Year of No Sugar

6/12/14

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“Sugar and me? We go way back. I love sugar. LOOOOVVVVVE it. I love everything about it: how it makes little occasions special and special occasions fabulous.”

When I read these first few lines of Eve Schaub’s recently released book Year of No Sugar: A Memoir (Sourcebooks, 2014) I felt an immediate kinship. After all, in my cookbook Sweet Home I claim that “dessert is in my DNA.” I grew up with access to some homemade foil-covered treat in kitchen at all times and sweets were a part of every celebration.

It seems Eve, like me, believed home-baked goods are a form of love. In her book, Eve relays a time when a fellow mom asked about the ingredients of her cupcakes. Eve rattled off the ingredients, which included vanilla. “Oh, vanilla…Ariella can’t have vanilla. It has corn syrup in it. It makes her crazy,” the mom replied.

Eve was silently skeptical, “After all, this [her cupcakes] was not some Day-Glo impostor from the ‘bakery’ aisle at the supermarket; this was home baked! Made with love! As far as I was concerned, homemade food was health food. Period. Wasn’t that what Michael Pollen had effectively said?”

A year ago I would have nodded my head enthusiastically in agreement, “Yup, absolutely Eve. What is wrong with a little vanilla?”

I have grappled with the idea of sugar since the publication of my book—a collection of family dessert recipes—two years ago. As I passed out samples of chocolate Kahlúa pound cake and deep-fried rosettes at baking demos, more than just a few would pass and say “I’m cutting down on sugar.”

“But what’s a little bite,” I would think. After much reading and research though, I am beginning to understand, and Eve’s book confirms many of my thoughts: sugar is everywhere.

My awareness of sugar has grown exponentially in the past few years. Just try cutting it out. It’s not the sweet treats that are difficult, well at least in theory because they’re the obvious candidates for elimination, it’s the foods like bacon, the condiments like mayonnaise and Worcestershire sauce, and are you ready, even the chicken salad at Panera. The unsuspecting Chicken Cobb Salad has sugar listed in the first 8 of more than 20 ingredients (and that doesn’t include the dressing!).

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Throughout her book, Eve amusingly shares the trials and tribulations of eliminating sugar from her family’s daily diet. Her girls, ages 6 and 11 at the time of the “project,” promptly cried when she told them about her Year of No Sugar plan but they did come around to the idea and participated willingly.

There were some exceptions to the no-sugar rule, which eventually included the use of dextrose in baking. It took me a little while to get my head around this—why exactly was dextrose okay? I had the pleasure of speaking with Eve over the phone for a Babycenter interview (read more here) and she said there was no doubt that learning about sugar molecules got very scientific, and she tried to explain the concept to me again, “ dextrose and powdered dextrose are from corn, not fructose, which is the bad sugar that produces toxic by-products.”

What she said in her book, and was saying again, is that fructose, NOT dextrose, really is the culprit when it comes to sugar. Andrew Wilder, on his blog Eating Rules, does a really good job of explaining the six key types of dietary sugar molecules. He also cites a Time magazine article from 2009 that outlines how our body’s respond differently to glucose than fructose.

Okay, you ready? Take a deep breath. I’m going to try and give you the thirty-second explanation: sugar (sucrose) is made up roughly of half glucose and half fructose. Sucrose is found in sugar beets, sugar cane, corn, and other plants. When sucrose is extracted and refined, it makes table sugar (Skerrett, Harvard Health).

So the half of sucrose that is important is glucose, which is what provides our body with energy and is needed by every cell and organ in our body. Glucose comes from food we eat. It is broken down in our stomachs and absorbed into our bloodstream.

Fructose, on the other hand, is the bad half of sucrose. Fructose occurs naturally in fruits and vegetables. Now this is where it gets slightly confusing because you may be wondering like I, “but aren’t those things good for you?”

Eating fruits with naturally occurring sugar is okay because the amount of fructose is so little, and the fiber and nutrients of the fruit itself are so beneficial.

However, when fructose is added to things like beverages and other processed foods, too much of it at once can overwhelm our body’s ability to process it and the liver starts to produce triglycerides (fat).

When the low-fat trend of eating took hold, sugar in many forms was added to foods to better their taste. It’s hidden, and has many different names, some which sound more appealing than others but really are all the same:

High-fructose corn syrup

Cane Juice

Beet Sugar

Fruit Juice Concentrate

Honey

Maple Syrup

Agave

This list is just a very few of the dozens of names for sugar.

But what about dextrose? Where does that fit in? Well, biochemically glucose and dextrose are the same so dextrose can be considered a better sweetener based on how it’s processed in the body. It is usually derived from grains, most often corn in the US.

Now the question may arise how something made from corn can be better for you since high-fructose corn syrup is reputedly so bad for you? Naturally corn syrup does not have fructose in it. It’s when a particular enzyme is added that glucose-only corn syrup turns to fructose and becomes what is known as the evil high-fructose corn syrup.

Corn itself is not bad for you. In fact, an ear of corn has about the same calories as an apple and less than one-fourth the sugar. And don’t hesitate to pick up an ear of sweet corn in fears that it’s genetically modified. Only 3-4% of sweet corn grown in the US was GMO (Estabrook, Eating Well).

So after much research, Eve felt dextrose was safe to include in her diet. Ultimately, it was only fructose (the bad sugar) she was eliminating. After mulling her explanation over several times, I finally understood.

And now I understood why just a small piece of something sweet is an issue for some people and not for someone like my grandmother, who just turned 93 a month ago—and enjoyed dessert every night. Unlike many today, my grandmother does not buy processed foods. When raising her family, she prepared dinner every night: a protein, a starch and a vegetable—and dessert. She cooked with butter, and got many of her vegetables from the surrounding farms in her Wisconsin town. She even baked her own rolls.

My grandmother was a farm-to-table gal before farm to table became a buzzword—sugars weren’t hiding in the foods in her cabinet and fridge. The only sugar she ingested was what she knowingly put into baked goods. So for her, desserts worked. For our generation, perhaps not so much so. We’re getting sugar without even knowing it.

Eve Schaub has certainly heightened my awareness of sugar. After reading Year of No Sugar, I haven’t been able to walk in the grocery store without reading a label (which I always did, but now it’s really consuming). If you’re looking for an entertaining read, pick up a copy and see if you can’t help but avoiding the sweet stuff—even that can be addictive. Check out Eve’s Year of No Sugar blog too.

Sugared Mango Muffins

4/20/14
Photo by Philip Ficks

Photo by Philip Ficks

Weekend mornings spent at home call for big breakfasts. Still in our pajamas, my family and I take time to prepare dishes that weekday schedules prohibit: Belgian waffles, baked eggs, and muffins. We love muffins, and our favorites are the ones laden with sweet, ripe fruit—blueberries, bananas, raspberries, peaches. While I prefer this recipe with mango, you can substitute any of the aforementioned fruits. Although usually available year round, mangoes are at their best in spring and summer, which is when I bake these moist muffins that aren’t too dense and deliver the essence of mango.

Mangoes that are green and hard should ripen after a few days at room temperature. The feel and smell of the mango are much more important than the color. Never refrigerate unripe mangoes.  If ripe mangoes aren’t available, look for jarred mango in the produce section or bags of mango chunks in the frozen food section, now available from Trader Joe’s and Dole. When mangoes are in season (and usually on sale), I buy them in bulk, cut the fruit into chunks, and freeze it in air-tight containers.

Do you struggle with cutting mangoes though?

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It can be difficult getting close to the pit. Even when I make a bad cut though I never worry about mango going to waste in our house. My kids suck those pits clean, almost as good as licking batter off the spoon!

However, after I made these muffins for a friend staying with us, a week later I received an oddly-shaped package in the mail. You know the kind, a bulging paper envelope that’s slightly too small for its contents, ripped in a few spots with bubble wrap and newspaper peeking through. When I opened it, this is what I found inside:

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A mango splitter. This cool little kitchen gadget is made by OXO. It was actually invented by a pastor about 10 years ago who couldn’t find any type of mango cutter on the market so he measured a bunch of pits, sought out a prototype builder, and had one made. I admire that kind of initiative…and I love that my friend sent such a thoughtful gift!

For those of you unfamiliar with this handy little tool, you simply press it down over the top of a mango and it cuts close to the pit leaving two halves ready to slice or cube. Really makes the process a cinch.

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To cube the mango, make lengthwise and crosswise cuts into the flesh, creating a crosshatch pattern, without cutting through the peel. Then using the knife, gently slice the cubes off the peel.

Available from Amazon, Williams-Sonoma and Bed, Bath & Beyond, mango splitters sell for $13-15 dollars. If you’re in need of a gift this spring, how about a basket of these muffins paired with a mango splitter and copy of this recipe?

Sugared Mango Muffins

These muffins are best eaten the day they are baked.

Makes 16 to 18 muffins
1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
6 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 cup granulated sugar
2 large eggs, at room temperature
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
1/2 cup sour cream
2 to 3 mangoes, cut into 3/4-inch dice (about 1-1/2 cups)
2 tablespoons sparkling white sugar or coarse sugar crystals

NOTE: If using frozen mango, thaw it before adding to the batter.

1. Preheat the oven to 350°F. Place paper liners in 18 standard muffin cups.
2. Sift together the flour, salt, baking powder, and baking soda in a medium bowl. Set aside.
3. Put the butter and granulated sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment and cream together on medium for 3 minutes. Add the eggs one at a time, blending each time until fully incorporated, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed with a rubber spatula. Stir in the vanilla extract.
4. With the mixer on low, slowly add half of the dry ingredients. Using a rubber spatula, stop and scrape the sides of the bowl to ensure everything is moistened.
5. Add the sour cream and beat until just combined. With the mixer on low, add the rest of the dry ingredients until moistened, stopping and scraping down the sides of the bowl with the spatula. Do not overbeat. Stir in the mangoes using the spatula or a wooden spoon.
6. Using a tablespoon or ice cream scoop, fill the prepared muffin cups three-quarters full. Sprinkle each muffin with 1/4 teaspoon sparkling sugar.
7. Bake for 18 to 20 minutes, or until pale golden and a toothpick.

An egg you say? On chili?

3/27/14

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I never thought it’d come to this, but it has—I’m talking about the weather. But who’s not? On the elevator,at the checkout, in the park, whoever I turn to, they shake their heads and say, “can you believe this cold?”

It’s fffffreeeezing out (at least in NYC).  It’s supposed to warm up today, but it was a mighty chilly 29 degrees when I was out this morning. An extremely inspiring friend of mine, who among many distinctions can claim  breathing and meditation coach, ski coach, and high school teacher, told me she decided in early adulthood she would never let the weather bother her. She can’t change it so why fight it, and this was before she took up mediation. Instead, embrace the elements—snow, sleet, rain, or drizzle—don on a poncho, and carry on (don’t think her skiers are allowed to come in off the mountain if it’s raining).

Adopting MJ’s reasoning, I may be talking about the weather, but I’m not letting it bother me. Instead, I’m taking this opportunity before it gets too warm to share my latest fancy: chili with an egg! An egg you say? (I feel like I should reply a la Dr. Seuss, “You may like them. You will see. You may like them in a tree?”). But no, I will just say YES. If you haven’t had it, a perfectly poached egg topping a spicy veggie chili is to die for.

The egg’s creaminess blends with the fiery tomatoes and gives a rich mouthfeel. I convinced my husband Jim, also known as Rug Boy, to show you how to poach an egg. You may recognize his voice from the PBS series Antiques Roadshow, on which he has appraised rugs and textiles for over 15 years. I’ve had friends say they were in their kitchens or elsewhere in the house while the show was playing, and they could recognize Jim’s deep tone without even seeing the screen. You won’t see his face, but it’s his soothing baritone voice you’ll hear.

Rug Boy is the dedicated poacher in our house. If you haven’t done it before, for some reason cracking an egg in simmering water and letting it float around seems intimidating . Why is that? It’s just an egg and water. I don’t know but it used to scare me. So virgin poachers, if you feel the least bit uneasy, take a look at this video to ease any hesitations you may have.

To poach an egg you’ll need:

Eggs, white vinegar, a cup or small bowl, a slotted spoon, and a pan filled with water

1. Start your water at a high boil then reduce it to below simmering.

2. Add about two tablespoons of vinegar to the water.

3. Crack your egg in a cup or bowl and place it gently in the water.

4. Using the slotted spoon, push the whites near the yolk so they don’t settle on the bottom.

5. Let your eggs cook for 2 to 5 minutes then remove gently with the spoon (2-3 minutes for a runny yolk). Gently blot it with a paper towel and serve.

And like anything, it takes practice. But not much. A few tries and you, too, may become the house poacher.

Now on to the chili. I highly recommend Phoebe Lapine’s Smoky Chipotle Vegetarian Chili posted on the notable Leite’s Culinaria site. The recipe is originally from her cookbook, In the Small Kitchen (Morrow, 2011), co-authored with Cara Eisenpress.

I met the extremely lovely Phoebe at Haven’s Kitchen a few years back. At that time she was a contestant on BBC America’s Chef Race: UK vs. US. From blogging to catering, she seems to have done it all, including several appearances on Ina’s show, lucky girl! Her parents were friends with the Contessa, so Ina was a mentor of sorts to Phoebe. Check out her blog Feed Me Phoebe for more healthy comfort food recipes.

I’ve said lots about Phoebe but neglected to say anything about the chili, which, with an egg, hits the spot for a hearty meal. It may not replace the lead-brick fullness that can occur after a big bowl of stick-to-your-ribs beef chili, but isn’t that a good thing?

Loaded up with peppers, zucchini, and squash, this chili is rounded out with three kinds of chiles.

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I also added a few carrots for even more veggie goodness.

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The fire-roasted tomatoes are key. I use Muir Glen Organic Fire-Roasted Diced Tomatoes, which I’m convinced are a worthwhile addition to most recipes. Then of course, the beautious egg!

How do you eat your chili? Cincinnati style, with spaghetti? Or maybe just some shredded cheese and diced onions? I love scooping this this chili up with big blue corn chips. And just because we’ve been talking about the weather, I can’t help but close with my husband’s favorite line: Chilly today, hot tamale…or should I say Chili today, hot tamale? Well, let’s hope so.

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Irish Steel-Cut Oat Apple Whiskey Cake

3/17/14

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Early this morning, my gym instructor was wildly gyrating between squats, lunges, and bicep curls with more vigor than usual. “See what happens when you have whiskey on your Lucky Charms,” she told the class, smiling widely as she pulled off her black sweatshirt to reveal a bright shamrock-color tank and asked, “where’s your green y’all?”

“Oh yeah, it’s St. Paddy’s Day,” I remembered. The thought had slipped my mind in those wee hours of the morn as I was trying to keep up with Tracie’s tireless thrusts.

While I may not be wearing green today, I have baked up a comforting dessert in recognition of this Irish holiday. I don’t have a lick of Irish in me, but my mother, who celebrates every holiday (she’d put things like leprechaun stickers on our lunch bags) always makes corned beef and cabbage on this day. I usually do the same, but my daughter made me promise we wouldn’t have to eat “that boiled meat” this seventeenth of March.

Okay, okay, she got her way. But only this year. Instead I thought I’d try to do something with steel-cut oats, inspired by my Irish mother-in-law, Renee, who introduced me to the cereal.

Rolled oats, right; Steel-cut oats, left

Rolled oats, left; Steel-cut oats, right

Unlike rolled oats, which are steamed and flattened whole oat groats, steel-cut oats are made by cutting the inner portion of the oat husk into little pieces. The result is a hard kernel that when cooked up with milk makes a mighty mean porridge. Steel-cut oats take longer to cook than rolled oats (I find it best to soak them overnight), and they have a slightly chewy, almost nutty texture.

I initially set out to make some type of nutritious oatmeal snack cake, but that idea quickly deteriorated as I started thinking about a little Irish whiskey in the cake, then a poke oat cake doused in a rich whiskey sauce. (I’m glad to know that like my gym instructor, I’m not the only one who pairs liquor and cereal!).

After a little experimenting, my whole-grain health cake turned into a dense, impossibly rich, butter-laden dessert—it’s so moist and custardy I don’t even know if I can call this confection cake. I would say it’s more like a bread pudding that develops a delicate, almost crispy top crust. The softened apples and oats add a satisfying texture to the simple egg-butter-flour-sugar batter.

There is no cinnamon, or other spice for that matter in this dessert. I was tempted to add a little cardamom, but instead added some orange zest, which complements the hint of whiskey in the batter. The best part is the topping (yes, it also contains whiskey): a smooth, caramel-colored whiskey butter sauce. I didn’t even dare (probably only because I didn’t have any in the house), but just to gild the lily, you could add a scoop of vanilla ice cream.

I’m thinking ice cream could be another vehicle for the sauce…I don’t want to downplay the cake, because it can stand alone on its own, but the sauce is so addictive the cake could get the reputation of just being a “carrier food.” You know, those ones that are there just to transport a yummy sauce, like fries for aioli, asparagus for hollandaise.

So while this cake is even less Irish than corned beef and cabbage (which I don’t even think they really eat on St. Patrick’s Day in Ireland), it’s a hearty, heart-warming finish to a meal that will leave everyone smiling.

Happy St. Patrick’s Day y’all.

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 Irish Steel-Cut Oat Whiskey Cake

1 cup buttermilk

1/2 cup steel-cut oats

1-1/4 cups all-purpose flour

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon baking soda

1/2 teaspoon kosher salt

2 large eggs plus one yolk

1-1/4 cups packed dark brown sugar

10 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted plus extra for greasing the pan

3 apples, peeled, cored and cut into 1/4″ dice

1 tablespoon orange zest (about the amount from one large orange)

3 tablespoons Irish whiskey

1 tablespoon granulated sugar

1. Mix the buttermilk and oats together in a small bowl, cover and refrigerate for 8 hours or overnight.

2. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 9-inch springform pan. In a small bowl, whisk together the flour, baking powder, soda, and salt. Set aside.

3. In a large bowl whisk together the eggs and brown sugar for about 100 strokes. Add the melted butter and whisk again. Next add the buttermilk-oat mixture and stir with a spoon.

4. Gently fold the flour mixture into the batter until just incorporated. Lastly, fold in the apples, orange zest and whiskey.

5. Spread the batter into the prepared pan and sprinkle with the tablespoon of sugar (helps form a golden crust) and bake for 65 minutes. The cake will remain moist but should be cooked through, and not have a runny center.

6. Allow the cake to cool in the pan. Run a knife around the edges and carefully open the springform ring.

Whiskey Butter Sauce

1 cup sugar

1/4 cup water

1 cup half and half

8 tablespoons (1 stick) unsalted butter, cut into small pieces

3-4 tablespoons Irish whiskey or to taste

1. Place the sugar and water in a small saucepan and stir once or twice. Allow the mixture to cook over medium-high heat for 6 to 7 minutes without stirring. As the mixture starts to turn golden, swirl the pan to ensure the entire mixture turns golden and remove from heat.

2. Add the half and half and butter being careful if the mixture bubbles up from the pan. Stir to incorporate. Return the pan to the stove and heat for another few minutes until thickened and warmed through. Stir in the whiskey. Serve over Irish Steel-Cut Oat Apple Whiskey Cake

Elegant Academy Award hors d’ouevres + bonus Oscar ballot

2/27/14

IMG_7237When watching the Superbowl, it somehow seems okay to gorge on carb-laden appetizers and creamy, cheesy dips while those big, buff football players huff and puff around the field.

On the contrary, an Academy Awards viewing party does not inspire super-size plates of heart-hazardous grub. Instead, dainty portions of more nutrient-rich fare seem de rigueur while watching those Hollywood babes slink down the Red Carpet.

Putting together an elegant, tasty Oscar Night spread is really quite easy. It’s all in the presentation—make it small (like the waistlines of those coveted designer frocks!). Soup ladled into shot glasses is a feast for the eyes as well as the palate. Anything mini makes you just wanna declare, “aww, that’s so cute.”

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Banana smoothies served in mini parfait glasses are equally festive.

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Put out some edamame dip and veggies, a bowl or two of pita chips and nuts, and you’ve got yourself some Oscar-worthy snacks. Oh, and don’t forget lemon-zest parmesan popcorn in petite containers for continued munching throughout the evening. Even with the music escorting stars offstage, the program can get a little long.

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And to really pull your night together, calligrapher Nancy Howell and her husband, graphic designer Mark Lerner, have created this very snazzy Oscar Ballot, which they have kindly given permission for anyone to use…it is yours for the printing, just click here. Please look them up, not only are they extremely talented, but fun to work with. (Remember the recipe platter Nancy illustrated for me?).

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So here’s the skinny on the Oscar Night menu…

Homemade Spiced Nuts

Seriously, one of the BEST nut recipes ever: Ina Garten’s Chipotle and Rosemary Roasted Nuts. Sweet and spicy, they are more addictive than chips. If you make these, I bet more than one person will ask you for the recipe, as I once did to my friend Elizabeth, who has kept me in good supply ever since!

Fall Squash and Apple Soup

Debra Ponzek, former executive chef at New York’s Montrachet Restaurant, shares a recipe for a velvety-smooth Fall Squash and Apple Soup on her Aux Délices catering site. To ensure the creamiest texture, I use a blender to puree the soup.

Two-ounce plastic shot glasses are available online or at most party stores.

If you don’t have the time or energy to make soup, just dish up a prepared one.

Lemon-zest Parmesan Popcorn

Give some added zing to popcorn—either freshly-made or store-bought—by sprinkling  1 tablespoon melted butter and the zest of 1 lemon over 8 to 10 cups of popped corn. Toss thoroughly. Next sprinkle the popcorn with 1/2 cup finely grated Parmesan. Add a few turns of freshly ground pepper and toss again.

Use gold star stickers to glam up  mini red-stripe popcorn boxes.

Edamame Dip

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Place one small garlic clove in the bowl of a food processor and pulse several times. Using a spatula, scrape the garlic down from the sides of the bowl and add 12 ounces (about 2 generous cups) cooked shelled edamame, 1/2 cup water, 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice, 2 tablespoons sesame oil, 1 tablespoon white miso paste, 1 teaspoon soy sauce, and 1/2 cup fresh cilantro. Process until smooth. Add salt to taste. If desired, add 1/2 teaspoon or so of Sriracha sauce.

Be sure to save out a few edamame for garnish so guests don’t mistake the green dip for guacamole.

Serving dips, chips and veggies in uniform dishes creates a simple yet stylish presentation. If you don’t have something already, you can buy white plastic bowls for just over 5 dollars.

Frozen Nilla Wafer Banana Smoothies

In a blender mix 2 cups low-fat frozen vanilla yogurt, 1 cup skim milk, 2 frozen bananas cut into small pieces, 1/2 teaspoon vanilla and a 1/2 cup ice. Blend until smooth. Add 1/4 cup crushed Nilla wafers and blend again. Serve immediately.

(For peanut butter lovers, replace Nilla wafers with crushed Nutter Butter cookies.)

Clear two-ounce plastic cordial glasses  adorned with gold stars are perfect for serving mini shakes.

And the Oscar goes to…

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