Mrs. Sell's Blog of Household Management

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Book review: The Food Lab

When I was first learning to cook, fear was a big obstacle: mainly, fear of investing a bunch of money and time into something and 1) having it not work because I couldn’t figure out how to do it right, and 2) doing it right, but the recipe itself just wasn’t very good.

What I found then, as a baby cook, and what I find now, as someone who still can’t afford to waste very much time and money on stuff that doesn’t work, is that a good recipe is worth its weight in gold, and finding good recipe developers/writers is the best way to find good recipes.

For me, those writers have been the great Julia Child, and Kenji Lopez-Alt. They both put mountains of time and effort into recipe development, working out the flaws and debunking the myths so that by the time the recipe gets into my hands, the results are virtually guaranteed. And in the process of learning to do things the right way, I pick up tips, tricks and techniques that I apply to all of my cooking, whether it’s one of their recipes or not.

If you’ve followed this blog for very long, you know that I’m been waiting very impatiently for YEARS for Kenji’s book to come out — and it finally has!


(Kenji, sorry for always nitpicking at you on Serious Eats about the release date! I promise to stop for a while, at least until the next volume is due out!)

I haven’t had time to do more than skim it once or twice, but it is everything that I expected: the writing, the science, and the recipes are all top-notch, and I was thrilled to see that it includes three of my already-beloved Kenji recipes: basic red sauce, grilled naan, and the leg-of-lamb that I make on Easter! (My recipe notebook is full of recipes entitled “[name of food] a la Kenji” for brevity’s sake.)

It is a HUGE book at 6+ pounds, but it was supposed to be two volumes originally, so I guess they compromised. When I get a new book, I usually like to carry it around with me for a few days to read in spare moments, but this one is a tome. That didn’t actually stop me from carrying it around to classes the first day, though… And for the record, this is not the most unwieldy cookbook on my shelf; that honor goes to Julia’s The Way to Cook. So phooey on whoever left that 1-star review because it was “too heavy.”

The only tragedy is that I’m too busy now to just start cooking through it, one recipe at a time. (I guess I still could, but it will take longer.) But I’ve already noted TONS of recipes I want to try, and I know that they will all be amazing.

Bottom line: if you cook, want to cook, are learning to cook, need more practice cooking, or just enjoy reading intelligent, funny prose, buy this book!





New books 2015

This is a great year for new books for me! Multiple of my favorite authors have books coming out in the summer and the fall, and I’m listing them here so I remember to get them when they come out! (I have to write things down or I forget.)

secondhand souls cover

Secondhand Souls by Christopher Moore

This one comes out tomorrow, but I’m not sure if I’m going to spring for the hardcover right off the bat, or wait for the paperback next May… So far my only hardcover Christopher Moore books are the ones I have signed, and the one that was never released in paperback.

Secondhand Souls is the sequel to A Dirty Job, which is probably my second-favorite Christopher Moore book. I can never get through the first chapter without crying…

If you’ve never read Christopher Moore, I recommend starting with Lamb: The Gospel According to Biff, Christ’s Childhood Pal. Yeah, it’s pretty much as blasphemous as it sounds. But it is the best of Christopher Moore’s books, so if you can see the appeal in it, then you’ll like the rest of his stuff.

I love Lamb, and A Dirty Job, and I have a soft spot for the books set in Pine Cove*, because they remind me of living on the central California coast.

(*Practical Demonkeeping, The Lust Lizard of Melancholy Cove, The Stupidest Angel)


the food lab cover

The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking Through Science by J. Kenji López-Alt

FINALLY! Seriously, this book has been scheduled to be out in the autumn of 2012, 2014… I had almost given up hope. Actually, I probably won’t believe it until I hold the book in my hands!

Kenji write The Food Lab series on Serious Eats, the website that was the biggest help to me when I was learning to cook. If you’re interested in learning how to cook, I cannot recommend anything better than going to Serious Eats and just reading every article he’s written. Not only will you learn some astoundingly great recipes, you’ll learn WHY they work and the techniques you’ll need to strike out on your own. I cannot recommend it highly enough. Kenji is also a great writer (so funny!), so I’m probably going to give this cookbook to everyone on my list this Christmas, whether they cook or not: it’ll be just that great of a read.


the shepherd's crown cover

The Shepherd’s Crown by Terry Pratchett

This one is going to make me cry…

Sir Terry Pratchett, one of the most brilliant literary minds of our time, was taken from us by Alzheimer’s Disease on March 12, 2015. This was the last book he wrote, finished before his death.

Sir Terry wrote over 40 Discworld books, in addition to other novels, children’s books, and collaborations. His wit, wisdom, way with words and perspicacity made his illness and death that much more cruel, as we watched such a unique mind be undone.

I’m in the middle of his second-to-last book right now, the previous Discworld novel, Raising Steam. It has been very hard to get through, because the evidence of his mental deterioration is painfully evident. The words are there, but the magic, the genius, is gone. Some people gave the book terrible reviews and claimed that he was using a ghostwriter. I do not believe that that it the case; I believe that he wrote it, even as his mind was being consumed by disease. It’s bad enough that such a giant of a mind was cut down in its prime, do you have to insult him in product reviews? Where is your empathy? Why not mourn with him, instead of blaming him?

So I do not recommend Raising Steam, or probably The Shepherd’s Crown, as your first venture into the Terry Prachett universe. But I do recommend that you read his books; I know that there are a lot, but your life will be better for it, I promise. There is a reason that they are so popular. Do whatever it takes, but read Discworld, start to finish.

And donate to Alzheimer’s research.

The purpose of education

Recently on the Pioneer Woman Homeschooling website, there was a question: Are Print Dictionaries Obsolete?

(Full disclosure: I own the complete Oxford English Dictionary in 20 volumes. You can probably guess what my position is on this question.)

Given the demographic of homeschooling website readers, it was safe to assume that most commenters loved their print dictionaries and, in general, preferred them to electronic versions. Many people mentioned learning alphabetical order, and exposure to similar (and even dissimilar words) in the vicinity of the word they were looking up, as benefits of print dictionaries. About the only cons were that it’s slower (sometimes) and less portable than an on-line dictionary accessed through a smart phone.

But I had a question that led me to thinking about an even larger topic: why do we have to phrase the print vs. electronic as an either/or question? Why not learn BOTH? And that got me thinking about two different approaches to learning.

The first approach is what we see in institutionalized education. More and more, the goal of government education is to get the students to achieve certain scores on standardized tests. The teachers tasked with reaching these goals have limited resources and limited time to bring many children up to those standards. Whether or not the child is interested in a given subject at a given time is irrelevant; they are grouped by age and tested accordingly. Also irrelevant is the retention of the material after testing: if the student crams the info into his brain just long enough to regurgitate it on a test, then the school system has succeeded.

The second approach to learning doesn’t focus on test scores, but on lifelong enrichment. It is easier to use this learning style with homeschooled children, since their education is more easily tailored to the individual student, but can also be imbued by parents working with children who are in public schools.

Enrichment-based learning aims to give the student mental tools to improve his mind for the rest of his life. It isn’t bound by school schedules and test scores. Print dictionary skills may be too time-consuming to teach in a public school setting, but for the parent or teacher who wishes to impart more than high grades to their student, there is no reason not to teach both. It’s true that learning print dictionary skills, how to do long division by hand, and using a map instead of a GPS take longer to teach. But over a person’s life, getting into the habit of truly learning concepts from their very foundations will enrich and improve the life and the mind.

So often, we look for the quickest way to do things: calculators on our phones, GPS maps, and spell check, thinking that we are saving time for something else. (Although given how much junk TV Americans watch, the question is, for what?) Ironically, as we age and our mental faculties begin to deteriorate, doctors note that the people who are consistently learning new things and improving their minds are the ones who are happier, healthier, and stronger mentally. Is it possible that the person who learned the extra skills for fun (doing math on an abacus, for example) is better off in the long run?

I want my daughter to use a print dictionary for the sheer joy of the English language, and know how to use an online dictionary when she’s out and about and needs a definition. I want her to understand mathematical concepts for the fun of it, and be able to use a calculator when she needs a quick number. I want her to see learning as something that’s not a punishment or a chore, but as something that will make her life better every day.

The best metaphor I can think of is learning to swim. You could argue that swimming is irrelevant, that your child can wear a life jacket, or just avoid boats. You could make them learn to swim just enough to pass a swim test. Or, you could demonstrate how much fun swimming is, and how it will open their world to even more fun activities like scuba diving, surfing and water-skiing. In the lifelong scheme of things, which would you prefer for your child?

The saga of the au gratin dish

At some point in 2012, I was bitten by the French cooking bug. If I recall correctly, it started when I watched the movie Julie and Julia, based on the book by the same name. I read the book, then I read Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, then I started collecting Julia’s cookbooks.

mtaofc set

These are her first two books, co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.

I know that not everyone is interested in cooking in general, or French cuisine in particular, but I still think everyone should be familiar with Julia Child, just because she’s such a cultural icon. Without her, food television as we now know it probably wouldn’t exist, and the American cuisine scene would be a very different place. Plus, Julia Child was a fascinating woman who lived a fascinating life (working with military intelligence in China, anyone?), so I highly recommend her autobiography and biographies like this and this.

When I first got this book, I decided I wanted to try a simple dish. Right? I was a cooking novice, so I figured I’d try something that was tasty, but didn’t require any crazy ingredients or techniques. Scalloped potatoes sounded about right. So I examined the recipe:

gratin dauphinois

Ought to be simple, right? Uses normal potatoes, normal cheese, nothing with an ‘â’ or a ‘ç.’ But there was a problem:

au gratin dish description

That’s a pretty specific dish: no more than 2 inches deep, a little more relaxed on the width, but it has to be BOTH ‘fireproof’ and ‘ovenproof.’ When talking about cooking, the term fireproof (or flameproof) means that it’s safe for use on top of the stove (think flame like the flame of a gas burner, not flame like flambéing something in it). Okay, lots of stuff is flameproof: saucepans, skillets, etc. And lots of stuff is ovenproof: loaf pan, cake pan, cookie sheet. But not many of those go both ways, cast iron and stainless steel being the most common exceptions. And I couldn’t find ANYTHING that met all of those criteria!

By that point, of course, I was obsessed. I started researching cast iron, which has resulted in my tiny kitchen being stuffed to the rafters in the stuff, and my husband even set me up with a nice set of stainless steel cookware. Au gratin dishes are everywhere, but most are only ovenproof. And to be fair, a lot of recipes for Gratin Dauphinois only utilize the oven. But I was determined to make Julia Child’s scalloped potatoes!

And then, after over a year of searching, I found it:

Le Creuset Au Gratin Fennel

An enameled cast iron au gratin dish! It is absolutely perfect: the cast iron goes from stovetop to oven without missing a beat, it’s just a little under two inches tall, and a little larger (14″x10″) than the recipe called for. This is the large version; it holds about 3 quarts, but there is a smaller (and cheaper) version if you’re not bound and determined to make this exact recipe.

I made the scalloped potatoes, months and months after my first attempts, and have to say that they were SPECTACULAR. You know how scalloped potatoes are supposed to have that very distinctive texture, almost al dente? Well, I’ve made scalloped potatoes before and they always turned out more like a mashed potato casserole. Tasty, but not the same. Julia’s recipe is PERFECT. I thought it was going to turn out bland because there isn’t a whole lot of seasoning, but they were SO flavorful!

I can’t wait to make these potatoes again in the future, and also use this dish for other stuff: roasted vegetables, roasted potatoes, desserts, breads, anything. It’s a beautiful serving piece, and those little handles are actually wonderful, especially given how heavy cast iron is. I wish all baking dishes had handles like that.

Baby gates are AMAZING!

A baby gate was not something that I initially anticipated needing. We don’t have any stairs or accesses to dangerous spots, and we never considered the kitchen to be out of bounds. Plus, our daughter has always disliked being confined, and we generally let her go wherever she wants, as long as she stays out of trouble. Most of the gates I had seen her over $50 anyway, and I certainly wasn’t going to pay that kind of money for something that seemed so extraneous.

Then we decided to potty train our daughter, and I read John Rosemond’s Toilet Training Without Tantrums. I love pretty much all of John Rosemond’s books. He approaches child-rearing in a common-sense, old-fashioned manner, based on what has worked for the majority of people in the past. Some of his books are kinda repetitive, so I have just a basic set of A Family of Value, the Six-Point Plan for Raising Happy, Healthy Children, Making the ‘Terrible’ Two Terrific, and Toilet Training Without Tantrums.

I decided to start the potty training while my husband was travelling on business for a month. That way, I wouldn’t have to worry about cooking and could devote myself fully to cleaning up messes if necessary, especially if it took a long time for her to get it. You never really know with potty training; the kid could get it in a day, or it could take weeks. So I tried to prepare for the worst; I went ahead and stocked up on food and supplies in case we were stuck at home for a couple weeks.

Two of the recommendations for kids who struggle with potty training were a small timer and a baby gate. If necessary, the parent can set the timer to go off at likely times when the child should need to use the potty, whether the child realizes it or not. And if a child is particularly stubborn (especially older children), and the parent knows that the child understands the concept but simply refuses to use the potty, the gate can be used to confine the child in the bathroom, with his potty, toys and books, until he decides to use the potty.

Fortunately, my daughter had the potty 95% figured out by the second day, so I didn’t have to resort to either of those measures. But I found some other great uses for the baby gate!

Now, I don’t advocate blocking children into a room for hours at a time merely to avoid some annoyance. Toddlers and children need as much freedom as possible to explore and learn, and confinement doesn’t aid that. But in certain circumstances and for relatively short periods, having a child-free zone in your house can be a wonderful thing.

I started out putting the baby gate in the door to our bedroom, essentially gating our daughter OUT of one room, as opposed to IN to one room. I had put several boxes in there for sorting and organizing, and I didn’t want her undoing all my work. Even after I put the gate up, I didn’t immediately spend a lot of time in there where she couldn’t get to me. Most of the time I was out in the living room, and she didn’t need to be in our bedroom at all. Eventually she got used to the gate, and wouldn’t fuss if I went in there for short periods of time to do things like fold laundry or make the bed.

Once she had the potty training pretty well down, we decided it was (long past) time to teach her to put herself to sleep, and we started using the gate at nap times and bed times in the door to her room. When she gets ready for bed, we put the gate up, then do the book-reading routine in her room with her. Then we tell her it’s time for her to go to sleep in her bed, that she has a potty in the room if she needs it, and we’ll be right in the other room if she needs something. Whether she accepts this peacefully (10% of the time) or shrieks in outrage (90% of the time), we at least get some time alone without a toddler crawling all over us. Every five minutes or so, if she’s still upset, we go over and matter-of-factly repeat the reality of the situation to her. She usually decides to entertain herself after 5 or 10 minutes, and often falls asleep in her bed with a book.

During the day, I put the gate back in the door to our room so I can do things like fold laundry, use the phone, or just lie down without being walked on. The cat also appreciates a safe place where he can sleep without being jabbed with sticks and toys.

I believe that parental care is best for infants and small children, but especially if you are a full-time stay-at-home mom, sometimes you just need a break from being pawed and climbed on. A gate is great because the child can still see you, and you can easily step over it as you move through the house.

I ended up purchasing the Evenflo Position and Lock Gate for about $10 from Wal-Mart. (Mine is neither pink nor blue, but a neutral wood color.) It’s perfect for what we need. It uses pressure to stay in place, so there’s no damage to the door frame, and it’s easy to move around. Pressure-mounted models are not safe for top-of-stairs use, though, so if you need to guard a staircase you’ll have to invest in a screw-in gate. My daughter has only worked it loose once, and that was after several cumulative days of yanking on it. If you reset it every day, if should hold fine.

Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls (and the rolling pin)

Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls

These are the Sticky Pecan Caramel Rolls (page 187) from Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day. I mixed up a batch of the Brioche dough (page 189) last week, then pulled some out of the fridge, rolled it out, and threw in the topping and filling today. It was so fast and easy! The caramel doesn’t even need to be cooked; you just cream together the butter and sugar and seasonings. Once you assemble them, they just rise for an hour, then bake for about 40 minutes.

As you can see, I bungled the assembly somewhat, but these still turned out delicious!  You don’t even have to use the dessert dough; you can substitute the basic white if that’s all you have. This cookbook never ceases to amaze me.

This was also my first time using my new rolling pin. For the most part, I loved my old pin; it’s a super-long wooden French-style from Bed, Bath & Beyond. I got used to using a pin without handles, and I love the control and feel you get with that style. I also love that there aren’t any crevices that have to be cleaned out! You can just use a dish scraper and scrape everything off, then wipe it clean with a wet rag.

The only potential drawback was its tapered design, which never really gave me any problems until I started making tortillas. Other doughs were thick enough that I could just tilt the pin to get the whole thing flat, but I was getting very uneven results with the tortilla dough. Plus, my old pin was getting marked up badly from using my pierogi press (which is AMAZING; I’ll have to do a post about it!); the blades were putting dents in it.

So I ordered the Ateco 19-Inch Maple Rolling Pin from Amazon. It came highly recommended, and so far I really like it. It’s not too expensive, and it has most of what I like in a rolling pin. It’s not tapered, so it rolls evenly, and it’s almost as long as my old one (once you get used to a long rolling pin, you just can’t go back). It’s maple like the old one, so (aside from doing things like rolling it over metal blades) it’s pretty sturdy. It’s not very heavy, and it even comes in a resealable plastic bag for storage if you want.

They make rolling pins that come with spacers so that you can roll dough to precise thicknesses, but the ones I found either 1) were WAY too short (like 13 inches), or 2) didn’t come with the most commonly required dough thickness (1/8″). I’d love to have spacers like that, but for now I’ll keep eyeballing!

I’ll still be keeping my old pin; it’ll be relegated to pierogi duty, and eventually when my daughter is older we can have two people rolling at the same time! But if I could only have one rolling pin, I’d have to go with the straight version.

Quiche fail


I don’t know what the deal is lately with me and strangely-shaped foods. As with the artisan bread, this quiche turned out tasting fine; it just shaped itself very oddly while baking. Maybe I didn’t grease the pan thoroughly enough…?

I had never had quiche before, but I needed something quick and simple for dinner one night and I found the recipe in French Kids Eat Everything by Karen le Billon (Page 254, if you’re going to go steal the recipe at Barnes & Noble. 🙂 Seriously, you should just buy the book. It’s on Nook and Kindle).

This is a no-pastry quiche, so it’s super simple and easy to whip together, and you can pour pretty much anything you want in as filling. My husband has to have meat every night, so I tossed in some pork sausage (in keeping with the eggs theme), and it turned out really good. Other than the filling, all you need is eggs, milk or cream, flour, and salt/pepper.

This is a great supper, but could also easily be done for breakfast or lunch. I was imagining using maraschino cherries and almond flavoring and having a dessert quiche with whipped cream… I might try that when my husband’s out of town! And now that I’ve started with this, I’ll have to try an ‘real’ quiche with pastry. Mmm, pastry…

Book review: The Real Lincoln by Thomas DiLorenzo

There are few figures in history as revered as Abraham Lincoln. He holds the dual status in our racially-sensitive society of having been on the side opposing slavery, and then he was assassinated, which tends to forgive all manner of ills. Even among the politically incorrect, it’s rare to find anyone who thinks Lincoln was a bad guy.

Thomas DiLorenzo is such a man. DiLorenzo is primarily an economist, not an historian, which enabled him to approach Lincoln from a new direction, avoiding what he calls the ‘myth’ of Lincoln’s near-godlike goodness.

Common sense would tell you that, as a human being, Lincoln was a flawed as any of us. And depending on where you stand politically, you might still support many of the things that he did. But for a man who is usually revered, DiLorenzo points out that a lot of what Lincoln believed and fought for was inimical to the well-being of the United States.

In The Real Lincoln, DiLorenzo covers two main ideas: that Lincoln’s centralist economic policies laid the groundwork for the big-government control that we experience today, and he refutes the myth that Lincoln fought the South because he wanted to ‘save’ the Union and because he resisted slavery as a moral evil.

Using facts and writings from Lincoln and his contemporaries, DiLorenzo demonstrates that Lincoln, like most people at the time, did not consider slavery to be a priority when the War Between the States began. Until the time of the War, it was assumed that the individual States had the right to leave the Union if they so desired, just as they had voted to enter it. The United States did not have the power to compel States to remain in the Union, at least until the United States defeated the Confederate States and forced their representatives to rejoin the Union under harsh terms.

Ultimately, Lincoln believed in government control of the States, politically and economically. He had grandiose plans for government-funded railroads, transportation, and industrial development. When the southern States seceded, it threatened his vision of a unified nation, and he fought tooth-and-nail to force the country to remain unified, disregarding Constitutional principles and precedent to do so. At the end of the war, the base of power in American had drastically shifted from the people within the individual States to the government in Washington, D.C., and we have seen that only expand ever since.

The Real Lincoln is a controversial book whether you stand on the political left or right. But I recommend reading it, if only to train yourself to consider views that contradict accepted norms.

No-knead bread fail :)

I love my Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day cookbook. I have always had great results with it, despite cheating on a lot of their equipment recommendations. Just for fun, I figured I’d show you what happens when you don’t shape the loaf properly and the gluten cloak breaks. (Note my cheap cookie sheet in place of a real baking stone.)

weird bread1

This loaf tasted just fine, but the slices were slightly oddly shaped. 🙂 Strangely, I didn’t notice any wrong at all when I put it in; it didn’t show until the loaf was done. Alternatively, just the other day I had a loaf with a huge hole in the top before it baked, and it ended up with just a slight puffiness where the crack had been. Bread is a weird thing, almost magic, really, and if baking doesn’t teach you to let go and go with the flow, then nothing will.

Naan at home

I LOVE bread. I am comforted by the fact that no matter where I go in the world, I will have food to eat, because almost every culture has bread. (I will also eat rice, in a pinch.) I love yeast bread, tortillas, pita, naan, baguettes, all of it.

The only problem with bread is that it is traditionally difficult to make at home. Quite often, bread ovens are huge, hot, expensive contraptions, which is why in a lot of cultures bread-making (or at least the baking part) is farmed out to professionals. For example, while France is known for its amazing bread, very few French families bake their own. They have boulangeries every other block that provide perfect loaves several times a day, so there’s no reason to fiddle around with all the flour, yeast, rising, kneading and baking at home.

One of my favorite breads is naan, a flatbread from India that is traditionally baked in a tandoor oven. A tandoor oven is kind of a barrel shape with a narrow opening at the top, made of clay or metal. You put coals in the bottom and light them, and the temperature gets up to 900-1,000°F. You cook naan by sticking the dough to the inside wall of the oven, where it cooks in a minute or two.

So in order to do this at home, you need a tandoor oven (starting around $1,000) and a place to put it where you can set fire to a huge pile of coal. I had completely despaired of ever having naan without driving to an Indian restaurant, then I found this recipe on Serious Eats.


I don’t have a grill, so I used my little cast iron skillet. I found that high heat was too high, so the first couple pieces came out over-charred. I tweaked the recipe using half whole milk and half Greek yogurt, and it came out with a tang that I don’t normally taste in restaurant-naan. This could probably be solved by using less yogurt-to-milk, or switching from Greek yogurt to regular.

The naan itself came out quite well. Not 100% authentic, but certainly good enough for home. And it was easy! I had never made bread that requires kneading and rising (thank you, Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day!), but it was easier than I expected. The dough was initially really sticky, and I made a half-batch, so I did the initially kneading just by holding it in my hands and squeezing and pulling it. It rose in the bowl for 2 hours, then I divided it into twelve pieces, rolled them into balls, and let them rise for another 2 hours. They were easy to flatten out; I didn’t even get out the rolling pin, just stretched them in my hands, and patted them out on the floured pastry board a little bit.

I do think they would have been better on an actual grill, but at least this way I didn’t have to mess around with coals or anything. Having a bigger pan would have made it easier; I had to make each piece half the normal size to fit in my 8″ skillet. Maybe one of those two-burner griddles would be a little better. And they only take a couple of minutes per piece, so other than rising time, these are really fast.

Artisan Bread in Five Minutes a Day has a recipe for naan, but they just use the regular dough from their other recipes. They had some helpful tips for how to make it in a skillet, but I don’t think it would have been the same, because naan dough specifically needs the dairy (either milk or yogurt) to be correct.

We ate most of the naan with chicken tikka masala and jasmine rice last night, but the couple of pieces I had put into a ziptop baggie were still really good this morning; I think the dairy kept them nice and moist.

Given how quick and easy these were, I will probably be making them a lot from now on. Yay bread! 🙂

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