Life

Three Food Writers Battle Over Seasonally-Inspired Sweet Treats

We’ve been running this series for a few years now. In fact, I think this is our third holiday season. Fourth? 2020 is a blur. Still, after all these cook-offs, we’re pretty thin on desserts. Usually, the crew is pretty resistant, much to my chagrin.

I love sweets. So much so that for this installment I unilaterally picked the challenge. Mostly because I wanted the tax write off for making my dish, which I’d spent the whole quarantine dreaming about. But also because I’m fully convinced that sugar might be the secret to help me get back in this game. (If sugar can’t do it, what the hell can?)

I’ve tried this intro a few ways and it’s always circled back to me attempting to unduly influence our fans to help me get back in the running, so I’ll stop here and let you get to the recipes. We all made dishes this month that you really ought to try your hand at. A little sweetness goes a long way this season (this year, this decade, on the internet, etc.)

— Steve Bramucci, LIFE Editorial Director

PAST 5 RESULTS (see full results here):

Christmas Movie Showdown: 1) Vince 2) Zach 3) Steve
Oscar Movie Showdown w/Binging With Babish: 1) Steve 2) Vince 3) Zach
Meatball Showdown with Chef Tyler Anderson: 1) Vince 2) Steve 3) Zach
Diner Food Showdown with George Motz: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve
Vegetarian and Vegan Showdown: 1) Zach 2) Vince 3) Steve

CURRENT SCORE:

We’re giving three points to the winner and one to second place for each round. All votes are counted equally. As it stands, the score is:

ZACH: 48
VINCE: 45
STEVE: 36

Zach’s Maple Bar

Zach Johnston

When Steve asked us to make a seasonal treat with a story, my mind went straight to my dad, hunting deer and elk in the rainy Olympic foothills, and maple bars. Fall is hunting season and that’s what this time of year still means to me (I braised a venison leg just last night). Fall was all about heading up to the Duckabush or Brothers Wilderness in the Olympics while making sure to grab a box of maple bars for the road.

Maple bars ooze late autumn vibes. The large, elongated doughnut topped in a maple-sweet glaze somehow never felt right eating outside of the hunting season (fall and winter). I’ve tried them in the summer and they’re almost too saccharine unless you’re not going to be walking around a mossy rainforest in the rain.

When it came to donuts, I was very lucky growing up. My dad was a grocery store manager at our local store. And when I was a kid in the 80s, his store still had a from-scratch bakery in it. There were actual bakers who’d come in and make all the doughnuts, cakes, and loaves of bread. All that industrial food-center distribution we have today had yet to homogenize our foodway. The doughnuts were fried in lard and you could get them still-warm first thing in the morning. And hunting being what it is, that’s how I remember eating my maple bars: in an old pickup truck, itchy in wool pants, and with Led Zeppelin and the heater blasting at five AM.

I haven’t had a maple bar in a very long time. In fact, it was probably when my dad was still alive. I get my deer from hunters in Germany now. And regional-specific American doughnuts don’t really make it across the pond. So I knew I had to make a maple bar for this challenge.

This one is for my dad, who’s been stalking deer and elk up in those Happy Hunting Grounds in the Sky for eleven years now. Hopefully, he’s got plenty of fresh maple bars in his pack.

Zach Johnston

The Bar

This is the crux of the recipe. A good doughnut base will make or break any flavor of doughnut. I’m basically using a recipe from the NY Times Cooking section because I’ve never really made doughnuts before. Frybread, sure. I added a little cinnamon to the dough to give it that “maple bar” and Holiday feel. Also, I’m cutting the recipe in half, because I don’t need ten doughnuts today.

Other than that, it’s pretty straight-forward fried, yeasty, sweet dough. Oh, and this is also in grams and liters because you need a scale when making bread and they all have a “gram” setting.

Ingredients:

  • 450 grams all-purpose flour
  • 150ml whole milk
  • 5 grams dry active yeast
  • 25 grams white sugar
  • 56 grams unsalted butter (1/2 stick)
  • 2 large eggs
  • 5 grams fine sea salt
  • Large pinch of cinnamon
  • Sunflower Oil (for frying)

The Dough:

Zach Johnston
  • Step one: Melt the butter is a small pan and let cool to room temp.
  • Step two: Warm the milk to around 90F/32C and add in the yeast and sugar. The sugar will help the yeast activate in the warm milk.
  • Step three: Add two eggs, salt, and cinnamon to milk mixture and beat with a fork until smooth.
  • Step four: Add the cooled melted butter to the milk mixture and stir until fully emulsified.
Zach Johnston
  • Step five: Attach a dough hook to a stand mixer (or get ready to get your hands dirty kneading bread) and add the milk mixture and 400 grams (around two cups) of flour to the mixing bowl. Mix on low speed until the dough comes together.
Zach Johnston
  • Step six: Once the dough forms a sticky ball, turn the speed up to medium-low. Add flour as needed until a ball forms that comes away from the sides of the bowl. Knead for ten minutes.
Zach Johnston
  • Step seven: Pull out the dough. It should be slightly sticky. Transfer to a pre-oiled bowl and cover with a thin kitchen towel to let rise until it’s doubled in size.
  • Step eight: Roll the risen dough onto a floured surface. Roll out into a large rectangle that’s about 6mm/1/4-inch thick.
  • Step nine: Use a kitchen knife to cut the rounded edges off the dough and then cut about 50mmx100mm (two-inch by four-inch) rectangle bars.
Zach Johnston
  • Step ten: Place the bars on a cookie sheet with parchment paper. Cover in the thin kitchen towel and let rise again for around 45 minutes or until visibly puffed up.
Zach Johnston

The Fry:

Zach Johnston
  • Step one: Heat two liters (around half-a-gallon) of oil in a large wok or heavy-bottomed braising pot to 375F/190C.
  • Step two: Gently lay in the dough in the hot oil with a slotted spoon. After around one minute, use the slotted spoon to turn the doughnut bar over. It should be golden brown. Fry for another minute or two.
  • Step three: Use the slotted spoon to move the fried doughnut bar onto a waiting rack over a cookie sheet to let to cool.
Zach Johnston

The Maple Icing

Zach Johnston

This is where the maple bar lives or dies. I tracked down maple extract to give the glaze that distinct doughnut shop maple-iness. Also, I tested this glaze before making this recipe and it’s f*cking awesome.

Ingredients:

  • 40 grams unsalted butter
  • 50ml whole milk
  • 50 grams brown sugar
  • 200 grams powdered sugar
  • 5ml maple extract

Method:

Zach Johnston
  • Step one: over medium heat, add milk, butter, and brown sugar to a small saucepan and bring to a bare simmer and whisk until ingredients are fully emulsified (about two minutes). Remove from heat and let cool for about ten minutes.
  • Step two: Add in the maple extract and powdered sugar and whisk vigorously until a smooth glaze forms.

Putting It All Together

Zach Johnston
  • Step one: Use a large spoon to spread the warm glaze over the cooled doughnut bars (the glaze will set quickly). The glaze should just start to pour over the edges.
  • Step two: Let cool completely and serve.

Final Thoughts:

Zach Johnston

Look at that airy crumb up there! This maple bar may not be perfectly formed or have exactly even icing. But it’s f*cking delicious. The maple really comes through in the buttery, brown sugar glaze. The cinnamon in the dough just peeks through. And the actual doughnut is so soft, lush, and crispy-on-the-outside that it was really, really hard not to eat two of these.

Vince on Zach’s Dish:

Steve wonders why we don’t do desserts more often… did you think it could be because roasting a dessert is hard as hell? Zach made a maple bar. Have you ever had a bad maple bar? I sure haven’t. He didn’t even preface it with some obnoxious story about having learned the recipe at the feet of a wise man in the highlands of Tibet either. Doughnuts are pretty universal. My mom is the only human I’ve ever met who doesn’t like doughnuts, because she worked in a bakery and being stuffed inside a small room with the smell of hot lard forever turned her off of them. Ironically, the smell of hot lard is what turned me off of YOUR mom, but anyway folks…

Sorry, best I could do for a shitty roast joke. Honestly, the worst thing I can say about this maple bar is that it’s a little flat, like the bulge in front of Zach’s speedo (AY! Not like da bulge in da back though, am I right??). Which isn’t really a flaw as far as I’m concerned, it just looks crunchier than a normal doughnut. Which seems good, actually. Food-wise, the only thing that confuses me is using maple extract over maple syrup (which is already a “maple extract,” isn’t it?). Is that really what they use in donut shops? I can only plead ignorance there. And if that’s what they use, I’m sure it’s fine — again, I’ve never had a bad maple bar.

Steve on Zach’s Dish:

The Zach storytelling intros are back and I’m 100% into it. Forget short and sweet, I want those sense memories. I, too, have maple bar nostalgia from rainy days spent with my deceased pops (ours was cross-country skiing, like proper Portland peaceniks). So this dish definitely hit me, 1K word into and all.

So what do you roast when a dude gives you the one-two punch of fond remembrance and faithful recreation?

Originality!

Zach, I think you’re in the Gus Van Sant circa 1998 stage of your cooking career. Remember when he did a shot-by-shot remake of Psycho? People kept writing articles like, “I don’t think we need this but… maybe???” Turns out the first impulse that everyone had was correct. We didn’t need it. There was no real improvement to seeing Vince Vaughan as Norman Bates.

What it did was left people wanting to watch the original. That’s sort of how your dishes have made me feel recently. If I’m going to do a shot-by-shot maple bar, why not buy one for a dollar at a greasy spoon donut shop? I mean, isn’t this a little Rube Goldberg-esque, even for you?

Food has changed so much since you and your dad went on hunting trips (or my dad and I skied the backcountry). You didn’t want to add some salt to the top to balance out the sugar of the icing? What about bourbon in your icing, to reference the incredible success you’ve had writing about spirits in 2020?

Would I eat this maple bar?

Yes. Judging from my quarantine bloat, I’d probably eat one too many. And it would bring me back to the time when my metabolism offered me the chance to down these two at a time. But I don’t think it would leave me thinking about your creative genius. In fact, I don’t think I would consider the chef at all. That’s great for matching food to past memories but I don’t think it’s the goal of this contest.

Sorry. That got a little serious. I think what I’m saying is, “Ya basic!” BOOM. ROASTED!

Vince’s Apple Bread Pudding With Rum Sauce And Maple Ice Cream

Vince Mancini

When Zach and Steve presented this challenge and revealed that they’d already made a donut and a maple bar, I admit it, I was worried. It’s hard to compete with fried dough. I’ve always said: I love a fried dough. So I had to think long and hard about it.

I don’t love cake or frosting. I don’t really crave fruit desserts and chocolate does nothing for me. In a dessert, I mostly want bread, butter, and sugar. Finally, it hit me: bread pudding. It has all the bread-sweet goodness of a doughnut, plus another pound of butter and eggs. I know contestants making bread pudding has become a cliché on Chopped, but I don’t care, it’s still probably my favorite dessert.

That’s probably because I’m a dunker. I want my cookies dunked in milk, my biscuits covered in gravy, my chicken stuffed inside a flaky pot pie, my pasta sauce sopped up with bread, and when we order take out Chinese, I want the pan-fried crispy noodles with the meat and sauce soaking into them on top. I live for a starch soaking up a fat. Bread pudding is the ultimate dunker’s dessert, consisting entirely of pre-sopped bread. The bread mimics my body when I eat it.

Bread pudding feels like a fall-winter dessert to begin with, but just to fall-winter it up even further, I added apples (fuck to raisins, and I mean that), rum sauce, maple ice cream, and some brown sugar cinnamon streusel (for texture).

For the Ice Cream

Vince Mancini

I’m a bit ashamed to say that I’d never made ice cream before now. As it turned out, it was a lot easier than what I’d imagined. I didn’t even screw up the first batch! I basically cribbed this entire recipe from Serious Eats.

  • 6 egg yolks
  • 3/4 cup maple syrup
  • 1 cup cream
  • 1 1/2 cups half and half
  • 1 teaspoon Kosher salt

That’s enough salt that you could call this “salted maple ice cream” but I didn’t, because calling something “salted ___ ice cream” is oh-so-trendy these days and kind of lame. The salt does add a lot thought.

Anyway, you whisk everything together in a saucepan and cook it low while whisking to keep from scrambling the yolks. About 15-20 minutes of that, until it thickens up a little. Then you add the salt and refrigerate overnight. The next day you add the mixture to your ice cream maker to churn. This part only took 10-15 more minutes for me.

Vince Mancini

The only thing I’d add to this recipe is to double it, because holy shit it was incredible. You will definitely want more than this. Pardon my hyperbole, but I swear on Steve’s Mom’s life that this was the best ice cream I’ve ever eaten. How had I never made ice cream before? It’s totally worth it. I don’t know how many egg yolks are allowed in an ice cream before it legally becomes a gelato, but we had to be pushing up on it here.

Ice cream, gelato — put gel-lot more in my mouth, whatever it’s called.

Vince Mancini

I think it was the texture that put it over the top. One thing you don’t get with store-bought ice cream is those tiny microscopic but still identifiable ice crystals that melt into pure velvet as soon as they hit your tongue. GRR, MOUTHFEEL!

I’m telling you, this was wonderful.

For The Pudding

Vince Mancini

If bread pudding seems like it’s just a mess of bread scraps baked in butter, eggs, and sugar, that’s because it is. And thank god for that. I used Hawaiian rolls because it seemed dessert-y.

  • 1 package Hawaiian rolls
  • 5 eggs
  • 3 tablespoons butter (not pictured)
  • 2 apples
  • 1/2 cup dark brown sugar
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • dash ground cinnamon
  • dash ground nutmeg
Vince Mancini

Melt the butter in a saucepan, sautee the apples a little, then add the milk and spices and bring up to a low simmer and then shut it off. Pour that mixture over a bowl full of the torn bread. Beat the eggs in a bowl, then fold the beaten eggs into the rest of mixture. Let it soak for 20-30 minutes. I don’t think I need to show you this part, right? You can imagine what bread chunks mixed with eggs, sugar, butter, and apples looks like. Photogenic it ain’t, but it will be delicious.

I pour it all into a greased baking pan and bake at 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes, or until it stops jiggling in the middle.

Vince Mancini

For The Rum Sauce

Vince Mancini
  • 1 stick butter
  • 1/3 cup heavy cream
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 1/3 cup rum

Melt the butter in a saucepan, whisk in the sugar, then add the cream and rum. Reduce (keep it lowish to keep from curdling the cream) until it’s no longer overpoweringly rummy. You can probably go ahead and halve or quarter my recipe because it made enough rum sauce for like five bread puddings.

For The Streusel

The only thing missing from a bread pudding is a crunch element — not a huge deal, but I thought, what the hell, I’ll add a little streusel. It goes great on an apple pie, and this is like if an apple pie was just the good gooey parts. It’s just brown sugar, cinnamon, flour, and butter — mixed into little pebbles and then baked on a baking sheet until brown.

Vince Mancini

All Together Now

Vince Mancini

Friends, it was good. I know it’s hard to communicate with a picture on the internet, but that ice cream alone was an A+ dessert. Combined with the bread pudding and rum sauce it was almost obscene. I’m going to let you in on a dirty little secret: I throw away a fair amount of leftovers in my house. This was enough bread pudding to feed probably 10 people and, over the course of three or four more nights, I devoured every last bite. It was that good. I am fatter for having made this dessert.

Zach on Vince’s Dish:

This is most “Steve” Vince has ever been! Bespoke ice cream!? Crumbles!? Unnecessary stewed apples!?

I was going to say I feel bad because I only executed two components for my maple bar. But, f*ck it. I want that maple bar every morning for breakfast. This bread pudding looks great. No nitpicks at all. It’s just that I’d probably never make it myself and I’d never really order it. I’m kind of like Kurt Russell talking to Leonardo DiCaprio in Once Upon A Time … In Hollywood about Brad Pitt’s wife-killing stuntman, “I just don’t dig him.”

That’s on me. I’m not a bread pudding fan. It reminds me of what old crusty white people ate in the 1980s because they refused to eat bread while it was still fresh. It’s all white spittle in dry corners of the mouth and coffee that’s more water than beans.

That all being said, please send a pint of that ice cream ASAP! I’ll pay the $1,000 for it to clear customs!

Steve on Vince’s Dish:

It’s hard to follow Zach’s “I just don’t like it” response to this dish, but I’ll try. As a person who enjoys apples in desserts but doesn’t like apples raw, I have a philosophy on this. You need those shits stewed down to oblivion. No tart notes left. You didn’t do that, so I’m left to imagine these bursts of tart apple between bread, maple, rum, cream, streusel, cinnamon. Clearly, balance isn’t the point of this dish, so jettison the apples or stew them until they nearly become apple jam and can highlight the baking spices.

Also, aren’t we sort of at the “Steve adding carrots to mac & cheese” saturation point with this dish? There are a shitton of elements. As someone who is always charmed by extra elements, I’m legit not sure. It’s a serious question. Who am I to say you don’t need rum sauce? What sort of monster does that?

But I do want some salt, I know that. And vanilla. Even with those tweaks, I probably want all these elements at some point in the holiday season. Just not all at once. Which is why I think your “I ate the leftovers” comments didn’t add, “after heating the rum sauce, making new streusel, scooping ice cream, etc.” Because the gooey bread pudding (even with the tart apples) and the rich maple ice cream were both shouted out as impeccable deserts all on their own — so why was this the one time you went for the maximalist approach?

Steve’s Apple-Cider Glazed Donut With Browned-Butter Salted Glaze

I love a good donut. A real one, freshly fried. More than any cake or pie or candy, it’s donuts that make me feel that electric, warm, full-body sensation that a truly transcendent dessert can make you feel when it spikes your blood sugar with glaze and gluten. A donut hot from the fryer is a culinary moment you never forget and a reminder that sugar and fat really are addictive.

The two best donuts I’ve ever tasted were the famous “Browned Butter & Salt” donut from Sidecar Donuts in Costa Mesa, California, and the apple cider donuts they make in California’s apple picking county.

So I tried to combine those two. It was that simple. I also tried to keep this one stripped down while cooking “my food” — which is heavy on vanilla, booze, and browned butter. While I’m sure you’ll all find great ways to roast me, I clearly prompted Vince and Zach to up their games by cooking first and posting it to IG. So give me my flowers for not lagging and bringing out the best in those jerks.

It’s often said that cooking is an art and baking is a science. Donuts are somewhere in between. You can play a little when you’re dropping the thing in the fryer. Still, the core recipe was pretty regimented — you don’t want too much sugar or the wrong interior texture on a donut.

Steve Bramucci

INGREDIENTS FOR DONUTS:

  • 2.5 cups organic apple cider (for apple cider “syrup”)
  • .5 cups bourbon
  • 1 vanilla bean, scraped.
  • 3 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 3 1/2 cups organic AP flour
  • 2/3 cup organic light brown sugar
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon of sea salt
  • 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
  • Dash ground nutmeg
  • 6 tablespoons butter, just barely melted
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 teaspoon almond extract

The base of this recipe is basically this recipe, from Damn Delicious. I was 90% faithful to it — adding only almond extract and vanilla bean — which is better than I do with most recipes, so shouts to them!

The apple cider “syrup” was where I got to play a little. Basically, the recipe only needs a cup of liquid, so I reduced the three cups — 2.5 of cider and .5 of bourbon — down to 1 cup, adding cinnamon, nutmeg, allspice, the husk of a vanilla bean, and a little hint of ginger. I actually made a little too much, so I took out the vanilla bean husk and poured it back into the original container.

Later, I reduced it further, into a pancake syrup. We mixed it 50/50 with maple and it’s become the only syrup we use anymore around my house.

Steve Bramucci

This next part is super easy.

  • Dry ingredients (3 1/2 cups organic AP flour, 2/3 cup organic light brown sugar, 2 teaspoons baking powder, 1 teaspoon of sea salt, 1/2 teaspoon baking soda, Dash ground nutmeg) in one bowl (mix).
  • Wet ingredients (butter, eggs, cider, insides of vanilla bean, almond extract) in another bowl (whisk together).
Steve Bramucci

Combine mixtures. Refrigerate.

Steve Bramucci

When the dough is chilled, roll it out to 1/2 thick and cut it in a donut shape. I did this with a ring mold for the outer circle and the top of a Glencairn glass for the inner one. Worked well!

(I wasn’t going to show the rolling stage, but I don’t want any accusations of not showing my work. So here’s my kid, who washed his hands sixty times and hasn’t discovered nose-picking yet, I promise.)

Steve Bramucci

I have a deep fryer, which is on the fence of appliances I use enough to be worth it. I hate cleaning the thing, but whenever I make fries or dishes like this, I’m glad to have it.

I set the heat to 375 and fried them off in batches. They go in looking too thin and puff up to double or triple. One minute on each side. Even with the brown sugar and cinnamon and cider, they shouldn’t look too brown. Just beyond golden.

Steve Bramucci

I mean… come on.

Steve Bramucci

For the glaze, I used two sticks of organic butter, which I browned.

Steve Bramucci

The glaze is where I didn’t need to worry much about recipes and just got to play. I took the browned butter, scraped another whole vanilla bean inside, and added powdered sugar to thicken. It started hot enough to let the vanilla blossom but was only warm once I mixed in the sugar.

Once it thickened up (just stirred it with a spoon), I added fancy salt flakes to get the sweet-salty balance right. For me, that leans fairly salty. The Sidecar Donuts donut that I’m riffing on is powerfully salty. I did that. Because I love that. But remember, this glaze is 90% sugar, so it’s not overpowering.

Steve Bramucci

I cooled the glaze a little in the fridge and then painted it on the fryer-hot donuts (there’s a little time mixing here, I made the glaze while the donut dough was in the fridge, etc). Once painted on, it melted and ran, obviously, so I did a few layers.

After that, I didn’t delay for another second. There are few foods on this planet that benefit more from being eaten immediately. The donut had bite but was airy. The apple notes came through, nice and stewed down. The tartness was gone but the apple essence was there alongside cinnamon, nutmeg, marzipan nuttiness, and warm-sugary-vanilla-infused fried dough. I have “eating” pics, but my wife (Mahhhhhhhhhhh wifeeeeeeeeee) is breastfeeding in all of them, so…

That glaze was where the magic came together. Whew. It was sweet (obviously) with rich, nutty browned butter and vanilla notes, combined with enough salt to make you take notice. Having cooked first, I suddenly feel like I came to the “make your own ice cream” hipster party wearing sweatpants. But this is the bite from 2020 that I’d love to have again, assuming I could do it without the work.

Steve Bramucci

Yeah, right, the guy with the apple donut with browned butter glaze is gonna lose to the, to the, to the… COME ON!

Steve Bramucci

Vince on Steve’s Dish:

Steve, please tell me less about the electric sensations in your body, this isn’t Penthouse letters. Anyway, this is a classic Steve recipe, complete with an abundance of real vanilla beans for some goddamned reason. I like to imagine that in order to get into Steve’s house, you have to push aside a curtain of vanilla bean pods hung like a beaded curtain. “Oh hey, come on in, I was just making some organic fair trade vanilla empanadas. They’re a riff on the world famous salted conch empanadas from Trent’s Grindage in Hermosa Beach.”

I also wonder if I should call CPS on you for making a glaze that’s ONE-QUARTER BOURBON with your child nearby. Can you get a contact high from booze? If so I’m pretty sure your son has one.

I’m roasting a lot here but at the end of the day this is still a doughnut and doughnuts are basically always good. That being said, it all just seems a bit busy. To illustrate this with another mom story, my mom always used to buy the hippie sandwich bread with as much shit in it as possible. Whole grains, nuts, fruits, seeds, rolled oats, pine needles — anything to take away from the soft pillowy airy texture everyone loves about bread. What the hell did I just bite into, an olive pit? I used to trade those things away without remorse. Anyway, to me this looks a little like the doughnut equivalent of my mom’s hippie bread.

What are all those rough looking grains sticking out of it? Why does the dough look like apple sauce? I can only image that they’re some form of bean roughage.

Zach on Steve’s Dish:

I’m not going to nitpick here either. Maybe I don’t need to but that thin glaze is a real let down. From the thickness of the photo of it being made to the thinness on the doughnut … it just doesn’t square in my mind. It’s hard to believe all those flavors didn’t disappear as the sauce ran off the fried dough. You even say that you had to add multiple applications. It’s suspect. I’m suspicious. If the glaze is that thin, why not do a full dip?

Also, let’s see that crumb on that doughnut! The dough looked really heavy, even if we’re talking cake doughnuts here. I’m not convinced this wasn’t a doughnut-shaped paperweight soaked in grease and watery glaze. I think you’ve let Portland (the land of fussy doughnuts) down.

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