Swedish Meatballs – 60s Soul Food

A few days ago it was my birthday and I went around humming, “It’s my birthday and I’ll cook if I want to” to Leslie Gore’s tune It’s My Party. Seriously, my family had been repeatedly asking me for several days what I wanted to eat for dinner on my birthday. I realized it wasn’t important what we ate, or frankly who cooked it,  just that we all ate together. Okay, there was one small exception – somebody besides me had to make the cake. After all a gal can have somebody else bake the cake because hey – it’s her birthday (and you’re welcome because now you have both Leslie Gore and the Beatles singing in your head).

Frost on the window during the polar vortex

I admit I’ve been in need of something safe, sure, and warm of late. In addition to the mini polar vortex we’ve been experiencing around Western Massachusetts, these past weeks have seen some epic fails in my kitchen. Just before New Year’s Day I’d hoped to post a hot chocolate recipe with homemade marshmallows. The only problem was that no only did the hot chocolate recipe end up with a funky aftertaste of chalk (definitely not what I was going for) but I somehow botched up not one, but two batches of marshmallows. Really two!! How can you wreck marshmallows? Apparently there are so many ways.

frozen pine branch

To celebrate edging into my mid 50s, and to take my mind off my culinary mess-ups, I decided to go back in time and make one of my favorite dishes – Swedish Meatballs. I love Swedish meatballs. I loved them when my Mom used to make them for us in her electric frying pan with gobs of butter and sour cream, they’re my guilty pleasure whenever I swing into an Ikea store, and clearly from this old photo they’re something I used to try my hand at when I first started cooking dinner for my family back in the early 70s.

Swedish meatballs circa 1973

The kids took their turn in the kitchen first and made me a gluten-free, vegan chocolate raspberry birthday cake (not that I am GF or V, but they did it because well, they could and turned out it was awesome!!). Then I got my turn in front of the stove and tweaked the classic Ikea Swedish meatball dinner in celebration of birthday #54.

Platter of homemade Swedish meatballs Not having easy access to lingonberries I grabbed a bag of Massachusetts cranberries and made this sauce, leaving out the cinnamon and dropping the sugar to 1/3 cup. I subbed sweet potatoes for regular potatoes and boiled and mashed as per usual.

cranberries in sieve

My last adjustment was to the meatballs themselves. I morphed a Joy of Cooking recipe with one that my Mom used to use from Betty Crocker’s Dinner for Two Cook Book. The biggest changes were that while I, the birthday girl, am not dairy free many of my family members avoid cow dairy. So these Swedish meatballs are dairy free. There was some discussion at dinner around the fact that you probably couldn’t label cow meat dairy free since cows are mammals, which on a metaphorical sense I understand, but from a food sensitivity view-point I don’t know that I fully agree with. Regardless, these Swedish meatballs were the perfect Proustian blend of one of my Mom’s early forays into foreign foods, their Ikea incarnation, and the way my family eats today.

Dairy free Swedish meatballs

Swedish Meatballs

1 small onion minced

1 Tablespoon oil

2 pounds ground beef

2 eggs

2/3 cup bread crumbs (I used Panko)

3/4 cup water

1/2-1 teaspoon salt

1/4 teaspoon freshly ground nutmeg

1/4 teaspoon allspice

1/4 teaspoon white pepper

5 Tablespoons minced parsley, divided

Oil for frying

Preheat the oven to 225ºF. Sauté the onion in the Tablespoon of oil a few minutes until it starts to become translucent. Scrape it all into a large bowl, then add the water, bead crumbs, eggs and spices, mixing all together. Next add the beef and 3 Tablespoons of the parsley and beat by hand for 3-4 minutes. The water, in combination with the thorough mixing, is what helps make these meatballs less dense than most meatballs.

Heat a 1/4 – 1/2 inch of oil in a heavy fry pan to medium high. Roll the meatball mixture into small balls, about the size of walnuts and then cook in the oil until they are well browned on all sides. Depending on the size of your pan and the number of meatballs you have sizzling at any one time this can take from 6-9 minutes. As the meatballs are browned transfer them onto a jelly roll pan in your oven. They need to cook a little more, but you don’t want to dry them out. Cooks tip: any meatballs that fall apart in the fry pan are for the cook to taste test.

Browning Swedish meatballs Once the meatballs are all browned and in the oven make the gravy. I made mine from the pan drippings, but I found there were too many burned bits so in future I would just make the gravy separately. Also this is where I went the dairy free route. If you or your family don’t need to be dairy free use all butter for the oil and margarine and regular sour cream. Also I always have homemade chicken stock on hand so I used that, but if you’d like you can use canned low sodium beef broth.

Swedish Meatball Gravy

4 Tablespoons oil

4 Tablespoons margarine

1/2 cup flour

3 1/2 – 4 cups rich homemade chicken stock

6-8 Tablespoons sour cream substitute (I used Toffutti®)

1-2 Tablespoons Worcestershire sauce

Salt & white pepper to taste

This gravy is a basic roux sauce. In a medium saucepan, over medium heat, melt the oil and margarine. Add in the flour and cook a few minutes stirring constantly with a whisk. Turn the heat to medium low and gradually stir in the stock and worcestershire sauce (you’re still whisking like a bandit). Vary the amount of stock to change the thickness of your gravy. You may want to turn the heat up a bit to get the mixture to boil since it is only when the mixture has reached the point where it bubbles along the edges of the saucepan that you know how thick your gravy will be when you’re done. I just don’t keep it at the higher heat since your chances of burning it are greater. Whisk in the sour cream substitute and then taste for salt and pepper.

Swedish meatball gravy

Once the gravy is made I pop the meatballs in for a few minutes so they’re thoroughly coated with the creamy sauce. Serve on a platter with the remaining parsley sprinkled on top.

Homemade rift on Ikea Swedish meatballs

Then after dinner, if you are the birthday gal, you can enjoy your cake and the re-lighting candles your teenagers placed on top. Note they were kind enough not to put 54 candles on the cake and they ultimately relented and gave me a cup of water so I could put out the candles which relit themselves several times. All in all a very warm and delicious celebration.

GF and Vegan Chocolate birthday cake with raspberries

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Best Christmas Present Ever

Two weeks ago I gave my sister the best homemade Christmas present ever. It smelled good, tasted good, and I knew she’d love it. Here’s what it consisted of:

1  1/4 pounds of sugar

2  3/4 cups sugar

1  1/2 cups brown sugar

half a dozen eggs

10  1/3 cups flour

Molasses

Cinnamon

Cloves

Ginger

Nutmeg

Allspice

1 cup pecans

Non parelis and colored sugars

Baking Soda, Baking Powder, Salt

What I made and gave her was raw cookie dough for Molasses Cookies, Snickerdoodles, Scandinavians, Sugar Cookies, and Shawn’s favorite Pecan Butterscotch cookies.

Cookie dough for Christmas

Why is this the best homemade Christmas present ever? Because it makes her house smell divine plus it gave her way more cookie booty than the I would have had time to bake and decorate. The bonus was after everything was baked and eaten that was it, no worries about if what I gave her fit her decor or if she had shelf space for it. Though since she’s my sister I can say with confidence that if I did give her something it would be to her taste. She is my sister after all.

Try it, there’s still time for you to make this present yourself and give it to someone near and dear. If you’d like use the recipes on my blog, or if you have favorite holiday cookie recipes whip up a batch of those. Make sure to include all the bits and bobs they’ll need to finish the cookies such as cinnamon sugar for the Snickerdoodles, red and green colored sugar as well as some red seedless jam for the Scandinavians (whoops, sorry I forgot the jam Heather!), along with baking times and temperatures. I should have added a roll of parchment paper but my sister was creative and made do without, cause I forgot that too.

Don't forget all the bits and bobs for decorating cookies

When you’re thinking of which cookies to give make sure they can be formed into a log, then sliced and baked. Snickerdoodles, molasses crinkles, and pecan butterscotch cookies all work well and can be cut from refrigerated or frozen logs. For anything that needs to be sugared before baking simply dip the slices in sugar and make sure both sides get coated well. Scandinavians need to be smooshed into thumbprints so those work too but let the recipient know they have to come to room temperature first. Since sugar cookie dough needs to be rolled out before being cut into shapes I make a flat disc of that dough so it’s easier to roll out.

 You could also make a Christmas CD to get everyone in the cookie baking–tree decorating (in case they don’t have their tree up)–present wrapping mood. I mentioned some of my favorites in this blog post. This year I’ve been listening a lot to Straight No Chaser’s Christmas Cheer , who have cheeky remixes of some of my old favorites. I’ve also been cranking this and this, both of which have been flying around the internet this holiday season.

Another reason I gave this gift to my sister is because she’s pretty busy with their newest family member – Edgar Allen Pug. They all have their hands and laps full of this adorable new puppy. He is the softest, most scrumptious black pug ever!

Edgar Allen Pug

Edgar the pug

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Countdown to Advent

I know that right now most people are ramping up for the big turkey and pie day next week a.k.a. Thanksgiving. We’re going to see my folks and sister in Hudson, New York and I’ve already made and frozen the stuffing (I used this recipe minus the nuts and sausage), gravy and butternut squash. Next week I’ll make a few pumpkin pies and some rustic apple tarts. Maybe the kids will help with some applesauce when they come home from college. All in all I feel like Thanksgiving is pretty much under control.

While turkey day is more or less organized what seems to sneak up on me every year is the season of Advent. This year the first Sunday of Advent is November 30th. Fortunately for me there are four weeks to get ready for the mystery of Christmas. I need all of that time to switch gears and remember there is so much more I am getting ready for beyond the shopping, cookie baking, and jolly guy in the red suit. Since our kids are returning to college the first day of Advent I thought I’d pull out their Advent calendars now. Isabelle and Russell have one (as do my nephews, niece and goddaughter), and we have a few other ways of marking Advent – all homemade. Continue reading

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Golden Weekend

It has been a golden weekend here in Western Massachusetts. Not so much the weather, rather it has been two days of pure gold with what’s been going on. Continue reading

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Favorite Tool #16

I was toodling around the internet last week and came across this must have list of kitchen tools which included (I kid you not) an avocado dicer, banana slicer (while I wouldn’t advocate buying one it is worth spending a few minutes reading the awesome customer reviews) and strawberry huller. Who invented these things, and more to the point who buys them?

Un-needed kitchen tools

In general I am not a fan of gadgets or products that promise to do a dozen different tasks, but when I looked at the gadgets I listed above I thought to myself,

“Avocado dicer or paring knife?”

“Banana slicer or paring knife?”

“Strawberry huller or paring knife?”

I think a sharp little paring knife would do it all of those tasks and more.

Selection of paring knives

So before you get suckered into buying put these spiffy, fun-looking gadgets on your Christmas wish-list get a paring knife (or two) instead. Here’s what to look for – something with a 4″ blade that is wicked sharp. That’s it. It will take care of avocados, bananas, strawberries, apples, and so much more. You and your gadget drawer will thank me.

Apple peeled with paring knife

P.S. I admit I got a chuckle out of these Farfalloni pasta potholders, but not enough to pull out my wallet.

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The Flexibility of Mushroom Barley Soup

Fall ferns in the woodsI remember when my kids were little hearing again and again the advice that they needed to have a routine. Routines were the mantra of experts, parenting magazines, and well-meaning friends. Of course if you skipped a nap or missed a meal there would inevitably be a parental price to pay (often in the form of a spectacular meltdown), but looking back what I recall from the months of baby and toddlerhood is not how we found and stuck to a predictable schedule, but rather how incredibly flexible my kids were. We had all sorts of adventures when they were little which ceased not because I suddenly bought into the idea that a regular regime was the best way for them, but rather because there were such rigid expectations at school. I’m not dismissing the benefits of routines, but in my experience they aren’t everything. Kids are, in my experience, pretty darn resilient – basically the humanoid equivalents of silly putty. The irony of this dichotomy between communal wisdom pointing towards regulated patterns and my personal experiences raising two kids is I now find myself gravitating towards the rhythm of a grown-up routine. Though perhaps what I seek is more rut than routine.

Bittersweet, the bane of my existance

As Indian summer has slipped into fall Shawn and I started to find our new regime as empty nesters. Nothing radical, just a gentle morphing from two plus decades of parenting into a new pace of just us and the dog. It’s not that we stopped being parents because to be honest you never stop being a parent, but we were no longer expected to be part of the day to dayness of our children’s lives. We had to trust in the job we did of raising them to be independent, kind, curious, resilient young adults. There are no do-overs when it comes to raising kids. Once they are off to college, heck once they are in high school, you are essentially done with the teaching portion of parenting. For better or worse. As we gradually adapted to this new reality of empty nesthood and started to not only find different patterns, but to enjoy life sans teenagers, it all evaporated with fall break.

Don't eat these fall berries

Perhaps evaporate is too strong a word, since it wasn’t as if we were back to doing the dreaded bus run. For the span of a week and a weekend we found ourselves living with people who wanted to borrow the car, needed to be driven to doctor’s appointments and who were capable of consuming 3,000 calories a day. Trust me when I say that no empty nester I have ever known needs or is able to consume 3,000 calories per day. It was simultaneously glorious and overwhelming. There was lots of cooking, which meant there were also loads of dishes. I got hugs every time someone walked past me, which was wonderful. We heard details about classes, roommates, and professors which never made it into letters, texts or Skype calls. Comfort food was made and inhaled including Chicken Pot Pie Goo (basically chicken pot pie without the topping), Matzoh Ball Soup, Arlene Sullivan’s Molasses SnapsCrêpes, and Carrot Soup. As much as I am figuring out how to enjoy this new phase of my life it was fantabulous to have both kids home for the break.

A bit of fall color

Then of course the vacation culminated, as they always do, with everyone packing up and returning to their real lives.  First there was the 5-mile-per-hour snail ride past an accident clean up on the Massachusetts Turnpike as Russell and I headed back to Simon’s Rock. We debated the merits of getting out and walking versus staying in the car and poking along (we opted for the second option since there was so much stuff to carry) as we crept along. This two hour slow down was even more spectacular when we later learned it was caused by a three truck pile up which had occurred two days prior! Once Russell and I were past the clean up, off the thruway, and had fortified ourselves with some hot cider donuts at Taft Farms we unloaded his things and then I zipped over to the Amtrak station for one last hug from Isabelle. She and Shawn took the now very familiar, and thankfully this time quick, trip to the station in Springfield so she could pop back down to UNH. Then we parents got back in our vehicles to head back north to our very quiet house and our newish routine.

My favorite mushroom, barley and lamb soup

In our little corner of western Massachusetts fall is at the stage where it transitions from colorful, crisp and autumn-y to oceans of crinkly leaves underfoot, Canadian geese honking their way south, and snappy mornings which border on frost most days. I was craving something hearty and filling so I made a pot of Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup. As I puttered around the stove I realized that this soup is as flexible as my kids were when they were little. It is open to endless variations and can be adjusted and tweaked to please most (though unfortunately not all) palettes. For my vegetarian friends I would leave out the lamb chops and chicken stock and boost the vegetables and mushrooms. For my brother who abhors mushrooms I would delete the dried mushrooms, or because I am that kind of big sister I might leave them in, but chop them up so finely that there were no discernible mushroom bits for him to find and complain about. I love thick soups so there is a generous amount of barley in this recipe, but for people who want a bowl of something that is more of a soup than stew I could cut back on the barley. Do those people really exist? Nah, probably not. I guess the barley stays as is.

rehydrating dried mushrooms

I used a combination of mushrooms which had been given to us as gifts. There were some wild Alaskan mushrooms our friend Eric had picked and dehydrated as well as handful of the Porcini my friend Rick brought back from Italy. Both had that delicious concentrated smell of earth and fall that I associate with dried mushrooms. This soup is one that gets better once it’s had a chance to meld flavors, but honestly it is great the first night too. Every time I make it I wonder why I don’t do so more often. Obviously it should be part of the new routine.

Mushroom, barley, lamb soup

Mushroom Barley Lamb Soup

2-4 Tablespoons olive oil

1/2 – 3/4 pounds lamb shoulder

1 large onion, chopped (or you can use leeks)

3 carrots, peeled and chopped

3 ribs celery, chopped

1/2 – 3/4 cup dried mushrooms soaked in 2 cups boiling water

4 cups chicken stock

1 cup barley

2 teaspoons thyme

salt and pepper to taste

Start by pouring the boiling H2O over the mushrooms and allowing them to rehydrated in a small bowl. While they are plumping up and making mushroom broth, sauté the lamb chops and olive oil in a large heavy soup pot until they are browned on both sides. Add the carrots, onions, and celery and sauté a few more minutes. Pour in the chicken stock, sprinkle on the thyme, cover and simmer for half an hour. When the mushrooms are ready pull them out of their soaking water (which you will save) and chop. Carefully pour all but the last few teaspoons of mushroom soaking water into the soup pot (the last little bit will have a smidgen of dirt that clung to the mushrooms and trust me when I say you don’t want dirt in this soup) then add the chopped mushrooms. Throw in the barley, cover and simmer another thirty minutes. Give the soup a stir every so often, but if you don’t no worries – it will take care of itself. Add salt and pepper to taste before ladling out a few bowlfulls.

To end I offer you my last fall flower – a nasturtium snuggled against the porch wall and a haiku to fall.

The last nastursium

Brown and yellow leaves

The trees have disrobed
Orange, yellow and brown leaves
Cover the dog shit.

 

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Soup is the Answer

I have not missed doing the school bus run at all. Not one little bit. When I emailed my friend Amy to say that I’ve been sleeping in until 7:30 she thought I was goofing on her, but I wasn’t. Doing the bus run means you have to be up by 5:30 – 6:00 if you oversleep. So staying in bed until half past seven seems luxurious. Of course not having to do the bus run is akin to that proverbial double-edged sword. No bus run means no kids are at home. So a couple of  weeks ago we went to see Russell. For no reason. Just to say hi and hang out before he went to calculus. It was fabulous to see him and made me feel very, very short.

Myself and the tall one

 

Maybe this transition to being an empty nester is easier for me since both our kids chose to go to colleges near to where we live. Not so close they could live at home, but close enough for us to see them, take them out to lunch, and then be back in time to let the dog out. Simon’s Rock is just over the Berkshire mountains and UNH is a short train ride along the Connecticut River. I’m sure I’d be handling this shift in parenting and family differently if they were going to college somewhere in California or Canada. Lucky for me they aren’t.

As our offspring have settled into their semesters, Shawn and I are figuring out how to settle into our new family size of two plus the dog. Much has stayed the same – work, chores, taking care of the dog. Other things have shifted, the afore mentioned bus run, bedtimes and meals. Bedtime now has a glorious fluidity. If we’re tired at 8:30 we can go to bed. Or we I can stay up until 3am binge watching episodes of Outlander. It helps that we’re both self-employed and can write our own schedules, which though it usually means working seven days a week we can choose what time on those seven days we work. Meals, or more specifically dinner, are one of the biggest changes, which I wrote about in my last blog post.

It’s not just us. I’ve chatted with other empty nesters and they too find themselves having meals that aren’t really what I’d classify as proper meals. Gooey, stinky, oozy cheese smeared on bread with a glass of wine. Avocados sprinkled with Worcestershire sauce. Plates heaping with vegetables, just vegetables (try feeding that to most teenagers). Or a bowl of cereal if you had a big lunch. Those are some of the dinners we’ve been having. Plus the timing can be whenever we want it to be – 6, 7, 8 or even 9. While I never managed my Mother’s record of having dinner on the table by 6 every night for 20+ years (you rocked the dinner scene Mom!), I certainly tried never to make my kids wait until 9 before feeding them. It just wasn’t humane after a long day at school followed by sports and homework. With kids out of the equation an early dinner has changed. Sure there are days when we decide to nibble on something at 6-ish, but basically we eat when we’re hungry or when someone gets around to scrounging something up. Of late that something has included many pots of soup.

Not your grandmother's imatzo ball soup

 

Soup works in so many ways because it is endlessly flexible. Immensely adaptable. Satisfying to eat and easy to make. So get ready because I am going to bombard you with be sharing some of my favorite soup recipes as we slip into fall. There are already a few of my favorites on this blog like Laurie Colwin’s Black Bean Soup, my friend Marisa’s Ceci e Pasta or my go-to super-easy carrot soup. This go round will be my matzo ball soup à la Allison. Just so we can get the obvious out of the way – I am not Jewish. I did not grow up eating matzo ball soup. This is a shiksa’s version of classic Jewish soul food, using a recipe from my half Jewish-half Italian friend. I even use -gasp- boxed matzo ball mix, so sue me. Enough said.

Makings for matzo ball soup

As Allison explained to me the key to matzo ball soup is all about how your mother made it. If you had a mother who made her matzo balls light as clouds that is what you look for in the “perfect” matzo ball soup. On the other hand if your mom made them like lead shot puts then you will probably think only a heavy, sit-in-your-stomach matzo ball will fill the bill, or in this case, soup bowl. Having grown up in an Episcopalian, matzo ball-less house I had no preconceived notions of how they should or shouldn’t be. I fell in love with those not-so-heavy and not-so-light matzo balls my friend fed me thirty odd years ago.

Seltzer is the key to the perfect matzo ball

If you want to see some hilarious reactions to people eating Jewish foods for the first time check out this BuzzFeed video. I cracked up when one tester referred to matzo ball soup as “the gateway drug to Jewish food.” You have been warned.

Simmering the best matzo balls ever!

Not Your Jewish Grandmother’s Matzo Ball Soup

1 box matzo ball mix (I use Manischewitz)

4 eggs

2 Tablespoons vegetable oil

2 Tablespoons seltzer

2-5 Carrots, peeled and chopped

1 onion, peeled and diced

3-6 quarts chicken or vegetable broth* (I use home made chicken stock and add water to it, but you can use canned in a pinch)

Handful of chopped parsley (optional)

Couple of handfuls of chopped or torn cooked chicken (again optional)

Allison is in the in between matzo ball camp. Not super fluffy, but not heavy either. Her answer is to add some seltzer to the mix. It lightens things up, but doesn’t make them fall apart. These middle of the road matzo balls are what my kids have grown up on. So if you’re feeding a whole family, or don’t want leftovers half all the ingredients. Otherwise here’s what you do-

Mix the eggs, oil and seltzer together then whisk in both packages of matzo. Stir until everything is moistened and place the bowl in the fridge for 15-45 minutes, depending on how long it takes you to make the soup part.

While the matzo mix is merging I add the chopped up carrots and onions into the broth and simmer everything until they are al dente, about 10-15 minutes. How much broth I hear you asking because you gave a pretty broad range of amounts. Well that depends. I like to cook my matzo balls right in the broth, which means they soak up a lot of broth. So I either start with what seems to be way too much broth, or I add a quart or two of water to my chicken broth, or I enjoy my broth-soaked matzo with a tiny bit of broth and a whole lot of matzo and veggies, sort of like dumplings. I can’t make those decisions for you. You have to decide what kind of matzo ball soup person you are. For even more options the package says to cook the matzo in a pot of salted water. It’s an option, but I don’t really see the point of dirtying up another pot and I’ve never tried it that way. All I can advise you to do is know thy self. Or experiment. There really are no bad answers.

Once you’ve got what seems to be the right amount of broth for you, and your veggies are partially cooked then it’s time to make the matzo balls. Wet your hands with water, scoop out some of the matzo ball mix and roll into a ball. How big? Again, that is a personal preference. I like mine the size of small oranges when done, so I start with matzo balls the size of giant golf balls. Some people like humongous matzo balls the size of a grapefruit. Again, you get to decide. Once you’ve found the right size for you, make them and plop them into the pot to simmer with the lid on. Fifteen minutes then I gently flip them over to simmer on their other side. If you’re going to add chicken to the mix throw it in at the turning point to warm up.

To serve ladle out as many mazto balls as will make you happy (or as many as will fit in your bowl), along with some broth and veggies and chicken if you’re having any. Sprinkle with chopped parsley if you’d like. It’s all pretty free form, and if you’re an empty nester than there are just the two of you and you can do whatever the heck you want to do.

*When I’ve known vegetarians are coming over I’ve made this with vegetable stock and it is delicious too. Obviously leave out the chicken if you’re making a vegetarian version, but don’t try to sub in tofu or tempeh. I think just straight veggies, matzo balls and broth will be fine. If you’d like, you could boost the amount of vegetables you use and add a stick or two of celery.

 

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