Feb 27, 2017

Ingredients: Cumin, Jeera, Zeera, Zira, Jira ko Geda, Zyur, Safed Jeera, Jeeragam, Jikaka

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Cumin is one of those spices that is absolutely essential in stocking any spice cupboard. It's warm, earthy, and smoky flavor works especially well in combination with chilis, cinnamon, and coriander. Cumin is native to southwest Asia and has made its way into cuisines around the world through the spice trade. It's a hallmark flavor in North African, Indian, Latin American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Middle Eastern cuisines.

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Cumin (Cuminum cyminum) was originally cultivated in the Mediterranean region and is a member of the parsley family. It is an annual herbaceous plant with slender, branched stems that grows to 8–12 inches tall. It's tiny white or pink flowers are borne in small compound umbels. The seeds come in paired or separate carpels and are 1/8-1/4 inches long bearing a striped pattern of nine ridges. The seeds do greatly resemble caraway seeds, but are lighter in color and have minute bristles barely visible to the naked eye.

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Cumin is a drought-tolerant, tropical, or subtropical crop with a growth season of 100 to 120 days. The main producer and consumer of cumin is India. Cumin is sown in India from October until the beginning of December, and harvesting by hand starts in February. Sandy, loamy soils with good aeration, proper drainage, slightly alkaline pH, and high oxygen availability are necessary for the optimal growth of cumin. The plant tends to droop under its own weight and so is planted closely together for support.

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Field of cumin in the Indian state of Gujarat
The main producer and consumer of cumin is India. Cumin is sown in India from October until the beginning of December and harvesting by hand starts in February. India produces 70% of the world supply of cumin and consumes 90% of that. That means that India consumes 63% of the world's cumin! In total, around 300,000 tons of cumin per year are produced worldwide.

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Workers bagging cumin at the wholesale spice market in Delhi
Cumin is used predominantly in cuisines where highly spiced foods are preferred. In the Middle East it is a familiar spice used in fish dishes, grilled meats, stews, falafel, couscous, and the spice mix baharat. In Europe, cumin flavors Portuguese and Spanish sausages as well as Dutch Leyden cheese. Cumin is an essential spice in just about every savory Mexican dish from chile con carne to enchiladas

Leyden cheese from the Netherlands flavored with cumin seeds
Indian cooking utilizes many spice mixtures which contain cumin. North Indian cooking features a spice mixture called garam masala meaning "hot spices." Garam masalas vary in composition by regional preferences but most often combine earthy spices like cumin and fenugreek with aromatic spices like green cardamom and cloves. In southern India there is sambar podi, a mix of mostly cumin, coriander, roasted lentils, and aromatics used to flavor vegetarian dishes. In Southern Nepal, Bengal, Bangladesh and parts of North East India, there is a spice mix called panch phoron meaning "five spices" which consists of cumin seeds, black mustard seeds, fenugreek seeds, fennel seeds, and nigella seeds. Panch phoron is never ground and is used to flavor vegetable, fish, and meat dishes of those regions. 

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Spice shop in Varanasi
Dry roasted cumin seeds are also used in refreshing drinks and cooling condiments in India. Jaljeera is a popular summer drink in India usually made with a blend of cumin, lime juice, mint, ginger, black pepper, and black salt. Jaljeera is purported to stimulate appetite and aid digestion and commercial mixes are widely available. A salted lassi is a traditional savory drink of chilled water blended with yogurt and oftentimes flavored with toasted cumin seeds. A raita is a dip made of yogurt with toasted cumin seeds and raw or cooked vegetables often served with spicy foods for it's cooling effect on the palate.

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The earthy, warm, and smoky flavor of cumin is best showcased when used with restraint and cooked or dry roasted. Cumin is one of those spices that can quickly overpower an entire dish. Some hearty meat dishes can accommodate a full tablespoon but usually no more than a teaspoon is required for legumes and vegetables. Frying or dry roasting cumin mellows it's harsh raw flavor to a pleasant nutty earthiness. Ground cumin can­ not be toasted as it would char quickly. However, dry roasted cumin can be ground and used as a sea­soning and added just before serving. Almost every North Indian curry starts with spices being fried in ghee or oil. Ground cumin can be used but it must be added after the onions have been fried to prevent burning. Burnt cumin in ground or seed form has an unpleasant bitter flavor. There really isn't anything you can do to rescue a dish tainted with the bitterness of burnt cumin but to toss it and start over. 

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Cumin or Safed Jeera seeds
Caraway seeds
An interesting aside:
I think I've found out why cumin, caraway, and black cumin are so often confused for each other.  The root of the English word cumin is from the Latin cuminum which is ultimately derived from Semitic origins. But many other European languages do not distinguish clearly between the cumin and caraway. In German the word for caraway is Kümmel while the name for cumin is Kreuzkümmel (literally "cross-caraway). This indicates that European cooks saw cumin as an exotic spice comparable to the native caraway. (Caraway's carrot-y dill flavor tastes nothing like cumin's earthy warmth to me but the plant and seeds do look similar.) Similarly in Swedish and Danish, caraway is kummin, while cumin is spiskummin. In Romanian cumin is called chimion turcesc or "Turkish caraway." In Hungarian cumin is egyiptomi kömény or "Egyptian caraway." Like most Mediterranean spices cumin seems to have been introduced to northern and eastern Europe around the 9th century by Charlemagne's Capitulare. The Capitulare de villis vel curtis imperii Caroli Magni was a complete list of administrative, legal, and agricultural rules for the new Frankish empire. Towards the end of the document is a complete list of culinary and medicinal herbs to be grown in imperial gardens. Apparently northern and eastern Europe never developed much of a taste for cumin yet it retained it's identity as an exotic variant of caraway. This probably explains why shahi jeera/black cumin is often confused with caraway also.

Black Cumin or Shahi Jeera seeds
Jeera is the Hindi word for cumin and is derived from the Sanskrit root jri meaning to digest. Related words for cumin are today found from the Caucasus to central and southeast Asia: Urdu = zeera, Farsi = zirah, Georgian = dzira, and Burmese = ziyah. In Hindi cumin is sometimes called safed jeera (literally white cumin)  in order to differentiate it from black cumin or shahi jeera.

Feb 22, 2017

Come, Gentle Spring! Ethereal Mildness! Come.

Yes, indeed Spring has sprung in in our little Himalayan valley. 
We had our 2 nights of light frost in January and then BOOM! It's been 75F/24C everyday since. Here's some pics of ethereal mildness for those of you suffering wintry doldrums in colder climes.


Wook at the witty bitty babies! Awwww! Flown freshly in from Singapore these youngsters are for sale at our local feed and seed shop. No fancy breeds here just whatever mixed lot Singapore sends in the box. In eight months you can have a chicken dinner or an omelet!


These old-fashioned petunias were the first to start blooming in my garden. I bought these as seedlings at our local nursery. The expensive seeds I planted last September rotted in the prolonged Monsoon rains. I'm not sure what color you'd call this nor what variety they are. Most of the flower seeds I see for sale here in Nepal are from China or Thailand and not very good quality.


Spikes of snapdragons in shades of sulfur yellow, snowy white, and hot pink are blooming along the driveway. Snapdragons have always been a favorite flower of mine. The Nepalis say they look like tigers not dragons. In India I've heard them called snake flowers and dog flowers too.


These are a dwarf variety of snapdragon. If you prefer your snapdragons in the form of an eight inch high indeterminate bush rather than elegant spires here it is! In the early 90's in western countries a trend for miniature flowering annuals began. I suppose it was part of the downsizing trend after the mega-sized 80's? Personally I don't think the dwarfed bush varieties show off the snaps well.  But if you do decide to plant these dwarfs be assured you'll have them forever as they freely reseed. Rigorously deadhead these dwarf snaps and they'll keep re-blooming for about 3 months too.


As the weather warms tropical nasties like this leech abound also. Be sure to check your shoes for these freeloaders after gardening. If walking through a forested area these things will also drop from trees on you too. Don't let this leech's miniscule size fool you. This one inch leech can stretch to about 3 inches long and about the girth of your thumb when sated. Luckily it doesn't hurt when these bloodsuckers attach. It is gross though.


These are a famed local variety of beans from our region called Simi. They are a winter crop in our region's temperate valleys and a summer crop in higher altitude areas.


When fresh like this Simi beans cook tender in minutes. The green pods are eaten in a stir-fry dish too. When dried they turn a lightly freckled rose color and require presoaking and about 20 minutes of pressure cooking to achieve tenderness. They taste a lot like pinto beans when cooked and are a favorite local protein staple. 



Just to show you what the different seasons are like the above photo is our road during Monsoon in August and the photo below was taken yesterday (late February). As you can see in the above photo the Monsoon season is lush, green, and muddy. Really, really muddy. Have a look at the blue roof in the upper center of the Monsoon photo and compare it with the dusty Winter version below.


Yep, it's dusty, dry, and parched here in the Winter. That fine silty dust covers just about everything on the Subcontinent from the Himalayas to the Indian ocean. Greenery for animal fodder gets scarce this time of year too. There is snow up in the mountains though that will be melting soon. Hail and thunderstorms will start in March and continue through April possibly destroying the garden. 

I heard it's flooding and the snowpack is 175% in my native California, wowee! Californians better start building an ark.
How's it going in your neck of the woods?

Feb 20, 2017

Parsi Garam Masala

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Parsis are an ethnic and religious group that emigrated from ancient Persia to India in the 10th century. Parsi cuisine has evolved into a delicious fusion of Persian and Indian influences. This recipe for Parsi style garam masala perfectly reflects this unique blend of cultures. The earthy warmth of green cardamom, cumin, and black pepper are perfectly balanced by the sweet heat of cinnamon, cloves, and star anise in this flavorsome mix.



"Parsis of Bombay" engraving, ca. 1878

Parsis practice a unique religion called Zoroastrianism. Zoroastrianism encourages wealth creation as well as charity.
 For centuries, prominent Parsis have shared their success through philanthropy. The names of top Parsi traders and industrialists are a common sight on hospitals, schools, and libraries in India.

Parsis celebrating Navroze Mubarak

No Parsi function is complete without good food that has been laboriously and lovingly prepared. The Zoroastrian community gathers for six annual feasts called gahambars and a new year's celebration called Navroze. Weddings too require a lavish multi-course feast called a lagan no bhonu. Parsi dishes reveal traces of their Persian past in a fondness for nuts, dry fruits, and sweetness. The Indian influence on Parsi cuisine is the addition of garlic, ginger, and subcontinental spices.


I've adapted this recipe from Neela Batra's cookbook, 1,000 Indian Recipes. Unfortunately Ms Batra's book has rather incongruent instructions for those 1,000 recipes. The recipes also often result in unsuitably large quantities for the home cook. So I reduced the amounts by half to yield a half cup. The quantities in the original recipe were for ground spices so I've left them that way. I used whole spices and ground them in the same amounts with excellent results. It's the ratio that's most important in spice mixes. Ms Batra's recipe calls for dry roasting the ground spices too. DO NOT DRY ROAST GROUND SPICES OR YOU'LL END UP WITH A SCORCHED MESS.  I don't dry roast my spices for reasons listed here. I'll include instructions for roasting whole spices if you are one of those sorts who simply must dry roast though.

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Ingredients:
2&1/2 TBS ground green cardamom/elaichi
2 TBS ground cinnamon or cassia/dalchini (or four 2 inch pieces of cassia bark/cinnamon sticks)
2 TBS ground black peppercorns/kali mirch
2 TBS ground cumin/jeera
1&1/2 TBS star anise/chakra phool
1 TBS ground cloves/laung

Here's what to do:

For raw/unroasted garam masala- 
Coarsely grind all spices until roughly the texture of coffee grounds. Traditionally a mortar and pestle or "sil batta" was used to get this texture. Garam masala is not supposed to be like that finely ground powdery stuff you see sold at stores. To get the traditional texture we're looking for use the pulse button on your mixie, food processor, or coffee grinder until you get the desired results. If you are using a coffee grinder or small mixie jar you might want to grind each spice separately in batches to get a consistent texture. Breaking the cassia bark (or cinnamon sticks) into smaller pieces before grinding helps also. Store in an airtight container out of sunlight or in the freezer for up to 3 months.

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Two methods to dry roast garam masala-

Traditional- 
1) Heat a heavy bottomed frying pan or tawa for 7-10 minutes.
2) Dry roast spices one at a time in batches, or toss all spices in and stir frequently until spices give off a fragrant aroma.
3) Allow to cool completely. Grind coarsely using pulse button in mixie, food processor, or coffee grinder.  Store in an airtight container out of sunlight or in freezer for up to 3 months.
(The problem with this traditional method is that the temperature isn't really even over a tawa on a gas flame &and some spices may scorch while others remain unroasted. Cumin usually roasts faster than the other spices and when burned has an unpleasant bitter flavor.  Roasting spices separately reduces the risk of scorching but is tedious. Why do South Asians still do use traditional tawa method? Because most South Asians do not have any sort of oven in their homes.)

Fast & easy oven method-
1) Preheat oven to 220F/100C.
2) Spread all spices over 13 inch by 9 inch baking pan or cookie sheet. Bake spices for 10 minutes.
3) Allow to cool completely and grind coarsely using pulse button in mixie, food processor, or coffee grinder.  Store in an airtight container out of sunlight  or in freezer for up to 3 months.

Feb 15, 2017

Kohinoor Chicken Curry

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From the royal courts of the ancient Mughals comes this recipe for a rich chicken curry. First, the chicken is marinated in yogurt and spices which will render it moist and flavorsome. The marinated chicken pieces are then slowly simmered until tender in a creamy gravy lavishly laced with traditional spices. Truly a regal dish that requires far less effort than you might think to prepare!

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This is one of those creamy, rich, ultra-posh Mughal dish with all the "bells and whistles" so popular around Delhi. The long list of ingredients does look quite daunting, but I've broken it down and simplified the steps so it's really not that difficult! It is also a great recipe for any special occasion as most of the preparation can be done a day in advance. A word of warning though, this chicken curry is VERY spicy. This isn't one of those bland, timid Mughlai recipes relying mostly on butterfat and cream for it's flavor. There's definitely a lot of spice and heat going on here, but it is masterfully blended to perfection. So if you're looking for a chicken curry recipe with bold, vibrant, IN YOUR FACE flavor - this is it!

Ingredients:
1kg/2lbs chicken, skinless and cut into 8 pieces, bone in preferred
3 TBS cooking oil or ghee
1 C onions, thinly sliced into half moons
3 tomatoes, diced finely or pureed
2 C water or stock/shorba
1 TBS dried mint (optional for garnish)
Grind to smooth paste for masala:
1 TBS coriander/dhania
2 tsp cumin/jeera
9 cloves/laung
12 black peppercorns/kali mirch
7 green cardamoms/elaichi
1 inch piece cassia bark/dalchini, broken into small pieces
1 TBS water
Grind until smooth for marinade:
1 C full fat yogurt
1/2 tsp flour/maida (this will keep the yogurt from splitting)
1 TBS garlic/lahsun paste
1 TBS ginger/adrak paste
3-4 green chilis/hari mirch
1/4 C almonds/badaami, ground finely (or coconut cream)*
2 tsp Kashmiri mirch (or 1 tsp paprika plus 1 tsp cayenne powder)
1 tsp garam masala
1/2 tsp turmeric/haldi
2 tsp salt

Here's what to do:
1) Grind almonds to fine powder in mixie, food processor, or blender. Grind powdered almonds and all ingredients listed for marinade to smooth paste in a mixie, foods or blender. Coat each piece of chicken in marinade. Place chicken and marinade in airtight, sealable container and allow to marinate for at least 4 hours or up to overnight in the refrigerator.

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2) When ready to cook, heat oil over medium heat in a large heavy bottomed skillet or kadhai for 5 minutes. While oil is heating grind spices with water as listed for masala in mixie, food processor, or blender and set aside. Add thinly sliced onions to hot oil and fry for 5 to 7 minutes or until just beginning to brown. 

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3) Add diced or pureed tomatoes and ground spices for masala to the fried onions, stir well, and fry for 5 minutes or until oil separates from the mixture.


4) Add marinated chicken pieces to fried onion mixture in pan. Reserve marinade. Cook chicken pieces for 2 minutes on each side. Add reserved marinade and 2C water or stock/shorba. Stir well.

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5) Bring the dish to a simmer covered over medium heat. Stir well every 5 minutes turning the chicken pieces to be sure they cook evenly. The dish is ready when the chicken is cooked through, about half the liquid has evaporated, and the oil separates from the gravy. This usually takes 20 to 25 minutes.  Salt to taste, garnish with dried mint if desired and serve!

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Helpful hints:
For persons suffering peanut or nut allergies a good substitute for ground almonds is canned coconut cream. (Persons suffering peanut and tree nut sensitivity can usually safely eat coconut.)

Lithograph dated 1844 from the online gallery of the British Library depicting the Maharaja Ranjit Singh's jewels including the famed Kohinoor diamond (top center). Maharaja Ranjit Singh extorted the Kohinoor diamond from the Emir of Afghanistan in 1813. The lithograph also portrays one of Maharaja Ranjit Singh's favorite horses shown with the head officer of his stables.

Feb 12, 2017

OOO Baby, Baby, It's a Wild World...

It's hard to get by just upon a smile....


So we went to Kathmandu on an inventory run again. Domestic delivery services aren't very reliable here in Nepal so we have to pick up our orders from our artisans ourself. Nepal is still a cash based economy so there's that to consider also. I keep a pre-packed suitcase in the hall for just such blitzkrieg excursions.


This time of year there is a lot of dust. We've only had one day of light sprinkles since September. If you've ever wondered why everyone's eyes are bloodshot in Nepal this is it! Just to add to the eye and upper respiratory misery agricultural burning will start soon. 


The usual and customary landslide narrowed the road to one lane for about a mile. 


The usual and customary vehicular accident blocked the road for two hours. Somehow that large truck sideswiped that little silver microbus. The large truck had barely a scratch but the microbus was about a foot narrower in the back. Three passengers suffered minor head lacerations. We saw two other accidents that day. One was a truck vs motorcycle and the other was a three car pile up. Unfortunately the motorcyclist and his passenger where killed upon impact. The three car pile up resulted in two fatalities when passengers were flung from the vehicles. This highway has the reputation of being one of the most dangerous in the world with good cause.


We stopped for lunch at a village called Mugling that is famous for it's oranges. They are the ugliest pockmarked and wrinkly oranges you've ever seen but their perfectly tart-sweet flavor is divine! We then stopped for lunch at our favorite casual roadside eatery.


We were seated and greeted by our favorite maître d'hôtel, Mr Ali.  Mr Ali is such a snazzy dresser. 


You just know your meal is going to be fresh when the main course comes strolling through the dining room. I'm really glad Mr Ali keeps that mop at the ready too.


Despite the rustic ambiance this is always the best meal on our trip! This is a typical Nepali meal of dal-bhat-tarkaari (lentils-rice-vegetables). Even the rice is grown locally in the village! The dal is the bowl full of yellow lentils flavored with ghee, cumin seeds, and red chilis. The tarkaari or vegetable sides are all spicy hot. My favorite is the simple mustard greens stir-fry which is a Winter specialty. The chicken is served in that little bowl at the top left separately. Meat is always a special treat and cut into small pieces in Nepal. The curried chicken was delicious served in a caramelized onion, ginger, and garlic sauce rife with green chilies. The thalis at these little informal restaurants are prix fixe and "all you can eat." The waiter comes round and tops up any item you'd like more of.


The waitstaff was quite attentive also. 


The waitstaff was quite sad to see us go. And was quite impressed with the games on my phone. It took two Tootsie Pops and five mini Mars bars to get my phone back. (Oranges were not valid currency at this establishment.)


This tulip magnolia or Magnolia liliiflora was the prettiest thing I saw in Kathmandu. Gorgeously fragrant too! Kathmandu was in tatters as road repairs were hurriedly taking place before the Monsoon rains begin. The Chinese have volunteered to update and expand the main thoroughfares of Kathmandu. Apparently a lot of the drainage and water systems under the roads were damaged in the 2015 earthquakes and needed replacing.  So there was dust, mud, holes, trenches, and mayhem everywhere. It actually looked worse than after the 2015 earthquakes! I allowed the Sheikh (aka Dear Husband) to brave the mess whilst I lounged in luxury at the hotel. Had a good laugh at Zoolander 2 and Rock the Kasbah on HBO while sipping virgin mojitos. I know, I know, I need to show y'all Kathmandu! But it really was looking SO BAD this time and seriously hard to get around. Wait till the Monsoon rains come and wash everything clean. Then I'll take pics of Durbar Square, Boudinath Stupa, and Bhaktapur for you!

Ooo, baby, baby, it's a wild world
And I'll always remember you like a child...
I wonder how Yusuf Islam (the artist formerly known as Cat Stevens) is doing nowadays?
What's your favorite Cat Stevens song?

Feb 6, 2017

Cherry Cardamom Snowballs (eggless)

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Surprise your valentine with these Cherry Cardamom Snowballs! A touch of warm cardamom spices up chewy cherries in this tender and buttery cookie. So easy to make and so pretty too!

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These are really good. As in I made five batches of these before I could get a photo of them. My family ate the first four batches of these before I could even take a picture! I had to hide these in a box on top of the refrigerator out of sight to get these photos. 

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I wanted to make a pink snowball cookie for Valentine's Day. The only thing remotely pink in my pantry was a jar of maraschino cherries. We all know by now that Bibi's favorite cookie is snowballs -so why not cherry snowballs? What's Bibi's favorite spice for cookies (other than cinnamon)? Cardamom! So why not Cherry Cardamom Snowballs? Yes! And it worked. Brilliantly. As always these snowball cookies are a breeze to make, look daintily delicious, and can easily be made vegan with a good quality vegetable shortening. Have a Happy Valentine's Day and enjoy!

Ingredients:
3/4C powdered sugar
1C butter or margarine, softened (or vegetable shortening)
seeds from 7-8 green cardamom pods, coarsely ground (or 1 tsp ground cardamom)
2 tsp maraschino cherry juice
1 tsp baking powder
few drops red food coloring
1/2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp red food coloring
2C all-purpose flour
1/2C drained maraschino cherries, chopped finely
1C powdered sugar for rolling

Here's what to do:
1) In large mixing bowl beat powdered sugar, butter, cardamom, 2 teaspoons maraschino cherry juice, baking powder, food coloring, and salt until thoroughly blended.

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2) On low speed, beat in flour a half cup at a time. Stir in cherries. Cover dough with cling film and chill for at least four hours. (I usually put mine in the freezer overnight.)

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3) When ready to bake preheat oven to 325F/ Shape dough into 1-inch balls. Place balls 2 inches apart on silicone mat or parchment lined cookie sheets.


4) Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until edges are light golden brown. Allow to cool for 10 minutes before transferring from cookie sheets to cooling racks with spatula. Cool 20 to 30 minutes.

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5) If desired roll cookies in powdered sugar. Makes 24 cookies. Store in airtight container for up to one week.
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