…and then on to Mauritius

After my stay in Madagascar, I moved on to its neighboring island of Mauritius. One of my favorite things to do when traveling is to visit a grocery store. It’s really interesting to see what is locally-stocked, whether it’s a different region in the US or a foreign country. I always try the local cuisine, but I also like to shop and cook a meal or two. Last year in Bali, I bought a variety of fresh produce, spices, and freshly-made tempeh (fermented soybean cakes) at a local market in Ubud and took it with me to the coast where I cooked up a typical Balinese meal. It worked out well because the beach areas are much more resorty-type areas, so the restaurant options were limited and pricey.

In addition to trying out new foods, shopping and cooking is a nice break from eating out. I tend to travel for extended periods of time and get a bit tired of eating in restaurants and whatever portable food I have stashed in my backpack. Another plus is that it’s easier to satisfy my food preferences. I love to cook, so I get to try things that might not be on a menu (especially in countries catering specifically to Western tourists). Even when Michael and I travel in the US, we often stay at places with at least partial kitchens where we can eat at a meal or two after stopping at the local markets. For some, cooking during a vacation might not seem like a vacation, but in my opinion it’s worth the trade-off.

A unique fruit (or vegetable?) that’s a cross between a pepper and an apple

On my recent trip to Mauritius, the two places I stayed both had fully-stocked kitchens. It was a nice option after eating out for 2 1/2 weeks in Madagascar. I got to try two different varieties of vegan faux-meats (Schnitzel patties and sausages). Since fish is so important to island countries, I also found a wide variety of analog seafood and tried the vegan lobster. I chose this because I noticed from the first to the second time I was in the supermarket that the stock had reasonably dwindled, which I took to mean it tasted pretty good, and it actually did.

It’s been ages since I’ve eaten lobster, so I can’t guarantee it’s a good imitation, but it was certainly an enjoyable vegan substitute.

I was wishing I had some vegan mayo to make a lobster salad, but alas, that was not something I found. I tried girumon squash that I’d never had before, which was much creamier than firm after baking. I also got to try some veggie dumplings that were quite tasty (and which were a carbohydrate indulgence, but I realized I’d gone two days without a real meal).

My dumpling indulgence

Something I’ve found to be both interesting and consistent when shopping for produce in developing countries is the size of the vegetables and particularly the fruit. Much of the produce marketed in the US and Western Europe comes from larger, agribusiness production that has worked to maximize the yield per acre. Developing countries don’t have the same level of access to technology and inputs, so that produce tends to look closer to something that comes out of a garden. I’m always taken aback when I walk into not just a local weekly produce market, but even a supermarket in a place like Madagascar or Mauritius and see shelves and displays of what I’d consider single-serving size fruit like apples and oranges versus what seem to be verging-on-softball size equivalents at home.

Weekly market with ‘normal’ produce

Of course one of the best parts of traveling to tropical areas is the fresh fruit. Rather than being picked green to ship, await quarantine clearance, then be transported and stocked in the grocery store, eating tree-ripened papaya, guava, or passion fruit is a very different experience in the tropics .

Passion fruit

And I’ve had the opportunity every time I’ve traveled to Africa or Asia to try something unique to these places that, due to lack of international demand/recognition and/or is highly perishable, I wouldn’t have the chance to try otherwise. Most recently, I got to try sweet apple (it’s nothing like an apple, actually), fresh Mauritian olives, and something I didn’t even get an English or French name for, since my hosts only knew the Creole name. It was a cross between a sweet pepper and a tart apple.

Sweet apple

I also got to have a typical lunch. After a trip to the local weekly market for produce with a former student, I was kindly received into his home for lunch with his family.

My gracious host and me enjoying fresh coconut milk

Dhal puri is a yellow-lentil pancake filled with a variety of beans, sauces, chilis, and pickles, and folded sort of like a burrito. Even though each filling has a fairly intense flavor, they come together into a very satisfying combination.

Dhal puri

My favorite thing I tried was achard fruit de cythère pickle. It’s not of the fermented sort like sauerkraut or, well, what we call pickles, but rather Indian-style with fruit and/or vegetables mixed in a ground spice paste. I saw it in the produce section of the store and it resembled tapenade. I thought I’d like it, but I wanted to know what it was, so I asked a fellow local shopper who explained it was ‘little mangos’ in a spicy mix that would be used as a condiment, but not mixed into a dish. At my last grocery stop, I found it jarred and bought some to bring home, but I was sadly (but not too surprisingly) disappointed that it didn’t taste as good. Since I’ve never seen fruit de cythere in any store (even the amazing international food emporium of Jungle Jim’s), I’ll have to settle for the jarred variety since I can’t make it myself.

My very satisfying meal, including the amazing achard on the tiny plate

Even though I generally stick to my usual dietary choices when I travel, I don’t want to miss the opportunity to try something new, even if it means more calories or carbohydrates than usual, though there are two compromises I don’t make. I only eat vegan food and I only buy ethically-sourced chocolate (or else I suffer and go without it if I exhausted my emergency travel supply. After one time where I experienced a stretch without it, I got much better on subsequent trips of learning to ration). Even with these self-imposed restrictions, I don’t feel like I’ve missed the opportunity to experience local cuisines and a variety of unique food products.

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Chocolate & Vanilla

Madagascar is best known for three things: Lemurs, chocolate, and vanilla

Madagascar is know for its chocolate, with bars often produced as single-sourced beans because the cacao is of high quality and uniquely flavored. I was very excited when I finally came across ethically sourced Malagasy chocolate, and 72% dark, at that. As a rule, despite how desperate I might be to satisfy my chocolate cravings, I will not buy it unless it is fair trade or ethically sourced. I was delighted to finally find a company, Tsara, producing bean to bar chocolate, “bringing far more income directly to the Madagascan people”, according to their package.

While 72% is less dark than my usual 88% favorite, I was running low on my traveling stash, so I was very happy to find it. It’s very smooth with notes of..just kidding. My chocolate palate is not that discerning, but I do know good chocolate when I taste it. And, of course, the bit of added sugar comes from the cane produced on the coasts.

While Roberts chocolate was in most shops that stocked chocolate, it wasn’t until I got to the airport at their premier chocolate shop that I found their fair trade bars. These made the same bean to bar claims as the Tsara. They also promote ‘raise trade’, for a sustainable Madagascar, which is something I haven’t come across before finding this chocolate. As I was on my way to visit a friend and his family in Mauritius, and didn’t want to arrive empty handed, I was happy I’d found some nice chocolate to give them. One bar, I would love to have tried if it wasn’t only 65% cocoa content, was the Malagasy lime with sea salt bar. I did, however, strike what I hope will prove to be gold with a 100% single-source bar (which I’ll save to share with Michael).

Though my bar didn’t contain vanilla, if it had, it, too, would have come from Madagascar, as it is world-renowned for its vanilla beans. Vanilla beans actually come from orchids, endemic to the tropics. They are pods that are produced by the plant, harvested and dried, and most often simmered to derive vanilla extract.

Lots of orchids grown in the Ranomafana rainforest (though I always seem to miss the flowering seasons when I travel…)

While traveling in the rainforest areas, it was common for spice sellers to approach us, selling a variety of spices ranging from peppercorns to coriander pods. But their big ticket item was vanilla beans. Even at that, I bought a bag with six pods, with the vanilla scent strong even through the sealed-plastic wrapping, for 15,000 ariary, which is U.S. $1.50. Because of the demand for Malagasy vanilla, the government has set a maximum limit of 100 kg (about 3 1/2 ounces) that is allowed through customs.

So if you love chocolate and vanilla (and lemurs), Madagascar should be on list of destinations. But you’ll have to brave the summer season of rainy, hot, and humid weather if you want to see the orchids in bloom.

A Vegan Travels to Madagascar

The scenery in Madagascar was one of the key reasons I chose this destination.

One question I am regularly asked when traveling abroad is ‘How do you manage to maintain a vegan diet?’ In some countries, like Ghana, I ate well every day. In some regions of the world, like SE Asia, or Latin America, it’s been very easy. In other places,, like East Asia, it’s a bit harder because I don’t care for seaweed and so many dishes seem to include fish or fish-based sauces. Madagascar has turned out to be one of the more challenging places to eat, especially since I also opt for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen.

Madagascar was colonized by the French, who left an indelible mark on country. The European cultural influence is apparent beyond French as the official language, vehicles with the steering wheel on the left (i.e., proper) side, and the colonial infrastructure, which is in disrepair.

A scenic array of mountains, rice paddies, and vineyards in central Madagascar.

The French-style baguette bread is served at every meal. Capers are commonly served with fish. Wine is a readily available beverage, imported from the more developed economies of South Africa and Chile. The French attempted to establish vineyards in a central provincial area in Madagascar where the climate resembles that of the French wine-making country. We saw the vineyards, but the last winery recently burnt down, so we weren’t able to visit and sample it (though our guide said Westerners often grimaced in response to the very vinegary taste). The French Iove of miel- honey- is also apparent in the rural areas that harvest the honey from the bees that eat the nectar of the Australian-imported eucalyptus trees. People also make a variety of jams from local fruits.

As a vegan traveling in Madagascar, I have opted out of the traditional boiled chicken served with white rice and a broth of rice water, a variety of zebu (tropical bovine) dishes, and duck, which is abundant. In rice paddies, ducks are used to keep insects from eating the rice seeds. Due to the increase in flow of tourists to Madagascar, restaurants consistently offer at least one vegetarian option on the menu, if not more.

Hiking in the canyon of Isalo National Park

As a vegan, it’s more limiting, as many of these dishes include cheese. As a low-carbohydrate vegan, I’m even more limited. For meals, I stick with vegetables, all of which are locally grown, out of necessity as opposed to some local farm support movement. Much of the population is reliant on agriculture, so produce is readily available. Neither the transportation system nor the economy is well-developed, so the farther the producer is from one of the few cities, highly perishable produce will not make it from the rural areas. Plus, very little processing happens in the country, with most canned and packaged goods imported, so produce isn’t grown for large-scale production. Instead, people from the villages sell their produce from roadside stands and take their produce to the weekly market in the nearest trading town to earn money to buy the stuff they don’t grow or make.

The usual vegetable combination I received, though this one was in a Malagasy curry sauce.

The vegetables on my plate were consistently green beans, zucchini, and carrots. On one occasion, I also got broccoli, while on another, I got some cauliflower. One place served most excellent eggplant served with herbs they grew in the kitchen garden. Most often, the vegetables were sautéed in oil with garlic, and a few times with ginger. In one place I got vegetables in a Madagascar curry spice blend, which were quite good. Though beans are commonly eaten by the local population, they are less commonly available at restaurants, which seems odd to me (and our guide, as well). They always prepare them from the dried beans, so at one place I was able to get them the second night of our stay (we almost exclusively ate at restaurants attached to the hotels or camps) after asking for them on the first night.

Out of necessity I ate more grains (most often in the form of white bread) and potatoes than I would at home; otherwise I wouldn’t have been eating a whole lot. It was strange to eat bread at least once or twice a day, whereas at home, if I eat bread, it’s the high-protein bread that I make. I definitely noticed that going back to a more carbohydrate-centric regimen that I was hungrier sooner.

An ex-pat owns the hotel where we stayed in the capital city, which has an amazing Italian restaurant, serving up this bread basket.

I do, however, tend to eat less when I travel. I don’t think it’s because I have fewer grazing options, especially on this trip because we spent so many hours riding in a vehicle. While the scenery is quite captivating, many hours of riding in the vehicle can get a bit monotonous, which could have led to munching, but didn’t (maybe this is progress for me?). I took this time (while we were covering more than 1300 miles) to write my posts when the roads were ‘soft’ (as our guide referred to the paved, less windy and potholed roads).

I first found these Mrs. H.S. Ball’s Chutney potato chips a few years ago when I visited South Africa. I was happy to find them again because of their unique sort of barbecue-Worcestershire sauce flavor.

My main source of calories was from peanut butter and peanuts. At some meals I’d have peanut butter (which I bought at a supermarket and is imported from South Africa) on bread to supplement the plate of vegetables I’d get.

A peanut butter sandwich lunch break during one of our ‘picnic’ lunch stops.

Other times, I’d just have peanuts, which are widely grown throughout the country, to round out the vegetable plate. As a special treat, in the capital, I was able to get some locally-produced cashews, which were quite a nice change.

The best of the chili pastes: Green chili with ginger

My favorite culinary experience was trying the chili sauces that differed from place to place. While they were not always available, they were a really nice flavor addition. The first sauce I had was a basic chopped fresh chili relish. Another time it was a mortar and pestle-ground red chili paste that I was able to stir into my couscous with black beans and vegetables. The most interesting flavor composition was a much lighter colored, thinner paste that was green chili ground with ginger. The one thing they did have in common, though, was the heat. Just a tiny spoonful packed a lot of chili power, which for me, was delightful.

A tiny chili paste pot and spoon

As a poorer country, Madagascar manufactures very few processed foods. As with the peanut butter, many packaged goods, like the Simba potato chips I found, are imported from neighboring, relatively wealthier South Africa. Similarly, the Nice coconut cookies I bought to satisfy my occasional desire for a bit of vegan dessert are imported from India. While there are still many people living in poverty in India, its economy is much more diversified, with a much better distribution of wealth that supports a growing middle class. Most Madagascans, on the other hand, remain subsistence farmers, growing rice in very scenic rice paddies, sugar cane, corn, legumes, and fresh produce. One region also produced cotton, introduced by French colonists.

While the French did influence Madagascan culture, they didn’t manage to export their gourmet dishes that drive foodies to France. Even though Madagascar is not a place to go for a culinary experience, it is an excellent destination for its unique, scenic, and diverse topography, flora, and fauna, and its very friendly people. So if someone who opts for a low-carbohydrate vegan regimen has no problem getting daily nourishment, most people who don’t visit with any grand foodie expectations should have a most rewarding experience.

One of more than a dozen different varieties of lemurs I saw in Madagascar.

A Smoothie for the Soul


I’m not a fan of smoothies, by my spouse, Michael, sure is. And when I take a big trip, I’m pretty sure he mostly survives on a liquid diet. You have him to thank for this Peanut Butter Cup Smoothie.  This smoothie is a satisfying alternative to the sugar-packed ones you’ll find at the local joint, not to mention a lot less expensive. So for a healthier, wealthier you, check out this recipe.

Michael and I scored when my mom got us the Magic Bullet as a Christmas gift a few years ago. While I use it to make cashew creams and sauces, it gets the biggest work-outs from making smoothies. It’s the perfect size for one or two servings (if you’re so inclined to share with someone). But that’s not the best part: Clean-up is super easy. The mixing cup comes has an attachable handle, so voila!, it doubles as the drinking cup.

Peanut Butter Cup Smoothie Recipe

Put all of these ingredients, in this order, into a Magic Bullet or blender and blend until it’s the consistency of a thick milkshake. For the Magic Bullet, blend about 40 seconds, scrape down, and blend another 20 seconds. Blending time will vary by appliance.

For the right consistency, you’ll need to freeze almond milk into ice cubes before making this smoothie. I make a tray full and stick the rest in a zip-lock bag for later use.

6 almond milk cubes (150 grams)
½ c. frozen raspberries (70 grams)
12 oz. unsweetened almond milk (350 grams)
½ T. hemp hearts
½ t. stevia
1 t. ground cinnamon
1 t. ground dried ginger
½ t. vanilla extract
1 T. cocoa powder, like Equal Exchange cocoa baking powder
½ avocado
2 T. creamy natural peanut butter, like Santa Cruz or Krema
Serves: 1-2
Prep time: 10 minutes
Accommodates: Omnivores, Vegetarians, Vegans, low-carbohydrate, keto, and paleo regimens
Nutritional info: 522 calories, 26 gr. carbohydrates (3.7 gr. of sugar), 40 gr. fat, 15 gr. protein
Without raspberries: 489 calories, 19 gr. carbohydrates (1.2 gr. of sugar), 39.5 gr. fat, 14.25 gr. protein

A Work in Progress

Maybe it’s not a coincidence that I wrote this post around the same time as My Enemy: The Scale. A few months ago I’d been feeling kind of full at the end of the day. I think it was more the result of making sure I have enough protein in my diet, which has been a bit more challenging since I cut back on beans with the low-carbohydrate regiment. I had to integrate more tofu, tempeh, and analog meat to match what I’d gotten in a low-fat diet, but those are my less-favorite food choices. (I wish I liked smoothies so I could just add protein powder.) Instead, I’m quite content with my scrappy little Boca burger (with 13 grams of protein and only 70 calories!) and vegetable soup for lunch,  with a salad and huge plate of vegetables for dinner. But alas, our bodies need protein for loads of functions, ranging from reduced healing time to growing healthy nails.

Happily, my favorite Peanut Butter Cup Bars have 9 grams of protein each (based on 16 squares per recipe).

On the one hand, protein is great because it is very filling and has a longer digestion time. On the other hand, those same qualities make me feel too full, even though I haven’t ingested more calories. I’d much rather eat the roasted artichoke hearts and shirataki noodles on my plate than faux meatballs. They were usually what was left after I finished the ‘good’ stuff and I felt satisfied, so I ended up feeling like I was eating more than I needed.

As a result, upping the non-bean protein content in my diet left me feeling fuller after dinner. I hated it because sometimes I like dessert, I definitely need two or three squares of chocolate ‘for my health’, and I really look forward to having an evening snack, usually tiny bowls of 11 Newman’s protein pretzels and about ½- ¾ ounce of Wise potato chips (the best potato chips ever!).

My go to chocolate: It’s fair trade, inexpensive, readily available, and it’s even got protein!

I realized that while I was aware of how I was feeling, I ignored it just so I could have dessert and/or an evening snack. The problem was that I went to bed feeling more full than usual and woke up not really feeling hungry. For me, that’s a recipe for disaster, tempting me to skip breakfast because I’m not hungry, potentially setting me up for eating more throughout the rest of the day since I didn’t eat those breakfast calories. (Meanwhile, I would eat twice as much, thinking I was only making up for breakfast.)

As I recently mentioned in To Eat or Not to Eat Breakfast, it’s psychologically important for me to know I have the option of eating an evening treat. Feeling like I have to forgo it makes me feel resentful and is more likely to lead to unchecked late-night binging. To cope with this, I’ve worked on integrating more protein into earlier meals, and even my afternoon snack, so I feel less full from that protein hit at dinner. I also cut back on my evening snack so that while I continue to give myself that option, I try to eat only as much as I think will satisfy me instead of what I’ve come to think of as my ‘allotted’ amount. These small changes have left me feeling much better in the morning, waking up hungry and wanting breakfast.

My lifestyle change continues to be a work in progress. I didn’t really consider the effects of changing out beans for other plant-based proteins. Instead, I was operating under an outdated regimen. Once I realized this, I was able to tweak it to feel better. I need to remind myself to not get stuck in a rut because a lifestyle change is not a one-off thing.

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My Enemy: The Scale

Despite having maintained a healthy weight for 15 years, I still dread the scale. Decades of experiences conditioned me to fear the scale. There was the humiliating annual school health-check weigh-ins in front of classmates. When I was a teenager and went to a dietician, there were trips through the hospital’s kitchen for weigh-ins on the delivery scale which registered up to a ton, because the dietician’s office didn’t have a scale that registered beyond 299 pounds. To add insult to injury, everyone in the kitchen was snickering, knowing where the dietician was leading me and why.

Meet the Evil Scale, My Archnemesis

Then there was the time after high school that I tried a weight-loss program which involved buying pre-packaged, pre-portioned foods. It was an expensive commitment, but I was enthusiastic to lose weight and for the first month, was successful, just as they promised. I dropped around 20 pounds–about 5 pounds a week–which was great. However, no one–including myself–could tell I had lost weight. Plus, I was starving all the time because I was on a 1,200 calorie diet. I finally caved and just pigged out for one whole weekend. When I bashfully showed up at my next appointment for the dreaded weigh-in, I’d gained 16 pounds. I’ll never forget hearing my counselor not quite surreptitiously enough expressing her astonishment that I could gain that much weight in a week.

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What Works for You?

In a sort of continuation of To Eat or Not to Eat Breakfast, I uncovered studies that found evidence both for and against any benefit of eating breakfast. Not surprisingly, attempting to identify the best diet plan has proven similarly inconclusive. A group of researchers decided to compare several diets that were popular in 2000 to see which was more effective. Another study looked at the Atkins Diet and found that its effectiveness dropped precipitously after the first six months. Like the effects of breakfasting or not, their main finding was that no one diet proved better than any other, but that the biggest hurdle people encountered in attempting to lose weight was sticking with the diet to reach a healthy weight.

Opting for a regimen that banned chocolate for me would be over before I even made it through the first week, I’m sure.

Ultimately, the only important factor in choosing a food plan is that you can stick to it, as I discussed in Start Now! Commit to a lifestyle change by choosing a plan that you can realistically stick to and work to implement dietary changes you can live with in the long-run, or you’ll continue to be on the-feeling-like-you-need-to-lose-weight treadmill indefinitely. A lot of people go into weight loss thinking in terms of a diet as a one-off thing, which, as the above research confirms, most likely will result in failure.

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A Healthy Carrot Cake? Not Impossible!

I remember a carrot cake recipe my mom had from the 1970s. It called for baby food carrots and a cup of oil. One whole cup! Even though I opt for a low-carbohydrate regimen, even I can’t fathom putting that much oil in a recipe! It reminds me of another cake that was popular around that time, the Watergate Cake, so named for the hotel that created it, rather than the scandal. It called for what I think of as a bunch of 1970s ingredients, the era during which every recipe started with some processed ingredient, like canned soup, Velveeta cheese, or (maybe ‘and’ in this case?) crushed saltines. The Watergate Cake included pistachio pudding packets, a cake mix, and 7-Up, along with a cup of oil. I guess that was the standard in those days…

A much more healthful version of the classic cake…

Fast forward to the 2017 when  I found myself wanting something different for dessert. Some voice in my head said ‘carrot cake’ and stuck there until I figured out how to make one. As usual, what would result in thousands of hits for a ‘normal’ person, finding a single recipe from the gazillion bits of information that make up the Internet didn’t yield a match for my admittedly unique combination of dietary choices. So off the kitchen I went with to figure out something to suit my low-carbohydrate, minimally processed, vegan needs.

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To Eat or Not to Eat Breakfast

When and how often people eat meals is actually influenced by their culture. In Mediterranean countries are known for long, leisurely, filling lunches followed by some down time. This approach is very different from that in the U.S. and U.K. where dinner is typically the largest, most involved meal of the day, while lunch may be eaten at a desk. In Indonesia, it’s common for the main meal to be breakfast, with subsequent left-overs consumed throughout the day. In a variety of countries around the world, people eat just two meals–some due to lack of food, but more often just out of custom.

A very typical Malaysia breakfast of noodles and vegetables

So is breakfast worth all the hype or not? It seems like very few things in the world are definitive: Is (fill in the blank) good or bad for us? Breakfast is no exception. The adage that ‘breakfast is the most important meal of the day’ is ingrained in most Americans. It kick-starts the body’s metabolism and offers fuel for the brain. A study by the American Heart Association on the impact of when and how often we eat cited numerous studies that link obesity and/or higher body fat mass to skipping breakfast. Other research, like one out of Canada and another out of the U.K., found that skipping breakfast did not have much of an overall impact on determining health. Some go so far as to argue that not only breakfast, but the whole three square meals a day regimen is not only unnecessary, but undermines our health (see Fasting is Great, Unless You have Food Issues http://cantquitfood.com/2016/08/30/fasting). As with most research on health, so many variables come into play that it is difficult to offer blanket recommendations.

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Blueberry Crumble Bars Recipe

Blueberry Crumble Bars

One of our favorite desserts at my house is the result of a few different bar recipes and a rugalach cookie recipe I cobbled together. We regularly ate these desserts before we moved to a low-carbohydrate regimen and I was missing them. One day I wanted to make something a bit different than yet another version of the one cake recipe for which I’ve now developed like 7 different varieties, including the Blueberry Lemon Poppy Seed Cake. Blueberries are fairly low-carbohydrate dense, as fruits go, so I decided to use them for the filling. I’ve never tried other berries, though I’m sure many others would also be good-especially blackberries when they’re in season.

These are good any time of year. Michael heats them a bit and completely covers them in whipped cream. I’m more of a purist and go sans vegan whipped cream (yes, there is such a thing). In the summer, they’d be excellent with ice cream. And they’re really simple to make, despite having to cut the butter into the flour mixture. The bars make a light dessert, so if you’re looking for something a bit heartier, you might want double the recipe and bake them in a 9” x 13” pan.

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