Making cookies in Damascus

Our non-oven.

My husband loves chocolate-chip cookies, especially oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies. When we first got married, I made the recipe from the Quaker Oats box and it was delicious. The recipe was actually for oatmeal raisin cookies, but I replaced the raisins with chocolate chips and left out the cinnamon. This is still our favorite recipe for chocolate-chip cookies.

Not long after we established ourselves in our apartment in Damascus, my husband began asking when I would make his favorite cookies. I knew it was going to be a challenge – there were a few obstacles in our path:

1. a few of the ingredients in the recipe would be hard to find, or very expensive, or both.

2. we had no cookie sheet

3. our only “oven” was really only a glorified toaster oven that came with strict limitations placed upon it by our landlady. For example, she told us (1) never to set the temperature above 200ºC, (2) never to turn both the top and bottom burner on at the same time, and (3) never to run it at the same time as the air conditioner, washing machine, or microwave. (Come to think of it, I never did ask her what would supposedly happen if we broke any of these rules...)

First, we set out to conquer obstacle #1. The basics, such as eggs, flour, white sugar, etc. were all readily available at our neighborhood stores. Vanilla was available, but only in powder form. Brown sugar, shortening, and oatmeal could be found in the city, but only at a premium price. Baking soda and chocolate chips were AWOL at every store I could think of to go to. We had to wait until the commissary at the embassy opened (an event that takes place rarely and unpredictably) to get those ingredients.

It took a few weeks to gather all the ingredients, but we managed it. Now we had to somehow acquire a cookie sheet. We weren’t very picky in our specifications – it didn’t even have to be a real cookie sheet. Any large (but not too large, lest it not fit in our tiny oven), flat piece of heatable metal would do. Our landlady, as agreed in our rental contract, took on the task to find one with great reluctance and soon claimed that such a thing didn’t exist. When I suggested a store down the street where, after an exhaustive search of my own, I had seen a metal serving tray that would work perfectly, she hesitated and finally admitted that in reality, she just didn’t want to buy anything.

I went to her apartment to discuss the situation and came upstairs with a cake pan, disgruntled but determined to be satisfied anyway. The pan was hardly well suited to baking cookies, and judging from the size of it, would only bake five or six cookies at a time. Nevertheless, we had now overcome the second obstacle.

It was time to make the cookies. I mixed up the ingredients, having lots of fun converting from American to metric measurements. I held my breath as I calculated the oven temperature, hoping that it wouldn’t be more than 200ºC. Thankfully, it worked out to be only 175ºC. After making sure that the AC, microwave, and washing machine were not in use, I put the first batch of cookies in the oven. True to my expectations, only six or seven cookies fit on the pan.

At first, I turned on only the bottom heating coil of the oven, in accordance with my landlady’s instructions. As I monitored the first batch, however, I noticed that the bottoms of the cookies were burning while the tops remained doughy and uncooked.

For the next batch, I tried turning off the bottom burner halfway through the cooking time and turning on the top one. This yielded slightly better results, but still not good enough. Sadly, after more experimentation, I came to the realization that the only way to mimic the convection action of a normal oven would be to switch the burners on and off every couple of minutes for each batch. And of course, with only a few cookies per batch, it meant quite a long period of time for me to stand sentinel at the oven, flipping a switch on and off at regular intervals.

Fortunately, my husband was very grateful every time I made cookies, and made sure to rave about how good they were for days afterward. For me, this made it all worth it.

Welcome, Miriam!

You drive me crazy