Post Thanksgiving: A Turkey Day Recap

This post may seem a little untimely, but I left my computer cable Sofia and was unable to retrieved it till this weekend, so I apologize for my Thanksgiving re-cap post about 2 weeks late!
Still full of Turkey Day spirit!
I don’t think the term shattered completely encompasses how I felt the day after Thanksgiving.  The mass quantities of wine ingested during the course of dinner probably didn’t help much or the copious amounts of food.  The meal was a success for the most part, but there were a few snafus along the way. Looking back on the meal, the cooking, the preparation, I feel the need to share a few things that I learned.

My Thanksgiving meal starts a few weeks before the actual day, when I begin gathering my research materials, which help me build my menu.  Usually, I try to find a theme to bind the meal together, but this year, I kind of winged it; selecting recipes and sides that sounded delicious, but also making sure that many colors were represented. I have a large selection of Thanksgiving recipe books and old November issues of culinary magazines, plus a folder of random loose recipes that I have printed out over the years.

I gathered my reading materials and started to sort through and tag with post-its possible 2010 contenders and managed to narrow it down to these lovely dishes, which I photocopied to preserve my books and resources (anal retentive… yes, I know):
Glittering Spiced Walnuts
Spinach Dip with Crudités
Spicy Three-Cheese Spread
Soup
Americano’s Chanterelle Mushroom Soup
Main
Sage-Brined Roast Turkey with
Whole Wheat Stuffing with Pomegranate bacon, Chestnuts and Parmesan
Potato Gratin with Mushrooms and Gruyère
Braised Chestnuts with Madeira Cream Sauce
Maple Braised Butternut Squash with Fresh Thyme
Chiffonade of Brussels Sprouts with Diced Pomegranate Bacon and Hazelnuts
Cranberry Sauce
Dessert
Apple Crostata with Cheddar Crust
Pear Crostata with Figs and Honey
Persimmon Pudding

Once I figure out the recipes, I begin to assemble a shopping list and schedule.  This year I decided to forgo typing my schedule, but keeping organize with my white board.  I think I prefer this method of organization because it is larger and allows me to really visualize what I have yet to do. Although my typed version is much more detailed breaking down recipes into various steps and elements.
This was my status mid-afternoon on Wednesday.

While Thanksgiving is my absolute favorite holiday, including my birthday, which not technically a holiday, but does falls on Groundhogs Day (US), I always overdo it, just in different ways every year.  For example, the first time I hosted a Thanksgiving in 2000, I made 9 different pies for 9 adults.  For those of you who have trouble with math that is a pie a person… so, in retrospect I now consider this an unhealthy pie to person ratio. This year, while hosting only 4 adults and my 2 girls; created 3 starters, a soup, a turkey, 6 side dishes and 3 desserts, which wouldn’t be that bad, but I neglected to adjust the original serving sizes from 8 – 10 people.

The amount of food was insane.  I felt horribly wasteful.  Most of the leftovers were eaten over the course of a few days, but one of my pies just completely went to waste and got moldy before we could touch it!

R.I.P Apple Crostata with Cheddar Crust

TIP: Cook for the actual guests you in attendance, not the dinner party in your head.  Just because you are a glutton doesn’t mean everyone else is too!

A few days before Thanksgiving, I received some frantic phone calls and text messages about where to find a turkey in Bulgaria. I have never had a problem finding a frozen turkey in Sofia or Kyustendil.  They are available in the frozen meat section.

Пуешко месо (pu-esh-ko me-so) = turkey meat
For the last 4 years, Doux has been the only brand of bird that I have found.  If you are lucky enough to know someone who keeps live turkeys, then that would be your best bet for procuring a fresh bird.  My only concern is the storage and transportation of the bird after it has been killed.  Turkey is not something that Bulgarians eat regularly, so be mindful of salmonella and other such things. 
TIP: If you are buying a frozen bird.  Allow yourself at least 4 DAYS to thaw the bird in the refrigerator. So, this means you need to buy your bird on the Sunday before Thanksgiving.  Most rapid thawing of frozen poultry lead to questionable flavors and textures.  If you have ever had rubbery/gummy chicken in a restaurant in Bulgaria, you know exactly what I mean.

All in all I would categorize the meal as a success.  I am certain next year will be my best Thanksgiving thus far.  I am already planning it now.  I hope everyone enjoyed their holidays thus far.  Do you have any holiday meal planning tips that help you year after year?

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A Long Strange Trip: Project Food Blog

I would like to be able to say that my devotion to food was born when my grandmother, mother, aunt, (or other family relation) would take me into their kitchen and share their recipes and techniques, which had been passed down through the generations.  I would also love to have owed my passion for gastronomic delights to my childhood, during which my parents encouraged me to experience fresh and exotic foods, but that is not the case either.  I was an extremely boring, unadventurous eater – raised by boring, unadventurous eaters.  I did not even eat a proper salad till I was 18 or try an egg free of ketchup till my late 20’s.  Yet, not for one second do I regret my lack of culinary adventure or diversity because it is because of my past I can appreciate my present, which revolves around food: growing it, cooking it and eating it. I think my unique perspective on food and cooking will help me to become the Project Food Blog champion.
One might ask what was the catalyst for this monumental pendulum swing. The best answer I can give is that I have always been slowly moving toward this point since I moved out into the real world, but relocating to Bulgaria forced me out of my comfort zone and truly catapulted me toward becoming an obsessive food lover, grower and blogger.
Four years ago, when my husband and I made the decision to move abroad, it was overwhelming and exciting simultaneously.  When the novelty of in a living foreign land slowly wore off, I found myself in the throws of culture shock and missing comfort food from the States, specifically from my New York stomping grounds. I had dabbled in baking and cooking before the big move, watched the Food Network religiously and subscribed to Martha Stewart, but I was unprepared for the sheer logistical nightmare of following a simple recipe, in a small town in a foreign country, with limited knowledge of the language and no access to common (American) ingredients.
I was constantly consulting the Internet and my cookbooks for tips and substitutions for ingredients commonly found in the United States.  I can remember my first major breakthrough when I discovered that I could substitute buttermilk by adding either lemon juice or vinegar to milk and produce a similar effect (I’ve since learned how to make real buttermilk). And so, started my quest to grow or make what I couldn’t find in Bulgarian stores otherwise. 

Despite having many foodie friends, they eventually got board listening to me rant on about dough hydration or what a miracle neem oil is in the garden, so I decided to channel my thoughts, ideas, success and failures into a blog.  My knowledge of food and passion for the culinary (and horticultural) arts has grown steady ever since. It has even led me to the life altering decision that I want to become a professional chef/ food writer and attend the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), My ambition came a step closer this year when I was acceped to the CIA, although have had to defer my enrollment due to financial and logistical issues (I still live in Bulgaria).
One of the key elements that defines me as a food blogger is the fact that I don’t have access to exotic ingredients – or even many common ones.  My blog is not about food snobbery but about the frustrations of a culinary adventurer in a strange land, about what is possible with a few simple ingredients and a small vegetable garden, about the joy of discovering.  Through my blogging I have learned how to grow or make my own ingredients and substitutes. I can now make my own coconut milk, spice blends, cheese, breadcrumbs etc… And I now make most everything from scratch, because after 4 years of doing everything myself, I see the difference in the food that I make everything fresh and eating seasonally has completely transformed my ideas about food in general and I don’t think that if a Whole Foods or Trader Joe’s was to open in Kyustendil, I would change my habits of making everything fresh.
 
For me being a good blogger is about quality not quantity. Anyone can post recipes or restaurant reviews every few days, but establishing trust between yourself and your readers is vital. I am not going to spend time or money making a recipe or visiting a restaurant just because someone has written about it on the Internet.  I want people to know me as a person and trust the recommendations or recipes that I am sharing with them because they know what I stand for as a foodie and the quality I expect from myself and others around me.
 can absolutely see myself as the next Food Blog star because one can find a little bit of everything on Eating, Gardening & Living in Bulgaria, great recipes, international culinary experience, cooking tips and advice with a sassy point of view! I am not the best photographer, cook, gardener or writer nor do I pretend to be.  I find that people read my blog because I tackle some different topics and present them clearly and honestly all in the name of good food.

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Italy Here! Festival in Sofia

The third week of June, from the 17th to the 23rd was the annual Qui Italia/Италия Тук festival in Sofia, which is organized by the Istituto Italiano di Cultura Sofia.  A collection of Italian cultural, musical, artistic and gastronomical elements are gathered and celebrated for a week in Borissova Gradina Park.


It was tricky for me to make it to Sofia for the festival, but I did carve out a bit of time to check out what interested me most…. the gastronomical offerings.

Casa Sicilia Bulgaria, offered wine tasting and also some pastries and treats for sampling.  They do not however have a shop.
Many of the food tents had gelato, which is a perfect summer treat.
Here are some other photos from around the festival.  My coverage next year will be much more thorough!
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Let’s Celebrate Portugal Day 2010

I am very please to present a fantastic collection of Portuguese inspired recipes in honor of Portugal’s national holiday Dia de Portugal. The date June 10th is significant because it marks the death of Luís de Camões, Portugal’s greatest poet, who penned Os Lusíadas, which is an epic poem that celebrates Portugal’s history and achievements.  Some truly remarkable food bloggers have gathered to celebrate the cuisine of Portugal for this Portugal day Roundup!  Thank you to everyone who participated!  I’ve really enjoyed all your posts.

Please take a moment and check out this delicioso dishes:

Biren @ Roti n Rice created a wonderful Caldo Verde: Portuguese Green Soup
Stella @ The Witchy Kitchen has cast a spell on us with her Portuguese Orange-Olive Oil Cake
Christina M. @ The Rowdy Chowgirl (I love the name) reconnects with her Portuguese heritage with Portuguese Sopas
Lynn L @ I’ll Have What She’s Having shares a spicy treat with A Taste of Portugal
Natasha @ 5 Star Foodie presents a delectable dessert Aletria: Portuguese Vermicelli Pudding
Filomena @ As Nossas Cozinhas prepares an amazing Docinhos de Gemas e de Chila
Sofia @ Food Ideas, who is hosting an actual Portugal Day at her house will be serving Acorda de Marisco – Shellfish Bread Stew and a host of other outstanding dishes.
Lois B @ Food is my Love Language is tempting our taste buds with some creamy Flan
Sharlene T @ Solar Cooking for Mainstream Cooks will be joining us shortly with a solar delight of Portuguese Paella
Me @ Eating, Gardening & Living in Bulgaria whipped up a meat and potatoes extravaganza of Carne de Vinha d’Alhos

For those of you who are unaware, July is the month to celebrate Canada (1st), America (4th), and France (14th), which got me thinking about which country to highlight.  I feel everyone is familiar enough with French cuisine that a plethora of ideas will flood your head instantly just at the mere mention.  Then I though about Canadian cuisine, which I am not at all familiar with, but then another idea came to mind about American cuisine.
Living in Bulgaria, I get a lot of American backlash from non-Americans that we have no culture or cuisine, not to mention our politics.  Being a proud American (though not all the time), I am forced to answer the question of what is American cuisine.  I am calling all food bloggers, not just Americans to ponder:  What is American cuisine? There is no right or wrong answer.  This event will allow us to start a discussion about defining a cuisine and a culture.
If you are interested please let me know so I can add you to the blog roll, which I will post in a reminder on June 27th… to participate please send me your entries via email by July 3rd and include a photo. Be sure to mention that Casey (me) at Eating, Gardening Living in Bulgaria organized the event and include a link to my site www.caseyangelova.com.
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The Olive Garden

I am going to be honest, no matter how long The Olive Garden exists in Sofia, it will always remind me of the American restaurant chain of the same name. Personally, I detest The Olive Garden in the US, not because the food tastes bad; it tastes uniformly delicious where ever you go, but that is just the thing;  it is not REAL food. It is the sit down equivalent of McDonald’s. That being said, there is no assembly line kitchen in this Sofia eatery, serving packaged food. While both restaurants offer a nice selection of pasta dishes, the Bulgarian counterpart uses only fresh pasta, which is a big difference.

I had the good fortune to meet the owners, Alex, who is from Syria and Tom, an American from Boston. During my dinner, I was able to satisfy my curiosity as to the origin of the restaurant’s name. Here it goes: a while back, Alex was walking with his wife through London and in the window of a shop he saw a olive tree and thought that “The Olive Tree” would be a good name for the restaurant.  Tom, the other owner suggested that they name the place The Olive Garden because they have a garden area outside the restaurant, but Tom does have a reputation for naming places after already established American eateries.  He was one of the owners of The Black Dog, a now defunct tavern in Martha’s Vineyard Lozenetz.

The menu is comprised of comforting food that you would easily find being served at a friends dinner party: steaks, lamb chops, goulash, antipasti and pasta. The portions are hardy for neighborhood, plus reasonably priced. There is also a distinct Syrian influence representing Alex’s heritage with the tabbouleh salad, humus and falafels on the menu, which was a collaboration between the owners and their chef, who had spent 4 years working in the kitchen at a Marriott Hotel in St. Louis, Missouri and another 2 years working in Ireland before returning to Bulgaria.  Together they managed to create what I think is pretty well rounded menu that included a nice selection of international and local wines.

When I arrived at the table (I was late because I got in an fender bender during Sofia’s soaken rush hour), I was promptly served warm bread rolls with butter and an olive tapenade.  I am not a fan of butter with bread or olives for that matter, but the tapenade was quite tasty.  It could be because it wasn’t too over powering with the blend of olives and garlic. True olive lovers might have a different opinion.

We started with the humus and bruschetta.  The humus had good flavors, but was not served with pita, but flat almost tortilla like bread triangles, which was a bit of a bummer for me, because the bread we were served with the butter and tapenade was so fresh and tasty.

The brushetta for me was also a bit of a disappointment because the bread was soft and not grilled on both sides.  It had good flavors, but the the texture was a tad spongey for my taste. Yet, I was alone in my opinion because Drini and the others at the table liked it!
For main courses, everyone except Mallorie and I went with the pasta.  Because I wanted to write this review, I asked that everyone not order doubles and they actually complied. 
 
Mallorie’s Anitpasti, which I didn’t actually try, now that I realize it.
Koos who lives right around the corner to the restaurant is a frequent visitor and his favorite is the Carbonara.  He was spot on with his choice because it was the best pasta dish on the table, although a bit to soft for me, but that could because of the fresh pasta.
Drini ordered the Tagatelli with Salmon (not quite sure of the name) and it was good.  The salmon was tender, but sauce was lacking something.  After she seasoned it with salt, pepper and extra parmesan cheese, she said it was better.
Jason’s dish was quite interesting because he ordered the Fettucini Alfredo, which was suggested by the waiter and waitress as their favorite dish on the menu. But as you can see in the photo below, this was nothing like a true Fettucini Alfredo, which is traditionally fettucini pasta tossed with emulsified parmesan cheese and butter sauce. His was something else entirely, but that error in named doesn’t effect the taste.  It was a good dish.
Finally, I ordered the Lamb Chops with a Dijon sauce. Both Jason and I enjoyed the way that the lamb was prepared and cooked. I however objected to the sauce and this could be another error in naming.  The “dijon” sauce wasn’t even close to being mustardy. I know that there was mustard in the sauce because I saw whole mustard seeds, but the chef seemed to use whole grain mustard, rather than dijon because the kick that you get from dijon mustard was noticeably absent. Also, in reading a review from the Sofia Echo about The Olive Garden, the reviewer, who also had the lamb specifically states that he was served “three chunky” chops, while my portion of chops was only two… Hmmm.

The overall experience at The Olive Garden was good. It is not a gourmet restaurant, nor does it pretend to be. It is unpretentious, comfortable and accessible. If I spent more time in Sofia, I can easily see this being my go to place when I don’t feel like cooking. The next time I go, I will see how it works out with the kids.
I am eager for your thoughts on my review.  If you don’t agree with me let me know.  Looking forward to your comments! 
18 “Angel Kunchev” Street (@ “Dr. G Varovich” Street) 
Sofia, Bulgaria
Tel: +359 2 481 1214, +359 88 816 3232 
Hours Mon – Sun: 11:00 am – 11:00 pm
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Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt (Part 2)

I decided not to photograph my first yogurt making attempt by myself because I didn’t want to add pressure process. Truthfully, I had a few snafus with my first try and part of that is due to my inefficient multitasking.  I was making bread, weeding the garden and “watching” the milk pasteurize… well, it over boiled (212 F/100 C) and made a complete mess, but that wasn’t the most disheartening element. The milk spilled onto my digital thermometer (which I am slightly obsessed with) and caused it to go funky.  I didn’t realize this until the next day when I took it out of the bundle of fermenting yogurt jars, which means that my yogurt didn’t ferment at the 86 F (30 C) like I had intended.  The yogurt did set and was pretty good, but I needed another batch to be compare probably due to the low fermenting temperature.  My daughter didn’t have any issue and proceeded to eat the rest of the jar with a little muesli.

I manage to recalibrate my thermometer with the help of my husband.  I did a few tests to ensure that it was calibrated: I put it in boiling water and it hit 212 F/ 100 C, then I put it in the oven and checked it against my oven thermometer and the set oven temperature and all seemed OK. Though I still didn’t trust it 100%,  I was now ready for my second attempt, which I will photograph and apply my knowledge from my first and subsequent attempts .
First thing you need is to find a source for your milk.  My mother in-law has a connection that delivers raw milk to our house every Tuesday, which is convenient or you can find milk sellers around town very early in the morning (if you live in Bulgaria).
Because of the incident with the thermometer, the milk that I had delivered ended up sitting in fridge for 3 days, while I worked on my thermometer and I think the waiting negatively effected the final outcome of the yogurt. So, here are the steps that I followed, which I cross referenced with McGee’s On Food and Cooking.

Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt

Raw Milk (I use 4 liters)
Large stainless steel or enamel pot, with a lip, heavy-bottomed is preferable.
Sterilized jars with lids.
Digital thermometer
Woolen blankets to wrap jars

Pour milk into pot and heat on stovetop at a medium-high temperature.  Stirring frequently with a wooden spoon because certain metals might react with the milk.  It is important to cook the milk to give the yogurt a firmer or more congealed constancy. This can be achieved by a prolonged boil or adding dried milk powder and keeping the temperature at 185F/85C for 30 minutes or at 195F/90C for 10 minutes.  Obviously, I over boiled the milk on my first try, but on my second try I maintained 195F for 10 minutes.

Skim off the butter/fat frequently and save for butter making

After that I let the milk cool to about 100F/38C.  During the cooling process, I frequently skimmed off as much of the fat clusters as I could see, which I reserved to make a really small amount of butter.  Then I poured the milk into the clean jars.

More butter for skimming

To the heated milk about 95F – 90F/35-32C I added a healthy tablespoon of the older yogurt for a starter and stirred completely, screwed on the lids tightly and wrapped up my “baby”.

I was so focused on the milk tempurature that I forgot to find some wool blankets and instead I thought I would experiment with some of the many children’s beach towels that are all over my house thanks to my future architects/ tent makers. I also had a freezer bag, which I hoped with also help lock in the heat.  Then wrapped my thermometer up inside of the the yogurt bundle, so I can monitor the warmth.

Layer one – Dora
The “baby”
Layer two – Arial
The final layer

According to McGee, if you want to have a firmer yogurt with less whey (the clear/yellowish liquid that forms on the yogurt)  The optimal fermenting temperature is 86F/30C for the bacteria to form strong bonds then allowing the yogurt to ferment for about 18 hours.  I had trouble maintaining the temperature and by the end the temperature inside my bag was about 70F/21C.

After the 18 hour resting period, I put the yogurt in the fridge to chill until someone was hungry, which didn’t take long.  My daughter Maya is my best taste tester.  She uses yogurt in lieu of milk, so instead of cereal with milk, she has cereal with yogurt.  When I first open the jar, I skim off the left over butter/fatty bits that I missed to reveal the silky white goodness that is homemade yogurt.  I took a taste before giving it to her, just in case I did something wrong, but no it was delicious.

In my opinion, the greatest difference in yogurt outcome rested with the heating process. The yogurt had a firmer texture and tasted better, almost sweeter when I let the milk boil over (by accident).  I am wondering if the prolonged boiling caramelized the lactose in the milk, which gave it that subtle sweetness?  I am going to make some more yogurt tomorrow and I have a new trick up my sleeve about maintaining the fermenting temperature… stay tuned for part 3!

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Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt (Part 1)

I have been slightly obsessed with raw milk.  In the last few months, I have unsuccessfully attempted cheese and butter.  Well, to be honest, I did make butter, only the quantity was about the size of a small gum ball, so I decided that it would be best to find someone experienced at making dairy products and start smaller.  I had set my sights on traditional yogurt making.  What better place to discover yogurt making than Bulgaria, which has a wonderful cultural history and even have a unique strain of lactic acid bacteria called lactobacillus delrueskii subspecies bulgaricus.




Last Thursday, I was having tea with a new friend Elena, who is Bulgarian and she was telling me how she learned to make traditional Bulgarian yogurt from a Baba (Bulgarian for “grandmother”) that lives in her village. She offered to demonstrate for me how she does it and I couldn’t resist.

On Monday, she received her raw milk from one of the local farmers, so I went to meet her at the shop near her house in Droogan (Друган), which is located about 26 miles (42 km) northeast from Kyustendil.  Being the nerd that I am I brought my notebook, camera, digital thermometer, a copy of On Food and Cooking by Harold McGee and a scale just in case.

Друган/ Droogan town sign
I couldn’t resist this shot of the mountains in Droogan.  They were so amazing in person.
The process begins by pasteurizing the milk, which is essentially bringing it to a near boil and keeping it at a certain temperature for a period of time.  Most of the specifics such as the exact temperature and times are learned from experience, so many of the cues are you need to learn from observing someone else or trial and error.

Elena was using four liters of raw milk (about 135 oz), she suggest using a heavy bottom pot, so that the milk heats evenly and does not burn on the bottom. Also, stir the milk often to prevent sticking.  Her stove has a temperature gauge of 1 – 9, so she starts the milk on 9, till it begins to steam.  Then she lowers the dial to about 5.  She heats the milk till it is just about to boil over.  You must watch the milk carefully because when it does over boil it can be quite messy.   For the sake of my own curiosity, I had put my thermometer in the pot and she removed the milk from the heat at 200 F (94 C) and the temperature continued to rise, topping off at 208F (98 C).

Once the milk was off the heat, it needed to be partially cooled and skimmed of the cream, which formed on top.  The Baba’s way of making yogurt is to let the milk cool, only to the point where you can stick you finger in the milk and it is hot, but doesn’t burn after a few seconds.  Elena on the other hand found this method to produce very loose yogurt, which was full of whey (цвиг). In her experience, she found that if she let the milk cool longer, the texture of the yogurt became firmer.

Skimming the cream, which can be saved for butter making!

So, she let the milk cool to 100 F (38 C), then poured the milk into 3 glass jars.  To each jar she added 2 teaspoons of yogurt from the last batch, stirred them and tightly screwed on the lids!  Voila… no, not just yet.  The next part is tricky. You need to keep the jars warm for a few hours to ensure that the bacteria grow and make the yogurt yogurt-y (a new adjective).

Into the jars.
Adding the bacteria from the last batch of yogurt.
Stirring it up!
Elena was taught to let it set for 2 – 3 hours, but this was one of the causes of the excess whey in the yogurt (I will go into further detail in my next post), so she keeps hers warm for 8 – 9 hours.  In order to keep the temperature optimal for bacterial growth, she wraps the “baby” in woolen blankets and sweaters, which are clipped together tightly to keep the heat in. I would have like to have kept my thermometer inside “the baby” to know the exact inside temperature, but I needed to get home.
“The Baby”
Layer 1 – Baby Blanket
Layer 2 – Woolen Sweater
Final Layer … just in case!

I had a taste of the yogurt from the last batch and it was delicious and creamy. These was something satisfying knowing that I now have the knowledge to provide my family with homemade yogurt, which is a huge favorite in our house.  My girls eat it like ice cream!  I am very excited about making my own.  So, in Part 2 of Homemade Bulgarian Yogurt, I will make my own yogurt using raw milk.  I will use the observations from my experiences with Elena, but also cross reference that information with McGee to get the best possible outcome.

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