Wednesday, August 31, 2005

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.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

You drive me crazy

A street scene in Aleppo, Syria

This may not seem to make a lot of sense, but it’s true: I am beginning to miss the drivers of Syria. In order to understand what I’m trying to say, you need to understand one very important distinction: there is a big difference between a “good” driver and a “skilled” driver. Not for one moment would I call the average Syrian driver “good,” in the sense that he follows rules and is courteous behind the wheel. But you have to admit that the average Syrian driver is actually quite skilled, in the sense that they can maneuver through traffic and drive, simultaneously, both offensively and defensively.

The average Syrian driver has an impeccable feel for the exact size of his automobile, and can scrape through amazingly small centuries-old alleyways while dodging horse-drawn carts and soccer-playing children with astounding precision. There are virtually no American-style parking lots in Damascus, which means that drivers have to get creative when the need to pull over arises. Granted, their “creativity” doesn’t often extend past using the sidewalk, but you’d be surprised at the nooks and crannies I’ve seen Syrian drivers squeeze into. I’ve even seen a car or two parked in the middle of a road, in a small area where the road widened to allow for an easier right turn.

Of course, part of this vehicular flexibility stems from the fact that Syrians, in general, drive small cars. You don’t see many trucks (besides Suzukis, and those don’t count), vans, or SUVs driving around the city, and when you do, they likely have a Saudi license plate.

But most impressive to me is the average Syrian driver’s skill. American drivers just don’t measure up. Sure, Syrian drivers may drift across several lanes on the highway without signaling, but at least you can be fairly sure that they did it knowingly. Or, if not, then you yourself, as a Syrian driver driving defensively, fully expected them to make such a move. In America, inattentive driving is terrifyingly common – a driver drifting across several lanes of the freeway is most likely chatting it up on a cell phone or distracted by the in-car DVD player.

Syrian drivers are also intelligently aggressive. They know when to take chances and when to yield to the other guy. In America, I constantly find myself behind some dude driving like an idiot, apparently unfamiliar with even the most basic rules of driving, or else I’m dodging overly aggressive drivers who are just plain unsafe. And this is in the American traffic system that admittedly has dumbed down most every aspect of driving. You can hardly turn left anymore without waiting an eternity for a precious green arrow, instead of being trusted to be able to handle a yield-to-oncoming-traffic green light.

And I never thought I’d say this, but I kind of miss the traffic circles, too. True, they were usually scenes of chaos and mayhem, but somehow, people get where they need to go without waiting for a traffic light to tell them when to stop and go. In America, we spend eternities at traffic lights whose wait times are way too generously padded to favor the red-light runners. Perhaps less people would run the red light if they knew that the intersecting direction got a green immediately…

Part of the problem with the overabundance of unskilled drivers in America is that we will give a license to almost anyone. If you’re 15 or 16, have 30 bucks, and can pass a vision test and a short driving test, the local DMV will hand over a license to drive. Then, you can buy a nice car for almost nothing down – and pay for it for years to come on an installment plan – and voila! You’re on the road, driving me crazy!