Posts Tagged ‘“living to eat”’

It’s that time of the month again (no, not that time!) for the Daring Cooks challenge. Our May hostess, Denise, of There’s a Newf in My Soup!, challenged The Daring Cooks to make Gumbo! She provided us with all the recipes we’d need, from creole spices, homemade stock, and Louisiana white rice, to Drew’s Chicken & Smoked Sausage Gumbo and Seafood Gumbo from My New Orleans: The Cookbook, by John Besh.

I’ve never made gumbo before, probably because I’m not a big sausage fan, nor have I ever enjoyed the slimy goo that okra seems to add to any dish. Since both are primary ingredients of most gumbo recipes, I’ve just never considered it as something I’d take the time or make the effort to cook up. But I suppose this is why it’s called a challenge, so I rose to it and decided to go all out and make a big pot to bring to a party. I’m happy to report that it was a huge success, even though I, myself, didn’t enjoy it enough to ever make it again.

Gumbo is a lot of work! It involves numerous time consuming steps, especially to do it well. Because timing is so important with gumbo, all the vegetables and the meat need to be carefully prepared ahead of time and ready to go, so this isn’t a one pot meal where you toss everything in and simply forget it for an hour or so as it cooks. You’ve got to be dedicated to the process, which means you want to love the results so that all the attention and time is worthwhile.

There are hundreds of gumbo recipes out there containing every kind of meat, sausage and seafood available. There’s even a green gumbo that’s completely vegetarian. I chose to make a chicken and sausage gumbo using my butchers store made chorizo and smoked Andouille sausage, as well as organic, air chilled chicken thighs. I made a rich, homemade chicken stock, mixed up my own Cajun spices and spent almost an hour stirring the roux as it browned, first on its own and then with the addition of the “holy trinity” of chopped onion, green pepper, and celery. And yes, I eventually added the dreaded okra, which fortunately cooked away to almost nothing and the goo simply added thickening power to the gumbo.

The Cajun food "Holy Trinity" of onions, green peppers, and celery (plus garlic and the dreaded okra!)



The roux after about 15 minutes of cooking


Here's the roux after adding the veggies and cooking for another half hour or so


Good quality, well seasoned meat is key


A big pot of gumbo ready for the party


Served over white rice it was a tremendous hit at the party but for me, the ratio of work to enjoyment simply wasn’t there. I’m glad I tried my hand at it but it’s not a recipe that I’ll be adding to my regular repertoire.

The finished gumbo, served over white Lousiana rice


1 cup rendered chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil
1 cup flour
2 large onions, diced
1 ½ lb chicken thighs, bone in
2 tablespoons Basic Creole Spices (recipe follows), or store-bought Creole spice blend
2 ½  lbs sausage, sliced ½ inch (15mm) thick
2 stalks celery, diced
2 green bell peppers (capsicum), seeded and diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
Leaves from 2 sprigs of fresh thyme
2 quarts good chicken stock (or canned chicken stock)
1 bay leaves
1 cup sliced fresh okra, ½ -inch thick slices (or frozen, if fresh is not available)
Salt, to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Tobasco to taste


Season the chicken pieces with about 2 tablespoons of the Creole Spices while you prepare the vegetables. Make sure all of your vegetables are cut, diced, chopped, minced and ready to go before beginning the roux. You must stand at the stove and stir the roux continuously to prevent it from burning. 

In a large cast-iron or heavy-bottomed pan, heat the chicken fat, duck fat, or canola oil over high heat. Whisk the flour into the hot oil – it will start to sizzle. Reduce the heat to moderate, and continue whisking until the roux becomes deep brown in color, about 15 minutes. Add the onions, celery, green pepper and garlic. Switch to a flay spatula and stir the vegetables into the roux. Reduce the heat to medium-low. Continue stirring, scraping the bottom of the pan until the roux becomes a glossy dark brown, about 10 minutes.  

Add the chicken to the pot; raise the heat to moderate, and cook, turning the pieces until slightly browned, about 10 minutes. Add the sliced sausage and stir for about a minute. Add the thyme, chicken stock, and bay leaves. Bring the gumbo to a boil, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer, uncovered, for 45 minutes. Stir occasionally, skimming off the fat from the surface of the gumbo every so often.

Add the okra. Season with salt and Tabasco, all to taste.  Simmer for another 30 minutes, continuing to skim the fat from the surface of the gumbo. Remove the bay leaves and take chicken of the bones and return meat to the pot. Serve in bowls over rice.


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The girls were coming home for the weekend so what better time to do the baker’s challenge than when I’d have some help eating up the sweet experiments. The March 2011 Daring Baker’s Challenge was hosted by Ria of Ria’s Collection and Jamie of Life’s a Feast. Ria and Jamie challenged The Daring Bakers to bake a yeasted Meringue Coffee Cake. It was important to have help with the consuming, particularly since the recipe for this month made enough dough for not one, but two cakes! Of course I could have cut the recipe in half but what fun would that be when we were given free reign to experiment with fillings?

From the moment I read what the challenge was, I began to fantasize about the various flavor combinations I might try. I toyed with the idea of apples and cinnamon, dark chocolate chunks with toasted pecans, candied lemon peel and coconut. Oh yum, the possibilities were endless. I found myself awake at night trying to decide what I wanted to use for the two cakes. I must have changed my mind a zillion times it was so hard to land on just what I was in the mood for!

Last year's poppy hamentashen

The fact that the kids were coming home on Purim weekend helped me to decide the flavor for one of the cakes. In place of hamantashen, the usual Purim cookie, I’d stuff one of the coffeecakes with the traditional poppy seed filling that usually fills the hamentashen. For the second cake, I settled on white chocolate, toasted macadamia nuts, and dried cranberries.

Fortunately, I have plenty of experience with yeasted dough so I wasn’t at all intimidated by the recipe although having a layer of sweetened meringue inside was new to me. It made for a bit of a sticky mess when rolling and shaping the cakes, but added a delicious sweetness and moisture when it was absorbed into the dough as it baked. I had some ideas about flavoring the meringue as well (coffee flavored meringue with a chocolate and toasted almond filling crossed my mind) so if you decide to challenge yourself to make this recipe, remember that you can go wild with experimenting and adding layers of flavor! I could have easily baked (and eaten!) 8 or 9 different versions of this cake and I’m quite certain I’ll be returning to the basic recipe again because it made such a silky, sexy, easy to work with dough that produced a tender and versatile bread that would make fabulous sticky or cinnamon buns as well as savory filled loaves or pockets.

Both cakes turned out fabulously and we happily scarfed them down over the course of weekend making for another remorse filled Monday of deprivation but it was worth every bite! Here are the photos and the basic recipe:

I do hope you’ll try to make one of these cakes!

The dough after its first rising


The white chocolate, macadamia nut, cranberry ring before rising and baking
The baked white chocolate cranberry coffeecake dusted with powered sugar. Yum!
A slice of the white chocolate, macadamia nut, cranberry coffecake. So moist and delicious!
The baked poppyseed coffecake ring with lemon glaze. Sooo delicious
A lot of air in the poppyseed coffeecake but still yummy!

Makes 2 round coffee cakes, each approximately 10 inches in diameter
The recipe can easily be halved to make one round coffee cake


For the yeast coffee cake dough:

4 cups flour
¼ cup sugar
¾ teaspoon salt
1 package (2 ¼ teaspoons) active dried yeast
¾ cup whole milk
¼ cup water (doesn’t matter what temperature)
½ cup unsalted butter at room temperature
2 large eggs at room temperature

For the meringue:

3 large egg whites at room temperature
¼ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon vanilla
½ cup (110 g / 4 oz.) sugar

For the filling: Your choice! Be creative! I used:

1C white chocolate chips

¾ C toasted macadamia nuts

¾ C chopped dried sweetened cranberries


Prepare the dough:  In a large mixing bowl, combine 1 ½ cups (230 g) of the flour, the sugar, salt and yeast. In a saucepan, combine the milk, water and butter and heat over medium heat until warm and the butter is just melted.

With an electric mixer on low speed, gradually add the warm liquid to the flour/yeast mixture, beating until well blended. Increase mixer speed to medium and beat 2 minutes. Add the eggs and 1 cup (150 g) flour and beat for 2 more minutes.

Using a wooden spoon, stir in enough of the remaining flour to make a dough that holds together. Turn out onto a floured surface (use any of the 1 ½ cups of flour remaining) and knead the dough for 8 to 10 minutes until the dough is soft, smooth, sexy and elastic, keeping the work surface floured and adding extra flour as needed.

Place the dough in a lightly greased (I use vegetable oil) bowl, turning to coat all sides. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and a kitchen towel and let rise until double in bulk, 45 – 60 minutes. The rising time will depend on the type of yeast you use.

Prepare your filling (roast and chop nuts, measure chocolate, etc)

My prepped white chocolate, toasted macadamia nuts, and dried cranberries

Once the dough has doubled, make the meringue:
In a clean mixing bowl – ideally a plastic or metal bowl so the egg whites adhere to the side (they slip on glass) and you don’t end up with liquid remaining in the bottom – beat the egg whites with the salt, first on low speed for 30 seconds, then increase to high and continue beating until foamy and opaque. Add the vanilla then start adding the ½ cup sugar, a tablespoon at a time as you beat, until very stiff, glossy peaks form.

Assemble the Coffee Cakes:

Line 2 baking/cookie sheets with parchment paper.

Punch down the dough and divide in half. On a lightly floured surface, working one piece of the dough at a time (keep the other half of the dough wrapped in plastic), roll out the dough into a 20 x 10-inch (about 51 x 25 ½ cm) rectangle. Spread half of the meringue evenly over the rectangle up to about 1/2-inch (3/4 cm) from the edges. Sprinkle half of your filling of choice evenly over the meringue (ex: half of the cinnamon-sugar followed by half the chopped nuts and half of the chocolate chips/chopped chocolate).

Now, roll up the dough jellyroll style, from the long side. Pinch the seam closed to seal. Very carefully transfer the filled log to one of the lined cookie sheets, seam side down. Bring the ends of the log around and seal the ends together, forming a ring, tucking one end into the other and pinching to seal.

Using kitchen scissors or a sharp knife (although scissors are easier), make cuts along the outside edge at 1-inch (2 ½ cm) intervals. Make them as shallow or as deep as desired but don’t be afraid to cut deep into the ring.

Repeat with the remaining dough, meringue and fillings.

Cover the 2 coffee cakes with plastic wrap and allow them to rise again for 45 to 60 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Brush the tops of the coffee cakes with the egg wash. Bake in the preheated oven for 25 to 30 minutes until risen and golden brown. The dough should sound hollow when tapped.

Remove from the oven and slide the parchment paper off the cookie sheets onto the table. Very gently loosen the coffee cakes from the paper with a large spatula and carefully slide the cakes off onto cooling racks. Allow to cool.

Just before serving, dust the tops of the coffee cakes with confectioner’s sugar as well as cocoa powder if using chocolate in the filling. Or glaze with a complimentary flavored icing. These are best eaten fresh, the same day or the next day.

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Where does the time go?! I barely completed the Daring Cook’s challenge and it’s back into the kitchen to be a Daring Baker. The February 2011 Daring Bakers’ challenge was hosted by Mallory from A Sofa in the Kitchen. She chose to challenge everyone to make Panna Cotta from a Giada De Laurentiis recipe and Nestle Florentine Cookies. I imagine these two were paired as homage to Italian desserts however; Florentine cookies are not actually Italian cookies. These lacy, crisp and chewy treats were created by French bakers to honor Florentine royalty when they visited Paris. But still, enough of a link to get me thinking about delicious Italia.

The ancient colliseum in Rome

Panna cotta, means cooked cream in Italian and my first and only exposure to it (until making it myself for this challenge) was on a whirlwind trip through Rome, Florence, and Venice. As usual, between taking in all the amazing art, ancient history, and gorgeous scenery, we managed to locate and consume all the tastiest treats those amazing cities have to offer. It was a culinary adventure that foodie dreams are made of!

The best gelato!!

Oh! The aroma of all those shaved truffles!

Along with a daily dose of the finest gelato in countless fabulous flavors, the two week tour of the Big 3 of Italy included, amongst others, my first (and hopefully last!) taste of donkey, a plate of pasta with botarga (the roe pouch of grey mullet that’s been dried and cured in sea salt for a few weeks), the finest black truffles in a heavenly dish of Tagliatella e tartuffo, and an incredible boiled beef sandwich that was scarfed down at a crowded communal table in the Central Mercato in Florence. Every day was a new discovery of fish, meats and cheeses, fresh vegetables, pastas and pastries all prepared in authentic Italian style. We picnicked above ancient ruins and in the Tuscan countryside and dined in countless tiny candlelit trattorias. 

Italian sandwiches to die for!

It was in one of these dark, tucked away little restaurants where I first tasted panna cotta. Leo’s in Santa Croce was a very special place where Leo himself greeted us at the door and escorted us to our table. He spoke no English and we spoke no Italian but it didn’t matter. The warmth of his welcome and our obvious pleasure at the sight and smells of the food appearing from the tiny kitchen at the back of the restaurant were more than enough to create that special connection between host and guest that insured that a fabulous meal would ensue. We were not disappointed.

The meal started with the antipasti special, very thinly sliced, long strands of fresh raw zucchini with scallion, shaved parmesan and a light lemony dressing. Absolutely delicious. We also had a fresh tomato/basil brochette, served with a slice of unbelievably sweet melon. Next came veal scallopini with artichoke in a gorgonzola sauce with spinach and grilled baby lamb chops, served with potatoes and caramelized onions. The lamb had an intense and delicious charred flavor from the open fire grill and every bite was moist and tender. We sucked the bones totally clean, earning an approving pat on the back from the waiter when he came to take the plate.

Leo’s grilled lamb chops with melting potatoes

And finally it was time for dessert! I had heard the name but didn’t really know what it was so I ordered panna cotta, apparently a wise choice as I received an enthusiastic nod from Leo. He soon placed in front of me a white mound of thick, slightly gelatinous, sweet cream, covered with a rich chocolate sauce. It tasted just like whipped cream but had a consistency more like a thick custard or mousse. What could be bad? Of course, topped with an excellent chocolate sauce, I’d probably eat a scoop of Vaseline! But this was quite tasty and while I knew it wasn’t going to be one of my all time favorite food experiences, I was happy to have tasted a real Italian dolce in an authentic Italian trottoria.

Chocolate and Vanilla Bean Panna Cotta

So this month’s Daring Baker’s challenge was an invitation to make this dessert myself. Panna cotta is incredibly easy to make and is a very versatile dessert. The simplest method is to dissolve 1 packet of unflavored gelatin in ½ cup of cold cream or milk. Bring 1 ½ cups more of cream and ½ cup of sugar to a slight simmer. Remove from the heat and add 1 tsp of vanilla. Pour the hot cream over the dissolved gelatin and stir. This will serve 4 people and the recipe can be easily doubled. If you want chocolate panna cotta, simply stir in some finely chopped semi or bittersweet chocolate and stir until melted.

Vanilla bean panna cotta with strawberry sauce and Florentine cookie

There are countless variations and methods and plain panna cotta can be flavored numerous ways. It can be served in glasses, layered with fruit gellee or or can be unmolded after chilling in lightly greased custard cups and topped with a sauce. I made a vanilla bean version, both unmolded and served with a strawberry sauce and layered in fancy glasses with chocolate panna cotta. Add a fancy cookie on the side, like these irresistibly crunchy, chewy Florentines, and you’ve got a dessert that can easily transport you to Italy without ever leaving your own kitchen. Think of the money you’ll save on airfare!


2/3 cup (5.3 oz) unsalted butter                                                                                                                                                                               2 cups (5 2/3 oz) quick oats
1 cup (8 oz) granulated sugar
2/3 cup (3⅓ oz) plain (all purpose) flour
1/4 cup dark corn syrup
1/4 cup whole milk
1 tsp vanilla extract
pinch of salt
Melt the butter and then stir in the rest of the ingredients. Drop by teaspoon at least 3” apart on parchment paper lines baking trays. Bake in preheated 375˚ oven for 8 minutes, until spread flat and brown on the edges. Remove from oven and cool completely on trays, until totally firm. Then remove to a rack. Melt 1½ cups dark or milk chocolate until smooth and spread a thin layer on the bottom of a cookie and sandwich the chocolate between  a second cookie. Let the chocolate harden and EAT!

Florentine Cookies

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Just what we need: More snow!

It’s snowing. Again. Yes, we’re hunkering down for the 7th major snowstorm of the winter (and it’s only February 1!) and as usual, it’s falling on a weekday. Mother Nature has it in for me and she’s working hard to convince me to scrap the weekend warrior bit and just break down and trade in the herbal tea for a nice rewarding cup of rich hot chocolate. Brown rice and veggies just don’t cut it when there’s a foot of new snow on the ground and another 6 inches expected! I’m dreaming about mac and cheese or French onion soup to warm my bones and nothing beats baking cookies when there are hours of time to kill while trapped in the house watching the white stuff fall! It’s the worst winter in forever so don’t I deserve something delicious for recompense?

And there in lies the proverbial rub. That no win conundrum that every food fanatic faces when deciding what to eat when. I can always find a rationalization to go for the goodie but after the last bite is swallowed I so often regret the choice I’ve made. Balance isn’t my strong suit when it comes to pleasure and once I’ve caved and convinced myself I “deserve” a treat, it’s always a struggle to get back on track.

Like most of us, I recognize that I use food for so many things other than physical nourishment. It provides entertainment and social lubricant. It’s a great distraction from difficulties or boredom as well as serving as a fabulous reward. But mostly, special foods make for rather effective medicine although, like many medications, it most often treats the surface symptoms without touching the underlying cause of the issue. And the side effects? Therein lays the real problem of living to eat as opposed to eating to live.

Of course, the number one side effect of using food for fun and feeling better is weight gain. I don’t know about you but when I’m looking to ease my pain (and yes, another snowstorm is painful to me!!) I don’t crave poached salmon and nice pile of kale. I want high carb, high fat foods like fettuccine Alfredo or mashed potatoes. Add some salt and some crunch and that’s good too, especially if it’s dipped in or topped with something creamy. We’re talking anything from simple chips and dip to sweet potato fritters with a sour cream horseradish sauce. And let’s not forget the sugar, preferably white and refined. A plain piece of good milk chocolate will do (yes, I know dark is supposed to be actually good for you but of course I prefer milk!) but why settle for that when I can whip up a batch of white chocolate macadamia nut cookies or a chocolate swirl cheesecake?

Obviously, if I indulge in this style of eating every time I think I deserve a reward or need a distraction from my discomfort, I’ll be packing on the pounds in no time. Without some balance, the extra weight causes the cultural critic to kick in to tell me I’m fat and worthless and that’s painful, which makes me want to eat some more and then that endless cycle begins. Sigh.

So here I sit on a Tuesday, watching the snow fall in record making amounts, contemplating cookies. To bake or not to bake, that is the question. Leave me a comment and tell me what you think!

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It was a fine weekend of feasting for no reason and for good reason. Of course, as you know by now, the simple fact that it’s the weekend will spur me to get cooking and this past weekend was no exception. But we also had the added treat of an overnight in Boston where we would be seeing the eldest daughter off on a much anticipated trip to Israel early Monday morning. I thought it important to load her up with good old American fat and calories before sending her off to the land of our forefathers where hummus and citrus abound! The result was a lovely combo of home cooked goodies and rich restaurant meals which made for a fat packed and scrumptious weekend!

Fresh made tagliatelli. What alot of work!

Now I’ve done a great deal of serious cooking in my time, trying my hand at some pretty complex recipes but I’ve never made home made pasta. Good dried pasta is so readily available and inexpensive that it never seemed worth the effort to produce thin sheets of fresh pasta (and who has room for a pasta machine?!) but for the last couple of weeks I’ve been fantasizing about home made tagliatelle so I bought some fancy semolina Durham wheat flour and I was ready to roll. And roll, and roll, and roll… Now I understand why all those Old Italian ladies have such big arms! What a lot of work! But eventually I had a thin disc of dough that I cut into a small pile of gorgeous, wide yellow ribbons of silky pasta ready to go into the pot. Bathed in a creamy, cheesy spinach sauce and accompanied by golden brown pan fried chicken thighs and simple grilled bread the meal was everything I had dreamed about.

What a delicious dinner!

Now, if only there was something decadent for dessert, I’d feel complete.

But course I had made dessert! It was the weekend after all, when calories don’t count, so let’s live large! I have learned, however, that it’s wise to build in portion control so to ensure I wouldn’t indulge in too much of a good thing, I made a single portion sweets: almond tartlettes in a rich buttery crust with a chocolate ganache topping. Perfect with a scoop of Ben and Jerry’s pistachio pistachio ice cream. The recipe for this tart is at the bottom of this post.

Almond Tartlette

After such a fantastic home cooked meal, any restaurant meals that followed would have to be darn good and I’m happy to report that they were! Sunday brunch was at Stella ( http://www.bostonstella.com/ ) in the North end of Boston, a hip haven for the young and upcoming of the city. The place was loud and bustling and filled with youthful energy and had an excellent, fairly priced brunch menu. The eggs Benedict were quite good with plenty of unctuous, lemony hollandaise. Everyone who had the eggs, wisely substituted French fries for home fries and they were fabulous, crisp and golden brown. I opted for the rich brioche French toast which came piled high with fresh fruit and served with real maple syrup. There was a crisp bruleéd sugar crust on the toast that was fantastic. If only the coffee had been hotter it would have been a perfect brunch but even so, it was a fine repast.

Stella's Brioche French Toast

We left Stella’s fairly well stuffed, barely believing we’d ever want to eat again but of course, we knew that by early evening we’d be hungry so were happy to anticipate our dinner reservation at Rendezvous in Central Square, Cambridge ( http://www.rendezvouscentralsquare.com/ ). This Mediterranean influenced restaurant has a special Sunday night 3 course prix fixe for $38. What an amazing value for a feast of top notch food. The ambiance and service were quite excellent and everything we tried was great but the cassoulet and steak-frites were both over the top.

Cassoulet is only as good as the ingredients used and this one was primo. A fantastic house made veal sausage swam with duck confit and chunks of buttery pork in a ragout of perfectly seasoned white beans and carrot. Such a rich and satisfying winter dish!

Rendezvous' Winter cassoulet

And the steak-frites! A perfectly cooked skirt steak (for me, seared on the outside and bloody rare inside!) was topped with a gigantic pat of garlic herb butter and served with doubled cooked fries which surpassed the morning’s excellent potatoes by a mile. Add a mound of sautéed spinach and it was just too good!

Rendezvous' steak-frites: check out those fries!


The desserts we chose were tart, tangy and not too sweet: a lemon buttermilk pudding with huckleberry sauce and a pineapple pomegranate upside-down cake with vanilla bean ice cream. They were so delicious we gobbled most of them down before remembering to take a photo! My apologies to you but no regrets for me! I rolled out of Rendezvous feeling fat but happy, knowing that as I waved good-bye to my daughter at Logan airport early the next morning, I’d be climbing back on the food wagon for another week. It was good to be fully satisfied with my weekend splurges.

She's off to Israel

The final good-bye at Logan

Here’s the recipe to make the almond tartlettes. This makes 2 tartlettes but they’re very rich so each one can be split between 2 people, especially if served with ice cream. You can also double it for one large tart that will serve 8-10 people.

Almond Tartlettes for 2 

For the dough: 

¼ C melted butter                   ½ C flour

½ tsp vanilla                            1TBSP sugar

¼ TBSP hot water                  pinch of salt

Press dough inot two 3 inch tartlette pans with removable bottoms. Place on a baking tray and bake blind in 400˚ oven for 10 minutes. Turn oven down to 350 ˚ Cool shells for 5 minutes


¼ C sugar                                1 egg

1/3C almonds                          ½ tsp almond extract

3 TBSP soft butter                   ½ TBS flour

In a food processor, process almonds with sugar until fine. Add remaining ingredients and process, stopping once to wipe down the sides of the bowl, until well combined. Divide between the two tartlette shells and bake at 350˚ for 15-20 minutes, until filing is set. Let cool completely and top with ganache


¼ C chopped semi sweet chocolate                   ¼ heavy cream

Heat cream until scalded. Whisk in chocolate until fully melted and smooth. Spread over tops of tartlettes. Cool completely and remove from tart pans and serve with ice cream. Enjoy! And please leave some comments on this post!

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