Thom & Aimee

Two Hobbits. The Kitchen. The Garden. And trouble ensues.

Tag: singapore

Pancakes and A Broken Heart

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As I write this now, February will almost be over. How did we even start 2016? I am not one who bares my heart so readily on this blog, because why should I anyway? This is about Thom and Aimee, isn’t it? But I realised how food and cooking heals, and how the chef can translate his or her love through the dish. No, it’s not about Valentine’s (which is long over). It’s about starting the New Year with a broken heart and the healing process.

To be honest, I’ve expected this to happen back in last December. I think we all know how big a procrastinator I am, so I’ve dragged ending an almost-relationship (this term is funny no?) long enough. It is not to say that it hurt lesser by having the mental readiness, because nothing can really prepare you from an actual broken heart. Strangely, it was accompanied with relief and some peace. And then, the rally from loved ones around you that made you understand who actually truly cared.

Nothing comforts one best when your own sister wakes you up with homemade pancakes on a rainy weekend (great for mopping around while looking pretty). Ned makes the Crêpe Suzette almost every day at work, but it’s not about the dullness of routine that mattered. It’s always special when someone creates a dish from scratch for no special reason whatsoever, but just so you, the diner, can at least smile.

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The performance that comes with a Crêpe Suzette is alluring and magnetic. Maybe it was my emotional state that made the dish more romantic than it seemed. Yet, to watch the blue flames dance upon the delicate golden pancakes and the bright caramelised sauce bubble with slight ferocity was almost hypnotising. To be honest, nothing was romantic because Ned was screaming her head off when she splashed the liqueur into the pan. And you’d think she does this for a living.

But that’s what cooking is all about. Happiness, sadness, laughter, tears, and maybe all at once. It’s not uncommon to see people disappear into the kitchen to celebrate or to mourn. Or to eat cause they are just damn fucking hungry. There is something therapeutic about the whole process, whether it’s for you or someone else. That’s why I decided it was alright to talk about something personal alongside Thom and Aimee. Because both are important and so intrinsic with each other.

They say time heals, but I say, nothing heals better than a noisy kitchen that fills the house with the aromatic heady fragrance of citrus on a wet morning. It is difficult still, but I know things will get better. Hey, you know what, I did smile when eating those pancakes. Those were darn good pancakes.

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Issue 14: Durian

Alright, pledge your allegiance now. There can only be two sides to this important matter, you’re either on Team Durian or Team How-The-Hell-Are-You-Not-On-Team-Durian. Well, the fact that we have dedicated this issue to the prickly fruit, it’s glaringly obvious that we love our durians. And when we say ‘love’, we meant insanely obsessed. We cannot say the word ‘durian’ and not turn into a couple of rabid hyperventilating dorks. (I’m twitching in my seat at this moment. I. Need. Durian.)

“If you don’t love durian, you are not Singaporean” – there goes the saying. Of course, you are not forced to consume it to become a Singaporean, but it just shows how well-loved this fruit is. Not just in Singapore, it’s deemed the King of Fruits in the whole of South East Asia. (It should be for the world wide world.) Comes durian season (from late May to Early August), you’d find five-star hotels and fine-dining restaurants churning out durian desserts of sorts. Some even travel to neighbouring countries to have a durian-centred feast. There was even a durian buffet. A bloody buffet that allows you to eat all the durians you want! And yes, we went for that. *evil cackle*

To strangers to this odd food, durians can be an offensive assault to your senses. With sharp thorns covering every millimetre of the husk, you would think it’s probably dangerous to consume it. I think Mother Nature was just being a selfish bitch to deter us from eating such heavenly stuff.

Then, there’s the smell. Most are turned off by its pungent and rank stench. If you go onto google, you’d find descriptions such as rotten sewage, dead rats and smelly socks. Basically, one can hardly phantom why anyone would put durians in their mouth. Its fragrance is so strong that it’s literally banned in hotels or public transport. You can eat durians and become a durian-farting machine for the next few days. That’s how potent these stuff are. But sorry, dude, we find the smell of durians A-MAH-ZING. If our neighbours from three floors up are eating durians, we would know and we would be awfully filled with envy.

Past the smell, you pick up this gooey, creamy (sometimes watery) glob of yellow-orange flesh. If you thought the smell was intense, the fruit itself is like getting multiple special combo-attacks. It’s Hadouken, Kamehameha, Bankai and Gomu Gomu all at once. You have received 10000000 damage and have to respawn for the next 500 times. But if you can go beyond the smells and first taste, you’d find how amazingly complex durians are. The custard-like flesh can go from caramel sweet to bittersweet. You may find hints of nuts, caramel and fruits such as mango and overripe bananas.

We tried quite a few varieties for erm, research. From mao shan wang (loosely translated as mountain cat king), D24, D13, XO to jin feng (golden phoenix), hong xia (red prawn) and butter durians. And that’s just the top of the list. After so many durians, our taste buds got a little numb. Our reactions slowly became useless information like “arghmagawd” to “ugh, pass”. In any case, stick to the winners such as mao shan wang and D24. Though, we do love the ultra sweet butter durians as well.

Because of its overpowering flavours, it’s tough to pair durians with any other ingredient. The easiest way is to complement the pronounced notes present in the fruit. We looked at nuts, tropical fruits such as mangosteen and mangoes, and local foods such as palm sugar. The idea was to inject the awesomeness of durian into classic French desserts, with a touch of local flavours. Ah~ anything durian just works for me.

I could go on and on about durians. This controversial fruit may not be the most crowd-pleasing and it divides people into two distinct camps. But in my memories, it was about having the whole family squatting on the newspaper-covered floor as we slurp the buttery flesh off our fingers. Well, our youngest sister would be behind a closed door trying to avoid the smells. And that itself is one quirky memory to have.

Roasted Almond Affogato

With the unearthly timings the World Cup matches are broadcasting locally, a single cup of coffee is just not enough to last us through the night. Or should I say early morning. In any case, we are surviving on an average of two to three hours of sleep these days. And no matter how many cups of coffee you down, the caffeine seems to stop its magical effects after awhile. (I tried drinking a total of 8 shots once. Please do not try it unless you wish to have an accelerating heart rate.)

Sometimes, we do get a little hungry in the middle of the night. Swearing at the television and watching 22 men kick a ball can take up a lot of energy. Especially if your team is not playing up to expectations, hunger plus anger, on top of fatigue, makes a rabid fangirl. To combat potential crazy breakdowns, we figured a simple dessert would calm even the most frantic. (No, really, I actually lost sleep because Germany drew an equaliser with Ghana. A sleep-deprived person who can’t fall asleep. The world could have combusted.) A word of caution though: the sugar and caffeine rush might work differently on different people. And this is not for those worried about their waistlines.

Let’s turn back the clock a little. One of our very first meals in London was at Polpo and to beat the jet lag, we decided to have an affogato after our very satisfying meal. A dessert in a cup of coffee, nothing beats the simple combination of pure vanilla ice cream melting in your cup of rich espresso. I don’t know if it was the excitement of being on a holiday or that we were hungry and cold, but it was one of the most luscious cups of heaven we have had. Ever since then, we knew we had to recreate it when we go back home.

Back to the present, we came across the cookbook ‘One’ by Florence Knight, who is the head chef of Polpo. And to our delight, within it lies a recipe of an affogato. Traditionally made with vanilla ice cream and a cup of espresso, this version is a much richer concoction with its inclusion of roasted almonds. And boy, when we both tasted the dessert, it was like we were transported back to London and into the cosy corner of the bar at Polpo.

The combination of the caramelised almond ice cream lifted the bitterness of the coffee. We used a deeper roast of beans as we favoured the contrast of bittersweet. You can add pralines to the dessert for an extra indulgence but for convenience’s sake (half time is only 20 minutes), we are satisfied with just almond ice cream and coffee. In fact, almost too satisfied because we just downed two cups each. Well, stomachs come first, guilt can come later.

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Tiramisu

It’s typical to make a tiramisu when one thinks about coffee. This is probably the most famousest of Italian desserts in the world. Go to your nearest Italian eatery and you’d definitely find a tiramisu in the menu. You can even find it disguised under unfamiliar ingredients such as matcha, strawberries or even beer (you heard me right). Despite its worldwide reputation and popularity, the tiramisu was only a recent invention. Created in the 1970s at Le Beccherie in a northern town of Treviso (the restaurant is closing down though), the tiramisu is an icon beside the pizza and pasta of Italy.

To me, the tiramisu is almost like eating a trifle (will Italians kill me for saying that). Its too creamy for a cake but too stodgy to be called a mousse. With a concoction of mascarpone, coffee, marsala wine and sponge ladyfinger biscuits, the dessert is a great after-dinner treat of booze and coffee. We have eaten many tiramisu, from horrendous watery sloshes in cups to frozen ice-cream like cakes, and knew immediately what we wanted our own tiramisu to be like.

Although we grew up eating creamy cups of tiramisu, we were not big fans of digging our spoons into tons of cream. Here was the challenge: to make the tiramisu an elegant dish. It got Ned really excited with the prospect of designing and creating her own dessert. But that was where it got difficult. She had to get the ingredients, quantity and cooking methods right. It was basically a trial-and-error with a sit-and-pray mindset. You should see the number of designs she came up with. They were terrifying and amazing at the same time. It was like watching The Doctor come up with plans that aren’t really plans.

All the usual ingredients had to remain to stay true to its origin but the dessert will have to be almost cake-like for a cleaner shape. More chocolate was incorporated into the pastry in the form of luxurious ganaches. Soaked in potent espresso, ladyfinger biscuits act as the base and divider between the ganache and mascarpone custard. The key difference is the form of the mascarpone. No longer sloppy, the top layer is a sturdy semifreddo-like custard. Dusted with lavish sprinkles of cocoa powder, the dish was definitely a tiramisu when you taste it, but in a new dress.

We might have committed a crime by tweaking the recipe but as with life, nothing stays still. And with all things well-loved, classics will always stay close to one’s heart but new interpretations must be welcomed with open arms. Besides, the tiramisu itself is considered a new kid on the block in the books of history. So, a little makeover won’t do this dessert any harm. If anything, we are loving the new look.

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Chocolate and Coffee Crème Brûlée Tart

The reason of why we made this dessert was quite a simple one: we had one in a shop and just had to make one in case of sudden cravings. The first time I had it was when a friend bought a slice of a Brazilian Coffee Tart for my birthday and I swear it was the best thing I have had for a long long time. In fact, it was sitting quite plainly beside the Lemon Meringue Tart. But the moment I popped a piece of it into my mouth, I thought I died and went to chocolate-y coffee heaven.

The luscious fudge-like chocolate just melts in your mouth and the creamy bitter coffee melds perfectly with the sweetness of the chocolate. Are you salivating yet? Because I am. Most chocolate desserts tend to overpower with its cocoa but this manages to be subtle and allow an amazingly balancing act alongside the coffee. After which, I told (more like raved to) Ned to give it try. Well, to cut long story short, she went to the same piece of heaven and here we are, trying to create the foods of angels.

Lucky for us, we managed to get hold of the recipe from Eric Kayser’s book of tarts. We’ll be honest here: heaven was not in our grasp yet. The tart base used was a chocolate shortbread pastry instead of the plain shortcrust used in the shop, and this resulted in a far too crumbly texture. The chocolate and coffee layers thankfully came through fine. Although instead of singing a duet together, it was like watching two contestants pitting each other in an episode of The Voice. The flavours were amazingly strong and powerful. Not that it was bad, but after gobbling half the tart, it seemed a little too rich for any more. We figured the tart base could have contributed to the chocolate-ness of the pastry.

Overall, it was still an amazing dessert but improvements could be made. Can I just complain how difficult it was for me to slice the dessert? Well, that’s just me because I was being spoilt. (Ned happened to be busy and I was left with the cutting.) But at least I learnt how to handle such desserts – have patience and more patience. Ned is adamant in making another batch until she achieves that slice of perfection. I’m all for it as long as I don’t have to cut it.

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Issue 13: Coffee

I have no memory of how we started drinking coffee. In fact, we grew up drinking tea (especially with dim sum breakfasts). Though, our parents never stopped us from sipping on their cups of coffee at a tender age. Maybe it was the introduction of Frappuccinos and flavoured coffee beverages from the mass coffee spots such as Starbucks that got us into drinking coffee. But I do not remember, because coffee and us go way back.

First of all, I’m going to make this clear: we are no coffee snobs. Really, we do appreciate a good cuppa but if you ask us if our coffee was single estate (what the hell is that anyway), we are not that anal. As long as the caffeine does its job, we are happy birds. So if you are expecting to learn about the degree of the roast or what soil the coffee tree grew in, we don’t speak coffee like the hipsters down Everton Park. With all due respect, we admire those who pursue the art of coffee. It’s a passion I wished we had.

However, I did visit the local library to do a little research and it was like opening a can of worms. The amount of information to digest was immense – from its history, botanical classifications (Arabica or Robusta), grading systems, countries of origin to coffee characteristics, cupping, roasting, grinding and different brewing methods. (You can even choose your beans based on seasonality!) Basically, I could regurgitate whatever I read but what would be the point really? You can always flip any issue of Kinfolk or visit your nearest cafe to know the details of your cuppa.

Coffee used to be a drink to perk up mornings, now it’s all about it being part of a lifestyle. Every week, I hear at least three new we-roast-out-own-beans cafes are opening in different parts of Singapore. But with such enthusiasm comes exposure to much more important matters: coffee and its effects on the world and slave trade. We are not foreign to the terms fair trade or sustainable farming. As with all types of agriculture, it’s always a business first. If there is demand, there would be supply.

Here’s a good example: Kopi Luwak (civet coffee, or more famously known as the coffee made out of beans from animal shit) is one of the most expensive coffees in the world. What started as a novelty and appreciated by coffee connoisseurs became an environmental disaster and helping hand to animal cruelty. Just read this article in Guardian to understand how much an innocent-looking cup of coffee isn’t all that wholesome anymore. Even your convenient Nespresso cup of coffee is contributing to global wastage with its capsules.

I’m not sure how many of the so-called hipster coffee-enthusiasts joints actually care about the provenance of the beans they use. It’s just so easy to cash in on trends without the actual passion of serving really tasty coffee without the sense of guilt. Why care so much for just coffee? Well, because you might not have it soon. As much as we don’t have the same amount of obsessions as hipsters (okay, we are not mocking them but how else to refer them as? Erm, indie folks?), if they are bringing about a wave of green coffee, then I guess the influx of cafes isn’t such a bad thing after all.

I shall go make a cup of coffee now.

Poached Mandarin Oranges with Vanilla Ice Cream

(I’m on fire here! Three posts in a row!! But that’s only because *cough* Ned sent me a threatening note this morning *cough*. I had to finish up all the old drafts left sitting on the shelf by today or *cough* certain misfortune might befall me.)

At times, we forget why we wanted to do this or our mantra for local seasonal produce. If you haven’t noticed, we barely focus on any fresh fruits or vegetables this year. With the lack of time to do anything in the kitchen, we wanted to avoid wastage of any sort. Fruits, vegetables, meat and seafood are too perishable to keep up with our schedules. We just finished up our next row of desserts and it features another dry ingredient (it’s coffee, if you need to know). If possible, we would love to return to the good old days where fruits play a major part.

The last time we handled fruit of any sort was after Chinese New Year. (Okay, that was four months ago. Please do not glare at me for being four months late in posting this.) Leftover mandarin oranges was common at most Chinese households after the festive season. These citruses are great on their own but we decided to finish the last batch of oranges with a little touch of Middle Eastern spice.

Unlike the typical oranges, mandarins are a lot more tender with its plump juicy pulp held together with thick with white pith. Some do not like the bitterness of the pith, but we tend to eat them anyway since the mandarins are sweet enough. The lovely thing about mandarins is that you can peel them open with just your hands. Just look at how pretty each segment looks! Like tiny gold Chinese ingots (currency of imperial china)! An interesting cultural fact: mandarin oranges and gold have the same pronunciation in Cantonese. And that’s why we exchange mandarins (or gold) during the New Year.

With that much leftover oranges and our (then) freshly made vanilla ice cream, we turned them into a simple dessert that give the usual citrus a little spicy kick. You can poach the mandarins in their tiny ingots or slice them in a cross-section to create beautiful floral shapes. What we really love is how a few added spice could bring the fruit a waft of fresh air. Instead of the usual saccharine taste of orange, the flavour of the fruit deepened with the vanilla, cardamom and cinnamon. To top it all off, add a scoop of homemade vanilla ice cream and dust some chopped pistachios for added crunch – a Chinese tradition with an exotic Middle Eastern twist.

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Vanilla Sablés Viennois (Viennese Biscuits)

Its pouring outside as I write this. And I have about 15 minutes to rush this post out before we head out for lunch. I wouldn’t lie and say that we have been cooking regularly. With Ned’s intense working hours, we barely even meet each other. When we do, we’d rather sit down and catch up on each other’s lives. It was just last night that we could sit down and have a meal properly. Oh, Ned did make some tamagoyaki (Japanese sweet rolled omelette) since we had Japanese for dinner yesterday.

Baking? Not so much. In fact, we feel a little guilty for not investing for time for T&A. As much as we love it, our conflicting schedules are proving to be a little difficult to plan. Its a little odd to open an empty fridge at times; it used to be filled with tons and tons of ingredients Ned bought. Just two days ago, we didn’t even know we ran out of black pepper and olive oil. Black pepper and olive oil!!! Staples in the kitchen were not available!! Well, that’s another misadventure I’d share another day.

It really hit me that there are moments that you just have to make do with what you have in your kitchen. Long gone are the days that we have a well-stocked or rather, overflowing pantry of food. We have so many types of flour, sugar and spices that I’ve lost count. Herbs? Just head out to the garden to snip some off. In fact, I had a lot of pride for our bursting kitchens. It was so easy to whip something up in seconds without a visit to the markets. Now… well… it’s a slightly different story.

But there’s no need to be a defeatist! Sometimes we forget how simple baking should really be when you look at the essentials: butter, flour, eggs and sugar. They are the foundation of homemade goodness like biscuits, cakes and everything awesome that grannies in storybooks make. And that’s how simple these sablés viennois are. With the only addition of vanilla and a touch of intricate piping, you get a tray of melt-in-the-mouth crumbly biscuits. Ned is not a big fan of biscuits but with what we had in the kitchen, it really wasn’t that bad to have a bit of sweetness after our meals.

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Classic Vanilla Bean Ice Cream

Ahhhh~~~ ice cream… Nothing beats hearing the familiar tinkling of a bell rung by the ice cream man, and then licking a ball of ice cold milky cream topped on a crispy golden biscuit cone. Walk under the blazing sun and fret over the sticky liquid going all over your fingers. It’s okay if it got messy, the sweetness of the dessert will solve it all. Drop it and it’s the end of the world (I have too many of such memories in my childhood to understand its traumatic effects).

With our current freak weather (Singapore’s getting too hot for comfort these days), ice cream is our only solace to calm our nerves and cool our souls. It is odd how such a simple item can bring so much joy and satisfaction into our lives. Try walking down the street with a cone of ice cream or a ice popsicle, then, be very aware of the stares you get as you walk by. The ice cream can be a very good attention-seeking tool.

When we got our little sticks of vanilla, we knew we had to make our own stash of vanilla ice cream. It might be the most common flavour but I swear that using proper real vanilla is a whole new world altogether. The flavour of the vanilla deepens and the intense smokey notes have a stronger presence that is usually overpowered by the cream. For once, we could appreciate vanilla ice cream as the main star rather than the accompaniment it has always been.

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Issue 12: Vanilla

There is no any other more common flavour than plain old vanilla. A good partner in crime to many other foods, vanilla complements a wide range of ingredients such as coffee, chocolate, custard, other spices such cardamom and cinnamon, and even with seafood. Have a slice of warm apple pie, moist chocolate brownie or even a glass of coke? Top a scoop of vanilla ice cream on it, and you’ll have a luscious treat. I was one of those who didn’t really care about vanilla (too boring). Dependable, familiar, old-fashioned – the number of synonyms you can use on vanilla is endless. Vanilla was just too common.

Here’s where the oddity appears: vanilla is extremely expensive. Everyone might have easy access to vanilla-flavoured foods, but no one really understands how decadent the common vanilla is. Of course, we are talking about the real stuff. The sticky, almost pungent, brown little twigs with tiny little caviar-like seeds in it. Behind saffron, it is the second most expensive spice in the world. And it’s not difficult to understand why.

Just do a little read on how vanilla is harvested and the growing conditions needed, you’ll probably treasure vanilla a lot more than you do now. I remember watching documentary on BBC (channel-flipping brings me to strange places) and there I was, learning how vanilla was produced. The very first vanilla beans were discovered by Totonac Indians in Mexico, but yet again, it was the adventurous Spanish who shared this very special ingredient with the rest of the world. As usual, world goes gaga over it and everyone wants a piece of it. But they just couldn’t grow the damn bean in their own backyard. Up until the mid 19th century, Mexico had monopoly in the market of vanilla. It wasn’t that the Europeans weren’t enterprising enough. They just forgot to bring the bees back with them. (The bees in Mexico just know how get the orchids fruiting.)

The person the modern world needs to thank is Edmond Albius, a slave who found a way to pollinate the vanilla orchids by hand (a method still used today). Without him, a scoop of vanilla ice cream probably costs $1000. Just remember he died in poverty and probably never tasted vanilla ice cream before. So, remember Edmond Albius when you eat anything vanilla. Okay, enough documentary talk. Anyway, other than the fact that pollinating the flowers are so time consuming, the beans have to be harvested by hand, killed (submersion in a hot bath), sweat, dried and conditioned. The whole curing cycle is six months worth of laborious-intensive work (and I’m excluding growing and harvesting).

We managed to get hold of some vanilla pods of assorted variety. Like wine, the flavour of vanilla is often affected by its surroundings such as soil and growing conditions, and curing methods. You can just look at how different each variety look from the other. Some beans are broader than the other, some are tinged with copper or bronze.

The most well-known and probably most popular is the Madagascan (or Bourbon) vanilla beans. Rich, creamy and sweet flavour, its versatility lends itself to many recipes. While the Madagascan bean had a smooth fragrance, the original vanilla – Mexican beans impart smokey, complex and almost spicy notes. If you take a sniff, it’s as though you get a punch straight in the nose. But the King of vanilla is no doubt the Tahitian beans. With an intense fruity, floral aroma that is almost like a mix of cherry, chocolate and licorice, Tahitian vanilla is exceptional in custards and creams. (I personally love smelling its intoxicating scent. Jo Malone needs to make a one.)

The big three are not the only varieties available in the market, there are many other beans that you can sample. The Ugandan bean is almost like the Mexican with its bold aroma without the sharp smokiness. It has a very earthy raisin-like flavour that works well in rich and chocolate desserts. But the Indonesian beans beat both the Ugandan and Mexican in terms of intensity. Its woody flavour might sometimes be deemed too strong, but they are perfect for recipes made with lots of butterfat or cream.

The Tongan beans are another bold-flavoured vanilla that strangely works well in not only sweets, but savoury dishes (use them for dressings and marinades). They also stand up very well against chocolate with its unique fig-and-bark characteristics. Last but not least, the Indian vanilla beans are very similar to Madagascan beans with its sweet (almost too saccharine for my liking) and woodsy flavours. Comparatively plumper in size, they contain a very large amount of seeds.

(Now, my nose is clogged with smelling too much beans.)

It might seem rather confusing to decide which beans for what dish, but really, there is no strict rule. Whatever works for your palate. However, once you start using real vanilla beans, it will be tough to go back to your convenient vanilla extracts. Of course, we still depend very much on our bottled extracts and bean pastes if time was a constraint. Buying vanilla might seem like a luxury but no part of the vanilla will be wasted. The pods can be used to make vanilla sugars, extracts or infused liquors (it is actually the pod that imparts most of the flavour, not the caviar seeds).

After tasting the real stuff, vanilla did not appear faceless or unmemorable. In fact, I think I have a new found respect for the little guys. But I do think I need to lie down for awhile – too much of a vanilla overdose.

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