Measuring Cups or Scales? Please can we be more measured

‘I hate cups!‘ is how I began this post in a fit of frustration. I was trying to follow a recipe from the Cook’s Cook which had provided their cup measurements and the volume so had written 59ml (1/4 cup) of flour. Who weighs out 59ml of flour? What would have been more helpful would have been to write it as 1/4 cup (30g) of flour. Either they don’t understand the concept of measuring scales or they were trying to add precision to using cups.

Before I start explaining my irritation with cups, however, I’d like to be more measured (pun very much intended 😉) and state that I do see the value in using cups.  When I’m measuring out rice, I like using the cup measure that comes with the rice cooker because it’s quicker and much more convenient.  The same goes with other dried grains and pulses, such as lentils and barley.  Furthermore, as cups measure by volume, I don’t mind using them to measure out liquids.  It’s worth noting here that US cups measure 240ml whereas Australian, Canadian and South African cups measure 250ml. This is something that Caroline, one of my Australian friends highlighted to me.

In addition, say a recipe asks for a tablespoon or three of flour or sugar, it doesn’t bother me much either. Normally it seems to appear more in cooking recipes rather than baking. Thus, even though the same inaccuracies will happen, I have less of an aversion to some measurements in tablespoons and teaspoons, apart from butter! Sticks of butter didn’t make any sense to me until I baked in America and saw how butter is packaged into sticks and each stick is divided into tablespoons. By the way, one stick of butter is 4oz/113g/8tbsp.

From that experience, I also realised that many households may not own kitchen scales and therefore use cups. For most of the years that I lived in Cambodia it was difficult to buy kitchen scales to measure smaller measurements, although the big ones that market sellers used to sell their produce were abundant. Thus once again, cups were used. Forewarned, I packed kitchen scales with me when I moved out there. I knowingly admit that growing up, in the UK, using scales influences my views on the cups vs measuring scales debate. I hate measurements in cups in baking because there are such disparities in the measurements in a matter that does require consistency and a level of precision.

My heart sinks when I see recipes with a list of the ingredients in cups because inevitably I will look up various conversion tables to adapt the recipe into grams and revisit that familiar feeling of resentment and annoyance when the web throws up differing measurements.  Look let me give you an example of the inconsistencies on the web when it comes to volume and weight conversions.  In the UK Doves Farm website they say that 1 cup of brown sugar is 180g whereas in the US King Arthur baking website they state it is 213g.  At this point, I probably trust a US website to translate it from cups to grams for me because in the King Arthur table they know to specify that this is packed brown sugar and thus displays their greater experience of baking using volume rather than weights. But do you see the difference? ‘So what?’ perhaps you’re asking, ‘what is in 33g?’ Okay, so what? Well, let’s multiply this number when a recipe asks for 2 or 3 cups of brown sugar. I’ve illustrated the difference in a table below:

No. of cupsDoves FlourKing ArthurDifference
in weight
2 cups360g426g66g
3 cups540g639g99g

66g or almost 100g makes a big difference in the taste and texture of what you’re baking and it can be the difference of whether you have enough of an ingredient when nearing the bottom of a bag. At this point, to be fair, I’d also be questioning why there needs to such a high amount of sugar and whether I’ll reduce it to prevent future me from developing type 2 diabetes. So, why am I quibbling about it?

Well my second point is about wanting clarity and precision, particularly when trying out a new recipe. I know that there is a knack to using cups with flour and sugar to do with a little shake to let the flour settle and using a knife to run over the top to level it.  Even when I do that, I find it irritatingly inconsistent.  Clearly I am not a pro at it. To add an added element of difficulty, different cooks measure their cups differently and how am I to know what a cup of flour weighs for them? It’s a bit of a lottery whether I’ll guess it correctly. Here’s the proof. At Lunar New Year, I was trying to make steamed buns and I decided to follow Maangchi’s jjinbang recipe and method which asks for 3.5 cups of flour and 1.5 cups of milk. Using both the Doves Farm and King Arthur tables, which agreed with each other, I converted that into 420g. However, it turned into such a wet, sticky dough, reminiscent of a ciabatta dough, and nothing like the photos of her dough, that I decided that there was no way I’d be able to shape it into buns with cute ox faces on them and then steam them. So then I added some more flour to make it a firmer dough but either that is never a remedy or I didn’t add enough. In the end, I relinquished that dough to bake into a tasty focaccia style bread, turned to What to Cook Today’s Year of the Ox steamed bun recipe and started a new dough. She also specifies a total of 2 cups plus 11 tablespoons of flours and 2/3 cup of milk but I didn’t get irritated because she also gives the weight in grams. A smooth, pliable dough formed and I made steamed baozi buns for the first time. I’ve posted the photos of the end result of both doughs at the end of this post.

Interestingly I came across this golden nugget of information in Maangchi’s Hotteok filled with vegetables video beginning at 3mins 11secs onwards when she weighs her cup of flour and it is 5oz or 156g. I will keep this in mind when I use her recipes. By the way, King Arthur and Doves Farm Flour weigh 1 cup of flour as 120g. So I guess then going back her jjimbang recipe that her 3.5 cups of flour = 546g, and not 420g. *Big sigh* Now we’re back to my rant about big discrepancies.

Sidenote: I’m considering blogging a monthly post with my cooking/baking failures, mistakes and disasters that happened that month. Would you be up for that?

Lockdown Hair: #growingoutaPixieCut

When are the hairdressers going to be allowed to reopen? What am I going to do about my hair?

I heard this a lot during the 12 week lockdown earlier this year. It appears that managing our hair growth was something all of us bonded over during lockdown. I think that I’m not alone in wanting to have hairdressers classed as essential services that can continue to stay open if we go into tighter restrictions, or dare I say, another national lockdown.

Perfect hairstyle in a tropical climate

By the way, I don’t normally like to post photos of myself on my blog, but I’ve taken the plunge for this post because I couldn’t see a way out of it. Anyway, this is me in my final few weeks as I’m having one of my goodbye *sob sob* lunches with friends. I think I’d recently had a hair cut.

About 4 years into living in Cambodia, I was finally brave enough to get a pixie cut.

It turned out to be perfect for life in a tropical climate, albeit at that point viewed upon as an unusual hairstyle for a female. In Cambodia, there is a custom of shaving one’s head when there has been a terrible tragedy. Normally you’d see the eldest in the family do this when there had been a death in the family. Thus when some of my Khmer friends saw my pixie cut for the first time, they thought that I had received some awful news and was very upset. Not so. There’s an interesting cross-cultural difference titbit for you.

growing out a pixie cut

I was still pretty attached to my pixie cut after I left Cambodia. It was one of the ways I could hold onto a remnant of me in Cambodia. Nonetheless, come May 2020, I asked on Instagram:

‘This is annoying. Maybe it’s time to cut my fringe myself or shall I endure growing it out?’

Most replied: grow it out.

Then in June 2020, I wrote a little ode to my pixie cut, which I’ve revised a little here.

Dear Pixie Cut,

Dear Pixie Cut,
It’s been a long time since we saw a hairdresser.
Now you tuft out at the back,
You get in my face when we run,
We can’t decide what to do about the fringe,
And you tuck beautifully behind my ears.

Is it time for us to part, move on and let you grow out?

Can I hold onto you for one last cut?

Finally it's a bob

In July, I was finally able to book an appointment with the hairdresser. I wrote a haiku.

4 months in lockdown.
#Growingoutapixiecut
Turned into a bob.

Yes, I decided the time had come to say goodbye. And honestly, I was alright with it. Time, eh. There’s no substitute for it being a healer.

By the way, are hashtags in poems allowed? Are they a thing?

Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake: the first foray into baking in Cambodia

Banana and chocolate chunk cake

I hadn’t meant to create an entirely different cake when I decided to bake the chocolate, whiskey, currant banana cake (or Dumb Rum Banana Cake, as it’s known in Emma’s house) as my hello gift to Liberty Family Church.  The cake just morphed into something different as Becci and I trawled along the aisles in Lucky Supermarket, looking for ingredients, on my first Saturday in Cambodia.

  • Firstly, I discovered that butter is expensive.  The cheapest block of 227g of butter was $3.50
  • Chocolate is expensive as I expected.  There isn’t a tesco value or sainsbury basic equivalent block of dark chocolate that I can use either.  Hmm…
  • Sultanas and currants are ridiculously expensive.  The 180g of sultanas was going to cost me $1.90.
  • I couldn’t see a bag of walnuts or pecans that I can use in baking.
  • Rum or whiskey – well, alcohol is pretty cheap in Cambodia.  I wasn’t sure whether Cambodians would like the flavour of either one of them in a cake.

I’m standing looking at the dried food shelves and wondering if there’s any cheap dried fruit in Cambodia.   I’m scratching my head, ‘what am I going to do about flavour and texture?’  All my normal options were out and obviously I needed to economise on some ingredients.  And thus the cake transforms from a chocolate, nutty, whiskey, currant, banana cake into a spiced, banana cake with chocolate chunks.  ‘Out with the dried fruit and nuts’, I decide.  ‘I’m going to add flavour with a mix of spices and create texture by adding a greater quantity of chocolate chunks to it.’

Plenty of chocolate surely covers over a multitude of improvisations.

There was never a moment of questioning whether I should bother baking.  Needs must and all that – I wanted to give a hello present to the church and I needed to do some baking.

ingredients for banana and chocolate chunk cake

Ingredients for the Spiced Banana and Dark Chocolate Chunk Cake

  • 175g plain flour
  • 2 tsps of mixed spice or 1 tsp of cinnamon powder, 1/2 tsp of ground ginger, 1/4 tsp of ground nutmeg, 1/4 tsp of ground cloves
  • 2 tsp baking powder
  • ½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • ½ tsp salt
  • 125g unsalted butter, melted
  • 90-100g soft brown sugar
  • 2 large eggs
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 3 large or 4 small very ripe bananas, mashed (about 300g in weight with the skins off)
  • 200g dark chocolate, roughly chopped

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 170°C/325°F/gas mark 3 and line (preferably) springform cake tin, anywhere between 23-25cm. I only had a 25cm round cake tin at hand.  It was the first time I’d used it and it worked beautifully for sharing with so many people.

2. Measure out the plain flour, spices, bicarbonate of soda, baking powder, salt and give them all a good mix with a metal or wooden spoon. This means that you don’t get any lumps of salt or bicarbonate of soda in the eventual cake.

3. Melt the butter either in a pan or in zap it in the microwave in a pyrex bowl.  Now add the sugar to the butter and stir well until the sugar is well blended into the butter. It should look almost toffee-like in colour because of the brown sugar. Follow with the eggs. Beat them in, one at a time, to the sugary buttery mixture.

Top tip: Emma shared a really good tip with me, if you are going to melt the butter in the microwave.  Use a pyrex bowl, add the butter and COVER IT WITH KITCHEN PAPER.  It means that if the butter happens to explode in the microwave, because you zap the butter for a bit too long, it won’t go all over the inside of your microwave.

preparing to bake banana and chocolate chunk cake

4.  Now add the mashed bananas,vanilla extract and the chopped chocolate to the mixture and mix them in well.

5. Add in the flour mix (from step 2) but add a third of it at a time, stirring well after each addition. Once all of the dry mixture is mixed in, add the cake mixture into the cake tin and bake in the middle of the oven for 50-60 minutes. I check after 40 minutes and if the cake looks like it is browning at the top too quickly, then I cover it with some baking paper to protect the cake from burning. The time needed for the cake to bake will vary depending on the size of the cake tin that you use, so don’t worry if the cake needs an extra 15-20 minutes in the oven. You’ll know when the cake is done when you insert a cake tester, or I use a sharp knife, into the cake and the tester comes out clean.

6.  Let the cake cool completely.  Then cut it up into as many pieces as you like and share it around.

Of course, you could serve it whilst it’s still warm with cream or icecream.  I just find that the cake is easier to cut when it is cold and you don’t get so much chocolate goo all over the knife as you are cutting it.  The cake stores well in an airtight container – not that this one had a chance.  It was all gobbled up in under 10 minutes.

The verdict? The cake is really tasty.  The chocolate chunks give it texture and bite that would be missing if you omitted them.  The spices worked really well in transforming the flavour of this cake and it went down really well with the Cambodian palette too.  I still prefer the chocolatey, whiskey and currant version of the cake (who would blame me) but while I’m here, I will quite happily bake this new banana and chocolate cake.

Cake, anyone?

Chewy Cornflake, Pecan and Chocolate Chunk Cookies: baking across the pond

cornflake cookies

I finally got to bake an american recipe, using american measurements in America. I know that, for some, that doesn’t sound remarkable; it was personally rather enlightening on a typical US baking environment and experience. I hope that any americans reading this don’t mind me saying that.

Let me fill you in quickly on the back story. This all came about when Chang-Bum op-pa*, a friend of the family, invited my mum and I to spend New Year with them in Southern California. My mum and his parents go way back; I think that the last time I had met our host was when I was the age of his youngest son, aged 9. I remember going to Loch Ness with him and his sister. (*Chang-Bum is his name but op-pa is how I address him. Op-pa translates into older brother in Korean in case you’re wondering)

I offered to bake them Fiona Cairn’s amazing shortbread for them, as a taste of Scotland, and it is a great recipe.

cornflake cookie helpers

Well, it isn’t that they turned me down. It’s more like they redirected my offer. Chang-Bum op-pa had already read my food blog. So, his question was, “Would I like to bake a cookie/biscuit*/scone* recipe with his family instead? It would be the first time for them and they are mad for cookies/scones/biscuits.” (*US and UK versions of biscuit and scones are different.)

“Absolutely!”

Alarm bells ring when I am given a negative to the question, “Is there a set of weighing scales?” That’s when I’m pushed out my comfort zone and my education into american baking culture really starts.

So, I search online specifically for an american recipe, and in doing so, introduce my friend’s wife to Smitten Kitchen’s reliable collection of recipes. The next part is a trip to a grocery store, where we put all purpose flour and butter measured in sticks into our cart. But my biggest culture shock moment is whilst gazing flummoxed at the spices rack. There are no jars of mixed spice! I’m a bit shocked. (Question: why don’t they sell mixed spice in american grocery stores?) I apologise to any Americans who have hunted for mixed spice on account of my recipes and been given a blank look from a grocery assistant. And at that moment, I appreciate why some american recipes are so particular on their spice measurements. E.g. ¼tsp of ground cloves; ¼tsp ginger; ½tsp cinnamon…

After that culture shock, the actual baking of the cookies seemed fairly unremarkable. I understand why american recipes list the number of sticks of butter, because that is how they are sold. Besides, sticks of butter are exactly what we needed in the absence of weighing scales. Having said that, now that I’m writing this back in the UK, I’ve converted the recipe to grams and ounces.

The original recipe is for an oatmeal, pecan and chocolate cookie. The cornflakes were a subsitute for the oatmeal that had gone off. I like to think that I was truly original and no-one had ever thought to put cornflakes in cookies before. Then a few days later I read the side of the cornflake packet: a recipe for cornflake and cranberry cookies. Perhaps, I was being innovative rather than original then, but I still think fondly of my ingenuity.

This recipe made between regular sized 36-46 cookies. We baked them ALL. I haven’t tested this yet, but if you wanted to, I guess you could bake the amount you wanted and freeze the rest. Freeze them, unbaked, in a baking tray and then once frozen, you can store them in a container. To bake from frozen: lay them out on a baking tray and let them defrost for an hour or so before want to you bake them. Once I try it out, I’ll re-edit this post with how it worked.

Ingredients

  • 110g/4oz butter
  • 100g/3½oz granulated sugar
  • 150g/5½oz light soft brown sugar
  • 1tsp salt
  • 1tsp vanilla extract
  • 2 large eggs, beaten
  • 225g/8oz plain flour
  • 1tsp bicarbonate of soda
  • 1tsp mixed spice
  • 120g/4oz crushed cornflakes or 90g/3oz oats
  • 250g/8oz pecans, chopped (rough or fine depending on your preference)
  • 2tsps orange zest
  • 300g/12oz dark chocolate chopped into chunks or use chocolate chips, if you prefer

Method

1. Preheat the oven to 180C/350F/Gas Mark 4. This recipe makes LOTS of cookies so line various baking trays with baking paper.

2. Measure out the flour, bicarbonate soda, mixed spice and salt in one bowl and sift together.

3. In a big bowl, cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. It’s much quicker when done with an electric mixer (about 4-5 mins), which my hosts didn’t own unfortunately. So, I had to use arm power and it took much longer, but good for toning the arms.

4. Add the orange zest, vanilla extract, white and brown sugars and cream together with the butter until they are thoroughly mixed.

5. Now mix the eggs into the butter/sugar mixture, one at a time.

6. Add the flour mixture in two batches, ensuring that the first batch is well-combined with the butter/sugar mixture before adding the second. The reason for doing it like this is that it is easier on you to beat out any lumps of flour in the dough.

7. Now, obviously if you had to use a wooden spoon/spatula all this time because there wasn’t an electric mixer then you don’t have to switch over. But if not, with a wooden spoon/spatula, mix in the chopped pecans, chopped chocolates. Finally add in the crushed cornflakes or oats and mix well.

cookie doughbaked cornflake cookies

8. Using a tablespoon to measure it out, dollop out the cookie dough onto the baking tray, making sure that each of the tablespoon sized dollops are evenly spaced out. The high fat content in them means that they will spread out while baking, so don’t worry – they will flatten out!

9. Bake them in the oven for 12-14 minutes. Take them out when they are golden brown in colour and still soft in the middle. They will harden more in the cooling process. Let them cool for 2 minutes on the baking tray and then let them cool on a wire rack. If you’re limited on space, you’ll be itching to get the next batch onto the baking tray and in the oven as soon as possible.

And yes, since I was in America, I can confirm that they are perfect when they are still warm, with a glass of milk and the house has that wonderful smell of freshly baked cookies. Deb (from Smitten Kitchen) rates these as the perfect balance between chewy and crispy and that the combination of the spice and orange zest give it a grown up feel. I agree. Adapt it with milk chocolate, if you prefer. Next time, I think that I’ll try baking it with oatmeal or muesli, just to see how it turns out.

cookies and milkchewy cornflakes, pecan and chocolate cookies

On reflection, nowadays, I get the impression that kitchens on both sides of the Atlantic, make allowances for each other cultures. Most UK kitchens have US style cups, and lots of recipe books will give a glossary list of US and UK terms. Having majoredspecialised in cultural history, I find this all rather fascinating. (self-conscious note on my choice of vocabulary. A relic of my sojourn in the States.) Nevertheless, having grown up in the UK, I personally consider it normal to:

  • weigh out ounces and grams vs cups;
  • use plain and self-raising flour vs all-purpose flour style;
  • differentiate types of sugars, such as caster, granulated, demerara… vs white, brown or molasses;
  • and buy a jar of mixed spice in the supermarket!

But I am partial to the cookies and milk combo.

Cryfield 3: the start of the pudding competition

Perhaps it was inevitable? … that food would be involved in my scheme for breaking down cultural cliques, sharing British culture and encouraging social integration and between UK and international students. I discussed it with Lucy, the resident tutor in Cryfield 1, last night who came up with this and the action plan. Tonight I mooted the idea of a pudding competition with several groups of residents in my block and they loved it. So folks, it is definitely ON!

The rules are relatively simple (but not yet set in stone so suggestions welcome).

  1. The competition will happen on the same evening in the next fortnight (an evening that the Cryfield resident tutors will choose).
  2. There are seven kitchens so there will be seven types of puddings. Each kitchen makes a pudding – or several of the same version.
  3. I’ll give them each the name of the pudding to make and a recipe for it, which they can either choose to follow or adapt. We need to be able to recognise what pudding it is once it’s finished.
  4. Each kitchen must involve all the people (who would like to take part) in the making and baking of the puddings.
  5. At a certain time the puddings are to be brought down to the common room where the judging will take place.
  6. There will be a criteria for how the puddings will be judged – to be revealed later.
  7. I’m mulling over the idea of giving extra points to kitchens if they involve 3 or more international students in the process.

Currently, I am thinking that judges will be the Cryfield Resident Tutors. I haven’t discussed it with anybody else yet.

I’ve also given them some more suggestions to think about:

Everyone who would like to take part contributes 50p and the proceeds go towards their favourite charity (as a block) and covering the costs of the food.

Or – they could choose to cover costs of food amongst their kitchens and make it a social event.

So, I need seven suggestions of british puddings. And if you’d like to be a judge then it can be considered…