How to Make Aged Cheese: “Black and Bleu” Ricotta Salata

Homemade bleu cheese

I’ve been making cheese at home for about 3 years now, and SO many fans have begged me for instructions on how to make cheese after I’ve posted photos of exquisite homemade cheeses.

Cheesemaking is a specific hobby with it’s own set of necessary equipment and supplies.  It’s sort of like wine making or beer brewing.  And some of that equipment and some of those ingredients can be expensive.

To complicate matters, MOST aged cheeses require that you start with a milk that has not been homogenized or ultra-pasteurized.  Cow’s milk goes through 2 processes before it lands in your grocery store.  The first is homogenization.  Fresh cow’s milk separates readily into milk and cream.  The cream floats to the top and is removed in various concentrations to render whole milk (4% cream, about the average amount that natural milk has, depending on the cow’s diet and the season), 2% – 0.5% (lowfat), and 0% (skim milk…blech…).  But the problem is that whatever cream is left will STILL float to the top of the milk, because the fat particles in it are much larger and less dense than the milk.  So the milk is forced through tiny nozzles to break up those fat particles and make them much smaller, so that they will evenly disperse throughout the milk without separating.  This damages the structure of the fat, so that it cannot coagulate properly to produce a curd firm enough to make most hard, aged cheeses (Cheddar, Parmesan, Gouda, etc.), nor smooth and creamy enough to make most aged soft cheeses (Brie, Camembert, bleu, etc.)  Then, most commercial milk is ultra-pasteurized, which means that it is quickly heated to 280F, then quickly chilled back to refrigerator temps.  This kills any potential pathogens in the milk…and also all the healthy, good stuff in the milk, including the natural lactobacillus bacteria that also exist in our gastrointestinal tracts and are responsible for turning milk into such lovely things as yogurt, sour cream, buttermilk, and culture butter, as well as the natural enzymes that digest the milk for us.  (Those who are lactose intolerant will have NO problem AT ALL drinking raw milk, because raw milk naturally comes with the enzymes that break it down so that it’s digestible.  Pasteurization destroys them.)  Ultra pasteurization’s high heat damages the milk proteins in such a way that they can’t support the firm curd necessary to produce most traditional hard cheeses like Cheddar, Gruyere, Parm, Asiago, etc.

All this is to say that the milk you buy in the store can’t really make your favorite cheeses.  Unless you live in a state that has laws permitting the sale of raw milk (check out this map to find info on your state), or unless you can find a commercial milk that is non-homogenized and traditionally pasteurized (ie, heated to only 162F for 15 seconds, rather than 280F), you can’t make most cheeses.  Yes, you can make fresh ricotta or paneer or cottage cheese.  You might even get away with a grainy Brie.

"Black and Bleu" Ricotta Salata...aged, pressed, salted ricotta cheese with black pepper and bleu cheese culture

But you can make a pretty darn amazing wheel of firm, aged cheese at home using this recipe I’m about to give you, even with store-bought homogenized, ultra-pasteurized whole milk and heavy cream.  It’s called ricotta salata, and it’s made from fresh ricotta, which anyone can make at home with a pot, milk, a thermometer, and some kind of acid, like lemon juice or citric acid.  But then we press it in a cheese mold, introduce additional salt and optional flavorings and cheese cultures, and age it in the fridge.  The resulting cheese is truly amazing…what I call “Black and Bleu Ricotta Salata,” and our diners at FRANK have oooed and ahhhed over it many, many times.  You’ll still need a bit of special equipment, namely a kitchen thermometer (which you may already have), and a 7″ Tomme cheese mold with a follower ($20 at New England Cheesemaking Supply from that link, $10 more at Amazon with free Prime shipping).  You will also need cheesecloth, which you can purchase at virtually any grocery store or big-box store, or any fabric store.

You’re also going to need some special ingredients, namely citric acid, which you can pick up at any health food store and most grocery stores in either the canning or vitamin section.  Citric acid is a common ingredient used to prevent browning in fruits like apples and bananas and avocados, and to prevent spoilage while sprouting seeds or canning.  I use citric acid all the time in my kitchen.  You can also order it online at much cheaper prices, like $2 for 4 ounces on Amazon.  And if you decide to make this a bleu cheese, you’re going to need penicillium roqueforti, one of the most expensive bacterial cultures used in cheese production.  You can get 1/4 oz for $33 from New England Cheesemaking Supply, which will last you many years of cheesemaking if you keep the culture in the freezer, or a smaller 2.5DCU at $18.99 from The Beverage People.  This culture needs to be stored in the freezer and the manufacturer tells you it will be viable for 2 years, though in practice, it should remain active for longer than that.  Everything else you need to make this cheese should already exist in your kitchen.

Start with a big nonreactive (ie, NOT aluminum) stock pot or a heavy, enameled cast iron Dutch oven capable of holding well over 5 quarts of liquid.  (You can’t use aluminum because the milk becomes very acidic during this process, which will leach out metals from the aluminum pot…use stainless steel or enameled cast iron.)  I use a stainless steel 2 gallon stock pot.  Nonstick pots will also work, but I got rid of all my nonsticks years ago.  Because you’ll be heating the milk directly on the stove, I place a large, heavy cast iron skillet directly on the stove, and then put the stock pot into the skillet.  This evens out the heat and prevents the milk from scorching, which will ruin the flavor of the cheese.

Pour 1 gallon of milk and 1 quart of heavy whipping cream into the pot.  Add 1 generous teaspoon of kosher salt and 1 generous teaspoon of citric acid:

Stir gently with a whisk, and turn the heat to medium.  Cover the stockpot with the lid.  Now it’s a waiting game.  You want to bring this milk to a temperature between 185F and 195F.  That can take an hour or longer.  Don’t rush it.  Rushing it can result in scorching, which will ruin the cheese.  Better to go low and slow, rather than hot and fast.

Now let’s chat for a bit about what’s happening inside that pot.  Acidic milk products automatically curdle at high temperatures.  Have you ever poured buttermilk into a cup of hot coffee?  Or tried adding a spoon of sour cream or creme fraiche to a boiling soup?  It immediately curdles.  Think about that word…CURD-le.  “Little Miss Muffet sat on a tuffet, eating her CURDS and WHEY.”  Milk is naturally alkaline or basic on the pH scale, but if it is acidified, either by adding an acid like citric acid or lemon juice…or adding a bacterial culture that feeds on the sugars in the milk and, in turn, expels acid…when it is then heated, the acidic milk separates into curds (which are then turned into cheese) and whey, the greenish, thin, high-protein liquid left over from making cheese, which can then be used in a variety of applications in your kitchen (bread making, smoothies, soups, pouring on cereal or oatmeal, making polenta or risotto, etc.).  The word “curdle” means to separate milk into curds and whey, and while most chefs think of curdling as a bad thing, when you’re making cheese, it’s a joyous thing!

So the citric acid we added to the milk and cream has acidulated the milk, and as it heats, it will naturally separate into curds and whey.  In other, more complex cheeses, this is accomplished through the dual action of bacterial cultures and rennet…a natural enzyme that exists in the stomachs of all mammals as well as in some plants that digests milk proteins.  Those cheeses are much harder to make (though I make them regularly, so they can’t be THAT hard!), and the hard, aged ones will also require that you purchase or build a cheese press…a $300 investment or a weekend of ingenuity.  Luckily, this cheese only needs an informal press you can rig up in your kitchen with whatever you’ve got.

The milk has visibly separated into little curds and whey

Stir the milk frequently with a rubber spatula, gently scraping the bottom of the pot to keep the milk from scorching.  It may be an hour to 90 minutes before the temperature reaches the curdling point…between 185F and 195F.  Make sure you stir the milk well in a top-to-bottom circular motion, to ensure you’re getting an accurate temperature measurement, as well as scraping the bottom to prevent scorching.  At temperatures this high, the milk is pasteurized, so you don’t have to be so particular about sterilizing your pot or anything that contacts the milk at this stage, like you do with lower temperature cheeses like Cheddar and Gouda.  You’ll clearly see that the cheese has separated into fine curds and liquid whey.  But don’t jump the gun the first time you see solid flakes appearing in the milk…wait until you exceed 185F to make sure ALL the milk has curdled.  Once you hit that target temp, remove the milk from the heat and set it on the countertop, and let it sit for 20 minutes.

Now, sterilize your hands with hand sanitizer, and then wash them well.  Wash the Tomme mold and follower with soap and water, and rinse them with bleach water, followed by clean water, to ensure they are sterilized.  (Or run them through the dishwasher on the “sanitize” cycle.)  Also sterilize a ladle in bleach water or the dishwasher.  Prepare the Tomme mold by cutting a piece of cheesecloth that is quite a bit larger than the mold.  Dampen it under running water and squeeze it out.  Then unfold it into a single layer.  Cheesecloth is a little delicate and crazy, but you’ll figure it out quickly.  Once you have a single layer of cheesecloth, fold it in half to make a double layer.  Then line the mold with the damp cheesecloth.  Place a cooling rack over a large bowl, and set the cheese mold on top of it:

Gently ladle the curds and whey into the mold.  The cheesecloth will catch the curds, and allow the whey to filter down into the bowl below.  Do this slowly, there’s no rush.

When you’ve ladled about 1/4 of the curds and whey into the mold, wait a few moments until the excess water has drained, then sprinkle about 1 tsp kosher salt onto the surface of the curds.  Optionally, grind some coarse black pepper onto the curds.

You can leave out the black pepper and/or the bleu cheese culture for a traditional ricotta salata

And/or optionally sprinkle a tiny pinch of penecillium roqueforti culture onto the curds.

The use of this expensive bleu cheese culture is optional...but HIGHLY recommended!

Continue ladling another 1/4 of the curds and whey, salt and optionally pepper and/or culture, and repeat until all the curds and whey have gone into the mold.  You may need to wait a few minutes between ladling curds and sprinkling salt/pepper/culture, to allow the cheese time to drain.  After ladling the final fourth of the curds into the mold, do a final salt/pepper/culture sprinkle, then gently fold the ends of the damp cheesecloth onto the top of the cheese:

At this point, you should pour off and immediately refrigerate the whey from the bowl under the cheese mold.  Keep it for making bread or smoothies or soup or just drinking.  If you don’t want to cook with it, feed it to your pets.  It’s a low-fat, high-protein liquid…one of the most nutritious substances on earth, DON’T waste it on the kitchen drain!  You’ll have about 3 quarts of it.

Place the follower into the mold on top of the cheese:

You’ll notice that the follower’s inner circle will accept a typical can like you’ll find in your pantry.  Place a can there, and on top of the can, place about 10 pounds of weight.

Your imagination’s the limit here.  I place a heavy cast iron Dutch oven upside down on top of it, and that’s plenty of weight.

If you don’t have that, place any big pot upside down over it to give yourself some surface area, then perhaps place another pot right side up on top of that, and fill the pot with water or big cans of veggies.  The weight doesn’t have to be exact, you just want to get some of that extra whey squeezed out of the curds.  Let it sit for 1 hour, then remove the weights.

Sterilize your hands again.  Carefully invert the cheesecloth-wrapped curds onto your hand, then invert them again onto a flat surface.  Gently unwrap the cheesecloth to expose the bare curds.  Gently slip your hand between the cheesecloth and the hard surface, then gently flip the curds over into your other hand.  Then gently lay the curds back into the center of the cheesecloth.  (ie…flip the curd mass over.)  DON’T FREAK OUT if the curd mass tears or collapses or breaks up.  You haven’t ruined your cheese.  Pick up the curds using the edges of the cheesecloth and set the curds back into the mold.  If the mass broke up, gently press everything back into the mold.  Then flatten the top, and salt/pepper/culture the curds.  Drape the cheesecloth back onto the surface of the curds, replace the follower, put it back on the cooling rack above the bowl, and place the 10-pound-ish weight back onto the mold.  Let the cheese sit overnight at room temperature, or for 12 hours.

Discard the whey that accumulates in these pressings, or water your plants with it.  It will be very sour, having cultured from bacteria floating around in the air.

With clean hands, unwrap the cheese, flip it, and sprinkle it all over with a little kosher salt and rub the salt into the cheese.  Rewrap it, put it back into the mold, and place the mold on a cooling rack suspended above a dinner plate.  Put the whole thing into the fridge for a day, then remove, unwrap, flip, rub with salt, rewrap, put back into the mold, and put back in the fridge.  Repeat this until the cheese has been in the mold in the fridge for 3 days.

Rub salt into the cheese once a day for 7 days.

Then remove the cheese from the mold, unwrap, flip, salt, and rewrap, and set the cheese directly on a cooling rack, cheese mat, or sushi rolling mat on top of a plate, and put back in the fridge without the mold.  It will be firm enough to easily survive the flipping without tearing apart.  All that salting has driven out the majority of the moisture.  Repeat the unwrapping, flipping, salting, rewrapping once a day for 4 more days, to total 7 days of salting and flipping (3 in the mold, 4 outside the mold).

After a week of flipping and salting, remove and discard the cheesecloth.  Wrap the cheese in a clean, light dishcloth.  (Flour-sack towels are my favorite, I always keep a zillion of them around.)  Put the cheese in the most humid part of your fridge.  Every few days, flip the whole thing over.  If you notice cracking on the outer edges of the cheese, it’s too dry.  Either lightly dampen the towel surrounding it, or place the whole thing in a plastic container and seal it, or wrap wax paper around the outside of the cloth.  But mostly, forget about it.  If you used penicillium roqueforti, it’s gonna get ugly and gross…the mold will grow into the dishcloth.  This is normal.  Do not panic.  This is how cheese is made, it just doesn’t look like this when it ends up in the grocery store because it hasn’t been scraped yet.  If you didn’t use bleu cheese culture, it’s not gonna get THAT ugly, but you may notice some red or yellow mold, in which case, heat some vinegar in a glass in the microwave with some salt in it, then use some clean cheesecloth to dip in the salty, hot vinegar and rub it onto the red mold.  Red/yellow mold isn’t horrible, but it’s not good.  You want the blue/green/gray/white molds, which are perfectly fine.

What all bleu cheese looks like before scraping

Let your cheese age for a minimum of 1 month in the fridge, flipping every few days.  (This is 4 weeks AFTER the initial week of salting and flipping.)  If you can stand it…wait 2 months.  The longer you wait, the moldier it will get, and the more lovely the interior texture will become.  The bleu cheese culture de-acidifies the cheese and softens the texture, making it creamy and smooth, instead of granular, like traditional ricotta salata.  If you REALLY love bleu cheese, after you notice blue mold growing on the outside of the cheese, you can poke holes down through the cheese with a sterilized wooden or metal skewer.  These air pockets you create will fill with blue mold, giving your cheese and even more pungent flavor.

When you’re ready to eat the cheese, unwrap the cloth and toss it into the laundry with lots of bleach.  Your cheese will be as ugly as it possibly can be, especially if you’ve used the bleu cheese culture.  Don’t worry.  Set the cheese on a cutting board and carefully scrape the mold off with a big knife.  Discard the cuttings, or eat them with crackers if you like bleu cheese alot.  Once you’ve scraped the cheese well, you’ll end up with something gorgeous like this:

What this particular "black and bleu" ricotta salata looks like after scraping

After scraping, your cheese is ready to slice and eat!  Obviously, unless you’ve got a big dinner party planned, you’re not going to eat it all in a few days.  This is a big wheel of cheese, probably larger than you’ve ever bought at one time.  It’ll weigh about 1.5 pounds.  Keep it wrapped in wax paper or parchment in the fridge and it’ll last you a few months.  Any mold that grows, just scrape it off.  If it’s red or yellow, use the hot, salty vinegar trick.

"Black and Bleu" Ricotta Salata, sliced. This cheese was made with penicillium roqueforti sprinkled only on the outside. If you follow these instructions, you'll have veins of bleu inside the cheese!

After all the work you put into this cheese, maybe you’ll understand why REAL artisan cheese is so ruinously expensive at the market.  Most grocery stores don’t even carry REAL cheese, it’s so expensive.  They’re carrying industrial cheese, which is made over the course of about 1 week by machines.  That’s why you can buy it for $6-$8 a pound (still more expensive than most meats and vegetables).  But a REAL artisan, handmade, aged cheese will easily run $30-$80 a pound and higher, depending on how long it is aged.  So take comfort in the fact that you’ve turned probably $8 worth of ingredients into $50 worth of cheese with your blood, sweat, and tears…and a few dollars’ worth of equipment.

Eager to learn more?  Check out Artisan Cheesemaking at Home by Mary Karlin and Ed Anderson, and Home Cheese Making by the legendary Ricki Carroll, who owns the New England Cheesemaking Supply Company…the best supplier of cheesemaking equipment and ingredients.

Please comment below, especially if you’ve had adventures making cheese at home!  And subscribe to my blog near the upper right corner of your screen to make sure you don’t miss any more great articles or recipes!

26 Responses to How to Make Aged Cheese: “Black and Bleu” Ricotta Salata

  1. Hello.
    I am new to this most interesting forum. I have been making ricotta and adding herbs, spices, etc. for quite a while The idea of introducing bleu mold is titillating. Can I just heat up some Gorgonzola and spread it on the outside of the cheese wheel? If so, how long should the wheel age, and is there any particular process I should follow?
    It would be wonderful if the person who used the outside mold for sourdough could give a little more info about it. I have been growing my own sourdough and rye sourdough starters and would welcome a new challenge, specially if it pairs cheese and bread. A meal fit for a king.
    Thank you.

  2. Hi Ben, I scraped the cheese this past weekend, it was in the cheese cave aging for 2 months.
    Check this out, the mold that we scraped off, we made black n blue mold cheese country sour dough bread with it, and that bread is sooo great!!
    Now to the cheese, the cheese is so delicious, but it is quite salty in my opinion, bu my husband does not think it tastes ‘too’ salty. my question: can I put this cheese back in the cheese cave to age some more? Other cheeses that I have aged do loose some of the saltiness over time, a few months at the least. What are your thoughts on this?
    Did anyone else that has made this cheese think it was quite salty?
    I wanted to post a pic here, but am not able to, so am going to check you on facebook.

    • Karen, congrats on the cheese, and brilliant idea with the sourdough! This IS, by nature and name, a salty cheese. It’s “salted” ricotta. The next time you make it, feel free to back off on the amount of salt if it’s too salty for your taste. But this is not a cheese you eat out of hand…it’s a garnishing cheese, the Italians use it to grate on top of salads and pastas. If you want it as a cheese you’ll eat out of hand, feel free to back off on the salt content!

      • Hi again, thank you for your response, that is just as my Darrin said, not really to be eaten like a chunk of cheddar… and he puts this cheese in EVERYTHING. We are pretty excited about taking this to the Cheese club meetup next week, the cheese and hopefully the bread! I am already looking forward to the next batch.

  3. Karen Fournier

    Hi Ben, I am soooo excited to make this cheese! Question is: when aging the cheese ‘Put the cheese in the most humid part of your fridge’. Would it be ok for me to age in my cheese cave which is usually 85% humidity and temp ranges 50-55 degrees?…
    Thank you
    Karen

    • Karen, you’re ahead of the game if you have a cheese cave! That humidity level and temp are ideal for aging. Cheese ages much faster under these ideal conditions than they do in the fridge, so keep an eye on it.

  4. Hey Ben. So I finally got around to trying this again after my first epic fail. It has done better but I still have a few issues. I didn’t use any cultures. Just the basic recipe with salt and pepper. It seems like I got a smaller yield than you did (my wheel of cheese seems thinner than yours). In addition, it is possible that the cheese is too dry. I have been moistening it and keeping it in parchment paper. It seems very firm, even hard. I will be opening this in a few days and I just wanted to know if you have any advice about how to do things best. Since I didn’t use the culture, you said it should be relatively granular. I guess that means more towards a parmesan texture. Any special way I should cut it? i know that big wheels of parmesan take a bit of know-how to cut correctly. Any other advice? Wine pairings? Thanks Ben!!

    • Sam, the traditional way of serving ricotta salata is by grating it. The bleu culture transforms the texture into something a bit smoother and more creamy than you’ll get without the culture. But this cheese can be a little crumbly even without the bleu culture, so just cut it and let it crumble however it naturally does. In terms of wine pairings, I’d say port all the way!

      • Hey, Ben, Thanks for the reply. First of all, the cheese turned out delicious, but Ill elaborate soon. I am an Orthodox Jew and Yesterday was the holiday of Purim which is pretty much one of the most party-filled days of the year on the Jewish calendar. One of the main mitzvos (commandments) on Purim is giving what are called Mishloach Manos. Basically, you have to give at least 2 types of foods to at least one person. This has turned into people giving packages to a bunch of their friends and family and everyone pretty much reciprocates.

        So my basic theme this year was “Cheese and Crackers.” I made crackers, many-seed bread, cheesecake (your recipe for chocolate espresso, BTW. Delicious!), yogurt cheese, fromage blanc and ricotta salata (all homemade). The ricotta salata was really a hit (along with the bread and the cheesecake). tasted pretty much like a peppered, immature parmesan. It was somewhat unstable in texture (it broke up pretty easily) but felt creamy and delicious in the mouth. I think I would have trouble grating this without it falling apart but the slivers could be placed over pasta or risotto.

        I will almost definitely make this again. My only issue is that it doesn’t look like I got nearly the yield you did (the wheel was about 1.5 inches high), so I’m wondering how to get a better yield. Is the temperature an issue? I’ve heard that temp control can be a factor. I would love to try and make the bleu version but it’s hard to get cultures with an acceptable kosher supervision (This is a pretty complex issue since there are so many different customs and standards within Jewish law and everyone holds something slightly different than the next guy. For example, many hold that all dairy products require special supervision that is more stringent than non-dairy products. I may be able to find cultures with supervision, but not the special extra supervision. That makes it difficult to put the ingredient into something that I will be serving to a bunch of people, many of whom may hold that you need the extra supervision). I will be on the hunt though.

        Anyway, thanks for the recipe. You really enhanced my Purim!

        • Sam, thank you SO MUCH for your kind comments! And it sounds like everyone who got a Mishloach Manos from you was a VERY lucky person!! Sounds incredible. Regarding the texture of the ricotta salata, the longer you age it, the more brittle it gets for grating purposes. How long did you age it?

          Regarding yield, yes, the temperature can be a factor. A higher temp can squeeze more whey out of the curd particles, resulting in less yield, but a more concentrated flavor and a different texture. But there are TONS of factors involved in yield…acidity is also a major consideration. Add another quart of heavy cream next time to ensure you increase your yield, if you want to. Also, I tend to work with raw milk when I make cheese, and this results in a higher yield because the homogenization process tends to hinder milk’s capacity to form a strong curd. So this may explain your decreased yield…still 1.5″ is pretty decent, mine tend to be around 2″ thick.

          If you have access to any type of Kosher bleu cheese, you can simply use that cheese to culture your homemade cheese. Smear a bit of blue mold from the cheese onto several spots on the outside of your homemade wheel, and that will get the culture started.

          • I aged for about 5 weeks including the week of salting. I wish I could find the right type of Kosher raw milk here (Brooklyn, NY); The higher standard of Kosher for dairy products is called Cholov Yisroel (literally “Jewish Milk” which means it has been supervised directly, as defined by Jewish law, from milking all the way through to purchase). I had heard that it was possible to get some at an incredibly high price but that the government cracked down on the transportation from the farms. Oh well.
            I don’t know why I didn’t think of that bleu cheese workaround. Kind of like making yogurt or creme fraiche in a way. I will definitely try this cheese again. Maybe even make it a regular thing. Thanks Ben!

        • Me, too (Orthodox)! what a great idea (cheese & crackers). I wonder, though, where you live that you can find Yidden who will each cheese with character? I find that if cheese has any aroma or flavor I’m the only one remaining in the room. Everyone wants their terrible plastic frummie cheese.

          Ben great article! I bumped into an article about letting ricotta salata (store bought) age in the fridge (accidentally on purpose). http://www.thekitchn.com/how-to-age-your-cheese-let-it-rot-the-cheesemonger-187022 For me, I’m interested in growing blue molds in/on a store bought ricotta salata. I get 3 lb wheels for use in my wood fired pizza business. Although I do plan to make kosher, raw milk cheeses by 2017, I’m looking for a shortcut to a blue cheese for personal consumption. The only kosher blue we can get is imported from Denmark and my wholesale cost is about $20/lb. So that’s insane compared to the $3.20 max I pay for ricotta salata. Considering two experiments: 1) piercing the wheel and introducing the blue, as well as washing the exterior with a solution containing blue mold; and 2) crumbling a wheel, warming it, and introducing the blue mold via a solution in a spray bottle, then re-forming the wheel with some compression, or even forming two, smaller wheels.

        • Also, Sam, about the cholov yisroel cultures – you can actually use an existing cholov yisroel cheese to acquire some cultures. Blue cheese is a great example – full of living molds.

          You basically treat an existing cheese as a mother culture and make a starter – just like making and maintaining a sourdough (or if you’re into distilling, a sour mash).

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