Sunday, February 28, 2010

Baking in Japan

I like to bake. I enjoy it, and I am pretty good at it - or at least I used to think so. I have had more baking flops the past year in Tokyo than I have had in the previous 10 years in Delaware.

Cookies, cakes, cupcakes, brownies, name a baked goodie and I have butchered it horribly in Japan. Cupcakes don't rise. Loaf cakes overflow the pan and burn on the oven floor. Cookies spread to three times their intended diameter, and then stick to the pan. Brownies don't cook and it's chocolate sludge, not a brownie. Although I have to admit, no one complained about that last mistake.

I have a number of theories about my surprise return to amateur hour.

First, I blame it on the flour. Most of my American/western recipes use all-purpose flour. Here in Japan we have cake flour and bread flour. So unless I am willing to pay around $20 for an imported bag of Gold Medal (I'm not), I have had to figure out the best way to approximate all- purpose flour. There are a number of substitutions on online recipe websites, and I have tried them. A neighbor told me she just used half bread flour, and half cake flour, and everything turned out fine. So that has been my latest technique.

Next, I blame the fat. I have no idea what the difference is, but Japanese butter behaves differently. It melts differently, it cooks differently, and nothing turns out the way you expect. Perhaps American butter is full of chemicals that stabilize it? I don't know. I have started buying something called "margarine for cake" at Costco that performs better when baking. It's probably full of trans fats, but since I can't read the label, I have managed to keep my guilt feelings at bay.

Lastly, I blame my problematic, unintuitive, and overly hot gas oven. I had never baked using a gas oven regularly until this year. Frankly, give me an electric oven any day. The gas is about 10-20 degrees too hot and there's a significant hot spot at the back of the oven.

Enough blame! I have finally, by trial and error, managed to find recipes that work best here and I am happy to say I have not had a (significant) baking error in months.

Here is a recipe for chocolate chip cookies that really works in Japan:

Modified from a recipe in The Search for the Perfect Chocolate Chip Cookie by Gwen Steege.

Chocolate Chip Cookies with Oil (I gave up on butter with cookies)

3 cups flour (1/2 bread flour, 1/2 cake flour)
1 teaspoon baking soda
1/2 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup white sugar
1 cup brown sugar
1 cup vegetable oil (do not substitute butter or shortening)
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
2 cups chocolate chips (or MandMs as I did today)
3/4 cup chopped nuts (Sam's class is nut-free, so I never use them now)

Combine flour, baking soda and salt; set aside.

Combine both the sugars and oil thoroughly using an electric mixer. Add eggs and vanilla and beat well. Add sifted ingredients to creamed mixture, 1 cup at a time, beating dough well after each addition of flour. Stir in chocolate chips and nuts. The dough will be very stiff.

Place heaping teaspoonfuls on ungreased baking sheets. Bake at 350°F for 7-8 minutes. Yields about 4-5 dozen.

And here's some food for thought about Japan: Did you know that there is no word for "bake" in Japanese? There's an approximation of the word bake that is used since the introduction of Western baked goods, but traditional Japanese cooking did not include baking. (Thank you to Elizabeth Andoh for that piece of trivia!)


  1. I just read your note below that said you may stop posting because you weren't sure anyone was reading - thank you for not stopping. I am a mother of 4, currently living in Omaha and likely have a move to Tokyo coming over the summer. We have lived out of the country, and your blog in reminding me of why we liked it - and should do it again. It is the most mundane ridiculas things that we miss - that made us laigh every single day - post-it's with gum - love that story. Thank you for continuing to write.

  2. Hey there. I was in an asian grocery store the other day and found Japanese flour (the yellow and red one)! I was so tempted to buy it but what on earth would I use it for? It was nostalgia. So nice to see it though.