Manner wafer biscuits: the best damn wafer biscuit in the whole world from Austria

Until I was 28 years old, I had no idea why wafer cookies/biscuits were so popular. My grandma had quite a sweet tooth, so we always had all kinds of packaged cookies at home growing up. This vast cookie selection included wafer biscuits, which I never really understood. The ones she used to buy always had a weird, cardboard-like texture, seemed semi-stale, and were rarely satisfying in the least bit. The flavor was always muted, some form of vanilla or chocolate, and I always wondered how anyone could think these things were tasty. They seemed like the kind of cookie you’d eat when you were just hungry and needed something to eat, rather than something you looked forward to eating because of how delicious it was.

Then, while in Vienna, Austria, during our European Thanksgiving trip in November 2014, my outlook of the wafer biscuit changed forever. Every market or grocery store we went into had these Manner wafer biscuits on display in this bright pink packaging that was hard to miss. The packaging was simple: bright pink with a picture of the wafer biscuits along with whole hazelnuts, along with the name “Manner” written in cursive letters, with the Vienna Rathaus in the background. I figured it couldn’t hurt to try them, so I bought a few packages. They were also super cheap — one of the few items in Austria at the time I actually thought WERE cheap.

I opened a package and took one bite… and was wowed. Each layer of the wafer biscuit was super thin, very crispy, and the hazelnut flavor was extremely distinct within the chocolate. There’s no way that if you knew what hazelnut tasted like that you wouldn’t know there was hazelnut in those thin chocolate wafers. And in that moment, I realized that it wasn’t that I didn’t like wafer biscuits… it’s that I just never had the opportunity have a REALLY GOOD wafer biscuit. None of the wafer biscuits I’d had to date came even remotely close to how delicious this one was, in both taste and texture. In that moment, I’d had finally had a delicious wafer biscuit — one that I’d be loyal to forever.

Manner has several other flavors for their wafer biscuits, including lemon and coconut, but I’m an originalist with these wafers and prefer the hazelnut. Plus, I just love love all things hazelnut chocolate. I read more about Manner after I had these. While they do distribute to over 50 countries around the world, including the U.S., of course the biscuits cost more elsewhere outside of Austria. To this day, it is still a family-owned company headquartered out of Vienna with another production location in southern Austria. The company is named after Josef Manner, the founder of this delicious version of the wafer biscuit.

So when we did that six-hour side trip to Vienna from Bratislava on Friday, we saw a Manner shop, and I knew we had to go in and check it out. I picked up a few Manner biscuit packages, along with some chocolates you buy by the weight. Although it was a small purchase, it made me so, so happy. Manner made me realize how delicious a wafer biscuit could really be. And that’s really how I see most people’s perspectives on what they like and dislike with food: many times, it’s not that we don’t like X food; it’s actually that we haven’t had the best version of it. That’s my optimistic side when it comes to all things edible.

Quirky statues in Old Town Bratislava

One of the quirky things I learned about Bratislava is that in an era post Communism and after Slovak independence, the local government wanted to change the image of Bratislava to be more welcoming and to bring people back to the old town district. To do that, they decided it would be fun to install a bunch of quirky, thought-provoking sculptures and statues, which included the very famous Cumil the sewage worker. “Cumil” in Slovak means “watcher,” — he is alternatively known as “Cumil the peeper” or “Cumil the Sewage Worker”, as he appears with his head poking out of a sewer just a block away from the main square.

Kaia found Cumil particularly curious. She kept staring at him and walking around him, and even kicked him once or twice, likely to see if he were real. It was a fun, unique sight during our Bratislava trip, and one that was definitely different from most statues we see during our travels.

Stara Trznica – The Old Markethall in Bratislava

While we do a lot of research for our trips regarding where to see and eat, inevitably, what also happens is that planned restaurants don’t always work out because of vacation closures or no open tables, or we happen to be in a different area where we didn’t map anything for food. Other times, we stumble upon hidden or local gems just by walking around and keeping our eyes wide open. While walking in Bratislava on Friday morning, we came across the Stara Trznica, or the old market hall of Bratislava. It’s a restored market hall, originally built in 1910, that’s also used for various cultural events, that also holds a weekend farmers and local street food markets. Since the farmers market would be open the next day, we came back on Saturday morning to check it out. It was one of my favorite things that we visited and enjoyed while in Bratislava. The entire place had a real locals feel. The market hall had two levels: the main ground level had all the food and farmers vendors, while the second level had arts/crafts/music vendors, plus a large space for children’s performances and a children’s play area complete with bouncy castles and such (which Kaia loved and was mad that she couldn’t stay all day at!).

We got to enjoy both levels and sampled a lot of delicious things, including freshly made crepes (they are huge here in Bratislava! Though appearance-wise, they are typically rolled), fruit and poppyseed-filled strudel, honey wine (medovina), mulled wine, and Slovakian pastries. There was one vendor in particular I made a beeline for that had a long but quickly moving queue: Pekarenske Vyrobky, a bakery stall that had endless tantalizing pastries. I had a difficult time deciding which ones I wanted, but in the end, I chose two: a moravsky kolac and a cokoladovo. The morvasky kolac was a flat round bready pastry topped with a thick layer of plum jam, sweetened poppy seeds, and blobs of sweetened soft cheese. The cokoladovo was a huge, rounded, large-mug-shaped pastry that was twisted and croissant-like, with a very smooth, dark, not-too-sweet chocolate swirled throughout it. While I enjoyed the moravsky kolac, I was totally obsessed with the cokoladovo: I couldn’t believe how pillowy and soft the dough was, and I really, really loved the chocolate in it, which really was not sweet at all. At first, I felt a little confused and was unsure whether it was really chocolate. But I realized it was chocolate, just very dark and not as sweet as I am used to in pastries. Chris was obsessed with the entire market vibe and all the drink vendors. We were also shocked to see how cheap all the Slovakian wines were. If you wanted a glass at any of the stalls, they were no more than 1.50-2 euros for a generous pour, which many people were partaking in. A full bottle was usually around 11-12 euros, all locally sourced and made.

I loved this market so much. I loved the family-friendly vibe and all the samples and all the local foods. I loved how friendly all the vendor workers were. I even liked the bathroom setup, which was super clean, cleaned every hour, and the large, cushy changing table that I used for Pookster. I wish we could have spent more time there to eat and sample more, but alas, so much to eat and see, with so little time.

Trdelnik (aka baumkuchen or chimney cake) in Bratislava

As you can probably imagine, every time we take a trip, whether it’s to Poughkeepsie or Boston or Bratislava, I always spend a good amount of time researching what to eat and where. I want to know what local traditions and foods are and what regional specialties we can seek out and taste. One of the things that came up in both Czechia and Slovakia was trdelnik, which is a round, hollow baked cake that is wrapped around a stick, rotated and baked, then rolled in sugar, cinnamon, nuts, and other toppings. When I saw photos of trdelnik, I immediately remembered seeing it virtually at every Christmas market we’ve ever visited throughout Europe in the last ten years (in Germany and Austria, it’s called baumkuchen). I just never stopped to try one. It seemed a little touristy to get it, and I wasn’t sure how good it would actually be. But given trdelnik originates in the general Czechia/Slovakia/Hungary area, I figured that this was a good time and place to finally try it.

We ran out of time to get it in Prague, so when I saw a stall at the Bratislava main square Christmas market freshly churning them out, I knew I had to get it. Thursday was the first night of the Bratislava Christmas markets, so it was quite quiet and there weren’t any crowds. Thus, I was able to walk right up to the stall and ask for a fresh one. I got it the traditional way, simply rolled in cinnamon and sugar. When the vendor handed it to me, it was still warm from the oven. I took one bite, and I was in love: the chimney was nice and thin, super crunchy on the outside, but soft and chewy on the inside. The cinnamon sugar coating was just enough to add a bit of sweetness, but not too much. Pookster started whining immediately when she saw me eat it, so I caved in and indulged her with some. I liked it so much that on our last night in Bratislava, I waited at least 15 minutes in a long line at the same stall for one just-out-of-the-oven (on Saturday, the market was PACKED, nothing like the first night of the market on Thursday!). It was SO fresh, piping hot and steaming when the vendor handed it to me. This time, I got it with vanilla sugar, and I loved it just as much. While the line was long and moved slowly because all the trdelnik were being made to order, it was fun to watch all the workers inside the stall rolling the dough around the spits, putting them into the open oven, and periodically pulling them out to check for doneness.

Now that I know the beauty and deliciousness of trdelnik, I have a feeling I will always get it now whenever I see it being made fresh at a Christmas market. It’s fun to eat and look at, and I loved watching it be made. Plus, I have a feeling Pookster is going to want more, too.

Lack of hospitality and lots of rudeness at Modra Hviezda in Bratislava, and why I love my husband

When I did a search for restaurants specializing in duck before our trip started, Modra Hviezda came up as a potential option that got rave reviews in Bratislava. To get to the restaurant, you have to climb up endless stairs (how fun with a stroller!), as it’s within the Bratislava castle complex. When we arrived without a reservation on Saturday afternoon, an older man (I assume he was the manager) popped his head out to look at all three of us, and I could immediately see his disdain when he saw the stroller. He asked curtly if we had a reservation, and when Chris said no, he replied by saying they don’t have any availability without a reservation for the next two hours. We were weirded out by this, though: when you looked through the windows, you could see a nearly empty restaurant, all tables open except for two two-tops in the back. I figured that the manager didn’t want babies in the restaurant and gave that as a fake excuse and that Chris was on his phone looking for a Plan B restaurant. But no, I was wrong: he was actually on the restaurant’s website making a reservation for 30 minutes from that point! He waited for the restaurant to confirm the booking, then insisted we go back and try to get in. I was not feeling great about this, as I had a feeling a confrontation was coming. We went inside when they originally said we could after Chris told the women there that we had a reservation, but when a female server saw the stroller, her face also fell and she said no in Slovak, then muttered some words to another worker, who went to get the manager.

What I envisioned would happen did: the manager came back and was extremely rude to us: “What did I tell you? There is no space for you here! You have no reservation!” When Chris said he did, the manager replied that he did not (always fun to contradict a customer), and Chris confirmed his name on their booking screen, to which the manager finally said, “OK, we cannot have children in this restaurant. It’s our policy.”

Chris asked why he didn’t just originally say that, and the manager replied that he didn’t want a fight. Chris replied that this was discrimination and that he’d report the restaurant. The manager said Chris couldn’t report the restaurant because their policy is fully in their right and on their website for all to know. Chris then snapped a photo of the manager’s face and said he’d write them up. As we were leaving, the manager said in a surly tone, “One day, in 20 years when your child is grown, you will realize how nice it is to eat a meal in a quiet restaurant without any children around.” Ummmmm, Kaia is just under two years old, so actually, for the vast majority of both our lives, we have known what it is like to dine in restaurants without young kids! That guy was not only rude, narrow-minded, and stuck up, but a total moron.

As soon as we had the first interaction with the manager, I didn’t want to give our money to an establishment like this even if they did relent on their stance. But Chris insisted on the confrontation out of principle because he hates being lied to. I understand why restaurants may not want children of a certain age dining with them, but frankly, this was not some fancy, expensive, white-table-cloth restaurant. It was just an average restaurant with a regular Slovak menu. It saddens me that rude people like this exist, but they are everywhere, and not everyone likes or appreciates children.

It was a frustrating experience. But the real moral of the story here for me is that this experience sums up exactly why I love Chris, and why at the same time, he can completely infuriate me. My love is true to himself, he sticks to his guns, and he refuses to allow his loved ones to be mistreated or wronged in any way. I love my (big) baby so much.

An impromptu six-hour stint in Vienna

Before we arrived in Europe, Chris suggested that we might take a quick train ride to Vienna from Bratislava to enjoy the Christmas markets there. We really loved them when we visited Vienna in November 2014 — they were likely some of the most spectacular and festive Christmas markets we’d ever been to, with the stunning decorations, the gorgeous backdrop of the fully lit up Rathaus, the bright twinkling lights, and all the artisan crafts and varied foods being sold by different vendors. Plus, it would be different this time with Pookster in tow, as she could enjoy them. So late afternoon on Friday, we took a 1-hour train ride to Vienna and spent six glorious hours in Vienna. We visited the Manner wafer shop, which I don’t recall from nine years ago, but who knows, maybe it didn’t exist then! We admired all the Christmas lights and decor lining all the streets around Stephansplatz. We hopped from one Christmas market to another, all within walking distance from each other, and enjoyed local bites and gluhwein. This time around, I also noticed there were a lot more American voices than nine years ago. It could’ve just been me.

This time, I really admired all the little touches to the market to make them welcoming to young children. We took Pookster around the pathways to step up on the stools to see the little nativity and Christmas scenes lining the walking paths. She also saw the singing animals in the children’s area and enjoyed the Christmas music (and… threw a tantrum when we took her away….). She got excited when she saw the big Pepa Pig balloons with some of the vendors and repeatedly ran around the balloon area.

We picked up some Manner chocolate and wafers, a little train for Pookster, and a new handmade ceramic Christmas house to add to our growing collection (and discovered that they are no longer handmade in Germany, but now in Lithuania, likely due to cost of labor – what a surprise!). It was a quick and tiring trip, but a fun and beautiful one. It would be hard to imagine anyone visiting the stunning Vienna Christmas markets and not getting into the festive Christmas spirit. Visiting this Christmas market makes you fall in love with Christmas and everything happy it represents. It’s like you want everyone to experience the magic that is here; it just cannot be replicated back home.

Language and duck (!) in the Czech Republic and Slovakia

We took a 4-hour train ride from Prague to Bratislava yesterday morning. During the train ride, I thought about how interesting it was that when I was born, the Czech Republic and Slovakia did not exist; they were once a country known as Czechoslovakia; but what’s more notable is that if you ask anyone who identifies with either nationality, it was considered an “amicable split” (unfortunately, we cannot say the same for North Korea and South Korea….). And as I was studying basic words and greetings in Czech and Slovak, I thought it was also interesting that although they are two distinct languages, many words and sayings overlap. Plus, it’s similar to how if you speak Cantonese, you can also understand some Mandarin because of overlap of sounds. So even if someone is speaking Czech to someone who is speaking Slovak, both can understand each other and converse without ever properly speaking the other’s language. So, if you want to say “thank you” in Czech, it’s “dekuji,” but in Slovak, it’s “dakujem.” The sound is similar and if you say it quickly, they can almost sound the same to an untrained ear.

While researching food for both countries, I was excited to learn that duck is a popular dish eaten during this time of year as we enter the colder months. We don’t have duck very often at all, and when we do, it’s usually Chinese style from our favorite Cantonese style roastery in Manhattan Chinatown. We had our first meal at a restaurant in the Old Town of Bratislava shortly after we arrived, and to our delight, both of the seasonal specials on the menu included duck. The first was a seared duck breast served with duck au jus, pumpkin puree, and oddly enough, crumbled gingerbread. The second was fried duck pirohy (dumplings) served with two dipping sauces. We also ordered garlic soup with egg “noodles” (they were shredded omelet strips), which is a popular Slovak dish, as well. All our food was washed down with a local Slovak beer (beer is just as refreshing and delicious in Slovakia as it is in the Czech Republic!) and a hot pear “lemonade” (not lemonade at all, but a warm fizzy dink with pear juice and warming autumnal spices). The dishes were all delicious: the duck breast was perfectly cooked, though I did wish the skin was a bit crispier; the duck pirohy really blew me away. They were clearly fried in duck fat to make them even more decadent, and when you sliced one of the dumplings in half, they were stuffed to the BRIM with shredded duck. There was certainly no skimping here! Chris I both marveled over how relatively inexpensive these duck specials were at less than 20 euros per dish. In New York, we’d likely pay double what we paid here.

Kaia didn’t really eat the duck breast, but she did enjoy the duck pirohy, as well as the gingerbread. It was a delicious first meal in Bratislava, followed by a trip to the main square Christmas market, which was our first Christmas market this season!

Jerusalem (Jubilee) Synagogue in Prague

On our last full day in Prague yesterday, we visited the Jerusalem Synagogue on Jerusalem Street. I originally put it on our list of places to potentially visit because it’s supposed to be quite a beautiful building both inside and out. This synagogue, built in 1906, is designed in the Moorish Revival form with Art Nouveau details. And it also suddenly dawned on me that despite being on this planet for almost 38 years now, I do not believe I’ve stepped into any synagogue even once. I’ve been in endless churches, cathedrals, and mosques around the world, yet no synagogues.

If you come as a visitor and not as a worshipper, you pay an entrance fee to enter. But when you enter, you immediately realize that the entry fee is completely worth it, as the inside is absolutely spectacular – so many colors and sparkles and detail every which way you turn. Plus, on the second floor, they have set up what looks like a museum exhibition detailing the history of Jews in Central Europe and what was once Czechoslovakia. They touch upon the Nazi German occupation of the synagogue as a place to store confiscated Jewish property. They give many personal accounts of famous Jews who have lived in what is now Prague, and also share horror stories of Jews constantly being shunned, excluded, or pushed out of cities and towns all over Central Europe since as early as the 1200s.

Living in New York, I am surrounded by Jewish people everywhere I go. You see synagogues in many neighborhoods, Jewish delis and restaurants every few blocks. A lot of major theaters and companies are run by those with a Jewish background. In New York, it can seem like Jews are the majority, and when you aren’t Jewish, you aren’t as accepted. But when you see exhibits like the one here at the Jerusalem Synagogue, you quickly remember that Jews, are, in fact, a real minority, and have had a long, painful history of being ostracized, excluded, and killed. Given the attacks in Israel and the turmoil in Gaza since early October, every time I’ve passed any synagogue in New York, I always see armed police officers wearing bullet-proof vests standing outside their doors. It’s always made me feel uneasy and a bit concerned for how Jewish worshippers feel coming in and out of their synagogues. But seeing this exhibit and this synagogue illuminated that Jews everywhere live in a certain degree of fear and distrust given their sad history of not having a place to belong, as well as having many generations of their families exterminated during World War II.

Traveling in Prague during Thanksgiving week with our growing toddler

While this is our second year spending Thanksgiving week in Europe with a tiny human in tow, it’s quite a different travel experience this time around with Pookster vs. last year. For one, she’s no longer drinking breast milk/formula, which also means we’re no longer rushing back to the hotel at specific times of the day for me to pump. She’s fully mobile and running around everywhere, so she doesn’t need to either be in our arms or pushed in the stroller. She wants all the delicious food we’re eating, especially the carbs, sweets, and pastries (we’re still trying our best to withhold most sweets from her). She’s also talking and singing up a storm, constantly taking in the sounds and sights and pointing out all her keen observations (she happily identifies colors, shapes, and animals, as well as objects she likes, such as trees, lights, etc.). When we went to a kitschy tap room called U Kunstatu, she not only wanted to run all over the place and push the chairs around, but she also took it upon herself to create her own entertainment by singing, chanting, and using the cardboard coasters as “instruments” of sorts. When we walked through a fun neighborhood in Prague of interesting shops and restaurants, she insisted we stop so that she could indulge in running through and throwing the large, goldenrod-hued autumn leaves that had fallen. Pookster was also eager to run around a large playground we came across and play on the different bouncy structures. She’s a lot more engaged with her surroundings now and taking it all in, whereas last year, she probably had no freaking idea where we were or what we were doing there.

There’s no sugar coating it: it can be very difficult to travel with a toddler. I don’t think anyone is debating that point. But what is so rewarding about it, once you have gotten through the tantrums and the kicking and the “acting out” at inopportune moments, is being able to watch toddlers their new, different surroundings and really embrace it all. I’ve loved watching her giggle in glee at something new she sees, or getting excited by all the Christmas lights. It’s also been fun to watch her try different foods that she hasn’t yet been exposed to. But the simplest things I’ve enjoyed are just watching her walk down a cobbled street holding hands with her Daddy, looking at all the things happening around her in wonderment. Those little sweet moments make all the tantrums and getting slowed down by diaper changes and blowouts worth it. These are the moments when she discovers the little things that make up life — and in the process, we are watching her grow.

Doll houses – for children and for adults

Today, I was texting with some friends about my friend’s daughter’s birthday. My friend shared that her three-year-old daughter was gifted a dollhouse, which you can custom design down to the WALLPAPER in each room. Given this, my friend would be taking this on as a mini project for her daughter to fully enjoy playing with this dollhouse. I thought it was really sweet — my friend wants her child to play with the dollhouse, and she’s willing to invest time in making sure the dollhouse looks just like what her daughter wants.

It reminded me that I still have a Greenleaf dollhouse that “Santa Claus” (aka my dad) gifted me when I was five years old, still unbuilt and in its original box down in my parents’ basement. I told my friend that if she wanted, she could have the dollhouse if she was willing to invest time in building and painting it. Otherwise, eventually soon, I’d want to sell it to make sure someone out there can actually enjoy it. I reminded her, though, that it’s not a dollhouse for playing; it’s actually meant to be a collector’s dollhouse for adults. My other friend didn’t understand what this meant, so I explained it to her; there’s an entire industry of dollhouses for adult builders and collectors, and this was one of them.

My friends were super confused: why did my dad gift me an adult collector’s dollhouse? Why wasn’t it ever built? And who was expected to build it and when? Was I expected, as a five-year-old child, to build it?

I’m no longer triggered by the memories of that dollhouse, as I’ve moved on. But for me, that unbuilt dollhouse is just representative of all the broken promises my dad made. He always said he’d build it. He never did. He always made excuses and said he was too busy. Finally when I was a teen, I asked one last time if he was ever planning to build it. He got mad, snapping back, “YOU can go ahead and build it yourself!” When an ex-boyfriend went up to him to ask if he could have it to build, my dad responded and said he was still planning to build it (no, never happened). So it just sits in its box, unbuilt, to be enjoyed by no one.

As an adult now with my own child, I get it: my dad WAS super busy. He was working a day job for most of my childhood along with managing and repairing three different apartment buildings and two rental homes. He rarely rested and was just constantly working to ensure we had financial stability. But part of me thinks he also did all that because he didn’t really want to spend time with us. He never played with my brother or me. We never had any real conversations. He was frequently irritable when we attempted to engage with him. My brother eventually gave up, feeling ignored, and decided to ignore him back…. that continued until the day my brother died. Our dad was usually doing his own thing when he was home. I don’t fault him for wanting a break from life while at home, but his negative attitude towards us as children, not to mention always saying he’d do things for us that he never actually did, informs how I want to parent my own child and how I want to set expectations to never let my child think my words are meaningless. I don’t want to become my mom or my dad with my own child. I want to be and do better… a lot better, so that when Kaia is an adult, she actually wants to willingly spend time with me and enjoy time with me, and she doesn’t do it out of obligation or guilt.

I want Kaia to know every moment of her life how much I love her and how much she is wanted. I want her to know I’m always trying to be better to her and provide her with the best, but not at the expense of quality time together. I want her to hear me say I will do something, and for her to expect that yes, I will follow through on it. I don’t want her to harbor resentment against me or think I’m just pushing her away from me. I want to be an example to her of how to be, both in attitude toward the world as well as actions. That’s my takeaway from my sad dollhouse memories.