Our blogger navigates the difficulties of cooking in a foreign space with the measurements and ingredients of a foreign place.
Anyone who has ever been inside a French patisserie will know instinctively why the French rarely bake at home. Why should they? Not only are professionally-baked (and beautifully-presented) cakes readily available on nearly every corner, but the cost of buying one is usually comparable to making it oneself à la maison.
So whereas in the states, a purchased dessert presented to visitors is – at least where I am from – to be considered somewhat tacky (understandable, in my opinion, as a walk down one of our own “bakery” aisles will bombard a person with blue-frosted cakes and any number of psychedelic-inspired cookies; just why would someone want to put dye in their food, anyway?), in France the opposite is true.
Buying a cake from the local patisserie for Sunday dinner, for example, is considered somewhat the norm in this country, as the quality is usually vastly superior to anything a home-baker could whip up. Besides, the variety (and sheer “scrumptious factor”) on offer at the bakeries here will leave a person rarely wanting to bother doing it themselves, anyway.
That being said, however, there have been a few times over the years when something French just wouldn’t do. Show me a French patissier who knows anything about peach cobbler, for example, and I’ll show you my tattoo. Or muffins. Or cookies. Or brownies. (I know, I know…sometimes you can find muffins, cookies or brownies here, but they’re never quite right.)
In the mood for a brownie
So today I woke up in a brownie kind of mood and – since Mr. FdC and a friend of his took the little ones on a hike this morning – I decided to try making some from scratch. Out came my recipe file and the brownie recipe I swiped from my mom’s Ladies Home Journal a few years back. I’d never tried it, but it looked easy enough. And wonder of wonders, I happened to have all the ingredients on hand (something not to be taken lightly here, as today is Sunday and the shops are closed).
Still, as any American expatriate knows, using a recipe from home to cook something in France calls for much more than an attitude of “wanting to bother.” For one thing, there are the aforementioned ingredients. As nearly all American baked goods call for baking soda or baking powder (or both), it’s best to request them in a care package from mom if at all possible. While baking soda (in a slightly different form) can be found in the French pharmacies, baking powder can’t be found at French stores at all.
And only recently have the French supermarkets begun to offer vanilla flavoring in anything other than itsy bitsy little (three EUR!) bottles. In other words, if your recipe calls for more than a teaspoon (as most of mine do), you’d be better off saving your money for a nice café crème somewhere.
Nuts, too, pose another problem. Pecans (being from the South, I need a lot of these to stay happy) and walnuts are definitely available in France, but at an often-prohibitive price. (I almost choked once when trying to estimate how much it would cost me to make a pecan pie in Paris – and decided I didn’t want one, after all.)
Fortunately, my brownie recipe called for things that the French not only do, but do well. The “tips” box at the bottom of the page, for example, suggested using only fresh “real” butter (as if, living so close to Normandy, I would consider using anything else) and semi-sweet chocolate that is “good enough to eat on its own” (you’d be hard-pressed to find inedible chocolate in France.)
Obscure ingredients aside, the worst thing of all is the number of darned conversions a person will have to go through just to get started. I can tell you this much: using an American recipe to bake something in France will convince you (if you weren’t already) of the sheer ridiculousness of our system of measurements.
Because I brought over a set of American measuring cups and spoons (masses that make absolutely no sense to anyone accustomed to the metric system, I can assure you), that part went pretty smoothly.
The problems arose when I got to the part of the recipe calling for “2 ounces of this” or “8 ounces of that” since I always seem to have trouble remembering how many grams is in an ounce. (Once again, thank goodness for the Internet, I say.)
And pre-heating an oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit is not as easy as it sounds when the conversion, rounded up, is 163 degrees Celsius, or when the choices on your microwave-sized oven are knobs marked merely 1-5. And an 8 x 8 x 2–inch pan? What, exactly, would even be close in centimeters? Search me. I ended up choosing a nice oval Emile Henry gratin dish.
(And don’t even get me started on our measurements of distance; try explaining those to a Frenchie. Inches, feet, yards, miles [consisting of a “logical” 5,280 feet each] – or volume [How much is a gallon? Four quarts. How much is a quart? Two pints. How much is a pint? Two cups. How much is a cup? Eight ounces.])
Remembering the recipe
Suffice it to say that embarking on the brownie adventure this morning took a certain amount of courage on my part, as I’ve ruined more than one recipe trying to adapt it to French standards, and nothing makes me more insanely psychotic than having to throw out perfectly good food.
So, after whipping up the batter and tossing it all in the oven, I started writing this post. And now, 35 minutes after starting, they are done. I sit here chewing even as I type. And you know what? For once, they are fabulous. Now, if I can only remember what I did.