14 December 2014

Holiday Gift List

I don't usually do a gift round-up on the blog, but as we are headed to Beirut for the next few weeks, I don't think we'll be doing much cooking over the holidays - just plenty of eating! Living overseas we have to order gifts far in advance, but if you are looking for some last minute ideas, here are a few!

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Hand-carved olive wood utensils. I love my olive wood kitchen spoons, they are beautiful and useful. These are made by From the Earth, a fair trade organization based in Amman, Jordan. They have several different spoons, spatulas, wood bowls, and cutting boards. Ships from the U.S. $12-$18


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Thelonius Monk and Booker Ervin recordings. These two recordings reissued last year have become my standard dinner party background music. They have just the right amount of pep without being too loud or distracting. Although recommending jazz albums does make me feel like this clip.

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Moroccan rugs and crafts from The Anou. Moroccan rugs are all the rage these days, selling for thousands of dollars in the U.S. Very little of this money goes to the Moroccan women who weave these rugs, who often get only $100-$300 per rug. A project called The Anou, started by Peace Corps workers, aims to fix this problem by letting you buy directly from the weavers and craftsmen themselves. The prices are ridiculously low ($200 for a handmade rug) and include shipping. I also like that the website tells you about the techniques used to make the crafts, and has small profiles on the craftspeople. On my personal wishlist are this cool green rug, this plush carpet, this handira blanket, and these earrings. The Hanbal rug shown above is $172.

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Canaan Fair Trade Olive Oils. I think olive oil is a great gift because it's something that people use frequently, but it's also a chance to give someone something nicer than what they would have bought for themselves. Canaan, a Palestinian fair trade cooperative, sells olive oils, za'atar and a kind of couscous called maftoul, which would also make great gifts. You can choose olive oil from two types of trees, Rumi or Nabali, and they also sell raw unfiltered olive oil (my personal favorite). Currently they only come in cases of 6, but you can give a few as gifts and keep a few for yourself. Ships from the U.S. $94 for 6 bottles

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Quitoquito Antique K Sabatier Carbon Steel Chef's Knife. My mother insisted on using only Sabatier carbon steel knives. We have a range of knives at home, but my Sabatier's are the ones I always reach for first. If you've never used carbon steel before, be aware that they will change color naturally. $165

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Fruit and Veggie Finger Puppets. I'd be happy with pretty much any gifts from Food52's store Provisions, but these are adorable for your littlest family members. $18

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Brahms Mount blankets and throws. I am a total sucker for a good blanket or throw (or tablecloth, napkin, bedspread, scarf). Textiles, man. Brahms Mount blankets are all made in Maine and gorgeous quality and texture. The wool ombre blanket (above) is perfect for colder climes, whereas their linen leno stripe is light enough for somewhere like Egypt. $200-$300

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Charitable donations, for that person who has everything on your list. I have both given and received donations from Heifer International as a gift, and enjoyed the experience every time. They're a great organization and do a particularly good job of of make the gift giving experience fun. However, I also want to recommend a donation to an organization that is very near and dear to me personally, which is a donation to the World Food Programme Syria. WFP is a United Nations organization, like UNICEF, so you can feel assured that the donation is safe and secure and going to the right place. To learn more about their work in Syria, please read this Dexter Filkins piece and watch this 60 Minutes segment.

And, as always, homemade cookies, jams, liquers, and preserves make great gifts!

What are you giving for Christmas this year?!

10 December 2014

Hummus Musabaha

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I started to write a long-ish post about starting to settle in here in Cairo, and what it's like being an expat in a Muslim country over Christmas, but then I started to get long-winded about advent calendars, and I remembered that what I really wanted to talk about was not those little chocolates behind paper doors but hummus. HUMMUS. Oh wait, none of you are surprised?

I couldn't really figure out how hummus and the holidays went together, so I figured just screw it, let's talk about the hummus. As I've mentioned probably a bazillion times before there's a LOT of ways to serve and eat hummus, way more than you probably know about. But one of my favorite ways is called hummus musabaha. Hummus musabaha is basically warm hummus with chickpeas and a bit of hot water stirred into it until it becomes a sort of spoonable concoction. It's not the sort of thing you find in a fancy restaurant, but it's one of those things you might find at a corner shop or in your mom's kitchen.

I often make hummus musabaha right after I've made fresh hummus. I take the still warm hummus, thin it with some of the hot chickpea cooking water, and stir in a handful of fresh cooked chickpeas. You stir the whole soupy delicious mass together like a thick stew, and then you top it with lemon juice and tomatoes and herbs. It's warm and smooth and nicely lemony, and total comfort food. Which I guess does make it right for the holidays after all.

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Though I may lose my cooking bonafides for saying this, you can make hummus musabaha from purchased hummus and canned chickpeas, which makes it a snap to whip together. The hummus needs to be very good quality though - I find most US grocery store brands taste disturbingly of citric acid and preservative. Try to find one that doesn't (Oasis is a decent brand), or buy your hummus from a local Middle Eastern grocery or take out place that makes their own.

for hummus:
2 cups prepared hummus, room temperature
2/3 cup boiling water
1 cup warm cooked chickpeas (I prefer the Whole Foods no salt brand for canned chickpeas, or cook chickpeas from scratch)
sea salt

for topping:
1 lemon
olive oil
chopped tomatoes
chopped herbs (parsley or scallions or mint, or a mix)
Aleppo pepper or sumac for sprinkling

1. Place your hummus in a very large bowl. If our hummus is cold from the refrigerator, you can microwave it or place the bowl over boiling water to take the chill off.
2. Pour in the hot water. Very carefully and slowly mix the hot water into the hummus until smooth. Adjust the consistency with more hot water or more hummus as desired. You want it soupy but not runny. Fold in the chickpeas. Squeeze half a lemon into bowl, add salt to taste, and mix together.
3. Top the hummus with your choice of tomatoes, herbs, and spices. Eat warm, with a large spoon.

** Please excuse the paltry photos, my camera and phone are on the fritz, and we have yet to set up home internet in Cairo, so my apologies if posting are a little slim.**

30 November 2014

Egyptian Meat Pies

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Hello from warm, sunny, smoggy, crowded Cairo! I hope you had a lovely Thanksgiving. We are just settling in here, but are lucky to have some great neighbors and colleagues who adopted us and made sure we had turkey and stuffing and pie on the holiday. Anyone who makes sure that you have pie is a pretty good friend to have if you ask me.

Before we left for Cairo, I wanted a bit of exposure to Egyptian dialect (though every native Arabic speaker understands Egyptian dialect because of all the movies and TV shows from there, I am not a native, and Egyptian is very different from my comfort level in the Levant. And certainly two years in Algiers did very little for my Arabic at all, outside of understanding Souad Massi songs.)

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Anyway, this was basically an excuse to watch some Egyptian TV shows on YouTube, which obviously deteriorated into me watching Egyptian cooking shows. I watched a lady making homemade hawawshi حواوشى, or stuffed meat pies which are considered one of the national dishes of Egypt. Hawashi is usually made by stuffing leftover bread with a bunch of spiced ground meat and baking it, and is a way to use up slightly stale bread. The meat can be already cooked or raw, and the pies can be made in the oven or on a griddle. The lady on the cooking show, however, was making her hawawshi with freshly made dough, and explained that the filling was "Alexandria-style," which as far as I could tell just meant that it involved chile peppers.

Now that we've arrived I spotted a few hawawshis at Zooba and around on the street, but I haven't tried any to see how they compare to my homemade version. I've been too busy eating ta'amiya (Egyptian falafel) and fuul (broad beans), trying to figure out how to get to and from work, how to get groceries, unpacking our suitcases, and generally not getting lost. I hope you all are enjoying those turkey-day leftovers!

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Egyptian Meat Pies (Hawawshi) 

filling:
1/2 an onion, diced
1 large tomato, diced
1 jalapeno pepper, seeds removed, diced
2 cloves garlic, sliced
1 lb ground beef
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
 1/4 teaspoon paprika
salt, pepper, olive oil

dough:
3/4 teaspoon active dry yeast
1 cup warm water, plus 2-3 tablespoons more if needed
2 cups flour
1 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon sugar
2 tablespoons olive oil

1. Make the dough: Mix the yeast and the water in a bowl. Add the flour, sugar, salt, and olive oil, and mix thoroughly. Knead the dough in the bowl until it comes together and becomes smooth. Cover the dough with plastic wrap or a damp towel and leave to rise.
2. Make the filling: Heat a splash of olive oil in a wide pan. Saute the onion until soft and translucent. Add the jalapenos, tomatoes, and garlic. Let the mixture cook over medium heat until the tomatoes have lost most of their liquid and everything is soft. Add the beef, paprika, coriander, salt, and pepper to the pan. Saute the mixture, breaking up the beef, until the beef is cooked through.
3. Preheat the oven to 425F. Prepare a baking sheet.
4. Form the dough into 8 balls and set aside. Sprinkle a work surface with flour. Using a rolling pin, roll out two dough balls into rounds. Place a heaping amount of the filling onto one round. Remember the dough will expand, so you really want to pile the filling on there. Top the meat pie with the second round of dough and pinch the edges closed. Cut a small X in the top of the meat pie. Transfer the pie to the baking sheet and repeat with the remaining dough and filling. If desired, you can brush the pie with olive oil before baking.
5. Bake the meat pies in the oven for 15-20 minutes, or until the dough becomes golden brown. Remove and serve warm.


19 November 2014

How To Make Your Own Harissa (and Why You Should)

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Harissa is all over the place in America these days, everywhere we turn there's the North African chili paste on menus and condiment lists and every cooking magazine you open. I find this extremely frustrating. After spending two years in Algiers, while I may not have learned much, I definitely learned about harissa. I learned that there is bad harissa and good harissa, and the reason the harissa craze in America is so frustrating is that most of the harissa in America is over-priced and mediocre.

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I suppose I should be happy that people are actually learning about what harissa is in the first place, but it wouldn't be me if I didn't have higher standards than that. However, there is an easy cure to this problem, the problem of the $8 a jar sub-par harissa, and that is to make your own harissa! It is surprisingly easy and doesn't even necessitate a trip to a special grocery store.

Now, a bit of background, harissa is made in North Africa, primarily Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco. Most connoisseurs will tell you that the Tunisians make the best harissa, Algerians the spiciest, and the Moroccan version is often simpler and milder. The primary principle of harissa is that it is an oil-based chile paste, basically all you need is oil + chiles for the most basic version. There are about as many recipes for harissa as there are cooks in North Africa or salsas in Mexico, there is even a famous version of harissa from southern Tunisia that involves rose petals. However, most harissas are based on a simple equation of chiles (fresh or dried), a few spices, salt, and oil. For a basic harissa, there's no need to add red bell peppers, fresh herbs, tomatoes or any other detractors.

My harissa recipe is based on my efforts to recreate the harissa from my favorite vendor in Algiers' Premier Mai market. While I can no longer buy a big bag of harissa from him, it's surprisingly easy to recreate at home, and we use it to top just about everything (eggs, pizza, grain salads, tagines, harissa-roasted potatoes). 

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Harissa
For the chile peppers you want thin red chile peppers about 3-5 inches in length, the best substitute I have found are chile de arbol and chile japones, available in most groceries. Generally, they should be very very spicy chiles. I strongly recommend wearing gloves when preparing the harissa, my hands burned for two days after making this, and the chiles were so strong I also sneezed a lot while handling the peppers. If it's not strong, than it's not really harissa. Despite all this, our harissa mellowed after two days of sitting, and was pleasantly strong but definitely not mouth-burning.

200 grams (7 ounces) dried red chile peppers, see headnote
3 cloves of garlic
1 teaspoon ground caraway (freshly toasted and ground is best, but it's not the end of the world if you use pre-ground)
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander seed
2 teaspoons salt, kosher salt or sea salt is best
1/2 cup olive oil, plus more for covering

1. Snip the ends of the peppers and shake out any seeds. Try to get all the seeds out of the peppers and then discard them, otherwise your harissa paste will be unbearably hot.
2. Heat a wide skillet to medium heat and add the dried peppers, allowing them to just warm up in the dry skillet, stirring them to distribute the heat. Do not allow the peppers to toast or brown!
3. Place the peppers in a bowl and cover with warm, but not boiling, water. Let the peppers soak for 20-30 minutes, pressing them down after the first five minutes to make sure they submerge in the liquid.
4. After the peppers have softened (they should be pretty soft but don't worry if there are still some firmer bits to the peppers), drain them, and then working in the sink, peel open the peppers to discard any remaining seeds. I run the peppers under running water to remove any remaining seeds. If you sneeze during this point, just remember to rinse off the affected pepper.
5. Transfer the peppers to a cutting board (preferably plastic, as wood will stain). With a knife, very finely chop the peppers, and continue going back over the peppers with your knife until you start getting an almost paste like mixture.
6. Scrape the peppers into a bowl. Press the garlic through a garlic press and add to the bowl. Add the caraway, coriander, and salt. Using the pestle from a mortar and pestle (or any large round thing you can use for smashing), smash the whole mixture together. Add half the olive oil and continue smashing with the pestle so that the oil starts to emulsify in the peppers. Add the remaining oil and continue smashing until you have a nice paste. Taste for seasoning.
7. Transfer the harissa to multiple small jars. Cover each jar with a little olive oil to cover. Harissa will keep about 1 month in the fridge, but be aware that it definitely will go bad. I like to keep small jars of harissa in the freezer, and just pull one out at a time when I need it.

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12 November 2014

Moving, Reading, Flying, Sighing

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Now is the time (finally!!), the time when we pick up our lives and move it half way around the world again. We are Cairo bound, with four suitcases, a cello, a yoga mat, and more handbags than one girl should admit to carrying.

I've been living in the Middle East for the larger part of 10 years now, and overall I love it. Normally, I'd be tearing at the door to be on the plane and on my way. But this trip, for the first time ever, I'm actually a little sad to leave America. We have a home here now, and friends, family to have lunch with, yoga friends to see, and weddings to miss, and suddenly I find it very hard to leave.

I've always said I wanted to do this moving around gig while I'm young, before there are school-age kids to worry about and all that, but I guess the truth is that I'm rounding the edge of that curve. I'm no longer the 21 year old who hitchhiked from Beirut, and the idea of a home is more appealing than it used to be. But I know we will hit the ground in Cairo and I'll hear the sound of the call to prayer and eat some fuul and be happy as a clam.

As usual, at least half the things I wanted to do before we left didn't get done, most importantly the redesign of this blog. I imagine that we won't have internet right away in Cairo, so there may be a bit of silence on this end. In the meantime, here are some things I am reading:

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A lovely piece about the shortcomings of starred reviews.

Elissa's writing always makes me want to live in a cozy farmhouse which I imagine is full of good smells and creaky floors and fireplaces, especially this piece.

Did you see this article about trahana, which is the cousin to Middle Eastern kishik? I definitely want to try her homemade version, and then maybe bust out some mana'eesh bi kishik.

Things that make me dream about having a garden again, and this article which made me excited that in a few short months I can order my annual copy of the Pushcart Press's yearly anthology.

This green soup!

This pie!

Many years ago I had the privilege of taking a graduate class in comparative Israeli-Palestinian literature with the esteemed Lebanese writer Elias Khoury. (This experience in itself was a riot, he only ever referred to the Israelis as "the cousins," peppered every sentence with at least three expressions of "yannni," and assigned Arabic texts not translated into English or available for print in America.) Nonetheless, the class has a big impact on me, and though I general shy away (run away) from any Israeli-Palestinian politics, I have been enjoying the New Yorker's dialogues between two writers from said backgrounds. See also, Kashua on moving to Chicago.

 I have an on-again off-again relationship with Zadie Smith, but this piece was great: Find Your Beach.

Long live the bookstore!!!

Thanksgiving Ideas! The cornbread dressing recipe is also up on the site now.

27 October 2014

Pumpkin Hummus with Mushroom, Date, and Chile Topping

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If you are like me, you make dinner most nights. Some nights it's good, some nights you are lucky to hit the mediocre mark and comfort yourself with the thought that at least dinner was homemade and relatively healthy. Other nights dinner might be very simple but very good -- recently we made a pureed soup with leeks, butternut squash, celeriac, broth, cream, and apple cider, which definitely fell into this category.

And then, every once in a while, you make something and go WOAH, let's definitely make that again! Which was the case, for me at least, with this version of pumpkin hummus. First of all, we talked about pumpkin dip , or mouttabal bi yaqteen (متبل يقطين) many moons ago on this blog, and it continues to be a favorite of mine. Syrians love pumpkin and tahini together, whether in a dip, in a stew, or in a salad, though admittedly the latter is not traditional. The traditional dip does not involve chickpeas, but at some point I seem to have forgotten this and instead of making mouttabal bi yaqteen I started making hummus bi yakteen and I never looked back.

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If you are currently in the midst of lovely North American fall, full of crisp leaves and pretty squashes, then you know that pumpkin hummus is a phenomenal idea. It is also a delicious idea. For dinner, I wanted something heartier, so I topped it with a topping of sauteed mushrooms, dates, and pine nuts. The topping adds just the right amount of meaty-ness, with sweet and spicy notes. The following day we ate the pumpkin hummus topped with a topping of ground beef, jalepenos, and tomatoes, which was also great.

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Pumpkin Hummus with Mushroom, Date, and Chile Topping
This would be a great dish for a vegetarian dinner party or as an offering for a vegetarian at Thanksgiving.

1 recipe pumpkin hummus, follows

topping:
1 box (8 oz) button mushrooms, sliced
5 large medjool dates, pitted and cut into small cubes
1 clove garlic, minced
1 handful flat leaf parsley leaves, sliced
salt, olive oil

for serving:
chile flakes (Aleppo pepper, Urfa biber, or your preferred mild red pepper flakes)
extra tahini
1/4 cup pine nuts

1. Prepare hummus, scoop into serving bowl. Set aside.
2. Heat a generous splashing of olive oil in a medium sized heavy bottomed pot. Add the mushrooms to the pot and sprinkle with salt. Allow the mushrooms to saute, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms have expelled their juices and deep brown and soft. Add the dates and garlic, stir, and let cook for another 3-5 minutes, stirring periodically, until the garlic is cooked through and the dates are soft and there are charred spots on the mushrooms. Season again with salt. Stir in the parsley, remove the pot from the heat, and set aside.
3. Drizzle extra tahini and chile flakes over the hummus. Pile the warm mushroom over top and sprinkle with more chile flakes if desired.
4. Wipe out the pot, toast the pine nuts in the pan over high heat, being careful they don't burn. Pour pine nuts over the dish and serve.

Pumpkin Hummus

1 mediumish butternut squash, about 1 1/2 lbs
2 cups cooked chickpeas, plus a little of their cooking liquid or water
juice from half a lemon
1 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon each cinnamon, allspice 
1/2 cup tahini

1. Preheat oven to 425F. Cut the squash in half lengthwise, scoop out the seeds, and place on a baking sheet. (I don't bother rubbing the squash with olive oil, but feel free to if this suits you.) Place the squash in the oven and roast for 45 minutes, or until browned on the outside and completely tender when pierced with a knife. Set aside.
2. Scoop the squash flesh into the bowl of a food processor. Add all remaining ingredients. If it is very thick add a bit of the liquid or water, no more than 3-4 tablespoons though. Blend the mixture thoroughly in the food processor, letting it run for several minutes to mix thoroughly. Taste for seasoning and set aside.

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19 October 2014

Diners and Chocolate Crispy Treats

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Right before we closed on our apartment, I watched a sweet little video about the dying (extinct?) art of neon sign making in New York City. Which is why, shortly after moving into our new Chicago apartment, I couldn't help but noticing the classic neon signs that seemed to be everywhere in this town. There are at least five within a short radius of our home, and one of my favorites is the neon flower sign on LaSalle Flowers, which sticks out at a funny catty-corner angle to the street. The flower shop sits not far from an original Howard Johnsons, the kind with the sweet peaked roofs, which is itself home to the Cafe Luna. The Cafe Luna is exactly what I want a diner to be: a no frills place with endless coffee refills, eggs prepared a thousand ways, pancake combo platters, and a great grilled cheese.

Given its proximity to our home, Paul and I spend many Sunday mornings at the Cafe Luna, where our conversation often circles back to the things we love about Chicago. You see, those things like the neon signs and the diners symbolize something that cities like New York and Washington DC have managed to price themselves out of. In Manhattan or D.C. you would be hard-pressed to find a diner that doesn't charge $15 for pancakes and offer an array of cocktails, an ironic theme, and expect you to vacate your table as soon as you have finished eating. And, in those cities, the neon signs are gone because corporations and businesses have bought up the majority of the real estate, and no one bothers to fix neon anymore. Which is why the LaSalle flower sign always makes me smile.

Thus, we were very sad to hear a few months ago that the Howard Johnsons has been sold to a real estate developer to be demolished. The Cafe Luna can stay open for another year, until the demolition happens, though the owner's son recently told me he wasn't sure they would have enough business now that the hotel has closed.

I want to be clear that there was nothing write-home worthy about the cafe, it's not a gastropub, nor a Shopsin's, it's just a small family-run place where I can walk in and get coffee and waffles, which is exactly as it should be. Cities need places like the Luna Cafe, where a cabbie can stop and get a omelet to go, or someone hard up for cash can come in and count out their exact change next to an (admittedly more well off) local home owner like myself.

I've been thinking a lot about why I'm drawn to places like this. Many of my friends would probably tell you, not unjustifiably, that I'm a food snob, and I've been known to be a harsh critic of restaurants on occasion. So what makes me love a place that has no issue with putting whipped cream out of can onto its pancakes? Diners and breakfast cafes are a huge part of the American experience to me, not just the food culture but the culture-culture. A diner is in many ways like the first hamsani (local hummus place) I wandered into as a twenty-year-old in Beirut, alone, where I sat and had a meal of hummus and chatted with locals and where my eyes were opened to a whole culture for the first time. I had spent three years studying Middle Eastern studies, but it wasn't until I sat in that cafe and talked to people that I really got it.

These places are also places where people of all social strata not only cross paths, but might actually sit and eat together in some tangential way. And in our society these days, I fear there aren't many places where that happens often anymore.

*** In other news, our move to Cairo is impending shortly, where I hope to find my local koshari place (and whatever the Cairene equivalent of hamsani/ful vendor there is). If you readers have suggestions please do send them this way. Also, though it would probably be most appropriate to follow this post by a recipe for pancakes, the truth is I buy all my pancakes at diners, and so instead you get this recipe which I make every once in a while for a twist on rice krispie treats. They are guaranteed to disappear from your office in under 10 minutes. ***

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Nutty Chocolate Crispy Treats
This recipe was inspired by something I found online, deep in the internets, when I was trying to use up a bunch of things in our pantry like agave and coconut oil. You can also try topping the treats with a schmearing of melted chocolate and sea salt.

6 cups rice crisp cereal
1 cup agave syrup
1/3 cup maple syrup
1/2 cup nutella
1/2 cup almond butter, peanut butter, or soynut butter
1/3 cup chocolate chips or chopped chocolate
3 tablespoons coconut oil or butter
2 pinches (about 1/2 teaspoon) sea salt

1. Measure out your cereal and have it at the ready. Line a 9x12 inch pan with parchment paper.
2. Get out a large deep pot (a small stock pot works nicely). Place the agave and maple syrup in the pot and bring the mixture to a roiling boil. Watch the mixture so it doesn't boil over, but luckily you're using a deep pot! Let the mixture boil for one minute. Turn off the heat and immediately stir in the nutella, nut butter, chocolate, oil, and salt. Stir well to combine. Fold in the rice crisp cereal, working quickly to mix everything together.
3. Spread the mixture into the prepared pan and press down using a nonstick spatula or damp fingers. Let the treats rest for at least 3 hours before slicing. Cut into bars using a knife or sharp-edged spatula.