Sunday, 18 March 2007

Baking in Japan (cornbread)

When I lived in Melbourne, baking seemed so much easier than making a stew or stir frying vegetables. There's no 'handful of this' 'season to taste' or 'when it looks done..' in baking, your success relies less on kitchen instinct than slavish obedience to the rules. Helping my mum bake chocolate orange cake and specalaas as an eight year old, it was drummed into me that any idiot could turn out perfect cakes and golden brown, chewy cookies as long as they FOLLOWED THE RECIPE EXACTLY.

Cue my arrival in Japan and the realisation that it will often be impossible to follow the recipe exactly. To begin with, like most Japanese people, I do not have an oven. Buttermilk, cooking chocolate and more unusual spices are difficult or impossible to find. At the supermarket there is only one kind of cream, the rows of flour all look the same to me and I have no idea if the cocoa I've bought is intended for cooking or making hot chocolates with. But it can be done. I've used a toaster oven with a temperature dial and various substitutions to make all sorts of cookies, cakes and floury things. They're not perfect every time, but there are a lot more successes than failures.

I go through periods of fear, discarding every recipe I don't have the exact ingredients for and worrying that anything that needs to rise won't be able to make it in my tiny toaster oven. Eventually though, the thought of going months or years without homebaked treats gets the better of me.

On the weekend I tried this recipe for cornbread, that Amy wrote about here. "Aha!" I thought. "If she's not afraid to bake with a few substitutions, perhaps I can do this too". I had to get the cornmeal from the international supermarket an hour away, substitute plain yogurt for the buttermilk, a Pyrex dish for the preferred cast iron skillet and accept that anything that close to the top element of the toaster oven is going to end up a little charred, but look:


... fresh, warm cornbread, crispy and perfectly risen, mocking my hesitation as it waits for the butter. Hurrah!

A few tips
  • If you're using a toaster oven with a temperature dial, use the same time and heat setting as the original recipe but test carefully. Sometimes things need a little longer.
  • Many Japanese microwaves have a convection or 'oven' (オーブン) setting that bake or roast like a gas oven. Try this guide to microwave kanji if you're not sure how yours works. Convection ovens usually require an adjustment to temperature or cooking time, but I'm not sure about the microwave hybrids.
  • The top element of the toaster oven tends to burn anything taller than a cookie. B has had some luck covering the pan with silver foil or another pan and removing at the end to brown, but I usually just slice off the burnt part. It's a good excuse to make icing.
  • Decorating ready made or packet mix cakes seems to be much quite popular here, and the 100yen stores have a good range of pans and cake decorating supplies. You can buy silicon bakeware and other more advanced gadgets places like Loft and Tokyuu Hands.
  • The flour isn't usually kept with the other cake supplies. Keep looking.
  • You won't find much at your local supermarket but international supermarkets usually have a great baking section and stock a bigger variety of dairy products as well. Otherwise, you could try the Foreign Buyers Club.

Useful Vocabulary
Flour フラワー furawaa
Bread flour 強力粉 kyourikiko/ パン用 panyou
All purpose flour 中力粉 chuurikiko
'Weak' flour (the most common here) 薄力粉 hakurikiko
Whole wheat 全麦 zenbaku
Baking Soda 重曹 juusou
Baking Powder ベーキングパウダー beekingu paudaa
Yeast ドライ イースト dorai iisuto
Gelatin ゼラチン zerachin
Food colouring 食用色素 shokujoushikiso
Honey はちみつ hachimitsu
Vanilla essence バニラ banira バニラビーンズ banirabiinzu

Some Necessary Substitutions
Buttermilk -
For every cup of buttermilk, substitute one cup plain yogurt or 1 tablespoon lemon juice or vinegar plus enough milk to make 1 cup, mixed and left to sour for 5 minutes or so.

Self Raising Flour -
SRF is very popular in Australian recipes but no-one I've asked here has heard of it. Happily, it's just all purpose flour with the leavening agents pre-added. For 1 cup self raising flour, substitute 1 cup plain flour, 1 1/2 teaspoons baking powder and 1/2 teaspoon salt.

Chocolate Chips -
You can find these at most international supermarkets but they're quite pricey. Buying a block of your favorite chocolate and hacking it into bits yourself will only take a few minutes, is much cheaper and you'll get a better quality of chocolate too.

Specific kinds of flour, cream, sugar/syrup or spi -
Try Dairy, Flour, and Baking Supplies or use what you've got and see what happens. Using honey instead of golden syrup won't taste the same, but it may still be delicious.

Having said that, I'd better start baking more and stop waiting for the day when I have a perfect kitchen with a huge oven, kitchenaid mixer and food processor, just down the street from a fully stocked international market. Or I could raid the apartment of the only person I know with a real oven, a stereotypical batchelor who has only ever used it as a table for his home bar. Mottainai ne?

1 comment:

Genevieve and Walter said...

Thanks for the tips! I was perplexed that they didn't seem to carry baking soda in Japanese supermarkets! But now I know.
Happy baking.