Nutella Hamantaschen

We studied the Book of Esther in seminary this morning. As part of our discussion, I explained the festival of Purim and how it's celebrated--which, of course, meant I had to make hamantaschen last night as a treat for today's class. 

Haman is the villain of Purim, and hamantaschen, which is Yiddish for "Haman's pouches/pockets" represent the pouches of money the wicked man offered in exchange for destroying the Jews. (Spoiler alert: Queen Esther foils Haman's evil plan.)

In traditional recipes, the three-cornered cookies are filled with poppy seeds, a date-nut mixture, or jam. Personally, I like all of those options, but I wanted my hamentaschen to appeal to teen palates (and to my husband's), which is where the inspiration to fill them with Nutella came in. And, I have to say, they're pretty amazing. I checked the internet after I baked these, and apparently I'm not the first to think of this, but I still feel like a genius.

2 sticks unsalted butter, ideally at 60 degrees F

1 cup sugar

4 cups all-purpose unbleached flour

1-1/2 teaspoons baking powder

1 teaspoon salt

1 teaspoon vanilla

2 eggs, plus 1 more for egg wash

About 3/4 cup Nutella*

Cream the butter and sugar together for 5 minutes, stopping the mixer and scraping down the sides a couple of times. (For reasons why this step is essential to your success--and why you want the butter at 60 degrees--read this excellent post.) In the meantime, stir the flour, baking powder, and salt together and set them aside.

Add the vanilla to the butter-sugar mixture, then add the eggs one at a time, beating for 30 seconds and scraping down the sides of the bowl after each. Stir in the flour mixture with the mixer at lowest speed, and mix only until the dough is combined. (Overmix it, and the cookies will be tough.) Divide the dough into two balls, flatten them into discs about an inch thick, wrap them tightly in plastic wrap, and refrigerate them for two hours. This allows the butter and flour to integrate fully, making a much tastier cookie. 

Heat the oven to 350 degrees F. Beat the third egg in a small bowl with a fork until it's a nice, uniform yellow. This is your egg wash. Roll out one disc of dough on a very lightly floured surface until it's about a quarter of an inch thick. With a three-inch round cookie cutter (or a glass, which is what I used), cut as many circles as you can as efficiently space-wise as you can. A dough scraper or a sharp spatula can help you move them around without destroying their shape. 

Using a pastry brush, brush one circle lightly with egg wash, then drop about a teaspoon or slightly more of Nutella onto the cookie's center (I use two eating teaspoons, scooping with one and scraping the Nutella off the spoon and onto the cookie with the other. This avoids the finger licking conundrum.)

Fold up three sides of the cookie and pinch the corners together. Crucial step: brush the outside corners thoroughly with egg wash. This will glue them and prevent them from collapsing in the oven. The pinches will not hold on their own, and then you'll have hamanbrochen (Haman disasters). Ba-dump-bump: I'm here all week, folks.  

Place the filled hamantasch (singular; "hamantaschen" is plural) on a cookie sheet lined with a silicone baking mat. This also is essential; otherwise, the egg wash will glue the cookie to the pan (or parchment paper). Repeat this process for each cookie, then take the other disc out of the fridge and start all over again.

(You'll see that my batch in the photo above aren't super uniform. That's because it was literally nearly 90 degrees in my kitchen last night, because I refuse to turn on the air conditioner in February. I was working as fast as I could, but the dough still warmed up really quickly. But I tell myself that they look rustic and artisanal that way. )

Bake for about 15 minutes, until the bottom edges and corners of the cookies are turning golden brown. Let cool completely on cookie sheets, then gently loosen each cookie with a dough scraper or sharp spatula and remove to a plate. 

(You can re-roll the dough scraps and make some plain sugar cookies, but the re-worked scraps will be tougher and not really fit for company. I'd roll this dough out, cut it in pieces, bake them plain, and maybe put some Nutella on them after they are baked and cool.)

Makes about two dozen, not counting the dough scraps. These are super delicious: the not-too-sweet dough is the perfect foil for the creamy, rich Nutella. I didn't feel bad at all serving them to my students at 6:45 a.m.

*You can use jam instead if you've got a nut allergy issue or for some insane reason don't like the celestial taste of chocolate and hazelnuts together. If you do, use a really high quality, not-too-sweet variety (preferably homemade), and use a little less than a teaspoon for each cookie. 


VCFA: The First Residency

It's been about two and a half weeks since I got home from Vermont. Here's a little bit about my experience and what I learned. 

The short version is that it was amazing. Before I got there, I had no idea the level of talent or the selectivity of the program. The faculty is outstanding, and the student writing was of a much higher level than I'd imagined. 

The longer version: to recap, I've started a low-residency MFA program at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Here's how it works: you start off with a ten-day residency on campus in Montpelier. Amidst lectures and workshops and readings and hijinks and bonding, you're assigned an advisor for the coming semester. You meet with her/him and create an outline of what you want to study for the next six months. Once home, you work your tail off and turn in "packets" to your advisor roughly once per month--five per semester. Each packet for a first semester student includes:

  • two short critical essays, either on a writer's body of work or an element of craft;
  • 20-40 pages of new creative work (short stories, the beginning of a novel, etc.);
  • an annotated bibliography of books you've read that month, including a minimum of ten novel-length books (that means reading a minimum of fifty books per semester);
  • and a detailed cover letter to your advisor explaining your process and experience over the course of the month.

In subsequent semesters, the amount of work remains about the same, but it breaks down somewhat differently.

Your advisor receives your packet on the appointed date, takes a few days to review it carefully, then sends you feedback and guidelines for the following packet. Lather, rinse, repeat. After the fifth packet is turned in, you start getting ready for the next residency. And so it goes. I have four more residencies: July, January; July, January. The fifth one will be my graduate residency in January 2018, which doesn't sound that far away. 

What the above outline doesn't tell you is how much fun the program is. Yes, it's a ton of work. But it's the kind of work a person like me geeks out on. For the nearly two weeks I was on campus, I got to talk about books and writing with people who were just as enthusiastic about them as I am. Everyone is so kind AND smart AND funny AND talented. It really does feel like Hogwarts or Brakebills or Chalet School

A few of many highlights:

The readings, especially those by our class. There are about 24 of us, and everyone who read something impressed me. Not just the published people, like Brendan or Kim or Shellie or Melanie (who were all outstanding), but people whose names you don't know yet. But you will. 

My workshop, led by Uma Krishnaswami and Nova Ren Suma, two of the wisest, kindest, most modest yet insightful writers I've ever met. The workshops mix in students from all semester levels; there were about ten of us meeting every other day or so for a couple of hours with Nova and Uma. I never wanted it to end. Again, a ton of talent and potential were displayed in each student's work, and the critiques were among the most encouraging, most incisive, and most thoughtful I've ever experienced. 

Getting assigned Uma as my advisor! I'm SO THRILLED. She's incredible.

When Nova found out her book The Walls Around Us had been nominated for an Edgar--on a workshop break. She just gasped and held her phone out to us. We promptly squealed. It was awesome.

School traditions and pride and togetherness they build. The themed parties, the "name reveal" by the third semesters, the epic poem, the walking soccer, graduation itself...the playfulness both helped leaven the serious work that was going on and energized us all. 

The library and its resources. The chief librarian looks like the Vermont version of Gene Wilder's Willy Wonka, and my classmates and I were just as wowed by library orientation as we would have been in a chocolate factory. "It's like Christmas morning," breathed one of my friends as we went through all of the services available to us online. Yep, pretty much. 

Tim Wynne-Jones graciously signing my tattered, well-loved copies of his picture books. 

Alan Cumyn's lecture on learning narrative structure and voice from story songs--which he sang.

A spontaneous, heady, bionically nerdy dinner discussion about Pratchett as departed genius, Lovecraft and Card as fallen prophets, sonata-allegro form, harmonics, resonance, and hamburgers with a couple of other students and National Book Award-winner (and faculty member) Will Alexander. (The faculty just come and randomly sit with you in the cafeteria and strike up discussions. It's kind of amazing.)

My roommate, Melanie: fun, considerate, interesting, tolerant. Thanks, Mel. So glad we got roommate married for the next two years!

Tom Birdseye's freewheeling lecture on out-of-the-box research. 

Lunch with just our class and Kirby Larson. (Challenge: trying not to sound like Chris Farley when asking her questions.)

Tim's on-site interview with M.T. Anderson discussing his brilliant new book, Symphony for the City of the Dead; meeting Anderson afterward.

Word games and impromptu music in the Wine Pit (one of the dorm lounges).

All the knitters (myself included) stitching away through every lecture and reading.

My new friends. My friend Julie had told me what a close-knit group the VCFA faculty, students, and alumni are, but it's hard to believe until you experience it. 

I know I'm just beginning, but already I enthusiastically recommend this program to any writer. Soon, I'll be as vocal an evangelist as Julie. I just turned in my first packet yesterday, which was a great feeling. Stay tuned for more Vermont adventures!


Turn, Turn, Turn: The Best of 2015


Our kids in June of 2012 and in December of 2015 outside NYC's American Museum of Natural History

Maybe every year is full of milestones; do I say that a lot in these December wrap-ups? Still, this year proves the cliché: it seems like we had transitions and turning points every few weeks. 

I completed a 60-day yoga challenge, and then applied and was accepted to graduate school. I finished a book that will come out in late spring or early fall of 2016, (I am really, really excited about this one.) Christian graduated from college and is now a member of the adult work force. James left on his mission to France; Aolani moved away to pursue her lifelong dream of living in Hawaii. Hope had her first singing solo with the HS jazz band. Tess started high school; Daniel started middle school. 

But some things stayed the same. Patrick continues to love his job; Anne remains the smartest, most entertaining kid at the elementary school. Moneypenny is delightful; California is relentlessly sunshine-filled. I'm glad for these happy constancies.

In 2015, as always, I kept track of the things I experienced. I always enjoy looking back through my diaries and reliving the year's highlights through the lists I keep. 

Top Ten Books Read:

1) All the Light We Cannot See

2) Ancillary Justice

3) Station Eleven

4) In Sunlight and in Shadow

5) The Madonnas of Leningrad

6) Ready Player One

7) Keturah and Lord Death

8) The Lies of Locke Lamora

9) Kitchens of the Great Midwest

10) Everything I Never Told You

Most Disappointing (not the worst) Book:

Gold Fame Citrus

Fantastic Books I Read by People I Know:

(I don't rank books written by friends, but you should all read these.)

The Passion of Dolssa, by Julie Berry

Grace is Not God's Backup Plan, by Adam Miller

Top Ten Movies Seen:

10) Inside Out

9) Bridge of Spies

8) Mad Max: Fury Road

7) Creed

6) Woman in Gold

5) Trumbo

4) The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

3) The Martian

2) Goodnight Mommy

1) The Keeping Room

Top Music Downloaded:

5) "Get Lucky," by Daft Punk

4) "Ain't Messin' Round," by Gary Clark, Jr.

3) "I Need a Dollar," by Aloe Blacc

2) "Elle Me Dit" by Ben L'Oncle Soul

1) "People Say," by Portugal. The Man.

Favorite TV:

3) The Blacklist

2) Gotham

1) Les Revenants

Favorite Websites:

3) Vicki Archer

2) Manger

1) Brocante Home

Top Five Meals Out:

1) La Esquina, NYC

2) Lucques, West Hollywood

3) Picasso, Las Vegas

4) Providence, Los Angeles

5) Lucky Noodle King, San Gabriel

Yarn of the Year:

madelinetosh Tosh Merino DK, Geode colorway

My main resolution for 2016 is to do well in school while not neglecting my family or my awesome teaching gig. I'm pretty sure that'll take up all of my time. Deep breaths. Here we go!


Svithe: All Things Testify

This is the Christmas program I wrote for today's Sacrament Meeting. We used this choir book and this hymnal. Our theme was inspired by this beautiful book. Due to the skills of our lovely reader, Lael Littke, our brilliant organist, Janet Smith, and the stalwart choir under the direction of my spectacular husband, I think it was our best program ever.

 Jules Bastien-LePage, The Annunciation to the Shepherds, 1875

Congregation: #212 “Far, Far Away on Judea’s Plains

The Gospel is rich with symbols, and at no time are they more abundant than at Christmas time. The purpose of symbols is to enlarge our understanding and help us to see patterns and relationships. Symbols are the sign language of faith.

Many of our favorite Christmas symbols teach us about Jesus Christ, His merits and mercy, His condescension and His atonement. But we can find meaning in even the most secular of symbols; we can see Christ and the Father’s plan of happiness all around us, if we only take a moment to look and contemplate. A kind, immortal, bearded man who brings gifts to all the world and has a special love of children. Bells that herald the coming of priests and the call to worship. The diversity and uniqueness of a snowflake, each of countless known to God. We invite you now to ponder some of the most powerful symbols of Christmas, for as Moses writes, “all things bear record” of the Lord. 

Primary Choir: “All Things Testify of Jesus Christ

The holly plant has been a symbol of both Christ’s birth and death for centuries. Its leaves stay green throughout the darkest, coldest winter, and its thorns represent the crown of thorns the Savior wore at his crucifixion. The holly berries also point to Jesus and the reasons He came into the world. We celebrate the birth of a baby because of what that baby will become and do: live a perfect life, then work out an infinite Atonement for each and every one of us. For “he was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities: the chastisement of our peace was upon him; and with his stripes we are healed.”

Choir: “Sans Day Carol” 

Congregation: #209 “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing”

Every year at this time, we decorate our houses with evergreen wreaths, garlands, and fir trees. Throughout the Christian world, the evergreen tree symbolizes the Savior, growing and fragrant seemingly eternally. Alma tells us a parable about such a tree, teaching, “But if ye will nourish the word, yea, nourish the tree as it beignets to grow, by your faith with great diligence, and with patience, looking forward to the fruit thereof, it shall take root; and behold it shall be a tree springing up unto everlasting life.”

But Lehi saw another tree that represented the love of God and the condescension of Christ—the tree of life, laden with sweet, delicious fruit. 

Quartet: “Jesus Christ, the Apple Tree” 

Prophets from Abraham to John the Revelator link Christ to the image of the star. Job asked, “Is not God in the height of the heaven? And behold the height of the stars, how high they are.” Shining in the night sky, stars are guiding lights through the darkness, helping those with eyes to see to navigate their journeys. We sing of one particular star that led believers to the birthplace of the Savior. “And, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”

Choir: “Star Carol

Congregation: #201 “Joy to the World”

Before the modern hybrids we have now, the rose blossom had only five petals. For early Christians, this simple, humble flower brought to mind both Jesus and his mother, Mary. The petals stood for the five wounds of Christ; its pure white color spoke of purity of both mother and child. Its fragrance and hardiness represented Jesus’ generosity and His long-suffering. But the rose also represents the kingdom of God on the earth. Isaiah foretells that, when the Lord begins to gather and restore His people, “the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose. It shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice even with joy and singing.”

Choir: “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming

One of the sweetest visions of Christmas is that of Mary nurturing her newborn Child. We can imagine her devotion and sense of wonder whenever we see a mother with a new baby. But Isaiah repeatedly reminds us that Jesus’ love for us is more perfect and full than that of even the most mindful of parents. Our Lord would gather us as a hen gathers chicks; he calls after us as softly and tenderly as a lullaby.

Choir: “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly

Congregation: #204 “Silent Night”

It’s not enough for us to hear and accept the good news of the Savior come to earth; we must do something about it. President Hinckley said, “As [Christ’s] followers, we cannot do a mean or shoddy or ungracious thing without tarnishing His image. Nor can we do a good and gracious and generous act without burnishing more brightly the symbol of Him whose name we have taken upon ourselves. And so our lives must become a meaningful expression, the symbol of our declaration of our testimony of the Living Christ, the Eternal Son of the Living God.”

Wenceslas, the compassionate ruler, is an emblem of Christian faith in action. He ventures out in a terrible storm to bring food, drink, and light to a poor peasant family. The servant who accompanies him struggles and nearly freezes to death in the forest wilderness—until he walks in the footsteps of his master. When the storms of life rage around us, we, too, can find refuge in following our Master’s steps—especially when we unselfishly follow James’s admonition to take care of the widows and fatherless wherever they may be. 

Choir: “Good King Wenceslas 

Bishop’s Remarks 

Closing Hymn: #202 “Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful”


The Best Christmas Movie Ever

 Actually, it's a dead heat. The two best Christmas movies ever made are It's a Wonderful Life (IAWL) and Die Hard (DH).

It should be clear to everyone why the first holds the title. There's no better story of the hero's journey toward redemption or the blessings of selfless giving. George Bailey earns heavenly intervention during a literal dark night of the soul--because of his life of devotion to his family and his community. Every frame is perfect. But no one needs a dissertation to be convinced of that.

Die Hard, however? On par with Frank Capra's masterpiece? Whatchu talkin' bout, Willis?

First, let's establish that Die Hard is a great movie that changed action films forever. Unlike Rambo, the Terminator, or any character played by Chuck Norris, Bruce Willis as John McClane has no superpowers (other than the ability to drive people crazy, as his wife wryly notes at one point). He prevails through sheer grit, humor, and ingenuity, all the while motivated by his love for his wife. Score points for meaningful theme.

To boot, the script features excellent characterization; seamless plot building; brilliant dialogue, including memorable one-liners that have become iconic; and try-fail cycles with escalating stakes for protagonist (John McClane), antagonist (Hans Gruber and team), and contagonist (the LAPD and FBI). Bonus: did I mention Alan Rickman, aka the best villain of all time? There's not a single false move anywhere in the film. 

But a Christmas movie? The heck you say. Oh, sure, it's set at Christmastime, and Christmas music begins and ends the film. Santa hats and tinseled trees are everywhere. Other than that, it appears to be a pretty profane movie. Grisly deaths, sick jokes, and F-bombs abound. Bruce Willis as the chain-smoking, foul-mouthed John McClane seems considerably less than messianic at first glance. When all is said and done, it's a movie that more than earns its R rating.

And yet. There's more going on here than meets the eye. To wit:

1) Names: the name of every character is deeply symbolic. More on this throughout the points below. 

2) John McClane (Bruce Willis) as Everyman: The 15th century morality play The Summoning of Everyman is an allegory illustrating the progress of man through life, from calling to fall to redemption. The original character Everyman finds no help in his pilgrimage, eventually learning when he comes to death that all he has to offer God are his good deeds. The idea was that the audience members of the time would identify with Everyman's humanity through both his flaws and his vulnerability, learning something about themselves as they witnessed the drama. 

McClane is a modern Everyman. His enemy, Gruber, tells his hostages, "You will all be witnesses," signaling the drama that will unfold. McClane is a blue-collar, NYC cop who's temporarily lost his wife, Holly, through arrogance and stubbornness. At DH's beginning, he's leaving home with hopes of reconciliation, only to fall into the same trap of bickering and blaming when he and Holly first meet up. Though he's flown across the country, he still has a journey to make--one of self-discovery and reconciliation--much like IAWL's George Bailey.

3) John McClane as Christ figure: Throughout the Old Testament, Israel, God's covenant people, is personified by a bride, with Jehovah as her bridegroom. In chapter after chapter, Israel goes astray and breaks her covenants, but Jehovah is endlessly patient and forgiving. Reconciliation is prophesied, often in the image of a blissfully united husband and wife. The New Testament shows God condescending/incarnating into mortal form as Jesus Christ to fulfill those prophecies--to redeem and to unite His covenant people. 

McClane leaves the safe comfort of NYC for the strange land of California. Throughout the beginning of DH, he's confronted by the weirdness of Los Angeles, showing just how out of his element he is. Interestingly, while Jesus had no earthly authority (despite being legally entitled to it), McClane, being out of his jurisdiction, has no legal authority in LA.

His trip has one objective: to be reunited with his family forever. As DH progresses, McClane becomes more and more vulnerable: barefoot; friendless and cut off from communication; exposed; wounded; weaponless. He doesn't see it yet, but the farther he descends, the closer he comes to redemption.

4) Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) as Satan: "Hans" and "John" are forms of the same name, which means "Jehovah is gracious." Likewise, Gruber becomes McClane's dark mirror, constantly reflecting and contrasting false salvation with true salvation. He is a consummate trickster: posing as a high-minded freedom fighter, he's really a master thief. He is a smooth, educated, polished, and gracious liar, motivated by selfishness and greed. He promises his followers miracles at every turn, only to fail them in the end. At DH's climax, McClane frees Holly from Gruber's grasp and casts him down from the 30th floor to the earth, just as Lucifer was cast down.

Oh, and just to hammer the point home, "Gruber" means "from the pit." Boom.

5) The 30th floor of the Nakatomi Building as Heaven: "Nakatomi" is the name of an ancient Japanese clan that acted as intermediaries between mortals and the gods. McClane and Holly are reunited (both times) on the 30th floor. Gruber seeks to "lay up treasure" for himself there, since that's where the Nakatomi vault is located. McClane is baptized there, fully immersed in the decorative fountain in the common area. And McClane vanquishes Gruber and casts him down from there. 

6) False saviors other than Gruber:

Mr. Tagaki, the gracious, well-meaning U.S. head of the Nakatomi corporation--his name means "tall tree," but like the cedars of Lebanon and the oaks of Bashan, he cannot prevail.

Harry Ellis--"Henry" means ruler, and Ellis is the English form of Elijah, or "my God is Jehovah." This coke-snorting executive thinks he can save himself and his co-workers, but his arrogance earns him a bullet in the head.

Johnson and Johnson--The sneering, brutal FBI duo think they can save the day with "only 20% civilian casualties." A whole lot of C4 on the Nakatomi Building's roof says otherwise. Note their names, which refer to "John," but also connote what jerks they are. 

Dwayne Robinson--the know-it-all Deputy Chief of the LAPD is humbled rather quickly after a few disastrous attempts at leadership. 

7) Other significant names:

Holly Gennaro McClane -- Holly is one of the oldest symbols of Christ. "Gennaro" is the Italian form of January, which connotes open doors and new beginnings. "McClane" means "son of the servant of St. John." John the Baptist or John the Beloved/the Revelator? Either works, given his close connection with Jesus. At the beginning of DH, Holly rejects McClane's name (see Israel/Jehovah, above), but assumes it at the end. 

Al Powell -- McClane's only true friend in LA, an African-American cop who's a self-described "desk jockey." His first name means "bright" or "noble" (in contrast to the white Deputy Dwayne's name, which means "dark"). His surname connotes both "pal" (especially when Bruce Willis says it), and Paul. Like St. Paul, who prosecuted and killed Christians before his conversion but then became a valiant warrior for Christ, Powell mistakenly kills an innocent boy early in his career, but then redeems himself by helping McClane and ultimately saving his life. 

Roy -- Seeking to hide his identity from Gruber, McClane tells Powell to call him Roy, which of course, means "king."

8) False redemption: Gruber has one goal: to steal $640 million from the Nakatomi vault. (Satan wants to steal power from Heaven.) From the moment the thieves appear, Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" is used as their leitmotif, first in a minor key as they sneak into the building, and then at their moment of apparent triumph, when the vault opens (total darkness in the form of a power cut must occur for this to happen, by the way). Beethoven set Schiller's poem "Ode to Joy" to music to celebrate the eternal happiness that comes from brotherly union. Working as a team, Gruber and his men achieve their goal--only to be foiled by the true savior, the battered and wounded McClane. 

9) True redemption through the passion of John: From the Greek word meaning "to suffer," the "passion" in Christianity refers to Christ's redemptive suffering. Throughout DH, McClane suffers increasing pain as Gruber and his henchmen specifically target his vulnerabilities. He's pushed to every extreme physically, emotionally, and mentally as he works to save his wife and the other hostages. Significantly, his feet get the worst treatment of all.

He's also despised and rejected by everyone in authority, from Ellis to the Johnson twins (no, I don't think the Tintin allusion is an accident, either). 

In his moment of greatest agony, McClane begs Powell to tell Holly how sorry he is for his past mistakes. "She's heard me say 'I love you' a thousand times, but she's never heard me say I was sorry." Shortly after this atonement, he's baptized as he dives into the Nakatomi fountain to escape a fireball.

Coming through both water and fire, his renewal is thus complete, but it's not until McClane surrenders to Gruber that Holly recognizes him as the savior that he is. "Jesus," she whispers when she sees him--whereupon McClane defeats Gruber once and for all.

Still don't believe me? Just go watch Die Hard again, and see if all this doesn't jump right out at you. Merry Christmas!