Updated on Mondays to Help Start Your Week Off Right!
(and recipes updated whenever I get a chance)

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Recipe: Chocolate Chip Pomegranate Cookies

I love pomegranates.  Every Fall/Winter, I get excited when the stores start carrying them again, but I mostly only eat them (the seeds) plain.  Fortunately, my kids love to just eat the seeds by the handful, too.  I happened to have a whole tupperware full of seeds in my fridge when I stumbled on this recipe in a Parents magazine, so I figured it was some kind of divine intervention.  It was.  These cookies are amazing.  They're like little delicious chocolate chip cookies with bursts of amazing.  I changed the recipe slightly (it originally called for dark chocolate chunks, which I don't happen to have on hand right now), and I can't imagine them being any better than they turned out.  But the internet is also full of recipes with white chocolate chips (which, as much as I prefer white to other chocolate, I think might be too much), so I'd imagine the flavor of chips is pretty interchangeable.  Regardless, I used semi-sweet, and seriously, these cookies are absolutely amazing.

Edit: Oh, in case you are intimidated by pomegranates, I thought I should include some tips on how to deal with them.  They're actually not that difficult, but the red juice does stain everything, so be careful.  :)

Cut the top off the pomegranate about 1/4 - 1/2 inch down.  Set this aside.  Looking at the insides of the pomegranate, locate the membranes separating the main parts of seeds, and take your knife and make superficial cuts down the sides, about 1/8 inch into the skin of the pomegranate (you don't have to go all the way down, but cut at least a little past the mid-point).  Basically, you're making vertical cuts in the skin of the pomegranate wherever there are membranes on the inside.

Next, get a large bowl of cold water.  Take the pomegranate and gently pull it apart at the places where you've made the cuts (it should come apart fairly easily - or at least break into manageable pieces - you don't need perfect wedges, you just need to be able to get at the seeds).  Take one piece at a time, put it in the cold water, and gently rub/knock all the seeds off the membranes/skin and into the bowl (this is all done underwater, or just above the surface - this helps prevent red juice from squirting everywhere, and it makes separating the membranes from the seeds easier).  Do the same for all the pieces until all your seeds are in the water.

If there are any extra little pieces of membrane stuck to the seeds, you can gently rub them away - they'll float, and the seeds will all skin.  Skim the surface of your water with a spoon or fine mesh strainer to remove any excess floating membranes.  Drain the seeds, put them in a plastic container, and keep them in the fridge.  They'll last at least a week in the fridge.

Here's the recipe!!

Chocolate Chip Pomegranate Cookies:

1/2 cup butter-flavored crisco & 1 Tbsp water (the original recipe called for unsalted butter, softened, but I pretty much always prefer crisco in cookies.  The dough isn't ever as good by itself, but it seems to always make for better baked cookies - then again, I have had issues with cronically flat butter cookies, so I prefer the moistness/puffiness I get with crisco.)
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 cup packed dark brown sugar
1 egg
1 tsp vanilla
1 1/3 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 tsp baking soda
1/4 tsp salt
3/4 cup semi-sweet chocolate chips
1/2 cup pomegranate seeds, patted dry

Preheat oven to 350.  Line cookie sheets with parchment paper and set aside.

Combine flour, baking soda, and salt in a small bowl.

In a separate bowl, cream crisco, water, and sugars until light and fluffy.  Add egg and vanilla, mixing to combine after each addition.

Mix in the flour mixture until just combined.  Fold in chocolate chips, then very gently fold in seeds (I used a spatula and still smashed a few of them).

Drop dough by rounded teaspoons onto parchment-lined cookie sheets, 2 inches apart (I think I actually used a 1 1/2 tsp - they came out perfectly cute and small).

Bake 8-10 minutes or until just slightly light brown (the centers might not appear completely set).  Cool on cookie sheets 2 minutes, then remove to cooling racks.  Serve warm.

Store leftovers in the fridge for up to three days.  

Makes about 3 dozen 1 1/2 tsp sized cookies.

Monday, October 10, 2011

The Day I Got a Black Eye

Whoa, it's Monday, and I totally didn't have a blog prepared.  So here's a short story from my youth.  Hopefully Sweet D will stay asleep long enough for me to get it typed out.

I've always been a considerate person.  I was the middle child, with brothers on either side, and I think that, combined with my anxiety disorder, has made me very sensitive to other people.  It also made me terrified of conflict.  Mostly because "conflict" with my older brother usually meant fist fights - which weren't so bad in and of themselves (I knew how to stick up for myself, at least), but my parents' solution to our fighting was to lock us together in the tiny half bath in the hallway until we could hug for twenty seconds (the arbitrary time limit necessary to reflect forgiveness, love, and a willingness to get along in the future).  It was awful.  We'd sit there and stew for upwards of 30 minutes, filling the bathroom with an excessive air of loathing until we could finally agree to endure the "hug of freedom" without biting or pulling each other's hair.

So I (nervously) started Kindergarten.  My teacher was Mrs. Sturm.  I'll remember her name forever (and not because, when we moved back to South Dakota, I ended up going to high school with her daughter), but because of this incident.  There is no warmth in my heart for this woman.

I was in afternoon Kindergarten, so we got to school right when the older kids were finishing lunch.  Everyone was out at recess when we'd get dropped off, and if we got there early, we could run around the school yard for a bit, too, until the bell rang.

One of my first days of Kindergarten (or maybe it was in the middle or the end; I honestly can't remember, but it feels to me like my entire year of Mrs. Sturm was tainted by this moment, so my impression is that it happened early in the year), I got to school early and was playing in the school yard for a few minutes when the bell rang.  I knew we weren't supposed to run, so I was walking quickly to get in line (the rest of my class seemed like they were already lined up, and I was terrified I would get in trouble if I didn't get there soon).  I remember seeing them all lined up against the brick wall, waiting to walk inside in single file, with Mrs. Sturm at the head of the line.

All my little Kindergarten daily hopes were swirling around in my head.  It was going to be such a good day. We were going to make macaroni necklaces or paper bag shoes or some other kind of magic Kindergarten craft.  And mine was going to be perfect.  Just the right shapes.  In all the right colors.

Life was an amazing box of crafts, waiting for me to get in that line.

Then out of no where - everything went black.

I opened my eyes again to find myself on the ground, next to a big kid.  A 5th grader.  She was easily twice my size.  And she was bawling hysterically, holding her knee.

My whole body ached slightly, the wind had been knocked out of me, but after a quick self-check, I seemed mostly fine.  Except my head.  It really hurt.

But this big, huge, athletic, strong, brave 5th grader next to me was sobbing.  The tiny scratch on her knee was starting to bead little red drops of blood.  Since I seemed to be okay, and she was clearly not, I did the only thing I could think of to help.

"Are you okay?"  I asked her meekly.

She looked right in my face - and let loose another wail of wildly over-exaggerated pain.  Then a teacher swooped in to help her stand up.  Odd that no one was helping me up, seeing as how I was only the size of this girl's leg, but I was tough.  I stood up, rubbed my head where it ached, and walked over to my Kindergarten line.

Oh yeah!  Crafts were waiting for me in that line!  It was going to be a good day, in spite of this little set back.  So a gigantic person tried to run me over.  I can get over that!  I was clearly more polite (and tougher) than her.  I could just shake it off and get on with my life. And back to my fantasies of Kindergarten crafts.

I got in the back of the line and waited for us to start walking in.

Then a shadow crossed my face.

I looked up to see a scowling Mrs. Sturm standing in front of me with her arms on her hips.

"Are you hurt?" she asked in a voice that clearly implied she was only asking out of a sense of obligation as my teacher.

"My head -" I started.

"You know the rules.  You're not supposed to run in the school yard.

That's what happens when you run."

Those words have haunted me my entire life.  "That's what happens when you run."

But I wasn't running!  I was walking quickly!  The monstrous, Nordic beast of a 5th grader had been running!  I was just trying to get in line when she came out of nowhere and knocked me out flat!  Why didn't Mrs. Sturm see the truth?!  I would NEVER do something that was against the rules!!

I tried to protest, but she just ignored me and walked to the front of the line to lead us inside for the day.

The daily crafts were tainted by my shame.  I couldn't believe I'd let Mrs. Sturm down like that.  She must have been so disappointed in me.  Even though I didn't run, she thought I had.  My life was essentially over; a teacher was disappointed in me.  I would never be able to outlive this shame.

As the day wore on, my head began to hurt more and more.  I could feel a lump rising right above my eyebrow (hidden conveniently under my stylish bangs), but I didn't dare bring it to Mrs. Sturm's attention - it was my punishment - my cross to bear.

"That's what happens when you run."

After an hour or two, we had a routine bathroom break.  I got a drink of water from the water fountain, wiped my mouth, and with the excess water, I wiped my forehead, which was throbbing by this point.  I must have moved my bangs out of the way right as I walked back into the classroom, because Mrs. Sturm's face contorted as she watched me.

"Oh no..." the breath escaped her.  "Let me see your head."

I lifted up my bangs, showing that the tiny scratch on my cheek was not the only injury I'd sustained in our head-on collision.

"Go straight to the nurse's office.  Now."

I ran down the hall to the nurse, where she examined me quickly, handed me an ice pack and said, "well, that's going to be a black eye.  You should have come in right away so I could have gotten ice on it sooner."

More disappointment.  More shame.  How could I be letting so many people down today?  All the macaroni necklaces in the world couldn't get the foul taste of shame and self-loathing out of the back of my throat.

My eye did turn black, but it wasn't too bad.  It healed, as did the Amazon 5th grader's knee, I assume.  But the sense of failure at letting my teacher down never did.

In high school, Mrs. Sturm would often come to sporting events, because her daughter was a cheerleader.  I remember watching all my other friends from Kindergarten (who'd gone to the same schools with each other since then - where as I moved away for seven years - to Maryland) rush up to her to say hi.  They had such fond memories of her.

But not me.  "That's what happens when you run."  You disappoint your teachers.  You bring down a great 5th grade Viking of a girl.  You get an emotional black eye on your soul that you must bear for all time.

THAT is what happens when you run.

Monday, October 3, 2011

Hilmar Stimmler

I once knew a man named Hilmar Stimmler.  Okay, that wasn't his exact name, but it's only one letter off.  I'm just trying to avoid him running across this when he does a google-search for his name, as he is the type of person who likely does a google-search for his name on a bi-weekly basis.  In the event you do stumble upon this, Hilmar, like usual with unbeknownst subjects of my blog, I mean no harm or ill-will, it's just that, in knowing you, I obtained a somewhat interesting and/or humorous anecdote I feel my audience would enjoy reading.  And also, you were kind of a jerk to me, so I don't really feel too bad if this is unwittingly insulting to you.

What kind of a bizarre name is Hilmar Stimmler, you ask?  It's German.  Still kind of on the bizarre side?  Yeah, I know.  But I also met a guy named Torge (pronounced: Tore-guh), so who knows.  Germans, amiright?

Hilmar Stimmler was my boss.  I don't have a very good history with bosses.  There was the pathological liar (if you haven't read this one, I highly suggest it; it's one of my personal favorites), the tax-evader (who spent time in prison for tax-fraud shortly after I quit working there), another boss who used to have hysterical fits of womanly insanity, and would sob in her office on bad days, but would forget to wipe off the triangles of mascara from under her eyes, so they served as a form of yield-signs to steer clear of her on her "crying-rage-filled-rampage" days, and one who killed himself while I was working for him (it was a very small business with only 3 employees at the time, so that was... interesting).

But Hilmar was my boss during my Fulbright year to German.  I worked as an English language teaching assistant at a high school in a small-ish town in central Germany, or at least that's what I was supposed to be doing.  In reality, I worked as Hilmar's little American bitch.  We weren't supposed to teach the classes ourselves (I spent more than a few nights staying up late while trying to frantically put together a lesson plan for the next day after Hilmar's short notice that I was in charge of the lessons for the next day), we weren't supposed to grade papers (I was handed every paper as soon as the students turned them in, so I could "make the language corrections" for Hilmar - he would then ask what grade I felt the papers each deserved), and we weren't supposed to be translation services (Hilmar frequently called me out in front of a classroom full of students to argue with me over the meaning of a word - usually one that differed between American and British English definitions - I'm sorry, but I'm not going to hire a "solicitor" to represent me in court, and just because you had a routine doctor appointment does not mean you went "to hospital" or had "surgery."  Learn the language, Brits.)

Aside from abusing me in a professional setting, Hilmar seemed determined to make my year a memorable one in many other ways, as well.  For starters, as a participating teacher in the program, it was his responsibility to find me a place to live in town.  Instead of doing that, he offered to let me stay at his apartment until I could find a place to live.  He'd only charge me 250€ a month (out of the 703 we earned). That didn't seem like a bad deal, considering he would also be feeding me.  Until he went out of town for two weeks and left me alone with his teenage daughter - and no food.  I had no choice but to buy food, for myself and the daughter.  Then, when I spent a week away from the house (with Tante Rose - my German grandmother-of-sorts), he didn't see it fit to lower my payment for the month at all.  I was also confined to three rooms of the house: my bedroom, the kitchen, and the bathroom.  According to Hilmar, he preferred if I stayed out of the other rooms.  Including the living room, with the TV.

Okay, so I was over-paying for meager quarters in a semi-hostile environment.  It was only for a couple months, right?  Not a big deal.

Until he started walking around the house in his short.  Biking shorts.  Sometimes hot pink, sometimes teal.  Skin-tight.  Biking shorts.  He did love to bike.  But that doesn't excuse subjecting my eyes (or those of his innocent daughter) to such a sight for hours every weekend day.  Germans are not necessarily known for their sense of fashion, and Hilmar was more than eager to scald that stereotype forever into my retinas.

And the Stimmlers were musical.  Oh, so very musical.

Hilmar played the piano.  And keyboard.  Regularly.  He was actually quite talented, but any time you're imprisoned in a small room in a quaint, thin-walled apartment, with no source of noise-creating entertainment (since I wasn't allowed in the TV room), the sounds of another human practicing an instrument ad nauseum can quickly begin to grate your nerves.  And his daughter played the clarinet.

Ah, the clarinet.  I will always hate the sound of the clarinet.  Not that his daughter wasn't equally as talented as Hilmar the Great, but my older brother played clarinet when we were younger, and the tell-tale squeaking honk sounds of a poorly played clarinet are forever engraved in my mind - in the back of my mind, scratching at my brain like fingernails on a chalkboard.  Any time I hear a clarinet, it's like a group of fashionable black women with those mesmerizingly long, blindingly colorful fingernails have gathered to relieve the itches of dozens of chalkboards located at the base of my skull.  His daughter could play the clarinet for two hours at a time. Or more.  Sometimes more.

He briefly showed me around town my first week there.  But the first day of school, he got up and went in early, so I had to walk there by myself.  When I went to apply for my visa, he set out with me in the morning, walked me to the building, and as soon as we were inside (and to the tricky part of actually dealing with people), he had a "meeting," and he had to run off.  I learned quickly that he was not the type of person to rely on for help.  Or kind words.  Or compassion of any sort.

So the time came (sooner than anticipated) for me to find a place to live.  Well, technically, the time came for Hilmar to do his job and find me a place to live.  But that wasn't going to happen.

"Do you think you could possibly help me find an apartment or something where I could live in town?"  I asked, after drawing up all the courage I could muster.

"No.  You'll have to do it on your own.  What do I know about finding apartments around here?"  Oh, gee, Hilmar, I don't know.  For starters, you live in an apartment around here.  I'd say that's about as knowledgeable as anyone could ever hope to be!

After interviewing with a dozen renters looking for another roommate in town (and being rejected by all of them, most likely because I would have been leaving in July, and their school-year went through September, so they would have been out a paying roommate for two months, but also quite possibly just because I was an American), I began to get panicky and felt like I'd never find a place to live.  But the mother of a student at our school happened to run a dorm (not affiliated with the university in town, although most everyone who lived there was a student at the university), and she had an available room.  At the very least, Hilmar was kind enough to drive my belongs and me up to the dorm, so I didn't have to make multiple trips on the town's buses.  That was probably the only generous thing he did for me - and he didn't even charge me fare for it!

Once I escaped the clutches of living with Hilmar, things seemed to get slightly better.  I only had to see him at work.  On a daily basis.  Unless he didn't show up for class that day, which, granted, didn't happen very often, but for an unprepared 22 year old with no actual teaching experience, once would have been more than enough.

Other times, he would show up, but his lesson plans wouldn't.

"How about you read from our book today?" he'd ask me, in front of the entire class of 17-18 year olds who also, clearly, had no desire to actually do anything productive that day.

"You mean like this paragraph?"

"Sure, start with that.  And then keep reading.  Until I tell you to stop.  They like to hear a real American accent"

Fifty minutes later, the bell would ring, and my "real American accent" would be starting to crack.

It should be noted that Hilmar was married to an American woman.  However, I never met her.  She was living in Florida, teaching there for the year (or longer).  She'd decided she'd had enough of living in Germany (or with Hilmar?), as she'd been there nearly 20 years, so she found a job "back home," and moved away.  He went to visit her several times (including the two weeks he left me to fend for myself - and take care of his hungry daughter), and she came to visit him, too, over her holidays.  Most notably, over Thanksgiving break.

For whatever reason, we had a long weekend over Thanksgiving.  Surely not because of Thanksgiving, as that's an American holiday, but regardless, I spent the day with a couple good friends in the small town of Stendal.  We did our best to make a Germanized version of American Thanksgiving, and, all in all, it was a pleasant holiday.

Back at school on Monday, Hilmar approached me in the teachers' lounge.

"Did you have a nice Thanksgiving?" he asked, and without waiting for a reply, "We had a very traditional one - with the big turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes and everything.  Since my wife is American, she went all out and made me a real classic dinner.  I didn't even think of inviting you."

"Uh... yeah.  I went over to a friend's..."

"Oh, good.  Because I realize now I probably should have invited you.  Oh well!"  In spite of that realization, Hilmar didn't see fit to invite me for any of their Christmas celebrations, either.

Some mornings in the teachers' lounge, he would refuse to acknowledge my existence.  I'd say hi or wave, and he'd turn his back as if I weren't there at all.  Other mornings, he'd sit down next to me, full of friendly chit-chat and go over our lesson plans for the day.  I never knew which Hilmar I was going to encounter on any given day.

And then there was Spring Break.  I knew that I needed/wanted to come home for a few days, because Husband would be graduating from Creighton and was going to be Commissioned in the Army (and our good friends were also getting married that weekend - and, as it turned out, so were Husband and I).  I asked Hilmar if I could have Thurs-Tuesday off, over two months in advance.

"No.  I don't see how that could work."  Ahh, he was such a compassionate man.

I went back to the drawing board.  I came up with a plan where I could have as little work on those days as possible - finishing what I could before I left, preparing lesson plans for the days I was gone, etc.  A week later, I approached him again and asked a second time, giving him my proposal of how, in spite of being physically gone, I wouldn't actually miss any work.  Besides, he'd had me work far more than I was ever supposed to in the first place - I was frequently used as a "guest speaker" in random English classes (read: a free period for the students to accuse me of every American stereotype known to Germans while I tried to negate and/or acknowledge them; yes, many Americans are fat, but so are many Germans; no, not all Americans are rich, and I don't even own a gun, etc), and I wasn't technically ever supposed to teach a class on my own, much less alone in the classroom.

"I'll think about it, but you're really not supposed to be able to take any days off," he said.

So I booked my flights anyway.  I figured, I'd just call in (very) sick those days.  He'd obviously know I was lying, but we were allowed to take sick days.

Two weeks before my scheduled Spring break, Hilmar approached me.

"Do you still want those days off?  You can have them.  I don't see why it'd be a problem.  But it's probably too late to get plane tickets now.  Or they'd be really expensive, at best."  I honestly don't know if he was trying to be malicious, or if he was truly just that oblivious.

He maintained his "aloof yet unpredictably cruel" demeanor for the rest of my year there.  He wrote me a letter of recommendation but refused to let me read it.  He asked if I needed help getting my belongings to the train station then told me he already had plans to ride his bike for 12 miles the day I needed to leave town.  He made sure I was thanked in the end-of-the-year staff meeting but had a colleague (another teacher I'd worked with throughout the year) give my thank-you speech.

I'd like to end with some kind of moral or witty quip about Hilmar, but the man honestly baffled me.  I don't feel like my life is richer for having known him, yet I also don't feel as if he's caused any permanent damage to my psyche.  I generally feel indifferently amused when I think back on that year and the bizarre behavior of a man who can't recall having ever had the hiccups in his life.  So I'll end with this:

I once knew a man named Hilmar Stimmler (or something close enough to that).

(By the way, sorry for the terrible quality of the picture - I lost the actual copy of it, so all I had to go off of was the little thumbnail version.  That's me, before kids (*sigh*), in Hilmar's room with a bottle of champagne on one of the days both he and his daughter were out of town.  It was the only time I had friends over at his apartment - so, of course, we snuck into the "forbidden" rooms and snapped some super-fast pictures.)