Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Bread for Beginners

I go in phases with bread. Making it, I mean, not eating it. It's easy enough to always have a sliced wholemeal loaf in the freezer, so that you're never without supplies but then I have a bread "moment" and before you can say Jack Robinson, the kitchen is filled with the smell of rising bread, and browning golden crusts are everywhere. For a start , once you've got the knack, it's so easy, just flour, water, and yeast, really, and a bit of salt. Unsalted bread is horrible. Elizabeth David said you should have plenty of salt in your bread, and none in your butter, personally I like a nice abit of salted Welsh butter as well.

And time, you do need some time, which is often the percieved problem with baking bread at home. It does take a few hours to make bread it's true, but you only spend a few minutes out of those hours actually doing anything. So really it comes down to organizing your  bread making around your life, so that it fits in with everything else, and you only have to fiddle about with it when it suits you.

If you've never made bread before, or if you've tried once and got a "brick" and gave up, I recommend trying the New York Times No Knead Bread, which is fully described here. It's a slow, easy to do method which gives you a rustic, rather holey, but still delicious loaf, and well worth a look.

However, if you want to make a good slice-able white crusty loaf you could try my recipe
The Cottage Garden Farmer's White Crusty Loaf
When I want to make an ordinary white crusty loaf I use about half a 3lb/1.5kg bag of strong white flour. You can make any size you like as long as you remember that for each lb of flour you will need 1 teaspoon of fast acting dried yeast ( I use Dove's Farm) and 1 teaspoon of salt, and about half a pint of water. Nothing else, no oil, no sugar, no butter, unless you're making one of the endless variations which will be at your disposal once you've mastered the initial technique. It's one of those things that it's easier to show someone than to describe, but here's a few pictures to help.

Place your chosen amout of ingredients in a roomy, preferably wide bowl.
Make your hand into a "claw" like this

and stir the dry ingredients round to mix in.  Add the water and mix in using your claw hand until it comes together in a sticky mass. It will seem too wet, but persevere.
Tip the lot out onto the floured work surface and knead for a few minutes. There is an accepted method of kneading bread involving pushing and pulling the dough in a rhythmic fashion, but frankly you can fling it about  however you like as long as you stretch it enough to allow the gluten in the flour to develop and transform the sticky mass into

a smooth and elastic lump
Put it back in the bowl and leave, covered with cling film or a damp teatowel until doubled in volume.
Then turn it out on to your worktop again, and handling gently this time, fold in the edges to the centre a few times pressing gently down to get rid of big air bubbles, and place in a loaf tin. Dust with flour, or oatmeal. Leave until risen and puffy again,

and then bake in a very hot steamy oven (see below) for about 30 - 40 minutes. Turn out of the tin onto a wire rack to cool.

 Tips for success
1.Make sure your yeast is fresh even if it's dried! I use Dove's Farm yeast and I keep it in the fridge after opening, and replace it within 6 weeks.
2. The half pint of water to one pound of flour is a minimum. Dry dough will mean dry bread.
3.Make the oven steamy. I throw half a cup of water into the bottom of the Aga just before I close the door, but if you're nervous about throwing water in your oven, try putting a few ice cubes in the bottom of the oven with your bread - they'll instantly melt and give you the steam you need to get your lovely crusty loaf.

4. If you can let your dough rise over a longer period, up to 24hours, you will get a fuller flavoured loaf, but you can adjust this to suit yourself. If you mix your dough in the evening aiming for next day bread, use cold waterin the mix and leave it in a cool place or even the fridge, for 24 hours or more until you're ready to bake it next day. But if you mix it say in the morning  for bread for lunch, then you would use warm water, leave it in a warm place to rise, for an hour or two, you get the general idea.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Make Your Own Cereal Bars

Have you seen the price of cereal bars? I know they're not the most exciting foodie must have. But lots of us buy them, they're great for childrens' lunch boxes, and make good breakfast on the run for adults, and like lots of processed food, they're a complete ripoff. For a start, look at the size of them. Tiny. You'd need a whole box of them to make a decent breakfast for a Doyle. And that would be assuming that they contain wholesome tasty ingredients, which they don't.

I suspect people like cereal bars because many of us don't have the time or inclination for breakfast, (the retail market for cereal bars is worth £314million a year) and grabbing a cereal bar on the way out of the door in the morning seems like an improvement on a double chocolate muffin at the coffee shop later. Which indeed it can be, if you make them yourself.

If you have one of these

from the supermarket, you might just as well have the muffin, for all the good it's going to do you.
So I'm suggesting you make your own. It's easy and you can make them as opulent or as  austere as you wish. I tend to make them fairly spartan because they're for breakfast and I like to see them as a healthy start. No matter that it all goes downhill from there, a good start at least shows willing.

This amount makes enough to fill my large Aga baking tray, which is 14" x 10". It's worth making a good quantity once you've established just how you like them, as they keep reasonably well in an airtight tin.

Cereal Bars Recipe

12oz/300g golden syrup
4oz/half a packet butter
half a cup/4 fl oz sunflower oil

Put these to melt over a low heat,while you assemble the dry ingredients, in a large bowl, which can be almost any combination of the following. Quantities are a rough guide, because you can adjust to whatever you like best, frankly I use up what I have half packets of, and what I fancy adding - just try to end up with around 4 pounds of mix in total for the above amount of liquid.

1 lb8oz/ 750g rolled (porridge)oats
8oz/200gr wholewheat flour
8oz/200g dessicated coconut
12oz/300 gr bag of trail mix chopped up or other dried fruit
several handfuls of puffed rice cereal
several handfuls of mixed seedsof your choice such as sunflower, pumpkin, flax,sesame
several handfuls of mixed nuts of your choice brazil, almond, hazel, walnuts chopped
several handfuls of raisins
3 eating apples, grated coarsely, don't bother to peel

Mix your dry ingredients together thoroughly, pour on the contents of the saucepan and stir until well blended. Turn into your tin and press down fairly gently. Bake for about half an hour on the bottom rung of the Aga roasting oven, probably Gas 4 Electric 180  until just tinged golden. Don't overbrown. Burnt raisins are horrible.

Cut into bars and cool on a wire tray. These bars should be reasonably chewy and soft, if you like them harder and more crisp, reduce the amount of apple.

I don't want to harp on about the economy of making your own, lest you should run away with the idea that they're not going to be very delicious, which they are, but I've costed it out roughly and my cereal bars are at least a quarter of the price of the average shop ones. Plus they're jam packed with nuts seeds and fruits, and low in sugar, contain no preservatives or dodgy fillers, and don't leave 30 plastic wrappers and 6 cardboard boxes behind. The recipe above will give you around 25 -30 good size bars (around 4 oz/100gr each) as opposed to the measly 1oz/30gr ones from the shop. Quarter of the price, ten times the quality,you can't lose.

So it's this...                            ...... or this? (It's a no brainer!)                 

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Chicken Liver Pate

I received my thirteen chickens back from Sid yesterday,

and I was amazed to find that I have no less than 75 lbs of beautiful free range chicken, ready to go in the freezer. The birds ranged in size from seven and a half pounds down to four and a half, with most being at the top end of that range. They look plump and delicious and I can't wait to try one. But in the meantime there's this big tray of giblets to deal with. (I made the photo small in case you're reading this over breakfast, how considerate am I?)

The necks, hearts and gizzards all go into a big saucepan, and simmer in water in the aga for a few hours, and will provide me with a good supply of stock, but the livers are reserved for a special treat.

Chicken Liver Pate.

This recipe is based on the one in Elizabeth David's Summer Cooking from about 1970, although I've altered  it quite a lot over the years. You'll notice it's not for slimmers,  my husband always maintains that artichokes are just an excuse to eat loads of butter, and I'm afraid this pate is a similar case, but you can always justify it with the thought of all that healthy liver you're having with it. Do try, by the way, to get some livers from decent free range birds, as most supermarket ones are from battery birds  - Waitrose do some good ones.

8 oz chicken livers, cleaned, trimmed, and cut in half
8 oz butter
1 onion
1-2 fat cloves garlic
2 tablespoons brandy
2 tablespoons medium sherry (the kind you keep for making trifles or for when Aunt Mildred comes)
salt pepper nutmeg

Whizz the onion and garlic in a food processor until finely chopped, and then saute them in 6oz of the butter until soft.

Should take about 10 minutes, watch it doesn't brown, the butter will easily overheat and burn. Tip into the food processor, retaining some butter to cook the livers.
Add the chicken livers, and cook for a few minutes until browned on the outside, but still pink in the middle. Add generous amounts of salt, pepper, and nutmeg. Tip into the food processor.
Add the brandy and sherry(or port) and scrape up any sediment and allow to bubble for a minute or two until syrupy, then pour into the processor and whizz everything together until smooth.
Turn into a dish and smooth out.
Gently melt the remaining butter and use to cover the pate when it has cooled. 

You should really leave it in the fridge for a day before eating, but I've just had some for supper that I made this afternoon and it was delicious, with hot brown toast and a dollop of chutney. Also makes a luxury starter for a dinner party.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

D Day

At last Sid has judged my Hubbard table chickens fit for despatch. They are 21 weeks old, so about half as long again as I had originally planned. He will be coming round late this afternoon to do the deed. I will not be giving the birds any additional feed during the day, apart from what they forage for themselves,- this makes for a less messy job - and of course water. The weather is atrocious, gale force winds and rain, we will be lucky if they don't blow away in the storm at this rate. After despatch he will hang the birds in his garage overnight, and prepare them tomorrow. As he has a plucking machine he can get through my thirteen birds in a fraction of the time it would take me to pluck them by hand.

I will do a  post on  this whole experience of raising birds for the table in due course, explaining whether I will do it again and what I have learned. Quite a bit will depend on the quality of the chicken on the table - if they turn out to be tough and stringy, I may have to re-think my future plans, but I'm hoping, and Sid tells my they will be, quite delicious, with a better "chickeny" flavour than anything I could get at Waitrose, or indeed, as Sid gleefully says, than the ones they sell for fifteen quid at the local organic farm shop.

I do feel quite sad that the birds have reached the end of their lives, but I will ensure that I complete my obligation towards them by ensuring as quick and stress free an end as possible.  It's not an easy thing to do, when you've raised any creature from day-old to fully grown, but I comfort myself with the knowledge that they have lived a good life,  felt the sun on their backs and the wind ruffle their feathers, and will have eaten as many worms and slugs as any chicken, or indeed any gardener, could ever wish for.

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

Brazilian Christmas Cake

 I wanted to try something a bit different from the usual rich dark fruit cake this year, so if you fancy a change, try this boozy version of a carrot cake, inspired by my trip to Brazil. Many people find a traditional christmas cake a bit too much on top of all the seasonal excess anyway. Not that you could describe this cake as abstemious or frugal in any way, but a nice change of flavour.

If you don't have any Cachaca (and why would you really?) you can use rum instead.

For an 8" round cake tin you will need -
4 oz raisins
4oz sultanas
2oz chopped ready to eat prunes
4 oz natural colour glace cherries
2oz mixed peel

soaked in -
2 fl oz brandy
2fl oz sherry or port
2 fl oz Cachaca (or rum)
1 teasp Angostura bitters
2 teaspoons vanilla extract
zest and juice of 3 limes and 1 lemon

either in the fridge for a few days, or overnight in the kitchen for the flavours to be absorbed.

When you're ready to make the cake, measure out -
12 oz plain flour
2 teasp ground cinnamon
1 teasp freshly grated nutmeg
2 teasp bicarbonate of soda
into a bowl and set aside.

In your Kitchenaid/Kenwood or with your very strong arm, beat together -
half a pint of sunflower oil
6 oz caster sugar
6oz soft brown sugar
4 eggs
until smooth and creamy

Sieve your flour mix in gently.
Then add
12 oz peeled and finely grated carrot
4 oz dessicated coconut
4 oz chopped walnuts or pecans
all the contents of the pre soaking bowl
It's a bit of a squash in my mixer but mix on a slow speed to incorporate everything.

Then turn into a lined 8" tin and bake in a slow oven about gas 2 until a skewer inserted in the middle comes out clean.  Should be around the hour and a half mark. It's a bit less in my Aga, maybe more in some ovens. If it looks to be browning too much cover it with a piece of foil towards the end.

While it's baking make up a syrup by warming gently together until melted -
4 oz chopped Rapadura Caipira (this is a Brazilian sweet basically just a solid block of cane sugar but you could easily substitute light brown sugar)

zest and juice of 4 limes
zest and juice of 2 oranges

Cool and stir in
2 or 3 fl oz Cachaca (or rum)

When the cake is cooked, stab it with a skewer and pour the syrup over while the cake is still hot.

Leave it in the tin to cool and absorb the syrup.

I would normally store a christmas cake in the larder, but I think I will keep this one in the freezer until I'm ready to decorate it just before Christmas, just to be on the safe side. It will easily keep for a couple of weeks though, in an airtight tin if you want to make it anytime before Christmas. I will give it a coat of good quality marzipan and fondant icing in the week before Christmas.

Monday, 9 November 2009

A Tall Poppy?

I went out into the garden yesterday to take a couple of photos of the very pregnant lady who is living in the next field..

Lovely isn't she? She isn't mine but I go out to take her carrots and apples every morning, and yesterday, as I had my camera, I looked around to see if there was anything else worth photographing. In the next field, which is an arable field, was this

A Poppy. Nothing unusual in that you might say. Well first of all it's November and there are very few poppies  in flower in November in Wiltshire. Secondly, it's in a field of cereals where you never see wild flowers at all because they are sprayed into oblivion unless they're organic and this one isn't. And thirdly it was the only one in the whole field and you could see this one tiny flower from hundreds of yards away.

So I took these photos and went back indoors because it was starting to rain again. I turned on the tv  - it was 11am, the Remembrance Day service was on and the two minutes silence just starting.
How strange was that!

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The Three Tenors

Of the thirteen Hubbard chickens that I am raising for the table, there are I think four or five cockerels, which isn't a problem, until they grow up - and start to crow. These three are the biggest of the bunch  and have clearly decided to embark on a competition to decide who can sing loudest.

Only one has what you could call a proper crow as yet, the others are still working on the Strangulated Cat variation. I had expected to have them all in the freezer by now, but Sid my friendly chicken expert and butcher has advised me to fatten them up a bit more. They don't seem to be fighting, which can also be a problem with cockerels, so I will leave them all together for the time being. I think it helps that they have plenty of room, so aren't under so much pressure to compete with each other. Except on the singing front. Every now and then they take up their positions, and in a very orderly fashion take it in turns to perform, it's a bit like X Factor for Chickens. The other hens stand around like admiring groupies. Me, I'm just Simon Cowell. Pass the earplugs.

Friday, 6 November 2009

Pheasant Visitor

This handsome chap has visited the garden several times recently, he strolls about in a rather vague way as though he's looking for something - maybe another pheasant - the chickens don't seem to take any notice of him.

And if he's worried about blokes with guns at all you'd never guess.

Of course the cook in me can't help thinking he'd make a lovely roast dinner, but since I've got a dozen chickens fattening up, I think I can afford to let him continue to stroll decoratively around the place.

Wednesday, 4 November 2009

Christmas preparations

Well it's November now, so I can start Christmas preparations without too much apology.  In fact  I usually do these dried fruit items in October, but I've been away so much of the last few weeks that there hasn't been time. Until now. So it's Christmas Cake, Christmas pudding, and Mincemeat. Now I realise Dried Fruit Phobics may think of all three of these as being essentially the same thing in a different shape, so I've tried this year, to ensure that all three, despite including vine fruits, are completely different in taste and in texture. Two points - if you have access to a good supply of superior vine fruits from a Turkish shop in Stoke Newington, take advantage of it, but even if you have to use Tesco's it's always worth soaking the fruit in liquid, preferably alcoholic, to plump it up and ensure moistness in the finished item. And if you only use sweet spices like cinnamon at Christmas it's worth buying in new stock because last year's will be dry as dust and about as tasty.So for all that soaking you'll be needing some of this

and some of this

and probably some of this

Don't spend a fortune on alcohol for cooking, it's a waste of money, I don't care what Heston Blumenthall says...

The pudding is the one I've always made, rich dark and traditional. Note I avoided the obvious joke about boyfriends.

The mincemeat is very citrussy, and so much better than anything you can buy in the shops it's well worth the small effort of making. You used to be able to buy a halfway decent mincemeat and just jazz it up with a bit of brandy but all the ones I see nowadays (I hate using that word) but nowadays, they all seem to be made with mouth puckering artificial flavours and some kind of gluey stuff to thicken it up. Yuk.

And my cake this year is a bit Brazilian in theme, (did I mention I went to Brazil...)Not that I imagine they have anything like English Christmas cake in Brazil, but whilst I was there I picked up some of this in the market..

Its a Brazilian sweet which is basically a solidified chunk of sugar cane. It has a lovely rich treacly flavour so I thought I would incorporate some of it into my Christmas cake. If you don't happen to have any Rapadura Caipira on hand you can use Billington's unrefined dark brown sugar, or Muscovado.

If you're going to do all three, I think the most sensible way to go about it is to do all of them together, spread over a couple of days as they all involve soaking fruit in various alcoholic liquids to swell them up and ensure a moist, flavourfull result. A slight side effect of this is that your kitchen smells like a distillery with great vats of alcoholic dried fruit macerating in various bowls, which I rather like. So anyway you will need three large bowls.

Bowl 1 Christmas Pudding

The pudding is essentially the same incendiary device that I've made for years, you either love it or hate it, but it's dark, traditional and spicy, and for many years when my children were young I made it and brought it out only to set it on fire for the sake of tradition, and return it to the kitchen untouched, except by me. I detect a slightly more enthusiastic audience for it these days, and anyway I still love it, with a big blob of clotted cream gently melting over it. I can hardly wait.

1 lb of mixed dried fruit, about half of it currants, a small amount of dried peel, (about an ounce) and the rest sultanas and raisins.
zest and juice of 1 orange and 1 lemon
1 teaspoon mixed spice
half a teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg
half a teaspoon ground cinnamon
6 oz soft dark brown sugar
1 tablespoon black treacle or molasses
a glug of rum
2 oz ground almonds
4 oz fresh white breadcrumbs
2 oz  flour
4 oz shredded suet
half a pint of barley wine or stout or Old Peculiar
2 egggs
a 2 pint/1 litre pudding bowl - if you use a plastic one with a lid you can dispense with the greaseproof covering in the picture providing you don't lose the lid, like some people.

Take large bowl number one and put in the dried fruit, citrus, spices, sugar, treacle and rum. Stir.

Add everything else and stir well. Make sure everyone in the house gets to stir and make a wish, then leave the bowl until the next day, when you turn it into a 2 pint pudding basin, insert silver treasure items (I do have some small American coins which look prettier, but you have to take account of visiting family members, either very old or very young who may break dentures or choke on small bits of metal in the pudding, so I go for big pound coins, which are easy to spot, soaked overnight in vinegar to clean them)

then cover and steam for hours.

And hours.
Eight hours will be needed to get the dark rich colour of the traditional pudding. If you use a pressure cooker you can steam it for half an hour and then pressure cook for 3 hours. But apart from ensuring that it doesn't boil dry you can ignore it. Allow it to cool and store in a cool cupboard until Christmas. You can reheat it in minutes on the day if you have a microwave oven, otherwise steam for another hour or so before serving. Turn out the lights, warm your brandy or rum and set it alight before pouring over the pudding and bringing triumphantly to the table in the traditional manner. Don't forget the clotted cream. Try not to set the house on fire.

In bowl number 2 Mincemeat
I make a lot of mincemeat, because I need a lot of mince pies for one reason or another, we just get through loads of them. I always like to have some to offer people around Christmas and New Year, I expect people get fed up of them, but it's Christmas, you have to have mince pies, it's the law.

2 lbs of mixed dried fruit, this time you need predominantly raisins about half, and the rest currants and sultanas and a small amount of dried candied peel.
8 oz shredded suet
12 oz granulated sugar
2 tablespoons molasses or black treacle
zest and juice of 2 oranges and 3 lemons depending on size
4 teaspoons mixed spice
1 teaspoon cinnamon
half teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg
half a teaspoon ground cloves
1 lb peeled and grated bramley apples
2 oz chopped glace cherries
large glug of rum

Put everything except the rum into bowl 2 and stir. Leave overnight. You can put it into jars straight away, but the problem with mincemeat with a high fruit content is that it tends to ferment, which can be very annoying, and can even lead to exploding jars. The Jackson Pollock Mincemeat Effect is not a good look even in the contemporary kitchen. To avoid this I now use Delia's method of heating the mixture in a warm oven for an hour or two until it's heated through and the suet melted. Leave it to cool and stir occasionally, to distribute the fat evenly thoughout.

 Add the rum and stir in. Keep in sterilized jars, in a cool larder. It doesn't look as pretty after being heated but it doesn't harm the flavour, and it does help prevent the fermentation problem.

Use a good sweet shortcrust recipe for your mince pies see this post for a recipe. Keep a cooked supply of mince pies in the freezer ready to be whipped out and warmed in the oven at  a moment's notice, until your friends and neighbours are too scared to come round any more.

Bowl 3 Christmas cake
 As I'm trying out a slightly different recipe this year I will report back after it's done, and let you know if it's ok or whether you might be better off going to someone else's house for Christmas Tea.

Sunday, 1 November 2009


Have you ever seen Eddie Izzard talking about pears?
He's so right - you do the test squeezy squeezy thing, and they sit there in the bowl hard as rocks, waiting conspiratorially for you to go out of the room for five minutes, and when you come back in they're black mush.

Pears are the last fruit to ripen in our garden, and I've just picked a large basket full.  This year's crop is good but not overwhelming, but as they simply don't keep in the way that apples do, the pear recipes will have to be rehearsed pretty quick.  They are the one fruit you must pick slightly underripe. If you leave them to ripen on the tree they will go "sleepy"  and before you can say Jack Robinson you will be sitting in a pool of pear puree.

 My tree is a Conference, which in my opinion is much better than its reputation, and is always delicious when home grown and ripened. Pick them all when the tree begins to drop a few windfalls, usually at the end of September or beginning of October depending on the weather. Keep the majority in a cool garage, and bring a supply into the kitchen in dribs and drabs, and they will ripen beautifully. But they won't last indefinately, and you may well need to give some away, or use them us in other ways.  You can make jam with them but I don't care for it much - it can take on a grainy texture if you're not careful. They do bottle very well in a light syrup though if you have some Kilner jars. If you're really snowed under you could incorporate them into a chutney, but I'd have to be very inundated, pear-wise to consider wasting their charms on chutney.

There really is little to beat the joy of eating a ripe pear, with the juice running down your chin.

Pear and Almond Flan

My daughter and I have been making this nice almondy flan topped with plums all through August and September but now we're out of plums I thought  I would see how it does with pears and it's pretty good. You can serve it cold as cake with coffee, but it's much nicer just warm, with thick cream as pudding. Sarah uses ready made shortcrust which is excellent, especially if you're a VBP (Very Busy Person, which she is), but I have time to make my own and this is my usual recipe for sweet shortcrust.

1 pack of butter (8ounces) cold from the fridge
1 pound plain flour
4 oz caster sugar
2 egg yolks
2 eggs

10" metal flan tin
Whizz the butter, flour and sugar in a processor to breadcrumb stage. Add egg and whizz briefly, just enough to combine. You may find it best to tip it into a large bowl to press together with your hands. Don't handle it more than you have to though. Roll it out on a very floury surface, and use to line a metal flan tin. I never rest it or bake it blind, and I don't suffer from either shrinkage or  flabby bottoms. It will only shrink if you over handle and stretch it, and I don't find I  need to bake blind if I use a  loose based metal flan tin, which will conduct the heat evenly and ensure a firm, crispy bottom, which is what we all want. This pastry is good for all sweet flans, custards, lemon tarts and mince pies (there I go again, talking about Christmas in October)..You will only need about half of this amount for the flan but it's a good idea to make extra and freeze it in a slab ready for the the next tart or mince pie session. I always make a good quantity so that I have some in, should an unexpected pastry emergency arise.

1 pack butter (8 oz) at room temperature
6 ounces caster sugar
8oz ground almonds
few drops of almond essence
2 oz plain flour
2 eggs
2 large conference pears reasonably ripe

Peel and scoop out the core from the pears, and slice.
Whisk together the butter and sugar until pale and light, ( I use a Kitchenaid table mixer), beat in the eggs, add the ground almonds, essence, and flour and briefly combine. Pour into your prepared flan case. Top the flan with the fruit slices, and press gently  in. Bake in a medium  Gas 3 150C oven for about 40-50 minutes. Serve warm with clotted cream.

Do try this with plums or apricots when in season as well.


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