Baking USA in Peru (Or Trying To…)

So… I can’t cook. I mean, I absolutely love trying to cook, and evidence of improvement sometimes peeks through, but it is definitely not a natural talent. I’ve exploded potatoes, blackened salmon in a very literal sense, and done both unforgivable and unbelievable things to pork. About six years of sincere effort later, my best dish is still soup.

In comparison, I do occasionally bake with great success. In Peru though, maintaining my success rate has been a bit of a challenge. In part, I blame ingredient availability.

Last Thanksgiving, for example, I poured my heart into making homemade crust… out of necessity. Yes, judge me all ye true hardcore bakers of the realm: I use Pillsbury dough crust for my pies. But Peru does not sell Pillsbury anything. In fact, they don’t seem to sell prepared pie crusts period. Anybody who hasn’t tried it might think, “Duh, just flour, water, sugar, butter… crust?” Ah! If only. The art of mastering temperature, kneading, and all the timing in between is still beyond me.

Instead, Peruvians seem much more interested in a sort of graham cracker crumble crust. While delicious though, it just doesn’t have the same layered, buttery crunch that you want in an apple pie. Pumpkin pie, for the record, was out of the question — it took about ten minutes to just explain what a pumpkin was to my husband. Needless to say, the shops did not sell canned pumpkin for pies.

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I learned too late their version of pumpkin is a giant, green squash called a “zapallo”. It’s so big I’ve only ever seen chunks of them sold in the grocery store.

The other thing that is mysteriously absent at Metro is a grasp of the difference between “baking powder” and “baking soda”. Instead, they sell “polvo para hornear”. It literally translates to “powder for baking”. Not “baking powder” (which, to my knowledge, is “levadura en polvo”), just “here’s some powder stuff to toss in whatever you’re trying to bake”.

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As a result, my cookies regularly have the same issue: In the oven, they look fabulous. It deceptively looks like I’m going to be drinking tea with gooey, thick, fully risen sugar cookies. I kept my butter cold, and I even let the tray cool before dishing the next batch out (admittedly, this wasn’t that hard, since I was scarfing dough the whole time).

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Yet, just seconds after they leave the oven, I wind up with sugar cookie “crisps”. They totally collapse. Still tasty, yes, but they’re made of sugar, so it’s not like it would take much. Texture is sort of the deal breaker here. What the heck, mysterious white powder? What is your function if not to make my cookies rise??

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I’ve also suffered to some extent trying to recreate Pillsbury dough for Monkey Bread. This, too, has not gone particularly well. Instead of the soft, fluffy dough that I want, I’ve ended up with cake-doughnut doughnut holes.

All this basically amounts to two things:

First, it’s surprisingly the stupidest little things, like the absence of Pillsbury products, that triggers minor bouts of homesickness. In this case, it’s probably because I associate cinnamon sugar twists and biscuits with very particular memories of special family meals. Although being forced to form new associations with new foods is also fun, being cut off from my associations with “foods from home” can have a powerful effect (I swear Pillsbury isn’t paying me anything for this).

Second… I really need to learn how to make dough.

 

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