Baking abroad: How to make the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and chocolate cake

Anyone who likes to cook, and especially bake, knows the perils of baking abroad.

The thing is, butter and flour are different here. So you never quite know how your desserts are going to turn out, though there’s a decent chance your chocolate chip cookies, for example, and going to come out like flat disks.

So, yesterday I decided to make a quick and easy (and delicious) chocolate cake recipe I’ve got — I was invited to dinner at a friend’s home last minute, so wanted to whip something up that wasn’t too hard.  And today, some French friends are throwing one of their famous nighttime summer picnics, so I thought I’d try some chocolate chip cookies.  Both turned out great.

First the cake.  It’s a great recipe I found online, and it makes an awesome, moist, thick and rich cake that easy to throw together, and doesn’t need a frosting (but it certainly wouldn’t object to one either).  Chris in Paris, whose apartment I’m staying at, isn’t much of a baker (he prefers to cook main courses), doesn’t have a mixmaster, so I bought him a handheld one a few years ago.  It’s a big name brand, Philips, and is a roaring piece of garbage. If your goal is to have whipped butter flung on every wall in your kitchen, then Philips is the brand for you.

So I made these by hand with a whisk. Not the most fun, but not impossible either.

Here’s the cake recipe — I got it from here, my notes have been added in:

Simple ‘N’ Delicious Chocolate Cake recipe


1 1/8 cups all-purpose flour (I tried 1/2 c white whole wheat flour, was great) — in France, use the “bio” (meaning organic) flour that has the small number 65 written on its side — different flours have different numbers here, you want #65 for cookies and cakes, American style.)
1/2 cup + 2T unsweetened cocoa powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2t salt
1/2t cinnamon
Might consider up to 1/4t almond extract for added flavor


This is what to use for brown sugar in France.

1/2 cup butter
1 cup white sugar (I used only brown sugar in France, it worked)

1 egg (whip then add slowly)
1 T vanilla
1 cup cold, strong, brewed coffee (I did 1/2 c espresso and 1/2 c milk) – or you can do 2 teaspoons instant espresso in 1 c milk)

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C). Grease and flour an 8 inch pan. Sift together flour, cocoa, baking soda and salt. Set aside. (I used ungreased parchment paper and it actually stuck! Well, it was French parchment, so your mileage may vary.)
2. In a medium bowl, cream butter and sugar until light and fluffy. Add egg and vanilla and beat well. Add flour mixture, alternating with coffee. Beat until just incorporated.
3. Bake at 350 degrees F (175 degrees C) for 35 to 45 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted into the cake comes out clean. I used my 8 inch glass pan.


Took a good 40 minutes or so at least, Collapsed in last 5 min after opening oven to test it.

Then a second time took more like 50-55 minutes.

Then I used a 9 inch pan at moms, and it cooked in only 25 min or so.

And finally, this time in France, I think it took around 40 minutes. Just do the clean knife/toothpick test and you’re good.

Eh voilà! It ended up tasting perfect. Very moist, very thick, not needing any frosting (for guests you could even just spray some powdered sugar on top, but I’m sure a frosting would be great too).


Chocolate Chip Cookies

As for the chocolate chip cookies, they worked out rather well too.

Cookies are a bit harder to make, I find, as you need to have a sense of whether the dough is appropriately hydrated. And while I can do a great bread dough, I’ve not been accustomed to adjusting the consistency of my cookie doughs. But you really need to over here, so I ended up adding a bit less flour to my favorite recipe. (which is basically the King Arthur recipe that I tweaked.)

Ok so here’s my take on King Arthur’s fabulous recipe:

Chocolate chip cookies King Arthur Recipe

2/3 cup light brown sugar, firmly packed (in France, use Beghin Say, name of sugar is Saveur Vergeoise BLONDE NATURE)
2/3 cup granulated sugar (I ended up cutting  the recipe back to half the sugar, eliminating this second 2/3c all together, it was still great)
1/2 cup unsalted butter, right from the fridge, or at room temperature (I use salted margarine) – I then add in some flax meal and use it to replace some of the fat (3T meal flax can replace 1T butter, or so)
1/2 cup vegetable shortening (In the end, I use 1/2c margarine and no shortening, and it still turned out great)
1/2 teaspoon salt (use only 1/4t if using salted butter)
1T vanilla extract
1/4 teaspoon almond extract, flavor goes away after 36 hours. This is a nice touch.
1 teaspoon vinegar, cider or white (seriously, just do it)
1 teaspoon baking soda


French vanilla sold in a convenient (read: absurd) 1.5 T vial. Someone is making a killing on the small over-priced sizes in this country.

French vanilla sold in a convenient (read: absurd) 1.5 T vial. Someone is making a killing on the small over-priced sizes in this country.

1 large egg
2 cups flour (I measure out 4T flax seeds, then grind them in a coffee grinder, which makes about 2/3c meal. I add this in addition to the 2c flour)
2T inulin (for fiber, why not)

2 cups semisweet chocolate chips (honestly this may even be too much choco chip with the cutbacks above, consider 1 1/3c chips, then add more as you like.

Preheat the oven to 375°F. Lightly grease (or line with parchment) two baking sheets.

1) In a large bowl, combine the sugars, butter, shortening, salt, vanilla and almond extracts, vanilla, vinegar, and baking soda, beating until smooth and creamy.

2) Beat in the 1 egg, again beating till smooth. Scrape the bottom and sides of the bowl with a spatula to make sure everything is thoroughly combined.

3) Mix in the flour, then the chips.

4) Put whatever sized balls of dough you want on the tray.  Sprinkle the dough with sea salt – the big chunky stuff — just a light sprinkle per cookie. You’ll be surprised, it’s great.

5) Bake the cookies for 11 to 12 minutes, till their edges are chestnut brown and their tops are light golden brown, almost blonde. Remove them from the oven, and cool on the pan till they’ve set enough to move without breaking. Repeat with the remaining dough. Now, really, I start checking the oven at 7 minutes to be safe.  Totally depends how big the dough balls are.  Once the edges start browning, take em out – these things seem to cook quickly, and they don’t always look totally done when they really are (if you like a soft cookie, like me).

One more tip – both King Arthur and the NYT say to let the dough sit in the fridge for 36 hours before using it. Of course, no one is going to do that, but I do, after making the first batch, put the dough in a ziploc bag, flatten it, THEN put it in the fridge for 36 hours. It makes the dough have an almost caramel flavor to it, seriously.  Then just throw the bags in the freezer and you have fresh cookies whenever you want — I take out enough to make only 3 or 4 cookies at a time in my toaster oven (beware of toaster oven cooking temp and times, in mine I set the temp down to 300F and watch the cooking, they can be done in 7 minutes sometimes).

Boy, did these turn out nicely. Notice they held their shape – I think the #65 flour is key, but also try to remember how thick the dough should be, then adjust your flour accordingly.


Follow me on Twitter: @aravosis | @americablog | @americabloggay | Facebook | Instagram | Google+ | LinkedIn. John Aravosis is the Executive Editor of AMERICAblog, which he founded in 2004. He has a joint law degree (JD) and masters in Foreign Service from Georgetown; and has worked in the US Senate, World Bank, Children's Defense Fund, the United Nations Development Programme, and as a stringer for the Economist. He is a frequent TV pundit, having appeared on the O'Reilly Factor, Hardball, World News Tonight, Nightline, AM Joy & Reliable Sources, among others. John lives in Washington, DC. .

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