Thoughts on Cooking in Prague
I have referred to the adventure of baking the first pie, the subsequent autumn feast, and the holiday meals and how these were done mostly by guesswork. Despite my lovely kitchen and numerous utensils, cooking here does remain a bit of a mystery. I’m not much of one to follow a recipe closely, but I like to have a sense of what my materials are and how they function. Most raw materials in the Czech Republic are the same as in the US, but there are just enough differences to baffle the prospective cook. One can neither easily prepare American foods (which Czechs might like to sample), nor figure out how to make standard Czech dishes.
For the first, I really did not expect that I would want to make a lot of American food, but then I also didn’t expect that brown sugar and molasses would be unavailable. I mean, I can cook without white sugar, but without brown sugar? Hard to imagine. (I have now located a Czech variant of brown sugar—dry, with a very different texture—and my mother has sent me two pounds of the real stuff. Splendid!)
On the other front, what I wish, cooking-wise, is that I could find a decent English-language Czech cookbook. I want one with English instructions and bilingual ingredients, and preferably with both metric and English measurements. I bought one of the souvenir-type cookbooks, but soon concluded that I will not learn how to cook Czech food from it. It is full of difficult ingredients like castor sugar (yes, once upon a time I knew what that was, but I no longer do, or whether it was a 19th-century form of sugar no longer produced), lovage (have heard of this but never seen it), goose fat (pretty hard to get unless you have a dead goose), juniper berries (not sure which type of juniper one picks these from, or how to tell if they are ripe), a pig's head (have not recently or indeed ever attended a Czech pig-slaughtering, although admittedly these are big events), pheasant (at least I know the Czech word for it, but is it in the store or must one shoot it?), venison (same issue), damson-cheese (huh?), grated cream cheese (they must be joking, cream cheese doesn't grate), bilberries and rowanberries (what are they in Czech? Have I ever eaten them?), and so on. Cornflour? (Presumably not the same as cornmeal.) Semolina? I won't go into the vegetarian issue other than that while I don't eat vegetarian here, I would still prefer not to deal with raw meat (sausage and broth are ok with me).
It seemed to me that a good many of the ingredients listed in the cookbook must be in British English, as they certainly weren’t things one normally eats in the US unless, perhaps, living on a farm or with someone who hunts regularly. For instance, my family did have lots of goose fat once upon a time, but that was because we had slaughtered some geese (not a pastime that I recommend).
If the recipes would at least include the Czech name for the dish, it would be helpful. The recipe for buchty, being one of the only things using the Czech name and thus one I can verify I've eaten, indicates that damson-cheese might be the code-word for tvaroh (an essential Czech baking ingredient), but another recipe calls for cream cheese where I would expect tvaroh, so who knows what they are talking about. (Tvaroh, I have learned from Kristen, must be akin to the Russian tvorog.)
I remarked upon the problem to Věra, who said that these cookbooks are hopeless and probably not in British English any more than in American. We commiserated about the difficulty of cooking in a foreign land since it is just as hard for her to cook in Pittsburgh, where there is no tvaroh, poppyseed filling, etc. (And her partner is a vegetarian.)
Well, someday I may learn how to make various kinds of cabbage and knedliky and baked goods, but I feel a little dubious.
For an explanation of how to locate the Czech equivalents of baking soda and baking powder, see Jesse’s account of baking peanut butter cookies. The cookies turned out fine, if rather pale from lack of brown sugar. Actually, we thought they tasted like sugar cookies with a hint of peanut-butter flavor. Which was all very well, but not much like the genuine article.