Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Memories of Japan: Apple Pie and Cheesecake Gone Wrong

Japanese gas-powered convection oven
Today is Wednesday, January 22, 2014.

The kind of pastry they have in Japan is filo pastry, puff pastry, or choux pastry, mostly.  They don't really have what I would consider a true type of American-style pie.  When I taught English conversation to private students in Osaka, I often told people about our apple pie, and taught them the expression "as American as apple pie."  I had no idea how much of an impression I had made until the mother of one of my young students showed up at my door one day lugging her gas oven. When I asked her why she brought me her oven, she told me that her little girl had come home and bragged that the teacher knew how to make a real American apple pie.  Now, she wanted me to prove it.  

Let it be known that Japanese women can be hard as nails, and they really know how to throw down the gauntlet.  The ball was in my court.

Typical two-burner gas stove
I have to back up a bit and tell you that Japanese women don't bake.  They boil, broil, sauté, and fry, but they don't bake.  That's because they don't have convection ovens.  Most Japanese kitchens don't even have room for an oven.  Instead, they have a stainless steel counter space where a two-burner gas hotplate can be installed.  Most of these hotplate stoves have a small, shallow broiling oven for broiling fish or making toast, but that's it. 

Some women do have steam ovens or convection ovens that run on gas, but they tend to be the size of a medium-sized American microwave, and they are meant to stand on a counter top.  Some people who have these ovens don't even keep them hooked up unless they actually need to use them, because they take up so much space, something that is sorely lacking, even in the kitchens of large houses.  

Typical Japanese kitchen, with the 2-burner stove at left.
Ovens are considered a luxury, rather than a necessity, in a Japanese kitchen, so people who had them tended to be the ones with discretionary income.  I often wondered what these oven owners actually made in their ovens, because other than little individual pastries and "Christmas cakes," Japanese people don't actually eat much cake, and of course they always buy it ready-made.  Their cuisine has nothing like the casseroles and hot dishes that we routinely bake in the United States, nor do they bake meat loaf or other meat dishes.  Having an oven in Japan is like having a specialty item such as a waffle iron – very useful for making one or two things, but otherwise it just takes up space.

I never did have an oven while in Japan.  I have no memory of my little student asking me whether I could make apple pie, but she must have, and I no doubt told her that I couldn't because I didn't have an oven.  She knew that her mom had one, and she must have asked her mom to make an apple pie.  Since most Japanese women have no idea how to do this, the neighbor lady obviously thought of the next best thing: take the oven over to the English teacher's place. Let her make the pie.

Really, me and my big mouth... I had never actually made an apple pie in my life.  Why had I made such a big deal about it?  On the other hand, I had seen my grandmother and my mother make fruit pies many times.  How hard could it be?

In Japan, the answer was "pretty hard." 

If you don't read Japanese, it can be
pretty hard to tell that this is flour.
My biggest problem was now solved.  I had a borrowed oven, complete with a rubber hose for the gas.  All I had to do was hook it up, which I asked my husband to do.  

Next, the recipe.  Well, that was easy, as my good old Betty Crocker cookbook with the foodstained pages and the cover already falling off had been included among the books that I schlepped all the way to Japan.  Recipe: check. 

Then the ingredients: those were a little harder. Since women didn't do much baking, there was no such thing as a pre-baked pie crust shell or canned fruit pie filling to be had anywhere in Japan.  I would have to make everything from scratch.

Items such as butter and milk were widely available, although the milk in Japan is a little sweeter there than it is here.  That's because a very high percentage of the Japanese population lacks the necessary enzyme (lactase) to break down the lactose sugar in dairy products. As a nation, they are what we would call "intolerant" to dairy products.  In fact, almost all Asians have this issue, as do most Native Americans, and up to 80% of African Americans and Latinos also experience lactose intolerance.  It appears that cow's milk is less of a "perfect food" than the U.S. dairy industry would like us to believe.  It's certainly much kinder to white folks' digestive systems, even though, as you may be aware, some white people have this digestive issue, as well.  The solution in Japan was to sell milk with the lactose already broken down into simpler sugars called glucose and galactose.  That's essentially what the product called "Lactaid" is - milk that has been processed so that lactose is already broken down, and that's why Lactaid tastes sweeter than milk straight from the cow.  If you want to know what Japanese milk tastes like, drink some Lactaid. Unfortunately, a normal recipe for pie does not call for either milk or butter, so my local grocery store was not a big help for ingredients. 

Baking powder
Nowadays, I have read that you can find baking essentials such as flour, baking powder, granulated sugar, and chocolate chips in a regular grocery store, but they come in really small packages and are very expensive.  Thirty-five years ago, you couldn't find these items anywhere except at an import store.  I can't remember, now, exactly where the "American" grocery store was, but it was at least a two-hour train ride away – I remember that much, and the ingredients were hideously expensive.  

I didn't have a pie tin, rolling pin or pastry cutter, so I invested in those.  Flour was sold in impossibly small packages, not nearly as big as the bags available at home, and I wanted to  have enough flour that if I messed up the first time with the pie crust, I could try again, so I bought way too much.  (This is the story of my life.) 

If you guessed vanilla, good for you.
Shortening was another thing on my list.  Even though Japanese women do a lot of deep-fat frying, they always use liquid cooking oil, rather than shortening. Lard wasn't even an option. 

For the filling, I didn't have a great deal of choice in apples, so I bought what was available.  Fuji apples (not named for the mountain, but for the town of Fujisaki, where they are grown, in the Tōhoku (northern) area of the main island) were first brought to market in 1962.  These apples are fairly sweet, rather than tart, so although they are not generally used in the U.S. for pies, they will work.  I did not know about pre-baking apples, but I did know that I would have to slice them pretty thin in the pie.

I also bought some lemon juice, granulated sugar, brown sugar, nutmeg and cinnamon.  Back in those days, normal groceries weren't that expensive, either in the United States or in Japan, but these specialty items must have cost me over two hundred dollars, plus it took two hours to get to the store, two hours to get back, and a good while to find all the ingredients on my list, so it was pretty much a whole day's job just to do the shopping.

Back at home I realized that I would have to use my kitchen table as there was no real counter space in my kitchen.  I made the pie crust according to directions as well as I could, but I wondered if the difference in altitude was an issue.  (Osaka is only about 273 feet above sea level.  Southwestern Minnesota ranges from 745 to 2000 feet.)  

I preheated the oven while I made the filling.  I cut the apples and arranged the slices in the crust, then covered the pie with a top crust, remembering  my mom's instructions about sealing off the edge of the pie crust and cutting a little vent in the center.  Then I put the pie in the oven and waited.  

The day I made the pie, I had a surprise visitor.  My friend Mitsuya Amano, who lived in Tokyo, was in Osaka on business and called to tell me he was coming to visit.  Great!  I had a "company dessert" all ready to go. 

The pie was done by the time Mitsuya arrived, and I had called my student's mother to tell her to send her daughter over to taste the pie.  She brought her little sister, as I recall.  I cut everybody a slice of pie and one for myself, and the tasting began.  

Dead silence.

Finally, Mitsuya said, "Mmmm.... pretty good!" though puckered lips.  The girls were not eating their pie, either.  I tasted mine.  It was... tart, very, very tart.  Why didn't it taste like my mother's pie?  Mitsuya started laughing. 

Bag of sugar.
"Did you forget the sugar?" he asked. 

Well, sure, that's exactly what I had forgotten.  I remembered putting lemon juice on the apples, but when I looked at my expensive packages of brown sugar, granulated sugar, cinnamon and nutmeg, they were still unopened!  I hastily sprinkled some granulated sugar on the pie, but it didn't really help. The girls went home, and probably told their mother that American pie was not at all what it was cracked up to be. 

I cleaned the lady's oven and returned it, thanking her profusely, and explaining that I had bungled the recipe.  I should probably have tried to make another pie and present it to the neighbor as thanks for the use of the oven, but I didn't.  In fact, I never made a pie again.  Ever.

The cheesecake was another story.  

Once a week I went to the home of a doctor's wife, Mrs. Kitagawa, who asked me to teach her and her children English.  In fact, she wanted me to teach not only her kids but a couple of neighbor kids, as well, in a small group. 

She scheduled a private lesson for herself in mid-afternoon, with plenty of time after the lesson for the two of us to enjoy some coffee and cake with "free conversation."  During this time, the mother of the other kids apparently picked all the kids up from school and kept them at her home until it was time for the children's lesson. 

I had a great time doing these lessons.  I enjoyed visiting the Kitagawas' beautiful home and chatting with the doctor's wife about her passion, Japanese flower arranging (ikebana), in the intervening time between her lesson and the kids' lesson.  Every week, I would see different arrangements displayed in the genkan (entryway), as well as in the tokonoma (recessed niche) in the main room of the house, and I asked her all kinds of questions about how she had achieved her arrangements.

One day Mrs. Kitagawa told me that she had bought an oven, and that she wanted to learn how to make cheesecake.  She said she had a recipe, and we read it over at one of her lessons, to be sure she understood it.  She promised me that we would have real cheesecake at the next lesson.  

They didn't make what I considered to be real, New York-style cheesecake in Japan, any more than they made real American pie, so I was excited about the possibility of eating something that I missed from my home country.  I knew from experience that Mrs. Kitagawa would have to go to a lot of trouble and expense to get all the ingredients for a real cheesecake, but I also knew that she certainly had the money for it, as well as the time.

The next week, she proudly served coffee made from real coffee beans that she ground herself – another thing that the vast, vast majority of Japanese never had at home.  (Most of them thought that Nescafé instant coffee was the bees' knees.)  When the coffee was made, she brought it to me on a fancy tray, along with her homemade cheesecake.  It looked pretty good, and I was anxious to try it.  

I cut myself a piece and took a bite.  Whatever this was, it did not taste like cheesecake.  It tasted like... rubber!  It felt like rubber in my mouth, too.  It was hard for me to mask my shock and dismay, but I continued to chew slowly, hoping the dreaded thing would somehow make it down my throat.  Mrs. Kitagawa watched my face intently, immediately realizing that something was wrong.  

"It isn't very good, is it," she said, apologetically. "What did I do wrong?" 

"What kind of cheese did you use?" 

"Melty," she said. This is pronounced "meh-ru-chi."

You have to understand that the product called Melty was processed cheese, like our product in the United States, called Velveeta.  You might possibly use this for grilled cheese sandwiches, but not cheesecake!

"Oh, my God, you were supposed to use cream cheese!"  Now I realize that Mrs. Kitagawa probably had no idea what real cream cheese was, as it was not a well-known product in Japan.

"I couldn't find any. I thought Melty would be OK."

"Did you bake the cheesecake?" 


You could tell.  If I had rolled up the hardened cheese in a ball and thrown it at the wall, it would have bounced back. Mrs. Kitagawa was mortified, but we had a good laugh over it, and I assured her that the expensive coffee was very good. 

And you can be sure that I told her my apple pie story.  :-)

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