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Holidays : Challahbear

Archive for the ‘ Holidays ’ Category

Valentine’s Crepe Cake

When it came time to make plans for Valentine’s Day, we knew we wanted to skip a pricey prix-fixed evening out. Cooking something special together would be a nice treat. Before we moved in together, Kirios and I would frequently plan recipes to cook together on weekends. Now a days  cooking can sometimes feel like more of a chore that a treat – especially since I come home almost an hour and half later than I did with my last job. We still enjoy home cooked meals almost every night, but it’s hard not to be a tad tired and hungry in the evenings, or rushing around to do see friends on the weekends. Sometimes if Kirios has work to catch up on for a couple of hours during the weekend I will spend some time preparing fun dishes at a relaxing pace, or if I’m working from home I may throw something together and let is roast for a while.

 

A little over a year ago Kirios and I purchased a blue steel crêpe pan and a recipe book with pretty crêpe pictures. We like to make crepes together at home, but it’s a bit involved for a normal weeknight. We made crepes for Valentine’s Day last year which was a big hit. So this year we perused the recipe book and a recipe for a Savory Florentine Crepe caught my eye. Well – the picture did. The Florentine Crepe was actually more of a crêpe cake – crepes laid flat and piled on top of each other with savory filling in between each other. There were two different filling recipes – one with diced tomatoes, onions, and parmesan cheese; the other with spinach and heavy cream. We stacked nine herb crepes into a pie pan and alternated filling flavors for each layer. We cut “slices” of the creation like a cake. The result was a rich buttery dish with well-developed flavors. It was a tad difficult to slice when warm, but the refrigerated leftovers gave us no problems. Despite the challenge, the presentation of red and green layers was impressive and sophisticated. It looked just like the picture in the book, and tasted like a special occasion indulgence – mission accomplished.

 

The best part about our Valentine’s Day meal though, was not the food itself. It was the fact that Kirios was so proactive in preparing the food before I made it back from work. He has seen me struggle as I adjust to arriving home around 6:15 instead of before 5:00 in the past few months. He knows that I get stressed when there’s a lot to be done and it’s getting late. And he knows by the time I get home he’s already hungry. So Kirios prepared all the crepes before I arrived and was at work on the first filling by the time I arrived. He also washed some of the dishes while he was still preparing the food (something my Dad does obsessively). There was still plenty to do together, but we were able to eat at a reasonable hour and relax for a bit before cleaning up.  

 

Kirios has stepped up a lot since I switched jobs. He often starts on dinner while I’m still commuting, and he’s experimenting and learning to cook a greater variety of things on his own. He wasn’t slacking before, but I appreciate the help even more with my new routine. His thoughtfulness and initiative is something I’m thankful for year round.

Still Alive, Still Eating

I’m having a hard time adjusting to my new routine with the new job and keeping up with the blog lately. Mostly because I don’t get home until 6:30 these days, and I’m either running out of the door to meet up with friends or frantically trying to make something for dinner before passing out in front of the television for the rest of the night. Despite the fact that I’m still struggling a bit with the workplace transition, there have still been many blog worthy times I meant to write about.

In light of my work transition, it’s been important to me to keep up with my Postal friends lately. Leading up to my departure from the Postal Service, Kirios and I hosted my coworker and her boyfriend for a wine and cheese night. Kirios and I picked out four new cheeses at Whole Foods:

-Mitica caprichio de cabra pepper – tasted rich like goat cheese with hot red pepper on the outside

-Somerdale Wensleydale with Blueberries – sweet and desserty, but not a soft/spreadable cheese. I liked the blueberry flavor a lot, but it tasted better on sweet things than salty crackers. (we had variety pack of crackers which included some that were graham cracker style)

-Igor gorgonzola piccante mountain gorgonzola – a bit salty for me, but made for good variety, and the leftovers were great in salad!

-Rosemary and olive asiago – this was probably everyone’s favorite cheese of the night. The rosemary flavor shined, and while I wouldn’t say it was a particularly special or interesting cheese, it’s definitely the kind that you want to keep eating with crackers – very satisfying.

We also served some leftover smoked gouda and leftover toscano with ground black pepper. Yum!

More recently, two other Postal friends of mine came over for brunch. Kirios and I made pancakes with chocolate chips and nuts in them, and served pumpkin bread, fruits, challah with nutella, and chai tea.

I think I’m going to have to come up with some healthier ideas for keeping in touch my former colleague friends!

In addition to seeing Postal people, Kirios and I kept busy over the holidays. We attended eight holiday parties over the course of a month. I made Argentine Chimichurri bread with onions, parsley, cayenne pepper, and other spices for a potluck. It was a recipe from my dad that I found on my computer and I was a bit nervous about it. I’ve never thrown that many random ingredients into the bread machine before, but it ended up being pretty tasty and there weren’t any leftovers by the end of the night. I also made my dad’s chocolate bourbon tart recipe (but substituted the bourbon with Johnny Walker red label) for a party which was divine. It’s a chocolate tart crust with a dense fudgy filling. It was very rich, so despite being a big hit there were lots of leftovers – most of which the host and hostess were glad to keep. I’ll definitely be making that recipe again.

In addition to trying out recipes from my dad, Kirios’ parents taught me how to make some of their favorite Greek cookies over the holidays this year. We made kourabiedes and melomakaroma. Kourabiedes are my favorite of the cookies they make – almond butter cookies coated in rose water and powdered sugar, traditionally served at weddings. Melomakaroma are Kirios’ favorite cookies – first you make a simple cookie with flour, oil, orange juice/zest and spices – cinnamon, nutmeg, all-spice. Then you take your sugarless cookie and completely drench it in a warm spiced honey syrup and top it with crushed nuts, so in the end, it’s basically the cookie equivalent of baklava. It’s completely parve, and you can substitute out the honey for sugar making it vegan too. Plus, because of all of the syrup, the cookies stay good for a very long time. Next I’ll have to start learning how Kirios’ dad makes such delicious cakes… My parents are both great cooks, but that’s one thing they’ve never mastered. (My mom is famous for having hilariously bad outcomes when cooking cakes – she even exploded the pan once!)

Every month, the large Conservative synagogue in Washington DC hosts a Friday evening happy hour followed by Shabbat services for young professionals. I’ve attended fairly regularly for the past three plus years since graduating from college and seeking a Hillel alternative. The first time I went, I dragged my roommate who was still at student at University of Maryland to come out with me. We made some friends there, and convinced other friends to join us for future events. It usually draws somewhere around 200 people each month. An anonymous donor enabled to program to include free Shabbat dinner for a year, and now there’s a small fee if you stay for dinner.  Originally, I went each month to meet people. I wasn’t in college anymore, it was time to meet new friends. But after the first year, I wasn’t ashamed to admit that I go as often as I can to see my friends. It’s not that I’m opposed to meeting new people, but let’s be honest, a noisy crowded room with 200 people isn’t the best place to meet people, and it’s hard enough to get the friends that I do have together on a regular basis. Especially now that so many of my friends have moved to the Virginia suburbs while I remain the Maryland ones.

It’s not surprising that after a few years of attending we decided that we could do better than hanging out and celebrating Shabbat together once a month. So we formed a Shabbat club. It started with an email thread and a google spreadsheet. We have a core group of about 10 people and let the host or hostess decide if he or she would like to invite a few more. We meet the second Friday night of the month, and everything is potluck. Naturally, I made a plug for theme Shabbats, because who DOESN’T want a theme dinner party each month?!?

Our first Shabbat Club dinner was dairy “make your own burrito” night. Kirios and I made a fresh pico de gallo. Everyone made something yummy and we filled our plates to capacity. It was a resounding success. And then we had our second Shabbat club dinner, which Kirios and I hosted – Kosher (Meat) Indian theme. It exceeded my expectations by far. We made challah, garlic naan, and a delicious yet simple Chicken Korma recipe which uses coconut milk to create the thick, creamy sauce characteristic of Indian food. The recipe, found here –http://parttimecruisers.blogspot.com/2008/09/chicken-coconut-kurma.html was a great choice. And thanks to our friends, we had a full thali platter. Everyone else tried out new recipes – we had a cold cucumber peanut chili salad, spicy eggplant, a chickpea dish, and a spinach dish, plus fruit for dessert.

Indian Shabbat was followed by Shabbat club’s Channukah dinner last month. My friend made her spinach lasagna recipe I used to devour when we were roommates. There was kugel and salads, latkes, etc. Kirios and I made spinach latkes with a Greek yogurt and feta sauce – Jewish and Greek 😉 We all brought our menorahs and lit candles together. After dinner, we made cookies with dreidel and menorah cookie cutters and decorated them with sprinkles and icing. We also had a never-ending bracket-style dreidel match. I was beat badly in the championship round.

This Friday will be our fourth Shabbat club extravaganza – a football playoff tailgate themed feast with chili, challah-wrapped “pigs in a blanket,” corn bread, cole-slaw, and more. Plans are in the works for February’s make your own sushi dinner, and I’m confident that there are many more awesome meals together in the future.

I hit my first quarter-century mark the other week. I think it was my first birthday when I wasn’t thrilled to be a year older. But I celebrated nonetheless. Kirios and I went out for a trendy yet romantic dinner at Founding Farmers, and of course I couldn’t resist the temptation to throw yet another theme party. So in approximately 6 months when Kirios catches up uploading photos from his dSLR, you all can see what an awesome Pebbles and BamBam we make.

Last weekend Kirios and I opened the cheese he brought me on Valentines Day (well I had already broken into the smokedgouda, I admit) and I realized he sneakily broke our Vday no chocolate pact AGAIN. He purchased Trader Joe’s cheese of the month, which mixed milk chocolate with sharp white cheddar. It was… interesting. I think I actually like it more than Kirios, who was hoping for dark chocolate.  I didn’t think it was too bad upon first taste, but it actually was worse when I ate it on top of a Ritz cracker. And unlike most cheeses I’m apprehensive to try, it didn’t grow on me with consecutive bites. It definitely tasted like it should be marketed as a snack to put in your kids school lunches. It was definitely edible, but I suppose it makes me appreciate even more what Mr. Reese has known for so so long, nothing goes together quite like chocolate and peanut butter.

Other than tasting cheese, Kirios and I set out to cook some healthy meals for ourselves this weekend, so we cooked salmon, couscous, and broccoli on Saturday, and gemistas, Greek stuffed peppers on Sunday. And now that it’s Wednesday already, I’m wishing I had the time/motivation to continue the trend, but I think I may have to last on leftovers for a few more days.

Sunday afternoon my cousin Jessica visited from New York, and with Kirios we made a ton of delicious hamentaschen to get excited for Purim. We filled the triangular treats with strawberry jam, peach-mango preserves, nutella, and chocolate-peanut butter spread, and baked them on a cookie sheet that used to be our Grandma Ruth’s. And as it turns out, last Sunday was Grandma Ruth’s 12th yartzeit, the anniversary of her passing on the Hebrew calendar. I can’t think of a better way to have honored her memory on that day.

Parental Invasion

For the second year in a row, my parents decided to celebrate our nation’s presidents by spending a long weekend in Maryland. Last year they stayed with family friends in Baltimore, and I drove down to spend time with everyone. This year, they were excited to stay with me in my first apartment without roommates. They drove up on Friday afternoon and conveniently arrived right at the end of my telework day.

We first went for a walk around Bethesda, enjoying the unseasonable weather until the sun fell low enough in the sky that it stopped keeping us warm. Then Kirios met us back at my apartment and we walked over to Pizzeria da Marco, a Neopolitan pizza place extremely close by. Kirios and I had been a couple of times before and enjoyed their pizza, especially during happy hour when their margherita pizza is just $5. My father has a particular fondness for pizzerias with brick ovens who take their food seriously, so I had been waiting for him to visit so I could take him there for sometime. We enjoyed arugula salads with oranges, red onion, fennel and chili flakes before feasting on a variety of pizzas, which we divided up evenly amongst ourselves. We enjoyed the certified authentic Margherita D.O.P.; Quatro Formaggi; Siciliana with eggplant confit, black olives, and capers; and the Diavola which had roasted red peppers. The Diavola also came with finocchiona, a cured ham, which Kirios ordered on the side so he could add it to his slices. Pizzeria da Marco serves a good product, with a chewy crust and flavorful toppings. It does tend to pool liquid from tomatoes and other toppings in the center, where the crust is extremely thin, which is a bit of a turn off and keeps them from topping our favorites list. But all in all, it was a very satisfying meal.

Saturday morning the parental units were feeling ambitious and prepared to take on the District. We had an early lunch and then we drove downtown with Kirios for some tourist activities. We made a spur of the moment decision to go into the Old Post Office. Kirios had taken me there during my last birthday, but due to rain storms and heavy winds, the National Park Service had shut down the tower (the main reason to visit the pavilion) rumored to have one of the best views of the city. Since it was announced only days earlier that Donald Trump will take over the historic building and convert it into a hotel, we figured we better visit while we could. The wait was longer than we had hoped, and the view was a bit anticlimactic. But at least I got to cross it off my DC bucket list.

After the Post Office, we realized we were running behind schedule and ditched our original plan to visit the Newseum. Instead we went to the nearby and free American History Smithsonian. There were a couple of closed exhibits, but we did spend some time judging the first ladies’ fashion choices, and other museum highlights.

Around four we walked over to Chinatownin order to enjoy an early meal at Zaytinya, Kirios’ favorite restaurant which I first tried on his birthday. (We were originally planning to go to Founding Farmers, but it proved difficult to get a reservation on a Saturday in Washington DC!) Kirios and I weren’t too disappointed by the tradeoff. At Zaytinya, I ordered my favorite brussel sprouts afelia and Kirios indulged in his beloved garides me anitho, sauted shrimp. We also shared a flatbread with tomato sauce, cinnamon, oregano, and halloumi cheese (Kirios’ favorite cheese, made in Cyprus); greek olives; mushroom saganaki with tomato and kefalograviera cheese; bamya (okra with crispy chickpeas); seared salmon with squash puree, maitake mushrooms, and pomegranate molasses; almond trout with preserved lemon-kalamata olive tapenade and garlic yogurt; and the kolokithokeftedes (zucchini and cheese patties) which I had ordered over Kirios’ birthday also. These dishes were all quite enjoyable, but there was one more dish which stood above all the rest (or in the case of the brussel sprouts, and the shrimp for Kirios, on par) and that was the havoc koftesi, carrot, apricot and pine nut fritters with a pistachio sauce. These balls were packed with flavor, and my mom instantly began planning a kugel version that she can serve on Passover, leaving out the pine nuts (which did provide a nice texture) and substituting flour for potato starch. We saved a bit of room for delicious desserts and Turkish coffee too.

We finished our feast at Zaytinya ahead of schedule, so we quickly jumped into the National Portrait Gallery across the street to check out the Annie Leibovitz exhibition, Pilgrimage (which uncharacteristically doesn’t include pictures of people). Following the exhibition we walked over the Ronald Reagan Building, where Kirios and I enjoyed a round of drinks before the four of us enjoyed a show by the political satire group, The Capitol Steps. I’ve enjoyed their public radio broadcasts on July 4th, and April Fools and so on throughout the years, and both Mom and Kirios have seen them perform live in the past. It was truly a treat, and the four of us spent the entire performance smiling.

We returned home a bit before 11pm, and I made sure my parents were comfortable and all set for bed before before heading out with Kirios to hear our friends’ band perform at a wing bar a couple of blocks away. I got home around 12:30am, exhausted from an extremely full day.

I woke up Sunday morning feeling extremely grateful that it was a long weekend, and then next time I woke up wouldn’t be at 5:50am. There were still adventures to be had. Kirios and our family friends from Baltimore came over at 10:30, and I showed off my big girl apartment before we walked over to Bethesda Row to have brunch at Le Pain Quotidien, a Belgian chain centered around the idea of communal tables. We were all extremely impressed with the food. Their omlettes and quiches were quite nice, as well as their breads and pastries. I had a smoked salmon omlette and we tried both their lemon tart and pistachio tart (which was more of a cake) for dessert. The only thing that didn’t impress us was their seasonal soy chai special which was too thin for our liking. (I heard the coffee was good though.) As we kvelled over the food, we flipped through their cookbooks displayed on their tables. Kirios and I scanned the barcode on the back of one for kicks, since my mother loves to collect cookbooks, and Amazon offered it starting at $146. Less than 10 minutes later, Kirios returned from a trip to the bathroom with a shrink-wrapped copy which he presented to my mother as an early birthday gift. (It was available much cheaper than what we had seen online, but was nonetheless an extremely generous and thoughtful measure. He’s a keeper!)

Following brunch, we visited some of the cute shops along Bethesda Row. I ran into a great friend of mine from college, and then we were all interviewed for a YouTube video about the red “parking meters” to donate change to the homeless in Bethesda. Although I must admit, the focus of the video was clouded by excitement over the mozzarella bar across the street. Watch for yourself, we’re famous. http://youtu.be/xrR2KCbK8Io And this of course led to a great demand for a follow up video http://youtu.be/IN8kVp_akSw. There’s been big talk about eventually visiting this place… I’ll be waiting.

By mid-afternoon we all parted ways and my parents and I enjoyed some much needed R&R back at the apartment before cooking a meal together. My parents left fairly early on Monday morning, and I was happy to have a bit of down time before returning to work on Tuesday!

Having attended a Jewish day school for eight years while growing up, Valentine’s Day was never a big celebration. We were not encouraged to bring in cards or candy for our classmates, and my mother never failed to remind me that the holiday is actually SAINT Valentine’s Day. (I never trick-or-treated either, but I promise, I turned out just fine!) Looking back now, I never considered it a double standard when my father brought home chocolates (or even better, Godiva flavored coffee) for my mother on February 14th. I suppose he always bought extra candy on Halloween too, so I shouldn’t complain…

Last year, after having dated Kirios for several months already, it seemed appropriate for us to exchange gifts and spend time together on Valentine’s Day. We decided not to go out for a fancy dinner or anything, and we made a no-chocolate pact. (Trust me, we already had plenty between the two of us!) I ordered Kirios a set of cufflinks with his initials engraved on them (which meant I needed to buy him a French cuff shirt next so he could wear them!), and was feeling pretty good about my gift for him, and then a few days before Valentine’s Day I won a $25 Godiva gift card in an office raffle. There went my side of the pact!

Meanwhile, Kirios was laboriously working on the circuitry for ThinkGeek’s “LED Flashing Sweetheart Kit” and plotting the demise of our pact as well. (Yes, I love my Greek Geek.) While the flashing heart didn’t exactly pan out, (must have been a short somewhere) Kirios did surprise me with an entire case of Israeli popping chocolate. If you haven’t had popping chocolate, just imagine a chocolate bar with pop rocks inside it. When I traveled toIsrael in high school, I hoarded the stuff. My parents went toIsrael together in October 2010 and brought me back a bar, which I shared with Kirios. “They sell the cow brand chocolate in the States,” I told him, “but I’ve never seen the popping one here. It’s so unfair.” He may have broken our no-chocolate pact, but major props for thinking of popping chocolate and for actually finding it in theUnited States! (I know, he’s a keeper…)

Anyway, sure enough February rolled around again this year and Hallmark store on the way to my office started displaying humongous red hearts all over the place. With our trip toNew Mexicoin the beginning of the month and my birthday at the end, we decided again to skip the expensive price-fixed dinner, and while we were at it, we renewed our no chocolate pact. Instead, we decided to make our own crepe feast with savory crepes for dinner and sweet crepes for dessert using our fancy schmancy blue steel crepe pan.

I was in charge of getting ingredients for the savory crepes and Kirios was in charge of the dessert ones. I stopped at the supermarket on my way home from work, and picked up some fresh produce to ensure a delightful meal. Before Kirios came over, I prepared a platter of vegetables so we could quickly make the crepes together and then start eating our first course. We had steamed asparagus; sautéed portabella mushroom and garlic; fresh spinach, carrots, scallions, tomato, and avocado; as well as kosher imitation bacon bits, fresh oregano (to appeal to his Greek flavor profile) and hand-grated cheese.

I also gave Kirios a small gift – a mug designed to look like a camera lens. He was pleased with his present, and now uses it to drink coffee at work. 🙂  Kirios agreed not to get me a special Valentine’s Day gift, since he had just bought me a beautiful ring while we were in Santa Fe. But the man lacks restraint sometimes, especially when it comes to spoiling me. He arrived at my apartment with two overflowing grocery bags from Trader Joe’s and immediately said, “oh no, I forgot to buy a pineapple!” I mean, what sweet crepe is complete without a whole pineapple to stuff inside of it?!? Slowly he began unveiling the fruits he picked out for dessert – blueberries, blackberries, bananas. And then he continued to unveil fruits – mango, kiwis, a basket of plums, three different colors of grapes, an entire bag of oranges, a pomegranate, and a cantaloupe! Kirios became frustrated that I was putting the fruit away too slowly (it required a love of refrigerator maneuvering) but he didn’t stop pulling contents out of his grocery bags. In addition to the fruits, Kirios had also purchased two kinds of cheeses, a container of chai tea mix, mango ginger chutney (which provided much needed moisture for our savory crepes), a bottle of sparkling wine, and a single red rose.

It’s now more than a week after Valentine’s Day. I am still making my way through the produce, but I didn’t miss the pineapple!

New Year’s Cake

Growing up, my parents generally only served dessert for special occasions; Shabbat dinners, holidays, birthdays, and entertaining guests. I wasn’t exactly a deprived kid – my school lunches frequently included cookies (never more than three though), and if I was hungry after dinner I could usually find a piece of chocolate or a little ice cream to share with my dad. But since I started dating Kirios, I’ve been eating quite a bit more dessert. Kirios’ father loves to bake, especially cakes. Almost every time I visit, he’s baked a new cake or treat, and the whole family insists I try it. And then they send me home with a potion large enough to last me several days. It’s a hard life, I know. I actually had to train myself not to fill up on dinner as much before going over to their house. Saving room for dessert can be a burden! And Kirios insists that he too has been eating more desserts since we started dating, because his parents realized that if they send me home with a good portion of what they bake, they’ll finish what they have sooner and be able to bake different desserts on a more frequent basis.

 While all of Kirios’ family’s desserts are tasty, I especially love trying the ones that reflect their Greek and Cypriot heritage. In addition to excellent baklava, they’ve treated me to homemade galaktoboureko, a custard and phyllo treat; wonderful cookies; and even tahinopita, Cypriot tahini pies. (Because it would never occur to me that tahini belongs in dessert)

Last New Years, Kirios’ family served me a walnut cake they baked in honor of the holiday. Kirios excitedly explained to me how every year they make Vasilopita, New Years Cake, and they wrap a quarter in aluminum foil and add it to the cake batter, similar to the baby trinket in a New Orleans King Cake. Whoever gets the piece of cake with the quarter in it is supposed to have good luck for the New Year. Kirios proudly told me that he finds the quarter every year. (Have I mentioned he’s an only child?!?) Even though US quarters and aluminum foil aren’t magnetic, he uses his trusty magnet to help guess where the coin is, and he then plants a toothpick with an American flag to mark his guess and reserve his piece of cake. He had already found the quarter when he served me a slice last year.

This year Kirios’ family made a pistachio Vasilopita and they still hadn’t found the quarter by the time I visited. Kirios’ initial guess didn’t yield the coin, which he claims is due to the loss of his trusted magnet, (again, quarters aren’t magnetic) but he proceeded to claim more territory by replanting his toothpick flag with updated guesses. A large portion of cake was separated into a Tupperware container for me to bring home, and Kirios and I decided to split a piece of the remaining cake at his house. Kirios gave me the knife and told me to cut a piece as big or as small as I wanted for the two of us to share, and then he stepped out of the room.  With Kirios’ parents as my witness, I stuck the knife straight into the cake and immediately struck the hidden coin. We all laughed and called for Kirios to come see.

I learned that in addition to good luck, the coin in the Vasilopita comes with a prize, like the Afikomen on Passover, which Kirios’ parents insisted I accept. Maybe it was Kirios’ plan all along, letting me cut the cake so I could find the coin… For someone ending a 24 year lucky streak, he took it pretty well. Or maybe he just found solace in the fact that I usually share with him!

Ringing in 2012

Traditionally, I’ve always been home in Pittsburgh with my family for New Years. My parents and their friends always take turns hosting a New Year’s Eve potluck, and in the past, all of the children would join as well. We’d spend the evening watching moving, playing board games, and casually working on puzzles. We’d turn on the television at least ten minutes before the ball dropped (and earlier once Kathy Griffin and Anderson Cooper began co-hosting for CNN) At the midnight hour, us “children” (let’s be honest… we haven’t been real youngsters for a while) would clang together pots and pans in the front yard. Everyone would enjoy aDixiecup full of champagne – except in 2007, when we each had one sip, enough to determine that the bottle was rancid – and we’d be making our way home by 12:15am. On ambitious years, some of us girls would rent extra movies and turn the evening into a sleepover. But these days we typically prefer to sleep in our own beds rather than pile sleeping bags into the basement. Growing up, I think we all knew that these New Years gatherings were “lame,” but we still enjoyed them anyway. And even though the kid’s generation has dispersed, we all still love those parties. No hype or drama, just good family, friends, and food.

My first foray into the world outside of our usual New Years microcosm was when I was a freshman in college. I traveled to Israel for a ten-day trip sponsored by Hillel for college students from across the country. Sylvester, as the Israelis call the secular New Year, fell on a Sunday. So 500 college students gathered to spend Shabbat together on an isolated kibbutz, and when the sunset, it was suddenly New Years Eve. There was no where to go except the party on the kibbutz, and there was plenty of alcohol. I knew students from my university, and students from my high school youth group, some of whom I hadn’t seen in a few years, and there were new friends from my trip. We danced, we drank, and we laughed. At midnight we counted down and toasted with champagne. It was definitely a fun night. But I’d be lying if I said a big part of me didn’t miss being at home in Pittsburgh for our usual festivities.

Since my trip abroad, I attended the rest of my New Year holidays inPittsburgh, until 2011. Last year I decided to celebrate with Kirios. We didn’t do a lot of planning for the evening. In fact, just about every night leading up to New Years was booked – we had a lot of friends visiting over their breaks and we were anxious to catch up with everyone and introduce each other to our friends from out of town. In the end, we decided that working and socializing that much was expensive and exhausting, so we made a fairly late decision to stay in for New Year’s Eve itself. We didn’t do anything too special; we just had some snacks and drinks and watched all of the hoopla on TV. At midnight I had my first “New Year’s kiss,” and then we both spent the next half hour on the phone with our friends and family wishing everyone a happy New Year.

Much like last year, Kirios and I didn’t feel like dropping a lot of money for cover at a bar or a fancy dinner or reception downtown, so we had decided to attend a big house party one of Kirios’ fraternity brothers was throwing in DC. I even purchased a new dress to wear. (Yes, it was my first New Year’s Eve wearing a dress…) It was a big crowd, a loud party, and a lot of new faces for me. Similar to the party on the Kibbutz, we danced, we drank, and we laughed. At midnight we counted down and toasted with champagne. And like last year, I welcomed in the New Year with a kiss!

I know there are a lot of fun nights and New Years celebrations still to come for me. And I imagine it will be less and less often that I spend the holiday with the same family and friends in Pittsburgh, as I plant roots for myself elsewhere and get closer to eventually starting a family of my own. But I know a part of me will always miss being at home in Pittsburgh for our usual festivities.

Today marks the conclusion of the eight day festival of lights, Hannukah. As much as Hallmark, toy companies, and my own employer would like it to be, Hannukah is not a major Jewish holiday – we don’t spend the whole time in synagogue, we don’t even take off from work for it – but it is the second most observed Jewish holiday in the world, (More Jews have a Passover seder than light Hannukah candles) and it’s definitely a special time of the year.

I haven’t celebrated Hannukah with my parents since I was in high school. I’d rather save my vacation days to go home over Rosh HaShana and Passover. Besides, I don’t like night driving and it gets dark so early this time of the year! My parents used to send me a card, frequently with a small check in it to represent “gelt,” coins that children were given before ad men decided that Jewish kids should get presents in December too. (Not that I’m complaining… I like gifts.) My mom told me there would be no card this year – it’s just too sad for her to celebrate without my brother or I around. Classic Jewish mother guilt, of course, but she quickly conceded to my rebuttal– saying she’d rather I come home for Rosh HaShana and Passover if I can’t be home for all of the holidays.

In college, Hannukah usually meant finals studying. And lighting the hannukiah, frying latkes, and spinning the dreidel for half an hour with close friends each night was the perfect study break – enough socialization for everyone to remain stable, but not requiring a major time commitment if you have an exam in the morning. Plus Hannukah bar nights and other events made grade post-exam celebrations.

Last year, Kirios and spent six of the eight nights of Hannukah in Las Vegas (where there was no lack of lights), so I could run the Rock’n’Roll Half Marathon with Team Challenge for the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, and we could fit in some sightseeing too. During this trip, over Hannukah, my Zaydie (Yiddish for grandfather) passed away. Kirios and I weren’t able to return to the east coast early to attend his funeral. Each night, we lit the Hannukah candles in our room and took time to rest while the candles burned, before going out for dinner. The nightly ritual connected me to my family and community when I yearned to be with them.

This year Hannukah was much less eventful (and probably a good thing after the previous year). There were of course homemade latkes and Hannukiah lightings. Kirios joined me in person or via Skype as I recited the blessings over the candles each evening, and he even treated me to eight gifts for the eight nights. I passed on most of the big young professional Hannukah events in the city though, and things were fairly normal overall. But I suppose setting aside thirty minutes each night to watch the candles burn was a pretty strong reminder that there’s always time to stop and appreciate something special, and we encounter special things every day.

A Couple Odds & Ends

A few weeks ago I ran into a friend and she asked me how I liked the cheeses Kirios surprised me with for our semiversary. I’ve been meaning to report back, and appreciated the nudge! So I’ll give you a few follow-up tidbits to a couple of posts, and then I’ll let you know about the cheeses.

Holiday Parties – Remember when I told you that my office hadn’t even sent anything out about a holiday party yet? Last Thursday, an email was sent out gauging interest in a potluck for today – the Thursday before Christmas. Now, I’m actually leaving the office at noon to go to the doctor. But let me tell you, other than me, there are probably 3 people from our department who are here today. Unsurprisingly, a follow-up email went out saying there wasn’t enough interest to have a potluck. The original email also said we’ll be having a “New Year’s luncheon” in the second or third week of January. Yea… our manager totally forgot to have someone plan a holiday party. Epic office fail.

Meat Pizza – Apparently, completely distraught over the lack of lamb bacon from my trip to Koshermart, Kirios called the store the following day to see if it was now in stock. And it was! He was planning to surprise my brother, sister-in-law, and me with it last Wednesday, but when he had a 4pm meeting scheduled, he knew he wouldn’t have time to pick some up when he got home from work. So I took my sibs back out to Koshermart, and we were all able to enjoy a lamb bacon pizza in the end afterall. And I froze the beef fry strips so Kirios and I can enjoy them another time 🙂

Now the cheeses – overall, I’ve been enjoying all of the cheeses Kirios brought me. I’m sad that they’re mostly eaten by now, but also excited to go back out and buy more cheeses. I guess I’m hooked now!

The fontina was the “least scary” cheese. I’ve had it before, afterall, I studied inItaly! It’s salty and melts well, it’s easy to grate, and I especially like having it with pasta.

The comte, like the fontina, was relatively mild. It’s less salty than the fontina and has a nuttier flavor, in part due to its thick rind. I especially enjoy the comte in sandwiches.

The creamy toscano with espresso delighted Kirios and I both. It’s an incredibly flavorful cheese, that I would eat anywhere, anytime.  My only complaint is that the espresso shavings on the outside of the cheese get messy. But they do add to the flavor, Kirios is especially fond of pieces that include the espresso itself. It’s definitely a cheese I’ll be purchasing again. And since he liked it so much too, Kirios will complain less about the fact that I’m rebuying instead of trying something new 😛

The Spanish cheese tapas sampler with iberico, cabra al vino, and manchego was a nice snack to have with crackers and a bottle of wine. And it’s easy to serve, since the cheese is pre-sliced into wedges. While the first two cheeses tasted pretty similar to me, I do think the wine in the rind distinguished the cabra al vino. And the manchego had a fruitier taste than the other two. All three go nicely together.

Finally, there was the semi-scary looking wild blueberry vanilla chevre. Despite being a soft cheese, it’s not bad at all. I do like goat cheese, and get it on dishes at restaurants from time to time. But I’m still a bit at a loss as to what to do with it at home. This particular goat cheese tastes like yogurt with a thicker consistency.  I wouldn’t eat it at the same time as my other cheeses, since it’s sweet instead of salty. I think it would be really great on a bagel. (Although admittedly I haven’t bought any.) I’ve had it on toast as a morning snack, and when my brother and sister-in-law were visiting, they topped some homemade blueberry muffins with it. Overall, a nice cheese… but I still can’t help but think of cheese as a savory snack.

As for the other surprises, I’m almost out of chai powder, and we have yet to try the mulling spices, but are still looking forward to doing so this winter!