Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Butter stick to the recipe

The longer one lives in a new country, the more likely it is that one will forget about subtle differences between the “old” country and the “new” one. Even things that originally were minor inconveniences are forgotten. This is a common enough thing—until something suddenly reminds us. Like this week.

My sister emailed me about an old family cookie recipe, something our mother used to make every year, especially around Thanksgiving and Christmas. It was given to her, judging by the handwriting on the recipe card, by a somewhat elderly lady, but I have no idea where or when the recipe originated.

The recipe calls for “Spry”, and I never had any idea what that was, but my mother said “It’s like Crisco”. It turns out, she was exactly right, something I only learned yesterday when I had the happy coincidence of having both the recipe and my computer in front of me. Google can be our friend, and because of that Wikipedia told me:
Spry was a brand of vegetable shortening produced by Lever Brothers starting in 1936. It was a competitor for Procter & Gamble's Crisco, and through aggressive marketing through its mascot Aunt Jenny had reached 75 percent of Crisco's market share. The marketing efforts were phased out in the 1950s, but Aunt Jenny and her quotes like “With Spry, we can afford to have cake oftener!” have been reprinted. Though the product is discontinued in most countries, there are anecdotal reports of its being used through the 1970s.
So, a lifelong mystery was finally ended through a simple Google search. But that then led me to really look at the recipe and remember other, bigger challenges I’d faced in trying to make the old family recipes here in New Zealand. Butter was a big one.

I was reminded of that because Crisco isn’t normally available in New Zealand, and there’s no local equivalent. The closest is a product called Kremelta, which is fully hydrogenated coconut oil with a little soy lecithin as an emulsifier. This makes the product 100% fat, at least 98% of which is saturated. On the plus side, being fully hydrogenated means there are no trans fats. Crisco is made from fully and partially hydrogenated vegetable oils (including palm oil, a product with a notorious and particularly nasty environmental cost, including driving the orangutan close to extinction). Aside from potentially helping to kill off orangutans, Crisco’s formulation also means it has mono and polyunsaturated fats in addition to saturated fats but no trans fats.

I don’t use fats that are partially hydrogenated because of the trans fats, and I wouldn’t use any product with palm oil in it (probably not even if it’s certified sourced sustainably, because that helps fuel demand for the destructive stuff, too). So, even if Crisco was available, I wouldn’t use it, and every Kiwi I know who I’ve mentioned Kremelta to turns their nose up at it, literally: I’ve often seen Kiwis make a disgusted face and rear their head back and their noses up at the mere mention of the name.

So, from the very beginning, I’ve had to use a substitute. And that created its own set of challenges.

In New Zealand, neither butter nor margarine are sold in sticks like in America. Butter is most commonly sold in a 500g block (basically, one pound—this was one of the things that helped newly-arrived me feel the metric system, in this case, how much 500 grams was). Margarine is, as far as I can tell, only sold in tubs for the table; it’s definitely not sold in sticks.

So, more often than not, I’ve used butter in my baking recipes. Part of that is because I always thought that tub margarine had a lot of air in it and it wouldn’t measure properly (in fact, to me NZ’s tub margarine seems heavier and more dense than its American cousins). The other reason is that margarine also usually contains partially hydrogenated vegetable oil, which means that butter—which in New Zealand must be 100% butter by law—is actually healthier than margarine. Unfortunately, at the moment butter it’s also at record retail prices in New Zealand.

Health issues, product suitability, and exorbitant retail prices aside, there’s one other issue with the differences between the way butter is sold in the USA and in New Zealand: Markings.

US sticks are marked with tablespoon measures, and very often recipes reflect those measures. New Zealand’s 500g blocks are marked with 50g measures, and our recipes usually call for butter by its weight. This means that I often have conversions to calculate: Tablespoons to weight in grams, or whatever the other measure (like cups or portions of cups) is in grams. Google helps with that, as does my kitchen scale.

All of this matters because while cooking is artistry, and some variation in ingredients is fine (and maybe even brilliant), baking is chemistry, and substituting ingredients can cause very unexpected results. I’ve learned by trial and many errors that using slightly less butter than the margarine or “shortening” the US recipe calls for usually works best—but, then, I have to watch the baking time carefully, too.

This is the sort of thing that used to really frustrate me when I first moved to New Zealand, especially because that was before the days I could pick up my phone or tablet in the kitchen to Google the appropriate substitute or to have the Internet find the measurement conversions for me. In the old days, I had to consult cookbooks and then use math—always a risky proposition for me.

I’ve been in New Zealand so long now that I never think about the unavailability of butter or margarine in sticks—I take New Zealand packaging for granted and forget that I used do the same for American packaging. However, even after all these years, I still need to make conversions to use old family recipes (or merely American ones).

And that’s another reality of an expat’s life. A simple email reminded me of all of that.

Photo of the stick of butter up top is in the Public Domain [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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