I promised my class of 11-year-old Koreans that I would bake them a treat for memorizing how to introduce themselves.
They can now say in English: "Hello, my name is ... (they fill in their Korean name), but you can call me ... (American name). I am ... years old. I come from Yang Ju, South Korea. I like ... ('computer games' is the most popular response. Others include 'basketball,' 'pizza,' 'my family,' and 'to read a book'). It's very nice to meet you."
Baking American treats was something I had anticipated doing for students when I came to South Korea to teach English as a second language (ESL), so it came as a surprise to find that my apartment did not come furnished with an oven. Instead, apartments typically include a two-burner gas stovetop, a microwave, and a refrigerator.
And since a microwave is simply a defroster to me, the solution I found for the baking problem turned out to be to buy a tabletop convection oven. It was on sale in Seoul and after much discussion, the sales clerk and manager at the megastore there agreed it could be delivered to Yang Ju (an hour north of Seoul). With serious faces that indicated that they were pretty sure the sale would tank when the customer was faced with a hefty delivery charge, they told me it would cost an additional ... $7. The last delivery I had in the United States from a store in Nashville to Cookeville (pretty close to the same distance as Seoul is from Yang Ju) cost $150. The oven arrived two days later.
It came with an owner's manual that explained how everything worked and included plenty of tasty looking recipes – all written in Korean, of course. So I relied on the Internet to teach me how to use my new appliance. But I did not need the World Wide Web to realize that the first thing one needs when baking cream cheese brownies is cream cheese. Korean grocery stores have dairy sections, but they feature mainly a huge variety of yogurt, some soft cheeses, butter, and a few choices of milk – my favorite being "Einstein milk," which makes the assurance on every carton that "Einstein Milk is Natural DHA milk secreted from milk cows."
One side of the carton, written entirely in English, reads: "Using advanced biotechnology, Einstein is a completely different non-fortified natural DHA milk produced directly from milk cows. Einstein is produced only in designated farms with exceptionally good natural surroundings where healthy milk cows are screened and cared for with special feed to maintain their top conditions. The stringent quality control system that no others can imitate helps maintain the value only Einstein has. Milk for your precious family – choose the best. Einstein. 100% natural milk with no other added ingredients."
The dairy section of my local grocery does include Camembert and brie cheeses, Philadelphia soft cream cheese in regular and strawberry flavors, and some products I can't identify that are probably cheese related. There are no other cheeses: no mozzarella, cheddar, Swiss, Colby, etc., although Velveeta is displayed in a department-store grocery here.
Yoplait and Dannon are both popular brands here, but Korea is getting to be known worldwide for its own yogurt (probably because of those happily secreting cows), so yogurt drinks and snacks take up most of the dairy section. They are offered in surprisingly small bottles and containers – some that appear to contain only a swallow or two for the purchaser.
To find solid cream cheese, I had to visit a Western-style supermarket in Seoul. This is also the only store I have found that carries chocolate chips, pecans, and vanilla extract.
I can get to it by taking the No. 1 train to Seoul, changing to the No. 3, and changing again to the No. 6. Then I take a bus up an impossibly steep hill and walk two blocks and down a flight of stairs to the basement-level Haddon Market – where a box of Rice Krispies costs $14, and the price for everything else is at least double the amount we pay in the States.
So I made my trek to Seoul and came home laden with cream cheese, pretzels, and Campbell's Soup. There is something very comforting about opening a kitchen cupboard and seeing the familiar red-and-white Campbell's Soup can. (Andy Warhol got it right.)
I was curious about the reaction the kids would have to something baked with cream cheese, since cheese is not part of their daily diet. The recipe I found online gave a 25-minute baking time. When I took the pan out and cut into the rich chocolate and cream cheese mixture, I ended up with 30 squarish, brown puddles. But I had to take them to school anyway or I'd eat them all myself.
I figured the kids would like them if they could get beyond the way they looked.
As it turned out, there was no need to worry. Only one boy wouldn't try them – until his friends gobbled them up. One little girl fell in love. Cream cheese gobs have become her favorite food.
As always, when I handed out the goodies, the immediate response from most kids – even before anyone tried one was, "Two, Teacher?"
In all, it was a good reward for their work – although the director and his wife looked a little puzzled at the concoction when I shared a few with them.
I did tell them, "There wasn't enough time to bake these through, but I brought them anyway because most people like gooey brownies." I'm not sure they were able to translate the word gooey – but they smiled, tentatively tried one and said, "Ahhh, chocolate."