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A Walk & Lunch in Chiddingstone Village, Kent

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It’s half term week so it seemed a good time to head to Kent to visit my brother, niece and nephew. I arrived late morning and there was some debate about where we should go for a walk; where we should have lunch. In the end it was decided to go only to the neighbouring village of Chiddingstone for a walk round the castle and lunch in the tea rooms in the village.

It’s funny how one can get so used to a name that you don’t give much thought to its meaning. But after parking the car, it was suggested that I see the ‘Chiding Stone’ that is said by some to give the village its name.

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We followed a footpath to a well-weathered sandstone boulder. Folklore tells of it being a place where wrong-doers were brought to be ‘chided’ – told off. Most particularly ‘nagging wives’ and ‘wilful daughters’, which, as you may imagine, rather offended my feminist principles. Presumably they were made to stand on top of the boulder and local villagers would tell them off from below! Clara and Leo rushed the top but there was no telling off needed. Other stories tell of it being either a boundary in Saxon times or a Druids’ altar. While another theory is that the village was named after a 12th century family, the Cidda’s, as it was recorded as Cidingstane at that time.

From here we walked through the small high street and into the castle grounds, crossing a bridge over the lake with the castle before us.

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Chiddingstone Castle dates from the early 1500s, although the current building has only traces of the original. There have been many transformations but the castle we see today was rebuilt as a medieval castle in the mid 19th century.

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At the back of the castle was a building that Adam thought had once been an orangery and more recently has been used as a stage for outdoor theatre productions.

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It was lunchtime by now and we backtracked to head into the village again.

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Chiddingstone Village has been almost entirely owned (except the castle, school and church) by the National Trust since 1939. It’s known as one of the oldest and most beautiful villages in Kent and is the best example of a Tudor village in the country, so has appeared in films and TV series.

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We were heading to the Tulip Tree Tea Rooms. The attached gift shop, which dates back to 1453, is reputedly the oldest working shop in the UK. We went through a passageway at the side of the shop to the back. The tea rooms are housed in what was once a coach house.

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It was cosy inside. We found a table by the window and decided what to eat.

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We noticed that everything had a price tag – just in case you fancied taking it home with you!

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We only wanted a snack lunch. Leo and I chose BLT – bacon, lettuce and tomato sandwiches that came with salad, coleslaw and ‘Kent” crisps. Adam had a sausage roll.

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While Clara went all out and ordered a Ploughman’s – which was huge!

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There were amazing cakes, and scones and homemade biscuits on offer …

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But there was no way any of us had room for more. It was a good lunch, a nice place to stop. Afterwards we made a short trip into the gift shop, then back to the car and home. It was a lovely family time and so good to see how beautiful this part of Kent is.

What to Eat and Where in Amsterdam

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Dutch cuisine doesn’t have a particularly good reputation, but just as there has been a phenomenal change for the better in British cuisine in the last decade or two, I think the Dutch also deserve some recognition for the great food that can now be found there. Well, certainly in Amsterdam.

Much as many non-Brits think we live on fish and chips and roast beef, a lot of people think the Dutch live on herrings and cheese. Certainly some of the traditional Dutch dishes like meat croquettes, deep-fried meatballs (bitterballen) and uninteresting toasties are not much to my taste, but the Dutch, like the Brits, have adopted a more cosmopolitan attitude to food now and you can find excellent food with modern twists and influences from other countries. That said, I think it’s nice to seek out some of the traditional dishes or at least know what kind of foods are typical of the region. There is a strong seafaring history, and the sea itself is rarely far away, even from Amsterdam, which means fish and seafood are popular – and some of the best you’ll find anywhere. There’s also a lot of Indonesian food – a by-product of the days of colonisation when the Dutch sailed East and brought back spices. If you want to go Dutch in your eating while in Amsterdam, then here’s what to look out for and some of the places I like best.

Breakfast

A typical Dutch breakfast will consist of thinly sliced cheese and hams to eat with bread. They love dark rye breads so you will usually find these with any selection of breads. You might also be offered a boiled egg. There’ll be butter, maybe jam, tea or coffee; often freshly squeezed juice. The Dutch love their dairy foods – think of all those Friesland cows! Hence there’s a strong tradition of drinking milk and you’ll even find special handle-less milk cups. You’ll also find excellent yogurt.

Morning Coffee

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The Dutch have always made good coffee and to be served a bad one is rare. However, much like the rest of the world, they’ve upped their game with the recent fashion for artisan coffees and single estate coffees and you can find some exceptional coffee in a new breed of cafes. The best I had on my recent trip was at Caffe Il Momento (180 Singel), quite close to Central Station.

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Another good find was Cafe Kobalt (2 Singel).

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Lunch

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Lunch is where croquettes and toasties come into choices, but you’ll also find wonderful home-made soups on offer in bars and cafes. The description ‘bar’ or ‘cafe’ is almost interchangeable. A lot of places called ‘cafes’ are more like what I might define as a ‘bar’. But then you can go to them to just have a drink or something to eat – or both. These are the places you want to go for a typical Dutch lunch. The menu will probably be small and simple but apart from the toasties and bitterballen you’ll find glorious soups. The most famous is a thick Pea & Ham and for me the best place to enjoy this is Cafe ‘t Smalle on Egelantiersgracht, just off Prinsengracht.

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Here it comes with rye bread and thin slices of ham. It really is a meal in itself, wonderfully warm and filling, especially if you’re there in winter as I was then I took the photo above. In warmer weather you can sit outside by the canal.

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It’s become quite a tourist destination as it’s in all the guide books, but I don’t feel it’s been spoiled and it’s a fine example of a traditional Dutch cafe. You won’t be treated like a tourist and you’ll find some locals there too!

Most bars and cafes will sell soup and other snacks. But there’s a large number of vegan and vegetarian places too for salads and lighter fare. Despite all the dairy and meat, the Dutch have quite an alternative and healthy attitude to life and eating.

Pancakes

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Pancakes and waffles are big things in Amsterdam – and I mean that both in terms of their popularity, with dedicated pancake houses – and the size of the things themselves. Most of us have heard of Dutch pancakes and basically they’re just very big and served on huge plates. For lunch they are popular served savoury style with things like cheese, bacon and ham but often with an addition of nuts and honey. You’ll always find sweet versions too. My favourite place to go for a pancake lunch is Roem (126 Prinsengracht).

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In warm weather there are tables by the canal opposite with a great view of Westerkerk and the Anne Frank House but it’s cosy inside in the winter too.

Apple Pie

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If food can be an institution, then Apple Pie is a Dutch institution. You will find it wherever you go; often blackboards outside bars and cafes will broadcast that they have their own version of the famous apple pie. It is glorious. Most European cuisines have some kind of apple dessert – Tarte Tatin in France, Apple Crumble in UK – but for me there is nothing like the Dutch apple pie. In fact, I have to eat it pretty much every day when I’m in Amsterdam! The most famous and said to be the best is at Winkel (in photo above), on Noordermarkt, at the top end of Prinsengracht.

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Just a little further up the road at 2 Prinsengracht you’ll find Cafe ‘t Papeneiland.

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It serves a slightly different version but also very good.

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This cafe is famous because Bill Clinton once – when he was President of the US –  stopped there for coffee and a slice of apple pie and liked it so much he bought a whole pie to take back to his hotel!

Cookies

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If you have a sweet tooth then you’ll want to try these amazing cookies at Van Staple Koekmarkerij (4 Heisteeg), in a little alleyway that runs from Singel through to Spuistraat.

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I came across it by chance walking back to my hotel one day and was attracted by the sight of a long queue from a tiny shop. Looking inside, all I could see were chocolate cookies – nothing else! But I decided they must be good to attract such attention. I went back another time and bought one, still warm, a dark chocolate cookie filled with white chocolate. I took it back to my hotel and made a coffee (there was an Nespresso machine in my room at NH City Centre Hotel!) and it was very good, though a little too sweet for me. I find it intriguing that a shop – however good the product – can make such a success out of making just one cookie!

Fish & Seafood

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You’ll find fabulous seafood in Amsterdam and one of the best places to go is Lucius on Spuistraat. Here you can have a wonderful seafood platter or an excellent fish dish.

Great favourites in Amsterdam are herring – you’ll see lots of places advertising them on their menu – and mussels served with frites. The Dutch also love smoked fish – salmon, of course, but another favourite is smoked eel.

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Places to Enjoy Good Dutch Food

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My favourite restaurant is Cafe De Reiger (34 Nieuwe Leliestraat). Despite the ‘cafe’ name, and seeming very much like a bar inside, the food is of the highest quality; more like fine dining and absolutely superb. Sadly I didn’t get there my recent trip as they were temporarily closed on Mondays – my last night. But it’s usually a must for me and I always go there (see this review).

A restaurant I did go to for the first time in over 20 years – it was once a great favourite when I spent a lot of time in Amsterdam – was Luden, close to my hotel on Spuistraat.

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This is more like a brasserie and they serve food all day, from typical Dutch fare like smoked salmon and mussels to burgers and salads.

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I also like Cafe Het Molenpad which I discovered last year (2016).

Indonesian Food

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As I said above, Indonesian food has been very popular in Amsterdam since the days Indonesia was a Dutch colony. You’ll see lots of Indonesian restaurants but one of the best known and respected is Long Pura (46-48 Rozengracht). Many other restaurants will often introduce an Indonesian touch to their dishes, so popular are the flavours.

Cheese

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Cheese in Holland really means Gouda but don’t think this is boring. Go to the most amazing cheese shop Tromp at 27 Elandsgracht, just of Prinsengracht, and they’ll explain the difference between the young and old Gouda and let you taste them. The young cheese is mild and creamy; the older ones stronger tasting and more salty. Apart from Gouda, Tromp has a wonderful selection of many other cheeses, breads and wine. It’s just a fantastic shop and I always go there on my last day to bring some cheese home.

Of course a great thing to do if you’re staying in Amsterdam for a few days is to take a trip out to the town of Gouda itself (52 minutes on the train from Central Station). There’s a cheese market on Thursdays in the summer with a great display of cheeses and cheese sellers often in traditional dress. Edam – the town with another famous cheese – is smaller and very pretty, so a great day out. (The train journey is 50 minutes.)

Beer

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The two most famous local beers in Amsterdam are Heineken and Amstel (the name of the river that runs through Amsterdam). You can visit the Heineken brewery but also look out for newer micro-breweries like Brouwerij ‘t IJ for a more exciting beer experience.

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Oude Genever

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Genever – or jenever – is the predecessor to the kind of gin we know as London Dry Gin. Genever has more malt wine than ‘ordinary’ gin (the kind we’re used to for Gin and Tonics) giving it a note of flavour akin to whisky but retaining the herbal notes and juniper we’re used to finding in gin. Gin made in this traditional way in Holland is known as old or ‘oude’ genever. Young or ‘jonge’ genever, which has become a favourite with mixologists lately, has less malt and is lighter. I just love an oude genever last thing at night after a meal – a kind of digestif – and my absolute favourite bar to go to is Cafe Chris (24 Bloemstraat), the oldest bar in the Jordaan district, near Westerkerk, which opened its doors in 1624. The genever is served cold from the fridge and the barman will always fill the glass to the brim. Don’t try to pick it up! You’ll instantly show yourself to be a tourist. You must lean forward and take the first sip by leaning towards the glass.

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Amsterdam is one of my very favourite places; I just love it and it is perhaps one of the only cities that I can imagine living in other than my home city of London. And I think I could only love a city that serves good food! Food is always an important part of my travels. If you go to Amsterdam and try any of the places I recommend I hope you enjoy them as much as I do.

This article is now available to download on the GPSmyCity app – click here. For a small fee you can upgrade to embed a city map and GPS directions to all places mentioned here and read offline – no internet connection needed! 

Amsterdam 2017: Icy Canals, Tulips & A Dutch Lunch

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The first two days of my trip were lit by brilliant sunshine. Amsterdam is always beautiful but the clear blue sky made a perfect backdrop to the pretty canals and tall, elegant canal houses, the sunlight warming the colours of the buildings and glistening on the water. The downside was the cold. I was even forced to buy a warm hat! Going out on my first morning, I glimpsed large sheets of ice on the surface of the canals as I crossed Singel, then Herengracht, Keizergracht and eventually found myself at my favourite canal – Prinsengracht.

It was Sunday and incredibly quiet and peaceful. Frost rested on the cobbled roads and many bridges that cross the canals, allowing a sometimes twisting path across the old town.

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I was in search of flowers. My Dutch friend Rita, who has just come back to live in Amsterdam after 14 years in Spain, had invited me to lunch. Flowers are a part of Dutch life and an obvious choice of gift to take with me. The day before, at Rita’s suggestion, I’d walked to Dam, the square where Amsterdam was founded in 1270. Often noisy and bustling with crowds, it’s a place I usually avoid, but yesterday was National Tulip Day, heralding the beginning of the tulip season. An enclosure in the square was full of tulips. You could enter for free and pick your own tulips for free.

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People were coming away with large bundles of tulips but as I was staying for such a short time in a hotel, it didn’t seem worth joining the long queue. But then a woman turned round with a smile and handed me a small bunch across the barrier. They still have the bulbs attached and I put them in a glass in my room and have enjoyed having them. Later, Rita gave me some she’d picked, the flowers cut off, leaving just the bulbs for me to take home to plant. What a lovely memory of Amsterdam that will be.

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On Sunday morning, I’d almost given up trying to find somewhere open to buy flowers. Then, near Central Station, I came across a stall with huge bunches of gorgeous tulips and  beautiful bouquets – one of which I chose for Rita.

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As I walked on to where I was meeting Rita, near her apartment, just north of the Jordaan and old town, I entered unfamiliar territory. I walked along the interesting street of Haarlemmerdijk with great food shops and cafes, then along the southern edge of Westerpark.

Rita and I talked over glasses of wine as she prepared lunch. After some delicious appetizers, we had a Kapiteinsmaal – captain’s dinner. Rita explained this was a traditional Dutch meal dating back to the days of Dutch colonisation when large merchant ships sailed East for spices. The journeys lasted many weeks and so the ships had to take foods that kept well: dried meats, like bacon, potatoes, onions, pickles and canned beans.

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It was a fun and delicious lunch. I love dishes like this with an interesting history. The beans were actually chick peas – kapucijners – and browner than I was familiar with because they are dried on the plant rather than after picking.

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Then we left Amsterdam and Dutch captains for Spain. Rita had a very special bottle of wine from the Alicante region (where she’d lived) to go with our dessert. She explained that during the Spanish Civil War a vineyard had been destroyed but the owners managed to rescue one small vine and take it with them. After the war, back in the vineyard, they replanted this special vine. It only has enough grapes every 10 years to make wine and this is added to the wine we were to drink – a wine available only every 10 years. It was very much like port. Very delicious and very special and a great accompaniment to the gorgeous chocolate cake and coffee put before me.

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After more than 4 hours of lovely food and wine and conversation, and Rita’s wonderful company, she walked me to a bus stop where I could take a bus to Central station and from there walk to my hotel. What a lovely day it had been.

Review: Lucius Seafood Restaurant, Amsterdam

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I’m back in Amsterdam for the third January running. Yes in January the weather is uncertain but when you’re heading to a favourite city then really anytime is good. For me it’s all about getting away for a break to somewhere familiar and where I can relax immediately. And there is no place like Amsterdam for being chilled out.

Being ‘chilled out’ has taken on a whole new meaning this January. This year it’s much colder than previous years but the bonus has been the most beautiful sunny day since I arrived late morning.

imageI spent the early part of the day revisiting old favourite haunts for snacks but when I saw a very old favourite – dating back more than 20 years ago to when I spent a lot of time here – was almost opposite my hotel, then I knew that was where I wanted to go for dinner.

Lucius is a restaurant on Spuistraat that’s been serving great seafood for 41 years. I went in mid afternoon when it was closed to book a table and it looked just the same as I remembered. It combines a lovely simplicity with its tiled walls that are traditional in fish restaurants with a welcoming coziness. Well it was certainly cozy when I went back in the evening.

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The welcome was so friendly. I was shown a table and asked if it was OK. I said yes, but I’d like to sit the other way round so my back wasn’t to the door as it was so cold outside. The waitress immediately offered to take me to another – warmer – table further back. I ordered a prosecco to drink while I chose my food. Just across from me sat a friendly Japanese couple. The woman was wearing a beautiful kimono. When I asked if I could take a photo of their wonderful looking platter of fruits de mer, she kindly said I should share some!

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I said thank you, but I’d already ordered some food. They continued to talk to me on and off throughout the meal, which made the experience all the more delightful.

I love fish and would have happily eaten anything on the menu but decided to go for the set menu at €39.50 for 3 courses. There was a good choice and I chose Monkfish Skewer with Peanut Sauce and Thai Salad to start. This was partly because I like monkfish but rarely have it and also because it sounded very Indonesian – despite the Thai salad. Indonesian food is very popular in Amsterdam and a cuisine to definitely try to eat while here.

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It was delicious. Beautifully moist monkfish; fantastic flavours from the peanut sauce and fragrant salad.

For my main course I chose Tomato Bisque with Lobster, Scallop, Mussels, King Prawns and Basil-potato Mash.

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I was aware that the purist wouldn’t necessarily think the two courses matched well – one Asian influenced, one French. But I could resist neither! They appealed most to me. And I was so pleased I went with what I fancied. The bisque was sublime; one of the best things I’ve eaten recently with a glorious flavour; the kind of dish you eat slowly to properly savour the taste. Each piece of fish was perfectly cooked. It came with a very nice salad that I ate after.

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There was a very good selection of desserts and I took the cheat’s route of not choosing by having a Cafe Gourmand.

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What a great way to end a fantastic meal. I should also mention my wonderful waiter who was so friendly and helpful. He told me he was a true local who’d been brought up in the immediate area. This is one of the benefits of eating alone, that strangers can be so friendly and you end up having conversations you might otherwise not have had.

I’m so glad I went back to Lucius. It was as good as I remembered and is another favourite to return to on future trips to Amsterdam.

Apple Tartlets with Flaky Pastry

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I’ve been thinking of making these little tartlets for a while. I used to make them a lot, using a recipe from an old Katie Stewart book – Entertaining with Katie Stewart – which was published in 1990. I’ve written about Katie before: she was my ‘kitchen guru’ even before Delia Smith came on to the scene. I find that while a number of my old cookery books are past their time in terms of the type of recipes I want to cook nowadays, there are a few I turn to for classic recipes – like this one, which shows you how to make home-made flaky pastry.

Two things spurred me on today: a conversation with a friend and seeing these little tarts in Paul Bakery the other day and remembering I used to make them myself. Christine, a friend from book group, asked me just before Christmas (when we were all thinking ‘mince pies‘) if I make my own pastry. I said I always make my own shortcrust pastry – and like her, usually by hand and not using a food processor – but I bought puff and filo pastry. Then I mentioned the flaky pastry and this recipe, which inspired me to think I really should look it out!

I measured it all out in Imperial measurements – ounces and pints – as I know that’s how it would have originally been made all those years ago, but give the metric equivalent that’s in the book. Don’t try to mix the two.

Apple Tartlets with Flaky Pastry (makes 6)

          Flaky Pastry

  • 8oz (225g) strong white flour
  • pinch salt
  • 6oz (175g) butter (50z well chilled; 1oz soft)
  • ¼ pint (150ml) cold water
  • 2 teaspoons lemon juice

          Topping

  • 3 dessert apples
  • beaten egg, to glaze
  • icing sugar, for dusting

There are 2 x 30 minutes of chilling the pastry as you make these, so the pastry needs to be prepared in advance or maybe even the day before. Katie likes to serve the final tartlet hot with chilled cream but I made mine in advance so they were served at room temperature. I’m sure hot is nice but cool is good too!

First of all, sift the flour into a large bowl with the pinch of salt. I put a sieve over the bowl and lay it on digital scales, then when I’ve got the right amount of flour can just finishing sifting into the bowl.

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Now rub in the 1oz of soft butter gently. The remaining butter must be well chilled. I took mine from the fridge and put it in the freezer for about 10-15 minutes before I started cooking. I didn’t weigh out the amount I needed as I wanted to hold it with its wrapping just peeled back and keep it as cold as possible while I grated it into the flour. Thus, I put the bowl on the scales again, reset to zero, and watched as I grated until I reached 5oz. You also need to occasionally dip the butter in flour as you grate to keep pieces separate.

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Once you’ve finished grating the butter, very carefully and gently mix it all together with your hands, lifting it as you go to let in air and not pressing any of it together. You just need to get the butter pieces covered in flour as much as you can.

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Measure the water and add the lemon juice. Pour into the flour mixture and carefully combine with a knife. As soon as it comes together, with floured hands pull into a ball and put on a floured work surface.

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Do not knead but shape gently into a rectangle and then roll it out so that it’s three times as long as wide. Then fold the top third over the centre, then the bottom third over those two sections.

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Press the open ends together then turn 90 degrees and repeat the process. Fold in the same way then wrap in cling film and put in the fridge for a minimum of 30 minutes. After that time, repeat the whole process, rolling and folding twice, then wrap again and put back in the fridge for at least another 30 minutes.

Now the pastry is ready to use. Heat the oven to 200C/180 fan/Gas 6.

On a floured work surface, roll the pastry out to a rectangle of 12 x 8 inches (30 x 20 cm). It will be quite thick; about ¼ inch (5mm). Use a cutter 4 inches (10 cm) in diameter to cut out 6 circles of pastry. (My pastry cutter was too small and I improvised by using a mug that was exactly the right size.)

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Lay them on a greased baking tray. I dusted the bottom of each circle with a little flour for easy lifting when cooked. I also – not in Katie’s instructions – cut a shallow circle with a sharp knife just into the pastry, a little over ¼ inch (5mm) from the edge to allow the edge of the pastry to rise more easily during cooking.

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Now prepare the apples. You want fairly small dessert apples – large ones won’t fit the pastry circles. Take the core out (rummaging in a kitchen drawer I managed to find a very old corer I knew I had somewhere!). Then, using a sharp vegetable peeler, peel the skin from the apples. Cut in half lengthways.

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Carefully slice each half, fairly thickly, holding the shape in place. Carefully transfer to the centre of a pastry circle and fan out slightly. Repeat with each apple half. Then brush the edges of the pastry circles with a beaten egg. Put in the preheated oven for about 30 minutes (I checked after 20 minutes as I was using a fan oven but they needed another 5 minutes. But best to check – I didn’t want to ruin them after all that careful pastry making!).

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They should be golden brown but don’t cook too much as they are going to go under a grill for a final stage. Sprinkle each tartlet with a good showering of icing sugar.

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Put under a hot grill until caramelised.

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Watch carefully – you don’t want to burn them at this stage and it will only take a couple of minutes to brown them.

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They look pretty impressive, I think. Great for entertaining and always nice to be able to serve individual desserts. I think they look more enticing too. You could serve them immediately with some cream or ice cream but I made ours in advance. I guess you could warm them later but I thought they’d be fine cool.

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It’s a great pastry; lovely with the apples but you could try other fruit, like plums or pears – fruit that cooks well. It’s not as light and flaky as puff pastry, of course, but much lighter than a shortcrust and it works so well with this kind of dessert. I’ll definitely be making it more often now I’ve revisited it after a few years’ break.

 

Mixed Greens & Feta Pie

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We had a very traditional Christmas dinner with turkey, stuffing and all the usual accompaniments, but as Rachael is vegetarian, I wanted to think of a nice alternative for her, and something also quite special. The initial plan was to bake Rick Stein’s ‘Horta Pie’ from his Venice to Istanbul book. Horta are wild greens that are gathered in Greece to make pie or which are simply boiled, drained and served warm or cold with olive olive drizzled over the top. Twickenham doesn’t provide a piece of wild land to collect wild, edible greens – or not as far as I’ve discovered but I have to confess I’ve not really got into foraging, despite its current gastronomic popularity. I therefore settled on a pack of spinach and another of cavolo nero from Waitrose; you want greens that soften and wilt nicely. It did actually feel like quite wild shopping amongst the Christmas crowds last Friday! But not of the kind Rick had in mind. Another compromise was the pastry. Rick uses filo pastry – well, this is a Greek recipe – but Waitrose was out of filo pastry and I wasn’t about to risk sanity and limb in another supermarket. I therefore bought frozen puff pastry and decided that would make a very nice pie. (I always make my own shortcrust pastry, but I think few people make puff or filo pastry.)

Having diverted a bit from the original recipe, I took another leap into compromise and decided the huge pie Rick makes wasn’t necessary for one vegetarian. I therefore settled on a smaller size in a pie dish of 20cm diameter and cut down the quantities of the ingredients. And to complete my changes, I decided against mixing the filling in one go and adding it completely uncooked; instead I wanted to soften my onion in oil first and cook the greens a bit. This is how I like to cook: taking inspiration from one, two or three recipes and putting them together in my own way. [However, you can’t usually do this with cakes, pastries and other baking and generally it’s wise to follow those recipes exactly. But savoury dishes are amazingly tolerant of a cook’s fancy.]

Mixed Greens & Feta Pie (serves 4-6)

  • 250g frozen puff pastry, thawed
  • 1 egg yolk and a little milk
  • 200g spinach
  • 200g cavolo nero
  • 2 medium onions, finely sliced
  • olive oil (about 2 tablespoons)
  • 2 eggs
  • 200g feta cheese
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper

Grease the pie dish. Roll out half the pastry and line the dish. Make an egg wash with the egg yolk and a little milk, beating well. Brush some over the pastry base to prevent it becoming soggy from the filling.

Soften the sliced onion in a little olive oil. While it’s softening prepare the greens. Strip the cavolo nero leaves from the hard stem and chop roughly. Chop the spinach a little if you have large leaves; I had baby leaves so left whole. Add the greens to the softened onion. Mix well and cook until starting to wilt but don’t cook right down.

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Beat 2 eggs in a bowl and crumble the feta into it and mix. Season with a little salt (remember feta is quite salty) and black pepper.

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Now tip in the wilted greens and onion and mix gently but well together.

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Fill the lined pie dish. Roll out the second piece of pastry. Brush the edges of the base with a little of the egg wash and then lay the second round of pastry on top. Press the edges together and crimp. Now brush more egg wash over the top and pierce the centre a couple of times with the end of a sharp knife to let out steam as the pie cooks.

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Bake at 180C/Fan 160/Gas 4 for about 35-40 minutes, or until nicely browned.

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I made this on Christmas Eve evening and then reheated to serve on Christmas Day. It makes 4 large portions but would easily stretch to 6.

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Rachael ate it with the vegetables I’d prepared for everyone else. Happily, she loved it. Of course it’s the kind of pie you could make anytime for a vegetarian meal, and really at any time of year – it would work well in summer too.

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I had some leftovers the following day for lunch, eating it cold with salad. It’s really delicious and I’m sure to make it again sometime.

Celebration Jellies

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I made these jellies for our Christmas meal because some of the family aren’t keen on Christmas pudding, and also to provide the option of a lighter dessert after so much eating! They were indeed lighter, and a great hit, but also rather alcoholic so I think I should give a warning here that these jellies are most definitely not for children – adults only!

 

Celebration Jellies (makes 8)

  • 200g plain chocolate
  • pared zest of 2 oranges
  • 570ml fruit juice (see below)
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 2 cinnamon sticks
  • 25g (15 sheets) gelatine
  • 570ml cava or other sparkling wine
  • 142ml double cream

I found this recipe online (Delicious Magazine) and it was for cranberry jellies. However, when I came to buy cranberry juice I could only find ‘cranberry drink’, which isn’t the same as ‘juice’ at all, as it’s sweetened with sugar and may contain other things, including water. Christmas was fast approaching and I had to immediately compromise and so I settled on some Red Grape, Pomegranate & Blackcurrant Juice from M&S which was 100% pure juice – nothing else added! And really, this sounded as wonderfully Christmasy as cranberries.

As for the sparkling wine, I was pleased to find the excellent Codorníu cava range on offer in Waitrose so bought a splendid rosé version, which I thought would add to the celebratory effect. My family have become keen on drinking Codorníu cava (when champagne isn’t on offer!) rather than prosecco recently. It’s one of Spain’s best producers and really good with a fabulous flavour. Now, at its full price, it would have been rather extravagant for jellies! But on the other hand – particularly for a special meal – a cheap bottle of sparkling wine is only going to offer a cheap flavour. And – as I said above – these are alcoholic jellies and the wine isn’t heated so you’re drinking it with full alcoholic content, so even more reason to get something good.

The first thing to do though, is make some little chocolate decorations. The original recipe had stars, but when I went to the local kitchen shop to buy a small cutter, they only had hearts. Well, hearts were nice for a family gathering. Melt the dark chocolate in a bowl over simmering water. Stir only occasionally and when it’s smooth, tip onto a baking sheet lined with greaseproof paper. Spread out a little (until chocolate is about 3mm thick) and leave to set.

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Then use the cutter to cut out about 16 little heart shapes and leave them somewhere cool.

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Now make the jelly. In a large pan put the orange zest, fruit juice, sugar and cinnamon sticks and heat gently, stirring until the sugar dissolves. Remove from the heat and allow to infuse for 30 minutes.

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Strain the juice into a clean pan and slowly warm through again, but don’t bring to the boil. Meanwhile, cover the sheets of gelatine in water according to the instructions on your packet. Mine needed 4-5 minutes of soaking. Squeeze the water from the gelatine and add to the juice mixture (off the heat). Stir until the gelatine dissolves. Then allow to cool. When completely cool, add the sparkling wine.

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Pour the jelly into small glass bowls, keeping back just a little, so you can add about another 5mm jelly at the end.

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Put in the fridge until nearly set. Then remove and add 2 of the prepared chocolate hearts to each bowl, tucking them gently just a little way into the setting jelly. Pour over the remaining jelly, leaving each heart sticking up out mostly out of the jelly.

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Return to the fridge to finish setting. The next step is to decorate with a little cream but as I made the jellies on Christmas Eve, I left the final decorating until nearer the time we were eating. Whip the double cream with a little vanilla paste and about half a teaspoon icing sugar. Place about a teaspoon of cream on top of each jelly. Then grate a dusting of clementine zest over the top.

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Everyone wanted a taste of the jellies, even those who had chosen Christmas pudding! They were a great success; really gorgeous with a fabulous flavour. Well, with all that wonderful cava in them – half the quantity – they were bound to!

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As a self-critical cook, I thought maybe they were a little more solid than I ideally like my jelly, so next time I’ll put in a little less gelatine – maybe 12 sheets instead of 15 – but overall it was a great recipe for a lighter but very special dessert. And you don’t have to save these for Christmas – they’d be wonderful anytime you’re cooking a special meal. Try the cranberry juice – if you can find it – or choose another juice you like. But I wanted a ‘clear’ rather than cloudy juice and the red colour is certainly perfect for Christmas.

 

Mixed Nuts & Chocolate Biscotti

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When I bought Jamie Oliver’s new book of Christmas cooking a couple of weeks ago, one of the recipes I thought I must try were his cantuccini, with the idea that I could package some up as little gifts. I bought the ingredients at the beginning of the week but life and Christmas shopping got in the way of actually doing anything with them. Then the lovely Mimi put a cantuccini recipe up on her blog a couple of days ago, which reminded me of my intention. So, I got baking yesterday.

Now, I’ve made cantuccini/biscotti before – click here – if not for a while, so wasn’t a complete novice. But the recipe just didn’t work. I think there was too much flour and they were heavy and floury to taste. I threw them away. I don’t like to ‘fail’ though. Even though there’s lots of Christmas cooking to do I couldn’t get those disaster biscotti off my mind. So I turned to Gino d’Acampo. His panettone turned out pretty well for me last year (click here). I know people who get a bit sniffy about Gino; don’t think he’s the real thing, but his recipes are straightforward and they work. They are even easy and his biscotti recipe was more or less an all-in-one preparation – plus of course a necessary second baking. I decided to combine the two recipes by sticking to Jamie’s almonds, hazelnuts and chocolate. But when I found I didn’t have enough hazelnuts and almonds left, I threw in some pistachios too. I also found I needed more cooking time than Gino suggests. But in the end, the recipe worked well and finally I’m happy – I have some biscotti for Christmas!

Mixed Nuts & Chocolate Biscotti

  • 100g mixed skinned almonds, hazelnuts & pistachios
  • 50g dark chocolate (at least 70%), roughly chopped
  • 280g strong white flour, type ’00’
  • 150g caster sugar
  • 3 eggs, beaten
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • zest of 1 unwaxed orange
  • 2 tablespoons orange liqueur (or lemon! see below)
  • icing sugar for dusting

Toast the nuts in a dry pan over a medium heat until lightly browned.

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Remove from the pan and roughly chop. Chop the chocolate. Set aside.

Now make the dough. Sift the flour into a large bowl, add the sugar, baking powder, eggs, vanilla extract and orange zest. Also add the prepared nuts and chocolate. Add the orange/lemon liqueur. I didn’t have any orange liqueur. It’s been a long time since I’ve kept any kind of liqueur in the house. I was considering whether brandy would be a bit overpowering when I remembered the bottle of limoncello lurking in my fridge door. Homemade limoncello, made by Jonathan’s friend Simon. Feeling pretty sure my son wouldn’t mind my raiding his limoncello supply, I took it from the fridge and was measuring it into the bowl when said son let himself into the house and was suddenly before me. ‘You don’t mind if I have some of your limoncello?’ I said. In the moment of unexpected confusion I forgot to take a photo of how pretty all the ingredients looked laid out in the bowl, and instead started mixing.

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Oh well. That’s not a step I could undo. Once it’s all combined, divide the dough into two (yes I did actually use scales to get this exact. The things I do for the blog!).

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Dust a surface with icing sugar. Many people use flour, but Gino uses sugar and I went with that. Well it’s Christmas; of course you dust treats with sugar. Carefully roll each ball of dough into a sausage shape and flatten slightly. It’s a very sticky dough but you can just about manage to roll it.

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You’ll need two baking trays lined with greaseproof paper. Lay a ‘sausage’ of dough on each one. Bake in a 180C/Fan 160/Gas 4 oven. Now Gino said for 20 minutes but I left mine for 30 minutes to achieve a ‘lightly browned’ colour. Remove from the oven and allow to cool for 5 minutes. Use a serrated bread knife and cut into ‘biscotti’ slices on a slight diagonal. They should be just over 1cm thick. While you’re doing this, lower the oven to 150C/Fan 130/Gas 2.

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Now arrange them in a single layer on the baking sheet, with a new lining of greaseproof paper.

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Return them to the cooler oven. Now, this next stage has variations of how long they stay in the oven. Gino only leaves them in for 5 minutes; Jamie for 8-10. However, my ‘original’ biscotti recipe on the blog, an Ottolenghi one, leaves them in for 40 minutes. I kept checking and in the end, that’s how long I left them. Plus, I also followed Jamie’s suggestion of leaving them in the oven when you turn it off to dry right out while the oven cools. But then I had to try one too!

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As Jamie says he likes, I ate one slightly warm, still a bit chewy, with an espresso. Delicious! However, I’m looking forward to the crunchy ones once they’ve properly cooled, which will keep nicely in an airtight jar for up to a couple of weeks and provide a nice treat with coffee over the Christmas holiday period. And, of course, a few can go into a smaller jar, decorated with Christmas ribbon, to make a nice gift.

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                ***** HAPPY CHRISTMAS, EVERYONE!!! *****

Roast Tomato & Thyme Soup

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Foodwise, I’ve had a lifelong love affair with tomatoes. Tomatoes all ways: raw sprinkled with sea salt; tomato sauce for pasta or to tuck little meatballs into; slow roasted for antipasti; stuffed Greek style. Is there no end to the wonders of tomatoes. Perhaps my least favourite is tomato juice, even with the addition of vodka to make a Bloody Mary; but then I don’t drink vodka, rarely spirits at all other than the occasional whisky. My son shares my love; when he was about 10 I remember him telling me he didn’t think he could live without tomatoes. Such a statement from a young boy only goes to show the importance of food in our family!

I’ve been making Roasted Butternut Squash & Tomato Soup a lot recently. It’s so easy and one of our favourites. At two months shy of being 2 years old, grandson Freddie loves it too and we use it as a pasta sauce for his supper, which works well because I always leave it quite a thick consistency. He’s happy with the addition of chilli too – just as his father is! I thought I’d ring the changes a little today by doing a simple tomato soup. I wanted to roast the tomatoes to bring out their full flavour and because I wasn’t planning to use stock (I had some chicken stock in the freezer but as I wanted to freeze some soup, I couldn’t use that), I decided to start it with a soffritto of onion, carrot and celery to add depth of flavour. If you have stock (mild chicken or vegetable) or are happy using a stock cube (which I’m not, as regular readers will know), feel free to add them instead of just water.

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I also decided to add a medium potato to add a bit of body to the soup as I’m not fond of thin vegetable soups.

Roast Tomato & Thyme Soup

  • 2 small or 1 medium red onion
  • 1 medium carrot
  • 1 stick celery
  • about 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 large potato (about 170g)
  • 2 large cloves garlic
  • 950g large vine tomatoes
  • bunch of fresh thyme
  • salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • 1 teaspoon sugar

Finely chop the onion, carrot and celery and gently soften in the olive oil in a large ovenproof pan. As soon as it begins to soften (don’t cook too long and brown), add the potato, skinned and chopped into small dice. Add the garlic cloves, crushed. Stir so everything is coated in the oil and cook for a couple more minutes. Now add the tomatoes, halved. Season well with salt and pepper. Top with a bunch of thyme (the kind I bought had very soft stems but my garden thyme is more woody and strongly flavoured so I’d probably add less. If you don’t have fresh thyme, then use dried). Now add a teaspoon of sugar to balance the acidity of the tomatoes and bring out their sweetness. Mix it all well then put into a preheated 180C/Fan 160/Gas 4 oven for about an hour.

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I wanted to cook it more slowly than usual roasted vegetables that I cook at quite a high heat, so I used a gentler heat. I wanted the tomatoes to soften but not brown and caramelise so that they retained a freshness of flavour. Remove them when all the vegetables have nicely softened and just starting to colour. If your thyme was very woody, then remove the stalks. Mine was so soft, I just left it all in.

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Transfer the vegetables to a large pan. Pour a little boiling water or hot stock into the roasting pan, over heat, and scrape up any bits that have clung to the side. Tip into the pan of vegetables and then top up with enough water or stock to just cover them. If you use too much liquid at this stage you can’t thicken the soup, but once you’ve blitzed it with a blender, then you can always add more liquid if you want to.

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Once you’ve blended it until smooth, check the seasoning. If you were doing this for a posh dinner party, you could always put it through a sieve but I’m more into rustic cooking!

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It was a delicious soup. It had a good depth of flavour without being strong tasting, and had retained some of the tomato freshness, as I’d wanted. I dressed it with a little yoghurt – because that’s what I had, but crème fraîche or even cream would be nice – and some chopped basil and thyme. It would make a nice soup for Christmas with its seasonal red colour but really it’s a soup for any time of year. Just be sure to buy really tasty tomatoes – I used organic vine tomatoes – so you get a good flavour.

 

 

 

Christmas Recipes: Cakes & Desserts

I’ve just been making Christmas Brandy Ice Cream to put in the freezer for Christmas Day and thought it was worth reblogging this post from last year that sums up all the Christmas recipes on my blog:

Travel Gourmet

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I’ve rarely ‘done’ Christmas. When my kids were small we nearly always went to my parents’ home and they cooked; in recent years I’ve often gone to my brother Adam’s; last year I was at my daughter Nicola’s; the rare occasion I’ve hosted Christmas my son or daughter have stepped in offering to cook the turkey … or large chicken … or one year a duck because there were just three of us. I don’t think that’s a reflection on my cooking (at least I hope not!) but part of everyone joining in. And I seem, much as when I was a teenager, to have taken up the role of cooking the cakes and desserts. I don’t, however, make a Christmas pudding. I have in the past and I do love them, and Christmas without Christmas pudding just wouldn’t be Christmas for me, but these days I just buy a…

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