Tag Archives: lost in translation

Lost in Translation – Spain

‘Tis the season. Fifth Avenue has unveiled its windows, blocks of the sidewalk have sprouted evergreen forests, and, way uptown, Columbians face the mounting tension of finals.  Taking all this into consideration, I decided that there was no better way to spend my Friday night than flipping on ABC Family’s 25 Days of Christmas and embracing the absurdity of baking cookies from a recipe I can’t really understand.

This month’s Lost in Translation comes from Spain.  Polvorones are crumbly holiday shortbread cookies.  I first encountered these confections under the name Mexican Wedding Cookies, which usually include pecans. Their name comes from the Spanish polvo, meaning powder or dust, which I had no clue about because I only took two years of Spanish in middle school.  However, the recipe I found for polvorones online seemed simple enough, despite the slightly worrisome “Dificultad: Media” rating.

I figured that “harina” was probably flour, based off the word “farina,” which I knew from my cereal cabinet at home, but I had no clue what “trigo” meant.  So I went with the same method that I used for the bread experiment; I ignored it and moved on.  Everything else seemed pretty clear, once I sounded out “almendras” and determined that it meant almonds.  Guessing that azúcar meant sugar was a combination of process of elimination and references to “azúcar glacé.”

Actually, because of the plentiful cognates, translating the recipe wasn’t much of a problem.  In fact, I found the preparation rather enjoyable, since “tuesta”-ing the flour and almonds on the stove released lovely smells that mingled with the Muppets Christmas Carol songs drifting through the air.

The bigger problem, however, came when I tried to form the sizable mound of crumbling dough into little cakes for baking.  The recipe recommends that you “corto” the “masa,” which I supposed meant cutting out the cookies, rather than trying to knead them together, but any attempts to cut the crumbly mountain of dough was futile to say the least.

In the end, I added a bit more butter than the recipe called for in an attempt to force some cohesion.  After a brief ten minutes in the oven, my little spheres of buttery, sugary dough were ready to eat.  After looking at a few more recipes for polvorones – in English this time – I can safely say that, in any language, these cookies are simple, sweet, and an ideal way to spend an hour’s study break.


Tiempo de preparación: 30 minutos + enfriar

Raciones: unos 24 polvorones


300 g de harina de trigo

150 g de azúcar

150 g de mantequilla

100 g de almendras tostadas molidas

1/2 cucharadita de canela

la ralladura de 1/2 limón

azúcar glacé para espolvorear

Tuesta la harina en una sartén o en el horno, procurando que ocupe toda la superficie y no haga montoncitos, a fuego lento, tardará como mucho 10 minutos al horno/5 a la sartén. Si lo haces en la sartén tendrás que moverla con una espátula para que se tueste por todas partes. Debe quedar de color marrón claro, no negro ni caramelo. Deja enfriar la harina.

Pon la harina tostada en una superficie lisa y seca, forma un hueco en el medio y pon las almendras, la mantequilla,  el azúcar, la canela y la ralladura de limón. Amásalo bien hasta obtener una masa compacta. Es un poco quebradiza. Estírala con un rodillo hasta que quede una lámina de 1,5 a 2 cm de espesor como máximo. Utiliza un cortapastas redondo u oval y corta la masa en porciones. Engrasa ligeramente una placa de horno con mantequilla y ve colocando los polvorones. Precalienta el horno a 200ºC.

Mete los polvorones al horno a 200ºC aprox. 10 minutos. Vigílalos y sácalos cuando se doren un poco (no dejes que se pongan negros!). Déjalos enfriar sobre una rejilla y después espolvorea azúcar glacé por encima.

Variantes: se pueden hacer polvorones con otros sabores añadiendo otros ingredientes a la masa, como cacao en polvo, canela (más cantidad), vainilla, almendras, anís, etc.


Lost in Translation – Italy

Well, with my last post on bread, I pretty much exhausted my foreign language capacities.

But the way I see it, a romance language is a romance language, and it shouldn’t be too hard to figure out an Italian recipe, even if the only Italian I know is mamma mia. When I started looking up recipes though, I realized just how difficult it could be.  With the weather getting colder, I settled on a classic recipe for pasta e fagioli, reasoning that it would be hard to mess up too badly with a bean soup.

Ingredients for Pasta e Fagioli
All (or most) of the ingredients

Half of the ingredients seemed pretty simple.  Fagioli borlotti had to be borlotti beans, carota was an easy one, and brodo vegetale didn’t take too long to interpret.  I also figured out that sedano was celery because I had seen other recipes that called for a gambo of it, which I took to mean leg.

Other ingredients gave me pause.  Scalogno?  Salvia?  Prezzemolo?  I just hoped they weren’t too important and moved on.  My proudest moment was figuring out what a spicchi di aglio was; the website I was using was actually called Lo spicchio d’aglio, and after a few moments of puzzling, I realized that the icon was actually a stylized picture of a clove of garlic!  Of course!  How could I embark on an italian recipe without garlic?!

Am I doing this right?

What I hadn’t anticipated, in the glow of my triumphant interpretations of the ingredienti, was the difficulty in translating the actual instructions.  I was lost after step four, so while I managed to drain my beans, chop my vegetables, boil my broth, and brown my garlic, I was left to guess on what exactly “Aggiungere un mestolo di brodo” meant, and ended up adding ingredients incrementally, spooning broth back and fourth between two pans, and then cooking the pasta separately before tossing everything together at the last minute to boil.

In one particularly lost moment, I glanced over my recipe with chopped vegetables in hand, and realized there was not a single mention of carota or sedano after the second step.  I threw them in after the beans but before the pasta, hoping for the best and reasoning, for the hundredth time, that it’s pretty hard to mess up soup.

Less of a dish, more of a collection of ingredients

It turns out I was right.  The soup came out just fine.  It was just very, very bland, like drinking broth.  I couldn’t help feeling helpless the entire time, entirely lost and wondering if I was doing anything right.  It was not my finest hour.


  • 250 g di fagioli borlotti già cotti (peso sgocciolato)
  • Mezzo costa di sedano
  • Mezzo carota
  • 1 scalogno
  • 1 l di Brodo vegetale
  • 2 cucchiai di olio extravergine di oliva
  • 2 spicchi di aglio
  • Timo
  • Origano
  • Maggiorana
  • 4 foglie di salvia
  • Sale
  • 120 g di pasta
  • 4 rametti di prezzemolo
  • Pepe nero macinato al momento


  • Sgocciolare i fagioli e passarne la metà al passaverdure.
  • Tritare molto finemente sedano, carota e scalogno.
  • Scaldare il brodo vegetale.
  • In una pentola da minestra far soffriggere il trito e l’aglio spellato nell’olio per qualche minuto, a fiamma media, fintanto che non assume un aspetto dorato. Unire un cucchiaio di brodo e proseguire la cottura per 4-5 minuti.
  • Aggiungere un mestolo di brodo, mescolare, unire i fagioli interi, un pizzico di timo, origano e maggiorana, la salvia e lasciare insaporire qualche minuto a fiamma vivace.
  • Stemperare i fagioli frullati con mezzo mestolo di brodo e versare il composto nella pentola. Girare e lasciare insaporire qualche minuto.
  • Versare quasi tutto il brodo e portare ad ebollizione. Regolare di sale.
  • Buttare la pasta e cuocere mescolando spesso con un cucchiaio di legno, secondo il tempo di cottura del formato scelto. Aggiungere qualche mestolo di brodo se la minestra tende ad asciugarsi troppo. Tenerla piuttosto liquida perchè a fine cottura tenderà ad addensarsi.
  • Nel frattempo lavare il prezzemolo, selezionarne le foglie e tritarle con la mezzaluna su un tagliere.
  • Spegnere il fuoco, regolare di sale, profumare con  una grattugiata di pepe ed il prezzemolo tritato.
  • Lasciare intiepidire 5 minuti con il coperchio e servire con un filo d’olio a crudo.



Lost in Translation – France

This summer, I picked up a copy of Julia Child’s “My Life in France.” Engrossed by her tales of fearless cooking, I tried to imagine what it must have been like learning to cook in a foreign country, in a language not your own.  Later, as I was browsing through my cookbook collection this summer, I happened upon the baking book I had picked up in France.  I flipped through, realizing how rusty my French had become, and then my twisted mind thought, what if I tried to use this cookbook without a translation?  Thus, an idea was born: I would try to cook from a foreign language recipe without translating it and just working off my best hunches.  Italian food in Italian, Spanish tapas en español… what have I gotten myself into?

I’ll admit, I went easy on myself for this first foray into cooking sans subtitles.  I decided to try a French recipe, since I’ve taken French in the past.  And what could be more classic than French bread?  It started with a trip to Fairway in the rain – hardly an auspicious kickoff to my adventure.  I looked over the copy of the recipe I brought: numbers one and two on the list of ingredients were farine de seigle and farine blanche.  I knew farine blanche – white flour.  But seigle?  I resisted the urge to google translate, and grabbed a bag of “all-purpose” flour, figuring that all-purpose should cover both blanche and seigleSucre roux I figured was brown sugar, and levure de boulanger déshydratée just had to be yeast.  Overall, aside from the little flour speed bump which I’m sure destroys any credibility I may have among serious bakers, gathering supplies was relatively simple.

I can practically hear the francophones reading this and hollering “RYE!”  Yes, as I later found out, seigle means rye, so the bread I made was more “pillsbury’s finest” than anything French.  Oh well.  To that, I reply with one of the few phrases I can remember: C’est la vie.

Armed with my kitchen scale, since the measurements were all by weight, I set about making a vastly-underprepared mess of myself in my Hartley kitchen.  I squinted at my recipe and ran into the second roadblock in translation: cuil. à café.  I was pretty sure cuil. Was an abbreviation for spoon, but what sort?  Teaspoon?  Tablespoon?  I went with the assumption that teaspoon got translated across the Atlantic into coffee spoon, and hoped for the best.  Next step: “Mélanger de façon à bien amalgamer le tout plus pétrir jusqu’a obtention d’une pâte qui se détache des parois de la casserole…” Ok, so I was lost after mélanger de façon à bien amalgamer, but, undaunted, I kneaded away and then let the ball of dough rest while I went to a lecture.

Two hours later, I returned to a big ball of dough that had “doublé de volume,” so I guess everything worked out all right with the whole mélanger bit.  The recipe called for an oven preheated to 190 degrees Celsius.  I figured that burning down my dorm in a cooking translation experiment wouldn’t exactly endear me to the university; anyways, converting measurements isn’t exactly translation, is it?  So I set the oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit and popped the whole big boule in the oven to bake.  An hour later my bread emerged from the oven piping hot, apparently solid as a rock, and sporting a large crack along the edge that made it look like an eyeless whale.

After a bit of cooling, my suite-mates and I dug on.  The loaf was actually quite chewy on the inside, reminiscent of an enormous soft pretzel, with just a hint of the sea salt I borrowed from my neighbor.  The crust, however, was extremely thick and crunchy.  I couldn’t decide if this was particularly good bread, but most of it was eaten by the next day, so I’ll mark this attempt as a success.  Nothing was burned, nobody was poisoned, and I never even touched Google translate.  Voila!

Pain de Seigle 

450g de farine de seigle

225 g de farine blanche

un peu plus pour soupoudrer

2 cuil a café de sel

2 cuil a café de sucre roux

1 ½ cuil a café de levure de boulanger déshydratée

425 ml d’eau tiède

2 cuil. a café d’huile, un peu plus pour graisser


  1. Taniser les farines, et le sel danse une jaffe, ajouter le sucre et le levure et mélanger.  Creuser un puits au centre et verser l’huile et l’eau.
  2. Mélanger de façon à bien, amalgamer le tout plus pétrir jusqu’a obtention d’une pâte qui se détache des parois de la casserole.  Pétrir la pate 10 minutes sur un plan de travail farine, jusqu’a ce qu’elle soit homogène et élastique
  3. Enduire d’huile les parois d’une jatte.  Façonner la pate en boule, la mettre et dans la jatte et couvrir.  Laisser lever 2 heures près d’une source de chaleur, jusqu’a ce que la pate ait double de volume.
  4. Huiler une plaque de four.  Pétrir de nouveau la pate 10 minutes sure un plan légèrement farine.
  5. Façonner la pâte en boule, la mettre sur la plaque et couvrir.  Laisser lever encore 40 minutes près dune source de chaleur jusqu’a ce qu’elle ait double de volume.
  6. Pendant ce temps préchauffer le four a 190 degrés C.
  7. Cuire le pain 40 minutes au four préchauffé.
  8. Cuire encore 20 a 30 minutes jusqu’a ce que la croute sait bien dorée.  Transférer sure un grille et laisser refroidir complètement.
  9. Servir