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Morocco- some practicalities

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Our riad in Marrakech- our little heaven

Flight: We flew in from the USA with Royal Maroc to Casablanca. Flight went smooth, new airplane, movies, and I even got my Gluten free meal ). Landing and checking out was good. Be prepared with an address in Morocco, as you will be asked to provide one at the immigration. We provided the name and town of our first Riad.

Money: Morocco is a cash based economy. Almost everywhere, they would prefer cash, even in some of the riads. The most popular currency are Moroccan Dirhams and Euros. They will also accept US Dollars. An easy calculation to make if you’re from the States, is to divide DH by 10, and that’ll roughly give you a general idea of the price in $. Be prepared with cash. We brought cash in $ and € and changed them into DH every once in a while. In the markets and local restaurants, museums and vendors- you definitely need local currency. They do not like credit cards, but some high end places would accept them- so ask in advance if you know you’re short on cash. Another option is to withdraw money from ATM machines in Morocco, but then you have to find out about the foreign transaction fees, and if it makes sense to you. 

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Munching Prickly Pears in Taroudant’s market. Prepare MD.

After passing airport immigration, after the baggage claim, right before stepping outside the building, we changed some $$ to local Dirhams, enough to get us started.

You’ll be reading a lot about haggling in Morocco, which is very true. Except in museums, restaurants, and riads, prices everywhere else is almost always negotiable (including taxis).

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Market day in the Berber town of Asni

We were welcomed by our driver who waited for us outside.

Car + driver: I was debating whether to rent a car or hire a driver, and I couldn’t be happier with my decision. While it maybe more expensive, given all the benefits, the difference in $ is so worth it.

  • We got a spacious car with enough room for all of us, a big trunk to our 5 trolleys and a few more bags, and even a place to charge the phone in the rear (on top of the charger in the front).
  • Landing in the morning after a long flight, and driving almost a whole day to our first destination, would have been hard. Having a driver allowed us to relax, get much needed rest as we were jet-lagged.  
  • We made sure to have an English speaking driver, so he explained stuff, pointed out interesting things along the way, and we were able to ask him questions about Morocco and his life.
  • Our driver communicated with locals when there was a need to find places. He also contacted our Riads ahead of time, letting them know when to expect us.
  • In some places, cars can’t enter the Medina, so the driver took care of dropping us off, parking outside, and of course, he always filled the car with gas (never with us, as to not waste any of our time). So we never paid for gas or parking.
  • It is unfortunate, but on and off the highways, there are lots of policemen, both for security reasons, but also for… money. We have been stopped a few times on different occasions. Our driver needed to produce some papers (I counted 5 different papers), and the officials took their time checking the papers very thoroughly. They also checked and open the emergency kit, checked dates on some of its content. Our driver was very organized and seemed like he knew it was coming, so he got a “pass”. We have met with other travelers, both independent drivers, and those who had a driver. They weren’t so lucky. Police would stop them, threaten to give them a ticket and a fine of 500 DH, or they could choose to give “baksheesh“. At any case, the tourists that had a driver (baksheesh paid by the driver), didn’t pay anything. So we had our peace of mind. Don’t want to scare anyone, and many do choose to rent a car, just reporting on our experience.
  • A driver allowed us flexibility, independence of when, and where to go and stop (to take pictures, for example), and to be spontaneous.

Our great driver was Loutfi, who worked for Jalil Benlabili from Morocco Unplugged. Best to get in touch with Jalil via Whatsapp:  +212 629809359, moroccounplugged@gmail.com.

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A spontaneous stop on the way to Taroudant

Having said all that, our driver was not an authorised tour guide. He may speak English and know things, but he wasn’t allowed to enter the Medina and show us around, but rather wait outside. Also, our driver was a Fez guy, he knew a lot about the northern part of morocco and the desert, and while he knew how to drive to some major places using the highways, it was his first time driving with us to other destinations.

Conclusion: do your homework: once you know your general itinerary, read TA forums, Lonely Planet, travel blogs, and be knowledgeable about your destinations. Also, on your way, interact with locals. Not only is it one of the best things about traveling: learning about the local culture, but also getting good tips about places worth visiting, eateries, etc. Read my posts to find out about the special places we visited, thanks to locals.

Riads: Riads are traditional Moroccan houses with an interior garden or courtyard, that turned hotels. All of the riads we saw and visited (even if we didn’t stay over) were beautiful, and wonderfully designed. I would search on TA/Booking websites some riads, would then look on the map where they’re located, and finally contact the riad by email, to find out prices, and specifications (especially since we needed 2 rooms, was breakfast included, local taxes, do they accept a credit card. etc’).

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Our riad in Essaouira

Getting around: Before leaving to Morocco, I made my family download onto their cells two apps that were very handy: Maps.Me and Google Maps. They’re both a navigating platform that work offline as well. I downloaded maps of the areas where we were going, marked on the maps different points of interest (our Riads, potential restaurants, attractions), and very easily shared those points with my family, so it all transferred to their maps.

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Our driving itinerary

The apps were useful when we entered the Medina to navigate our way inside. Also marked where the driver was waiting for us outside, so it’ll be easy to find him. Finally, sometimes we would split, so we marked a place on the map where we could all meet later. That technology is great!

Also- Unless you speak Moroccan-   French is your next best thing. Almost everyone speaks French. But between a few words in Arabic, a few in French, Google translator, English and body language, we managed just fine. To bargain, you only need to write down numbers 🙂

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Navigating the narrow alleys of Marrakech

Cell Phones: Yeah, don’t forget those 🙂 but also, bring your chargers, and a portable battery. If you travel with a group (aka- 3 young adults), bring more than one battery. We didn’t purchase a sim, but used free WiFi. A good app for communication via wifi, very popular in Morocco, is Whatsapp. I contacted and talked with the riads, and driver, while still in the US, via Whatsapp. There was free WiFi in all of our Riads and many restaurants and cafes. Remember, our driver helped with his phone when there was a need to communicate over the phone

Weather: We visited Morocco during Christmas break, so along the coast it was wonderfully pleasant, and once we got up to the Atlas mountain it was cold. So depending on which area in Morocco you’ll be and the time of year- please check online, and bring suitable clothes. And… sunglasses. Lots of sun.

Responsible Tourism: Responsible tourism means, among other things, to be aware and have meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.  That’s the kind of travel we usually try to conduct. That is why we chose to experience a few activities that allowed us to be exposed to local traditions, away from the beaten path, while supporting locals by spending our $$ with them. This was a win-win.

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Entryways of Essaouira

I’m accumulator of photos. I’m interested in patterns, shapes, colors, history, and it’s change throughout time. Maybe that’s why I fixate on doors (and knobs, and windows, and floors/roofs, and…).

I’ll let my photos speak.

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This is my favorite. Which one’s yours?

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Ok, not a door. Still love it.

 

We arrived in Essaouira at night. No cars are allowed in the medina, so the car stayed behind in the large parking lot, and we walked our way through the big gates of the old city, pulling our trolleys behind us. At this point, it was very helpful to have the cellphone GPS with us, as we navigated through the narrow alleys. Also- check out the map at the end of the post.

Finally- our beautiful Riad, that’s actually part of the old wall that surrounds the Medina. Our beautiful room had the most fabulous view. Through the window, part of the ancient wall, we had an amazing vista of the ocean. Waking up to THAT… Oh mine! Riad Perle d’Eau.  Breakfast was great- served on the rooftop, with (what would be a staple in Morocco for breakfast) M’semen (local crepe), eggs, fruit, and coffee/tea. The Riad owners were very friendly and helpful.

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This is what we saw from our room window, every morning

We stayed in Essaouira 2 nights. The small Medina is easy to navigate and is vibrant and much fun. SInce there’s so much to see, let yourself to be absorbed with this town, and here’s what NOT TO MISS:

Synagogue Slat Lkahal

A somewhat restored synagogue that served the Jewish community in Mogador- old Portuguese name for Essaouira, that was built in 1850. The synagogue was a center for many social and religious aspects of Jewish life, as witnessed by the photos on the walls. Morocco is known for its good Jewish-Muslim relationship and as we travelled we have witnessed respect, love and compassion to the Jewish minority in Morocco. Slat Lkahal is located in the northern end of the Medina, in the heart of the Mellah (the original jewish area), and is just one of other synagogues in Essaouira. Synagogue Slat Lkahal.

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Visit the old port

A mosaic of little fishing boats, fish stalls, ropes, nets, ships, seagulls, fishermen, and Moroccan mamas going out to purchase their fresh fish dinner. The sun is shining on it all, the sounds are taking over, as well as the smell, the wind, and sometimes the light spray of the sea, if you’re standing close to the water. Breath and feel alive. Charming.

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Fresh fish anyone?

Salut Maroc- Riad and restaurant

You absolutely have to visit this place, and especially before sunset. Grab a table on the rooftop, order some light food and mint tea, and get ready for the most stunning sunset. They usually have live music as well. Get there an hour before that, and just tour around the Riad, all the way up to the rooftop, to discover the gems of dazzlingly intricate tilework and splashes of color (stairways, ceilings, floors, walls, tables, heck- even the restroom). I couldn’t stop taking photos. It’s definitely psychedelic. Salut Maroc.

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lobby from above

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Salut Maroc rooftop

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psychedelic corner on the rooftop

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Even the toilet are mind boggling

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Epic sunset

Climb up to see the city line from above

Climb the old Portuguese ramparts, enter hotels and climb up to their rooftops (I recommend the views from Riad Mimouna, Skip the rest of the hotel, go straight to the roof).

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Old cannons, cobbled stone and the ocean

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From the rooftop of Riad Mimouna- 360° views

Wonder the local quarter (both morning and night market)

Lose yourself by strolling around the non touristic areas of Essaouira within the Medina, and out. Observe the bustling life of the locals, buy and eat authentic food at the night market. Try the Harira soup from the vendor, or local moroccan crepes served with honey, nutella, or Amlou (almond spread mixed with honey and argan oil). Go for the spicy olives!

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Local

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Local night market. Of course we filled our bellies with these goodies.

What else do I recommend?

-Chill with tea at African Roots cafe. Great vibes, great music, friendly staff.

-Share a lamb tagine, Moroccan tomato salad, or Pastilla (traditional chicken filo pastry pie). With so many eateries, it’s hard to decide where to eat, and you’d wish you had more time to try them all. I advocate for the ones that look the most humble, and unassuming.

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The son of the owner is watching the tagines. Can’t get more authentic than that.

-Adore the doors and entryways. I’ll have a whole post just for that. I’m obsessive.

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Winter break is the perfect time to leave the East Coast chill and visit warm, golden Morocco. We landed in Casablanca airport, peeled off our layers, and set out to the sun, where Loutfi, our driver, waited for us.

We were off to Essaouira, and though according to Google maps the ride would take about 4.5 hours, in reality, like driving elsewhere in Morocco, it takes more time, especially if you like to stop enroute.

So stop we did. We first freshened up in the old portuguese town of El Jadida where we found a cool rooftop with ocean view and good mint tea and pastries. Le Lokal

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Le Lokal, cute rooftop

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At Le Lokal, mint tea, small pastries, and well… coffee, to handle the jet lag

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Colors of El Jadida

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We stumbled upon the community bakery where  women deliver bread to be cooked in the wood-fired oven

When it was time for lunch, and after some more driving, we arrived in the city of Oualidia, located beside a natural lagoon. There, we had the freshest seafood with a tranquil seaview backdrop. Ostrea 2.

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This small town boasts the freshest mussels

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Serenity at Ostrea 2

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Ostrea 2, Oualidia

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Leaving Oualidia, to Essaouira

A Week in Cartagena

Yeah, I should have posted a long time ago about Cartagena, Colombia, but life happens… So better (a little) late than much later, plus- its nice to revisit Cartagena and sift through the many photos I have.

Cartagena was a last minute plan, and for a family of parents, teens and grandparents, I was worried that it’ll get boring after a few days, but connecting my imagination along with my good friends: Tripadvisor, Lonely Planet Guide, and some googling, I built a blueprint that would work for us all.

As a general rule, I always seek to find activities that involve the local community and encourages sustainable tourism, while trying to leave a minimal environmental and social footprint.

Without further ado, here are my recommendations for Cartagena, especially during Christmas.

Getting Around and what to do in Cartagena

The best would be… by foot. Not only is it free, but losing yourself by walking in the smallest alleys, allow you to discover the old beauty of Spanish colonial old city, the crumbling walls, the wide variety of door knockers, the colorful graffitis in Getsemani, the vibrant dresses of the fruit basket ladies- Las Palenqueras, and that’s just the feast for your eyes, not to mention sounds and real tastes that you may find. Going further to other neighborhoods, use a local taxi- they are cheap and convenient. Also- read about the tours we took to really go out the beaten track.

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Beautiful ladies of Cartagena, Las Palenqueras. Don’t take a photo without buying a fruit. Fruits are yummy, cheap, and you’ll be helping by paying.

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Deteriorating buildings are so beautiful. Be sure to look up.

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Door knockers are Cartagena’s thing

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Look where you step- you’ll be rewarded

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Walk on the walls that encircle the Old City, and be sure to gaze out into the sunset

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Enjoy the many vendors

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I had to add the hat guy

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Ahhh… the colors all around make it so hard to return home to our “regular” (non) hues

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Xmas in Cartagena means dances, and lots of them, in the main square

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Stroll outside the walled city, in the vibrant neighborhood of Getsemani. Observe graffiti

Responsible Tourism in Cartagena

Responsible Tourism is, among other things, to be aware and have meaningful connections with local people, and a greater understanding of local cultural, social and environmental issues.  That’s the kind of travel we usually try to conduct. That is why we chose to experience a few tours with these companies, which allowed us to be exposed to local traditions, away from the beaten path, while supporting locals by spending our $$. This was a win-win.

We toured with Alex Rocha of ​Experience the Real Cartagena in the further neighborhoods of Cartagena, learning of the zones system, that reflects the different poverty stages. Alex explained about life in Cartagena, and it’s historical aspect dating back to the afro-Colombians, brought in as slaves. We got to talk and dance with the locals (remember, it’s Christmas time, and locals are eating and dancing in the streets). We visited the colorful Bazurto Market and tasted different fruits and juices, and bought a local hat (this IS the place for cheap buys). .  We ended up in Alex’s neighborhood, and were invited to his home, where we met his beautiful family, and his wife made us an amazing lunch. We enjoyed so much, that we took Alex again to the Aviary (the wonderful relaxing bird reserve) and Playa Blanca, while visiting a small fishermen village on the way.

Be aware, Playa Blanca is full of vendors trying to sell, sell, sell. I suggest you walk all the way to the far right, as you enter the beach, to get away, as much as possible from the crowds.

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Outside the touristic city- into the hoods. Notice the recycled Xmas decorations. Also- visited Convent of Santa Cruz de la Popa- the highest point in Cartagena

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Bazurto – Cartagena’s bustling food market

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A beautiful day at the Aviary, and Playa Blanca

Two more tours were exceptionally joyful, and those were led by Lorena Salgado of Insider, who’s an ethical travel company, that gives back to the community. We took their Africa in America tour. We visited the village of San Basilio de Palenque, where we met and learned about the Palenqueros, who were the first free Africans in America. In this village, they are the only ones in the world speaking ​Spanish-Bantú, and they have maintained their musical traditions, mainly the Champeta. We met with music legend Rafael Cassiani, who was born in the Palanque, and started his Champeta musical career there. Of course we feasted on a traditional Palenque lunch served on banana leaves. Later that day,  we visited ​San Jacinto​, which is the small village of knitting crafters.

The other tour we took with Lorena of Insider, was the evening Salsa tour, where we hopped from one salsa club to the other. It was amazing, as we didn’t only get to watch and dance to the Salsa beats, but learn of how the Salsa came to be, it’s historical and cultural connections to present times and to the people of Cartagena. It was one of the highlights of our Cartagena visit. Highly recommended!!

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Top left: statue of a man breaking free from his chains and reaching out for his motherland, West Africa. This is the statue of Benkos Bioho, San Basilio de Palenque founder. Bottom left: hair braiding goes far beyond a hairstyle- it was used by Palenque’s slaves to braide intricate maps and codes. Today it’s a social gathering- kind of a street spa.

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Beautiful people of Basilio de Palenque

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With Champeta legend Rafael Cassiani. Watch a short clip

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Weavers of San Jacinto

Where to eat and sleep 

Allow yourself to eat from street vendors some of the fresh fruits or local pastries. Some really good restaurants, though, are these:

Cafe Stepping Stones. We loved their breakfast and coffee. Also love the idea that they are partners of not-for-profit foundation, FEM, who focus on sustainable local projects.

Moshi. Though in local terms, this would be an expensive restaurant, relatively to NY it is so reasonably priced, and yet, the service, food, tastes and look of the dishes, are so attentive and delicious. They even surprised us with little dish samples that they shared with us. It is so good, we went there twice! Highly recommended.

Ganesha. Loved this little place in Getsemani, quiet with good, tasty small plates of Indian food, when you had enough of plantains and arepa 🙂 Loved having chai, or cold lassi, as well as some Indian delights.

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Refreshed in Ganesha

Caffe Lunatico. Ate here twice, great ambiance, food, and selections of wines. Tasty, unique food, good professional service, in Getsemani.

For kids- Choco Museum. We left our 3 teens for the chocolate workshop, for a little over 2 hours. They had so much fun, learning and creating with chocolate. They took samples back, and we all enjoyed tasting.

For adults- El Rincon De Getsemani. As we lazily strolled in Getsemani during the evening, we heard live music emerging behind a door. We hesitantly opened the door, and peeked inside, just to warmly be invited inside. Oh wow- a band of at least 8 musicians played the salsa, and folks were dancing enthusiastically. We joined. We came back another evening (without kids), and had so much fun learning some basic salsa steps by nice locals. This is a local salsa club, didn’t see any tourists there. Get a glass of beer and enjoy trumpets and salsa.

Hotel Capellan. Beautiful rooftop, nice little chilling pools, and some nice views from the roof. Grab a beer and ceviche, and relax. Everyday they had an afternoon tea time served with cakes- complimentary. Conveniently located in Getsemani, in walkable distance from the walled city.

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Hotel Capellan, chillin’

more photos (as well as in my Instagram):

 

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We have a mulberry tree not far from our home. We’re lucky that way. Sent my boys to get all red-dirty, and they got that sweet juicy stuff, hands, mouth and all..

Mulberries

So with so many of them, I quickly baked 2 mulberry cobblers, inspired by Bakerita’s recipe. My recipe is different as it’s not vegan, and I played with some other flours that I had.

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Yes, One regular cobbler, and one chocolate one.

You’ll need:

for the fruit:

  • 3 cups of mulberries
  • 3 TBS dates nectar or pure maple syrup
  • 1 tsp arrowroot flour
  • pinch of cardamom or cinnamon- to your liking

for the cobbler topping:

  • 1/2 cup almond flour (for chocolate version: 1/2 cup pure cacao powder)
  • 1/2 cup arrowroot flour
  • 1 tsp baking powder
  • pinch of fine sea salt
  • 3 TBS water or date nectar (for chocolate version: add 3 TBS date nectar/maple syrup)
  • 3 TBS coconut oil
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 egg
  • for chocolate version add 1/3-1/2 cup of chocolate chips or cacao nibs

how-to:

  1. Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. Grease a round pie baking dish.
  2. Gently mix all fruit ingredients in a bowl. Toss to coat until evenly distributed.
  3. Spread the mulberries into the baking dish.
  4. For the cobbler topping – In a medium mixing bowl, stir together all the dry ingredients: flours/powders and salt.
  5. Add all the wet ingredients (the remaining ingredients) and mix until combined.
  6. Drop topping by tablespoonfuls onto filling (create mounds).
  7. Bake for 30 minutes or until cobbler is brown and cooked through.
  8. Remove from the oven and let cool for at least 10 minutes before serving.

notes:

  • If the batter is too thick or dry- add more water and mix, but slowly, tsp by tsp, not too much.
  • I like to use the D’vash date nectar– it’s a 100% dates. We like it not too sweet. Feel free to add more nectar, maple, or sugar.
  • Play around with different fruits, have fun!

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We Are NJ Values

Fellow New Jerseyans and friends, I’m so excited to have finally complete the first phase of a project I have been working on for the past months. Thanks to the amazing volunteer labors of Jeanne Heifetz, Mimi, and Josh from NY, and Jessica Laus from NJ, we now have a new website, to match potential volunteers with non-for-profit org. in NJ, specifically in the areas impacted by the policies of the new administration.We want to protect our democratic, humanistic values, so take a look and share widely. I am updating the site constantly.
https://www.wearenjvalues.org/

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