Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Food, Writing, Intimacy

Caveat: This post contains no recipes, but there will be plenty of food for thought here.

One of the best things about living in Princeton is the access to events at the university, including a lecture yesterday on "Food, Writing, Intimacy." It was standing room only, as some of my favorite writers and chefs spoke on a topic near and dear to them (and me). In the photo above, from left to right, are Christopher Albrecht, executive chef of Eno Terra in Kingston, New Jersey; Frank Bruni, columnist and former New York Times restaurant critic, Leonard Barkan, professor of comparative literature at Princeton University, Anita Lo, owner and chef of Annisa in NYC and Gabrielle Hamilton, author and chef at Prune in NYC.

To view a video of the entire talk, go here: 

Over the course of an hour and a half, the speakers discussed topics ranging from sustainable farming to writing memoir and I wished it could have continued for another hour or more. 

When Enoterra entered the dining scene here in the Princeton area, it immediately secured the spot as my favorite restaurant in the region, and that's in no small part due to Christopher Albrecht, who started his career working for Tom Colicchio at New York City's Gramercy Tavern. It's all about quality, not quantity, he told the audience, and it all starts with the soil. "The quality of our soil is at the heart of our health," he said. Think about the clover that grows in a pasture. If the clover is not grown on good quality soil, it will affect the diet of the sheep that graze there. If the sheep aren't eating good clover, it will affect the wool they produce, and the quality of garments that people wear. Now transpose that reasoning to food products that we eat and our dependence on chemical fertilizers that make crops grow unnaturally fast and prolific. Those chemical fertilizers do not produce the same kinds of crops that natural fertilizers like manure can or enrich the soil as natural compost does. Albrecht, who works at the restaurant's farm three to four days a week, said it's important to ask growers about their farming practices. "Our children's children will bear the effects of the neglect of our soil," he said.

Although Professor Leonard Barkan teaches comparative literature at Princeton, he writes about food for many publications in the U.S. and abroad. His love of food goes back to his first girlfriend years ago, he said. "I was more interested in food than she was. Then I became more interested in food than in her."  But his real culinary breakthrough began after he moved to Italy for a year for academic reasons, and lived "the secret life of a food and wine maven." He has been wine editor for Gambero Rosso (the Italian equivalent of a Michelin guide to food and wine) for many years and in 2008, published a book about his love affair with Italy called "Satyr Square." 

Gastronomy is seldom elevated to a high position on the academic ladder, he said, yet Barkan has lectured on how scholarship and food collide, referencing a painting at London's National Gallery. It's a depiction taken from the bible, in the chapter of St. Luke where Mary and Martha have welcomed Jesus into their home. "Nearly all the painters who illustrate the story give little notice of the savior, while they spend a vast amount of space on Martha," he said. In the painting below, Martha dominates the scene, pounding a pestle with all the fixings for a Catalan fish soup, he said.

Anita Lo, owner of Annisa, in New York City's Greenwich Village, talked about how her childhood affected her thoughts about identity and food. Born to a Malaysian mother, she grew up in Michigan with multi-cultural influences. Her father died when she was very young, and was cared for by a Hungarian nanny, so "Chicken paprikash is one of my favorite foods," she said. Later, her mother married a Caucasian man and most of her schoolmates were white as well. "There were less than a handful of people of color," she said, later instilling in her the conviction to tell the story of her identity through food. "Through food, I can be who I am." She scoffs at the idea of "fusion food," saying that "All food is fusion. I don't really believe in borders. Food at its very best can make you think, show you new things and new cultures," she said.  "At the end of the day, what's important to me, though, is that it be delicious."

Frank Bruni needs no introduction if you read the New York Times. He's an op-ed columnist there, but served as restaurant critic for five years and was the newspaper's Rome bureau chief before that. "To write about food is to write about life, and to write about life is to write about food," he said. His memoir "Born Round" was an engaging portrayal of his struggle with weight since his childhood, complicated by his life as a food critic.  The book also provides an intimate look at his Italian-American family and a man coming to terms with his homosexuality.

"There is no better way to write about a place than to write about its culinary rituals, " he said. "To write about anything, if you are writing about it well, is to write about the food."  Sprinkled throughout his memoir are funny anecdotes detailing his efforts to maintain anonymity in a job where a bad review can spell economic doom for a restaurant. Bruni will be teaching a class in food writing next year at Princeton University.

Gabrielle Hamilton, owner and chef at Prune in New York City, is also the author of a wildly successful memoir called "Blood, Bones and Butter." She always wanted to be a writer, but envisioned herself becoming a novelist, never a memoirist. However, the public's current fascination with food and her job as a chef are what got her a book deal, she admits, and what the editors wanted was memoir. 

"I am very glad that the world is obsessed with food right now. I am not that interested in food."-- a surprising statement coming from someone whose restaurant is a favorite of chefs and food writers. Although she holds a M.F.A. in fiction writing from the University of Michigan, her kitchen skills are what really served her best in writing the book, she said. She wrote it as though she were treating a reader as a guest in her restaurant, she said. The book is forthright, frank and unpretentious, not unlike the food at Prune. 

One of the reasons both her book and Frank Bruni's memoirs are so gripping is their intimate insight into their private lives. But therein lies the rub -- Just how does a writer deal with the need for honesty while not alienating family members or friends who are in the book, I asked them.

Bruni replied that "I have a ridiculously loving family - a conflict-free family," but he added that he wasn't seeking to expose any dirty laundry about friends or relatives.  "I can hang myself out to dry but I didn't feel I had a right to do that with my family."

Hamilton took a different approach, giving a copy of the manuscript to family before it was published and asking them to vet parts of it. There were very few complaints, she said. Although the book feels very intimate, there's so much the reader doesn't know, she explained. "I felt I dodged a bullet."

If you've been thinking about writing a memoir, whether food related, travel or any other theme, I can't think of a better place to get a jump start than by joining a group of writers (and one artist) in the hauntingly beautiful village of Santo Stefano di Sessanio for the "Italy, In Other Words" workshop this June.  Click here for more information about the workshop and here to learn more about Santo Stefano di Sessanio.  Kathryn Abajian, who teaches classes in California as well, is the talented writing coach, and I will be your cultural guide, taking you on small excursions to help you find your muse. There are only a few spots open, so act now. I promise you it will be a magical week you won't forget.

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Friday, March 22, 2013

Rosemary Flatbreads

 This is going to be trouble. When I spotted these flatbreads a few weeks ago on the blog Marcellina in Cucina, they immediately reminded me of what's heaped in a basket at you sit down to eat at Cafe Fiorello, a New York City restaurant across the street from Lincoln Center. I've munched on that basket of flatbreads dozens of times over the years before heading to the opera or ballet but never managed to make them at home. Not that I tried.. until now. And as I write this, having eaten four of these flatbreads in a row, (one with a fresh avocado smeared over it) I'm wondering whether finding this recipe was such a good thing. They're seriously addictive. If I don't stash the rest of them in a tin far from my sight, I may scarf down the rest before I finish writing this. That would be a shame, not because they're laden with calories, but because they're the perfect thing for sharing with friends over a glass of wine.

They're not hard to make either, even for those of you who are yeast-averse. They just take a while to bake because there are so many of them and your oven can only hold a couple of baking sheets at a time. I mixed the minced rosemary right into the dough, rather than sprinkle it only on top before baking. 

After the dough has risen for an hour or so, separate it into 16 pieces.

Then roll them out and don't worry if they're misshapen or larger or smaller than the recipe calls for. Brush with egg yolk and sprinkle with sea salt. For some, I used a fleur de sel. For others, I used a homemade dried herbs and sea salt combination. You can experiment and use any herbs  and/or spices you like.

 They look attractive in a basket, but they're large, so you'll want to break them into smaller pieces for serving. Drinks not included.

For another take on these flatbreads, take a look at Antonietta's version of Fiorello's flatbreads at her blog Cipolli.

Rosemary Flatbread

1 cup 

(240 ml) warm water (about 110 F/43 C)

teaspoon (5 ml) (2 ¾ gm) active dry yeast

cups (720 ml) (420 gm) (15 oz) all-purpose (plain) flour, plus more
for rolling

tablespoons (45 ml) of extra virgin olive oil

salt (I used 1 tsp.)

teaspoon (5 ml) (5 gm) sugar

large egg whisked with 1 tablespoon (15 ml) water, for egg wash

salt, for sprinkling

cup (60 ml) (7 gm) (¼ oz) fresh rosemary or thyme ( I used minced rosemary)

(homemade seasoned salt made by combining dried homegrown herbs with sea salt)


the water in a medium sized bowl and sprinkle the yeast. Let stand
until the yeast is foamy, about 5 minutes. Stir in flour, oil, 2
teaspoons coarse salt, and the sugar. Stir until a dough forms. Add the minced rosemary.

out dough onto a lightly floured surface and knead until smooth,
about 2 minutes. Use as much flour as necessary so it is not a sticky
dough. Place in a lightly oiled bowl and roll the dough around in the
bowl so that it is also lightly oiled on the surface. Cover with
saran wrap. Let stand in a warm place until it doubles in volume,
about 1 hour.

oven to moderate 350°F/180°C/gas mark 4. Divide dough into 16 equal
portions and cover with plastic wrap. Roll out each piece to
approximately 4"x10" (10cm x 26cm) on a lightly floured
surface. Transfer to parchment lined baking sheet. Brush with the egg
mixture and sprinkle with sea salt and herbs (or homemade seasoned salt.)

rotating sheet halfway through baking, until crisp and golden, 18-22
minutes. Let cool on the baking sheet then transfer to a wire rack to
cool completely.

and Freezing Instructions/Tips: Store in an airtight container at
room temperature for up to 1 month. Prolong the freshness by freezing
for up to 3 months.

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Saturday, March 16, 2013

Zeppole di San Giuseppe

The feast of Saint Joseph is celebrated on March 19 throughout Italy and the feast wouldn't be complete without zeppole de San Giuseppe, sometimes called sfinge or bigné. Italy also celebrates Father's Day on March 19 as well as Saint Joseph, spouse of the blessed Virgin Mary.

The zeppole are round to symbolize the family and are made with the same dough that's used for cream puffs. They can be fried or baked and are topped with either pastry cream, or in some cases, a sweetened ricotta mixture. In the region of Puglia, a dollop of chocolate crowns the zeppole, as in the photo above. 

But in many other areas, including Naples, they're decorated with a sour amarena cherry that's been soaked in a sugar syrup. 

For many years, I've been wanting to make these zeppole to honor the Giuseppe in my own family -- my brother Joe, whose birthday just happens to be the day following the saint's onomastic. This year I finally succeeded. 

I learned even more about the traditions surrounding the day after stopping by D'Angelo's Italian Market, a shop in Princeton, N.J.
The owner, Anna D'Angela, originally from Sicily, where Saint Joseph is the patron saint, said that the "tavolata di San Giuseppe," or St. Joseph's table, is an overflowing table of foods that is always prepared for the day in her home town near Palermo. It all began following a severe drought in the Middle Ages, when Sicilians prayed to St. Joseph for water from the heavens to grow their crops. After their prayers were answered with rain, each year they honor the saint with the tavolata, preparing "tutto quello che esiste" (everything that exists), including every type of fruit and vegetable and fish. Fava beans, the one crop that kept the population from starvation during the drought, is always part of the feast. To this day, many Italians pray to St. Joseph to ask for divine intervention for loved ones who are ill, and promise to prepare “La Tavolata” as a sign of thanks.  A priest will bless the food and some towns have a communal table, where everyone is invited to share in the bounty.
photo courtesy of D'Angelo Italian Market, Princeton
Anna explained that aside from the zeppole and sfinge, pasta con sarde (sardines) is another traditional dish for the day in Sicily. D'Angelo's will carry some of these specialties for the holiday, but its shelves and counters are chock-full every day, with many wonderful Italian groceries and freshly made in-house treats. If you live anywhere in the central New Jersey area, do yourself a favor and stop by her shop on Spring Street for a myriad of other specialty items that are hard to find elsewhere. 

But not everyone lives near Princeton, N.J., or even an Italian pastry shop. So courtesy of Kathy of Food Lover's Odyssey, here's a recipe to make your own zeppole di San Giuseppe. Kathy's recipe calls for frying the dough, and I have to admit that after trying a half dozen times, I failed and ended up with greasy orbs that were uncooked in the center. Having made cream puffs in the past, I knew this dough would bake up nicely in the oven. So I shifted gears and preheated the oven to 425 degrees.

Twenty minutes later, this is what I got.
They're a bit tricky and time-consuming to make, but if you prepare the pastry cream the night before, it doesn't take that long. They're best eaten right after you fill them, but they'll keep in the fridge for a few hours too -- if they last that long. 

Zeppole di San Giuseppe

From Food Lover's Odyssey
printable recipe here
Zeppole di San Giuseppe

(makes about 12)
Notes: This made more than 12 zeppole for me, (more like 16) but I think mine were smaller than Kathy's of Food Lover's Odyssey. I also had a lot of pastry cream and chocolate ganache left over -- not a bad thing in my book.  I started out frying the zeppole, but couldn't get it right and they were too greasy, so I switched to baking them - in a 425 degree preheated oven for about 20-25 minutes. That worked much better.
For the dough (choux paste):

1 ½ cups (350 ml) water

6 tablespoons (80 grams) butter, cubed

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

½ teaspoon salt

1 1/3 (180 grams) cup all-purpose flour

5 eggs

6 to 8 cups of peanut oil for frying

For the pastry cream:

3 ¼ cups (750 ml) whole milk

Rind of one lemon (only the rind, not the pith)

8 egg yolks

2/3 cup (160 grams) granulated sugar

Scan 1/2 cup (50 grams) cornstarch

3 1/2 tablespoons (25 grams) all purpose flour

4 tablespoons (55 grams) butter, cubed

For the chocolate ganache:

4 1/2 ounces (150 grams) dark couveture chocolate, finely chopped

2/3 cup (150 ml) heavy cream
To make the choux paste: 
In a saucepan, bring the water, butter, sugar and salt to a rolling
boil. (It's important that the butter is in small cubes, so it melts and
combines with the water before the mixture comes to a boil.)  Add the
flour all at once, and remove from the heat.  Stir until all the flour
is combined.  Place back the mixture back on the stove and stir over
medium heat for about 5 minutes to dry out the mixture.  Remove from the
heat and, after allowing the mixture to cool for 10 minutes, add the
eggs one at a time.  Stir in each egg completely before adding the next.

I a deep pot, heat the oil to 360° F (180° C).  Place the choux paste
into a piping bag attached with a 14mm star tip (the tip opening should
be about 1/2 inch in diameter).  Cut 4X4-inch squares of parchment
paper.  Pipe the choux paste onto the parchment paper, making rings that
are little smaller than the paper, 3 1/2 inches in diameter.  (I
actually piped little "snails" filling the center, but it wasn't
necessary as the dough rises quite a bit as it fries, leaving only a
small hole in the center.)  Place the choux paste and parchment paper
into the oil.  Once the dough starts frying, the paper will fall away
easily; then remove it from the pan.  Fry the zeppole about 4 minutes on
each side. Depending on the pan size, fry only 2 or 3 zeppole at a
time, so you don't lower the temperature of the oil.  Once the zeppole
are cooked through, place on paper towels to drain.  Sprinkle with
powdered sugar once they've cooled slightly.

To make the pastry cream:  Place the milk and the lemon rind in a nonreactive heavy bottom sauce pot and leave for 20 minutes.  Then bring the milk to a scald.  Let the lemon rind steep in the milk for 10 minutes.  In the meantime, in another bowl, whisk together the sugar and egg yolks until the mixture becomes pale.  (The whisk must be nonreactive also.) Add the cornstarch and flour and whisk to combine.
Strain the lemon rind out of the milk, and slowly pour the warmed milk into the egg yolk mixture.  Whisking together as you pour.  Once all the milk and egg yolk mixtures are combined, place back into the saucepot and over medium-high heat.  Bring to a boil, whisking vigorously the entire time.  Once the mixture has boiled, cook for another 2 minutes, again stirring the entiring time.  Remove from the heat and strain through a fine-mesh seive.  Add the butter to the top of the pastry cream, stirring in once the butter has melted. Place the bowl into an ice bath and let cool for 10 minutes.  Spread the pastry cream into a 9x13-inch glass dish and cover with plastic wrap.  The plastic wrap should be touching the pastry cream to keep the cream from developing a film.  Refrigerate until cold.
To make the chocolate ganache: Place the chopped chocolate in a bowl.  In a sauce pot, heat the cream just until it's scalding (little bubbles appear around the rim).  Pour the cream over the chocolate.  Let the mixture rest for a minute, then slowly whisk together.  To create a smooth ganache, place the whisk in the center of the mixture and whisk in a small, slow, circular motion until the chocolate and cream combine.  Let the ganache cool and thicken just to the point that it will hold its form when it's piped.
To assemble the zeppole:  Place the pastry cream into a piping bag fitted with a 12mm star tip.  Into the center of each zeppole, pipe the pastry cream.  I piped a generous two "snail-shaped" circles of pastry cream, one on top of the other.  Place the ganache into a piping bag fitted with a 10mm star tip.  Pipe a small ring of ganache on the top center of each zeppole.  They are best minutes after they've been garnished, and should be eaten the day they've been made.  Enjoy!
NOTE:  To make the Neapolitan version, with a cherry topping instead of the chocolate one, you need a jar of amarena cherries, or another type of sour cherries, in syrup.  Drain some of the syrup from the cherries, and top each zeppole with one cherry.

Monday, March 11, 2013

Baked Fennel Two Ways

 If you wait long enough, everything comes into fashion -- even culinarily speaking. I grew up eating things that most Americans had never tried, much less heard of, and today they're as common on restaurant menus and home kitchens as hamburgers and French fries. Think of squid, polenta, broccoli rape and fennel, to name a few. Fennel was always on our holiday table, and even now, I can picture that oval stainless steel serving dish, brimming with raw fennel, carrots, celery sticks and marinated mushrooms.

 I don't ever remember eating it cooked however, until I was an adult. But baked or roasted fennel is now my favorite way to eat the vegetable. In a nod to readers who asked for more vegetable recipes, here are two that are quick and delicious. The first is a fennel gratin and the second is roasted fennel.

For the fennel gratin, I cook the fennel in simmering water for 10 or 15 minutes on the range, in an ovenproof casserole. When you're trimming it, keep the bottom part of the bulb intact so it doesn't fall apart. Cook until tender and carefully drain the water.

 Sprinkle the bread crumb mixture over the top and place in a very hot oven until browned

Careful not to keep it in too long or it could easily burn the bread crumbs. Garnish with fennel fronds.

 For the roasted fennel, I was inspired by my fellow blogger Stacey Snacks. She makes it almost the same way, but adds olives. Unfortunately, I didn't have any in the house when I made this, but I would definitely add them next time. I only had a half a lemon, so I also threw in some slices of clementine and squeezed a little juice from the citrus fruit on the fennel before sloshing with olive oil and herbed salt. The herbed salt was homemade, and if you don't have any, I recommend you use a little kosher salt with some minced rosemary, easily available year round at the supermarket.

  As Stacey says, it's addictive.

Fennel Gratin

printable recipes here

1 large fennel bulb

1/4 cup panko or other bread crumbs

1/4 cup parmesan cheese, grated

2 T. parsley, minced

rind of 1/2 lemon

2 T. lemon juice

3 T. melted butter

Cut the fennel into thick slices. Don't trim off the core. It will soften as it cooks. Place the fennel in a casserole that can be used on a range top and in an oven. Cover the fennel with water and bring to a boil. Place a lid or aluminum foil on top of the casserole and let the fennel simmer lightly until cooked through. It should take no more than 10 to 15 minutes. Take off the burner. Carefully drain away the hot water. Arrange the slices in the casserole and drizzle with the lemon juice and 1 T. of the melted butter.

Mix the panko, parmesan cheese, parsley, lemon rind with the remainder of the melted butter.

Place in a 425 degree oven, uncovered and bake for about 10 to 15 minutes, until the topping is golden. Garnish with some of the fennel fronds before serving.

Roasted Fennel

1 large fennel bulb

1 lemon or 1 lemon and 1 clementine

juice from the ends of the lemon and clementine

olive oil

homemade seasoned salt made with garden herbs or kosher salt and minced fresh rosemary


olives, optional

Slice the fennel into thick slices (about 1/4 inch thick). Place on a baking sheet that's been oiled with olive oil. Drizzle more olive oil on the fennel, and squeeze the juice from the citrus fruit ends over the fennel. Then sprinkle with the seasoned salt. Place slices of lemon and oranges in between the fennel slices and if desired, olives.

Bake at 425 degrees for 1/2 hour then flip over and bake another 15 minutes. Use your judgment on the time and keep an eye on it because it could easily burn, depending on the size of the slices.

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Monday, March 4, 2013

Olive Oil Biscotti

Unless you've been living in a cave somewhere, the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, with its emphasis on olive oil, has been all over the news lately. Olive oil has so many beneficial uses, from culinary to skin care, that it makes sense to reach for it whenever you can. Which is why I decided to come up with a recipe for olive oil biscotti, my favorite all-time cookie.

And why not use my favorite all-time extra virgin olive oil too -- Casale Sonnino olive oil. The olives are grown at a farm a little south of Rome, owned by friends of mine - George and Claire - who take the utmost care in the growing, harvesting and grinding, personally overseeing the operation every step of the way. 

If you've done any reading about olive oil, you know that so much of what's sold as Italian extra virgin oil is really suspect - even well known brand names. The oil may be from other countries and may not even be olive oil at all. A lot has been written about the subject, including this article here

Aside from the question of whether it's really olive oil, there's little way of knowing (assuming it is olive oil), how the olives and trees were grown and maintained, whether they were overly sprayed with pesticide days before picking, whether they were sitting around too long before milling, subject to bruising, whether all the olives came from Italy or whether the oil in the bottle really was the first cold pressing.

The olives from the 700 trees on George and Claire's property are hand picked by a small group of local women in the traditional manner. Nets are strung below the olive trees to capture any falling fruit before they hit the ground to prevent bruising. The olives are transported within days to a local mill, where George supervises the pressing from start to finish. I can always be sure that their extra virgin olive oil is the first cold pressing from estate grown olives when I buy Casale Sonnino olive oil. Like grapes, olives for oil come in many varieties. Casale Sonnino olive oil uses Broccanica, Rosciola, Venina and the Tuscan Leccino.

There's no doubt that you're getting the finest quality possible and it is evident in the taste. If you'd like to taste it too, it's available by mail order here in the states. Contact Claire at or at 516-767-7188. They also rent out the beautiful 18th century villa on the property to vacationers, and you can get more information by clicking here.

But back to the cookies. Casale Sonnino's olive oil is mild, which is perfect for these cookies. You wouldn't want to use an oil with an overpowering strong flavor in a delicate cookie. 

After you've mixed the batter, shape into logs.

Slice them after they come out of the oven and bake them a second time until they're golden. They're delicious plain just like this.

Or dress them up with a drizzle of white icing.

Or chocolate if you prefer.

 Wouldn't you love to unwrap a little hostess gift like this? Or sit down to a cup of coffee and a few biscotti yourself? Well then, what are you waiting for?  

 Olive Oil Biscotti

2 1/2 cups flour

1 t. baking powder

1/2 t. salt

1 cup pistachios, toasted in the oven for 10 minutes at 350 degrees

2 large eggs

1 cup sugar

1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil

zest of three oranges

1 T. Grand Marnier or other orange flavored liqueur

glaze, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Combine flour, baking power and salt.

In a large mixing bowl, place the eggs, sugar, olive oil, orange zest and Grand Marnier or other orange liqueur and mix for one minute until well blended. Add the flour mixture and pistachios and mix until all the ingredients are well blended.

Shape into "logs" on a parchment-lined baking sheet. Bake for about 35 minutes until golden. Remove from oven and slice into individual biscotti. Raise the oven temperature to 375 degrees and place the biscotti back on the parchment-lined baking sheet for another 15 minutes, flipping once. Bake until golden, and keep a close eye on them the last five minutes to make sure they don't burn. 

Optional: Cool, then glaze and sprinkle with grated orange peel.

white glaze: Start with a little confectioner's sugar  - about 1 cup. Then add in a small amount of orange juice (a couple of tablespoons) until you have a consistency that's think enough to drizzle. Sprinkle with grated orange peel.

chocolate glaze: Melt some chocolate chips over a double boiler. While warm, drizzle over the cookies. Sprinkle with orange peel.

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