Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies

I love a great many things about my job. Being a community college professor is rewarding in a number of ways, and my biggest fears: that it would be just an amplified version of high school, and that there would be limited opportunities to make lasting connections with students, have proved fairly unfounded. In fact, more students follow me from class to class and contact me semesters and even years after they have left our campus than anyone at the university level ever did. It’s gratifying.

The thing I didn’t expect to miss, though, was a big library. Coming from a research university to a large community college, where the focus shifted from scholarship with teaching on the side to teaching with occasional, non-required research, was a big change for me, and it’s sometimes hard to access the materials I need. Yes, my library helps me get interlibrary loan materials, and I have a library card for UCLA’s massive collection, but sometimes things are missing. Sometimes things are checked out, or libraries say no. So I turn to other options: my research assistants. Funny enough, I probably have more unofficial, unpaid, unaware “RAs” than I would were I at a research university. And they aren’t RAs, really; they are just lovely people who sometimes help me access materials.

Most recently, I branched out from my usual RA – my sister – and got some help from E., who sent me a few chapters of a book no one local could or would loan me. I’d found an electronic version of the parts I needed through Google’s book preview which, oh so helpfully, didn’t have any page numbers! How’s a responsible prof to cite her sources, if her sources won’t cooperate?

So in thanks to E., who is revising his dissertation and clearly has much more important things to do than scan and send book chapters to his needy friend across the country, in spite of his loud insistence no such action was necessary, I decided to mail him a box of thank you cookies.

I’d considered this combination a month or so previous: dried apricots and white chocolate in an oatmeal based dough sounded different and delicious, and my sister and I had talked about playing with its clear granola resonances and adding, say, flaked coconut, and maybe chopped, toasted nuts or seeds.

For this version, though, I decided to keep it simple (though I did add guesses for quantities of coconut and nuts to the recipe, if you want to experiment). For the dough, I used an adaptation of my favorite oatmeal chocolate cookie recipe, one that Ghirardelli used to print on its semi-sweet chocolate chips bags, but has since changed to include both less butter and less flour. The products of that original recipe used to come with me, in great, craggy, unevenly shaped mounds, to field show competitions when I was in high school. After the first time or two, they never made it past the table at the entrance to the band room.

But anyway, egregious quantities of barely soft butter (thought it does make a lot of cookies, so don’t despair), heaps of rolled oats, and a generous dosing of both white chocolate chips and meaty, moist dried apricots get mounded into tablespoon-sized heaps and baked until they are barely cooked through – they come out still quite soft and a little raw looking in the middle – and set up as they cool. The butter should be malleable but still cool from the fridge, never melted, and the dough should be stowed back in the fridge to keep the butter cool in between baking each batch; as with pie crust or biscuits, this keeps the cookies from flattening out as they cook. In high school I used margarine instead; if you do this they will stay puffy, but I prefer the flavor and make-up of butter. The oats should be of the old fashioned rolled variety, not quick cooking, for texture in the final cookie.

When I sampled the first one, still quite hot from the oven, I thought it was good but a touch too sweet. But then I found myself eating another one, and then had to slap my own hand to prevent myself from downing a third in a row, so I figured I had to be on to something. Cooled, they lost a little of that initial saccharine hit, and considering that several dozen lasted all of two hours in my department mailroom when I brought them in last week, I’d say they were a reasonable success.

Oh, and my primary reason for baking? I won’t embarrass him by revealing how many he told me he ate at one go, but I will say they had a good reception and I’m glad they are there to comfort him as he plows through his dissertation revision process. A little cookie comfort in the middle of that trying process, especially when that is happening as only part of the weirdness and horror of the world right now, is so necessary.

Apricot and White Chocolate “Thank You” Cookies
Adapted heavily from the old Ghirardelli’s Oatmeal Chocolate Chip Cookies recipe
Makes approximately 4 dozen
About an hour
3 sticks unsalted butter, medium soft
¾ cups brown sugar
½ cup granulated sugar
1 egg
1 teaspoon vanilla
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking soda
¾ teaspoon kosher salt
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon
⅛ teaspoon ground nutmeg
3 cups rolled oats (not quick cooking oats) OR 2 cups oats and 1 cup unsweetened flaked coconut (note: this is an approximation; I did not use coconut in mine)
12 ounces white chocolate chips
1 cup diced dried apricots
optional: ¾ cups roughly chopped unsalted toasted nuts, like walnuts or pistachios (note: this is an approximation; I did not add nuts to mine)

 

  • Preheat the oven to 375F and line two cookie sheets with parchment paper.
  • In a stand mixer with the paddle attachment or a large bowl with an electric mixer, beat the butter until it is broken down a bit. Add the sugars and cream on medium speed until very light in color and texture, 3-4 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl at least once to ensure even integration. When the mixture is pale and fluffy, add the egg and vanilla and mix at low speed until incorporated.
  • At low speed, mix in the first ½ cup of flour with the salt, baking soda, cinnamon, and nutmeg. When it has incorporated a bit, add another ½ cup flour, mix to incorporate (don’t forget to scrape down the sides of the bowl), then the final ½ cup flour. This ensures you don’t get flour everywhere.
  • If you are using an electric mixer, switch now to a sturdy spatula or wooden spoon and prepare to work out your upper arms. If you are in a stand mixer, continue at low speed. Stir in the oats until well incorporated, then the fruit and white chocolate chips just until mixed in.
  • Scoop the dough in rounded tablespoons onto the prepared cookie sheets. I did 8 per sheet, to ensure no overcrowding. Bake in the preheated 375F oven for 9-10 minutes, storing the remaining dough in the refrigerator while each batch is in the oven. When they come out, the cookies will look underbaked in the centers. Take them out of the oven anyway, and let them sit on the cookie sheet for 3-4 minutes to set up, then remove to a rack to cool for at least another 2 minutes before scarfing.

 

Talking About Thinking About Food *

* with apologies to I.’s podcast “Talking About Thinking About Records”

It’s funny how vacation works, isn’t it? You dive in with ambition: goals! Plans! But the first thing you want to do is relax, right? I mean, you need some definite time for relaxing, especially if the vacation starts with a holiday that requires preparation. And then once you’ve relaxed for a week… or maybe two… you start thinking about those plans. You start one of them. You consider another. And then when you clear your head again, there are only three days left before work starts again, and you realize that since you can’t accomplish everything you set out to do, it would be better to just stubbornly do nothing, telling yourself you are enjoying the time left as hard as you can.

At least, that’s what you do if you’re me. I had six tasks written down that I wanted to accomplish over the winter break. I did two of them. At first I was fairly gung-ho. I embarked on one of my big projects, but circumstances were more complicated than intended, and then a few things took longer than I thought, and there were shows to watch, and a dog who needed attention, and a husband who wanted the same, and suddenly it was February and I had to start thinking about my classes for the impending semester.

One of the tasks I had set for myself, as it seems I always do during breaks, and always fail to fulfill, was to create a backlog of posts so that for the first month of school, I would already have something ready to go and thus stay ahead of the curve, if a week lacking in time or inspiration came along. But in the actual weeks when I should have been doing this, I was by turns uninspired and resentful. I realize that this blog isn’t my job – it’s my hobby! But sometimes, because I give myself a weekly deadline, it feels like a job. Therefore, when I start to think about plotting out and executing a recipe, especially if that’s going to involve doing a round (or two) of dishes first, I feel like I’m giving up my vacation. Even though this is supposed to be my fun “work.”

So clearly I don’t have a recipe for you this week. “Just post a photo of food!” my mom said when I talked to her this weekend. But I’m a writer more than a photographer, so instead I thought I’d tell you a little about some of the food I ate during this break, and some of the dishes I’m thinking about now. I can’t promise all – or any! – of them will appear here, but maybe it will be a good way, as I teeter on the precipice of the new semester, of getting me back into all of my “jobs,” not just the one I get paid for.  🙂

The best thing I ate over the break may have been the dessert my sister, my mom and I made for Christmas. This year, we decided on a theme of “spiced.” Breaking from our appetizer tradition, we made a sit-down dinner, and everything in the meal – in fact, everything we ate all day (minus the odd chocolate truffle) – had to have a spiced component. Apple cardamom cake for breakfast, avocado toast with dukkah for lunch; N. even brewed a winter-spiced ale to fit the theme. Dessert, then, was an opportunity to show off all those warm tingling flavors in the spice cupboard, which we did with a trifle. In a huge balloon of a wine glass, we layered chunks of Mom’s best gingerbread, dollops of nutmeg and rum custard, ginger apple compote, and a generous heap of whipped cream. It was an indulgent project to dig your spoon all the way down and pick up a taste of everything, but the components went together perfectly, and the custard and compote were sufficiently rich, and the whipped cream, well, creamy enough, that you couldn’t tell I’d overbaked the gingerbread just a touch… Actually, I do have a photo of this one:

Other break foods that were definitively worth eating included the lamb burger from the recently shuttered San Francisco location of Park Chow, perfectly medium in the center and so juicy it required rolled-up sleeves. I tried a deliciously crunchy Hong Kong style crispy noodle dish at a Chinese restaurant near my parents’ house and wanted nothing else for two days. We made a lightly amended version of Melissa D’Arabian’s wine braised pork tacos that went over extremely well, especially with bright red cabbage strands and chunks of avocado on top. Perhaps most recently, we took a large, lightly toasted pavlova topped with stewed berries, toasted almonds, and amaretto whipped cream as a dessert offering for dinner with friends with a severe wheat allergy. The pillowy, marshmallowy center hidden inside the light crispness of the meringue’s exterior is a revelation.

Looking forward, I have an eclectic mix of things I think sound good. I’ve finally caught N.’s taco bug and now I just want them all the time. This week I’m taking an Ottolenghi recipe for squash that drizzles butternut batons with an herb oil and dollops them with yogurt, and folding them into a tortilla because why not? I’m dreaming of a winter taco that involves beer braised beef, shaved brussels sprouts, and definitely some radish. Maybe a horseradish crema of some sort. On the sweet side, I’m thinking about cookies studded with dried apricots and white chocolate, and just this morning (well, I guess it will be yesterday morning when this goes live) I thought about how lovely a thick, densely crumbed chocolate loaf cake – almost fudgy – would be topped with a light frosting, maybe a swiss buttercream or the like, flavored with something unusual. Marmalade, maybe, or ginger. Or tea.

And then of course I have my Chopped Challenge. N. tells me he has the entrée “basket” of ingredients for February worked out, so maybe that’s what I’ll have to share with you next week. Until then, be well, and tell me what you’re loving (or dreaming of) eating!

Rain check…

No new post today, I’m afraid, amidst the final grading push and the beginning pressures of the Christmas holiday to come. I will say, though, that if you have a spare couple of hours and feel like a project, this recipe for Irish whiskey salted caramels produces a lush, smooth, definitively spiked treat. I don’t know the origin of the recipe, but I found them at the blog Cheese and Chocolate, which seems not to have been updated in a while, but which nonetheless offers some pretty tempting ideas.

Until next week!

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundae

As I type this, I am sitting in my parents’ backyard, at a table in what I’ve been calling their “redwood grove,” sipping a glass of prosecco and thinking about vacation. I think there are a few different levels of vacation, and with them come differing levels of indulgence. The good old “staycation,” a concept that has been around for decades but which only became an official word in the Oxford English Dictionary in 2010, seems to call for something humble – homey – perhaps a slice of pound cake with some berries or a smear of jam and not much else. A heavy-duty vacation – the kind that requires airline travel or a passport – requires something more indulgent. On a voyage up and down the East Coast that N. and I took a number of years ago, we unexpectedly ended up in a first class train cabin on a leg from Boston to New York City, and as we sat back and wondered at our luck, an attendant suddenly, unexpectedly, dropped off two gleaming glasses of lush, impossibly light chocolate mousse. That’s a big vacation dessert. Indulgent. Rich. Not the first thing you’d choose from a cookbook. Big vacations are opera cakes and crème brûlée and napoleons.

But there are also in between vacations: those that require only a day trip, or when you lie around in your rented beach-house-for-the-weekend with no agenda besides thinking all day about what will be for dinner, and then scrapping all your plans and going to get tacos instead. There are the ones that consist of living with friends for a week because you only get to see them once a year, or dropping by the family’s house for a few warm evenings to shake off the spent semester, or grabbing a hotel room unexpectedly because the glory of the afternoon wore on so long you can’t bear the idea of the drive home, and besides, you’re on vacation.

This dessert is for one of those in between kinds of vacations. The idea came from Judy Rodgers’ red wine figs in her Zuni Café Cookbook, a thick tome spilling with interesting combinations that I’m still working my way through, and a garam masala laced bowl of walnuts I whipped up for a last minute happy hour a month or two ago. The result is a glorious trifecta of textures and temperatures: ice cream, chewy figs steeped in warm, orange-spiked red wine, and toasted walnuts tossed in spiced honey. It’s a very adult sort of sundae – no sprinkles, no bright berries, no whipped cream or chocolate of any sort. Yet it’s also indulgent – wine-drenched figs intense enough you’ll only want a few, and warm walnuts dripping with honey, so reminiscent of baklava, slowly melting the rich, cold, sweet ice cream underneath. And if you are lucky enough to choose an ice cream that is studded with dozens of tiny, crunchy seeds scraped from that precious pod, well, all the better.

And now that you have this on a Monday, you’ve got something to dream about (and get going: the figs need a few days to steep and soak up that wine) until you get to your weekend, and whatever kind of vacation it holds.

Drunken Fig and Honeyed Walnut Sundaes
Makes 4 sundaes
About 40 minutes active time, plus at least 2 days for figs to steep
For Drunken Figs:
1½ cups red wine
2 tablespoons orange liqueur, such as Grand Marnier
2 bay leaves
1 strip of orange zest, about half an inch wide, taken from stem end to navel end of orange
8 ounces dried black mission figs
1-2 teaspoons honey
For Honeyed Walnuts:
1 cup walnut halves or pieces, roughly chopped
2 tablespoons honey
¼ – ½ teaspoon salt (we found ½ teaspoon was right on the edge of being too much)
½ teaspoon garam masala
To serve:
Vanilla bean ice cream, about two scoops per person

 

  • To make the drunken figs, heat the wine and orange liqueur in a small saucepan with the bay leaves and boil until it has reduced to ½ cup. This will take around 20 minutes.
  • While the wine reduces, stem and halve the figs (cut from stem end to belly end to expose all of the seeds) and place them in a 2 – 4 cup vessel with a tight fitting lid. Add the strip of orange zest.
  • When the wine has reduced, stir in the honey, then pour over the figs and zest. Cover and shake, “leave to swell for a few days,” shaking periodically (for me, this ended up being 2 days), then refrigerate until ready to use. Serve at room temperature or slightly warm.
  • To make the honeyed walnuts, preheat the oven to 300F and scatter the walnuts on a baking tray. Bake until lightly browned and fragrant; 10-15 minutes. While they toast, combine the honey, salt, and garam masala in a small bowl with a whisk. When the walnuts come out of the oven, immediately scrape and pour the honey over them and toss to coat. The hot walnuts will heat and thin the honey, making it easier to combine.
  • To serve, place two scoops of ice cream into a dish of your choice. Scoop and drizzle about ¼ cup of the walnuts over the top, then add 5-6 fig halves plus a little remaining liquid, if there is any. Eat immediately.

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Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping

If you’re following along on Instagram, you’ll have seen that N. and I have been up to big things. Huge things! House shaped things! According to the bank, and the escrow office, and our realtor, and the seller, we are now home-owners! We can’t quite believe it ourselves, but enough independent sources verify it that we’re coming to think it must be true. Between the searching, and the paperwork, and the other paperwork, and the packing, and the paperwork, and the fact that the semester is still in, if not full, at least substantial swing, there hasn’t been a great deal of time for blogging.

But still, home ownership achieved on a house that was, quite frankly, nicer than what we’d expected we would be able to find, feels like cause for celebration. So quickly, on a day during which I need to take care of so many things, I want to give you something with which to pause, and to celebrate.

The nice thing about May is that even though it’s spring, there are still the occasional chilly days during which something warm and sweet is everything you need, and on the others, you can just pile that something warm and sweet over something cold and thick. It’s a can’t-go-wrong topping. Think apples. Think bourbon. Think deeply melted and gooey and caramel-y brown sugar, and the right spice of cinnamon, and a swirl of butter, all melted gloriously together, ready to crown anything from waffles (as we did) to pancakes to bread pudding to french toast to ice cream.

My serving suggestion: make yourself a batch of waffles. I like these, as they allow me to use up some sourdough starter from baking days when I’ve gotten a little too enthusiastic, and unlike many sourdough waffle recipes, don’t require an overnight rise. Layer a waffle, a generous spoonful of caramel, then repeat, and add a heaping dome of greek yogurt right on top. The caramel is decadent and the apples provide excellent texture and fall perfectly into the holes of the waffle, and the yogurt is all tang and creaminess and acidic balance for the sweetness of the caramel. It’s breakfast, it’s brunch, it’s a sweet breakfast-for-dinner, and it’s an unquestionably good late-night-when-you-may-have-already-had-some-bourbon snack.

Enjoy. I hope you have something lovely on your plate to celebrate.

 

Apple Bourbon Caramel Topping
20-30 minutes
Makes ¾ – 1 cup (enough for 3-4 servings of waffles)
4 tablespoons butter
2 apples, quartered, cored, and diced into ¼ inch chunks (I leave the peel on because I like the texture. If you don’t like it, you can peel the apples first)
½ cup brown sugar
2 teaspoons cinnamon
pinch salt
1 teaspoon vanilla
2-4 tablespoons bourbon
1 teaspoon lemon juice
2 tablespoons heavy cream

 

  • In a skillet or saucepan, melt the butter over medium heat. When it is fully melted and foaming, add the apple chunks. Cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until they are tender: 5-10 minutes. If they seem to be browning aggressively, give them a good stir and turn down the heat a bit.
  • Once the apple pieces are tender, add the brown sugar, salt, cinnamon, and vanilla. Turn down the heat to medium-low, if you haven’t already. Cook down until the brown sugar is fully dissolved and the mixture is bubbly and thick: 2-3 minutes.
  • Off the heat, add the bourbon and the lemon juice, then stir to combine and simmer slowly for about 10 minutes. At the last minute, stir in the heavy cream.
  • Serve warm over waffles, pancakes, French toast, ice cream, or (almost) anything else you can imagine.

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake

I’ve tried to start this post three or four times now. The first time I tried to skirt the events of the last week entirely, but that felt like lying. The second time I was overtly political, explaining exactly how I felt and why. That felt more honest, but it didn’t feel like the right move. The third time I tried to be conciliatory, citing concerns on both sides.

2016-food-blog-november-0385In the face of change, particularly because it is not the sort of change I agree with or was hoping for, I retreated to comfort. I know this is not particularly useful. I know I am reasonably safe for a number of reasons, and closing the blinds and wallowing is not helping the people who are – or soon may be – not so safe, but I did it anyway. Finally, I decided I need more time to process what I want to say, so I’ll offer this instead, as unhelpful and uninspiring as it might be: this week was rough. Let’s have cake.

2016-food-blog-november-03382016-food-blog-november-0329For me, the deepest and firmest food comfort is baking. It makes me think of being a child, it makes me think of warmth and sweetness; it makes me feel sound. In his examination of sugar and its coming to and impacts on Europe, particularly England, Sidney W. Mintz suggests that perhaps the reason we are so attracted to sugar, especially when we are young, is because human breast milk is sweet. So it makes sense that when we are troubled, or we feel that we need safety and security, we turn to sweet foods.

2016-food-blog-november2016-food-blog-november-0356The original inspiration for this cake came from Starbucks. A few years ago as part of their fall line-up of baked goods, Starbucks rolled out a brown butter pound cake spiked with Washington apples, and after sampling the dense crumb and the wet, almost too sweet apple chunks, I wanted to do my own version. For the base recipe, I went with that great baking bible Baking Illustrated, by the same cooks and recipe testers as Cooks Illustrated. Their pound cake uses cake flour for a tight but tender crumb, plenty of butter, and the richness and color and emulsifying power of extra egg yolks, rather than all whole eggs. Mine adds the extra step of browning the butter first (which then necessitates refrigerating it back into solidity before creaming it with the sugar), and a generous two cups of apple cubes – granny smith, for the tartness and minimal juice expelled during baking.

2016-food-blog-november-03462016-food-blog-november-0352Most pound cakes have a soft top that splits as it bakes, and this one did offer that classic cleaving in the center, but the rest of the top – the browned exterior on either side of that tender split, was crisp and delicate and almost wafer-like – think of the top shiny, flaky layer of an excellent pan of brownies – perhaps because I was so enthusiastic in creaming the butter and sugar and then beating in the eggs. My batter looked like a good fluffy buttercream in its initial stages.

2016-food-blog-november-0363I usually bring my baked offerings to work with me, leaving only a serving or two to enjoy at home, and this was no exception, but we were sorry about that. Especially as the week wore on, we wanted more of this comforting, moist-but sturdy, not-too-sweet confection, preferably in thick slices. But alas, it lasted only a few hours in our mailroom.

2016-food-blog-november-0368It’s funny in that uncomfortable way, but the last time I made a pound cake was also a heavy time. It’s an uncomfortable metaphor – perhaps I should start perfecting an angel-food cake recipe instead – but hindsight is what it is, and here we are. Cake.

2016-food-blog-november-0371Maybe the best way I can conclude today is with Kurt Vonnegut. In his novel God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater, one character offers the following as a baptismal statement to a pair of brand new twins: “Hello babies. Welcome to Earth. It’s hot in the summer and cold in the winter. It’s round and wet and crowded. On the outside, babies, you’ve got a hundred years here. There’s only one rule that I know of, babies – ‘God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.’”

2016-food-blog-november-0386

Brown Butter Apple Pound Cake
Makes 1 9x5x3 inch loaf
About 90 min
16 tablespoons unsalted butter (2 sticks)
1⅓ cups sugar
3 large eggs + 3 large egg yolks, all at room temperature
1½ teaspoons vanilla
1½ teaspoons water
½ teaspoon salt
1½ cups cake flour
2 cups ½-inch cubes of granny smith apple; 1 large apple or 2 small

  • First, brown the butter. In a small saucepan, preferably with a light colored bottom so you can see what is happening, melt the butter over medium heat. As it melts, it will foam up. Keep swirling and checking the color underneath that foam; it will gradually darken from yellow to golden, and the foam will recede a bit. Watch very closely at this point, occasionally tipping the pot to see the bottom – little white solids will have collected. When these begin to turn brown, the butter will smell toasted and nutty. Take it off the stove and stow it in the refrigerator until it has solidified but is not too hard – your thumb should still press in easily.
  • While the butter cools down again, preheat the oven to 375F and prepare a loaf pan by spraying with non-stick spray and lining with parchment paper. Prep the apple by peeling it, quartering and coring it, and then slicing and cubing into ½ inch pieces.
  • In a mixing bowl (Baking Illustrated recommends using a stand mixer, but I used a glass bowl and my regular electric mixer and it was fine), combine the re-solidified butter and all of the sugar. Mix at medium speed until very light and fluffy, at least 3-4 minutes. Really. That long. It will take on a texture much like a slightly grainy buttercream frosting.
  • Beat the eggs with the egg yolks, the water, and the vanilla and, with the mixer still running, dribble in this egg mixture until all is well combined. At this point the batter will be very thick and glossy and still a bit reminiscent of frosting.
  • Now, sift in ½ cup of the flour with the salt right over the top of the batter. Once it is all snow-drifted on top there, use a rubber spatula to fold it in. Once fully combined, repeat the sifting and folding with the second ½ cup of flour.
  • Sprinkle the apple cubes over the batter, then dust with the remaining ½ cup flour. Giving the apple chunks a little flour coating helps them stay suspended in the batter during baking, rather than sinking to the bottom. Repeat the folding process one final time, being sure the flour is fully incorporated and there are no dry pockets.
  • With your rubber spatula, pour and scrape the batter carefully into the prepared loaf pan. Smooth off the top if you like, then stow in the preheated oven for 45-55 minutes, or until a toothpick insertted comes out with just a few damp crumbs.
  • Let the loaf cool in the pan on a wire rack for 5 minutes, then use a second wire rack placed over the top of the pan to invert. The loaf will plop right out, upside down, onto this second rack. Carefully remove the pan from the loaf and flip the loaf back over top-side-up to cool completely. Peel off the parchment paper, transfer to a cutting board, and slice up thickly to eat.

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