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Archive for the ‘French’ Category

I’m an inveterate list-maker. Besides shopping lists and to-do lists, I keep lists of foods in the freezer and bottles in the wine closet. For dinner parties I list the timing of every step in the final cooking and serving. And tucked into many of my cookbooks are lists of recipes I want to try some day. The day just came for one of those.

Today’s dish is from my list for Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine: gratineed ham crêpes. The filling sounded tasty, the creamy sauce was made with an unusual technique, and the final gratin was also unusual. His separate recipe for making the crêpes themselves didn’t attract me, but I could work with the Julia Child crêpe recipe I’ve always relied on. So on to the attempt.

One day in advance, I put together the crêpe batter – mixing flour, salt, milk, water, eggs, and melted butter in my old blender. Crêpes are about the only things I still use a blender for: I’ve found that the food processor can leave lumps. The batter needs at least two hours of chilling, but it’s perfectly happy to sit in the refrigerator overnight.

Next day, feeling quite professional, I assembled my batterie de cuisine on top of the stove: two crêpe pans, a little dish of oil and a brush to grease them with, a plate to receive the cooked crêpes, the blender jar of batter, a quarter-cup measure to dip it out with, and a little bowl to hold the wet cup. All was set up for fast, efficient cooking of two crêpes at a time.
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Pride goeth before a fall! It had been too long since I’d last used those crêpe pans. They’d lost their seasoning, so when I poured in the first batter it instantly cemented itself to the pans, even though I’d greased them. It had to be scraped off in bits – which didn’t do the pans any good.
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Chastened, I selected the less-bad-looking pan, scrubbed it with salt, oil, and paper towels, re-seasoned it as well as I could at the moment, and resumed cooking my crêpes – slowly and carefully, with just the one pan. They gave no further trouble, thank goodness.
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That taken care of, I could go on to make the sauce, while Tom minced half a cup of good smoked ham, shredded half a cup of gruyère, and beat an egg yolk with two tablespoons of heavy cream.
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The sauce started as essentially a bechamel, but made differently from the way I’m familiar with. First, I had to brown the mixture of butter and flour, rather than letting it foam along without browning. Then the milk to be added had to be lukewarm, not boiling. Third, after additions of nutmeg and cayenne it had to cook for 10 minutes, which is a longer time than I’m used to, before being enriched with the egg yolk-cream mixture.
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I set part of the sauce aside for topping the filled crêpes and mixed all the ham and most of the gruyère into the rest of the sauce. I remembered to lay out the crêpes ugly side up, so when rolled they’d show their better sides. It seemed like very little filling.
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I laid the rolled crêpes in a buttered baking dish and topped them with the remaining sauce, thinned out a little with cream, the rest of the grated gruyère, dots of butter, and – what for me was another unusual feature – fine dry bread crumbs.
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The dish baked for 15 minutes at 400°. It came out looking quite nice, except that the butter had made little puddles rather than spreading out. I guess my dots were too big. No harm, though.
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The crêpes were excellent. Richly flavorful, despite the modest amount of filling; though Tom would have liked a stronger ham presence. The texture of the dish was one of its best features: soft in the center but pleasantly crunchy on top from the breadcrumb gratin. I may adopt that gratin for when I make other kinds of crêpes – which I must do soon. Gotta keep those pans seasoned!
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Crisp Brown Sauteed Chicken

If I had to choose only one kind of animal protein to eat all my life long, it would be chicken. Love of chicken is something I have in common with Julia Child (in addition to extreme tallness and big feet*), who says in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, “I can go on eating chicken forever.”

Looking through that book recently, I was struck by the way cut-up chicken is both sauteed and baked in a recipe called Poulet sauté à brun, croustillant, a.k.a. Crisp Brown Sauteed Chicken. Julia calls it the French answer to American fried chicken: crisp and brown on the outside, moist and tender inside. Sounded like a winning combination.

Also interesting was an assurance that, at two points during the cooking, the pan could be taken off the heat for several hours and continued later. That seemed potentially very useful on a busy day, so I tried doing it that way, even though I didn’t need the pauses then.

In the late morning I dipped four chicken thighs in milk, salted and peppered them, and shook flour over them to coat.
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I put the pieces to brown in butter and oil, skin side down at first, in a cast-iron pan that I’d eventually bake them in.
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After about 10 minutes, both sides were nicely browned. I moved them to the back of the stove and left them there.
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In midafternoon I continued with the recipe. This stage didn’t take long. I heated the chicken on the stove until it was sizzling, basted the pieces with the cooking fat, turned them skin side down again, and transferred the pan to a 375° oven.
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Five minutes later I turned the pieces, basted them again, and baked for another five minutes. Then off the heat again and onto the back of the stove. The thighs hadn’t changed much but still looked good.
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As dinner time approached I repeated the stove-top reheating and the two five-minute bake-and-bastes. I transferred the thighs, now even a richer brown, to a platter and kept them warm in the turned-off oven while Tom made a little pan gravy (I was tending the dinner vegetables).
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The gravy, which the recipe calls a brown deglazing sauce, involved chopped shallots, white wine, broth, and a bit of crème fraiche that we had left in the refrigerator. It went very well with the chicken, which was indeed crisp and brown on the outside, moist and tender inside. Not harmed at all by its off-heat rest periods. And very, very tasty – even my non-chicken-loving spouse had to agree!

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* Once I had the good fortune of being on a food writers’ trip with Julia. When we were introduced, she looked me up and down and said “Where do you buy your shoes?”

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Every now and then I come across something in the back of a pantry shelf that I’d completely forgotten about. Current case in point: most of a package of imported Italian dried chickpeas. Since they clearly had seniority among my dried beans and pulses, I felt I should make a special effort to use them.

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A timely email newsletter I received from the heirloom bean company Rancho Gordo featured a recipe for a winter salad of garbanzo beans (Rancho G uses the hispanic name) and carrots. So I started by making that.
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I soaked my chickpeas overnight in cold water. Next day I tossed them in a small mince of carrot, onion, and celery sauteed in olive oil, covered them generously with water, simmered until they were tender, drained and let them cool.

The remaining vegetables were raw: grated carrot, thinly sliced shallot, minced garlic, and chopped parsley. All were tossed together with olive oil, lemon juice, salt, pepper, and ground cumin. I cut back on the recipe’s carrot quantity. It wanted 5 or 6 large ones to a cup of cooked chickpeas, which seemed like much too much.

It made a pretty dish, but it’s definitely one for lovers of the allium family: the amount of shallot and garlic were almost shocking at first taste. But the interplay of that sharpness with the sweetness of the carrot, the savoriness of the chickpeas, and the spiciness of the cumin grew on me. I wouldn’t want it often, but it was an interesting discovery.

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Next I tried a new-to-me chickpea soup. Soupe aux pois chiche is a Languedoc recipe in Anne Willan’s French Regional Cooking, a book I usually find very reliable. This dish was not a success.
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Several aspects of the instructions seemed peculiar. To start with, there was an odd initial treatment of the chickpeas. After an overnight soak, there was a one-hour simmer, uncovered, starting with fresh water; then another uncovered simmer, in yet more fresh water, for another hour or more, until the chickpeas were tender. Wouldn’t all that plain water leach out some of the peas’ flavor?

Meanwhile I softened a sliced onion and a big sliced leek in olive oil, added a cut-up tomato, and cooked for a few more minutes. Then I was supposed to drain the chickpeas; return the water to the pot and bring it to a boil; add the sauteed vegetables and half the chickpeas; and cook until they could be crushed easily. The rest of the chickpeas were to be kept for another recipe. What was the point of that?! I just used half the amount of chickpeas to begin with.

I pureed the soup, reheated it and served it with croutons, as directed. It was totally insipid. The chickpeas could have been excelsior, the other vegetables were undetectable, salt was desperately needed, and when it went in, salt was all you could taste. I expect to occasionally come upon recipes I don’t like, even from cooks I respect, but this one was truly dismal.

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After that disappointment, I turned to a tried and true recipe for the rest of my chickpeas: pasta e ceci, from Tom’s and my second cookbook, The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen. The dish this simple recipe produces is the sort of thick soup or wet pasta on which generations of Italian peasants gratefully survived winter. Pure southern Italian soul food.
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After the chickpeas are initially reconstituted (the recipe uses the two-minute boil plus two-hour hot-water soak method rather than the overnight cold-water soak; either is fine), they’re drained, returned to the pot, and stewed with canned Italian plum tomatoes, olive oil, salt, and fresh water, absorbing flavor as they go. Needing only an occasional stir, the chickpeas simmer along gently until tender. Since that can be anywhere from two or four hours, depending on their freshness, it’s good to do this in advance.

The pot can sit on the back of the stove until dinner time approaches. Then you bring it to a boil, stir in short pasta, such as shells or ditalini, and cook for about 20 minutes, until the pasta is done. Add an aromatic mince of garlic, basil, and parsley, some olive oil, and lots of freshly ground black pepper, and serve. Ambrosia!

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During the holiday season just past, I served two excellent French-style dinner-party appetizers that I look forward to making again in the coming year. As an aid to memory, I thought I’d start my 2019 blog with an appreciation of the two dishes.

One, asparagus croûtes, was quick, easy, and even tastier than I’d thought it would be from reading the recipe. The other, salade de geziers, was also quick and easy in the assembly and thoroughly delicious in the eating, but the chief component has to be prepared far in advance.

 

Asparagus Croûtes
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This is a plain looking dish, but its simple flavors come together in one of those magical French ways that make the whole greater than the sum of its parts. (Hint: Think butter.) The recipe comes from esteemed chef Raymond Oliver’s La Cuisine, which gives it a distinguished culinary pedigree.

For each serving you need one slice of homemade-style white bread, crust cut off and the slice cut in half; and enough spears of asparagus – thick or thin, as you prefer – to top the bread completely. In my version, on each half slice I used the tip ends of four thinnish spears, cut in lengths the size of the bread.

The asparagus gets cooked in boiling salted water until just tender, then sauteed gently in butter for two minutes. The bread is fried in butter and olive oil until golden. In a baking dish you place the bread slices, arrange the asparagus on them, and sprinkle generously with grated Swiss cheese and fine dry breadcrumbs.

Then, you either run the dish under a broiler or else bake it in a 450° oven until the croûtes are golden and bubbly. Doesn’t look like a lot on the plate, but it’s quite filling. Of course, if you’re feeding very hearty eaters, you can always increase the number of croûtes per person.

 

Salade de Geziers
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Geziers are gizzards, an ingredient many Americans consign to cat food – a big mistake. Gizzards can be delicious. While one of them should be included in every bag of giblets tucked inside a purchased chicken, it takes a long time to collect and freeze enough gizzards to do anything significant with, so I buy them separately. And what I do is confit them. Making confit is a time-consuming process, but once it’s done you have the wherewithal for this splendid salad.

Essentially, to confit gizzards you toss them with salt and refrigerate them for a day. Scrape off the salt, put the gizzards in a heavy casserole with melted duck fat to cover, bring it to a simmer, and cook covered in a very low oven for several hours, until they are tender. Drain, cool, and transfer them to a large jar; and pour over enough of the cooled cooking fat to cover them completely. They keep in the refrigerator for months.

For the salad, you want a leafy green that’s at least a little bitter, to contrast with the unctuous gizzards. Frisée is my first choice, but if it’s not available, tender leaves from the heart of escarole do very well. I dress them with a vinaigrette made with walnut oil and my homemade red wine vinegar, then top them with warmed gizzards. It’s an intriguing combination on the palate: crisp and soft, sharp and mellow, bracing and soothing.

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Both these dishes are truly – literally – appetizers. That is, they stimulate your appetite for what will be coming next. Nice.

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Tournedos Rossini

The dinner Tom and I ate this Christmas Eve was arguably the best meal we’d ever made for ourselves. It was also extremely costly, but we regarded it as a Christmas gift to each other. Its centerpiece was a slightly tamed version of Tournedos Rossini.

Properly done, that luscious French dish is a filet mignon sauteed in butter, sitting on a round of bread sauteed in butter, topped with a thick slice of bloc foie gras, garnished with a piece of black truffle, and bathed with a complicated Madeira-and-truffle sauce. Caloric megadeath for sure, but what a way to go! For our version, adapted from the recipe in the Classic French Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series, we vastly simplified the sauce and substituted morels for the truffle. It was still wonderful.

With the change in the sauce, it wasn’t at all difficult to make. The published recipe uses a sauce base of fond lié, a complex sauce that’s itself based on fond brun de veau, a French “mother sauce” that takes at least eight hours to make. Instead we defrosted some of Tom’s hearty meat-and-vegetable broth and boiled down that very flavorful liquid to concentrate it even further. To that base we added a dose of good Sercial Madeira that we’d also reduced by half (skipping the truffle juice that the recipe wanted added to the wine). It wasn’t as rich as the classic sauce, but it tasted very good. A small amount of a high-quality Madeira does wonders for sauces.
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Other than setting out the remaining ingredients on the kitchen counter, we didn’t do any more work on the dish until after we’d finished our first course at dinner (American transmontanus caviar on homemade buckwheat blini and a glass apiece of champagne; if you’re going to splurge, go all the way). Then I began heating vegetables (tiny green peas and sauteed morels that we’d frozen fresh earlier in the year) while Tom browned slices of my white bread in butter.
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We transferred the bread to dinner plates and in the same pan (with more butter) sauteed our filet mignons. They were larger than the classic tournedos cuts, but that wasn’t a problem.
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Keeping the steaks warm on the plates, we quickly deglazed the pan with more Madeira, stirred in the previously made sauce base, and simmered it briefly. (We skipped the step of straining the sauce and swirling in yet more butter: Neither was really necessary.)

On each steak we placed a thick slice of duck foie gras and a small morel to serve as a faux truffle, and poured the sauce over them.
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Magnificent! A wonderful combination of flavors. The foie gras virtually melted into the beef the moment it was cut into. And it is an honest opinion, not sour grapes, to say that morels are tastier than most black truffles. Certainly they are never as aromatic, but they are definitely more flavorful.

All this magnificence had an equally great companion in the Drouhin 2004 Chambolle Musigny Premier Cru that Santa provided. Tom may have more to say about that wine soon on his blog.

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At a mid-autumn dinner at Manhatta, Danny Meyer’s newest New York City restaurant, I had a luscious lobster quenelle – the first I’d ever tasted. Its rich flavors stayed on my mind’s palate for weeks afterward. I just had to try making it at home.

Now, quenelles are not in my skill set. I’d only once made fish quenelles, many years ago, when I acquired my first food processor (the device that took the fantastically complex work out of making them), and all I recall now is that it still seemed like too fussy a dish to pursue. But quenelles with lobster – that’s surely worth another effort! Off to the fish market I went and picked up a good-looking pair of lobster tails.
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The first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking devotes six pages to quenelles, and Julia Child is very encouraging about them. She says they now “take literally minutes and have stepped out of the never-never-land of ultra fancy food into the everyday life of the average home cook.”

Julia, I adore you, but if you were still here among us, I’d tell you that that is an exaggeration.

The first step in the master recipe is to make a pâte à choux. No problem there: I’ve made puff paste for both savory (gougères) and sweet (profiteroles) dishes. I melted butter, salt, pepper, and nutmeg in boiling water; dumped in flour and beat ferociously; off heat, beat in an egg and an extra egg white; then set the entire pot in a bowl of ice water to thoroughly chill the paste.
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Next was to prepare the quenelle mixture. My bespoke knife man obligingly cracked open the lobster tails, extracted the meat, and cut it into one-inch chunks.
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The chilled lobster meat, the choux paste, and some heavy cream went into the food processor.
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If the mixture looked stiff after giving it a very thorough whirling, Julia said to blend in more cream – as much as it would take, which would keep the finished quenelles’ texture light and delicate. Well, it did look pretty stiff . . .
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. . . but I was warned against using too much cream, because the mixture had to be able to hold its shape on a spoon. Mercifully, Julia set up a test for that: Scoop out a bit of the paste, drop it into simmering water, poach it, and taste.
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Next instruction: “Process in more cream if you think it can be absorbed – but better too little than too much!” Worry worry worry. It took three more additions of cream and three more poachings to keep the test pieces from feeling rubbery in the mouth. (As you may have noticed, those Julian minutes were adding up.)

Finally ready to form and poach the quenelles, I filled a roasting pan with three inches of water and brought it to a simmer. Now the idea was to work rapidly, using two wet dessert spoons, to shape the batter into smooth ovals and drop them into the water. Here’s how that process worked for me.
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Pitiful! The batter wouldn’t smooth, it stuck to the wet spoons, and by the time the pieces hit the water, they had knobs and pimples all over. But after about 25 minutes they all duly came to the surface of the water, floated around, allowed themselves to be turned over a few times, and eventually swelled reasonably well.
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I must say it’s hard to understand how my half recipe’s worth of batter, which was supposed to make about 8 quenelles, turned out to make 24. I intended them to be a main course for 3 people, and it was clear we’d never be able to eat that many at a sitting. I selected the 18 least misshapen little lumps, set them in a dish, and left it covered in the refrigerator overnight. (Packaged up the rest separately.)
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Next day came the sauce making. The chopped up lobster shells went into a broth made from a fish bouillon cube and simmered together lengthily to make a concentrated stock. I cooked butter and flour together, beat in equal parts of boiling stock, milk, and white wine to make a very thick sauce, and thinned it out somewhat with heavy cream (cream and butter being the universal solvents of classic French cuisine).
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Finally came the assembly: Spread a thin layer of sauce in a buttered gratin dish, arrange the quenelles in it, pour the rest of the sauce over them, sprinkle on grated gruyere, and add – what else? – dots of butter. At dinner time the dish baked for 15 minutes in a very hot oven.
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It came out looking a bit messy but with an enticing seafood aroma. We could tell the quenelles were going to be very rich, so I put only three on each plate to start.
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They were marvelous! Light, fluffy, melting in the mouth, tasting intensely of lobster, with the sauce a perfect companion. So rich that none of us could eat more than three.

Now I’ve got some terrific leftovers to look forward to. And I’m very glad to have actually achieved this delicious dish. It was well worth all the time and effort.

But, dear Julia: mere minutes? everyday life? average cook? I don’t think so.

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One of my most reliable first courses for a company dinner is an onion tart in the manner of Alsace. (I won’t call it Alsatian – that’s a breed of dog.) I’ve made it successfully for many years: It’s always delicious and guests always enjoy it. Originally I must have based it on a recipe from somewhere, but now it’s purely mine. I have it written out for five different sizes: 10-inch, 9-inch, 8-inch, and 6-inch round pans, plus 4-inch individual tartlets.

When I have extra pastry dough in the freezer, I sometimes make one just for Beloved Spouse and myself. Though we can’t finish it all at one sitting, it never stays around long enough to lose its charm. Most recently I made us an 8-inch version.

To start, I ran a pound’s worth of Spanish onions through the two-millimeter blade of my food processor. In a large sauté pan in which I’d melted a stick of butter and a tablespoon of olive oil, the onions cooked very gently for 20 minutes, until they were very soft but not at all browned – somewhat like the start of a French onion soup.

 

 

I sprinkled two teaspoons of flour over the onions, stirred them around, and cooked for another minute, then took the pan off the heat and let the onions cool a bit while I shaped the pastry shell. I like to use a pâte brisée for this tart, but any savory pastry will do. For company I usually make a raised decorative rim of pastry, but in this case I had just enough pre-made pastry for a plain shell.

 

 

For the filling I beat 2 jumbo eggs together in a bowl with 2/3 cup each of milk and heavy cream (for company it’s sometimes crème fraiche), plus salt, pepper, and freshly grated nutmeg. I spread the onions and their residual butter in the pastry shell and poured the filling mixture over them.

 

 

The tarts – of any size – bake for 30 to 40 minutes in a 350° oven, until they’re puffed and lightly golden on top.

 

 

They can be served hot, warm, or at room temperature. For company dinners I usually bake the tart in advance and reheat it just a little as serving time approaches.

 

 

Simple as it is, this is a lovely tart – attractive in its presentation, appetizingly light on the tongue but rich, pure, and naturally sweet from both the custard and the onions. It’s delicate because there’s no bacon or cheese, as are used in many other onion tart recipes, to make the filling heavy. This is a dish that fits well into menus for all seasons and just about any US or western European cuisine. It loves a good white wine – not necessarily from Alsace, but one from there never hurts.

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