Friday, November 29, 2013

Giving Thanks.

Thanksgiving is such a wonderful holiday. A whole day of being thankful with your loved ones, eating delicious food, and sipping some fantastic drinks? AND there's a parade, a dog show, and football on TV? Sign me right up.

Our decorated hearth and fire going!
This year was extra special because Adam and I hosted dinner (for ten family members) for the first time. Overall, I think we did well and everyone enjoyed themselves! We deviated slightly from our planned menu, but flexibility is key right? The turkey moved from freezer to fridge on Saturday night, and I think next time we'll take it out a day earlier as he was still ever-so-slightly frozen on Thanksgiving morning. Nothing a little bath wouldn't fix!

Adam and his kitchen helper.
Dinner was planned for 3PM, so we muched on appetizers while cooking. Mom brought over two of these beautiful pumpkin pies, and I served up simple cheese and crackers.

What really makes holidays special in my family is stuffed ham. This is a delicacy found only in the southern Maryland, so it's a staple on special days like Thanksgiving. Simply put, it's sliced corned ham stuffed with kale, cabbage, spicy stuff, and just general goodness. Frankly it's probably kind of scary if you've never seen it, but if you ever see this on a dinner table, do not pass it up. It's absolutely fantastic, and even better the second day on sandwiches. 

I may or may not be salivating right now. 
Sticking to a schedule definitely helped me prepare not just for the meal, but for getting it on the table on time. The weekend before, I had made a list of little things I could do throughout the week to cut down on prep the day of. I chopped veggies, made graham cracker crusts, and sliced cheese a few days in advance. For the day of, I simply counted backwards from dinnertime to figure out what needed to be done when. 

Adam carving his first turkey
Important tip: Don't forget to allow 30 minutes at the end for the turkey to rest! This actually is the perfect time to make your gravy, hopelessly burn bake your rolls, and heat up casseroles in the oven. The schedule was instrumental in enjoying the holiday while hosting. I think it is a tradition we'll be happy to repeat each year! 

Perfect cheesecake, recipe here. Hint: skip the waterbath. The topping will cover any cracks anyway.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

Happy 25th, Adam! (And a to-die-for sangria recipe)

Tonight we're celebrating Adam's 25th birthday with a few friends. We haven't hosted in months because of the wedding and crazy busy schedules, so we're both looking forward to having some people over, relaxing, and catching up.

Since we'll also be hosting Thanksgiving dinner in just a few days, I wanted to keep things low-key for Adam's birthday. The holidays are a marathon, not a sprint, folks. But of course, I couldn't resist conjuring up a new drink! 

Apple cinnamon sangria
Keeping in mind my love of all things seasonal and my desire to keep it simple, I surveyed what we already had stocked up and made the best of it. And I have to say, this ended up being one of my favorite concoctions yet! Naturally sweetened, relatively low-calorie (who are we kidding, though), and yummy autumn goodness. I present for your taste buds' pleasure, my brand new apple cinnamon sangria recipe! 

Things you'll need*:
-1 bottle of white wine (I used chardonnay we received as a wedding gift)
-1 cup Mott's apple juice
-3 cups diet ginger ale
-3 apples (I used a granny smith, a red delicious, and a gala)
-1 TBSP honey
-1/2 TBSP cinnamon
-vodka to taste

Makes 4-6 servings - I recommend doubling!

1.  Uncork your wine and pour into a large glass pitcher. If you're a complete non-wino like me, break your bottle opener in the process.

Poor crooked corkscrew.
2. Rinse and cut up your apples into 1/2-inch squares. Don't peel them, though! You'll want the color of those peels to make your sangria look as good as it tastes. Immediately put the apples into the wine to keep them from browning. 

3. Add apple juice, ginger ale, honey, and cinnamon to taste. A note on the ginger ale: don't add it yet if you prefer a more carbonated sangria. I like mine flat and more punch-like, so I added the ginger ale right away.

4. Refrigerate overnight or for at least 7 hours. This helps the flavors really blend together and infuse with one another. To kick up the proof a bit, add vodka to taste.

5. Enjoy! If you haven't added the ginger ale yet, go ahead and add it just before serving. 

*Please note, all measurements (besides the wine and apples) are totally approximated after the fact. My cooking method is to add stuff until it tastes right, which drives Adam crazy. He's a by-the-book kinda guy.

This drink is perfect for Thanksgiving! If you haven't finalized your menu yet, I highly recommend giving this a try! 

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Cozumel: Where Bathing Suits are Acceptable Wedding Attire

I'm finally almost caught up with blogging! Yayyyyy!

This month, Adam and I were thrilled to attend the first weddings since our own: his best friend's, and my dad's! Unfortunately, they were on the same weekend. IN DIFFERENT COUNTRIES. We couldn't possibly miss either wedding, so we split and attended the respective weddings solo. I was beyond bummed to be away from Adam on what would've been a romantic vacay, but I couldn't stay sad long because I was headed off on a 4-day cruise to Cozumel with 50 of our family members and dad's friends! 

Carnival Liberty, front, docked in Cozumel
This was truly a trip of a lifetime. Getting to spend four straight days with so much of our family, all while celebrating my dad's marriage, was a once in a lifetime opportunity. I was genuinely sad that Adam was missing out on this, but I still had a blast! 

We got to spend several hours exploring Cozumel before the wedding later that afternoon. A group of about 20 of us hopped in cabs and headed to Money Bar. I'd heard raves about this place while on our honeymoon just a short distance away in the Riviera Maya. 

This place was pretty neat. Situated right on a pretty little spat of beach, Money Bar served up yummy drinks and food, and even provided snorkel equipment if you wanted to go cool off and see some fish. Surprisingly, there were quite a few to see! 

Taken underwater with my cousin Dusty's iPhone. Pretty cool, huh?
From there, we headed into downtown Cozumel to Wet Wendy's for lunch. Wet Wendy's is well-known on TripAdvisor for their massive, overflowing margaritas:

Brain freeze for one, please.
Honestly, Wet Wendy's didn't do much for me. It took us a $50 cab ride to get there, and while on the way, I asked the cabbie what he thought of the place. He didn't speak much English and simply replied "Americanos." Roughly translated, we were heading to a tourist trap. Aww, shucks. After getting spoiled with authentic Mayan food on our honeymoon, I'd been jonesing for the real deal on this trip. It was good, don't get me wrong, just not quite what I wanted, ya know? 

The wedding was so, so pretty! There was a torrential downpour about an hour or two before the wedding (apparently that's the new family tradition), but it cleared out just in time. 

My dad's new wife walking down the "aisle"! I guess we have a thing for tough terrain, too.
The ceremony was short but so, so sweet. Apparently my dad's tears on my wedding day were just the precursor to his own wedding. I'm pretty sure he cried every day of the whole trip - but it's his party, and he can cry if he wants to! :) 

After the ceremony, we all hung out for a little bit and enjoyed some margaritas before heading back to the ship. 

That's me on the far left, then my two brothers, Dad's wife, Dad, Mom-mom, and my two sisters.
Oh and if you can't tell, those are bathing suit straps in the picture above. Yup, I have now officially worn a bikini to a wedding. But that's just the kind of wedding it was! Come as you are, even if you're rolling in from the beach bar. Dad even rented a churro stand! Talk about incorporating local flavor into your destination wedding. 

My little brother, David, waiting impatiently for the stand to open!
Getting lifted by some of the crazy men in our family
All in all, an amazing bonding sesh with the fam, and a great destination wedding! 

London Calling.

Adam and I got home from the honeymoon of a lifetime late Sunday evening on Labor Day weekend. Apparently, we weren't the only ones who had fun while we were gone:

I guess we were missed!
We spent Labor Day Monday relaxing, procrastinating unpacking, and opening gifts. I took off Tuesday as well to start the name change process. Right as I was walking out the door to head to the Social Security office, I get a call from my boss. They need me to go to London on SUNDAY for a work trip, so hopefully I haven't changed my name yet and my passport is still valid? Umm heck YES, name changing can wait a week or two!

I was so excited. Europe has always been a huge item on my to-do list, and you couldn't ask for a better city than London for your first solo European excursion. Sure, leaving a whopping five days after my honeymoon wasn't ideal, but this was London, baby! There was no way I was passing up such a great opportunity. 

I landed in Heathrow late Sunday evening and caught the train to Paddington Square. 

The Tube announcer lady has the most pleasant and soothing voice of all time.
Everything looked like Harry Potter. I resisted my urge to go straight tourist and prance around London in the dark, but only because it was late and I was exhausted. All of the cabs looked exactly how I pictured them to look: 

Pip pip, cheerio.
I gave myself away as an overexcited American as soon as I opened my mouth, and my cabbie was kind enough to humor me take me to my hotel via the scenic route. Which was actually also the fastest route because my hotel was in an AMAZING location! If you ever find yourself in London, I highly recommend staying at the Doubletree Westminster. It's located just a short walk from two Tube stations, and it's right around the corner from Parliament and Westminster Abbey! 

My hotel room, with a view of the London Eye! Couldn't fit it in the picture, though. Bollocks.
Oh, this was just my commute for the week. NBD.
Westminster Abbey
 I truly don't have any regrets in life, but if I was hard-pressed to pick something, I do wish I was able to travel more. Navigating my way around a foreign city brought such a sense of confidence, and I was pretty good at it! After just a day or two, I didn't even need to use my GPS app to get around. The Tube App was an absolute godsend as well. The Tube is beautifully simple once you get the hang of it. 

This isn't as complicated as it looks.
After I was done working each day, I liked to head to Oxford Street and do a little window shopping. It was here that I discovered the eighth wonder of the world that is Topshop. This store is ahhhhmazing. I also did typical Brit things in the evenings, such as sampling fish and chips (not a huge fan) and hanging out in pubs (definitely a huge fan). 

Discovered my new favorite drink. Unfortunately it costs a million dollars to ship to the states.
On the last day of the trip, I was fortunate enough to have time for a little sightseeing. Naturally, that meant a doubledecker bus tour and seeing the Tower of London! The history buff in me pretty much geeked out all day. Execution sites and royal jewels on display? Sign me up. 
That's where they keep the jewels. Mmmm jewels.

You don't want to go into the Tower of London that way.

Next thing I knew, the week was over and it was time to head home. It was an amazing week, but I was excited to finally get some down time with my husband! Skype just isn't as good as the real deal.
Until next time, London!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

Thanksgiving Prep.

It's no secret that Christmas is my favorite holiday. I love the decorations, the baked goods, and being able to use the word "festive" constantly sans judgment.

My spirit animal.
But first up is my second favorite holiday, Thanksgiving! This year is extra special because for the first time, because Adam and I are hosting the Big Dinner for about 14 of our family members. I'm a little nervous, to be honest. I don't even own a roasting pan yet, we have dining room seating for 8, tops, and I've never cooked a 20-pound bird in my life.
True to form, I came up with our extremely innovative fairly standard Thanksgiving dinner menu about a month ago. Here it is:

Vegetable Crudite (learned that word while wedding planning - score)
Cheese and Bread Plate

Main Course
Roasted Turkey with Homemade Gravy
Red Mashed Potatoes
Green Bean Casserole
Stovetop Stuffing
Mom-Mom Sheckell's Carrots*
Dinner Rolls

Pumpkin Pie
Apple Pie

*Secret family recipe. The recipe is: add sugar. 

Mmmm my mouth is watering already. Luckily our moms are helping us with some of the dishes, so it should be pretty manageable! That is, assuming I remember to take the turkey out of the freezer on Sunday...

We all know how this ends.
What are your Thanksgiving plans? 

Monday, November 18, 2013

Honeymooning in the Riviera Maya

The wedding was over in a flash, and soon it was time for our first big married adventure. We landed in Cancun Sunday afternoon, ready to see this resort we (okay, mostly I) had been daydreaming about for months. 
Secrets Maroma Beach did not disappoint. I was absolutely blown away by the natural beauty and friendly staff. Adam's only complaint was the lack of chicken nuggets, but somehow I doubt that's a problem for most people :) 

All photos personal unless otherwise noted.
Honeymoon champagne and a cork with our wedding date!
Showing off the new hardware.
We spent our time at the resort scouting wildlife, drinking way too much a normal amount of alcohol, and just basking in the glorious Mexican sun. There may or may not have been a substantial amount of Arrested Development jokes made, but that's no different from our everyday life. 
"This will keep me safe from the hot Mexican sun." 
While we LOVED the resort, hands down our favorite experiences were when we left the resort. Before the trip, I signed us up for two excursions with Local Quickies to swim with turtles, swim in some cenotes, do some zip lining, and take a sunset cruise by the Mayan ruins in Tulum. If you ever find yourself near Playa del Carmen, Cancun, or Playa Aventuras, we HIGHLY recommend booking a tour with these guys. It's not touristy at all - it's more like hanging out with friends who happen to know all the best local spots. 
Tulum, one of the most stunning and well-preserved beaches in the world. 
Getting introduced to one of our new favorite foods - cochinita pibil. (photo by Local Quickies)
Checking out sea turtles in Akumal. (photo by Local Quickies)
We really appreciated all the precautions taken to keep these animals safe. (photo by Local Quickies)
Now, the sunset cruise-around-the-ruins portion of this tour is *not* typically a booze cruise and is usually very family-friendly. We were warned in advance that a large bachelor party would also be on the cruise that day, to which we said, bring it on! The drinks flowed all afternoon, and soon an unexpected storm rolled in. 
You call that a storm?!
I'm sure we were totally safe the whole time, but we could see several waterspouts forming off in the distance. Normally this would be cause for concern but when you're on the adventure of a lifetime with your brand new husband and have about 27 drinks in you, waterspouts are celebrated.
The crew easily got us past the storm and we made it back to the harbor safely. I remember distinctly thinking at the time that this was one of the best days of my life, and it absolutely was. Adam and I had so much fun that day; there are just no words for it. 
Drunken catamaran life chats. Highly recommend. (photo by Local Quickies)
Enjoying drinks on our last day at Secrets Maroma Beach.
Hopefully we get to go back someday! It was truly the trip of a lifetime. 

Wedding Budgets: Where to Save

Now that I've talked about where to splurge in your wedding budget, it's only fair to discuss where we saved to make up for it. Here goes:

1. Favors. We scrapped 'em altogether, and as far as I know, no one noticed. Frankly, I've never received a wedding favor that made me go YES I MUST HAVE THIS. Instead, we spent a little more on food and cake, and that was the right choice for us. 

All photos by Melissa Manzione Photography.

Crab balls > favors, in my book. ALWAYS. 
2. Wedding bands. This is probably controversial and many people don't even include it in their wedding budget, but if you're looking to cut costs, it's a great place to trim the budget without anyone noticing. Here's my take: you only have xx months of an engagement to plan and pay for a wedding. But, you have your whole life to upgrade a wedding band, IF you so choose! We spent very, very little on our wedding bands and it has never bothered me. If anything, I feel better knowing that they can be easily replaced if lost. And honestly, we shopped around a TON for the perfect wedding band for me, and nothing looked as great next to my vintage engagement ring as a thin, inexpensive band does. 

Love this shot of our rings together.
3. Decor. Think back to the last wedding you attended and name five details that you can remember. It's hard, right? Now imagine you aren't planning your own wedding, knee-deep in Pinspiration and taking copious mental notes at every wedding you attend. That's how your average guest will feel - they might remember the general vibe of your wedding (formal, relaxed, etc.), but mostly, they'll remember whether they had fun and ate great food or not. By all means create your vision, but get creative and find ways to do it without breaking the bank. And who knows - you may even uncover a passion that you never knew you had!

We had this bushel in our shed - perfect for a nautical wedding. Banner personally made.
4. Flowers. Flowers were tied for dead last (along with favors) on my wedding priority list, but I wasn't willing to scrap them entirely. I considered a few different routes for affordable wholesale flowers, but I ultimately went local. One of the perks of rural life is living near an Amish flower farm! I wish I could link you to them, but of course, they don't even have a phone number, let alone a website. For anyone within driving distance of southern Maryland, I highly recommend checking out Weaver's Cut Flowers in Mechanicsville, MD. Our flowers turned out beautifully, and we paid a fraction of what it would've cost at a florist. Of course we had to arrange the centerpieces ourselves, but it's really not difficult!

Speaking of floral savings - my bouquet was artificial! I think it held its own next to the real deals.
There you have it! Again, these are just my suggestions for where to cut costs. Every wedding has different priorities. Happy planning!

Saturday, November 16, 2013

Wedding Budgets: Where to Splurge

Everyone has a budget, and weddings are not immune to that. With skyrocketing costs in the wedding industry combined with a weak economy, today's brides (and grooms) want the best value for their money. To that end, I'm going to detail what's worth splurging on and what you can scale back on or eliminate altogether.
DISCLAIMER: These opinions are my own and are subjective to my own preferences and budget. Your priorities may be different, and that's okay! 
1. Photography. I cannot say this enough: do not skimp on photography. I could (and probably will) write an entire post on the importance of wedding photography, but like everyone says, your photos are your memories of one of the most important days of your life, preserved for the rest of time. This is no time to take a chance on someone who's never shot a wedding. If your pictures are terrible -or worse, LOST- there is no do-over. Do it right the first time and hire a proven professional. 

Speaking of photography: all photos by Melissa Manzione.

The color, the sharpness, the posing - ugh, I just love it. Melissa did a wonderful job!

2. The DJ. This guy (or girl) probably doesn't comprise much of your wedding budget, but the DJ alone can make or break a reception. Mispronounced names, mic feedback during toasts, inappropriate commentary, and poor song selections can instantly kill the otherwise good vibe of a wedding reception. Hire a great one who will keep the party going without putting the spotlight on himself.

A great DJ (and liquid courage) keeps the dance floor packed!
3. Alterations. I know what you're thinking - don't I mean the dress? Nope, and here's why: no one looks good in ill-fitting clothing. NO ONE. So if you blow your whole attire budget on the dress alone, you may be in for a shock when you try it on for the first time. Before committing to a dress, ask to speak to a seamstress about typical alterations associated with that style. As a good rule of thumb: lace, v-necks, and keyhole backs will need LOTS of tweaking (not that I know from experience...!). You'll feel like a million bucks if you're wearing something that fits properly. 

A lot of work went into that keyhole back. 
1. Anything that adds to the comfort of your guests. I know that's broad, but it's intentional. At the end of the day, your wedding ceremony is all about you and your fiance, but your reception is all about your guests. An open bar (in some form), great food, popular music, delicious cake, a photobooth, etc. all add to your guests enjoying themselves at your wedding. Of course, we're all limited by our budgets. So when making choices about where to spend the wedding budget, ask yourself: will my guests enjoy this? As long as you're doing the best that you can to take your guests' comfort into consideration, a great wedding can be thrown on any budget.

Next up, where to save money in the budget!