Thursday, September 3, 2009

A foodie in the UAE: baking 101

We’ve been in Abu Dhabi over two weeks now, and I’ve eaten out more than I can bear. Our boxes haven’t arrived with my cookware yet, but last night I decided to get back in the game. I made lentils and rice that turned out pretty good, not my best, but a decent, hearty meal. Tomorrow we are going to an expat gathering, and as the token southerner, I was asked if I knew how to make cornbread. I thought, sure, of course I can make cornbread. No problem. I’m excited to use my brand-new Italian gas range anyway. So, after work today I found my trusty cornbread recipe and pulled out the ingredients I carefully selected during the week, and got started.

Step 1: preheat oven to 425 F. My oven is in Celsius but I am prepared for that and use an app on my cell phone to make the conversion to 218 degrees. Piece of cake. Oh, right, my oven has numbers 1-8 on the dial, not temperatures. I get out the oven manual and find out that if I am only using the bottom burner, which I am, the dial should be at #8 to get a temp of 220 Celsius. Close enough. Twenty minutes later, after moving the dial down to 7, my oven thermometer (I brought one from home) reads 500 degrees Fahrenheit. So much for the chart in the manual. Down to #6, it still reads 450. Play with it a bit, settle on #4.5. I am now realizing I’ll probably not be able to slow-roast a turkey in this oven.

Step 2: Mix the dry ingredients. I start with corn flour; I couldn’t find cornmeal at the store but figured this would be about the same. Wrong. Instead of course yellow granules I find a fine, bright white powdery substance. Not sure if I’m making cornbread any more, but on we go. I add flour, sugar, baking powder, salt. No problems here.

Step 3: Add the wet ingredients. I realize I’ve forgotten yogurt and send Sam to the Lulu, our corner market, to get a pint of yogurt, which I’ve smartly found out is equivalent to 500 ml, just in case. He calls shortly after to say yogurt is sold in grams, not pints or liters. Large containers of yogurt are 400 grams. My cell phone says that’s about 14 ounces. I need 16. That’s 1 full container plus 1/8th of a container. Not pretty, but it can be done.

Oh, except the one mixing bowl I have is too small to hold the wet ingredients too. I only bought one, because we have several coming to us in our shipment, now nearly 2 weeks late. Okay. I call Sam again and he’s still at the store. After a bit of a scavenger hunt he finally finds a bowl large enough for my needs. He comes home triumphant with 570 grams of yogurt (1 large and 1 small container) and a bowl. My husband is a saint, by the way.

Back in business, I add in the 400 gram yogurt plus a little over half of the 170 gram yogurt. I guess that’s about 500 grams. Who said baking needs to be scientific? I add milk, eggs, sure, sure. Final step is to add melted butter. Hmmm, now noticing that one stick of butter is 200 grams, which equals 7 ounces. I need 2 ounces. So, that is 2/7ths of a stick. I am now opening a bottle of beer (for me, not the cornbread).

Final step: Bake. I taste the batter before slipping the pan in the oven and find it has a somewhat seltzer-y flavor. Perhaps baking powder here is not the same as in the states. But I’ve come too far to stop now. I set the timer for 20 minutes.

The cornbread is done, but it is so pale that I can’t bear to take it out of the oven. I turn on the broiler for a couple minutes to brown the top, a little trick that can make many foods look more appetizing. Still, nothing can mask the off-putting taste and strange texture of this wannabe cornbread. It’s much like a very large, spongy, slightly bitter pancake. Sam’s reaction is “I bet with a little honey it’ll be good.” He’s so sweet. And he’ll probably be eating off this for days ‘cause it ain’t making it to the dinner party. Not my proudest baking moment, but I’m not giving up yet. Tomorrow afternoon, armed with more beer and Sam on deck for emergency Lulu runs, I will be making cupcakes.

The cornbread that wasn't.


  1. I took a chance on there being another posting, as Dad just delivered my package from you. I was so excited!!! An envelope, containing another addressed envelope, containing a third addressed smaller and lumpy envelope. My curiosity was really getting the best of me, then voila, there were four packets of Earl Grey tea and your sweet note. Instantly I felt connected, which is why I logged back on to let you know, and found your hysterical account of baking cornbread. Love the photo of the stove! You have almost as many burners as we do. I imagine you will get used to the calibrations eventually.

    So now I not only have my Earl Grey teabags with Arabic writing for my next traditional cup of tea in my Harvard cup with my toast each Wednesday, as I feel especially bonded to you, but I got to be thoroughly entertained by today's posting. I can hardly wait till the next account of your culinary attempts. By the way, it read like Julie's blog in the movie.

    You're a natural!! Love, Mom

  2. lol...i know you are a great cook, but this post makes me feel a little better about my culinary skills!

  3. Ingy!! i can't tell you how many times I have lived almost the same cooking/baking experience...Brazil, Bolivia, Korea, etc....not cornbread, but trying to make things work with conversions from/to the metric system, altitude, missing ingredients and bizarre substitutions, etc. at the end of the day I have to believe that the US should have switched to the metric system a long time ago!! good luck with the cupcakes and all future baking/cooking in the UAE!! at least you have an oven. not having one (Koreans don't have them in their homes for the most part ...I'd have to go and buy one) has been a huge adjustment. XOXO

  4. Shannon, I keep checking daily for new postings in ancticipation of the next one. I had my first cup of "Arabic" Earl Grey Tea in my Harvard mug this morning with my usual Wed. morning toast, re-reading your sweet note, and thinking of you, knowing that as I start my day, yours is waning.

    Guess what! As I write this, we're having an actual rain storm here! How exciting for our drought ridden city. It's been months since San Antonio has seen rain like this. Meantime, I see that Boston is having cool temperatures I bet you miss.

    Can't wait for your next installment about life in Abu Dhabi. Love, Mom

  5. Oh, Shannon, how this made me laugh (with you, not at you!!)...I cannot imagine dealing with all of those conversions and that crazy oven. I would have tossed it out of the window using an unnatural and superhuman strength born of frustration and hunger.
    Your writing is wonderful. I love reading it; I can hear your voice.
    I look forward to keeping up with your life in this way-the blog is such an amazing thing as far as staying connected. And staying sane!

  6. Shannon, I really did laugh out loud, when I read, "nothing can mask the off-putting taste and strange texture of this wannabe cornbread. It’s much like a very large, spongy, slightly bitter pancake." You have quite a gift for writing."

    Sam and Shannon, you are in my prayers. Keep us in yours, please. Good things are happening.

  7. Lol, you make it all sound so funny!

    I'm with you about the oven temperature controls, mine just has little flame drawings, a small flame on one side and a large flame on the other. It's all a guessing game, but after 3+ years of trying to understand my oven, I'm able to do a lot of very successful baking!