I consider myself a pretty good baker. I knew the basics in college, it wasn’t until received a fellowship at grad school that actually provided me with the money to experiment more with ingredients that I branched out more from chocolate-chip cookies. Around the same time, I decided preservatives in baked goods tasted kinda gross, so I bought The Joy of Cooking and starting baking all my cakes from scratch.
So, of course, at this point, I decided to haul off and move to a foreign country where baking is not at all what I’m used to.
There’s the language barrier, as domestic vocabulary is really not my strong point; there’s the fact that I don’t really know how to make a lot of Japanese sweets; and then there’s the moven. More on the moven in a bit.
I hadn’t gotten car insurance yet last week, and I was getting bored with only the small grocery store in walking distance, so I walked 30 minutes to the big grocery store in the shopping center in town and, after a little consultation with my dictionary, went crazy in the baking section. Baking powder and soda are very expensive in Japan (about 300-400 yen for maybe 5 tablespoons’ worth), but luckily I have the Foreign Buyer’s Club on my side for obtaining cheap American-size containers of baking items. I was pumped for baking! And, wouldn’t you know it, my awesome sempai’s birthday was coming up and she was going to be in town, so I figured I’d make marmalade cookies for her. It’s one of the easiest cookie recipes I know—at least when I’m baking in the US.
The thing you have to understand about the Japanese kitchen is that a proper oven is a foreign (ha) concept. For baking at home, the rice cooker or that which we call the moven (a microwave, toaster, and oven—all in one!) are your only choices. I read the instructions and recipe for moven cookies. A sane person would have said, “When in Rome,” and rolled with the guide’s recipe. I, however,decided that my American cookies were way cooler. Thus the measurement war began.
In the US, we measure damn near everything by volume. A cup of flour, a cup of water, a tablespoon of butter, a tablespoon of marmalade, and so on. With the metric system, you use grams, usually for solids, and milliliters, usually for liquids. I had to use a pretty hardcore conversion chart from allrecipes.com, because a cup of sugar and a cup of flour may have the same volume, but they have different weights in grams.
And then there was the butter. I guess American butter companies think we’re all lazy (which is true), and, in your standard four-stick pack of butter, you have all the lovely measurements for tablespoons and cups written right on the side of the wrapper! In Japan, you get the whole chunk of butter in one bar with no helpful measurements. So I did a conversion to grams, filled the measuring cup, popped the butter into a bowl and in to the moven, and melted it with the microwave function. I guessed on a lot of the volumes and weights, because conversions from imperial to metric are all like “236 ml to a US cup,” and my measuring cups are not that specific. Luckily, the batter tasted about right, except for the sweetness. American marmalade is much sweeter than Japanese marmalade, but no worries!
I plopped some batter on some foil on the ceramic plate, set the moven to cookie mode, and let loose. The cookies ran and didn’t seem to be baking, so I scraped them into a cake pan and made a giant cookie on cake mode. (There’s also gratin mode, potato mode, regular microwave, toast mode, meat mode, and so on.)
All in all, it turned out pretty tasty, although the presentation was not so great.
I’d like to say just two things here. I am ALL FOR the metric system. It’s awesome! Metrics forever! But since I grew up learning the imperial system, it’s really hard for me to think of flour as a weight instead of a volume. Furthermore, using a tiny moven to make cakes and baked sweet potatoes is a bit strange, since I’m used to having a huge oven. The area under my gas range/fish griller is just storage. Space, of course, is a big issue in Japanese homes, and baking doesn’t really factor in to standard Japanese food, most of which is grilled, fried, or boiled. If you really wanted a cake or a nice bread to bring someone, getting it from a store is perfectly acceptable, even encouraged. Furthermore, with a moven and a rice-cooker, you can (theoretically) make all sorts of baked goods, there’s no real need for ovens here.
I am throwing in the conversion towel and had an American measuring cup posted to me for when I make my American recipes, but from now on, I’m going to try to make Japanese recipes meant for movens and ranges using metrics. More on that in part 2, or, “What to Do When You (read: I) Can’t Actually Cook Japanese Style.”