Recently, I decided I couldn’t resist the urge to bake any longer and wanted to give it a go. I grew so accustomed to having all the basic ingredients and materials I needed that when I had to start completely over here, I was a bit overwhelmed. While in my apartment we have pots, pans, utensils, plates, etc. we didn’t have anything for baking (besides an oven). So, I made a trip to IKEA and bought some essentials while facing the fact that getting used to metric, a system I usually love, is going to be difficult for baking.
Once I had the materials, I needed the ingredients. I decided to make banana bread knowing it’s a fairly simple recipe with relatively few ingredients, and I just happened to have two very ripe bananas. All right so I need the usual… flour, sugar, butter, eggs, baking soda, baking powder, salt, milk, vanilla extract, and of course the bananas. Seems straight forward, right? Well it’s almost embarrassing how long it took me to find all the right ingredients (and some were never found). Sugar? Easy. Butter? Easy. Eggs, salt, milk, bananas? Easy. The rest… not so easy. Baking soda is fairly common. I just had to remind myself that it can be used for cleaning and thus is sometimes in that aisle not the baking aisle. Well speaking of a baking aisle, it’s basically nonexistent which is quite disappointing. Baking doesn’t seem as big of a thing here. Baking powder took several trips to different stores to find. As for flour, stores certainly weren’t lacking in it. In fact my problem was WHICH flour to buy. All-purpose flour usually covers it for me, but it doesn’t seem to exist here. Instead we have… harina de fuerza, de trigo, de repostería, de maíz… it goes on and on. So thank god for cellular data because I spent about 10 minutes looking up all these types of flours. In the end I chose harina de trigo (wheat flour) as other similar recipes seemed to use this. And finally, vanilla extract. After trying three different stores, I gave up for now. I decided as much as I love vanilla extract, it wasn’t as vital as say flour.
After an exhausting grocery trip, I was almost unmotivated to even start baking. But I had to tell myself the hardest part was over and get in the zone. I also usually use a mixer for most recipes so that my arm doesn’t fall off, but I’m not exactly ready to dish out the money for that. So with some elbow grease, I finished making the batter, popped it in the oven, and an hour later it turned out great! I asked my roommate if she wanted to try it. She’d never had it before and while it’s called “banana bread” in English, it’s not “pan de plátano” in Spanish. Here the term “bizcocho” is used all the time to describe something that is kind of like a cake but without any frosting or icing. So banana bread would be a good example of this. Bizcocho can be any flavor too: chocolate, vanilla, lemon, etc. A loose translation would be “sponge cake.”
After banana bread, my next baking attempt was brownies! My roommate mentioned that brownies are her favorite dessert, so I thought I would give it a shot. Time for a confession: I rarely make homemade brownies and instead rely on a Ghirardelli mix, but it’s so good so why mess with perfection?! Well obviously those mixes don’t exist here (and neither does Ghirardelli chocolate *tear*), so it was time to find a new homemade brownie recipe. Now it was pretty difficult to find all the ingredients for these. Brown sugar isn’t the same here. It doesn’t pack and is more like sugar in the raw, so it’s not exactly a good substitute for the light, sticky, molasses-y brown sugar we’re used to. Instead I used only white sugar. As for the chocolate, I chose a brand that looked decent and wasn’t super cheap. Chocolate chips are difficult to find, and even if you do, it’s about 4€ for a very tiny bag. And cocoa powder does not seem to exist. At this point, I still hadn’t found vanilla extract, so that was left out too. With all these missing ingredients, I was a little nervous about how they would turn out. In the end, everyone loved them, and I was sufficiently satisfied. Sorry no picture! They were eaten up pretty fast.
Next up was some cooking! It’s getting chillier here, so I decided to make some soup. I’m not actually a big soup eater but chicken tortilla soup is one of my favorites. It’s a good way to get protein and veggies all in one! I had the most trouble finding black beans. The only canned beans I could find were some beans and other veggies canned together as some sort of Venezuelan dish. The soup just isn’t the same without beans, so I checked the ingredients on the back of the can and thought it would just fine. I didn’t have any jalapenos, so I bought what looked to be a spicy pepper. Ended up being sweet, but I threw it in the pot anyway. I think everything else was findable, and once I had it all, it was simply a matter of cooking some chicken and throwing everything in a pot. After eating this for several days, I was bit a soup-ed out. But I’m sure it will make a reappearance. I also made some beer bread to go along with it. Beer bread is a super simple quick bread and while it turned out all right, I think I may have mis-measured something (maybe the baking powder?) since I was converting to metric. It just didn’t seem as light as when I’ve made it before. Or maybe I should have used a different type of flour. I’ll need to make a chart to keep them straight.
After some Mexican soup, Chinese food sounded amazing, so I thought it was time to take matters into my own hands and make orange chicken. I’ve never actually made it before, so I spent a decent amount of time looking for a reliable recipe. Once again, I had to amp myself up to go on the scavenger hunt that is grocery shopping in Spain. I tried a different store this time. It’s actually a department store called El Corte Inglés. So it feels like a Macy’s or Nordstroms with its perfume section but then shoved in there is a grocery store. It feels like a fancy grocery store, but I was surprised to find that some of the prices were cheaper than the other store I frequent. I successfully found all the ingredients for my orange chicken (well substituting apple cider vinegar for rice vinegar), but I was pretty pleased with myself even if I had to pay a bit more for some dried cayenne peppers. This definitely hit the spot, though next time I think I’ll splurge and buy the more expensive orange juice since the one I bought tasted pretty artificial (most of the juice does).
Finally, my most recent creation was some chocolate chip cookies. Out of all my recent creations, this one was probably the least successful. It wasn’t a failure or anything, just not like I expected. I’m certain it’s because of the sugars I used. So remember how I mentioned that brown sugar isn’t quite the same here? I made a good choice and replaced it with white sugar for the brownies. Well for the cookies, the author of this recipe stressed the importance of using brown sugar. I gave it a shot even though in the back of my mind I knew it wouldn’t turn out the same with this “fake” brown sugar. The dough formed just fine and the cookies baked as usual, the flavor was just a bit off. But who knows, maybe to a Spaniard who is used to this brown sugar they taste great! They kind of grew on me after a while, and I’m sure someone who never bakes would think they are great. I’ve just made better chocolate chip cookies before. It kind of tasted like a mix between a sugar cookie and a chocolate chip cookie since the “brown sugar” wasn’t fine enough, and there were some sugar crystal chunks. The good news is that I finally found vanilla extract!
So there’s my attempt at bringing a little home here, and with these successes, I’m getting more confident and experimental each week (even if I spend an exorbitant amount of time searching for ingredients and converting everything to metric). My roommate always calls me “la buena cocinera” (the good cook), and as any chef or aspiring chef knows, we’re always harder on our own cooking than those eating it. Unless you’re cooking for Gordon Ramsay.
Here are my observations of Spanish cooking:
1) Oil is god. Oil goes on EVERYTHING. A salad is considered lettuce with oil and salt on it. I’m certain that within every kitchen in Spain you will find a huge supply of oil. A good part of the grocery store is dedicated to oil (more than baking is…). I do like olive oil a lot but sometimes things are drowning in it.
2) When in doubt, fry it. A lot of food is fried. Fried food can be great. Croquetas, breadcrumbed fried food rolls of usually cheese and/or ham, make a good snack. After a while though, I can only stand so much fried food. There is no shortage of Spanish tapa restaurants in Madrid, but they usually serve the same food. There isn’t as much variety in food as there is in the U.S. But true Madrileños seem content with this. For me, I really miss having Mexican one night, Italian the next, then Chinese. In general, I only eat out maybe once or twice a week both to save money but also to add some variety to my eating habits.
3) No spiciness here. No food will be too hot even for the wimpiest of eaters. I struggled to find hot chili peppers so that shows you that spiciness isn’t really a priority when cooking here. I’m by no means a spicy food addict, but it’s a nice addition every once in a while.
4) Where’s the flavor? Emeril would be pretty disappointed that they’re not kicking it up a notch here. There aren’t many strong flavors. Granted, I don’t eat every type of typical Spanish food so I could be missing out on things, but I felt my food back home was more flavorful (though I also have a mom who is a very good cook). I’ve noticed this a lot with desserts (hmm… which came first the bad baking or the bad baking aisle?). Many of the chocolate cakes (bizcochos) are not very chocolatey. But I’ve always been a stickler about dessert since I almost always make my own.
5) Tuna, olives, ham, cheese, and bread rule the table. Okay, I’m all about the bread and cheese. If you know me well enough, you know I can basically live off bread. As a previous post alluded, I abhor tuna. So I try to avoid that as much as possible. Maybe by the end of my time here olives and ham will grow on me.
If you want, please share any of your simple, go-to recipes with me! I’m coming to terms with the fact that some ingredients just don’t exist here (or if they do they are outrageously expensive), so I’m slowly accumulating recipes so I can eat fairly healthily and cheaply throughout the week.