Man-Child Brownies baked in my new-ish oven with my new baking dish from Nitori
Even after four and a half years, I get culture shock in some odd ways. Until recently, one of these was feeling irritated at my inability to bake.
Or maybe they're not that odd: in A Taste of Home (the second story in the book Expat: Women's True Tales of Life Abroad, which I thoroughly recommend), the writer has similar cravings, but for roast chicken, not Christmas cookies or truffle cake.
Back in the USA I was a baking dynamo: I made muffins every weekend - and banana bread when I didn't feel like muffins. I baked tons of cakes, from blueberry to pumpkin to black forest cherry to red velvet to chocolate truffle. I baked cookies every Christmas (and occasionally for the office) and while I didn't make them often, I was able and willing to make crepes, Levantine farina cake, Greek-style baklava and coffee cakes. I made some pretty mean pies, too.
So it was a bit of a shock to me to end up in Asia with a kitchen that had no oven. Like so much with culture shock, intellectually I knew that kitchens in Asia don't typically include ovens, but I never anticipated the feeling of loss that came with it. In India, I didn't stay long enough to try and bake (and it was too hot to bother, really), and in China, ingredients to bake and freestanding ovens were hard enough to come by, and if found, expensive enough, that I didn't try.
But I've been in Taiwan for far longer - I hadn't anticipated staying on this long when I first moved here but I'm happy I have - and the lack of baking was really getting to me. We were home for Christmas 2009 and I baked literally hundreds of cookies - sugar, gingerbread, chocolate melt, chocolate chip, "Swedish almond cookies with jam" (probably not really Swedish) and nutty oatmeal cookies. Even hosting a Christmas party of 14 people, including three kids, we couldn't finish them all.
So, after four years of feeling deprived, we went to Carrefour and bought an NT $2900 oven. Yay!
With an oven, though, one needs supplies. That's where this post comes in - it's taken me months to assemble various things for baking, and I'm still not quite done. Jason's and City Super sell a lot of this stuff, but mostly for jacked-up prices. You can do better.
Here's a reference guide of the best places to buy baking goods for a reasonable price:
(the one off Heping Road is closed)
I go to this one: Roosevelt Rd. Section 5 Lane 218, Number 36 / (02)29320405.
MRT Wanlong Exit 4, turn right to Cosmed, turn right again and it's down the lane next to Family Mart.
Scattered about Taipei, these stores sell all the things that the big department store supermarkets don't, or that they sell too expensively. Some comparisons: sprinkles at Jason's are NT$200+ for some German brand, and it's all they stock. Sprinkles of varying kinds and in varying sizes cost a fraction of that. Candy molds at City Super - NT$300-NT$800. Plastic candy molds at the baking store - NT$30, or silicone molds for NT$350. Icing bags and tips at the supermarkets - hundreds of NT. At the baking store? NT$70. Baker's chocolate is far less, seasonings are far less (at least NT$100 in savings per bottle), vanilla extract is a fraction of the cost, and they stock mid-range baking supplies whereas the department store supermarkets only stock high-end, highly-priced goods. You won't feel guilty about throwing away an NT$50 whisk from the baking store - why pay NT$800 for a fancy European one that you'll now feel you either have to keep or sell, seeing as it cost so much? Cookie cutters: NT$75 at City Super with little selection, NT$20-$30 at DIY baking stores with a huge selection, including little Taiwan-shaped cookie cutters!
In short, don't shop for this stuff at Jason's or City Super - don't let the greedy idiots win.
The DIY tores also sell hard-to-find items such as food coloring, icing gel (I saw it in pots only, not tubes), certain ingredients otherwise hard to come by and for cooks, they sell things like capers and tomato paste for far less than the big supermarkets.
You can also buy items like flour and confectioner's sugar in bulk. These are sold at regular supermarkets but usually in smaller packets.
By the way, you'll have to make your own icing - you can buy gel icing, but if you want royal or buttercream, you're on your own. Nobody sells it. Fortunately, it's easy to make.
Other items you can get here: mascarpone, light sour cream, flour in bulk, candy melts and flavorings beyond vanilla and almond.
Corner of Heping E. Road and Fuxing S. Road - it's the big green 'everything' store
The third floor of this catch-all discount store sells kitchen supplies - get inexpensive whisks and rolling pins here. I got my super-simple rolling pin for NT $30.
IKEA and Nitori
Asiaworld Shopping Center, Corner of Nanjing E. Road and Dunhua N. Road, basement
IKEA is the place to go for springform-style pans (the kind you use when you need to turn a cake upside down after baking it), coffee cake and bread pans and other baking items. Nitori sells glass and ceramic baking pans - including the old Corningware style baking and souffle dishes, perfect for a chocolate souffle if you think you can handle it. Both of these stores sell baking items at far less than the department stores.
If you need regular, not baking chocolate, the own-brand candy bars sold at IKEA are your cheapest bet for acceptable chocolate.
Great for coconut spread if you are too lazy to make icing (this does work, by the way - buy Indonesian coconut spread and add a bit of food coloring if you want, and use that instead of icing), colored and chocolate sprinkles and interesting ingredients you may find you need such as powdered ginger in good quantities at affordable prices. You can also get coconut flakes at a good price.
Zhongxiao E. Road, ahead of City Hall Exit 4, near Dante Coffee, 2nd floor of a bland unmarked building
Great for coconut flakes, dates, tamarind pulp, almond and rose flavorings, occasionally saffron/safflower (better for color than flavor), jaggery and other elements for Asian baking. You can also get stick cinnamon, whole nutmeg, cardamom and other useful spices for interesting cookies and muffins.
Jason's and City Super
all major department stores
Really only recommended for chocolate chips (often whitened and old, but if you use them to bake they become good again once heated up), mini marshmallows, baker's chocolate. Jason's sells "Almond Dew" which is basically almond extract, and if you're in a pinch they do sell vanilla extract at exorbitant prices. Otherwise don't bother with their crappy baking aisles.
all over Taipei
Believe it or not, Wellcome does stock decent supplies of spices, kinds of flour, egg white powder （蛋白雙), molasses, confectioner's sugar, unsalted butter, cream cheese and other kinds of sugar. You can get a lot of what you need here.
Health Food Stores
I recommend the one on Roosevelt Road between Gongguan and Taipower Building. Get off at the Taipower Building bus stop (after Gongguan) and walk south - you'll see it.
This is a good place to get flaxseed, instant grains/oats as well as whole, non-instant oats that you can use in oatmeal or multi-grain cookies. Also good for flavored oils, healthful flours, organic raisins etc..