Jul 21, 2014

Even more cookies for the Portuguese

Diabetes seems to be a rather common affliction in Portugal, which is no great wonder given the sweet tooth so many people here have. This is expressed in a great variety of cookies one finds offered in markets of every kind, most of which are quite different from the cookies familiar to me in the American and German baking traditions. As I have made batch after batch of American cookies for my friends and neighbors in Portugal, I've had a little nagging sense of guilt at what damage I might be doing contributing to their diabetic state, but the thought that cutting down their consumption of cerveja to, perhaps, a dozen bottles a day might also help with the diabetes does assuage my guilt somewhat so I can keep the grandchildren in my neighborhood supplied with a better fix than some offer in Bairro da Câmara.

Sourcing ingredients is often difficult here, partly because I'm still learning the local names of things but also because many things are simply not available. Take sheep butter, for example. As far as I know, it's only found around here at Intermarche, and the other day it was sold out, so I had to settle for goat butter. Life can be rough. If you want something really exotic like chocolate chips or cream of tartar, you just have to substitute creatively. I do a lot of that. And because I'm in Portugal, it never hurts to add garlic. It adds a new dimension to Spätzle, Portuguese-style for example.

It's actually hard to get the sugars I want here in the heart of the country. White granulated sugar? No problem, though I prefer its common yellow cousin here. But the darker stuff, açúcar moreno, isn't so easy, particularly if you like it really dark. So when I discovered a bag of deep brown sugar with a satisfying molasses whiff to it, I was delighted and snatched it up for the next batch of cookies. These were good, but turned out to be a little strange.

Not that sweet, really. Since I had tweaked other things in what was once a chocolate chip cookie recipe (goat butter, whole wheat flour, Toblerone dark chocolate bars with almond nougat), I dumbed down the other stuff and just tweaked the sugar. These cookies were even better, but still not overpoweringly sweet, then I noticed that the package bore the words "brown rice sugar". For real. I thought it was a translation error, but there really is a sugar substitute made from brown rice. And it's not bad. So I offer you this variation on the new trending cookie of Évora, chipped chocolate:
100 g brown rice sugar
125 g (
½ cup) butter (cow, goat, sheep - do what thou wilt)
Cream these together, then add
1 egg
1 tablespoon amèndoa amarga (I was out of vanilla extract)
2 teaspoons orange zest (this is the killer cookie ingredient)
Whip it some more, then add
½ teaspoon salt
½ teaspoon baking soda
225 grams flour (usually wheat of some kind, but if the spirit moves you, substitute rye, corn or oat flour as much as you like)
Mix until all the flour is evenly distributed in the wet dough, then add  
 200 g chipped baking chocolate (dark)
Drop on parchment and bake at 175°C (350°F) for something like 10 minutes.

I told my friend with diabetes that these were better for her. That might not be true, but given the response I think I'll keep lying.

And now for something completely different. I decided it was time to introduce the local Catholics to some good Chanukah tradition: sweet potato latkes served with Greek yogurt and pureed mangos. That seems to be a hit as well (with extra portions set aside for grandchildren), but afterward I was faced with the problem of half a bowl of mango puree and no idea what to do with it. So I did a little research and improvised these mango cookies, which are perhaps the best thing I've made this month:

½ cup butter
1 cup yellow sugar
¼ cup brown rice sugar
2 eggs
2 tsp vanilla
1 ½ tsp cinnamon
2/3 cup mango puree
1 tsp baking soda
1.5 cups wheat flour
1.5 cups corn flour
½ cup of milk
Cream the butter and sugars, then add egg, mango and vanilla. After the mixture is creamed, add 2 cups of flour, the baking soda and cinnamon
Bake in a preheated 375°F oven for about 10 minutes or until golden brown.
I suppose you can mess around with the sugars any way you like; I like substituting corn flours for wheat in recipes where gluten isn't needed, and I think it usually improves the character of a cookie. I may try a batch of these using just corn flour. And maybe drop the milk and use more mango puree. And a bunch of other little adjustments, because while lazy translators may crave repetitions, I find that boring in recipes, which I consider to be like German laws: there to be flouted as long as it's a victimless crime. I only make an exception with phenolphthaelin as an additive on special occasions for those on the run.

In the batch I made, it seems that the brown rice sugar was not perfectly mixed in and formed interesting little pockets, which produced a surprising effect when baked. I can't describe it; it needs to be experienced. And it is a delight!

Jul 17, 2014

The Bookshelf: a London-style hangout in the heart of Alentejo

I knew I was in the right place when, as I described the farm to which I would be moving and my satisfaction over the many rosebushes there, which would enable me to make rosewater for my mint tea, my conversation partner said "Oh, you need rosewater? I have some extra!", then fumbled around in his inventory and sent me off with half a bottle of good Algerian rosewater brought from London. I had given up on finding anything like that in the Alentejo. But then I knew it was the right place long before, with the many delicious herb teas, coffees and good food, sometimes vegetarian, offered at this very metropolitan hangout in my sleepy Portuguese university town. The couple who own and operate the business, a local woman and her Kosovar husband, lived for a few decades in London and brought some of that city's style with them to this unique café in Évora.

So when I need a quiet, air-conditioned retreat to enjoy a book, brandy and coffee or perhaps a good curry, I know where to go. And it's great to have a good chat in English about common interests in cuisine and beverages and share the latest delicious infusions of Aswan hibiscus, doum palm fruit and mint from herbs kindly provided by a colleague in Egypt. And who knows? Perhaps some of those cookies for the Portuguese will make an appearance there.

More cookies for the Portuguese

When life gives you forgotten, brown bananas

try making these cookies:
3 small brown bananas.
1.5 cups (360 ml volume, about 120 grams) of oatmeal
0.5 (120 ml volume, about 65 grams) cups golden raisins
1 egg.
Drop the batter on parchment with a spoon and bake for 12 minutes at 350°F (175°C).
I developed this recipe from a simpler one with just bananas and oatmeal which someone did for a class full of nursery school kids. I thought it needed a little more binder (an egg), and I had a bag of raisins in search of a cause. I'll probably rework the recipe later to use almond meal instead after discovering what a delight that is in a no-flour chocolate cake.

Here's a look at the results:

This was the dessert served last night with my failed attempt at Alentejan gaspacho. The cold soup must have been good, because my noiva ate two bowls of it, but that might also have been because her son wouldn't touch his. It was declared "Spanish" with tones overlaid with disgust, and I was told that I would receive instruction in a proper gaspacho soon. One where the cebola is not left out and probably with a lot more garlic. I thought that tripling the garlic in the recipe might do the trick, but it seems not.

The cookies were a hit at least, also with the neighbors at the casa de ratos ("mouse house" - home to hundreds and the source of the 33 killed here in the War on Mice).