24 October 2011

The Baking Aisle (or, How I Learned the Italian Word for Baking Soda)

The typical baking aisle in Italy is quite different from those in the US.  While there are a few “mixes” on offer, they tend to be for pane di spagna or a chocolate “torta”.   There are no cans of frosting. The baking powder is not sold separately, but rather in a sachet  of “lievito per dolci” and tends to include vanilla and other ingredients.  Chocolate chips are available everywhere, in little 50 g tubs and sometimes you’ll see a big box of them.  There are a few choices for candied citron, a couple of varieties of sprinkles, some marzipan blocks and various  specific “farina”: for bread & salty treats, for “dolci”, chickpea flour, chestnut flour, the odd box of almond flour come fall.  Some crappy vials of vanilla or almond flavoring that must be shaken out one drop at a time (difficult when a recipe calls for a teaspoon, no?).  I’m guessing, but it seems the creative baker doesn’t exist in Italy.  Instead, the place is filled with people making the tried and true recipes. Crostada this, torta that.

(I was shocked the other afternoon when the waitress at our Friday lunch spot said they had carrot cake.  I was like, “Huh?!”, as in, “People make that here?!”  It didn’t translate.

She proceeded to give me the ingredients, “Carrots, walnuts, flour, egg.”  Like, “Duh, Americana. Cake. With carrots and walnuts”   F. tried to explain, “Like pane di spagna with carrot.” Thankfully, it arrived without the cream cheese frosting.  I might’ve fallen off my chair.)

Anyway, the baking aisle rarely has baking soda.  I knew this going in.  They often keep it in the aisle with the cleaning products.  I was on a mission to make muffins.  For  one of the towns three bakers.  See, he honeymooned in NY and was going on and on about everything he ate there that he couldn’t eat here.  A hot dog from a street vendor, eggs with bacon (“pancetta!, but thin & crunchy!”), a good hamburger as big as your head!  A big cup of coffee, in a to-go cup with which he could warm his hands as he walked down the street. And with  which he could eat a big muffin!  

“But, wait, “ I said.  “You have a bakery. Why you don’t make some muffins?”

“Oh,” he replied. “This is Italia.  Nobody eat them here.  You need the big coffee for the muffin!”

OK, I thought.  I’m makin’ the dude some muffins and bringing him a travel mug of American coffee.

Off I went to the Tigre across the street.  I walked up and down every aisle, including the baking aisle, on the off chance these folks kept the baking soda there.  No dice.

I circled back, between the fresh fruit and the cookies where I’d spotted one of the store’s owners.

“Di me”, (which I choose to take as some form of “tell me”) he said.

“Ummm,” I started, sure I was gonna screw it up. “Sodio di bicarbinato?”

He looked at me, confused.  He knows I’m American. Everyone does. Did he think I was speaking English?


“No, no,”  I tried again, dragging out each syllable, trying desperately to roll my “r”s, to sound more Italian. “So-di-o di bi-carrrr-binato???”
I was convinced I had it wrong at this point, but how bad it could it be? I knew what I was looking for involved both “sodio” and “bicarbinato”.

“Corrrn flakes?” he asked.

Worse then I thought, apparently.  I could practically see the thought balloon above his head: The American girl is looking for something.  The words do not sound familiar. She did not say “hamburger” or “ketchup”.  She must want cookies, which are directly to her right.  Dio, these Americans are dumb. Or maybe cereal.  I’ve seen Seinfeld.  Corrrrn flakes are American, no?

Once more I tried.  “So. Di. O. Di. Bi CaRRRR. Bi. Na. To.”

The woman standing behind him looked at me and held in her laughter.

“Oh!”, he said, the lightbulb going on above his head.  “Bicarbinato di sodio?  For cleaning the vegetables?”

“Si si si.”  Whatever.  I put it in my dry ingredients when making muffins, you put it in a bowl with water “per pulire vedurra.”  Va bene.

“There isn’t.  Tomorrow morning.”

Oy gevalt.

And that is how I learned and willl never forget the name of baking soda in Italian.  The muffins for Massimo would have to wait.

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