Catching up and cutting a Christmas tree

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Christmas tree cutting
So Christmas is about a week away. How did that happen? I left off in October enjoying a warm weekend in Palm Springs and all of a sudden it’s frosty and freezing — yes, we get cold weather and frost in Northern California, it may have finally finished the citrus tree in that I butchered with a trim a few months ago. But you didn’t miss much around here. Our first house closed escrow in the middle of October and was officially sold (yay!), my husband and I celebrated our third wedding anniversary (with no trip for the first time), I had my hair chopped off again, I hosted a baby brunch (don’t call it a shower) at our house for a close friend, then took her maternity photos (then she delivered on Thanksgiving four days later.), hosted Thanksgiving and then cut down our first Christmas tree. We’ve also been spending time with friends and family, stressing about the plans for the house, and working our butts off at our jobs.

Christmas tree cuttingWhile my parents were visiting for Thanksgiving I coerced them into coming along to cut down a tree. There are tree farms near us that hand you a saw and let you loose to choose a noble fir or Monterey pine of your choice. I sought out a tall, narrow tree and this Monterey pine fit the bill.

Christmas tree carryingMy dad, all business when it comes to Christmas trees. :)

Christmas tree carryingThis really feels like our first Christmas tree since we’ve only ever had teeny, potted ones if we had one at all. We didn’t even have ornaments despite this being our seventh Christmas together.

Christmas tree carryingI feel fortunate that we will be spending this Christmas with family and friends.

Christmas tree on the carNow if only these guys could fix our house’s heating system as easily as they can cut down a Christmas tree!

Christmas tree on the carBelieve it or not, we’re still waiting to finalize our house construction plans, hopefully we’ll know more in the new year. I’m still working my patience muscles and the holidays are a welcome distraction.

Have you ever cut down your own Christmas tree or are you a fake tree family?

Drawing Inspiration in Palm Springs

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My mind was blown this past weekend. And just so I don’t start rambling, I’ll start at the beginning: Somehow my husband and I were invited to join in on a weekend in Palm Springs at a friend of my aunt’s newly renovated vacation rental. Now, I’ve been to Palm Springs before and the Coachella Valley vacation destination in Southern California has always been good to me. I’ve been a handful of times for the Coachella Music and Arts Festival and a handful of other times for the warm weather and a pool to sit by. This time was an invite for the latter that sounded wonderful. But this time, when I thought I knew what to expect after having stayed in several “vacation rentals” before, I was stunned when I clicked on this link for the rental and saw basically the house that was in the Mad Men Palm Springs episode.
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Once I picked my jaw up off the ground I made sure to bring my camera because there was sure to be some good inspiration for our upcoming renovation. We may not be able to include a blue palm in a courtyard like the one above, but the midcentury modern home was a stunna that had beautiful details to be absorbed.

While there was plenty of gorgeous tile to be petted, this was probably my favorite because of the texture and color.
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Love the application of that textured tile in a mostly non-wet place above the tub but I could also imagine it around a fireplace. Somewhere where ease of cleaning doesn’t matter, obviously! I also want to point out the white tile that is used in the rest of the bathroom which you can see a little bit of above and more below. It has a sort of natural texture like wood grain or linen and I absolutely love it. I drooled all over it and will be on the hunt for something similar for our master bathroom.
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The bathroom in “our room” (aka “master #3″… WHOA) was no less impressive. Besides loving the subtle wall color I again loved the big, white, textured tiles used with an accent tile. This time the glossy tile had an almost basket weave pattern to it and you can bet that I got my face all up in its business to check it out. I also loved the color of the mosaic tile and maybe something in a little larger scale would be a good fit for our house?
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I unabashedly borrowed a tape measure to take some measurements to compare what was going on in the house to what we might be able to fit in ours. This vanity was SEVEN FEET WIDE. Huge! We won’t be able to fit one quite so large but we definitely reveled in not stepping on each others toes while getting our mirror time in.
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Master #3 wasn’t too shabby. If I could pick my favorite thing about this room (and all rooms in the house) the remote controlled window shades would have to be at least in my top three. The views and artwork throughout are probably also up there. And yes, that is an outdoor fireplace right by an outdoor dining space right by the pool.
room
The kitchen was big enough to get lost in and while I didn’t take any inspiration pictures, I was inspired. We cooked six dishes from the new Ottolenghi cookbook for the six of us. And I’m still patting myself on the back a little for somehow miraculously timing everything and everyone’s help to get them all done at precisely the same time. Helped that this kitchen was more than big enough for many cooks!

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The only thing missing from the luxury home was Don Draper floating in the pool.
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Besides the impressive interior design, there were some sights of the great outdoors that weren’t too shabby, either. I’m ready to go back already!

sceneryDo you ever take inspiration from hotels, vacation rentals or other places you visit?

The Waiting Game

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The question everyone has been asking my husband and I lately now that we’ve been in the new house for seven weeks and three days: “How’s the house coming along?” The usual response for most people posed the same question in a new home would be, “Oh, unpacking boxes, painting walls, putting up window treatments and pictures. It’s going great!” But for me it’s been, “Uhh… good?” Not much unpacking, no painting of walls, except for the one window pictured below that didn’t have a window treatment, I haven’t touched the stained cellular blinds and except for a fishy towel holder nothing has been attached to the walls. Here’s our second bedroom/ office today, almost two months after moving in:
office
For reference, here it is with the staged furniture when we bought it:
9anewhouseWe have the house at a point where it’s relatively functional for us to live in and then we stopped unpacking. Why? We’re working on plans with professionals for a major house changeĀ  which is where our budget will be going which means we can’t afford to do some other things or it makes sense to do them once the other construction has been finished. And one of those big things is refinishing all the floors in the house which means at some point the whole house will be repacked and moved out of the way so if we can leave a few already packed boxes untouched, it’s one less we have to pack in a few months. It’s a little frustrating but looking at the silver lining, in a few months the house is going to be transformed! Once that’s done, lookout walls, I’m coming for you with a paint roller in hand!

Also in house related news, we should be closing next week on the old house which will generate a heavy sigh of relief from my husband and I. Having more than one house to worry about isn’t really as fun as you might think. ;) We’re excited that a young, engaged couple will be buying it as their first home.

I am meeting with our architect this week to finalize house plans and then I may eventually share them. Lately I’ve had a lot of “first world problems” like trying to think of designs and layouts for more than one bathroom all at once. It’s a very exciting process but it’s also very time consuming especially for a novice like me. Any one have any recommendations for working with an architect?

The jam giveaway winner has been announced. Jump over to that post to see if you won!

When do the seasons really change?

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Warm Bed Creative Commons Image courtesy of jbhalper on Flickr

In our house, the seasons officially change when I switch out the light cotton blanket on our bed for a feather duvet. That means it’s fall. When I add the heating blanket and the duvet cover, that’s winter. When the duvet cover comes off but not the heating blanket or the duvet, that’s spring. And eventually I relent with enough prodding from my husband and switch back to the cotton blanket.

Yesterday after I washed the blankets and switched out the light summer blanket for the cozy cooler weather setup, I baked pumpkin cheesecake bars (a recipe I created and will share soon!). Yes, it’s fall. It still can get warm during the day here but the temperature dips at night, the days are shorter and the grape vines in wine country will soon be showing off their colors.

How do you know when the seasons change? I’m hoping it’s not when the Christmas decorations show up in the stores! Is it when you see the first frost or when you bring home the first pumpkin to decorate your stoop? Maybe it’s the first snow to really let you know winter has arrived? Tell me what makes you know that it’s time to embrace the season.

The Vision for Your Home

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When you move to a new home– be it apartment, condo, house, or whatever — do you start thinking about how you’re going to make that space the best space for you inside and out? Maybe you can picture exactly where your couch should go or a new wall color that would really make things feel more “you?” We talk about a space or a building having “potential” and I think what we really mean by that is that we are able to see the vision. The vision that makes that place a home but it might take trying the couch on a different wall or updating light fixtures or maybe some new landscape outside. And sometimes, it’s hard to even know where to start or you have to make a few attempts to get it right.

Our first home was a fixer-upper that needed so, so much updating. Some folks told us when they first saw it they thought my husband and I were crazy for buying it, but we had a vision. It took a few years to make that vision a reality, but once it all came together I think it was hard for people to believe how far we had come. We’re back in that position, with a house that maybe is a little bit of an easier pill to swallow, but it’s still a long way from where we envision it ending up. I’ve been working on the new house plans with an architect and our general contractor (and our kitchen guy, and a structural engineer, and anyone who will listen…) so we have some big changes in the works on the interior but we also are thinking about the exterior. Here’s the street view of our house currently:
currentHouseThe paint is new because it was painted before we bought it, but it was obviously a crappy rush job. The roof is about six years old but it appears that they chose the cheapest shingles possible so it doesn’t look to hot already. The trim is lacking a bit between the roof/side of the house and though the front of our house is stucco, the whole rest of the house is wood siding so it’s not exactly consistent. Not to mention there’s a few cable, phone and other wire lines running to odd places on the exterior. So from far away, not that bad, but up close she’s a little rough. Which means we talk about our vision in the long term: What paint color? What type of roof? How would it fit into our neighborhood? Front and garage doors? And then I use Photoshop to give a rough makeover. Our house has a few Spanish style homes so this was my first idea since we love Spanish style:

SpanishStyleBut when we talked to our contractor he reminded us that tile roofs (besides being more expensive to install) actually affect your foundation because it’s much heavier than a standard roof plus you can’t walk on it to do things like clean gutters unless you know specifically where to step and it can be more dangerous to walk on in general because it can be more slippery. That effectively talked us out of that idea. Not to mention in the above image that I envisioned the vinyl window trim not being white but that’s not very realistic. Basically this one wasn’t going to happen so it was nixed.

Once our dreams of a Spanish home were nixed, we decided we needed to embrace more of our home’s original features. I don’t know what exactly you call a California split level home, but where we’re leaning is still bringing in some of the Spanish influence with the color, maybe adding a pergola over the garage to add architectural interest, having a darker roof since we are leaning toward a light, warm color, and maybe a door that’s a pop of color but still within the Spanish exterior colors. Still new garage doors but maybe in white so they match the vinyl window frames.

CaliforniaHouseThe vision of your home should continue to change otherwise you may end up with orange shag carpet and avocado appliances that were “on trend” when you got them but not so anymore (I’m looking at you chevron trend… ). But you have to have a starting point.

Tell me, how do you refine the vision for your home? Do you use any online tools to edit your home or an example home to choose paint colors? Or maybe just look to magazines or websites for inspiration until it clicks? I need advice, so let me have it!

Notice anything… different?

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No, I didn’t get my hair cut. But your hair is looking really nice today, keep up the good work! And if you’re reading this on an RSS reader or in an email, you can’t see the changes. So I’ll wait for you to head on over to the blog and take it all in. Can you tell? Looking a little fresher perhaps?

I decided it was high time to update the blog logo and make a few other minor changes to the format. Nothing big but the main change is the new logo is all fancied up, created by yours truly:

header

I thought it was modern (because, well, duh) and simple. Plus it’s my favorite colors. I debated adding some more “stuff” to the header as a collage with maybe images of some projects I’ve done but decided to use the KISS methodology for now. This blog stuff is all about the evolution, after all.

Besides a new logo I also added a new page for our current house and updated the first house page. There’s new content on both pages for your reading pleasure.

As always, if there’s something you’d like to read about here, drop me a line by leaving a comment or sending an email. Thanks for staying tuned for this public service announcement, now back to your regularly scheduled programming.

P.S. If you stiiiiilll haven’t entered the jam giveaway, go, leave a comment, be entered.

Wild Blackberries and Burning Jam

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A year ago, around this time of year, I was with my aunt walking through San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park when I noticed how many blackberry brambles there were everywhere. And alas! There were also beautifully ripe berries! I snatched one and ate it as my husband and my aunt’s significant other cringed. “Are those safe to eat!?” It was tart and smaller than a conventionally grown berry, but there was something about wild berries. It was around the time I first got into canning and I declared that I wanted to come back the following year, when the blackberries weren’t coming to the end of their season and forage for them with my aunt. It was so… San Francisco. Foraging? For wild berries in the park? Very San Francisco.
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A few weeks ago she emailed me telling me that on a bike ride through the Presido (another San Francisco park) she had seen the blackberries starting to produce and was I ready to collect some? We set a date and I headed up on a cool, foggy morning– because in San Francisco that’s what happens after a hot, 80-degree day– and with gloves, long sleeves and buckets, we went to work collecting the small but plentiful wild berries.
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We collected about 11 cups of berries or almost five pounds. I used this Food in Jar’s Blackberry Jam recipe to make an extremely thick jam that was unbelievably time consuming thanks to the mashing of berries through a mesh strainer with a wooden spoon step. I may have reduced the jam a bit more than needed since I wanted to make sure it set after all the time spent on foraging and mashing. With the seedy mashed leftovers that didn’t go into jam I made blackberry gin and a blackberry shrub (or drinking vinegar) so nothing went to waste.
bowlofblackberiesComing off my blackberry jam success, I made a new recipe with some of the Meyer lemons seen in the top image and the zucchini (I have two more giant zucchini’s to go!) seen in the above image in the corner. I found a gingered zucchini marmalade recipe that sounded so unique I had to give it a try with the backyard lemons. I peeled the lemons and painstakingly removed the pulp only with a pairing knife. I made a cheesecloth bundle of the pectin-rich pith and seeds. Then I set everything to boil and occasionally stirred. It was time for dinner so I made myself a quick salad and sat down to eat not 10 feet from where the jam cooked away. The timer still had at least 20 minutes to go and I didn’t think twice about sitting down for a few minutes. When I got up to clear my dishes the marmalade was a caramel color and it was obvious I had burnt the whole batch. But I took my chances and gave itĀ  a taste. A little bitter from the lemon pith, and maybe a little toasty, but over all it was mostly caramel. Lemony, gingery caramel. I made the decision to can it and process it anyways and changed the name to Caramelized Ginger Meyer Lemon Marmalade. When you’ve got lemons… turn them into marmalade?

Giveaway: Spiced Pear Jam

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Congrats to Bill from Grazing in the City for winning this giveaway!

Because I’ve been writing about pears and pear jam for what feels like weeks now, I want to give someone the chance to try this good stuff for themselves!

1pearsIt’s certainly not pearfect (get it!?), but I can’t keep hoarding all the sweet, spiced pear jam for myself. I know there are some other jam lovers out there so now is your chance to try one of the types I wrote about last week made with pears from my very own pear tree.

8pearThe giveaway is for one half-pint jar that I wrote about making in this post so you will be able to choose if you would like vanilla bean or cardamom pear jam.

9pearLet’s close out this pear chapter with a sweet surprise for someone! I will be contacting the winner at the close of the giveaway to get mailing information, sorry, US residents only! Here’s how to enter:

  1. Leave a comment on this post telling me: Vanilla or cardamom? And to make it more interesting, how would you use the jam — on toast, in yogurt, stirred into a cocktail or tea, or what?
  2. Comments will close at 1pm Pacific Time on Friday, September 27th. Winners will be chosen at random (using random.org) and will be contacted later that day and posted on the blog following that.
  3. US residents only, please, due to shipping rates.
  4. One comment per person, please. Entries must be left on the blog (no submissions via email, Facebook, etc.).

Remember to “like” this blog on Facebook to follow along! You can also find me on Pinterest or Twitter and Instagram @alannaface!

Vanilla Bean (or Cardamom) Pear Jam Recipe

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It took a perfect storm of a new backyard pear tree with more pears than I knew one tree could produce and a new cookbook to get me to make my first jam without pectin. And while I did try a pectin based jam in my pear-a-palooza canning fest, these two without pectin actually ended up with a better set. If a food preservation book like Kevin West’s Saving the Season was intimidating before, I learned that making preserves is never fool proof and sometimes you just have to go for it.

I started with the Pear Jam recipe in the book which incorporates a whole vanilla bean (and yes, I did buy a half pound of them from Amazon) and also ended up making the Smooth Pear Jam with Cardamom variation which swaps the vanilla for cardamom pods. The images below are from both recipes since the process was virtually identical.

Step one, dice up five pounds of pear (per batch) and drop in a water and lemon juice mix. The recipe called for this being two cups of water plus lemon juice but I found that I needed way more liquid to get the pears in all the way so I made more of the mixture.
1pear
Once pears are prepped, they are drained and added to a bowl with lemon juice, sugar, honey and a vanilla bean. For my cardamom batch I swapped the vanilla bean with a small sachet of crushed cardamom pods and some lemon rind. For the latter, the original recipe does not include lemon rind and the pods end up going through a food mill so they are left in the jam. I don’t have a food mill so I used the cheesecloth in order to easily remove them and figured the lemon rind could stay in the end product.
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The sweetened fruit mixture then sits and macerates for at least two hours or overnight. Because I busted a jar in my canning pot from an earlier batch, these ended up in the refrigerator overnight so I could have a clean canning pot the next day.
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Now we’re jammin’. :) Bring to boil, reduce to gel point, about 20 minutes.
4pear
I was reading the Hip Girl’s Guide to Homemaking blog (I also have the book from the same aunt who gave me this cookbook!) and she said that you can actually tell a lot from the bubbles in your jam as it related to gel point. Earlier in the process the bubbles are smaller and close together but once you are at the gel point they are bigger and darker. I never knew this before but could definitely tell the difference once pointed out!
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If you’re using a food mill or immersion blender to make this a smooth jam, you do it 10 minutes into boiling but since I didn’t use that step I continued on. Gel point gets checked (a dab on a cold plate, into the freezer until it’s cooled and see if it’s the right consistency) and then into hot prepared jars! I used half pint jars that then were processed in the boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.
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I left the skin on the pears because 1) I like the texture and 2) it’s pretty but really 3) I’m lazy. This recipe turned out a very beautiful jam and while I love vanilla, I might be partial to the uniqueness of the cardamom. Below, vanilla bean on the left with the little ‘v’ on the lids and cardamom on the right with the ‘c’ on the lids.
8pearThe vanilla bean caviar in a light colored jam like this, though, is just beautiful. Next year when I have pears coming out of my ears again I’ll probably try vanilla bean AND cardamom for the best of both worlds.

9pearPear Jam from Saving the Season (notes in parenthesis and italics)
5 pounds ripe pears
4 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice (I used the real lemon juice for my jam but the kind that comes in a fake fruit-looking squeeze bottle for the acid in the water because it’s easier! Also, you may need more lemon juice since you may need more water with acid than is called for)
2 cups sugar
2 tablespoons honey
1/2 vanilla bean, split lengthwise (I used a full bean since I love vanilla!) OR 5-6 crushed cardamom pods

1. Peel (if desired or skin is thick) and core the pears, and cut them into 1/2-inch dice. As you work, place the diced pears in a bowl with 2 cups of water acidulated with 1 tablespoon of the lemon juice, to prevent browning. (I needed 6-8 cups of water to soak all my pears and that means 3-4 tablespoons of lemon juice which is easiest if you’re using the bottled kind for this purpose!)

2. Drain the pears, and toss them in a bowl with the remaining 3 tablespoons of lemon juice. Stir in the sugar, honey, and vanilla bean. Set aside to macerate for 2 hours or overnight.

3. Turn the fruit-sugar mixture into a preserving pan, bring to a boil, and reduce over high heat to the gel point, about 20 minutes. (If you are going to make a smooth jam, cook 10 minutes, remove vanilla bean if using, then pass through food mill and continue to cook to gel point.) Discard the vanilla bean. Ladle the hot jam into six prepared 1/2-pint jars, leaving 1/4 inch headspace. Seal, and process in a boiling-water bath for 10 minutes.

Note from the author: Adding 2 tablespoons per eau-de-vie, also known as Poire Williams, will boost flavor in either of the preceding pear jam recipes.

Peary Interesting

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Now that’s it’s really fall I don’t feel quite so bad about writing about pears. They’re supposed to be a fall fruit, after all, but my pear tree apparently didn’t get the memo as it dropped at least 35 pounds of fruit in August. I felt a little better sharing my Pear and Cape Gooseberry Jam recipe because it wasn’t all fall fruit, and I previewed the 25 pounds of pears I before they were processed, but now I want to share some of the peary interesting (sorry, couldn’t help it with the pun!) things I did with all that fruit to save it for the rest of the year. Come back tomorrow for a pear jam recipe!

It had been a while since I had done any canning so I started off easy by making “spirited” pears. These guys are swimming in syrup and white rum (below left) or brandy. I was actually going to continue on after making these but I busted a jar while I was processing and lost a whole jar. I already gifted one small jar but have yet to hear how the results are. I haven’t tried these yet but I have great visions of pear cocktails, ice cream with spirited pears and spirited pear cake.
Canned pears in white rum or brandy

My aunt gifted me a new canning book, Saving the Season, shortly before we moved and while I still haven’t flipped through the whole thing, I cut straight to the pear recipes. I skipped past piquant pears (sounds like a type of pickle…) for the classic vanilla bean pear jam. The recipe also had a cardamom variation so since I wasn’t lacking in pears, I made both. These were my first time making jam without pectin and while it took longer than I expected, I think the results are pretty amazing. They’re both slightly softer than a store bought jam but, boy, they are good. Recipe coming tomorrow!
Vanilla bean and cardamom pear jamIn order not to end up with several cases of jam I also tried a ginger, pear, lemon marmalade. Holy smokes this one is good. Slight spice from the ginger, tangy from the lemon and sweetness from the pear. A beautiful combination that makes me not want to part with any of these three pints.
Ginger lemon pear marmalade

When I knew I was going to be canning pears I knew I wanted to make this Pear Vanilla Jam from Food in Jars. It’s very similar to the above jam with vanilla but it uses liquid pectin which makes for shorter cooking time. Unfortunately, this was the last jam I worked on and by that point it was getting to be time for dinner and the house was about a million degrees. I took a short cut and didn’t check to see that this got to the gel stage, instead just putting it in the jars for processing. Despite having pectin, it never hit the gel stage and won’t quite set which means this one isn’t so much a jam as vanilla pear sauce. But wait, silver lining, this is so, so, so good on ice cream or stirred into plain yogurt. I haven’t made it a layer in a cake yet but you can bet that will happen if I have any left. I already finished a jar by using it in yogurt and with ice cream. I love the texture as well as the light vanilla flavor and it’s such a treat to have it as part of breakfast or dessert.
Vanilla bean pear jamAll in all I wound up with about two and a half cases of jam, marmalade and spirited pears. Christmas shopping is done. ;) It was a long, hot day to do a total of six batches of canned goods but hopefully it will be worth it. I learned last year that less people were excited about hot pepper relish and pickles so this should be a better hit.

canned pearsStay tuned for a recipe tomorrow and one more exciting pear post soon!

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