Creating Our Own Holiday Traditions

For the first time in my life, I'm not spending the holidays with my family.  At first, I wasn't sure it was something I/we could even do (without really disappointing our families...I have an unrealistic need to please everyone), but after getting screwed some unforeseen circumstances, it became necessary to stay home.   Since this will be our first holiday season without our families, I wanted to make the time extra special.  I began to think about what made the holidays so special in the past & it all boiled down to two things: traditions & togetherness.

As most of ya'll know, I was raised in a reform Jewish household.  I was Bat Mitzvah'd at 13, confirmed at 15,  president of my temple's religious school at 17 & graduated from our religious school at 18. My family went to services on every major holiday & often enjoyed the minor holidays, like Hanukkah, at various temple sponsored parties as well. Needless to say, despite my palate enjoying a shrimp cocktail or cheeseburger, it's fair to say I was pretty damn Jewish.
I can't talk about being all Jewish without sharing some Bat Mitzvah pics...
Even though Hanukkah gets the shaft during the holiday season (though it has gotten better...seriously where the hell was Mensch on a Bench when I was a kid) I've always loved the holiday season & a lot of that love comes from childhood memories.   Every holiday break, my sister & I were fortunate enough to visit my hibernating grandparents in Palm Beach, FL. We'd spend our days swimming in the pool, eating lunch at Greens Pharmacy & playing with other friends who were down there visiting their grandparents.   We'd take trips to FAO Schwartz where our Nana would inevitably spoil us & of course, no trip to Palm Beach was complete without Christmas dinner at the Palm Beach Country Club. Yes, we went out to a fancy schmancy Christmas dinner.  Celebrating the holidays in Florida was simply the best.
In my sister's bed at my grandparents condo in PB
As we've gotten older & my grandparents have passed, our holiday traditions had to change.  For a few years we still went down to Florida because that's just what our family did; it was tradition. We stayed in a different part of the city & created our own memories;  even J made the trip one year. But despite visiting my grandparents neighborhood & all our old favorite spots,  it just wasn't the same; something always felt like it was missing. So eventually my folks sold their vacation house & Christmas in Florida became just wonderful memories.
Of course Duke made the trip FL. (Duke has been there more times than J)
The first year we didn't go to Florida, we traveled to Michigan instead where 2/3 of our immediate families would be spending the holidays. J grew up in a mixed household, so for the first time, I would actually be celebrating Christmas (minus the whole Jesus thing.)  I had my own stocking, I baked Christmas cookies & I drank a lot of Bailey's because that's tradition in J's family.  With two little girls (J's cousins) who still believed in Santa, I was able to enjoy some of the magic I never experienced as a kid.  For 5 years, this was our new tradition.
My first stocking circa 2011 !

Last year's Christmas with Joey's sister & cousins

Now it's time to create some new traditions.  I channeled my inner Seth Cohen & decided we needed to bring the two holidays together in our own unique way & obviously, that started with decorations  A few years back while googling Hanukkah Bushes (that's a normal thing to google, right?) I came across this giant Menorah that also functioned as a Christmas tree.  Naturally, I went to go find this magical unicorn again & it was completely sold out.  Not willing to give up, I reached out to a good friend of ours at Studio 38 Designs in Chicago & asked if he thought he could build me a similar version.   Well here you have it, our baby Menorah Tree.
Each light is powered by batteries & can be turned on/off one at a time, perfect for Hanukkah!  There are 8 PVC pipes under the thick garland, it's just a tad hard to tell due to the proximity of each pipe to each other.   Also, nobody told me just how addicting it can be to buy ornaments.  I purposely tried to keep them as holiday generic as possible, with the exception of a few.
 I went with a winter white/metallic theme for the other decor because it just felt very festive!
To say I'm excited about how this all turned out would be a complete understatement.  I had SO much fun pulling all this decor together & I'm already getting ideas for next year!
In addition to the decor, we plan on spending our holiday watching Christmas movies while eating brisket, latkes & kegual. Best of both holidays!

Happy Holidays Everyone! Stay safe!
Fig is not so impressed with any of this.


{Recipe} Creamy Italian Minestrone Soup

So winter finally arrived & this chilly mid-60 degree weather (yes, that's winter & we'll ignore that it's supposed to be 78 on Wednesday) calls for soup.  My absolute favorite soup comes from the Detroit Italian staple, Lelli's. They make hands down the BEST minestrone soup.  It's much thicker & creamier than traditional Minestrone. But it's the only way Minestrone soup should ever be made.  Seriously. Once you try it this way, you'll never go back.
Knowing it might be a long shot, I went on the hunt for a copy cat recipe & was shocked to actually fine one on Genius Kitchen! Let me tell you, it is pretty damn close. At Lelli's they serve this soup as one of the many many courses, but truthfully,  it is a meal unto itself.  You won't want or need to eat anything else after devouring a bowl...except maybe seconds.  This recipe is really easy to assemble, however, you will need either a blender or an immersion blender. I highly recommend purchasing an immersion blender if you don't already have one. (We have this one)  Despite the creamy-ness, this dish is actually quite healthy! It is also meat-free, so vegetarians rejoice!  I will absolutely be making this recipe again & again & again!

Serves: 6-8 (the original recipe says 8-10 but I call bullshit. It's too good to eat such small portions)
Cook time: 2 Hours 20 mins
How difficult was this? Not hard AT ALL.

3/4 cup chopped onion
2 tbsp butter
2 16 ounce cans mixed veggies, drained
32 ounces chicken broth (1 carton)
2 15 ounce cans cannellini beans (can substitute great northern beans...I have no idea what these are)
1 14 ounce can crushed tomatoes (I couldn't find this size, so I used a 28 ounce can & used half)
1 8 ounce bag frozen spinach (I couldn't find this size either so I used a 12 oz bag & used it all)
1 6 ounce can tomato paste
3 tsp garlic
1 tsp dried parsley
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp pepper
1/2 tsp basil
1/2 cup uncooked macaroni noodles (I used ditalini noodles)
1 cup half & half
1/4 cup parmesan cheese

In a medium skillet over medium heat, melt butter & saute onions for 3-4 mins until onions are tender 
In a large stock pot, add onions & everything above the line. 
Bring to a low boil & then immediately reduce the heat. I kept it somewhere between low & medium. Let soup simmer for 1.5 hours, stirring occasionally. 
Ok here comes the fun part. Using a stick blender on medium, blend the soup. You can also pour at least 1/2 of the soup into a traditional blender & blend.
I wasn't really sure when to stop, so I just moved our stick blender around for about 5-7 mins until the soup thickened up.
Add in uncooked macaroni noodles, half & half, Parmesan cheese & mix well.
Cook for an additional 20-25 mins
Top with additional Parmesan & serve!


{Read} Book Review: Love & Gelato by Jenna Evans Welch

Happy Freaking Friday. Seriously, the week after Thanksgiving is TOUGH. But we made it! As we get closer & closer to the holidays, things are only going to get more chaotic, so I wanted to share a bit of light fluffy reading. Since completing back-to-back reading challenges (catch up here & here) my brain has needed a bit of a break from the heavy reading.  I had this book on my summer reading list (catch up here) but never got around to reading it.  So a few weeks ago, on a cold day (ya know, like 65 degrees) I curled up with this book that transported me to a small town outside of Tuscany & into the mind of a 17 year old teen. 

“So... Italian gelato. Take the deliciousness of a regular ice-cream cone, times it by a million, then sprinkle it with crushed-up unicorn horns.”

Read the summary, then we'll discuss.

Summary from Goodreads:
Rating on Goodreads: 4.1 stars
“I made the wrong choice.”
Lina is spending the summer in a small town outside of Tuscany, but she isn’t in the mood for Italy’s famous sunshine and fairy-tale landscape. She’s only there because it was her mother’s dying wish that she get to know her father. But what kind of father isn’t around for sixteen years? All Lina wants to do is get back home.
But then she is given a journal that her mom had kept when she lived in Italy. Suddenly Lina’s uncovering a magical world of secret romances, art, and hidden bakeries. A world that inspires Lina, along with the ever-so-charming Ren, to follow in her mother’s footsteps and unearth a secret that has been kept for far too long. It’s a secret that will change everything she knew about her mother, her father—and even herself.

People come to Italy for love and gelato, someone tells her, but sometimes they discover much more. 

“Turns out there's a reason they call it falling in love, because when it happens - really happens - that's exactly how it feels. There's no doing or trying, you just let go and hope that someone's going to be there to catch you.” 

So this book totally sucked me in despite being filled with teen angst, teen drama & a teen romance.  This book is definitely more of a YA story (could you tell?), but does it matter when the story is captivating & sweet? I finished it within 48 hours of starting & now I desperately want to go back to Italy.   I will say, parts of the book are quite predictable, but if they weren't, I probably would have been pissed at the end.  There were also quite a few times I wanted to smack Lina, but then again, she's a teen with a dead mom & no dad...sooo maybe I should let some of her annoyingness slide?

Will this book make my MUST READ list?   No. I don't think everyone HAS to read think. It wasn't a life changing story & no, it didn't change the way I think about the world...or anything for that matter.  It wasn't about important social matters or how to better our society, but that isn't the point of this charming story. It held my attention & I enjoyed it. 4 Stars from me!


{Recipe} The Ultimate Mac & Cheese

I love macaroni & cheese. I love it so much that I would request it as my final meal if I ever had the option of requesting a final meal. Other people discuss things like this, right?  I made this recipe last year for our first Friendsgiving & forgot to take pictures. What a surprise. I had multiple requests to make this dish again & who am I to deprive my friends? Selfishly, I was so thrilled at the chance to make it again so I could take pictures! 
In terms of macaroni recipes, this one is relatively easy.  The hardest & most annoying part is all the constant whisking, but that's really it! The original creator of this recipe (found here) recommends using only freshly grated cheese.  Now, I don't know about you, but grating 6 cups of cheese sounds miserable.  So I went with already grated, but bought a fancier shredded cheese...it's all about compromise people. You can mix & match what cheeses you use; this year we used sharp cheddar & white cheddar. I can't remember what I used last year (helpful, I know) but our grocery store doesn't have a ton of the nicer cheeses already grated. Perhaps I'll get off my lazy ass & make this dish some other time with freshly grated cheese.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Many macaroni recipes can be prepped ahead of time, refrigerated & then heated up when it's time to eat.  The original chef STRONGLY recommends not prepping ahead of time. So this was the very last thing I made so we could eat it fresh!

Serves: 6-8 as main dish or 8-10 as a side
Cook time acc to That Which Nourishes: 35 mins
Cook time acc to me: 45 mins - 1 hour
How difficult was this for me? Not bad AT ALL!

1 lb pasta of your choice (I used large elbow)
1/2 cup butter
1/2 cup flour
4 cups milk (I used whole since I had it on hand from another recipe)
6-7 cups freshly shredded sharp cheddar or white cheddar  (I used both)
1/2 tbsp kosher salt
1/2 tbsp pepper (I used 1/4 since I'm not big on pepper)
2 Tbsp butter
1/2 cup Panko bread crumbs


In a large stock pot, boil pasta in salted water according to package directions. 
Drain & set aside
While noodles are cooking, in a large sauce pan over medium heat, melt 1/2 cup butter
Sprinkle in flour & whisk while cooking for 2-3 mins.
Add in Salt & Pepper.
Slowly pour in the 4 cups of milk while continuously whisking until smooth
Bring mixture to a low boil until thickened. Do not stop whisking (this is the annoying part)
 It will take 6-8 mins to thicken up. Don't be surprised if nothing is happening & then all of a sudden it just thickens. This is normal!
Once sauce has thickened up, remove from heat.
Grease a 9x13 baking dish & add pasta
Over the top of the pasta, add the 7 cups of cheese.
Pour the hot sauce over the top of the cheese & let sit for a few minutes as the cheese melts.
At this point, pre-heat your oven to 325 F
While the cheese is melting, in a small sauce pan, melt  2 tbsp of butter over medium heat.
Add in bread crumbs & stir continuously until the bread crumbs turn golden brown. 
Be careful not to let the bread crumbs burn, they will cook quickly!
Once crumbs are golden, remove from heat.
Very carefully stir the pasta, sauce & cheese.  
Top with bread crumbs.
Bake for 12-15 minutes. Serve immediately!
BRB I'm going to go eat some right now.


Friendsgiving 2017 + Giving Tuesday!

Have you recovered from the weekend yet?? I know I haven't.  We hosted our 2nd Friendsgiving last Thursday & it was lovely...but damn, was it a lot of work!  J & I used to travel to one of our homes for Thanksgiving & then again at the holidays, but it just became too much.  So we've started a new tradition of taking in Thanksgiving orphans & creating our own family. Thanks to crazy high temps, we were able to enjoy the meal al fresco...something we'd never be able to do in the midwest!
Before I finalized the menu, I had to figure out our table. You know, the important things. Coming up with tablescapes has become a fun hobby of mine & since we were hosting a few new friends this year,  I didn't want to disappoint. Over the last two years I've been collecting vintage glassware & this was the perfect time to use them. Most of the glassware I have is quite colorful, so I took those jewel tones & ran with it.
To say I loved how our table looked would be an understatement. It was a lot of work & a lot of scavenging through multiple home goods stores (sounds rough, right?) but it came together perfectly.  The pumpkin gourds were a last minute addition after fearing that our table didn't feel "Fall" enough, & I'm so happy I decided to add them!   A full list of the products & sources I used can be found at the bottom of the post.  In an attempt to not go bankrupt, a lot of items did come from Homegoods which I can't link to.
Taking pictures was a bit of a struggle as I was trying to focus on the whole cooking thing & not screwing that up, plus the sun setting & when to light the candles...it was all a bit rushed & taken at various points in the afternoon/early evening.  But I did take a few pics before lighting the candles as well.
Obligatory food photo! The recipes I used will be coming a bit later this week!

Since this post is coming to you on Giving Tuesday, I also wanted to share some of my personal favorite smaller organizations (you'll quickly see a common theme) that are always desperately in need in funds in case you're looking to do a little good today. 

Detroit Dog Rescue is focused on raising awareness for the plight of the forgotten, homeless & stray dogs of Detroit. There are more than 50,000 homeless & stray dogs running loose on the streets of Detroit. With only twenty-three City of Detroit Animal Control Officers to perform rescue operations, nearly 90% of dogs picked up by the city are euthanized. With limited resources & funding allocations to humane animal rescue operations, Detroit Dog Rescue is a small group of highly committed individuals dedicated to help make a difference in the city, one dog at a time. Detroit Dog Rescue focuses on raising awareness of the mounting homeless and stray dog problem in Detroit, along with advocating for humane rescue alternatives such as no-kill sheltering, foster care & adoptions, pet identification & healthy pet population control through spay & neutering. They also respond to calls to assist the Detroit Police Department, Highland Park Police Department, Hamtramck Police Department, Fire Departments, the City Administration, as well as hundreds of residents who have asked for our help.
Leave No Paws Behind is an all breed, all foster based rescue, specializing in seniors, terminal & end of life animals, and pets with special needs. When possible we step up, most times in the “11th” hour when all hope is gone, to help save the lives of those that are in most danger of being left behind to die on a cold shelter floor. LNPB provides hospice care, comfort, love and a safe haven for the terminally ill and the hard core cases & LNPB will never board a rescued animal. 
100+ Abandoned Dogs of Everglades Florida Rescue. Right now, hundreds of abandoned dogs are roaming the in the Everglades area of Florida (Florida City, Homestead and Redlands) & the surrounding areas of SE Florida. They are hungry, thirsty, injured, sick, pregnant & more. They have been dumped there by their previous owners, often after being neglected & abused for years. Their mission is to rescue them, bring them back to health, & show them that not all humans are bad, & that love and a warm bed are just around the corner. They work to raise awareness about this brutal reality happening right in our community, with the hope that our message will result in alternative solutions & more responsible and humane decisions by pet owners.
Soi Dog FoundationSoi Dog Foundation was established in Phuket, Thailand, to help the street dogs & cats who had no-one else to care for them. Over 50,000 strays roamed the island, with the numbers growing alarmingly due to a lack of sterilization (spay/neuter) programes to control the population. Soi Dog was created to provide a humane & sustainable solution to managing the stray population and to address their medical needs. Funding then, as it is now, came entirely from individuals who shared, & continue to share, the vision of our founders. Soi Dog Foundation is fighting the Asian dog meat trade & thanks to overwhelming support from people around the world, the trade has been almost completely wiped out in Thailand. They continue to campaign for an end to the trade in South Korean, Vietnam, & other south-east Asian countries where it is prevalent. Their work as a member of the Asia Canine Protection Alliance (ACPA) is designed to eliminate rabies from Cambodia, Laos, Thailand & Vietnam by 2020, through working with the governments of those countries to outlaw the sale and consumption of dog and cat meat, & to reduce demand for, & supply of, dog meat in South Korea. 
On a larger scale, these two organizations need to stay funded to continue the necessary work they do during these exhausting times.

Planned Parent Hood. I don't think they really need an explanation as to who they are.  

Human Rights Campaign. As the largest civil rights organization working to achieve equality for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender & queer Americans, the Human Rights Campaign represents a force of more than 3 million members & supporters nationwide — all committed to making HRC's vision a reality. HRC envisions a world where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer people are embraced as full members of society at home, at work and in every community.
Sources from Friendsgiving:
Table Runner (on sale!)
Table Cloth (similar)
Cloth Napkins
Glass Gold Chargers (on sale!)
Plates (mix & match from this selection)
Gold Flatware (on sale!)
Purple Tea Light Votives 
Metallic Pillar Candles
Mercury Votives
String Lights
Brass Lanters (all from Homegoods. Similar ones here)
Colorblock Candle Holders (Homegoods)
Glassware - all vintage finds (search eBay for LG Wright,  Colony, Imperial Cape Cod, Smith Glass)