Monday, February 28, 2011

What’s in a Cup?

When I arrived in America from my native England, I was fascinated by the numerous cookbooks that were available. I bought my first cookbook (Betty Crocker’s Cookbook), opened the pages with excitement, and saw the references to “cup measurements”. I was flummoxed. During my school years, I had had four years of cooking classes, and always used a scale and Imperial Measurements. Later the “grams” idea reared its ugly head in England, and everything was converted. Now in America, I was faced with the “measuring cup” system, and knew I had to change my favorite recipes yet again. I distinctly remember buying a set of cups, holding them in my hands, turning them this way and that, and thinking to myself, “Will these gadgets actually do the job of scales?…” Of course, I didn’t realize at that time how much they would play an integral part of my cooking experience. They were simpler and easier to use – and I’d get good results.
Over the years, I’ve researched the origin of the “cup measurement” system. All evidence leads to the pioneer women who had to adapt their recipes as they travelled to the New World. Imagine these ladies on a wagon trail cooking for their families. They had to use items that were readily available to them, and a cup served the purpose. They took a cup of this and that…modified the recipes until they were happy with the results, and hey presto – recipes began, and were passed through generations.
To be honest, everything was different for me when I arrived in the U.S. and trying to adapt my recipes meant several cooking failures. The flour and the sugar seemed to behave differently in my recipes. Self raising flour is generally used in the U.K. whereas “All purpose flour” is used in American recipes. Trying to get just the right balance of baking soda and salt used with plain (all purpose) became one of the most difficult things for me to master. I’ve tried using (American) self raising flour, but the cakes always seem too salty. I haven’t even mentioned the difficulties that our Mile High City presents to me, the problem of altitude that can arise (no pun intended). I’m still struggling with my favorite Victoria Sandwich recipe. This cake was Queen Victoria’s favorite cake – hence the name.
Following are a few conversions:
English                                           American
1 pound butter of fat                        2 cups
1 pound of flour                               4 cups
1 pound sugar                                 2 cups (granulated or castor)
1 pound brown (moist) sugar             2-2/3 cup
1 pound rice                                    2 cups
1 pound dried fruit                           2 cups
Liquid measurement: One English pint = two American measuring cups
The average tea cup is ¼ pint or one gill = one American cup (roughly speaking)