Baking diversion

Carolyn is turning 13 and she really wanted to make chocolate chip cookies, so we embarked on our baking adventures in France–which of course has entailed its own learning curve. For one thing, our apartment’s kitchen isn’t exactly fully equipped for even all the cooking things I’ve wanted to do, much less for baking. We bought a baking sheet yesterday, but didn’t manage to find a hand mixer. No worries, we’ll figure something out; after all, humankind baked for centuries without electric mixers.

Only once we were underway did we realize that we didn’t have real cooling racks or even a real mixing bowl. But we got by. Another crucial element of hardware that wasn’t to be found was anything to measure with—either measuring cups or spoons! But no problem, there’s a great kitchen shop right nearby. Except they don’t even sell measuring cups or spoons. Instead they have these glass containers that have all sorts of measuring systems on them. Okay, got it.

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Then there are the most crucial things of all—ingredients. Butter? No problem. Sugar? Check. Brown sugar—uh, Google to the rescue. I picked up two things that look like brown sugar: sucre complet muscovado and sucre roux de canne. My French translation app said sucre roux was what to look for and a baking forum I found said muscovado was expensive and unnecessary to seek out. Still, I bought them both—and was glad I did. The sucre roux turned out to have the coarse consistency of Sugar in the Raw while the muscovado was much finer and packed like brown sugar. (Looks like I’ll be saving the sucre roux for coffee.)

Then there’s the flour. I found two small bags in the kitchen, so I should be set right? Not so fast. Maybe I should call on the power of Google to see what kinds of flour I’m dealing with. After all, even I know there are differences between all purpose, whole wheat, and cake flour. Here’s what David Lebovitz, the American baker-gourmand in Paris, has to say:

Flour varies from country-to-country. French ‘all-purpose’ flour (type 45 and type 55) is closer to American cake flour: it’s milled very finely and has less-protein and gluten (strength). In most cases, you can’t just substitute French all-purpose flour in American recipes like cookies and cakes. I know too many Americans who opened the oven door and found all their carefully rolled-out chocolate chip cookies, melded into one, giant blob. [Learn more here.]

Wonderful! Guess what kind of flour we’ve got—that’s right, one is Type 45, while the other? It’s not clear. Maybe I’ll just do half of each…

So we get the butter and sugar creamed and the eggs beaten in. Without a mixer we found that Carolyn’s hands worked better than a wooden spoon or whisk (thanks again to an internet tip). Next up: vanilla—or at least the closest thing I could find: Arôme Vanille, which is really flavored sugar syrup. Oh well. Then baking soda, which turned out to be called bicarbonate alimentaire and not anywhere near the other baking items in the store. (Thanks to the English speaking woman at the grocery who sent her little girl to go find some for us since I didn’t know what it would be called or where it would be! The French are rude? Not in my experience. Given that I’m the one who’s trying to get along without being able to speak much of their language, I’ve received no end of patience.)

Okay, time to measure in the flour. I decided to go with half of each kind we had. Only later did I discover that both bags were “Type 45”—the kind that’s not supposed to work correctly…

We interrupt this baking account to remind you of an amusing moment from Star Trek IV:

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Kirk: Mr. Spock, have you accounted for the variable mass of whales and water in your time re-entry program?
Spock: Mr. Scott cannot give me exact figures, Admiral, so… I will make a guess.
Kirk: A guess? You, Spock? That’s extraordinary.
Spock: [to Dr. McCoy] I don’t think he understands.
McCoy: No, Spock. He means that he feels safer about your guesses than most other people’s facts.

What does any of this have to do with baking? Everything! I’m bad enough keeping my cups and pints straight without having to convert ounces to grams or Fahrenheit to Celsius. First off we had a 500g brick of butter and according to my math, needed 225 grams. And the packaging doesn’t have any kind of unit markers printed on it, so right of the bat I’m guesstimating how much to use. Then comes the sugar and the flour. I’m pretty sure I got the sugar right, but the flour? Our measuring glass has units for measuring farine (flour) but to my eye it looks like way more than what I’m expecting a cup of flour to look like. So I guessed again and used only about 2/3 of what my math said I needed. We got it mixed in to what seemed like a reasonable consistency and Carolyn loaded up the first sheet for the oven. Here’s hoping my guesses are as good as Spock’s…

Well, it took longer than the recommended ten minutes (who knows how accurate the oven is–another unknown!), but in the end… we had tasty chocolate chip cookies! The consistency was slightly more cake-like at first, but they firmed up and at least we didn’t end up with a giant cookie glob.

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See–not bad! In fact, they’re pretty good. The flavor isn’t exactly what we get in the U.S., but then we’re using different flour, different butter, different vanilla… really, different everything (along with some dodgy measurements). So I’m pretty happy.

Now I can get some rest. ‘Cause it’s time for surgery in the morning!

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