(Re-)Learning How to Bake
My Betty Crocker cookbook is going to need some tweaking.
Last weekend I made my first attempt at baking in our Indian kitchen. I love baking; I have ever since I was a little girl. So, I was overjoyed when I found out a few months back that our kitchen had an oven, since many Indian kitchens do not. It’s a rather small, countertop oven (more like a toaster-oven by U.S. standards), but a working oven, nonetheless.
Friday evening, we collected all of the baking ingredients for chocolate chip and chocolate drop cookies from I.N.A. Market – a Delhi market where one can find all sorts of imported foodstuffs like pasta, chocolate chips, granola bars, and even Oreos and Nutella! I set to baking bright and early Saturday morning, and ran into a number of unforeseen difficulties along the way.
First, I wasn’t able to find any proper measuring cups or spoons in the cupboards. Our maid-servant almost never measures ingredients; she’s able to eyeball everything, so there isn’t much need to keep measuring utensils in the house. Fortunately, I was able to make-do with tea cups and normal spoons. Afterwards, my mother-in-law managed to unearth a measuring cup for me. It wouldn’t have been of much help during my baking, though, because the measuring cup was marked in liters, and my cookbook (being the American classic that it is) had all of the measurements in cups, teaspoons, and tablespoons.
This non-metric to metric conversion posed another obstacle. The conversion yields awkward amounts that are difficult to measure precisely. (For example, 1 Cup = 0.237 Liters; 350*F =176.67*C, etc.) I ended up eyeballing most of the measurements based on experience, and hoped that it all worked out well. (And it did, for the most part.)
When I opened the box of brown sugar for the chocolate chip cookies, I discovered that the sugar didn’t come in the granule-style that I’m accustomed to, but rather, came in large crystals more appropriate for putting in one’s coffee. I decided to leave the brown sugar in this state, though, and poured it into the bowl, again hoping for the best. (This one didn’t work out as well. The sugar crystals didn’t dissolve properly, and made the chocolate chip cookies a bit gritty. I think that next time I’ll have our maid-servant grind the brown sugar beforehand.)
Finally, there were the issues with the oven. In retrospect, I realize that I’ve been a bit spoiled when it comes to ovens. I’ve grown up with full-size convection ovens in my kitchens. The kind where you can slide three trays of cookies in at once, set the timer, walk away, and when you return you’ll have a full batch of perfectly-browned cookies waiting to be slid right off the tray and dipped into a glass of milk. Sadly, I’ve discovered that this is not that kind of oven.
Because of its small size, our oven can only fit one tray holding about six cookies at any one time. Fine – that just meant that I would be taking cookies in and out of the oven a few more times than I was used to. I had the option with the oven to choose heat from above, from below, or from both sources simultaneously. I chose heat from both sources (it should make it just like a convection oven, right?), slid the cookie tray into the oven, noted the time on my watch, and walked away for ten minutes to enjoy my morning chai.
After about eight minutes the maid-servant called me back into the kitchen to check on the cookies. I returned to find wisps of smoke curling their way out of our tiny oven. The whole first batch had been burnt, and only the very center of the cookies was salvageable. “Okay”, I thought, “at least it was only six cookies.” I lowered the temperature on the oven, switched the heat source to bottom only, and tried again. This time the cookies burnt on the bottom. So, I tried again – the cookies burnt on top. I tried yet again – the cookies at the back of the oven burnt. I tried again, again, and again. Eventually, after trying every permutation of temperature, time, and heat source that I could think of, I worked out a complex system that involved specific placement of the cookies on the tray, changing heat sources, and constant monitoring of the cookies as they continued to bake. The baking itself turned into a much more labor-intensive process than I ever could have imagined, and I ended up with only half as many cookies as I had planned to bake.
However, despite all of these troubles, my final few trays of cookies (once I had figured out my intricate oven system) were pretty tasty, if I do say so myself. And, I got lots of practice in kitchen improvisation. I plan to continue baking and trying new recipes in my Indian kitchen, hopefully with a little more success each time.
As a post-script, I tried my hand at baking another batch of chocolate chip cookies today, and this time with much more success. In half the time and with half the trouble, I managed to bake three-dozen perfectly golden-brown, heavenly-smelling cookies. I’m learning quickly in this kitchen.