Thursday, September 3, 2009
Baking in Japan
The roomie's birthday was a few weekends ago and to celebrate, I dusted off my beautiful Blue Betty mixer and baked him a cake. I'm quite the baker, if I may say so myself. I enjoy it more than I enjoy cooking. I'm not very free form and I like to stick to recipes as they were written. What can I say, I'm not a rule breaker.
Settling into Japan, the last thing I thought would cause me great stress was baking cake. There were a many obstacles along the way. Let me explain:
1. I don't read a lot of Kanji. The Japanese language uses 3 alphabets: Hiragana, Katakana and Kanji. Hiragana and Katakana are like the letters of the alphabet and they're pretty easy to pick up once you become familiar enough. Kanji on the other hand is a beast. Kanji are Chinese characters adapted to the Japanese language. Each character can have several meanings depending on the situation. Learning Kanji is straight memorization and recognition. You need to know around 2,000 Kanji and all their meanings in order to read the newspaper. It's such a complicated system that even the not-for-long Prime Minister, Taro Aso, jumbled meanings in public speeches a la George Bush. Anyhow, because I know about 7 Kanji total, it made grocery shopping incredibly difficult. Is this flour or cornstarch? Sugar or laundry detergent? Where do I find Baking Soda? What is Vanilla Oil and is it the same as Vanilla Extract? Headache!
2. While my kitchen is super fancy and high tech, sometimes you just don't need technology to intervene. In America, the oven usually resides under the stove. In Japan, this is a shoebox sized fish fryer. Not big or hot enough to bake a cake. Instead, we have a dual microwave/convection oven the size of a standard microwave. It's basically an Easy Bake Oven for grown ups. This thing is cool in theory, but when you don't know how it works, it is the scariest thing in the world. There are so many buttons and none of them have any meaning to me. (See point 1) At one point, I think I microwaved my batter for about 7 minutes. Double headache!
3. Conversions and measurements. Math - ack! Thank goodness for the Internet. Because the ovens here are tiny, the cake pans are also very tiny, so I had to decrease the amount of batter I was making. Not that big of a deal. There are tons of great recipe conversion sites out there that do all the work for you. What is not so fun is taking standard cookbook measurements and converting them into weight. I could not find measuring cups to save my life here. Instead, I bought a kitchen scale and had to weigh all the ingredients. As you know with baking, perfect measurements are vital to a successful treat so this was kind of stressful. Butter is not pre-measured in convenient quarter cup sticks here, so things got a little messy at this point. Fret not, I'm feeling better about the scale debacle after reading this post on Gizmodo.
After all was said and done, the cake came out pretty amazing. I made a Martha Stewart Devil's Food Cake with Sprinkles' Cream Cheese Frosting. The sour cream in the cake batter keeps the cake super moist. The one good thing about baking in Japan is that the easiest thing to find are super cute cake decorations. They're pretty cheap and readily available at the grocery store or drugstores. Presentation and packaging are SO IMPORTANT in Japan, almost to a ridiculous degree. After all the Kanji, measuring and oven hullabaloo - I ended up with a happy birthday boy and a very cute cake.