Feel free to skip this post if you aren’t interested in hearing me blather on about cooking. Bakers, stick with me.
Trying to recreate American baked goods in a foreign country can be tricky. The ingredients are different, the tools are different. Recipes that are a breeze back home present unexpected challenges in a new environment.
The first time I made brownies in Bosnia, I used my favorite recipe out of the New Best Recipe cookbook. I’d had excellent results with these in Damascus – a Syrian friend of Alekka’s described them as “angels having a chocolate party in my mouth.” Gotta say, I was pretty chuffed when I heard that.
Of course, in Damascus, I had access to all that stuff I’d shipped over from the States: professional baking pans, KitchenAid mixer, a year’s supply of American baking staples. Remember that giant stack of boxes in my living room in August? In January we gave away our ingredients to the school guards and shipped the equipment back to Medford, where the boxes are once again piled up in the living room.
Now we live in a furnished apartment in Sarajevo. When we first got here, I tried making brownies for the International Week potluck at Alekka’s school. They weren’t terrible, but they were nowhere near angel-party level.
There are some difficulties that can be overcome: the eggs are smaller (use more); there is no vanilla extract (but there are vanilla beans, so make vanilla sugar); the sugar has larger crystals (live with it.) But there are others that are more problematic.
The first big issue was the baking powder. American expats who bake will tell you to bring your own baking powder. That’s good advice. There are two brands here: Podravka’s Dolcela and Dr. Oetker’s Backin. According to Wikipedia, Backin is the original baking powder formula, but neither brand acts the same as the stuff you get in the US.
A complicating factor is the flour, which affects the behavior of the baking powder. There is a dizzying variety of flour on offer at the grocery store here. An entire aisle at the Konzum supermarket is given over to wheat flour, potato flour, rye flour, corn flour and more, each in varieties mysteriously labeled T-400, T-550, T-800. Then there’s “zlatni puder” which my dictionary says means “golden powder.” Not helpful. I am still looking for one that approximates standard American all-purpose flour.
But the biggest brownie obstacle is the chocolate. There is no unsweetened baking chocolate in this country. I have looked everywhere, including all the shops that cater to expats. When I ask for it, clerks look at me like “why would you want that?” I’ll tell you why: because I need it for my New Best Recipe brownies.
I tried using the darkest chocolate candy bar I could find and reducing the sugar, but … eh. I also tried my friend Susan’s recipe for Cocoa Powder Brownies, forwarded to me by our very helpful mutual friend Leslie. Alas, I am still not satisfied: it turns out the cocoa powder here tastes different, plus I haven’t really solved the flour and baking powder issues.