The Battle of the Bars

They can’t say they weren’t warned.

I begged them to reconsider. I told them, in no uncertain terms, that it was outside the scope of my expertise. They laughed. They didn’t listen.

As far as I know, this is a uniquely Japanese problem. In the United States, when someone tells you they can’t do something, we generally take such an admission at face value. In Japan, however, even if one is highly proficient at a skill, it is customary to downplay that ability for the sake of humility. Regardless of skill level, Japanese speakers of English routinely go out of the way to belittle their own competency, even though the conversation itself tells me everything I need to know about their degree of familiarity with the language. In an American, I might see this tendency as disingenuous, the affectation of one taken to fishing for compliments. But in Japan, it’s not false modesty as much as cultural programming: boastfulness is held in particularly low regard, even by those who have a reason to be so.

There’s usually nothing wrong with this–it makes for a society general devoid of blowhards–except when actual shortcomings are mistaken for culturally-codified modesty. I ran afoul of this miscommunication last year, when I got roped into an impromptu gymnastics lesson with an instructor who refused to believe I couldn’t do handstand. And it reared its head again two weeks ago, when the teachers at one of my elementary schools asked me to lead the students in a cooking class.

At first, I tried to explain that such was out of the question, but they insisted on the grounds that, “Well, you cook for yourself, don’t you?” Yes, I admitted, but that doesn’t make my food fit for public consumption. After all, I come from the land of the “Garbage Plate,” and most of the food that comes out of my kitchen is better suited to a trough than a plate. But in spite of disclaimers and caveat emptors, they weren’t taking no for an answer.

Fortunately, I had an ace up my sleeve: my mother, who in addition to being a strong cook is a genuinely world-class pastryist. After receiving her counsel, I picked a recipe that seemed idiot-proof: toffee bars.

Now, I have no idea why these are called “toffee” bars. A cursory search for “toffee” reveals that it is made by caramelizing sugar, a step which is conspicuously absent from the recipe for toffee bars. But we’ll leave that for the big wigs at Toffee Magazine to understand–I can’t be bothered with such trifles. (Although from the looks of it, the people in charge of Toffee Magazine are probably more concerned with ironically wearing their over-sized wigs than they are with the finer points of what is and is not toffee.)

Toffee or not, though, there were hurdles to clear. For one thing, the school was paying for all the materials and ingredients, which while very generous of them meant that I had to prepare a list of said in Japanese. With help, I was able to do so, going so far as to include step-by-step baking instructions in Japanese. When I heard nothing further on the subject, I assumed that my directions had been understood, and that everything was in order.

Initially, my optimism seemed well-founded. Arriving at the school, I spoke with the teacher coordinating the class, who said nothing to suggest that anything was amiss. But when I arrived in the kitchen, it didn’t take long for problems to emerge.

One of the big differences between kitchens in Japan and those typical of the U.S. is the absence of an oven. Very few Japanese homes have ovens, instead relying on multifunction microwaves and rice cookers (???) for simple baking jobs. Anticipating this could be a problem, I had asked the teacher if the school’s kitchen had an oven, which I was told it did.

What I should have asked is, “How many ovens do you have?” Because when I walked into the kitchen, it was immediately apparent that all 30 students would be sharing the same (small) oven. Rather quickly, it became clear that the teacher with whom I had coordinated the class, while having read the recipe’s instructions and gone about purchasing the ingredients, hadn’t read them carefully enough to consider the logistics of what their execution would require, vis-a-vis the time-oven-space continuum. An inauspicious start. (To her credit, she is a terrific teacher, and has enough on her plate as it is.)

In adherence to the list of ingredients, we fared better, but as they are wont to do, the limitations of rural Japan imposed themselves. There was no cooking spray–only a jug of canola oil. Unable to get chocolate chips, the teacher had bought chocolate sprinkles, which are not the same. In lieu of dark or semi-sweet chocolate bars, she had bought milk chocolate. And, perhaps facing budgetary constraints, the total chocolate purchased amounted to just over 1/3 of what the recipe called for. The materials suffered likewise. Instead of real, non-stick baking pans, we had flimsy aluminum pans, the kind you usually see on picnic tables at family reunions loaded with mac and cheese.

But. But but but. Praise be to Ron Popeil, god of kitchen implements, for we had hand-mixers.

You see, while simple to make, toffee bars require a considerable measure of elbow grease in that they involve “creaming” butter and sugar. Not being a baker, I had to google “creaming” to see what it was, something I recommend doing with your SafeSearch filter on. Needless to say, it is taxing under the best circumstances, but truly arduous if done by hand. But with hand-mixers ready to deploy, the winds seemed to be rising at our backs.

Fool! Did you think it was going to be that easy?

Their brightly colored boxes and sweet racing stripes inspired a false sense of confidence in the horsepower of our mixers. Within minutes, one had broken, and two others were rapidly succumbing to their thick, buttery task. As I surveyed the kitchen, I saw students furiously pounding the batter by hand, hammering it with whisks, spatulas, and potato mashers. Sugar. Everywhere sugar.

Ron Popeil, why have you forsaken me?

The situation was becoming dire, and emergency measures had to be taken. From the staff room, troop reinforcements were sent up to help with the creaming. The two remaining, highly-functional hand-mixers began to be passed around double-time, while on the outskirts of the fray, students were mobilized to begin melting their inadequate chocolate supply ahead of schedule to save time.

There were casualties. I don’t like to talk about it. Of the five baking pans of finished batter, only two of them made it into and out of the oven by the end of the period. The other three were… left behind. And not a day goes by I don’t think of them and wonder what they might have tasted like.

In the end, though, toffee triumphed over adversity. Or, I dunno, I guess it isn’t actually toffee. Why the hell are they called toffee bars?! Whatever. Anyway, there was enough to go around, and all the students and teachers got to try some. Although pitifully lacking in chocolate, they still tasted more or less the way I remember, which is to say, damn good.

But today–a day which will live in infamy–I fly my oven mitt at half-mast, in memory of unbaked toffee, or whatever, taken before its time. And I make this solemn vow: