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Brits And Americans Don't Speak The Same Language In The Kitchen

If Americans could turn out these beauties, why couldn't I? hide caption

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If Americans could turn out these beauties, why couldn't I?

When I moved from the north of England to Washington, D.C., over a decade ago, I knew it was not going to be easy. But at least speaking the language wouldn't be a problem. Or so I thought.

A few weeks after we arrived, my then-11-year-old requested we make cookies. She had figured out that like cars and shopping malls, the American versions were much bigger and fancier than anything we were used to.

Back in the U.K., homemade cookies were modest affairs: circles stamped out of dough with an egg cup or an upside-down drinking glass. Here in the U.S., we were dazzled by the possibilities of iced stars, crunchy ghosts and edible holiday pageants.

We decided to aim for the stars.

The glossy American cookbook told us exactly what to do, and soon we were pushing dollops of dough into into our shiny new press. My daughter excitedly pressed the plunger — or rather, tried to press the plunger.

Nothing. Nada, Zilch. The dough didn't yield. Neither maternal force, nor a hefty whack with a meat tenderizer, produced anything remotely stellar.

We took the press apart, and put it back together again. Still no stars.

I was sure I'd followed the recipe exactly — and accounted for the fact that U.S. cups are a standard unit of measurement, and not just any old teacup.

"We'll try again," I said brightly.

With pharmaceutical precision, I made up another batch of dough. Once again — nothing you could call a star.

Hot, bothered and even a bit teary, I was at a complete loss. American mothers and their children could apparently turn out edible artworks by the dozen and here I was, failing at the first attempt to help my daughter feel at home in our new country.

I made a cup of tea (what else?) and looked at the recipe yet again.

There it was, at the top of the page: Makes 2 dozen biscuits.

And suddenly it dawned on me: Biscuits is the word Brits use for cookies!

We'd apparently been trying to make stars from the stiff, dry dough Americans bake and serve with gravy.

I'd like to say that everything fell into place after that, but it just got more confusing. Remember, this was long before there was a Google search or an iPhone app to guide the way.

I discovered that American biscuits are roughly equivalent to English scones, except that we eat our scones at teatime with thick cream and jam.

The scones you eat on this side of the Atlantic are more like the old-fashioned teatime treats that Brits call rock cakes.

Your English muffins aren't English muffins at all, but the porous, yeasty rounds known as crumpets. And American pies, which in England always have a pastry lid, often appeared in the U.S. version to be like English tarts, with their jewel-colored filling open to the sky.

It turns out that I was not alone in finding all this a bit of a struggle. American cookbook editor Mary Goodbody worked on the American editions of cookbooks by the famous British chefs Nigella Lawson, Jamie Oliver and Simon Hopkinson.

She says that when she started to "Americanize" her first Jamie Oliver cookbook, "I thought it would be fairly straightforward. Courgette to zucchini, flavour to flavor, and tinfoil to aluminum foil. Of course, I knew I would have to deal with metric measures, but that was just math, right? As it turned out, this was one of those situations where it was better I didn't know exactly what I was getting into."

By the the time Goodbody turned in that first manuscript, she had a style sheet that included 67 entries for vocabulary changes alone.

And vocabulary was only a part of it. She shared some of her working notes and queries from the various cookbook projects with The Salt, and it turns out that ingredients and even kitchen tools posed a trans-Atlantic challenge, too.

For example, one British recipe called for "store bought custard." But is that "pourable custard or more solid custard?" Goodbody writes in her working notes. " I am not sure what the American cook would look for. I know we have pre-made custard in cups, instant custard in boxes, and frozen custard. I have not seen pourable custard in cartons ..."

Suet was even more confusing. "I am leaving references to suet (beef fat) and lard (pork fat), although very few Americans will use these, or even be able to find them. But I have no idea what veg. suet is — is this just vegetable shortening, like Crisco?" Goodbody's notes say.

She tells me that she had to puzzle out equivalents for lots of other things too, like brown sauce, digestive biscuits, and figure out what kind of gadget a mincer was. (It's a meat grinder.)

Not even something as apparently simple as sugar was simple. British cooks generally use caster (castor) sugar, which is finer than the granulated sugar widely used in the U.S., so Goodbody had to keep testing recipes until she figured out a formula for converting the quantities from one to the other to achieve the right degree of sweetness.

She noticed other differences too. She found these British cooks to be "more free-wheeling than some American cookbook writers. ... Tablespoons often are heaped (read 'heaping'), herbs are added in 'good handfuls' and the home cook might be asked to use 'approx. 8 frankfurters' in a frankfurter soup."

Goodbody says she came to love this more carefree attitude. "American recipes had become increasingly exacting and scientific when, really, why? A little more thyme than necessary, a little less chicken broth — does it really make that much of a difference? Of course, when you bake, you have to be pretty precise, but not so much when you cook," she says.

But of course, all the precision in the world doesn't help if you don't know a biscuit from a cookie!