Once upon a time in a far away tropical country, in the early beginnings of my expat life, I baked a simple cake–a light, lovely, lemony cake. But baking a simple cake, I’ll have you know, was a major undertaking, nothing like taking a box of mix, adding an egg, some oil, some water and bingo: batter.
Ghana in the late seventies and early eighties was not a happy place and there were no gourmet food emporiums with cake mixes and smoked salmon to make life easy. However, these days several well-stocked supermarkets make cooking and baking no problem; I know because I came back and lived there again in happier times, times replete with cappuccino and cheese and wine and all manner of lovely comestibles.
However, in the earlier, trying times, improvisation and resourcefulness, not to speak of courage, were essential ingredients for successful cooking and baking, so let me tell you how I went about the laborious task of baking a cake in Ghana in the mid-seventies. If you think you bake cakes from scratch, you’ve seen nothing yet, girl.
Follow me to the pantry, please. First we have to take inventory to determine whether the baking of a cake is an actual possibility rather than a culinary pipe dream. As we all know, to create a simple cake, you need flour, sugar, eggs, butter or margarine, vanilla, baking powder and salt. So here goes:
FLOUR. I’m in luck. Some time ago I was able to procure a one-hundred-pound bag of white flour from a local merchant with shadowy connections to the government. He “slipped” me the bag at an exorbitant price. Jubilant, I dragged my black-market treasure home, called my friends to share in the bounty and a flour-scooping orgy followed in my bedroom (the only room with an air conditioner). A festive mood prevailed as everyone filled empty milk powder cans and Tupperware containers with the precious commodity. Some said it was better than sex, which should give you some indication of how desperate we were.
Flour, then, I have. So far, so good.
SUGAR. Again, I am in luck. I have a box of French sugar cubes, a hostess gift presented to me by a good friend with sugar connections. These need to be smashed. This can be accomplished by putting the cubes in a bag or tea towel and applying a common hammer. If the electricity is functioning, one can try using a blender.
SALT. I have some.
Photo © bethantigua. Used by permission
It was harvested from the local seaside salt ponds and looks coarse and dirty, but it’s just healthy minerals that make it look that way; I hang on to this illusion as well as I can. As I said, it takes courage.
BAKING POWDER and VANILLA. These I have too. When I’m on home leave, I buy a supply to bring back with me to sustain me through another spell of scarcity and deprivation. (Why do I even get on a plane, you ask? Let’s not go there.)
For flavoring I also have a lemon that’s courageously trying to look yellow, but fails. Lemons look green, as do the oranges, since they need the contrast of cool temperatures at night to produce the vivid yellow and orange colors we are familiar with. (Cool weather is not a known concept in tropical Ghana.)
EGGS. My nanny has chickens running free in her compound and I buy eggs from her. (These eggs look just like ordinary eggs anywhere, just so you know.)
MILK. I am the happy owner of a can of Dutch milk powder, acquired during my latest shopping foray across the border into Togo, a neighboring country whose economy – at the time of this writing — is supported by France and therefore has everything known to mankind sitting on the grocery shelves. I reconstitute the precious powder with tap water that has been boiled for fifteen minutes to exterminate life forms you don’t want to set up house in your body.
This cake is starting to look like a real possibility. Next is:
BUTTER OR MARGARINE. Unfortunately, I have neither.
Women pouring newly pressed coconut oil. Photo © Traveling Diva (Thank you Diva!)
But despair not. I do have a beer bottle containing unrefined coconut oil that my thoughtful husband was able to purchase for me from a roadside oil press last week. It’s the equivalent of receiving a dozen long-stemmed roses, and if you think something is wrong with me in the romance department, all I can say is, go suck an egg.
Unrefined coconut oil gives a slightly sweet, coconutty flavor to your scrambled eggs, fried fish and everything else you cook using it, but for a cake this is not a calamity.
SOMETHING FRUITY FOR THE TOPPING. The mango tree in my backyard yields several ripe fruits not yet pilfered by the neighborhood boys.
I’ve got it! I can do it! I can bake a cake! That is, if the electricity holds out long enough for me to use my mixer. Fortunately the stove and therefore the oven run on bottled gas, and the tank was recently replaced (also not easy).
I am grateful for all my blessings, including cake.
So, I get started, only to discover that the flour, which has been sitting around for a while, has become colonized by weevils, the signs of which are cobwebby strands in the flour and tiny little wormy things wiggling around convulsively. Some adult bugs are holding court as well. Excellent protein, I’ve been told, but I hope you’ll forgive me for employing my strainer and sifting the creatures out.
Next I mix boiled water and milk powder and add the salt so this can dissolve and not end up like crunchy nuggets in the final cake. I tell you, you have to think of everything. Now I pulverize the sugar cubes, enough to measure one cup of loose sugar, and after grating the lemon zest I’m ready to assemble the cake batter.
And I do. And I bake it. And put sliced mango on top. And voilà, the best cake in the world!
(Or so I thought in those long-ago days.)
* * *
Please entertain me with your baking and cooking adventures — the good, the bad and the disgusting unappetizing. Links to hair-raising tales are welcome!
*flour, not flower … I think I need more sleep!
I wish you’d written this post before I trashed a container of flower with weevils!
No escaping the weevils if you keep flour around for a long period of time. You survived it, so no harm done. Nice to see you here, Patricia!
What a pleasure to find you through Sonia’ Gutsy Writer blog. This post is so good, and a little bit of a reminder what it was like to grow up on a farm in Illinois back in the mid-to-late 40s. We sifted plenty of weevils over the years.
Oh, I recognize this! Very funnily written – loved it.
When we lived in Fiji, those weevil-insect thingies were everywhere… extra protein, we’d just say!
My best moment was when I boiled cabbage – without the water…. Yes – it caught fire!
Burning cabbage! I can well imagine what that smelled like 😉
Just love the expression “go suck an egg” in an extreme recipe like this.
Go suck an egg, a strange American expression, I guess. But yes, it had a certain charm in the context of the story.
Nothing like getting ingredients close to the source 😉
Fellow expat, XO Laura
Hi fellow expat. Glad to see you here. I pasted your blog url in my browser and it came up with a warning about safety. Are you aware of that?
I’ve just discovered your blog. Fantastic! Come over and see me at 4 kids, 20 suitcases and a beagle, I’ve just written a piece on the expat wife, you may identify 😉
Hi Kirsty, yes, I identify! All you expats and travelers, check out Kirsty’s blog
The hoops you had to jump to make a cake, I am not sure if I would go through all that hassle… but I guess you start craving something so simple like cake after a while. Good for you for making this scrumptious sweet! And yes we still have problems with those Indian moths, so I am putting everything in the freezer to NOT get them!!
I wouldn’t go through this now, but in those days I had to improvise with everything. I’ve been living in more “prosperous” circumstance since then 😉
The freezer will keep the eggs from hatching in your flour. You know they’re already in there, don’t you?
One of the families I lived with in Guatemala had to combine interesting things to make meals. It was some of the best food I’ve ever eaten. I wish I’d paid closer attention in case I ever find myself in the situation you were in!
Maybe you can find similar recipes online if you google about the Guatamalan cuisine.
It’s amazing what you come up with, and how resourceful you learn to be when you have to! It’s part of what I enjoy about living in foreign countries, the challenges, and becoming more creative in general.
Oh…and once, women were told that they should use cassava or plantain flour to do things that wheat flour normally does. I love plantain flour, it makes delicious porridge. But cake? shees.
Well, in a pinch, can you use cassava or plantain flour for cakes? I have no idea! I do know that for people who cannot have gluten, bread and bakery goods are made with rice flour, corn flour, soy flour, and they are not nearly as good as the real deal.
Hello lady,.. wow what a story.. and that for a cake! 🙂 You must have been really graving cakes! I probably would have just eaten the fruit instead, and put the sugar in some lemon water!
Very curious about the plane rides you use to take in Afrika and around the globe. Perhaps your next story?
Hi Gabi! Great to see you here! Well, you know you have to be resourceful sometimes when living in poor foreign countries. Unless of course you have commissary priviliges 😉
The things one does to bake a perfect cake. Well done for persevering. Pity about the weevils though. Could have added extra crunchiness.
Next time you find weevils in your flour, please bake a cake and let me know if the crunchiness ads an extra delicious element. You never know how new discoveries are made.
Moths used to get into our flour and grains in Japan AND Cyprus, and my husband never tires of telling how you could buy two kinds of flour in Sudan, weevil-free and with weevils.
He will enjoy your story too!
Two kinds of flour – weevil free and with weevils. Now there’s commercial instinct at work!
Weevils will appear in flour anywhere under the right circumstances. The eggs are in the flour already and hatch if you give them time, warmth and moisture. It’s better not to think about. However, as you, there are more disgusting things!
When I lived in the Netherlands, the oven in the artists’ colony where I lived was broken, but we had one of those old-fashioned built-into-the-wall bread ovens. I baked a cake using leftover stuff I found in the refrigerator, including somebody’s ancient yogurt, a ton of dark chocolate (roughly 3x what you’d normally use) which I melted down with butter, and all the other usual ingredients. I baked it in the bread oven, monitoring it rather anxiously. I pulled it out after 30 minutes, whipped up a filling with the butt end of a bottle of maple syrup, farmer’s cheese… Read more »
What a great story! It’s amazing how these things happen. You can do everything right and have a flop on your hands, and you can do what you did and end up with a masterpiece. Too bad you can’t get the recipe right! Maybe that dark chocolate was flavored with something exotic, or that ancient yogurt had gone alcoholic 😉
Oddly, my extreme baking story occured Stateside but it’s too long to fit in a comment. Thanks, Miss Footloose, for providing the yeast for another story. Almost had forgotten about that one.
Loved your account and the pics. Fun post.
Looking forward to reading your story!
Ohmegosh, this is exactly what my mother had to do during those times of shortages in the 70’s, what my grandmother did during WW2.
I’m amazed by the resourcefulness of women all over the world, to feed, to nourish their loved ones.
I always enjoyed the cooking challenges, but then it wasn’t war time or personal poverty. It was just what I was presented with for the time being, and all I had to do was get on a plane to get away from the situation. The last few times I lived in foreign countries, cooking and baking was not too much of a problem!
Fascinating post, Miss Footloose. Love the salt pic!
We used to ship tons of goodies to my Mom when my parents lived in Indonesia. Sometimes they even made it to her! Flour was a common one the first two years they were there. I remember her storing flour and sugar in the freezer to keep the bugs out.
My mother once sent me a whole wheel of Dutch Gouda cheese when we lived in poverty stricken Ghana in the seventies. When it finally arrived, part of it was eaten by rats who’d managed to gnaw through the box and packing material. I was so terrified of contamination, I tossed the whole thing out. It about broke my poor little cheese-craving Dutch heart!
Oh my, and I’m sure that at the time baking that cake felt like reaching the summit of a mountain! So much to be overcome and you have to have a sense of accomplishment for having done so. I think those most be fun memories, of overcoming and succeeding. But I’ll bet there is also something to be said for buying the easy accessed ingredients, and remembering, rather than continuing to experience. What a fun tale, and you are obviously a wonderfully resourceful person, Miss Footloose. We do have funny notions about what constitutes romance, thinking it’s all about petals… Read more »
Indeed, the most romantic things contain solace and giving us the knowledge we are cared for and appreciated.
As for being resourceful, it’s what we had to be in the good old days of expat life, and still, to minor degrees in modern expat life. Actually it is part of the fun. I once knew how to take a package of (imported) butter and make whipped cream out if it. I think it involved melting it and adding milk, cooling it and then whipping it, but don’t remember the details.
nothing like finding a weevil or two when you really want to bake something. I never thought of sifting them out. we’re so spoiled…..I just thought of the inconvenience of buying more at the store ;-/
Trut me, I’d buy fresh flour if that is an option. Fortunately I’ve had no more weevil problems in later years.
I was going to have a little whine about how the high humidity in Singapore made it hard to make sugar cookies, but given the hoops you had to jump through, that seems a little churlish. Another fabulous post — keep ’em coming!
Oh, go ahead, have a little whine!
First I have to ask, “What is brinta?” Mara mentioned that above for soggy mashed potatoes.
Now comes the the Belize baking. I don’t know how fleas can enter a tight Tupperware, but they do. I would find tiny black fleas and crap in every container, to the point where I told my kids it was ground pepper.
BTW, I didn’t know about oranges and lemons turning that color because of the cool nights.
Brinta is the brand name for a breakfast food that contains shredded wheat and things (I think). It mightn’t look like much, but it tastes good and can be used to fix your mashed potatoes!
Lucky you to have your mother to rescue you in the kitchen. Some cooking catastrophies are fixable. Brinta, for the uninitiated, is something like instant cream of wheat, an American porridge.
I hate to gross you all out, but weevils don’t get into the flour from the outside –the eggs are already there when you buy the flour, even from the best brand and the most upscale supermarket. They hatch during warm and humid weather if you leave the flour long enough. That’s when you see them, first the little wormy things that then grow into the crawly bugs. So, no matter how well you close off the container you keep the flour in, you’ll have the problem eventually if the conditions are right. Keep the flour in the fridge or… Read more »
Well, you could have left the weevils in and told everybody it was a lemon, mango, raisin cake! Albeit with a bit of a strange crunch to the raisins.
I’ve always got a trusty mother nearby (hopefully) who can give me tips on how to complete mashed potato if you put too much milk and not enough potato in: use brinta! Works a treat and is healthy to boot!!