Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Review: Maccabee on the Mantel, Mensch on the Bench, and Gelt-Giving Golem

Captain makes a guest appearance with the Chanukah crew.

My house is full of cute plush creatures and their tales of Chanukah miracles and Asher couldn't be happier!

Yes, we're the proud owners (thanks to receiving these for review) of the Gelt-Giving Golem, Mensch on a Bench, and Maccabee on the Mantel. Each of these plush cuties comes with a box and a book that tells a bit about the Chanukah story, a bit about the character, and a bit about the celebration, the brochot (blessings), and how-tos when it comes to the eight day festival. Likewise, all three encourage the new owner to give a unique and special name to the Golem, Mensch, or Maccabee.

The three are very different in terms of what they bring to the table for the discerning, gift-giver. I always say that I'm boldly honest when it comes to my reviews, and I won't hesitate with that promise here.

Mensch on a Bench (✡✡✡)

You've probably seen the Mensch on a Bench in your local Target or Bed, Bath, and Beyond, as it's the most well-advertised in the mainstream. It's also probably the most substantial "kit" out of the three, as it comes with a mensch decked out in a black hat, tallit, and beard; a book about how to be a mensch (a generally good person); and a removable bench for his lounging pleasure. The mensch holds the shamash (that's the candle that you use to light the other candles on the Chanukah menorah) at the ready for each night of Chanukah, and I love that you're urged not to actually let the mensch light your menorah.

I really like the idea behind this kit, and the plush mensch has a super expressive face (we named him Mordechai) and a well-thought-out outfit and brand. Of the three, however, it isn't Asher's favorite.

The Gelt-Giving Golem (✡✡)

The first company that contacted me presented the Gelt-Giving Golem, the concept for which I really liked. According to the website, this kit
"tells the tale of the Hanukkah Golem, a friendly character who was formed from clay by Rabbi Ben Bezalel on the 25th of Kislev, the first night of Hanukkah. The Hanukkah Golem teaches children to practice Tikun O'lam (repair of the world) and shares chocolate gelt with children who are well-behaved during the holiday."
In this sense, its theme is the closest to the popular Elf on the Shelf, what with the Golem geared toward overnight antics and the promise of treats.

I will say that the plush is not very impressive (especially compared to the other two), although he does have velcro on his hands and feet so you can easily attach him to things in your home. If anything, Asher really loves that the Golem has a cape, because we can make him fly. Even still, he's not Ash's favorite!

The Maccabee on the Mantel (✡✡✡✡✡)

Of all three of these Chanukah-themed boxes of meaning, inspiration, and fun, this is Asher's favorite by far. It is the most substantial and high-quality of the three when it comes to the packaging and presentation, with its almost anime-style illustrations in its book, and the plush itself is very light and soft in its features, which seem to really appeal to my little one.

I also think The Maccabee on the Mantel provides the nicest tie-in to Chanukah overall, what with the plush and almost squishy-soft/hard-cover book highlighting the miracle of Chanukah and the role of the Maccabees. Of the three, it seems like it's the most true to the message of Chanukah.

Asher schleps Zevulon (that's what we named our Maccabee) around the house with joy and giggles, and I have to say that if I had to pick one of the three to gift, I'd definitely pick this one. They also have a lot of really cute videos:

Note: I have a bunch of pictures of Asher + the Chanukah crew and how he reacted when we received them and opened each of them, but I have to find them to post. When we opened Maccabee on the Mantel it was almost like the Maccabee walked out of the box! His jaw dropped and he did this sort of "air release" sound. It was freakin' adorable. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

A Day in the Life: Single Parenting, Ear Infections, and Survival

Oh hello there. The past few weeks have gone a little bit like this:

Three weeks ago Ash got pink eye.

Two weeks ago he got it again.

Last Monday: Ash was a little kvetchy.

Last Tuesday: Ash was very kvetchy and got sent home from daycare with a fever.

Last Wednesday: Ash was kvetch half the time and laying around lifeless the other half of the time. He threw up.

Last Thursday: My parents showed up. The turkey went in. I was told by the parent line to take Ash to urgent care/the ER. Then the turkey came out. We went to Children's Hospital and it was diagnosed as an ear infection. We drove across town to a 24-hour pharmacy, went home and ate turkey and Pistachio Salad. (For my first turkey ever, it was pretty amazing.)

Friday: Ash screamed for two hours straight inconsolably several times. I felt helpless.

Saturday: Ash seemed a bit better. Hoping the meds were working, we went to shul and then out to lunch. Ash deteriorated again that night. He threw up twice.

Sunday: Magic! Just as my parents prepared to leave town, Asher brightened up, became himself again. And by Monday he was healthy, happy, and giggly like normal.

I'm not asking for sympathy or for the trolls to write about me and how sad and pathetic and whiney I am. I'm just writing it out for perspective. Thankfully, Ash has been a pretty healthy baby as far as illness goes. Yes, he was terribly colicky and had terrible gas/intestinal issues the first part of his life, but considering, he never suffered ear infections or anything worse until now. I'm simply hoping he doesn't get chronic ear infections. I never had them as a kid, and the inconsolable screaming proved one thing to me: ear infections are the worst. Worse than teething. Worse than a painful poop. Worse than anything for baby.

Ultimately, however, I realize that it all was probably a lot harder on me than it was on him. Having my parents around should have been helpful, but it made me anxious. All I could think was, they probably think it's always like this. I'm a terrible parent. I can't sooth and calm my child. I'm failing.

The worst of it all for me? This is going to sound stupid, but when G-d decided that babies shouldn't be able to blow their own noses on instinct, he was asking mothers everywhere to feel terrible, horrible, demonic for having to pin down their children to suck snot out of their tiny noses. At the hospital, I had to hold Ash down while the nurse did it and made him wail. Dad heard all the way out in the waiting room. At home, I found it too hard to do. I probably did Ash a huge disservice not squiging out his nose four times a day like they suggested, but the stress of his screaming and having my parents around and feeling like a failure as a parent kept me from it.

Also? That tiny little screaming baby face with welled-up tears and that look of, "Mommy, why are you doing this to me!? I'm so cute and cuddly and snuggly and I love you so don't take my boogers" is hard to overcome.


Just a week and a half and we're off to Israel so Mr. T can help us celebrate Asher's first birthday (and, you know, it's been more than two months since we've seen each other and it'll probably be another three or more). I can't believe it's already been a year since Asher was born. I can't believe it's only been two years since Tuvia and I first started talking. Where does it go? The time. It's ripped away at lightning speed.

The reality? You never know your own strength until absolutely everything is moved out of reach and you're forced to cope, adapt, and stumble through it all with necessary optimism. Because there's a tiny human -- one that pulls off your eye mask in the morning with a huge grin and loud bursts of "da da da ba ba ba" as he crawls all over you -- relying on you for absolutely everything.

To be needed is what forces us to survive.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Happy Turkey Day and a Chanukah Giveaway!

Thanksgiving prep has us beat. 

Oh Thanksgiving. I have such love-hate relationship with you. In truth, the "love" part is the Green Bean Casserole. The "hate" part is all of the other food. I'm not a big crazy indulge meal kind of person. Wait, how did I become an Orthodox Jew with that type of meal twice every week on Shabbat?!

I digress. (On that note, if you're curious why some Jews don't celebrate Thanksgiving, read my article.)

This year, oh this year my parents are coming to town, and I'm making my first solo Thanksgiving ever, without the help of a husband at home. Add to that Asher breaking out with some illness and a fever yesterday and boy oh boy it's been tough cookies around here.

Here's the menu, and before you ask, no, I'm not not making stuffing because I'm gluten free. No, I hate the stuff. It's disgusting.

Kosher Turkey a la Trader Joe's
Gluten-free Green Bean Casserole
Streuseled Sweet Potato Casserole
Deviled Eggs (mom is supposed to make these)
Pistachio Salad 
Gluten-Free Pumpkin Pie
Udi's Gluten-Free Dinner Rolls

Yes, you can see there is some heavy prepackaged goods going on here, but the gluten-free green bean casserole is itself quite the undertaking. I make my own mushroom soup/gravy and my own fried onions. Basically, I do everything but grow, pick, and prep the green beans. (Thank you Target and your Del Monte discount on the Cartwheel app!) These recipes will be posted up, but after Turkey Day. Sorry! At least you can plan for next year?

The Pistachio Salad is an Edwards Family standby. However, for the first time ever in my life making it, I noticed the recipe on the Jell-O Pistachio Pudding box is our family recipe and that it's actually called "Watergate Salad." Secret family recipe bubble burst! I did have to get creative, however, because Cool Whip is dairy and turkey is not! Luckily, I found a new non-dairy whipped topping product by SoDelicious called CocoWhip. Now, I wouldn't suggest plopping this on your pumpkin pie because it's potently coconut flavored, but in something like Pistachio Salad? Perfectly dreamy!

The Pumpkin Pie got help from Wholly Wholesome's gluten-free and parve pie crust. Although it didn't get very crispy and the pie filling appears to have separated from the crust, it looks like Pumpkin Pie, and that's what matters.

The big sticking point for me here is going to be the turkey. Yes, it's pre-brined thanks to the kashering process, but there's still the whole need to cook and baste and perfect the turkey. I've never cooked a turkey in my life. I've watched plenty of them being made, but I've never had to do one myself. And, thanks to my hatred of stuffing and Alton Brown's crusade against stuffing your bird, I'm anxious about a hollow turkey cooking right. When to start? When's it done? Do I season it? Do I put anything in the spacious cavity? I've become a monster on Facebook and Google owns me.

But I'm sure it's all going to turn out okay. After all, the worst that can happen is my non-Jewish, non-kosher parents will look at my gluten-free, non-dairy kosher Thanksgiving, smile and head out to McDonalds whenever it opens. I honestly don't know how non-Jews feel about parve substitutes, let alone how carb-loaders feel about gluten-free fried onions (a classic) and pie crust (so tasty when it's chock full o' gluten).

Amid the stress, the love-hate balance, and attempting to cook with a sick babe, I have to say a big thanks and hallelujah for Manischewitz. Yes, I don't imagine you suspected this post to end with a big "Whoo Manischewitz!" plug, but here we are. The truth is, I did them a huge disservice. They were kind enough to send me their naturally gluten-free Vegetable Broth, Chicken Broth, and a can of Turkey Broth, and I was going to write an elaborate post with the recipes for my Thanksgiving goodies. Unfortunately, life got the better of me and here we are, the evening before Turkey Day and I'm finally saying "these products have made my life so much easier."

The Vegetable Stock actually made its way into some quinoa for Shabbat when we partook of more Terra Chip Tilapia with Roasted Mushrooms and Popcorn Cauliflower. The rest of the stock made its way into the gravy for the Green Bean Casserole, along with some of the Chicken Broth. The rest of the Chicken Broth and the Turkey Broth are going to be the basting goodness for my hopefully successful 14.5-pound beast in the fridge.

Without these broths, I probably would have defaulted to water like usual. I just don't keep broth or stock in the house anymore! Color me convinced that Manischewitz has a good thing going with their broths. It's an easy way to pack something full of flavor, and I'm sold!

Also from Manischewitz? The Do-it-Yourself Chanukah House! Okay, I thought I was way ahead of the curve and super progressive back in 2008 when I made my first Gingershul, but the Chanukah House has really upped the ante. Yes, you could go out and (like I did back then) buy a kosher-certified Gingerbread House kit, but the colors would be a little unfestive for Chanukah.

The Manischewitz kit has festively colored frosting and sprinkles, and it comes with a magen david, too! Talk about the kit with everything you need to make a real Gingershul.

I'm schlepping mine to Israel in mid-December when Ash and I go visit Mr. T (thanks to my gracious inlays) or else I'd show you my amazing constructing skills (oh, there will be pictures, but I won't be eating any because it isn't gluten free). But wouldn't you love to make one of your own?

Well, I'm giving away a Do-it-Yourself Chanukah House kit! The best part of this giveaway is that after you win the kit and build your own, you can snap a picture and enter a contest to win up to $500 (find out more below the giveaway)!


After you've designed your own Chanukah House (or Gingershul), snap a pic and upload the photo between December 9 and 23, 2014, to Manischewitz's Facebook page. The grand prize winner will receive $2,000, second prize gets $1,500, and third gets $500!! $500, second prize nabs $200, and third prize will get $150.

(Rules: You must be 18 or older to enter. Minors can submit their entry with parental permission using a parent's or guardian's email address. Additional materials like sprinkles, frosting, cookies, or candy can be used to enhance the design.)

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

And the Cookbook Winner is ...

Be on the lookout for an email to receive your FREE copy of Secret Restaurant Recipes from the World's Top Kosher Restaurants by Leah Schapira and Victoria Dwek.

Enjoy and make lots of good recipes in good health!

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Giveaway: Secret Restaurant Recipes Cookbook

Although there aren't many kosher restaurants here in Denver, I was lucky enough to experience the amazing kosher options in the New Jersey and New York area, not to mention in Israel. Pair this with a childhood grown up with my mom whipping up some classic restaurant recipes from places like Red Lobster (those cheddar biscuits were to die for), and a cookbook with secret kosher restaurant recipes was made for me.

Yes, this is a review and giveaway post, and I shocked myself with this cookbook. After looking through the index and knowing a lot of the restaurants, I was worried I wouldn't be able to find anything with my two at-home cooking criteria:
  • gluten free
  • vegetarian
Luckily, I'm a creative cook and the recipes are easily changed for the discerning and committed cook.

As one of the things I'm missing most in the world is amazing kosher Chinese food (oh those evenings with Chopstix in Teaneck, I wish I had cherished you more), I immediately decided to make the Sesame Chicken from Kosher Chinese Express in Manalapan, New Jersey happen with tempeh in place of the chicken and tamarin in place of the soy sauce.

The result? This is seriously the most delicious thing I've made lately, and that's after absolutely falling in love with Isa Chandra Moskowitz's Buffalo Tempeh Sandwiches. I have a new love, and it's the sesame sauce in this recipe. I can't believe I never tried to make my own, because it was really easy and it's super tasty. I could put this on just about anything, and the tempeh was an excellent, meaty substitute.

Then I decided to tackle the Tilapia with Terra Chip Crunch from The Purple Pear, as Terra Chips are naturally gluten free, fish is a staple in our house, and when I lived out east I loved The Purple Pear. (Yelp has the reviews to prove it.)

I will admit that I didn't have granulated onion or garlic on hand, and I ended up subbing in some mirin for the corn syrup. I also picked up some seasonal Sweet Potato-Pumpkin Terra Chips instead of the Terra Sticks and Sun Dried Tomato Terra Chips. The result? Delicious and beautiful.

This cookbook has everything (yes, thinking SNL here): tips from the restaurant chefs and owners, advice on kitchen tools, beautiful pictures for every recipe, and more. I have to tell you that pictures are so critical in my decision on whether to purchase a cookbook. Basically, I only buy cookbooks with tons of pictures. I need perspective!

Thus, giveaway of this cookbook (a $29.99 value) just in time for Chanukah, too, so even if you're not a cook, you surely know one!

(NOTE: You must enter on the web. It will not work properly on mobile.)