Monday, May 22, 2017

Great Gifts For the Men In Your Life: Uncommon Goods

My dad was a good man, a kind man, and a very demonstrative man, but when it came to accepting gifts, especially Father’s Day gifts, he was a bad man. In fact, receiving gifts embarrassed him and he hard a very difficult time showing any graciousness when presented with a gift

“I TOLD you I didn’t need anything!” 

“Oh, now, why did you go and spend your money on THIS?”

that it took all the fun out of my gift-giving, and eventually, I complied with his requests and just gave him a card.

My husband, on the other hand, loves getting gifts, so when he became a dad, my delight in hunting for Father’s Day gifts returned. A sweater, a tie, running attire, a watch…all rather traditional (and boring) were all accepted with appreciation and relish. There were painted baby footprints and handprints, framed, for his office. There were group photos, framed, for his office. There were hand-tinted pics, framed, for his office. And so, with this being the 28th year of bestowing him with Father’s Day gifts, I wanted to really get something that showed a little more creativity on my part; something that he wouldn’t ordinarily pick for himself. (Although, I’m not sure he would exactly have picked out the baby handprints either.) And that’s when Uncommon Goods popped into my head…

I have been a longtime Uncommon Goods catalog shopper, often turning to them when I needed a great hostess gift or a grab bag or Secret Santa gift. I could always count on finding something there that was clever and unique. Once I started looking through the catalog, targeting gifts for men, I realized how many missed opportunities I had to purchase incredibly inventive things in the past.

The variety of options and the size of the audience to which the gifts would appeal is quite expansive: Sports fans…foodies…jokesters…beer and whiskey aficionados…pet lovers…techies, and on and on.


I know my husband loves maps of all types and when I typed “maps”  into the search bar, up came the perfect thing. Some friends who are major travelers have a map hanging in their kitchen that’s loaded with pushpins indicating all of the places they’ve visited around the world. Being the veteran travelers that they are, this created a great conversation piece, but a very messy pin-filled map all the same. The map I chose for the hubby is not only beautiful enough to frame (of course), but no pushpins are needed, just a coin to scratch off the places you’ve been, like a lottery ticket! The map will serve as a great reminder of all the cool places we’ve visited, and surely bring up memories of all those trips.  I’m going to let my husband scratch off all those places on his own, but as an extra surprise, I am going to uncover Portugal — a country we will be visiting in the fall, and a trip he doesn’t know about yet.

Another gift that kept me en pointe with the memory theme was  “Conversations With My Father,” a spiral-bound keepsake journal.  One of my biggest disappointments is that I never sat with my parents and discussed details of their lives with them. I know the big things, but the little details, like how old they were when they got their first job—what that job was. What their favorite books were. Who their childhood friends were. These are the things I know nothing about. Unfortunately, both of my parents and my mother-in-law are all gone, but my father-in-law, at 96, is still quite a character with a very good memory. My husband can fill in the pages as his dad regales him with stories from his past, and if they hit a roadblock, he can answer the preprinted questions, the book supplies as well. In addition to space for opinions as well as facts, some of the pages have spaces for photos, too. I see this book becoming a great source of comfort for my husband when his father is no longer with us, and I anticipate it becoming a family heirloom for generations to come.

The set of "Sculptable Collar Stays” has nothing to do with memories, but they looked awfully cool, and I am tired of finding those cheap plastic ones all around the house. These are made of flexible aluminum, and according to Uncommon Goods, they let you “sculpt the contours of your collar for a precisely spiffy look.” And can you really think of anyone who wouldn’t like to look “spiffy” these days?

Now I can sit back, relax, and delete all the emails I have been getting about how the clock is ticking and the Father’s Day gift-buying window is rapidly closing. My job is done…until September 20…that’s my husband’s birthday and there’s a nice set of Night-Running Headlights that I know he would love to receive…

I was compensated for this article, but all opinions are my own.

Wednesday, April 12, 2017

Charoset Strudel

At first mention of the news that Ben & Jerry’s was now selling a Charoset-flavored Ice Cream in Israel, I thought the idea sounded a little like a marketing ploy. But after mulling it over I realized that while being pretty out of the box, Charoset-flavored “anything” is not so far-fetched. One of the symbolic foods on the Passover Seder plate, this fruit and nut mixture symbolizes the mortar the Jews used to build the pyramids while they were slaves in Egypt. Depending on where your ancestors were from, your Charoset might be a variation on the theme, but according to Bustle, “the Ben and Jerry’s flavor seems to be based on the Ashekanzi or Eastern European version made from apples, walnuts, cinnamon, and some sort of sweetener like honey.” And, as my mom would say, “What could be bad?”
The combo of apples, walnuts, and cinnamon is indeed, quite traditional. Frankly, if Ben & Jerry had called their creation “Apple Pie,” and offered it around Thanksgiving time, no one would have batted an eye.
I thus began to think of all the dishes one could make while using Charoset as a base—sandwich cookies, tarts, rugelach, and I even found a chicken salad and a brisket recipe that both sounded wonderful. Charoset muesli (kosher for Passover, of course), Charoset pancakes, muffins...
Of course, one could get carried away, but I played it safe and created a Charoset Strudel. I retained the traditional mixture of chopped apples and walnuts (but you could use pears and pistachios), and took a page from the book of the Sephardic Jews who favor a few more add-ins, such as dried apricots and dates, and incorporated them as well. The melange of fruits and nuts is often moistened with sweet wine, but one could just as easily use apple juice or apricot nectar.
The strudel dough recipe is an adaptation from a similar one by pastry chef Marcy Goldman. The texture is more cookie-like than filo-dough strudel, but it is tasty and haimish (homey); something perhaps a Jewish grandma might make. And if your grandma is no longer at your Seder table, this strudel will definitely bring her there in spirit.
Passover Charoset Strudel
1/2c. vegetable oil
1/2c. brown sugar
insides of a scraped vanilla bean
1/4 tsp. salt
2 eggs
2-4 Tbsp. apple juice
1 1/4c. potato starch
1/2c. matzoh cake meal
1/2c. matzoh meal
1/2c. sweetened, shredded coconut
1c. walnuts, light toasted and coarsely ground
1/4c. brown sugar
1 tsp. cinnamon
3 apples, peeled, cored, and roughly chopped
1/2c. dried apricots, coarsely chopped
1/2c. dates, coarsely chopped
1/4c. preserves, any flavor
1/2 Tbsp. matzoh meal
Passover Powdered Sugar :
1/3c. granulated sugar
1/2tsp. potato starch
Grind together in an electric coffee/spice grinder until powdery
Make dough: In the bowl of an electric stand mixer, mix together oil, brown sugar, vanilla bean scrapings, salt, eggs, and most of the apple juice. Stir in the potato starch, matzoh cake meal, and matzoh meal and mix together on low, adding additional apple juice to form a soft, rollable dough. Allow dough to rest for 10 to 15 minutes. (Moisten again w/a tad more juice, if necessary.) Divide the dough in half.
Preheat oven to 350 degrees. Line a baking sheet with parchment paper and set aside. Roll out dough half between two sheets of waxed paper until each becomes a very thin 5 by 10-inch rectangle.
Make Filling: Mix all ingredients in a food processor until mixture resembles a coarse paste. Spread half the filling over the dough. Lightly sift the 1/2 tablespoon of matzoh meal over filling. Using the bottom sheet of waxed paper as an aid, roll up the dough into a log. Brush the top with beaten egg and sprinkle with coarse sugar. Repeat with the remaining dough, filling, and topping.
Transfer the logs to prepared baking sheet and score them into 1-inch sections. Bake until lightly golden , about 35 minutes. Cool, and sift approximately 2 tablespoons Passover Powdered Sugar over the tops. Then, using a very sharp knife, cut the scored sections into slices. (Rolls may be frozen and then cut right before serving.)

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Connecting With My Father's Past

Not a day goes by that I don’t think of my dad. He was not an easy man to get to know, but he could spin a tale or tell a joke with the best of them. I attributed his moods and hesitancy at revealing too much about himself to his history and being a survivor. His crying out in the middle of the night as my other tried to shush him back to sleep was evidence enough of the demons that lived in the closet of his psyche. 
I often look at my sons and see him in them: They are both strong-willed almost to a maddening degree, just like him, and also like their grandfather they are both fervent defenders of what they believe is right and just. Yesterday, January 11, I gave my dad more than just a cursory thought; it was his birthday. He’s been gone for over fifteen years, but a short while ago, while on a Viking River Cruise that sailed on the Danube from Germany to Hungary, I made a discovery that changed my life and brought me closer to him than I had been even when he was alive. The overwhelming connection I felt during that cruise somehow made this birthday seem more meaningful to me.

An optional World War II tour in Nuremberg during the cruise was high on my list because, as the child of Holocaust survivors, I take every opportunity I can to explore that horrific period of time. I’d hoped that it would give me some insight into what actually transpired there during the pre- and post-war eras. Our guide, Ingo, was a German history scholar, born long after the horrors that occurred in his country during WWII. His knowledge and level of sensitivity and morality were impressive, and I only wish I had more time to pepper him with questions. 

The Nazis chose Nuremberg as the locale for their many rallies partly because of its central location, and partly because of its connection to the Roman Empire. As we walked around what was now an empty expanse but had at one time been Zeppelin Field, the site of the former Nazi Party Rally Grounds, it was not difficult to visualize row upon row upon row of supporters shouting in unison as they saluted Adolf Hitler. An icy rain fell that morning, and it pelted our faces as a sharp wind blew through our jackets and created an atmosphere that was befitting of a group immersing themselves in that painful and evil bubble of history. We, who were alive, we who were safe, we who were merely observers, stood on what had once been the hallowed grounds of a power-hungry man and his followers who were starving for for the nourishment of his hate-filled words.

My eyes wanted to see more, but eighty years have past and there was not more to see. 

 Off in the distance stood the fuhrer’s massive Congress Hall. It built, according to blueprints that only an extreme narcissist could commission, to resemble the Roman Colosseum. Later, at the Documentation Center, we viewed photos and articles of Nazi propaganda. A visit to Courtroom 600 in the Palace of Justice, the venue of the Nazi war trials,  gave us a glimpse into post-war Nuremberg—a period that was fraught with guilt and retribution and meant to counteract some of the evil that occurred there.

My eyes wanted to see more, but eighty years have past and there was not more to see. There were no monuments—the German people intentionally did not want to create any shrines which would have given some the opportunity and the place to extol the workings of the Third Reich. The only pilgrimages made here are from the curious, the seekers of truth, the survivors.

Could he see the trees that I was seeing?

We were a somber bunch as we boarded the buses and began our trip back to our ship. And as I looked out the window I saw train tracks, and couldn’t help but wonder whether my father passed over those tracks; whether those were the very same tracks on which the trains took him and his family to the camps. Did the car where he and over 1,000 other prisoners were herded like cattle lumber by here? Could he see out from behind any slats in the wood? Could he see the trees that I was seeing? Was I looking at the same sky my dad looked at when he got off in Passau, another stop on our cruise? Gravel and dirt are mingled with the blades of grass that now grow between the railroad ties and as a modern-day train hunkers down the track, the dissonant sound of its wheels screeching—the metal upon metal—was what I could imagine him listening to. I cannot imagine the fear, I don’t dare begin to.

But on that day, on my dad’s day, I thought of him and felt him with me. I now understand…I have seen, not the worst of what he had seen, but my feet have perhaps touched the same ground he touched, I have breathed in the same air and looked at the same sky. I understand, because I was there.