Monday, December 29, 2008

Christmas Party at our Friends' home and New Year's Eve Party (Dec 12 & 31)

Some of our good friends, Rick and Stephanie Cohan, hosted a Holiday Party on December 12th for friends and Deloitte coworkers of Rick and Shannon's. There was a good turn out and we had exceptional food, mostly Mexican style appetizers since everyone seems to enjoy that kind of food; plus, we don't get it around Belgium very often. Stephanie made guacamole, quesadillas, chili con queso, pico de gallo (with tortilla chips), and had a few other hors d'oeuvres like shrimp cocktail, stuffed tortellini with a red pepper sauce, baguettes, cheese, grapes, salami, plus a few other things I'm sure I'm forgetting! I was in charge of making the Christmas Cookies because most people know I have a sweet tooth! I made pecan bars, cherry mash bars (my favorite, I had to import cherry chips from the US), peanut butter blossom cookies with peanut butter cups in the centers (once again the reese's peanut butter cups were imported from the US!) and finally frosted sugar cookies which my neighbor, Kleodaj, helped me decorate. It was fun baking up a storm that week; it really put me in the Christmas mood and made me remember the times back home I used to get together with friends and family to bake Christmas goodies. I also miss the cookie exchange that my previous employer, Nelnet, always organized.

Since I forgot to blog on our New Year's Eve outing, I thought I'd add it to this existing blog in December. Shannon and I were invited over to Rosie and Thijs's new home for a little New Year's Eve gathering. Besides all the dancing, singing and champagne (for those who could partake!), we enjoyed a gourmet meal prepared by Rosie and Thijs consisting of shepherd's pie, broccoli, carrots and some kind of orange dessert soaked in alcohol (mine was a 'virgin' dessert)...everything was delicious! In all it was a fun night and we met some really nice people. We actually already knew some of the guests like Vicky and Mathias, so it was good to see them again as well. I feel lucky to have met such good friends here in Belgium and thank Christina, my former French classmate, for introducing us! (I wish she was still around, but she moved back to Norway. We still keep in touch).

Me, Kleodaj and Stephanie in front of their cute little tree! (we didn't even have a tree this year!)
Elitza, Stephanie (Clark) and Rick enjoying some Belgium Beers (by the way, Rick is a Beer Nerd; he knows everything about Belgium beer and more with a little guidance from the book by Tim Webb, "Good Beer Guide Belgium"!)
Leah, Ryan, Peter, Nathan and Lou all sporting their 'special' beer glasses (Rick and Stephanie have quite an assortment of Belgium beer glasses while Shannon and I are just beginning our collection)
Devin, Lucas, Peter, Lindsey and Brittany chilling out (if you look close enough, you can see the Christmas Cookies I made on the 3 tiered serving tray)
Maisie and me

Before we headed over to Rosie and Thijs new home for their New Year's Eve gathering

Rosie and Thijs prepared a wonderful feast for our New Year's Eve dinner.

Saturday, December 20, 2008

'Weihnachtsmarkt': German Christmas Markets - Monschau & Aachen (Dec 6)

We decided to hit some German Christmas Markets one weekend since we heard they had some of the best in Europe. German Christmas markets, which are called 'Weihnachtsmarkt' in German, are outdoor markets held all over Germany in the month leading up to Christmas.

First we went just across the Belgium border to Monschau, Germany: a delightful small Bavarian-styled town nestled in a valley in the hilly forests of the High Fens region. There are several half timbered houses lining the streets along with a small river flowing through the village. There is a wonderful walking path around the village with the ruins of a tower on one side, and the ruins of an old castle on the other. In regards to their Christmas Market, it is small, yet one of the most beautiful ones in western Germany. They had a decent selection of booths which included items such as wood carvings, ornaments, toys, crafts, accessories, glass blown items, clothing, to a variety of German foods that could by themselves entice you to come back to this cute village over and over! Like normal, Shannon ate his share of sausages that weekend while we also tried some new foods: 'Apfelpfannkuchen' (similar to apple pancakes), 'Champignon' mixture (sautéed mushrooms with onions, garlic and bacon), 'Reibekuchen' (fried potato cakes served with applesauce) and Glühwein (mulled spiced red wine). Don't they all sound so healthy! It is truly difficult to resist all the wonderful smells one intakes at a German Christmas Market!

Next we went to Aachen, Germany to see what its Christmas Market had to offer. It was much larger than Monschau's and extremely crowded when we were there, probably because it was a Saturday evening. Its Christmas celebrations take part in the historic part of Aachen around the cathedral and the town hall where you can find numerous booths offering crafts, gifts and various tidbits. This beautifully decorated city on the market square has everything your heart could desire. We actually did not make it down all the streets since it was so busy and we had arrived fairly late, but we hope to make it back next year or at least visit the city another time. I've heard that Aachen has great shopping and is relatively inexpensive compared to Brussels, so I will be eager to visit again!

Here is a link to all the Christmas Markets in Germany:

Village of Monschau, nestled in a valley
Former Castle
'Champignons' (aka mushrooms which were being sautéed with garlic, onion and bacon) They were delicious!
Shannon enjoying some 'Champignons' (mushrooms) from a local store in Monschau
Shannon eating some 'Reibekuchen' (fried potato cakes with applesauce)
'Reibekuchen' booth in Monschau
Shannon eating his favorite food, Bratwurst!
Monschau Christmas Market
Monschau Christmas Market
Cute half timbered houses lining the tiny river that goes through Monschau
Monschau Christmas Market
Monschau Christmas Market
Cute decorated homes in Monschau
Monschau Christmas Market

Cute half timbered houses by river flowing through Monschau
Bakery in Aachen
More sweets in windows in Aachen
Aachen Christmas Market
Aachen Christmas Market
Giant Gingerbread at Aachen Christmas Market
Notice the massive crowd at the Aachen Christmas Market
Springerle rolling pins (I only know what these are because my mom and aunt make a ton of springerle cookies every year around the holidays. It's a German tradition in the Schroetlin family) more info on springerles
Of course I had to buy one since someday I'll be making them!
Aachen Christmas Market

Brussels Christmas Market, American Club Holiday Bazaar, Uccle & Ixelles Christmas Mkts (Dec 1 & end of Nov)

It's very common in the month of December and sometimes even at the end of November to see Christmas Markets spring up throughout the city. They are usually outdoors; though some are under huge covered tents. My neighbor's sister-in-law, Anna, was visiting from Serbia, so the two of us and her nephew (my neighbor's son) decided to head out one evening to the Brussels' Christmas Market downtown (Monday, Dec 1). They had several wooden booths with a variety of things for sale, ranging from Asian tea pots and cups to scarves, gloves and hats (plus a lot of knick knacks, ornaments, jewelry, wooden handicrafts, ect...). They even had a huge ferris wheel and skating rink along with a cute carousel for little kids. There were also plenty of food and drink vendors with the most popular being 'Vin Chaud' booths which is mulled wine (basically hot sweetened red wine with spices). However, we settled for some hot chocolate and Belgian waffles after walking around a bit and enjoying the Christmas atmosphere.

Besides the main Brussels' Christmas Market, I've been to a few others. At the end of November Shannon and I went to the annual Holiday Bazaar in Waterloo put on by the American Women's Club of Brussels which I'm a member of. There were over 150 vendors with an extremely wide selection of items including lots of polish pottery, wine & beer vendors, jewelry, purses (cork purses were interesting), American foods you can't find here, incense wooden smoking figures (very German), toys, handicrafts, clothes, ect...

On Friday, November 28, my neighbor, Klara, Anna, Stephanie and I also went to the Uccle Christmas Market which is one of the many communes within Brussels. Another weekend Shannon and I went to the Ixelles (our commune) Christmas Market which is where we bought my nephew's, Garrett's, Christmas present, a medieval wooden sword and shield. Though, we should have also bought my niece, Emma, a shield or mask to defend herself against her rambunctious brother! I already heard that the sword is put up for awhile! Just remember, Kathy and Clay (their parents), this was Shannon's idea!

(All the photos below are from the Brussels' Christmas Market...I didn't have my camera at the others)

Brussels Christmas Market with cute wooden booths set up all around Place St. Catherine
Notice the skating rink and huge ferris wheel behind me (we didn't go on either, but maybe next year...Shannon and I have actually ice skated one time in Brussels at an indoor rink. I love ice skating!)
It started to drizzle by the end of the night, but here's another look at all the booths
Anna, my neighbor's sister-in-law, and her nephew, Andrija, in front of the carousel

Vapeur Brewery experience in Pipaix, Belgium (Nov 29)

La Brasserie a Vapeur is one of the oldest steam-powered Breweries in Belgium. It's located in the tiny town of Pipaix where we almost couldn't find it because it wasn't as flashy of a building as we were expecting. Two other couples also came, Rick and Stephanie along with Nathan and Leah, who are coworkers of Shannon's and their wives. We all appreciate good beers and had heard a lot about this brewery, so we thought it would be worth checking out.

For a set price on the last Saturday of every month, the brewery has a public brewing along with the opportunity to eat a wonderful meal prepared by the brewery and partake in the beers they brew - an unlimited amount of beer, might I add! Also the meal is made with most of the brewery's beers. Since this sounded right up our alley, we decided to opt for both and we arrived at the brewery around 9:30 AM to watch the mixing of the wort in the mash tub. It was quite interesting to hear about the stages of making beer and actually see it in its earlier form. Some of the guys even tried the 'mash mixture' which I heard wasn't too bad; I wasn't brave enough to taste it! Here is their website for further details:

We all really liked their beers, especially the 'Folie' and the special 'Halloween Brew'. The food was fantastic as well, which included items like smoked salmon, pork, vegetable soup, bread, numerous cheeses, and a brown sugar tarte-like dessert...all made with beer, whether marinated or cooked in to it. We definitely recommend this outing to others who enjoy visiting breweries and sampling great food and beer!

Mixing of the wort in the mash tub (steam-powered)

Shannon and I in front of the mixture (it got really hot in there after 10 min or so)

Another shot of the 'malt mixture' (basically germinated barley grains)
When we first arrived
Adding different temperatures of hot water to make more of a malt/paste mixture. The goal of these stages of temperature is to break down the starch to make a simple sugar which can be assimilated by yeasts.
Shannon trying out one of the 1st stages of beer, the malt mixture! He said it wasn't too bad, kind of like oatmeal!
Up-close malt/paste mixture

Here is our feast after we witnessed the steam-powered mash tank. The gentleman in the picture, Jean-Louis, is the brewer and also helped make the meal. Some of the items included, smoked salmon, pork, vegetable soup, bread and numerous cheeses (most the food was made with their beers, whether marinated or cooked in to it...everything was delicious!)

Rick, Shannon and Nathan enjoying their beers (notice the Vapeur's symbol behind Shannon's have to love their funny pig emblem!)

Leah, me and Stephanie stuffed after our fantastic meal (Leah is holding the Halloween brew, which was awesome!) I was the DD, so I only sampled a few beers here and there.

Thanksgiving Dinner organized by American Club of Brussels (Nov 27)

Even though Thanksgiving is obviously not celebrated here (it's mostly an American / Canadian holiday), we were still able to enjoy a few festivities that come along with its special day. The American Club of Brussels hosted a Thanksgiving feast at the Sheraton Hotel for all those, mostly expats, who didn't want to miss out on the tradition (I believe around 100 people were there). Shannon and I along with some of his coworkers and their spouses attended the wonderful dinner (luckily, Deloitte covered the bill for its employees and spouses because we heard it cost around 67 euro which converts to almost $90 per plate!). Besides the turkey and stuffing, we had clam chowder as the starter, then sweet potatoes (Shannon's favorite), green beans and mushrooms, mashed potatoes and gravy, beets, corn casserole, bread and cranberry Jell-O. It was all really good until we arrived at the desserts which are usually my favorite part (and I think Shannon's as well)! They had a nice selection consisting of pumpkin, pecan, apple and mince meat pies. However, they tasted nothing like they're supposed to...oh well, it was a nice attempt! Thankfully, we had Shannon's Grandma's famous pecan pie and Lynda's peach pie while we were back in Nebraska recently to make up for the pies we had on Thanksgiving Day!

Shannon, me, Stephanie & Rick at the Sheraton Hotel for the American Club of Brussels Thanksgiving Dinner

Lou, Brittany, Leah & Nathan (Brittany & Nathan work at Deloitte)
Our Thanksgiving was pretty good, but nothing like my Aunt Marilyn's Thanksgiving feast I heard!
Lou, the nominated Turkey carver for our table, as his girlfriend looks on (each table received their own stuffed turkey)
Our desserts...they don't look too bad, but don't let that fool you. They were nothing compared to the pies that Shannon and I are used to back home! (Apple, Pecan & Pumpkin pie...false attempts at their true potential!)