Everyday life in an extraordinary place.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Piece of Cake

This Postcard from Israel was originally written on 10 September 2005.

One of the things that stymied me when I first moved to Israel was translating my American-style recipes to the realities of baking in Israel. Not only is the system of weights and measurements different here, so are some of the products. From the beginning, my husband urged me to use Israeli recipes, but I wasn't quite ready to give up all the familiar cookies and cakes I had always loved. So through trial and error, plus discussing my frustrations with some American-born friends who have lived here longer than I have, I began modifying my recipes to their new environment.

The first obvious stumbling-block I faced had to do with my oven. I had expected a temperature dial in degrees celcius. Not too convenient, but once you've learned that 350F is about 180C, you tend to remember. But no. The oven I had (and nearly all others I've seen since then) have numbered "switch positions." Not only did I need to remember degrees celcius, I had to memorize the appropriate number on the dial as well. Of course, what constituted the appropriate number all depended on which setting I chose to use on my oven.

Then there was the whole margarine/butter thing. In America, both are sold in "sticks", each one equivalent to half a cup. American recipes, obviously, call for measurements in terms of how many sticks you need. In Israel, butter and margarine are sold in blocks of 100 or 200 grams. Thank goodness for Fanny Farmer, who graciously informed me that the metric equivalent to one stick of margarine is 115 grams. Not exactly a convenient number - all of my baking now entails an element of surprise, depending on how far off the mark I am when I slice my block of margarine.

To make life even more interesting, I discovered a discrepancy in the flour available here. The first several times I baked cookies, they came out flat and too greasy. I had measured everything carefully, even going to far as to use a ruler and a scale to guide me in the cutting of my margarine. It wasn't until I talked to a couple of friends that I learned the cause of the problem. Apparently, the regular white flour here is roughly the consistency of American cake flour. In other words, it is finer in texture than what my recipe called for. My friends advised adding about a quarter of a cup more flour than indicated in the recipe. This seemed to help.

The next challenge involved finding baking soda. I was able to find baking powder fairly easily, but baking soda eluded me. Finally I asked my husband to help me, and discovered the reason for my failure to locate this item. Baking soda comes in a small box labelled (in Hebrew, obviously) "drinking soda." I would never have figured this out on my own, I am sure. As an aside, my husband remembers being admonished as a child never to drink this "drinking soda" because it would make him sick. Go figure.

Once I had all those problems resolved, I learned that the cakes Israeli children prefer are not quite the same as the fabulously decorated concoctions you'll find in American cookbooks and magazines. Indeed, the most popular cake, I soon discovered, was a dark chocolate cake known as "black cake", which was usually baked by mom in the roasting pan from the oven (to make a sheet cake big enough for a whole classful of kids). The cake was topped not with frosting but with a thin chocolate syrup, which was then sprinkled with tiny, colorful candy balls. When I brought cupcakes to my daughter's class one year, the teacher was astonished. Apparently she had never seen such a thing before! I am sure that since then things have changed. We have even found cookbooks in Hebrew with cakes reminiscent of those found in Family Fun magazine. But I suspect that "black cake" with syrup and sprinkles remains a favorite.

Now, more than ten years on, I still fuss and struggle to use my American recipes. I have learned which ones work better than others - and which ones suit Israeli tastes. As time has gone on, more American products have made their way here, which helps me recreate the flavors I remember. I have made cakes shaped like hearts, teddy bears, treasure chests, mice and more. I've decorated cakes to resemble zoos and popular cartoon characters. At times I have made my own frostings and at other times I've gotten some help from the Pillsbury Dough Boy. I've introduced Israeli kids to banana cake, oatmeal cookies, bran muffins, and chocolate chip pan cookies. But I still haven't learned to make that chocolate syrup cake topping.

(c)Amy Samin

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