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The Adventure of the Peanut Butter Cookies

“Every family’s cooking-pot has one black spot.” —Chinese Proverb, from The Columbia World of Quotations (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 1996), no. 1532.

When you’re not familiar with the foods, measurements, and dishes of a place, cooking is always an adventure. The first implementation of my basic cooking strategy—plan meal, find recipe (or just improvise), buy ingredients, mix ingredients, bake or cook, eat—turned out to be much more complicated than I first expected.

Last Saturday, I decided to make peanut butter cookies. “Cookies” of any sort, at least as I imagine them (chocolate chip, snickerdoodles, molasses), are rarely baked in Czech kitchens. I chose peanut butter after one of my housemates told me that he’d never tasted peanut butter. So introducing a peanut-themed dish to our house’s menu seemed an ideal way to start promoting cultural interaction and dialogue, part of my Fulbright “mission.

First I had to find a recipe. This was easy enough to do online, but of course the one I found listed everything in cups, tablespoons, and degrees Fahrenheit. These are not standard measurements in Europe, so I found a website that offered conversion tables. Ultimately these tables did not prove as helpful as I thought they would, but at least I ended up with the right proportions of ingredients.

The next task was to buy the ingredients. Prague friends have told me that you could buy peanut butter in some of the larger stores here even though it’s not very popular. My neighborhood store (Brněnka, one of a chain of small groceries which has adopted the Brno “dragon” as its mascot) was open, but they do not have peanut butter. So I took the tram downtown to Tesco, a chain of larger department stores.

My idealized vision of walking into the store, buying the ingredients, and going home was dashed in minutes. None of the ingredients were simple. There were at least three types of flour. Which one to pick? Should I get “soft” flour, “Half-grain,” “smooth”? I finally chose the one with pictures of cakes and cookies on the front. What sort of sugar? There were also three or four types, ranging from confectioner’s sugar to a “fine” grind to “coarse.” The flour I’d chosen had a cake recipe on the back, so I got the type of sugar it recommended for cakes. The most difficult item was baking soda. It was nowhere to be found! Even after calling Karla, with whom I’ve baked before in the Czech Republic, and consulting with her friend Štěpanka, I couldn’t find the right stuff. I finally decided to give kypřicí prášek a try, as recommended by Štěpanka. It seemed close to baking soda.

When I finally had everything, it was time to go home and mix the ingredients. For some reason they had decided to reroute my tram because of repairs, but I didn’t realize this until after stood at the wrong tram stop for at least 15 minutes. My vision of speediness suffered another blow.

At home, the conversions, which had appeared to be easy calculations on the online chart, were not straightforward. If half a cup was one deciliter, then why was my flour measuring cup only in grams? I was obviously mixing up measurements for fluids and solids. But deciding that 100 grams were probably about equal to a deciliter, I forged ahead.

While online to look up these conversions I came across an article that stated bluntly, there is “no substitution” for baking soda. It was evident that the baking-powder-like substance that I had purchased was not going to work. Fortunately, the article was quite informative:

Baking powder and/or baking soda is used as leavening in many cookie recipes. Baking soda helps neutralize acidic ingredients. Baking powder and baking soda are not interchangeable and there is no substitution for baking soda.

Try the pharmacy, or the pharmacy section of the supermarket, and ask for bicarbonato. Baking soda is also called sodium bicorbonate in Britian, or NaHCO3. (More…)

Note for friends in Czech Republic:

kypřicí prášek (do pečiva) is basically like baking powder.
jedlá soda or bikarbóna is baking soda.

I did want edible cookies, so I decided to return to Tesco. But would it be open? I instead found the wonderful Interspar located in Galerie Vaňkovka. It has a better selection in food and an inviting atmosphere (not the sketchy, dirty feeling of downtown Brno’s Tesco).

Upon returning home, I mixed the ingredients, wrongly assuming that my trials were over. That was not to be. I found that the oven at my house works strangely too. I knew that the cookies should bake at 190 C, but that wasn’t enough information. Once you turn on my oven, you still have many options: do you want to “grill” your food (i.e., use the upper and lower heating elements with the door open), heat from the top, the bottom, both? Evidently the oven’s thermostat doesn’t work either. After baking for only about 7 minutes, the cookies were overdone on the bottom. But they were still edible. The second batch of cookies burned.

You can imagine the rest. I shared some of the edible results with my housemates. Luckily peanut butter cookies go well with port. We polished off the evening with both.

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Blogger Karla said . . .

And you haven't even mentioned the brown sugar issue... But it was thoughtful of you to bring in all the cookies my mother bakes. A pity we will have trouble trying to duplicate molasses crinkles.    

12:04 AM, October 26, 2005

Blogger Julia said . . .

If you guys are still looking for molasses and brown sugar, you can find both at www.bacon.cz, a British butcher in the Nusle valley here in Prague. Because the butcher imports mostly from Britain, molasses is called black treacle but it tastes just as good!    

10:01 PM, January 02, 2006

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