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Last week, for a dinner party to celebrate two recent birthdays, Tom’s and our friend Betty’s, I made a Beef Wellington. I couldn’t even remember when I’d last made one, but Tom, who had a hunger for a big piece of first-rate beef, had requested it and I was happy to indulge him. This pastry-wrapped beef fillet roast is a delicious and impressive dish in the high old classic style that I love, and really not all that difficult to make.

The recipe I’ve always used is one I copied out from someone else’s Gourmet Magazine cookbook – the original version from the 1950s. Over the years I’ve made a few alterations of my own, trying different kinds of pastry crust, omitting bacon slices for the initial roasting, and replacing the recipe’s blithe demand for “3 or 4 truffles” with a layer of mushroom duxelles.

The pastry recipe I like at present, a pâte brisée from Simca’s Cuisine by Simone Beck, uses a whole egg and half a cup of white wine instead of water. It produces a lot of a nicely savory crust, the excess of which can be frozen for future use. I made up a batch a day in advance.

Early the next day I rubbed my two-pound chateaubriand, cut from the thick end of the fillet, with cognac, salt, and pepper. It looked good enough to eat just as it was!

 

It went into a 425° oven for just 15 minutes and then I set it aside to cool while I made the duxelles. I finely chopped a quarter-pound of mushrooms, ferociously twisted small handfuls of them in a cloth to squeeze out their water, and sautéed them in butter and oil along with a little minced shallot. Some recipes say you don’t have to do the squeezing – the liquid will evaporate if you cook the mushrooms long enough. OK, but I think the results are better with the shorter sauté. Also, the squeezing is kind of fun – it’s amazing how much water comes out of apparently dry mushrooms.
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Now all was ready to assemble the dish. I rolled out a big sheet of dough and, on the area where the beef would lie, spread a thick layer of duck liver mousse. (That was purchased, not homemade, and I chose it as a middle ground between the recipe’s options of foie gras and chicken liver pâté.)
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I set the meat on the mousse and spread the duxelles over the top.
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I wrapped the dough snugly around the meat and its accompaniments, trimmed off the excess, and sealed the seams with beaten egg.
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I turned the loaf seam-side-down and moved it to a baking sheet, where I gave the whole thing a brushing with the egg. Then for fun, I cut flower shapes from the leftover dough, lined them up along the loaf, and brushed them with egg too. They were a little silly looking, but they gave it a festive air.
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By then it was still only mid-afternoon, so I refrigerated the pastry until evening. The recipe called for baking it 30 minutes at 425°, but since mine had been cold, it took a little longer. It came out looking very cute, sort of like a cross between a loaf of country bread and a child’s decorated football, with an aroma that carried a promise of great things.
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And it delivered on the promise. When sliced into, the pastry crumbled a bit, but the beef was rare to perfection – absolutely gorgeous. It simply melted in the mouth, moist with beef sweetness, and the accompanying flavors of mousse and duxelles enhanced every bite of the savory crust they’d annealed to. Duchesse potatoes and sauteed spinach – the latter dotted with pignoli and raisins – played excellent supporting roles on the plates.
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This was a properly festive dish for the two birthday people, and it matched beautifully with the 1982 Chateau Montrose St. Estèphe that Beloved Spouse had chosen to pair with it. Need I say we all thoroughly enjoyed the celebratory meal?

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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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Egg Foo Yung

I don’t know what put egg foo yung into my mind. I hadn’t given the dish a thought since, as a child, I began discovering “exotic” substances like chop suey at a suburban Chinese restaurant with my family. Chinese food in America has come a long way from the ubiquitous Cantonese-and-MSG style of those days, but many of the old-time flavors are still pleasant.

So, on a day when I was idly thinking about French omelets, Spanish tortillas, and Italian fritattas, egg foo yung popped into my mind. Why not try my hand at those Chinese egg pancakes in a brown sauce? Three of my four Chinese cookbooks had recipes for the dish – some quite elaborate. Remembering the modesty of that long-ago restaurant, I decided to make the simplest version, which was in the Chinese Cooking volume of the Time-Life Foods of the World series.

From my experience with the pace of cooking Chinese recipes, I knew I’d have to assemble and measure out all the ingredients before starting. These weren’t very many for half a recipe’s worth: eggs, chicken stock, mushrooms, shrimp, bean sprouts, soy sauce, salt, and cornstarch.
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My shrimp had to be peeled, cut in small pieces, and stir-fried in a lightly oiled wok for just one minute by themselves.
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Before doing anything more, I made up the sauce, starting by dissolving the cornstarch in a bit of the cold chicken stock and mixing the salt and soy into it. Then I was to bring the rest of the stock to a boil, add the cornstarch mixture, and simmer for two minutes until the sauce was thick and clear. It thickened quickly enough, but the soy coloring kept it from being what I’d call clear.
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But it was translucent, though it doesn’t look that way in the picture, so I assume that’s what was meant. I kept the sauce warm at the back of the stove while I assembled the pancake mixture.

Shrimp, mushrooms, and bean sprouts all went into the bowl of beaten eggs. Since the half recipe was to make three pancakes, I took the prudent approach of dividing the mixture evenly in three little bowls rather than trying to estimate quantities on the fly.
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The frying went fast and well in the very hot wok, each pancake taking only about a minute on each side.
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Then plating and saucing, and the recipe was done. I can’t say I had a Proustian recollection of my childhood when I smelled the dish, but the aroma was pleasing.
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The pancakes and their sauce were very good in a mild, homely, old-fashioned way. That sauce was absolutely essential. When I took a bite of the pancake alone, it was bland almost to tastelessness, but the smooth, thick, salty sauce immediately brought up the flavors, as well as the nice textural variety of the crunchy bean sprouts, tender egg custard, and nubbly bits of shrimp and mushroom. So, egg foo yung: a pleasant little walk down Memory Lane.

 

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In December, the first sign of approaching Christmas at our house, well before the wreath goes up on the front door, is the steady buildup of holiday cookie tins.
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I start my cookie baking early, making two indispensables (Toll House and peanut butter), a selection of other favorites, and usually at least one new or uncommon variety. This year I added kourambiedes, reginas, and – for the uncommon one – Ischler törtchen. These delectable tartlets look like miniature Linzer tortes. I used to make them many years ago, from a recipe in The Cooking of Vienna’s Empire volume of the Time Life Foods of the World series. But they’d slipped out of my repertoire. Time to reinstate them!
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Back in the day, I remember thinking it was a fairly complex recipe to make, but now that I’m an old hand at cookie baking, it seems quite easy. Here’s how it goes:

Cream butter and sugar; add ground almonds, flour, and cinnamon; mix until a dough forms.
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Roll the chilled dough thin and cut rounds, adding a small central hole to half of them. (Not having a tiny cookie cutter for the central hole, I used the small end of a pastry bag tip.)
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Bake in a moderate oven until lightly browned.
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Spread each solid round with jam (traditionally raspberry, but I had some black fig jam from Sicily that I wanted to try) and top it with one of the pierced rounds.
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Line them up so confectioner’s sugar can be shaked generously over them.
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Delectable they certainly were. The black fig jam was fine, though I have to say the classic raspberry filling is indeed the ideal flavor match for the almonds. These tartlets don’t keep as well as my regular Christmas cookie varieties, so we’ll have to eat them fairly quickly. Not a hardship!

Of course, neither do we want to ignore those other Christmas cookies, all so very good in their own ways. Santa always seems to like them too.
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Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good bite!

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On the trip to Malta that I wrote about last week, we spent one day on Gozo, the country’s second largest island. More rural than the eponymous main island, Gozo has its own full share of marvels, from megalithic to medieval, as well as lovely rolling hills and excellent traditional food. A highlight of the day for Tom and me was lunch made by the noted Gozo chef George Borg – a lunch made not just for us but partly by us.

This was a fun occasion as well as a delicious one. George is a delightful man and a very talented chef, passionate about Maltese culinary traditions, as well as about wine. When we arrived at his studio kitchen, he had work stations and aprons set out for us; and he started us right off at helping to prepare the antipasto course: his own Gozo-style ftira.
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Now, the ftira we had in Valletta, as I showed last week, was on a thick base of bread, hence fairly heavy for an antipasto. George’s version lightens it by using flaky butter pastry. We were intrigued. The topping we made that day was potatoes, onions, tomatoes, olives, capers, garlic, and anchovies. I thinly sliced potatoes, Tom halved grape tomatoes, and George did the rest.

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While the ftira was baking, we moved on to preparing the next course, which was to be stuffed baked pasta shells. For the filling I mashed several little cheeselets – Malta’s ubiquitous fresh sheep cheese – with grated pecorino, chopped parsley, and black pepper.

Then, in the the most unusual way of treating pasta I’ve ever encountered, George gave Tom and me each a pastry tube filled with the cheese mixture and a pile of pasta shells to be filled with it – raw shells.

 

Once stuffed, the shells went into gratin dishes. George poured on milk to come half way up the pasta, sprinkled the dishes generously with grated pecorino, and put them in the oven to bake with the ftira.

 

Next, George brought out the fish that was to be our main course: fillets of lampuki. This autumn-season specialty is Malta’s favorite fish. Elsewhere, it’s called dorado, dolphin fish, or mahi mahi. But the ones caught here are nothing like the huge, bull-headed, pastel-hued creatures we in the US know as mahi mahi. The lampuki we saw in Malta’s fish markets were small, slender, silvery, white-fleshed fish, with no scales.

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The fillets George cut up were no more than a foot long. He said this was the end of the lampukis’ season, and that was as big as they ever got. To give us an authentic Gozo experience, he cooked them in one of the favorite local ways: just floured, shallow-fried, and served with a tomato sauce.

George’s sauce was based on his own sundried purée of tomatoes. (That is, not a purée of sundried tomatoes but a fresh tomato sauce that he’d made, spread out on trays, and left to thicken in the sunshine – much the way it’s done in Sicily.) He stirred salt, sugar, and capers into the purée, then softened chopped garlic in olive oil in a skillet, added the seasoned puree and a good slosh of water, and set it on the stove to simmer.

 

At last we sat to lunch. Our host had opened two local wines for us to choose from: a Vermentino and a Sangiovese. Naturally we tried both! They were very good. Tom has a blog post on Maltese wines that says more about these two.

 

The ftira was delicious – and quite light, thanks to the crisp, buttery flaky crust. It was hard to resist gobbling it all down, but we knew how much more there was to come.

 

Next came the baked stuffed pasta. The parts of the shells that had been in the milk were soft and fully cooked, while their top edges were firm, brown and crunchy. The milk itself had thickened into a lightly cheese-flavored cream. The mix of textures was a bit disconcerting to us – not the way we’re used to dealing with pasta. It tasted fine, but we still haven’t gotten past our sense of its oddness.

 

 

The lampuki was lovely in its simplicity – quite delicate but very flavorful – and the rich tomato sauce made an ideal complement. We relished every bite of the sweet, firm flesh, whose richness was nicely counterpointed by the acidity and brightness of the sauce.

 

George was eager to give us dessert, but after all those good dishes we couldn’t eat another thing. Tiny cups of espresso and glasses of an excellent grappa made a perfect conclusion to this wonderful meal. As we departed, with compliments on all sides, George gave us a copy of one of his cookbooks. I’m very much looking forward to trying some of his recipes!

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I’m just back from a vacation that included four days of exploring Malta. The Maltese islands – mere dots in the Mediterranean between Sicily and Africa – are truly fascinating. Cliffs, caves, and grottoes, Baroque palaces, medieval fortresses, 5,000-year-old megalithic temples, some the oldest stone structures in the world; and on top of all that, interesting, unusual food.

For example, here Tom and I are having a midmorning snack of pastizzi, a popular Maltese pastry resembling Neapolitan sfogliatelle but with savory fillings, usually fresh ricotta or (a relic of British rule?) mushy peas.

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Not surprisingly in an island culture, fish of all kinds were abundant and delicious. The seafood we had at two restaurants, Palazzo Preca in Valletta and Tartarun in Marsaxlokk, was all exceptionally fresh and fine.

We tried both restaurants’ versions of aljotta, Malta’s signature fish soup. Often described (unfairly, in our opinion) as an adaptation of bouillabaisse, this is a rich, dense fish broth harboring small pieces of several kinds of fish, served with fresh lemon for squeezing and crusty bread for dunking.

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Another appetizer was described on its menu as “local octopus, lemon confit, lardo, 10YO condimento, crispy quinoa, olive & mint.” (Condimento, I learned, is a prestigious kind of balsamic vinegar, this one being 10 years old.) The combination was lovely to look at and luscious to eat.

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Our main courses of seafood were equally good:

An enormous mixed fry of various fishes, squid, shrimp, and octopus

Giant prawns sautéed in garlic, white wine, and tomato, served on a bed of rice

A sauté of mussels and four kinds of clams: razor, surf, vongole veraci, and praires

The best, freshest, sweetest, grilled squid Tom has eaten in a lifetime of consuming squid at every opportunity

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We also explored non-seafood dishes, at both a lunch and a dinner at a Valletta restaurant called Nenu the Artisan Baker. It serves only traditional Maltese foods, with locally produced ingredients. Our lunch was two kinds of ftira, the Maltese equivalent of pizza. It consists of a fairly thick base of bread dough with various toppings, baked in a wood oven.

This one is called karmni s-sultana: potatoes, tomatoes, anchovies, onions, caper berries, olives, mint, and fennel seeds.

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And this one is ta’ Nenu: sundried tomatoes, black olives, peppered Maltese goat cheese, onions, Maltese sausages, capers, and thyme.

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These were hefty items, which we couldn’t possibly finish, much less go on to eat anything else for that lunch. The rest of the menu was so interesting, we decided to come back that evening for dinner. We quickly discovered that everything Nenu serves is hefty. Our appetizers would easily have done for main courses.

Here’s fwied tal-fenek: rabbit liver in a sauce of onions, garlic, prunes, anisette, and cream.

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And zalzett malti: Maltese sausage in a spicy tomato sauce with peas.

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Our affable waiter jokingly counseled us not to dip too much of the good crusty bread – the Maltese are rightly proud of their bread – in the sauces, because of the dishes yet to come. And right he was.

Here’s Tom’s kirxa, a curried tripe stew, which was served with pan-fried potatoes and garlic bread. It had several kinds of tripe, not just honeycomb, and a delicious but unusual set of curry spices that we couldn’t identify.

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And here’s my fenek moqli, described as rabbit marinated in garlic and red wine, fried in olive oil, and served in its own juices. (I’d have called it braised, though I later learned that “fried” in Malta can mean either deep-fried or sauteed.) It came with roasted potatoes and steamed vegetables.

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Our waiter delicately informed me that Maltese people eat rabbit with their fingers, because of the many small bones to be navigated around. I believe I became an honorary Maltese citizen that evening, because I ate my rabbit with my fingers too.

With that gargantuan repast, I’ll conclude this post. We had one more, very special, meal in Malta, which deserves a separate post of its own.

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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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