Friday, July 20, 2012

A Baking Story

Baking in Japan
Not cookie ingredients.
After about a month in Japan, the glamour of eating milk cakes, Meltykiss and Pocky all the time was starting to wear off and I began craving the kinds of sweets I enjoyed back home. I was starting to get a little homesick, too, so thought maybe I'd bake the chocolate chip cookies that my cousin used to make for us.

I was out at the time and knew I wouldn't be able to get many baking supplies at the convenience store, so I tried to recall exactly what was in her recipe from memory as I hopped into a grocery store, well past 9:30 in the evening. (Before smartphones, of course.) I was VERY short on cash and the ATMs in that shopping centre were closed for the evening. (Ah, mid-2000s Japan!) I decided to use what little money I had to get the rarer items, and if I missed anything, head to Family Mart after picking up more cash from my apartment. "Hmm...chocolate chips...brown sugar...uh..."

I went to the aisle that had sugar, and I found something that was the correct consistency and colour to be brown sugar, and got it. Then I found the baking aisle and picked up the most expensive bag of mini chocolate chips in existence (500 yen for about a cup and a half). I bought these items knowing I was still missing stuff, then, as I went to leave, thought... "Oh. Vanilla."

So I went back to grab a little bottle of vanilla. While paying for that (I was down to 400 yen now) I remembered, "Butter."

I bought "cake margarine" from the dairy aisle. 206 yen. My train fare home was 200 yen. Then, on the train, I remembered a missing item.

..."Flour. Damn."

I went home for money, then to the conbini at the train station, bought flour. Returned home and dug out my cousin's beloved recipe using the power of the Internet. Which, of course, called for eggs...and baking soda...and salt. Oh. Went back to the conbini, but they didn't have baking soda. I figured I'd do without. I was pretty sure there had to be salt somewhere in my kitchen; I'd gotten a reasonable amount of pantry supplies, but hadn't actually done any baking at all since I arrived. I bought eggs, went home, started to mix it up...

And realized I also needed white sugar in addition to brown. Also, I didn't actually have salt. So, missing 3 ingredients, past midnight...I had to give up.

The next day I went out and found white sugar and something that was probably table salt and bought them. Then I went to look for baking soda. I knew it existed because I confirmed with a co-worker. However, I didn't think to ask her if the name of the item was different in Japanese. I picked up the item in the aisle that most closely resembled what I wanted, brought it to an employee, and asked, "Is this baking soda?" using the katakana version, ベーキングソーダ.

Well, he didn't know what baking soda was, and whatever I was holding was used for bamboo....something. So we went through everything in the baking aisle while I tried to describe in Japanese, the various functions of baking soda. "You put it in cookies," resulted in him producing baking powder, then I said "it takes away bad smells," and "when you put it in vinegar, it explodes." None of this helped. In the end the employee used his cell phone to look it up. Surprise, the first thing I'd picked out was baking soda after all. Amazing. The Japanese term I was missing in translation was重曹 (juusou).

Baking in Japan cookies
Baking in Japan: always an adventure.
Back home, I mixed everything up and it seemed to smell and look like the items I'd found really were sugar, brown sugar, salt and baking soda. However...most Japanese don't have ovens, and do their baking in toaster ovens or microwave-oven combos. Unfortunately, my toaster oven didn't have a temperature gauge. I was stuck staring at my bowl full of cookie dough and an oven that only had a single setting: 1000W. I assumed the W was for watts.

My predecessor didn't use the toaster oven much. Turned out, she hadn't left me a cookie sheet or pan of any other sort. I put the cookies on aluminum foil and laid them on the oven rack. This is the point where I discovered that cheap tinfoil from the 100-yen shop is flimsy and useless.

Moments later, I discovered the rack placed the cookies an inch and a half from the top element, and as a result, they began to burn. I tried to use the drip pan as a makeshift cookie sheet, but they were still burned too severely to eat. Batch one was undercooked on the bottom, overcooked on the top. And super-greasy; I suspect my Internet conversion of cups to grams for the butter wasn't completely accurate.

The second batch sat on the drip pan for just five minutes before they started to scorch on the top. 1000W was too much for them, no matter how far from the heating element they were.

At this point I gave up; I put the dough for the third batch right in the fridge to eat raw.

Cooking in a tiny kitchen is certainly an adventure. I don't know how Emily managed, but I think she bought her countertop oven within the first month!