Tag Archives: glaze

Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid

Today is “Nerdy Day” at Woodlawn, the school where I work. All of my students are sporting taped glasses, suspenders, pants hitched up to their eyeballs, pocket protectors, and bow ties. They asked me why I didn’t dress up and I replied honestly, “What do you mean? I did.”

I don’t need a pocket protector to dress like a nerd. I’m naturally a nerd, through and through. Like I told my students: I love to read. I love to write. I love technology. I love obscure art. I love learning. I write essays for fun. I annotate the books I read in my spare time. I often ruminate on literary theory, politics, and feminism. I was born a nerd and I’ll die a nerd. Amen.


Ooh. Amen!

Such was my nerdiness as a child that I detested the outdoors and was a bit of a cave-dweller. Have you ever met a kid like that? My friends usually wanted to play some wildly active (often destructive) game outdoors: Who can run down this hill the fastest, completely oblivious of oncoming traffic? Who can climb to the very highest, most excruciatingly tenuous limb of this tree? Who wants to tumble pell-mell through snakes and venomous spiders in the woods?

Not me. I was a pale, chubby child who preferred to sit and read in an air-conditioned, artificially lit corner. I always bossily petitioned for an orderly indoor game: a board game, perhaps, or a polite game of snack-eating.

My aversion to the outdoors and to all athletic activity was particularly strong when it came to my dreaded elementary P.E. class. Far from “educating” me on much besides torture and pain, my Physical Education class struck fear deep into the air-conditioned depths of my heart. For one thing, we went outside all the time (much to the glee of most other students). For another, I was a klutz.

I remember standing on a dusty, grassless kickball field one hot day in May. My friend and I were watching the game cynically and whining about our circumstances. First off, we were hot, sweaty, and red-faced. Worse still was the fact that we were almost up to the plate. Unless we got another “out” — and fast! — we were going to have to try to kick the ball in front of all of our classmates (including all of the cute boys in class). We’d then have to walk back to the team in shame, enduring their fervent, angry shouts about our athletic ineptitude.

I suggested we try to imagine ourselves jumping into a cool swimming pool. The power of visualization and positive thinking, I noted to my friend, was immense. We both scrunched up our eyes and started to visualize with all our might. One of our teammates kicked the ball into the outfield. We visualized harder. Another teammate kicked the ball even farther. We visualized with all our might. Another teammate kicked the ball into the stratosphere.

We gave up with a sigh, and I walked up to the plate. Lame.

Kickball wasn’t the worst, though. The worst activity — the one that sent chills of absolute terror down my lazy little spine — was the mile run. What sort of sadist decided to try and make us run an entire mile?

Y’all, I don’t care if I were getting chased by a gigantic black bear. I don’t care if he were breathing down my neck with bloody bear fangs and breath that smelled of my impending doom. I don’t care if he were as hungry as a hippo with razor claws and rabies. If my only hope of salvation were to run a mile, I would plop myself down on a plate and sprinkle some salt and pepper on my head.

I hate running.

As it was, I did get chased, so to speak, by my rabid elementary P.E. teacher. She was fit as a fiddle and always barked encouragement at us from the sidelines as we dragged ourselves around the track. I remember talking to myself out loud (more nerd points?) as I struggled to put one foot in front of the other. My monologue went something like this: “If I just keep pushing myself, I’ll pass out and probably die. But then at least I’ll never have to do the mile run again. In fact, they’ll probably ban the mile run from schools everywhere. If I can just run hard enough to pass out, that can be my legacy: eliminating the mile run for the children of the future.”

If that seems twisted, you ought to have heard me at home the night before the mile run. I would literally plead with my parents to somehow break my toe. Stomp on it, perhaps? Run over it with the car, maybe? Does that sound drastic?

I figured a broken toe wouldn’t be that inconvenient, and it would heal before too long. In the meantime, though, my quality of life would increase a thousandfold as a result of missing the mile run. I lay in the floor and whined when my parents refused. Didn’t they realize they were consigning me to pass out in the middle of a gigantic dirt field? Didn’t they want to spare me all of my anguish? Didn’t they LOVE me?

I may be 27 years old now, and I may have started to appreciate the outdoors, but I still maintain that my fragile constitution was built for reading, writing, and recipes — not for running. In fact, I’d still prefer an injury to an athletic event. This coming Friday, at the end of Woodlawn’s spirit week, there’s a faculty vs. students soccer game, and you can imagine my utter terror when I was asked to participate. All of these years thinking I was finally free from that school field . . .

Thankfully, though (I’m so weird), the other day I was stretching and I felt something twist in my knee. My first thought was, “Ow!” followed immediately by, “Ooh, now I don’t have to play in the soccer game!” Some things never change.

I’ll settle for being a clumsy nerd. Some of my students are geniuses on the soccer field, some are geniuses on horseback, some are geniuses in ballet shoes, some are geniuses on stage. I’ll settle for being at home with a book, at home with words, and at home in the kitchen. We all have our talents, right?

In that spirit, I offer you not my soccer savvy (hahahahaha, for which you should be thankful) but my breakfast braid. I couldn’t wait to tell you about this recipe! I dreamed about posting this braid the entire time I was baking it, photographing it, transporting it to Raleigh, and eating it with Mike while watching past episodes of Parks and Recreation and drinking lots of milk.

What I most want to emphasize about this recipe is that it’s EASY! The first time I made a breakfast braid with this dough, I fell in love. It’s the perfect beginning pastry, since it doesn’t involve any yeast or rise time, or even much kneading. It’s not sticky or stubborn. If you’ve ever used canned crescent rolls, this dough is a textured a lot like that.

Naturally, in addition to being easy (SO EASY. DID I MENTION HOW EASY?), it was delectable. I call it a breakfast braid, but it’s an eat-anytime-you-can-possibly-shove-it-in-your-face braid. It’s a mind-blowing combination of flaky pastry, autumn pumpkin, cinnamon and spice, buttery streusel, toasted pecans, and a rich maple brown sugar glaze. I may not be able to kick a soccer ball, but I can make a mean pumpkin braid. That’s good enough for me.

Are you nerdy?

Pumpkin Pecan Streusel Breakfast Braid with Maple Brown Sugar Glaze



Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking. Inspired by The Luna Cafe, with glaze from Caitlin Cooks
Yield: About 4-5 servings of 2 slices each

In this breakfast braid, tender, flaky, almond-scented pastry envelops a delicious pumpkin pie custard topped with buttery cinnamon pecan streusel. An addictive maple brown sugar glaze and toasted pecans top the whole shebang, creating a perfect autumn breakfast (or dessert, or lunch, or dinner…!) This braid looks fancy, but don’t be fooled. It’s one of the easiest things I make. The dough is lovely to work with — it doesn’t need to rise, barely needs any kneading, and isn’t sticky or finicky. I’m always amazed that such gorgeous results can be achieved with such little effort.

Easy Dough Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, cold and cut into cubes
3 ounces cream cheese, cold and cut into cubes
1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract

Pumpkin Pie Filling Ingredients:
(this makes a little more filling than you need)
6 ounces cream cheese, softened
3/8 cup sugar
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
3/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 egg
1 1/8 teaspoons cinnamon*
1/4 teaspoon nutmeg*
1/4 teaspoon ginger*
1/8 teaspoon allspice*
*You could probably substitute a teaspoon or so of pumpkin pie spices for these.

Pecan Streusel Ingredients:
1/8 cup firmly packed light brown sugar
1/8 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon cinnamon
1 tablespoon cold butter
1/2 cup chopped pecans

Maple Brown Sugar Glaze Ingredients:
1 tablespoon butter
2 tablespoons milk
1/4 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon real maple syrup
pinch salt
3/4 – 1 cup powdered sugar
cinnamon for sprinkling

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Make the creamy pumpkin pie filling. In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar and beat until fluffy and smooth. Add the pumpkin, egg, and vanilla extract, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and allspice and mix until combined. Set in fridge while you make your braid.

Toast your pecans. Spread them out in a single layer on a baking sheet and toast for about 6 minutes or until fragrant, stirring about halfway through the cook time. Transfer nuts to a plate to cool. Raise oven temperature to 425 degrees F.

Make your pastry dough. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend into a loose dough.

Turn the dough onto a sheet of lightly-floured parchment paper and knead very lightly for just 4-5 strokes (be careful not to overwork the dough or it’ll be tough! Don’t worry about getting it smooth — just knead for these few strokes and let it stay a little rough.)

Very lightly flour the top of the dough and place another sheet of parchment paper on top. Between two sheets of parchment paper, roll the dough to an 10- by 12-inch rectangle (I lift the paper off every now and then and flip the dough and repeat on the other side, to ensure the dough isn’t sticking). Remove the top sheet of parchment and discard. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Glop your creamy pumpkin pie filling down the middle third of the dough — try to keep your filling about 1/4 inch from the mark on both sides. I piled it up a bit (not so much that it was overflowing, but plenty!)

Make the streusel topping. Combine the flour and brown sugar in a medium bowl and using two knives or a pastry cutter, cut in the butter until you have crumbly streusel. Mix in 1/4 cup of toasted pecans (save the rest for decorating the finished braid). Sprinkle streusel over top of pumpkin mixture in center of dough. Really pile it on!

Continue assembling the braid (see photos at the bottom of this recipe, which show the process of marking and assembling a raspberry almond braid, for guidance). Make diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides. Do not cut into the center pumpkin-filled area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in a rotating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Don’t worry if it doesn’t completely hide your filling — it’s actually nice when the filling is peeking out. Use the sheet of parchment to carefully transfer your braid to a baking sheet (at this point, you can brush the pastry with a mixture of 1 beaten egg and a teaspoon of water if you want it darker than mine. I didn’t bother). Bake in the 425 degree oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through, the pumpkin filling is set, and the top is lightly browned. Let the braid cool slightly while you make your glaze.

Make the Maple Brown Sugar Glaze. Combine the butter and milk in a small saucepan over medium heat. When the butter melts, whisk in the brown sugar, syrup, and salt, stirring until the brown sugar melts. Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in the powdered sugar, starting with 3/4 cup and adding more to thicken per your preference (taste as you go to ensure you don’t oversweeten). Drizzle the glaze over the top of your braid. Sprinkle the braid with toasted pecans and a dusting of cinnamon. Serve immediately. Refrigerate leftovers in an airtight container and microwave for about 20 seconds to serve.



Example of how to cut and assemble braid.

Other breakfast braids you’ll love:
Raspberry Almond Breakfast Braid
Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Breakfast Braid

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Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze

So I’m currently joining the rest of the blogosphere in doing a happy dance and singing, “Pumpkinnnnnnnn!”

Before I gush about this Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread, though, I have to tell you about my other Pumpkin: my little pumpkin-wumpkin fluffypants.


…no fluffypants, here.

Pets make people weird. One day you’re a normal, reasonable adult that people can take seriously. Then you get a pet.

Suddenly you’re schnookie-wookums-ing, buying them furniture that is bigger and more expensive than your own, dressing them up in Santa hats for the annual Christmas card, and giving them their own theme posts on your blog (Caturday is the best day!)

I’ve been a little weird from the beginning, so when I got my pets (Byrd the toy poodle and Squirt the red eared slider), all bets were off. Sure enough, a couple of years ago I got this idea. You’re going to make fun of me, so let’s just get this over with.

I decided to, um, commission a painting of my pets.


Here’s that pull-apart bread again to distract you from what I just said.

I would try to defend myself, but I know plenty of you are in the process of making a birthday cake for your cat or buying your dog one of these right now. You don’t have even a millimeter of room to talk. Ha!

Anyway, the painting was going to be an ironic interpretation of Grant Wood’s American Gothic. It would have the same surreal quality, but look something like this:


Don’t worry, Squirt’s happy. He always frowns.

The painting unfortunately never came to fruition, but I got an email a couple of weeks ago that revived the dream. It was from Easy Canvas Prints, a company that transforms pictures to canvas. They asked if I might like to create a canvas from one of my photos and write up a review.

I often turn down product reviews because they don’t fit my vision for Willow Bird Baking (I could talk for hours about my philosophy on blog-brand relations and the role of bloggers in journalism and integrity, etc., but I’ll spare you). But when I’m asked to review a product I’m genuinely excited about, I have no problem giving it an honest try.


I want to give this an honest try, too. Or a dozen honest tries.

Easy Canvas Photos offered me a free small canvas print or a discount on a larger one to review. I chose to get a larger one and, though I seriously considered printing a big ol’ cheesecake on it, decided to finally create that pet portrait. Thankfully, my new camera had just been ordered and Byrd had a grooming appointment scheduled. Once she was coiffed, we had a little photo shoot.

Some of the photos were, um, less than canvas-worthy:


Really, Byrd? Really?!

We finally got a good one, though, and ordering my canvas took literally minutes. Once you choose a canvas size, you upload your photo. The site determines if it’s high enough quality for the canvas so you don’t have to wonder. You then choose how to have the canvas wrapped (you can get a solid color on the sides of the canvas, or let the image wrap around the edges — I chose the latter). And just like that, your work of art is finished.

When my canvas arrived in the mail, I was overjoyed with it. It’s high quality and downright adorable. If I weren’t just about as poor as a pile of dirt (and if I had infinite patience) I would put a bowtie on Squirt and take a billion photos (“FLIPPIN’ HOLD STILL AND WILL YOU GET YOUR HEAD OUT OF YOUR SHELL!!”) to make one of him, too. Maybe someday.

Want to see how it turned out?


Awwww. Sweet haircut thanks to Tami at the Dog Salon.

In short, my experience with Easy Canvas Prints was a great one. It was an easy process with reasonable prices and a lovely result. I think you should go immortalize your pumpkin-wumpkin, too.

Now about that other pumpkin — Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread! Hopefully you’ve seen this lovely loaf being rebaked and reposted around other blogs, but Willow Bird Baking is the home of the original recipe. I cobbled it together from pumpkin yeast dough and cinnamon pull-apart bread recipes and had no idea if it would be the right texture or even come together at all. I’m so glad I had the courage to experiment, though, because it was phenomenal.

The aroma of yeast dough alone was enough to make it a success, but the sweet autumn flavors were the real victory. The buttery rum glaze complemented the mild pumpkin and cinnamon spice of the warm, tender yeast dough. The recipe takes a bit of time, but most of that is waiting for dough to rise — and of course the taste more than makes up for every minute of work.

Okay, spill it: What silly things have you done for your pets?

Pumpkin Spice Pull-Apart Bread with Butter Rum Glaze


Recipe by: Willow Bird Baking, adapted from All Recipes, Joy the Baker, and Pumpkin Tart
Yields: one loaf, about 8 servings
Prep Time: (including dough rising) about 3 hours

This sticky, sweet pumpkin pull-apart loaf is irresistible. It’s made from layers of fluffy pumpkin yeast dough coated with browned butter, cinnamon, sugar, and nutmeg. Let it cool until it has just a hint of warmth left, drizzle on some glaze, and enjoy — preferably with the windows open to let in a crisp autumn breeze. Oh, and by the way, this recipe makes use of a stand mixer fitted with a dough hook, but there’s no reason you can’t knead this dough by hand. It’ll just take a little longer (and a little more elbow grease).

Pumpkin Pull-Apart Bread Ingredients:
1/2 cup milk
3/4 cup pumpkin puree
1/4 cup white sugar
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
2 1/4 teaspoons (1 envelope) active dry yeast
2 1/2 cups bread flour

Filling Ingredients:
1 cup granulated sugar
2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
1/2 teaspoon fresh ground nutmeg
2 tablespoons unsalted butter

Butter Rum Glaze Ingredients:
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/8 cup brown sugar
1 tablespoon plus 1 1/2 teaspoons milk
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1/4 teaspoon rum (the original recipe called for extract, which I found too strong)

Directions:
Make the pull-apart bread dough: Grease and flour a loaf pan and set aside. In a saucepan over medium-high heat, brown the 2 tablespoons of butter. Let it bubble and foam and when you see it start to brown, stir it so that it browns evenly. When it’s the color of dark honey, remove it from the heat and pour it into a large heat-safe mixer bowl to cool. In the same saucepan over medium-low heat, warm the milk until it bubbles. Remove it from the heat and pour it into the bowl with the butter. Let these cool until they’re about 100-110 degrees F (use a candy thermometer to check). Set the saucepan aside for another use later. I use the same one throughout the entire recipe; why do more dishes?

Stir the sugar and yeast into the milk/butter mixture and let it sit for about 10 minutes to proof (it should foam; if it doesn’t, discard it yeast and try again with new yeast). Stir in pumpkin, salt, and 1 cup flour. If you haven’t already, fit your mixer with a dough hook. Add the rest of the flour 1/2 cup at a time, stirring between each addition. When the dough is combined, knead on low speed with a dough hook until smooth and elastic (about 4 minutes with a mixer).

Place the dough in a greased bowl and cover it with a damp cloth. Let it rise in a warm place for about an hour until it doubles in size (After it rises, you can put it in the fridge overnight to use it in the morning, but let it sit out for half an hour before rolling if you do.)

Make the filling: While the dough is rising, whisk the sugar, cinnamon, and nutmeg together in a small bowl. Toward the end of the rising time, melt the 2 tablespoons of butter for the filling in the saucepan over medium-high heat and brown it as directed above. Put it in a small heat-safe bowl to cool for use later.

Shape and bake pull-apart bread: Knead a sprinkling of flour (about 1 tablespoon) into the dough, deflating it, and recover it. Let it sit to relax for 5 minutes. Flour a large work surface and turn your rested dough out onto it. Roll it out to a 20 inch long and 12 inch wide rectangle, lifting corners periodically to make sure it’s not sticking. If it seems to be snapping back, cover it with your damp towel and let it rest for 5 minutes before continuing (I had to do this twice during the process).

Spread the browned butter over the surface of the dough with a pastry brush and then sprinkle the sugar mixture over the top, patting it down to ensure it mostly sticks. Joy the Baker encourages you to use it all even though it seems like a ton, but I admit I got squeamish at the amount and only used most. It was fine despite my nerves. Go ahead and pile it on.

With the long edge of the rectangle toward you, cut it into 6 strips (do this by cutting the rectangle in half, then cutting each half into equal thirds. I used a pizza cutter). Stack these strips on top of one another and cut the resulting stack into 6 even portions (again, cut it in half, and then cut the halves into equal thirds). Place these portions one at a time into your greased loaf pan, pressing them up against each other to fit them all in. Cover the pan with your damp cloth and place it in a warm place for 30-45 minutes to double in size.

While dough rises, preheat oven to 350 degrees F (or 325 if you have a glass loaf dish instead of a metal pan). When it’s risen, place the loaf in the center of the oven and bake for 30-35 minutes until dark golden brown on top (if you take it out at light golden brown, it’s liable to be raw in the middle, so let it get good and dark). Cool for 20-30 minutes on a cooling rack in the loaf pan while you make the glaze.

Make the glaze: In your saucepan, bring the butter, milk, and brown sugar to a boil over medium-high heat. Remove it from heat, add the powdered sugar and rum, and whisk it to a smooth consistency.

Assemble and serve: Use a butter knife to loosen all sides of the bread from the loaf pan and gently turn it out onto a plate. Place another plate on top and flip it to turn it right side up. Drizzle glaze over top. Serve each piece slightly warm with a drizzle of glaze.

Easy Canvas Prints offered me a discount on the canvas I ordered and asked for an honest review. My opinions are unvarnished and never influenced by products or discounts provided.

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Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies

It happens every year. Early in the springtime, the Sunday comes when I find a neon card tucked inside of my church bulletin, scrounge around in my purse for a pen, and scrawl out some contact information. I drop the card in the jar in the lobby on my way out. I wait for the email telling me where to come for training, inevitably miss training, go to the makeup training. Finally, it’s the first night of Vacation Bible School. I try to find some fun earrings to wear (for some reason, fun earrings have always struck me as a key tool in childcare), and head over to the church.

Last year there was a ranch theme, so every night was spent air-lassoing imaginary animals, tipping our imaginary cowperson hats, conducting chili tastings (I couldn’t make this stuff up), playing with ranch paraphernalia foreign to many of those city kids, and hearing stories about Jesus.

I took great delight in dancing and singing wholeheartedly during worship while all of my third grade charges stared, trying to decide whether I was cool or embarrassing. No comment on their verdict. But we all had a lot of fun.

One of the boys last year (I’ll call him John) stood out to me from the first night. He was subdued, and his freckled face wore the same blank expression no matter what the activity. He seemed guarded, like he had already reached the stage where he wasn’t sure if it was still cool to have fun.

In music class, though, he was different. The music teacher (I’ll call him Mr. Maestro) had a wry sense of humor that John responded to right away. As a result, John would chirrup witty responses to Mr. Maestro’s questions and call out periodically in class. The interruptions were sometimes too frequent, and I could tell by the edge in Mr. Maestro’s voice that he thought John was a bit of a troublemaker. I knew John was actually very sweet, but I wasn’t concerned, since Mr. Maestro was never unfair, just firm.

As an aside, trying not to peg students as “the troublemaker” or “the clown” or “the slacker” is a constant, noble effort of good teachers everywhere. Kids are so dynamic, and most of them truly want to please the adults around them; for this reason, it’s vital to continually give them a fresh slate and the opportunity to remake themselves. That doesn’t mean it’s not a struggle.

On the very last day in music class, Mr. Maestro made a lovely point about helping others. In response, John began enthusiastically, “I sometimes help my mom!” Before he could continue, Mr. Maestro responded, “Oh, do you? That’s nice,” to cut him off at the pass and get on with the lesson. Something turned over in my heart as I watched John disappointedly release the breath with which he had hoped to tell his story.

Before you judge Mr. Maestro too harshly, please think back to a time when you’ve been interrupted repeatedly by a child eager to tell a story. It can be taxing. Some days in my own class, I feel like 75% of my job is shutting down off-topic story telling. Some of those stories were about So-and-so’s sister who ate half a gluestick, but some of them were probably truly charming, edifying additions to our class. We just don’t always have the time. I just don’t always have the energy. We’re all human.

Nevertheless that night, seeing John’s crestfallen face and remembering the emphasis in VBS training on listening to every child, I was determined to do something.

Back downstairs at worship at the end of the night, I was worried John would have long since forgotten his story. I screamed over the din of about a bajillion hyper children and the ecstatic worship music, “John, what was that you were saying about helping your mom?”

The way his face immediately lit up touched my heart; sure enough, this was a special story to him. He explained that his mom was sick and very tired, and so he sometimes swept the floor or did the dishes. With childlike sincerity, he revealed that he was glad he got to serve her.

I could tell he was thankful to share his story, but I was beyond thankful to hear it. It was a moment when God reminded me again (He does so often) that my job is to love Him with all of my heart, mind, and soul, and to love others just as much as I love myself.

Vacation Bible School started up again this week, and while John isn’t in my class this year, I do have more than 20 fourth graders to lead. And you’d better believe I’m doing a ton of listening! So far I’ve heard about video games, making homemade ice cream, a dying grandfather, a new baby sister, and baseball. What serious, funny, sad, crazy, and important things they have to say!

So, in honor of all of those sweet little ones, here are some sweet little pies! I loved my Aunt Pat’s Strawberry Cream Pie so much that I decided to make it in miniature — and in blueberry! These little pies are bright, fresh, and creamy in addition to being adorable finger foods. They’re an especially great first step for a home cook who’s nervous about rolling out a pie crust, since there’s no rolling involved. Happy summer!

Itsy Bitsy Berry Cream Pies


Recipe by: Adapted from my Aunt Pat’s Strawberry Cream Pie recipe
Yields: about 56 mini pies

Crust Ingredients:
4 cups flour
2 teaspoons salt
3/4 cup cold shortening or lard
3/4 cup cold butter, chopped
6-8 tablespoons cold water

Cream Filling Ingredients:
1/2 cup sugar
3 tablespoons cornstarch
3 tablespoons flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups milk
1 egg, slightly beaten
1/2 cup whipping cream
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1.5 cups of diced fresh strawberries (or about 1.5 cups blueberries)

Glaze Ingredients:
1 cup fresh strawberries (or blueberries)
1 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
4 teaspoons cornstarch

Directions:
Note on timing: To make the preparation of these mini pies even more manageable, I prepared and baked the pie shells a day in advance. I then made the cream filling, diced the berries, and made my glaze on the day I was planning to serve them. They really benefit from at least a few hours in the fridge before serving.

Make the crust dough: Pulse flour and salt together to combine. Add scoops of lard and pulse into the mixture has the texture of coarse sand, about 10 seconds. Add in chunks of butter and pulse until butter pieces are no larger than small peas, about 10 pulses. Add minimum amount of water and pulse on low. If dough remains crumbly and doesn’t come together, add another 2 tablespoons of water. Add as little as is required to enable the dough to be rolled into a ball. Form the dough into a disk, wrap in plastic, and refrigerate for 20-30 minutes.

After the dough has chilled, preheat the oven to 450 degrees F. Take about 1/4 of the dough out of the fridge at a time. Pinch off walnut-sized balls. Place a ball in each well of an ungreased mini-muffin pan. Using your fingers, work the dough up the sides of each well. Use a fork to “dock” the bottom and sides of the dough –poke holes in it so that it doesn’t puff up too much as it bakes. Bake for 12-15 minutes or until lightly browned. Cool the mini pie shells in the pan for 5 minutes or so before gently removing them (you can use a table knife to help you lever them out) to a cooling rack to cool completely.

Make cream filling: While the crust bakes, prepare your cream filling. Prepare an ice water bath in a bowl big enough to accommodate your saucepan. Mix sugar, cornstarch, flour, and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in the milk and bring to a boil, stirring constantly. Reduce heat and cook until thickened, still stirring constantly. Spoon out about 1/4 cup of your hot mixture and gradually drizzle it into your beaten egg, whisking constantly. This will temper the egg so that when you add it back into the hot mixture, it won’t cook. Add the egg into the hot mixture, continuing to stir constantly. Bring this just to boiling.

Set the saucepan in the ice water bath and stir it periodically as it cools. Once cool enough, chill the mixture in the refrigerator. During this time, whip the cream and vanilla together to stiff peaks. Take the chilled mixture from the fridge and beat it to break it up. Stir in about 1/3 of the cream to lighten it, and then gently fold in the rest of the cream until well combined. Chill until ready to use.

Assemble the pies: Using a piping bag (or a ziplock with the corner cut off), pipe cream into each pie shell. Top with diced strawberries or blueberries. Chill these while you make your glaze.

Make the glaze: Crush 1 cup of strawberries (or blueberries) and cook with water in a saucepan over medium-high heat for two minutes. Strain through a fine mesh sieve and discard the pulp. Add the juice back to the saucepan over medium-high heat and gradually stir in sugar and cornstarch. Cook until thickened. If you want, you can tint this glaze with food coloring to desired hue, but mine was plenty bright enough! Cool the glaze slightly, and then spoon over the top of your mini pies. Chill pies for at least a few hours for best results.

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Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid

So much dust. Shuffling papers, flying markers, scuffling footsteps. The crush of boxes being broken down, the shrill hum of students’ voices. As chairs were stacked and debris was cleared, the classroom started to look foreign. There was an alien quality to the space (cleanness, maybe? emptiness?) that made us all feel like we didn’t quite belong there anymore.

And we didn’t, really. It was the last, abbreviated week of school. The kids had one foot out the door, and the other was probably kicking someone under the table.

The teachers out there will give me an amen when I say that during those last few days, you fight a losing battle for your students’ attention. My middle schoolers and I work until the last minute — reflecting on how their writing has grown over the course of the year, finishing up our last novel — but there’s always a current of near-hysteria that runs through the classroom at the end of the year. I start to feel like I’m trying to hold back a tidal wave with a beach towel. At any given moment, they’re about to lose their little minds entirely and start surfing on the tables.

When I realize we’ve reached this point, the turning of the tide of sanity, I start pining for summer myself. Up until then, everything is a flurry of urgent business: grading projects, writing emails, blogging, creating curriculum. There’s barely a second to let the idea of vacation sink in. But finally, staring into a dozen sets of half-crazed student eyeballs, I see the bright summer sunshine at the end of the tunnel.

This year, I had the presence of mind to make a summer to-do list. It includes all of the mundane tasks I neglected while being a teacher 24/7 during the school year: clean under the bed, clean out the closet, reorganize the bookshelf. It contains resolutions reminiscent of New Year’s: join the Y, start exercising regularly, figure out summer meal plan. It contains techy bloggy things: move to self-hosting, spruce up Willow Bird Baking.

But something’s missing.

Know how I know? I recently re-read my Raspberry Almond Braid post from over a year ago as I was preparing to create this Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid.

When I wrote that post of yesteryear, I was on spring break and gushy about how much I loved the freedom. I listed 20 things I was enjoying, including things like running through the grass, playing fetch with Byrd, and reading. Oh, yeah. Things that are totally absent from what I’ve come to realize is my summer chore list.

Don’t worry, I’m going to fix it.

In fact, it’s only been summer vacation for one day now, but I’ve already read a book: the first of the Hunger Games series my students have been recommending to me. I’ve already done a mini craft project (a card for a friend that turned out wonky but hopefully lovable). I’ve already baked something. I’ve already taken a nap. So far, so good!

Apart from helping me realize the error of my summer ways, this Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid was also the perfect restful recipe: though the process is as simple as can be, the result looks and tastes phenomenal. The flaky, tender almond pastry surrounds a cream cheese filling in addition to the blueberry preserves, making this one of my new favorite things to eat. It’ll definitely get a heart on the WBB Recipe Index.

You have to make it as soon as you can — and then hopefully you can find the time for a summer nap in a lawn chair somewhere.

What are your family’s summertime plans?

Blueberry Cream Cheese Almond Braid



Recipe by: Adapted from Luna Cafe
Yields: 10-12 1-in. slivers of braid, or about 4 servings

Dough and Filling Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 ounces best quality cream cheese
1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup blueberry preserves (or your favorite preserves)

Cream Cheese Filling Ingredients:
8 ounces (227 grams) cream cheese, room temperature
1/4 cup granulated white sugar
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract

Icing Ingrdients:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds (optional)

Directions:
Make the cream cheese filling. In your electric mixer, or with a hand mixer, beat the 8 ounces of room temperature cream cheese until smooth. Add the sugar, egg, and vanilla extract and beat until creamy and smooth. Set aside while you make your braid.

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend into a loose dough.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead VERY LIGHTLY for 4-5 strokes. (NOTE: This is the step at which you can ruin the braid. If you overwork the dough, the pastry will be tough. Just gather the dough together and don’t worry about making it smooth. It will still look a little rough. That’s perfect.)

Between two sheets of waxed paper, roll the dough to an 8- by 12-inch rectangle. Turn dough out onto a lightly greased baking sheet and remove the waxed paper. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Spread preserves down the middle third of the dough and spread a thick line of the cream cheese mixture on either side of the preserves (still remaining in the middle third of the dough — try to keep your filling about ½ inch from the mark on both sides.)

Make 2¾-inch slight diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides (see photos below). Do not cut into the center jam-filled area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in a rotating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Bake in a 425° oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through and the top is lightly browned.

In a small glass measuring cup with a pouring spout, combine the sugar, milk, vanilla, and almond extract. Drizzle over the top of the braid. If desired, sprinkle on the toasted sliced almonds while the icing is still wet. Serve warm.

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Secret Garden Recipe: Pink Ice Petit Fours

Want to have a tea party?

We’re going to find a garden enclosed in cool, moss-covered stone walls. We’ll lay out delicate china on a wrought-iron table with ivy growing up each leg. Arrayed in sweet sundresses and sandals, we’ll carry in platefuls of hot buttered scones, pitchers of raspberry and strawberry lemonade, and pots of fragrant orange tea. Every sip will be accompanied by a staunch pinky point. Twilight will find us still laughing, unwilling to let the summer daylight slip away.

Oh, and of course there’ll be petit fours. The dainty, sweet little cake squares will be the jewels of the tea table.

What a fantasy. In actuality, I’ve just finished my first week of teacher meetings. The past few days have been filled with book shelving, furniture moving, copy making, curriculum planning, sweet student meeting, and lots of teacher giggling. I’ve left with a headache nearly every day, relieved that headache with a nap nearly every day, and even still . . . gotten a ton of work done nearly every day!

We can still have petit fours, though, right? Petit fours are sweet little tea time desserts that seem to specialize in being adorable. Any number of miniature desserts can be classified as petit fours (literally “small ovens” in French), but for my sister’s surprise garden party earlier this summer, I knew I wanted dense, fruity cake squares. Petit fours are sometimes filled with jams, and then are covered in poured fondant or chocolate.

Now, before I gush, these bite-sized cakes were not perfect. More specifically, the poured fondant was not perfect. In fact, instead of “poured,” let’s call it glopped fondant. Shall we?

The thing is, fondant is going to be super sweet. There’s a cavity-inducing amount of confectioner’s sugar in it, not to mention the corn syrup. The only hope of this stuff covering your petit fours and not ending up with a cloying mess is making sure the poured fondant is heated enough to be very thin, so only a thin layer sticks to the outside of the cake square. This proved to be impossible with the recipe I used. It was warmed in a double boiler for gentle heating, but as soon as I started to pour, I was only able to cover a couple of cake squares before it was glop. Even when it was fully heated, it never really got thin enough to cover the squares in a reasonable way. As a result, they were too sweet.

Oh, and that color? That was not the color I was going for. I had a pale, rose petal pink in mind. Um, that’s all I’ll say about that.

While the petit fours weren’t perfect, the taste itself (beyond the fondant) was so wonderful. The cake was deliciously moist, cool, and dense with a gorgeous buttery almond flavor. The raspberry jam covering was the perfect complement to the almond (one of my favorite flavor combinations!) and was simple to brush on, though it never dried completely. Really, if you use poured white chocolate or a different poured fondant recipe (how about trying this one, which looks great?), these would be fantastic (and they’d probably look a little less “gloppy” as well). Even in their overly sweet state, I ate a ton of them due to their brilliant flavorings.

This is also one of those recipes that ends up looking fancy despite being relatively easy to make — and you know I love those. A few key steps (like freezing the cake before cutting it up and making sure your fruit glaze is very thin) ensure that the process is relatively simple.

Go have a tea party!

Pink Ice Petit fours



Recipe by: Adapted from Diana’s Desserts
Yield: 60 1-inch petit fours, or about 16 2-inch petit fours

NOTE: This recipe does not include the poured fondant recipe or instructions due to the aforementioned difficulties. If you want to try poured fondant, I’d recommend looking at this post on Cakes and Cupboards, which looks promising. Nevertheless, poured fondant might still be too sweet for you. Another option is a poured chocolate. You’ll probably need two coats if you use white chocolate. If you want completely smooth petit fours, I recommend using a thin layer of rolled marzipan under your icing, or the buttercream procedure outlined on Cakes and Cupboards, above.

Cake Ingredients:
1/4 cup butter, melted
1/4 cup shortening
1 cup sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 teaspoon almond extract
1-1/3 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
2/3 cup milk
3 egg whites

Fruit Glaze:
12 ounces raspberry preserves (or heated jelly)
3 tablespoons water

Directions:
Prepare the cake. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F. Grease and flour a 9-inch baking pan, or use Wilton’s Cake Release.

Cream butter, shortening, and sugar together in a large bowl. Beat in vanilla and almond extracts. In a separate bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Add dry ingredients to the creamed mixture alternately with the milk. In another bowl, beat egg whites to soft peaks. Gently fold the egg whites into the batter.

Pour the batter into the cake pan and bake for 20-25 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Remove from oven and let cool in pan for 10 minutes. Turn cake out onto a cooling rack. When cooled, chill cake in refrigerator for a bit before freezing it for at least 1 hour.

Right before removing the cake from the freezer, prepare fruit glaze. In a medium saucepan, heat preserves with the 3 tablespoons water on low heat. If using jelly, judge whether or not you need any of the water to make it a thin consistency.

Remove cake from freezer. Using a long, serrated knife, cut a thin slice off each side of chilled cake. Cut cake into squares of desired size (for me, about 1.5-inch squares). Place squares 1/2 inch apart on a cooling rack over a sheet pan. Use a pastry brush to spread a thin layer of heated preserves over tops and sides of petit fours before icing. Allow excess to drip off. Let dry (I put them in the fridge and let them set up a bit — they never really “dry”). Repeat if necessary to thoroughly coat squares.

Prepare your desired poured fondant or chocolate and pour over the petit fours. Decorate the tops with different frostings, chocolates, sprinkles, candy, sugar flowers, etc. as you wish. Refrigerate until ready to eat — eat within a day or two.

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Ina Garten’s Lemon Loaf Cake and Raffaldini Vineyards

So what have you been up to this summer? As you know, up until this past weekend, I had not fulfilled my summer quota of fun sunshiney activities — no beach, no pool, no picnic. With school looming ahead of me (teacher meetings start tomorrow), something had to be done. Quickly.

My friend Vada saved the day (er, the season?). We Jazzercise together and she invited me to join her and a group of her fun friends for a road trip. It was her friend Lori’s birthday and they were headed to Raffaldini Vineyards in Ronda, NC.

When she first suggested it, I wasn’t sure. I don’t drink, so what would I do at a vineyard? Would I end up counting grapes in the corner as everyone else played wine pong (that’s what they do at vineyards, right)? As it turns out, though, Vada doesn’t drink either, and she was certain it would still be fun. I’m up for fun! I told her to count me in.


Vada and Luca

I’m so glad I went, because it was fun. Turns out, vineyards are beautiful — or at least Raffaldini Vineyards certainly were! We drove about an hour out of Charlotte and suddenly it felt like we were in Italy. Vada’s friend Luca, our resident Italian, agreed that it reminded him of home — a nice stamp of authenticity. As promised, fun ensued.

First, we ate a lovely picnic on an outdoor patio overlooking the vineyards and mountains in the distance. The vineyards offered a whole menu of food you could purchase on-site, but I brought a little packed lunch to save money. I also brought this bright, summery Lemon Loaf Cake, which was moist and traveled so well. Vada, who is an absolutely extraordinary cake decorator, brought cupcakes along. We had quite a feast!

After our picnic, we took a brief tour of the vineyard, learning about the soil, growing practices, and types of grapes grown. While others enjoyed a wine tasting, Vada and I took a walk around the grounds and had a photo shoot. Finally, we took a tour of the winery and learned how the wines were made. It was so informative — not being a drinker, I tend to think of grapes as the basis of jelly and “tannin” as something you do at the beach. I learned a lot! The best part? The entire day only cost me $8 — and that included buying a bottled water on-site.


Vada’s gorgeous cupcakes and the quick Lemon Loaf Cake packed for traveling!

This one little day trip kind of made my summer! It was filled with sweet people, good food, beautiful surroundings. How about you? Does one event or activity this summer stand out as your favorite?

You can relive part of my end of summer fun by making this quick, simple loaf cake for yourself. It has a tangy, drenched lemon flavor that will help you kiss the summer days farewell.

Lemon Loaf Cake



Recipe by: Adapted from Ina Garten, using ideas from Two Peas and Their Pod
Yields: one 8-inch loaf

Cake Ingredients:
1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
2 teaspoons baking powder
1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1 cup plain whole-milk yogurt or sour cream
1 1/3 cups sugar, divided
3 eggs
2 teaspoons grated lemon zest or 2 teaspoons lemon extract
1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/3 cup freshly squeezed lemon juice

Glaze Ingredients:
1 cup confectioners’ sugar
2 tablespoons freshly squeezed lemon juice

Directions:
Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Grease an 8 1/2 x 4 1/4 x 2 1/2-inch loaf pan (I use Wilton’s Cake Release). Line the bottom with parchment paper and butter and flour the entire pan.

Sift the flour, baking powder, and salt together into a medium bowl. In a large bowl, whisk together yogurt, 1 cup of the sugar, eggs, lemon zest or extract, and vanilla. Slowly add the dry ingredients into the wet, whisking to combine (I did this in 2-3 additions). Use a rubber spatula to fold the vegetable oil into the batter until it’s fully incorporated. Pour into the prepared pan and bake for about 50 minutes, or until a cake tester stuck in the center of the loaf comes out clean.

While the cake is baking, combine the 1/3 cup lemon juice and remaining 1/3 cup sugar in a small saucepan over medium heat and cook until the sugar dissolves and the mixture is clear. Set aside.

When the cake is done, allow it to cool in the pan for 10 minutes before removing it and placing it on a baking rack over a sheet pan. Use a cake tester, wooden skewer, or toothpick to carefully pierce holes throughout the cake (I used a toothpick so the holes wouldn’t be too obvious, but a skewer might have made deeper holes in the cake, allowing more syrup to get through). While the cake is still warm, pour the lemon-sugar mixture over the cake and allow it to soak in. Cool completely.

In a small bowl, combine the confectioners’ sugar and lemon juice, whisking to form a smooth glaze. Pour over the cake. Slice and serve with fresh berries, whipped cream, or ice cream.

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Raspberry Almond Braid

20 things I love about SPRING BREAK:

1. Wearing sundresses and new dollar store flip-flops.

2. Playing with a dollar store Frisbee in the parking lot with Mike (and realizing that we are truly terrible at Frisbee).

3. Mike’s family’s Easter egg hunt. I ended up with polleny toes and a scraped up arm — but it was worth it. I found 6 eggs! Who says this stuff is just for kids?

4. Playing fetch with Byrd, who has been following me around with her pink rubber bone in her mouth.

5. Running through soft grass barefoot.

6. Witnessing an all-out wasp vs. bees war on my balcony. The gigantic humble bees are bouncing around the new nest the wasps are building, causing an uproar. All of this goes on overhead while I try to focus on photographing my food!

7. Reading books with wet hair after an evening shower.

8. Watching marathons of Undercover Boss online and bawling the entire time. I can’t help it! I’m a softie. Thanks Heidi and Shannon for recommending the show to me!

9. Reminiscing about April Fool’s Day. My 6th grade students received a fake test that they diligently tried to complete with sad looks on their little faces until I finally revealed my trickery (sample question: “What happened on page 148 of the novel?”). The 7th graders were redirected from room to room via signs before finally arriving and being “chewed out” for being late — I’m a good actor when I need to be! They got me pretty good, too: a fake cup of hot chocolate “spilled” all over my desk.

10. Photographing food outside in WARM, SUNNY weather. Such a difference from shivering on my balcony, fiddling with my tripod with numb fingers!

11. Leaving my hair down and letting it swing around my shoulders. Or tying my hair up in pigtails and feeling only a little silly.

12. Eating delicious Indian food before coming home and devouring cheesecake squares.

13. Getting the BEST parking spot outside my apartment building, because everyone else is at work! Mwahaha!

14. Sitting at my desk with the windows thrown open beside me, birds singing, squirrels nesting in the trees, and the occasional lawnmower revving in the distance.

15. Waking up, eating breakfast . . . and then taking a nap.

16. Planning Mike’s BIRTHDAY DINNER and DESSERT for this upcoming weekend! And actually having the time and energy to make it fancy!

17. The spring part.

18. The break part.

19. Everything . . .

20. . . . including this Raspberry Almond Braid.

This Raspberry Almond Braid is a tender, flaky, almond-flavored pastry enveloping rich raspberry preserves and topped with a sweet glaze. I was hunting for something simple and comforting to take to the ladies in my Bible study and decided a raspberry cream cheese coffee cake would be perfect . . . only I couldn’t settle on any of the recipes I found. Some were too heavy and cakey; some involved yeasted dough, which felt too finicky for me today. So when I found this braid — made with a quick cream cheese dough — I was sold.

The cream cheese dough was lovely to work with in that it didn’t stick to my rolling pin or the sheets of wax paper I rolled it out between. It actually felt a lot like the crescent roll dough you can buy in stores, so I’m sure you could whip this braid up with one of those cans — but this tasted a ton better! It was almondy and had an almost creamy flavor. The entire dessert was subtly sweet, rich, satisfying, and created in less than an hour.

And you know what I love the most about this braid? In addition to being easy, fast, and delicious, it’s so pretty! Don’t you love simple recipes that look fancy? Make this Raspberry Almond Braid for a quick breakfast one morning this spring, or for a light dessert. I’ll definitely be rounding up my favorite flavors of preserves to make this again!

Raspberry Almond Braid



Recipe by: Adapted from Luna Cafe
Yields: 10-12 1-in. slivers of braid, or about 4 servings

Dough and Filling Ingredients:
2 cups all-purpose flour, sifted
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter
3 ounces best quality cream cheese
1/2 cup milk, minus 1/2 teaspoon
1/2 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup raspberry preserves (or your favorite preserves)

Icing Ingrdients:
1/2 cup powdered sugar
1 tablespoon milk
1/8 teaspoon vanilla
1/8 teaspoon almond extract
2 tablespoons toasted sliced almonds (optional)

Directions:
Preheat oven to 425 degrees F. In the bowl of a food processor, mix the flour, baking powder, and salt. Add the cream cheese and butter into the flour mixture and pulse to cut the fat into the flour (about 6 pulses). Add the milk and almond extract and blend into a loose dough.

Turn the dough onto a floured surface and knead VERY LIGHTLY for 4-5 strokes. (NOTE: This is the step at which you can ruin the braid. If you overwork the dough, the pastry will be tough. Just gather the dough together and don’t worry about making it smooth. It will still look a little rough. That’s perfect.)

Between two sheets of waxed paper, roll the dough to an 8- by 12-inch rectangle. Turn dough out onto a lightly greased baking sheet and remove the waxed paper. Measure and mark the dough lengthwise into thirds. Spread preserves down the middle third of the dough, keeping it about ½ inch from the mark on both sides.

Make 2¾-inch slight diagonal cuts at 1-inch intervals on each the long sides. Do not cut into the center jam-filled area. Fold strips, first one from one side and then one from the other side in a rotating fashion, over the filling. It will now resemble a braid. Bake in a 425° oven for 12-15 minutes, until the dough is cooked through and the top is lightly browned.

In a small glass measuring cup with a pouring spout, combine the sugar, milk, vanilla, and almond extract. Drizzle over the top of the braid. If desired, sprinkle on the toasted sliced almonds while the icing is still wet. Serve warm.







Enjoy!


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