Baking in Translation: NZ Ingredients for US Recipes

Two weeks ago, I started a riot on my personal Facebook page with this photo:

Boston_cream_piesThat’s two homemade Boston cream pies. Vanilla cakes filled with vanilla-bean pastry cream and topped with a dark chocolate glaze. They look delicious, but there was a problem: when I used the US recipe for the cakes with New Zealand ingredients, the cakes didn’t come out light and fluffy, as they are supposed to be. Instead, they were almost as heavy as pound cake, squeezing out the vanilla-bean custard when the cake was sliced and served. This varied outcome is a good example of what can happen when you try to bake US recipes with New Zealand ingredients.

So, this post is here to help you adjust US baking recipes for the NZ kitchen. And it focuses on baking from scratch. This isn’t just a baking challenge for Yankee expatriates in New Zealand. If you are entranced by images on a popular culinary blog overseas, you might try to recreate the recipe…and run into some problems, or find that the result doesn’t have exactly the taste or texture you expected. This post is here to help.

As I learned when I tried to find a Boston cream pie recipe, many US baking recipes now rely to an alarming degree upon mixes and packaged items. If you want that artificial baking-mix flavor, it’s waiting for you in the baking aisle of a large NZ grocery store. But that’s not going to help you make challah bread, St. Louis butter cake, flaky pie crust, or…the list goes on.

Cup Measure Differences

Nigella Lawson’s team summed this up perfectly. ” There is a very slight difference between UK/European/Australian cups and US cups. The UK cups are 250mls and US cups are 240mls, so UK half cups are 125mls whereas US half cups are 120mls (quarter cups tend to be the same at 60mls). However for most recipes the difference is small and won’t affect the finished dish. For baking you may prefer to remove 2 teaspoons from each cup measure to get from UK to US measures.” Thank you, Team Nigella!

US to NZ Baking Ingredient Table

This table is your guide to help you swap US baking ingredients for ingredients readily available in New Zealand. Items with a star * can be acquired in New Zealand from the US-themed store Martha’s Backyard.

US Ingredient NZ Equivalent
Bread flour High grade flour, preferably Edmonds
Cake flour or all-purpose flour Standard flour, preferably Edmonds
Cornmeal Fine maize polenta *
Powdered sugar Icing sugar
Crisco/shortening No suitable substitute *
Corn syrup Golden syrup (derived from cane sugar)
Dry yeast TASTI brand dry yeast
Unsweetened baking chocolate 72% or 85% dark Whittakers chocolate
Cocoa Imported Dutch cocoa, preferably Blookers (in the imports section of larger grocery stores) *
Flavored Baking Chips (peanut butter, butterscotch) No suitable substitute*
Graham Cracker Crumbs for crusts Depending on your taste buds, either crushed plain Arnotts digestive biscuits or no suitable substitute*

Milk and Butter and Eggs

US buttermilk is thinner than the heavy yogurt-like NZ buttermilk. There are several options: use NZ “drinking” yogurt, use a mix of 1/2 NZ buttermilk and 1/2 regular milk, or use 1 scant cup of milk with 1 tablespoon lemon juice added to curdle it.

NZ butter will make a cake heavier than USA butter. To ameliorate this, use ½ butter and ½ cooking oil.

Thick, rich NZ butter will also turn a US buttercream frosting recipe into a bowl of concrete if you aren’t careful. Cut down the amount of butter 1 tablespoon for each cup. Make sure the butter is at soft room temperature. And have extra powdered sugar on hand!

Also, NZ butter is yellow, compared to US butter. Very yellow. If you want to make a white white cake, you can use imported Danish butter (brand name Lurpak), which is white.

NZ eggs are a chef’s dream to work with. They fluff up beautifully and their vivid yolks add fantastic color. If you find NZ buttercream frosting too dense or yellowy-creamy in hue, try a meringue buttercream.

Chocolate and Flavorings

There’s no US-type unsweetened baking chocolate in New Zealand. One of the quiet secrets of NZ baking is the use of Whittakers dark chocolate as a baking chocolate. Two caveats: one is that, when melted, dark Whittakers retains the slightest grit – it is an “everyday” eating chocolate. The other is that Whittakers, chopped up and used in place of chocolate chips, will be meltier than chocolate chips. If you want a cookie to assuage your longings for 4th Street, use the Nestle chocolate chips.

Look out for compound chocolate! Otherwise known as “the cheap stuff” – a lot of this shows up in the baking aisle, especially in small pellet-like chips.

New Zealand honey is fantastic for baking, especially bush honey – the honey flavor really comes through. Some other amazing Antipodean flavorings: Fresh As powdered freeze-dried fruit and Heilala and Equagold vanillas. On TradeMe you can buy packages of plump, amazing vanilla beans very affordably.

Special Diet Ingredients

  • Gluten free? You’ll find many baking options, since many New Zealanders are genuinely celiac. One of the best American bakers I know here is gluten free.
  • Vegan or dairy allergic? Watch out, most margarines in New Zealand include dairy extracts. Dairy-allergic friends recommend Olivani as the only vegan margarine. There are fewer dairy-alternative, vegan-specific ingredients here overall – Huckleberry Farms is a good representative health food store and if they don’t have it, good luck. Whittakers dark chocolates are also dairy-free/vegan (except dark caramel.)
  • Paleo? Why are you even reading a post that started with images of Boston cream pies? All I have for you is that bags of ground almonds are available at most larger grocery stores.

Thanksgiving Pies

Celebrating US Thanksgiving in New Zealand is completely ludicrous – making a large, hot, heavy dinner entirely from scratch on what is, inevitably, the first hot summer weekend of the year, centered around a $75 turkey and a precious imported handful of fresh cranberries. Nevertheless, the power of Thanksgiving compels us. And that means pie.

  • Pie Crust – The pre-made pie crusts in New Zealand come in two variations, puff pastry and shortbread crust. Neither of these is really suitable for American style pies with their flaky crust. The Smitten Kitchen all butter pie crust will keep you from longing for easy Crisco pie crusts. It’s also easy to make a vegan pie crust with coconut oil.
  • Pecan Pie – The good news is that you can replace your corn syrup with golden syrup – this actually returns the original flavor to pecan pie, which was made with cane sugar syrup in the old South. The bad news is that pecans are very expensive.
  • Pumpkin Pie – Tinned Libby’s pumpkin is starting to appear in larger grocery stores, in the Imported section, thanks to crazed American demand. If you can’t find Libby’s, roast and puree some butternut squash. I will roast, puree, and freeze butternut squash at the end of winter/its main season to have some for Thanksgiving. New Zealanders find sweet pumpkin pie perplexing, since pumpkin, here, is treated as a savory vegetable – and the green-skinned “roasting” pumpkin here is mealy and savory, not sweet. That’s why I recommend butternut squash instead. Oh, you also can’t buy pre-made pumpkin pie spice.
  • Sweet Potato Pie – Use the orange Beauregard “kumara”, which is really a sweet potato. This is so much easier than pumpkin pie here that I have been known to bring a huge sweet potato pie to a large event and let people assume that it’s pumpkin.
  • Apple Pie – For some reason, if there are a variety of desserts, your Kiwi friends won’t touch the apple pie. I don’t know why. If you serve an apple pie on its own, you’re fine, but it brings our country-mates little pleasure as part of a spread of desserts. Also, many NZ apples are bred for extreme crispness to help them endure as exported fruit. I find that it’s best to give them 2 weeks in the fruit bowl on the counter before baking with them, so that a bit of the sugar in them turns into baking-friendly starch.
  • Berry Pies – In New Zealand you can get these bags of flash-frozen berries, frozen without any sugar. These are FANTASTIC for making pies. A 500 gram bag is perfect for one 9 – 10 inch pie. Let them defrost in a bowl on the counter before adding sugar, etc. and putting them in your pie crust.

Real American Flavor

Tasti brand yeast produces a more US-baked flavor in breads and risen goods than Edmonds brand yeast. And for fluffy US diner-type pancakes, I find that a recipe using both baking soda and baking powder here gives them the desired oomph. Friends have astonished me with amazing fluffy pancakes from the Edmonds mix.

Did you know? You can bring flour, yeast, and sealed non-dairy baked goods back from the US. No honey, no dairy, no fruit, but there are still lots of options. I’ll often bring a stack of California tortillas, bottles of vanilla or maple syrup, a few boxes of Bakers’ unsweetened baking chocolate, or other small, flavorsome, packaged ingredients.

My Persistent Baking Fails

While I’m pretty good at not making mistakes twice, I still fail at biscuits (not surprising, since I am from the Northeast) and yet I have seen others succeed. I also don’t feel that my brownies are that good – I like the chewy kind with the crackly top and all I manage to come up with are cakey ones.

To go back to those Boston cream pies, my mistakes there were a) too much butter and b) not using standard flour – I used the bread-type flour instead. Next time I would go for a fluffier cake recipe.

I’d love to hear your own “baking abroad” stories, whether as a Yankee expat or as a Kiwi trying to recreate your favorites in foreign lands. Comment away!


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