Nov 30, 2014

Holiday cookies for the Portuguese, Part 1

Whoever told me once that "close" only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades obviously didn't know squat about baking. Given a little respect, food tends to be more forgiving than most priests in Confession.

My involvement with translation began some nearly four decades ago when an aunt gave me a battered copy of the 1897 edition of Katharina Prato's Süddeutsche Küche. My mother and I then began to translate and adapt recipes for tasty baked goods for a modern American kitchen, making educated guesses about times and temperatures and making up measurable quantities for ingredients specified in only the vaguest terms. At the time I was barely into my teens and wondered how my mother could magically interpret all that vaguery and come up with something so appealing for expanding waistlines, but those first translations taught me the importance of reinterpreting content as necessary for a new culture and different times.

With the holidays approaching and most of my interesting recipes still rumored to be in boxes in a van somewhere in Poland, I called my mother a few days ago and begged for my favorite Christmas cookie recipe - a foundational gingerbread cookie with which she often constructs frosted houses with the grandchildren at this time of year. A short time later, the miracle of e-mail brought me the following instructions:
1 cup shortening (Crisco, lard, etc.)
1¼ cups sugar
1 cup molasses
¾ tablespoon ground ginger
1½ teaspoons baking soda dissolved in 2 tablespoons hot water
½ teaspoon salt
2 rounded teaspoons cinnamon
2 eggs, beaten
6 to 6½ cups flour for a soft dough
Roll out, cut and bake at 350°F for about 10 minutes. Refrigerating the dough may make it easier to handle.
The trouble started with the shortening, but I've usually just substituted butter over the protests that "it's not the same", countering with "who cares, as long as it's good?" Moreover, butter has the advantage of keeping vegan fanatics out of one's cookie jar if they are true to the Faith. This time I discovered a big, forgotten block of Banquete creme vegetal in the fridge, and since I no longer remember why I bought the stuff, it had to go in the cookies.

Then came the molasses crisis. the English word is derived from the Portuguese melaço, but try telling that to the people of Portugal. Perhaps it's the grief over the loss of their colony in Brazil which caused them to cut their ties to this critical ingredient, but searches of several supermarkets near me have failed to turn up any trace. Oh well, brown sugar it is then.

One thing led to another, and with a why not this?and a why not that?, and a doubling of the egg content to cut the stress on the mixer motor and get rid of excess eggs, and a surprising shortage of ginger powder, which required half measures, the final mix came out as
115 g vegetable shortening (creme vegetal)  
230 g brown sugar (açucar moreno)
2 eggs (ovos)
2 teaspooons ground ginger (2 colheres de chá de gengibre em po)
1 teaspoon ground cinnamon (1 colher de chá de canela moída)
¼ teaspoon ground cloves (¼ colher de chá de cravinho moída)
¼ teaspoon fine dry salt (¼ colher de chá de sal fino seco)
450 g self-rising wheat flour (farinha de trigo com fermento)
As with most of my cookies, I creamed the fat and sugar together, then added the egg (I let the mixer do the work of beating) and spices (with the idea that the flavors will mix better in more intimate contact with the fat), followed by the flour, with the speed turned down to low and the time limited to avoid knitting the gluten in the dough.

My cookie cutters disappeared in the last move, so Plan B was to form the dough into a roll, chill it good and use a sharp knife to slice off ¼" (6 mm) thick  rounds, which were then baked for 8 minutes at about 350°F (175°C) on a parchment sheet. These cookies are lighter than the original recipe (more leavening), so they bake faster, and ten minutes in my oven puts a carbon crust on the bottom which might not be to every taste. But of course, times will need to be re-translated for the conditions of your oven.

The final result was nothing like the original, though it was rather tasty. A failed score for translation with many reviewers, I'm sure, as they stuff their faces with the culinary success.

Now it's back to the kitchen to see what happens if caramel syrup takes the place of the missing melaço,

1 comment:

  1. Portuguese "caramel syrup" is definitely not the same as the home-made stuff I know that my parents make candy with, but substituted 50% for the sugar it imparts a nice, brown color. And in the second batch of cookies I used fresh-ground dried ginger that I made in the afternoon in a dehydrator after I discovered the local market had run out. Wow. I'll never buy ginger powder again. The self-made stuff is so much more intense, and the cookies actually taste like fresh ginger root. The difference is just as dramatic as the fresh flour I used to grind for baking compared to the crap that sits in paper bags on a store shelf for months.


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