Tomorrow I am traveling to Bologna to visit a good friend of mine. He celebrated a birthday two weeks ago and as a gift, I have baked him a batch of chocolate chip cookies from my favorite recipe (he has a tiny obsession with these chocolate chip cookies). Now, this seems simple enough – baking cookies is easy, right?
Well, in my little kitchen in Chagrin Falls, Ohio these cookies came out like clockwork. I had my trusty light pink KitchenAid mixer, well used measuring cups and spoons, a plentiful stock of flours (this recipe requires both bread and cake flours), sugars, baking powders and sodas, different salts, good quality vanilla extract, eggs, lots of butter and, of course, excellent quality dark chocolate chips that were large in size and melted into perfect puddles in the oven. I also had multiple heavy duty baking sheets and everything else I would need to make these cookies on a regular basis (which I did).
However, things changed a bit when I began preparing to make these cookies in my new kitchen in Bra, Italy. It began with the flour. There was Tipo ‘0’ and ’00’ – but nothing that said bread flour (or even ‘pane‘) – not even a good old all-purpose flour could be found. The sugars were confusing as well and felt different than they had at home. Instead of baking powder there is a product called lievito, which is a leavening agent that is typically flavored with artificial vanilla and comes in packets like instant yeast. The baking soda seemed the same, but was in a part of the store that I found completely incongruous with baking. Eggs and butter were easy to find, of course, but I knew the fat content of European butters was higher, which would probably affect the cookies in some way. Chocolate chips were a total no-go. I found teeny-tiny ones and low-quality regular-sized chips but even these required quite a hunt to track down. I finally settled on high-quality dark chocolate in large square blocks from a store that sold everything in bulk, which I planned to chop up with a knife.
Before confusion sets in, please know that cookies are very popular in Italy. There are at least a dozen shops within a five minute walk of my apartment that hand-make a wonderful variety of biscotti (the Italian word for cookie, not simply limited to those hard plank-like cookies that we eat with our coffee in the US). However, the chocolate chip cookie as we known it is a completely foreign entity here. I have never seen one anywhere. The cookies here are more reminiscent of shortbread. They are made with a variety of different flours and some are sandwiched with fillings, others are studded with candies and sugars, some are piped and baked into interesting shapes, while others are flavored with extracts both strong and mild. I love the cookies here (especially since it is perfectly normal to eat them for breakfast), but they are very different from the type of cookie I was most often baking back home.
Next I surveyed my kitchen: I had a decent sized mixing bowl and a wooden spoon, but I knew that five minutes of creaming would wear down my arm quickly, so I purchased a relatively inexpensive hand mixer to help. I knew it would come in handy throughout the year and not just for cookie making. Smaller bowls could serve to hold ingredients as needed. There were no measuring cups or spoons though – all baking in Italy is done by weight, so I purchased a small scale to help. This part I didn’t mind – I had actually been baking by scale most of the time in the US, as well – it’s easy, there is less cleanup and the accuracy is much better. The last item that I needed was a sheet pan, but my furnished apartment did not seem to have any of this quite critical item in cookie baking. I ran out to a kitchen store and picked up a thin aluminum one that just barely fit in my small oven and hoped for the best.
With these semi-alien ingredients and equipment at the ready, I began to work. Although I made quite a mess with my (slightly) too small bowl and an apparently very powerful hand mixer, everything came together quite well. The cookies tasted a little different than I am used to – they were a bit denser, likely from the different flours, and the dark brown sugar I used gave them a bit more complexity in taste, but they were still delicious and I was happy with the results. They were not exactly what I remembered, but they were good and, more importantly, they were a product of where I was now, made with what I was able to procure here and that made them quite special in their own way – there was beauty in the difference.
Strangely enough, this is not the first time I’ve adapted a cookie recipe to suit the environment that I was in. A decade ago when I studied abroad in Tanzania, I wanted to make them for my home-stay family. This was even more of a trial than I had experienced here in Italy as the ingredients were much harder to find and the oven was incredibly tiny (and my family was one of the few that even had such a luxury item as an oven). Still, I made it my mission to make them cookies – searching out every ingredient, mixing carefully and baking as well as I could. My family was very obliging and kindly tasted them, but found them incredibly sweet as their typical desserts contained nowhere near as much sugar as ours did. Still, it was a fun experience for everyone and I think they were privately amused at my great effort in preparing such a strange treat.
All this talk of recipe adaptation has a point. You see, there was a time in my life where I wouldn’t adapt or veer from a recipe at all. It was how it was written, or it was not going to happen. I liked when things had clear measurements, written instructions and a picture of how it was going to look in the end. This applied not only to cookies and baking projects, but to my life as well. I had clear plans that I wrote down and tried to follow exactly – and I was mightily thrown off when things didn’t go as planned.
I also detested change – especially as it applied to my identity. I had a picture in my head of who I was and I did not wish to veer from it even one millimeter. The thought of personal change was so distressing to me that I remember watching a video several years ago where a psychologist explained that people’s personalities naturally change every ten years or so and sometimes more often – the changes can be subtle, but larger changes are possible as well. His words and their heavy meaning caused me so much anxiety that I broke down in tears for nearly twenty minutes and had to turn off the video. That loss of control – the inability to plan not only where I was going, but even who I was and would be in the future caused me to have a mini existential crisis.
I cannot pinpoint the moment in my life where I left behind the desire for immutability. However, since that little breakdown I have adapted a flexibility that has served me infinitely better than that stubborn desire to remain frozen in sameness ever did – or ever could do. Through my interactions with the world around me and a better understanding of myself, I have learned to embrace the changes that come my way and adapt to the situations that before would have left me quite paralyzed. It has improved my relationships, made me much braver and given me a life I would have never had otherwise. It has allowed me to grow.
Now if a train gets cancelled, I grab a coffee and wait for the next. If a relationship ends, I cry through it, keep what I learned and move forward. If I change my mind about something, I allow that change. There is a peace in allowing the movement. Walling ourselves into one solution requires an infinite amount of energy that I simply no longer have the time or desire for. Life is infinitely better when you allow yourself to adapt and to flow.
So, while I am sometimes frustrated when I have to spend two hours searching for ingredients in a foreign country that I would have been able to find in fifteen minutes back home, I now see it as adventure – a chance to learn and to grow. It’s much more fun that way.
To try these very adaptable cookies for yourself, please find the recipe (and it’s modifications) here: ‘The’ Chocolate Chip Cookie.