Baking in China (and other improvisational activities)

A few weeks ago, we were given a hand-me-down counter top oven. Not a toaster oven. Not a microwave oven. An oven oven. The kind that can, like, bake stuff and roast stuff and grill stuff. For those of you in fully developed, non-Asian countries, you may not realize the significance of this fact. I haven’t had a usable oven since I left home back in 1994 (and then left again in 1997, in 2002, etc).  Big burner+oven built-in thingies are not standard kitchen appliances in most of the world.

In Turkey, in my first flat in Kayseri in 2002, I shared a tiny toaster oven with my flat mate Elsa. We made toast. In my second year there, my next flatmate used it to melt the cheese on her crackers. We may have reheated a crappy frozen pizza once or twice.


My otantik Anadolu mutfağı. Note large bag of tea.


When I moved to Istanbul in 2004, I was ovenless for most of my first year until I accidentally invested in what I thought was a full-on counter-top oven but which turned out to be a handy storage unit for extra plates and cutlery. It held heat like an open window in winter.  I kept it for the next four years though, carting it from flat to flat to flat to flat (yes,Virginia, I did move every single freaking year— I’m restless, ok?)  I roasted a few rounds of root vegetables in it (took hours) and near the end I attempted a few skewers of relatively successful tandoori chicken (the yogurt tenderized it enough to endure the looooooooong cooking time required). I left it behind when I left Turkey, along with 85% of my other worldly possessions.


My last Turkish kitchen. You can almost see the oven in front of me. Yes, I had no counter.

When I first moved to Shanghai and lived over in deepest, darkest Pudong, my flat had a 2-burner stove fit for woks and, well, that’s about it.  Doug’s flat in Puxi came with a device I initially mistook for an oven of some sort but it turned out to be a dish sanitizer (don’t ask), and a small microwave oven that we used for heating up milk for cappuccinos (the espresso for which was very carefully made on a massively expansive burner built for a huge wok, using a carefully bent bit of wire to keep it from plunging into the flame).

Over the past two and a half years, over the space of three different flats, we have invested in a proper rice cooker, an awesome clay crock pot, a well-seasoned enormous wok, and now, thanks to one of Doug’s colleagues who is being blessed with a BRAND NEW OVEN from her landlord, a hand-me-down counter-top oven that is most definitely not a toaster oven nor a storage unit for extra plates.

In the past week or so, I have roasted a whole pumpkin, a ton of garlic (both of which were mashed down into a lovely soup), and baked two rounds of scones a.k.a buttermilk biscuits a.k.a remarkably good improvised lumps of quickbread using available ingredients (yogurt! olive oil!).

Things I don’t have: baking sheets, affordable butter, cocoa powder or baking chocolate, mixing bowls, sieve for sifting, measuring cups (though I do have a rice scoop that claims to be one cup), a wooden spoon, granulated white sugar, spices.

Assemble possible ingredients. Note that inventory incomplete for 98% of recipes found in hand-penned cookbook.

One must make do, however. Especially when one is tasked with producing an appropriate Yay For Deciding To Stay in China gift for Unbrave Girl who made the brave decision to stay another term, against her better judgment. I knew I had to make cookies.

So I started googling cookie recipes to find something I could feasibly make with what I had scrounged up from the overpriced expat grocery store. I had flour (Chinese, but organic in theory), rare baking soda and baking powder, coarse dark brown sugar, a rare chunk of overpriced butter still rationed from our white-sauce-making binge last month, part of a jar of rare and overpriced Adams crunchy natural peanut butter, eggs, an inch of olive oil.

So I decided to go with this one, from Smitten Kitchen. The notes in [brackets] are mine.

Peanut Butter Cookies
Adapted from the Magnolia Bakery Cookbook

The brilliance of these cookies is that they have include two different formats for peanuts–three if you use chunky peanut butter. They’re crisp on the outside, and almost cakey on the inside. Bake a batch and then hide the results in the furthest and most forgettable reaches of your kitchen. You’ll thank me later.

1 1/4 cups all-purpose flour
3/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon baking powder
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup unsalted butter, softened [had to mortgage the oven for this– imported Kerrygold all the way!]
1 cup peanut butter at room temperature (smooth is what we used, but I am pretty sure they use chunky at the bakery) [finished off the jar, which can hopefully be replaced for under 75rmb…]
3/4 cup sugar
1/2 cup firmly packed light brown sugar [all brown, all coarse, rather clumpy from humidity- could be interesting]
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 tablespoon milk
1 teaspoon vanilla extract [nope but have some dried beans from Bali, unsoaked in booze]
1/2 cup peanut butter chips [nada]
1/2 cup chocolate chips [should I cut up a chocolate bar?]

For sprinkling: 1 tablespoon sugar, regular or superfine

Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large bowl, combine the flour, the baking soda, the baking powder, and the salt. Set aside.

In a large bowl, beat the butter and the peanut butter together until fluffy. Add the sugars and beat until smooth. Add the egg and mix well. Add the milk and the vanilla extract. Add the flour mixture and beat thoroughly. Stir in the peanut butter and chocolate chips. Place sprinkling sugar — the remaining tablespoon — on a plate. Drop by rounded teaspoonfuls into the sugar, then onto ungreased cookie sheets [no cookie sheets, used notepaper soaked in olive oil, placed over drip tray], leaving several inches between for expansion. Using a fork, lightly indent with a criss-cross pattern (I used the back of a small offset spatula to keep it smooth on top), but do not overly flatten cookies. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes. Do not overbake. Cookies may appear to be underdone, but they are not.

Cool the cookies on the sheets for 1 minute, then remove to a rack to cool completely.

This is how it worked out…


First pre-heat oven. Don’t forget to remove EVERYTHING from anywhere near oven. It gets hot.


Carefully oil single-spaced A4 notepaper and lay on a well-scoured drip tray.


Blend dry ingredients in a clean saucepan with a rice cooker spatula.


Spend twenty minutes attempting to cream butter, sugar and peanut butter. Rest hand at intervals. Beat til as fluffy as possible.


Creaming accomplished! Fingers in pain. Fork bent.


Attempt to fold in dry ingredients without spraining hand or breaking fork.


Time to bake the cookies! With fresh fork marks!


Google Fahrenheit-Celsius conversion. Note that 180C is somehow hotter than 350F for next time.


Cookies accomplished!


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About MaryAnne

I live in Hanoi. I used to live in Shanghai (hence this blog’s title) but I left in 2013. I tend to travel. I cook stuff. I read a lot. I try to scare myself silly with regularity. I write about it all. A lot.