmas decorating during December. We saved that for Christmas Eve. However, we did bake up a storm in the weeks leading up to the holiday. Gingerbread, sugar cookies, "Linzer Augen" and a half dozen other traditional Austrian baked goods.

I remember hours of standing at the kitchen counter on a chair to help cut out hundreds of shapes out of rolled out dough. It was a sure sign that Christmas was coming when my mom became a cookie baking monster. 

This year has been a bit tricky due to our impending move. We haven't been able to decorate our house the way we did last year, so I've had a bit of a hard time feeling Christmas-y. On Sunday, I realized I could get into that holiday spirit without requiring a tree.  

Within a minute of asking my mom for her Linzer Cookie (Linzer Augen in German) recipe, I got the above recipe texted to me. I'm sure that's the same recipe she's used for over 20 years. Now if you're like me, you probably don't have a kitchen scale. Well, all Austrian baking recipes are measured in grams and decagrams, so as a good little Austrian girl I really should have had a scale. 

We remedied my scale-less condition with some left over wedding Bed, Bath, and Beyond gift cards and make a quick stop at the grocery store for a few ingredients.

The dough for these cookies is stupid easy to make. It's a standard, mix butter and sugar, add the egg, and then mix in the dry ingredients. You could probably even just mix everything together at once and still be fine.

I made the dough while super distracted by the snowflakes that started to fall from the sky and accidentally added the sugar to the flour. It turned our perfectly fine and I just scooped a bit of the sugar off the top and into the butter. No harm.

As with most cutout cookies, you do have to let the dough cool in the fridge for a while. I wrapped some gifts while waiting and Dave DJed the Christmas tunes.

I only have a couple cookie cutters and had to borrow the small ones from a neighbor. But the cutters I have are my grandma's or maybe even my great-grandma's, so I love getting a chance to use them.

As I rolled, cut, and baked those cookies, I realized how cookie making is intensely associated with this season in my memory. I had never thought about it before. But as snow fell outside, and Dave did a jig to a Christmas tune, I felt more cheery and Christmas spirit-y than I had yet. 

The trickiest part of these cookies is making sure they don't burn. The bake time is 7-10 minutes, and ideally they should just have a hint of brown around the edges. There was one batch that wasn't quite done, I turned around and came back less than a minute later, and they were all over-crisped and browned. I couldn't believe how fast it happened.

Once the cookies cooled, I spread them with raspberry jam and added the cute cutout upper piece on top. I used raspberry, but the traditional jam would be currant. It would be much redder than the raspberry and add a perfect blend of tart and sweet, I just didn't have time to find some.

Once I sprinkled them with powdered sugar, I packaged a couple up to give as little gifts. I kept about half of them and have been savoring them with a hot mug of something in the evenings. I love how melty, crispy and perfectly sweet they are. 

Linzer Cookies come from the city of Linz, Austria which happens to be the place I was born. For me, these cookies are even more special because of that.

I adjusted my mom's original recipe to be in American measurements instead of grams if you'd like to give these a try. They're easy and yummy. Turn on some tunes and cozy on up for a fun time filled with baking and delicious smells.

If you make them, please let me know! I'd love to hear about your adventures in the kitchen.

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Ingredients:

  • 2 1/3 c. flour
  • 1 1/4 c. almond flour or finely ground almonds
  • 1/2 c. sugar
  • 1 c. sugar
  • 1 egg
  • 1 pinch salt
  • jam, currant jam is traditional, but raspberry is common in the States
  • powdered sugar to sprinkle on top

Dough:

  1. Beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy, scraping the bowl if needed
  2. Add the egg and beat until combined
  3. Meanwhile, combine together the flour, almonds, and salt
  4. Add the flour mixture to the egg mixture and mix until just combined
  5. Refrigerate until firm, about 1 hour

Baking:

  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. On a lightly floured surface, roll half the dough out until it's about 1/8"-thick 
  3. Use a 2 1/2" round cookie cutter (or drinking glass), cut out cookies
  4. Cut out a small circle or other shape out of the center of half the cookie rounds
  5. Transfer rounds to a parchment-lined baking sheet.
  6. Gather the scrap dough, roll, and repeat
  7. Bake all of the cookies for 7 to 10 minutes, or until the edges are just beginning to turn brown. Keep a careful eye on them after 7 minutes as they can go from lightly browned to dark in less than a minute
  8. Let them cool for a couple minutes on the pan, then transfer to a rack

Filling:

  1. Spread  1/2 tsp of jam on solid cookies 
  2. Top each with one of the cutout cookies to make a tiny cookie-jam-cookie sandwich
  3. Sprinkle all the cookies with powdered sugar to finish
  4. Enjoy!

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Austria 2014: top 10

10. Speaking German — brushing off my Austrian accent and getting to use this language that usually just lies dormant in the back of my mind is always super fun. The first time I started to hear real Austrian German from the flight attendants on our flight over, Dave-man was a bit taken aback by how excited I got. German feels extremely homey and comfortable to me. I was grateful for a chance to enjoy my other homeland.

9. The Food and Coffee — Oh, the coffee. Just look at that foamy mug of heavenly coziness. I’ve never had coffee that had no trace of bitterness, had the perfect strength, and temperature every time. And my Oma’s cooking is the best. She’s the kind of Oma who will make sure the only way you can leave the table is if you’re beyond full.

8. Bumming through Christmas Markets — The smells, the food and all the interesting things to look at and shop for. The general cheeriness of the ambiance and crowds out to celebrate the coming of Christmas.

7. Shopping in cobblestone streets — Wandering through century old streets, ducking into little shops, and shopping is one of my favorite activities for a couple of hours while over in Austria. It’s so fun to look at the little things that are different and I enjoy a good injection of European style.

6. Seeing Dave-Man wear Lederhosen — See picture above. That’s worth a trip to Austria all on its own.

5. Seeing The Kiss — Oh. Nothing compares to seeing a favorite painting “in the paint.” There’s an essence, a soul that the real painting has. And The Kiss captivated us. Even Dave-man who admits to having “hated” the prints of the painting before seeing the real thing, could not resist this piece. He left Vienna having an appreciation for it. And I accomplished one of my life goals.

4. Salzburg — We went to this city twice, once with my godmother and her husband and once on my birthday. The little old city enchanted me. Everything is close enough to walk to, easily navigated and the walks between destinations are an exciting adventure in themselves.

3. Winter Wonderland — The day after Christmas it started to snow, and after three days of snowing, we found ourselves in a genuine wonderland. We headed to a forest with some sleds and an exuberance for life. This will be one of my favorite memories for decades to come.

2. Visit in the Alps — During the first week of our time over there, we spent 3 days with my godmother and her husband in a tiny little alpine village surrounded by mountains. It was a retreat mentally, spiritually and relationally. We enjoyed fellowship and encouragement. It was a wonderful time of renewal and I will treasure that time for a long time.

1. Family Time — And finally the real reason for the visit and the reason I love Austria is my family. I can’t express how amazing it is to be with my grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins. To feel comfortable because these people have known me since I was a baby. And to enjoy the peace of love. I tried to soak up as many small moments as I could and store them away for the months and years that I am apart from them.

Austria 2014: we're off

Well, this weekend we head out! The suitcases are pretty much packed and all the gifts are wrapped. In the end I would say 70% of my luggage is gifts and the rest is my clothes and stuff. So I succeeded in my  minimal packing. More room for chocolate on our way home!

I know alot has been said about how to dress for flying. As kids, flights were a huge deal — backpack full of goodies, the only time we ever got chewing gum and movies on the plane — and these days they are just as exciting for slightly different reasons. Thinking through clothes that I won't mind being in for over 24 hours, that are comfy for the plane, but cute enough for a stroll through Vienna I came up with this:

Essentially it came down to just wearing all my favorites. Plus a hat for hair coverage so I don't have to worry about it once it starts looking weird or smelling funny. I am also going to try using compression socks to see if that will help keep my feet from swelling. I've read that they are supposed to work. And though I don't love wearing my glasses, by the end of the trip I'm sure I'll have retired the contacts for my specs. Boots had to be included because they're the biggest shoe I'll take, though I'm dreading having to remove them for security checks. This whole outfit is currently in a zip lock bag ready to throw on after I stumble out of bed at 4am the day we leave. Yup, I'm way too organized about this.

I can't promise any posts or check-ins while we're gone, but I'll try. Have a great Christmas season!

Austria 2014: traditions

As I prepare Dave-Man and my own expectations for the holidays abroad, I've discovered how wonderfully unique my family's Christmases were — half Austrian, half American. I've had to identify what will be different from the typical American experience and by helping him understand what to expect can set us up for a successful time. As I've collected the info for him I've gotten so excited to experience a fully and truly Austrian Weihnachten:

Advent: During the four weeks before Christmas families make an Advent Wreath from evergreen twigs and decorate it with ribbons and four candles. Each Sunday in Advent, an additional candle is lit and a song or two might be sung along with a small devotion preparing for Christmas! When all 4 are lit, Christmas has arrived.

Nikolaus Tag: December 6th is celebrated by gifts and visits from St. Nicholas, either in person or through gifts left in shoes set in front of the door.

Christkindlmarkt: I've mentioned these before. They take place in most towns. Booths sell Christmas decorations, food and Glühwein (sweet, hot mulled wine). Larger cities have massive markets and draw people from all over the world to visit them.

Weihnachtsbaum: Traditionally the Christmas tree is set up and decorated on Christmas Eve. Decorations include candles, sparklers, gold and silver ornaments and stars made from straw.

Christkindl: Some children believed that the (Christchild) decorates the tree. It leaves gifts to children on Christmas Eve under the tree. It is depicted as a golden-haired, winged baby, who symbolizes the new born Christ.

Heilige Abend: Christmas in Austria truly begins on the afternoon of Christmas Eve when the tree is finally lit for the first time.  After a church service, the main Christmas meal is eaten on Christmas Eve. My family over there eats Steinplatte — a type of fondue/self serve hibachi — where different meats are cooked at the table on a flaming hot stone plate. Various sauces, breads and salads are also served. Dessert is Austrian Christmas cookies 'Weihnachtskekse'. After some carols and a reading of the Christmas story, gifts are opened around the Christmas Tree.

Stille Nacht: Silent Night, written in Austria in 1818, holds a special place in Austrian hearts as the ultimate Christmas carol. It's so special to me that I shy away from listening to the song before Christmas Eve and dislike most recordings I've heard of it because they just aren't good enough.

Neujahrskonzert: Every New Years Day in Vienna the world-famous classical music New Years Concert takes place during the morning. It's hosted in the 'Großer Saal' (large hall) of the Musikverein, the concert hall of the Viennese Music Association. The Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra plays music from the Strauss family: Johann Strauss I, Johann Strauss II, Josef Strauss and Eduard Strauss. It is famous for its waltz music. During the last piece played, An Der Schönen Blauen Donau, the first couple notes are interrupted by applause from the audience and the musicians then wish them a Happy New Year —"Prosit Neu Jahr!"

Growing up these celebrations seemed so ordinary. Only as I discover how different my experience was, do I realize what a neat and special heritage I have.