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!