For weeks now, while walking by the local produce stand just around the corner of my house on my way to work, I’ve looked longingly at the cartons of fresh figs nestled among the other bountiful fruits and vegetables. I could look at food all day, enchanted by the brilliant colors, earthy, exotic aromas and savoring the by turns rough and waxy-smooth tactility. But the figs captured me especially: soft, spongy globes of fuchsia and green and deep purple, stacked neatly in a plastic container. So finally, on Saturday, I gave in to irrational food purchases and walked out of the shop with two cartons–15 figs in all–without a thought as to how I might use such a quantity. As it turns out, there are a plethora of uses for fresh figs, and within minutes of returning home and browsing the web, my fingers were already itching to bake.
Cinnamon-anything makes me swoon with delight; it is my favorite spice and will forever keep me warm with memories of fall cider, apple pie, and the familiarity of back-to-school breakfast: oatmeal. This year marks a significant change in my school routine, however–I’m the one at the front of the classroom! Every week I visit a different local middle school, working alongside the resident Japanese Teachers of English to inspire generations of future world-achievers. Well, perhaps it isn’t quite that glamorous, but for the most part the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd year middle schoolers are bright and curious students, with only the occasional overly-rambunctious class. Considering how early my day starts, the commute to each school, and the energy it takes to control 35 antsy 14 year olds at any given moment, I’ve been making the most of my breakfasts these days.
Even the lingering heat from the hot, humid summer here couldn’t dissuade me from the comforting aroma of piping hot oatmeal and a cup of tea every morning. As I confessed in a prior post, a good breakfast can be the reason I get out of bed, and if it’s been a less-than-stellar day, at least I have a reason to persist until tomorrow’s breakfast and new beginning. Somewhat stock, I know, but since I’m on my way to acting three times my actual age, I might as well embrace the conventions of the honored senior citizens of this world. At least I have all my teeth to crunch on homemade granola if I felt like it :P
I know, I know, bruschetta is not by any means classifiable as a “baked good,” but I was so proud of my resourcefulness and daring nerve to try cooking something decidedly non-Japanese that I had to write about it. And in all honesty, it’s a notable achievement when I cook something worthwhile, because usually I’m so wrapped up in a baking project or incessantly reading recipes to inspire my next one, that often I find I haven’t a clue what I’m going to do about dinner when 5:00 comes around.
Back in the blissful, unhurried days of summer with Mr. Baker, I could always count on his incredible quick-thinking in the kitchen after a whole day neglecting plans for dinner in lieu of baking a strawberry tart. He continually amazes me with on-the-spot ideas for dinner like curried chicken and rice with dollops of ricotta, sauteed tilapia and veggie-filled pita pockets, or homemade pizza with huge slices of ripe tomatoes, mozzarella, and fresh basil. It goes to show how much like two peas in a pod we are: me, the precise, perfectionist baker, and he a natural with paring knife and grill.
Something about the beautiful windswept afternoon called for a summer’s end treat: warm, toasty blueberry muffins. It’s certainly not fall yet here in Nara, but my internal clock has already made the shift and my palette reflects the turn of the seasons, albeit a mental one. I’ve been lucky enough to see blueberries in the local supermarket every visit since my arrival here in August, and even now, mid-September, they still decorate the produce shelves.
Late afternoons always feel a little nostalgic to me, filled with waning sunlight, a reluctance to let go of the unhurried morning, and restlessness to start dinner despite knowing it’s far too early to wisely start a meal. And with any small does of nostalgia are the makings of full-fledged homesickness, which I’ve been able to put off with surprising success until now. It would have been easy, I admit, to give into loneliness and lament my humble single existence here, but I knew I’d have no one to blame but myself for spiraling into an incurable bad mood. Thank goodness I had the clarity of mind to remember that baking solves every unhappy problem! So before even a sniffle of sadness escaped me, I had whipped out bowls, measuring cups, flour, sugar, salt, and set the fresh blueberries to rinse in a bowl of cold water.
Being a foreigner in Japan has its ups and downs. It’s a little unnerving to be openly stared at on the train, while walking down the street, buying toilet paper in the supermarket–basic necessities, people!–but I just try and flash a big, friendly smile to dispel any preconceived notions about Americans. And for the most part, aside from the occasional gawking or exclaims of “foreigner!” by small children, my presence in the community is a welcome one. But the other day, I admit, my foreigner newness was flat-out taken advantage of. Not in any serious kind of manner, mind you! Just an unfortunate lack of common sense on my part and the sneaky ways of a street vendor.
I was on my way to the grocery store, my food list firmly clenched in my fist to ensure the quickest in-and-out run I could manage. Somehow I always get sidetracked in the produce aisle… In any case, I miraculously made it out of the store with my cheapest groceries bill yet, 1,993 yen for a weeks’ worth of foodstuff! It was with this spirit of smug satisfaction and general happiness that I happened by a street stand laden with baskets, bowls, and overflowing piles of fruits. Oh the splendor…A glowing mound of dried mangoes, succulent fresh figs and wrinkly dried ones, apricots, prunes, pineapple, even candied sweet potatoes and slow roasted tomatoes. I must have been drooling noticeably because the wily vendor sidled out from underneath the shade of his stall’s umbrella to take full advantage of my hesitation. He described everything in mouth-watering detail, and let me try anything I exclaimed over. Before long I had sampled about half of his merchandise, and I felt so guilty when he asked me what I would be purchasing that I sheepishly bought a royally overpriced bag of dried mango, apricots, prunes, and figs. Because who knows when he would have been back, right?? Only to find out a week later, while walking to the bank, that he frequents the city every weekend. *sigh*
I tend to justify a lot of my baking adventures as occasions to foist kitchen experiments on others, call them gifts, and win brownie points with friends, coworkers, and family. I think this is a brilliant strategy which allows me to both nurture my obsession and make others happy :) After my first baking attempt in my funny three-part appliance with the scones, I decided to move away from familiar baking territory and try something new, with a distinct Japanese flavor. I found the recipe in a wonderful little Japanese baking book all about tiny cakes and cookies. This book has to be the closest thing to a book-approximation of my personality that I have ever come across. It is a darling thing, with gorgeous photos of tiny rectangular cheesecakes, castella bars, crunchy matcha shortbread sticks, and even a sweet natto-bean sponge cake recipe. It’s taken me a full week to get through the whole thing, since it’s all in Japanese, but I have to say I am very proud of myself for reading a whole book in another language! Who’d have guessed the biggest source of my language immersion while living in Japan would be from my coworkers’ old cooking magazines and books on French baking?
So on Sunday of last weekend, I decided my excellent fellows at the Koriyama City Hall deserved another food gift, and on those grounds, I set out to make a kinako shortbread cookie. Kinako is a kind of sweet, delicate flour made from ground soybeans, often used to coat sticky warabimochi in Japanese cuisine. The finishing black and white sesame seeds add a beautiful contrast of color and add a satisfying crunch and salty bite to the nuttiness of the kinako. With a drizzle of milk-and-honey glaze, the cookies cooked to golden perfection and came out in a dazzle of crispy sticks. Continue reading
It may seem a small thing, but having a relaxed, homemade breakfast can make an entire day worthwhile. Breakfast may, in fact, be my favorite meal of the whole day. So this weekend, instead of sticking with the usual bowl of banana-cinnamon oatmeal, I decided to kick things up a notch. Thus my leisure breakfast of choice: French Toast.
It’s odd, though. As much as I love breakfast, I can’t think of the last time I made an anything-but-ordinary meal when it’s just me. It seems second nature to want to whip up pancakes, fancy eggs on toast, poached salmon and goat cheese, etc. with Mr. Baker or friends, but for some reason it’s never occurred to me to put the same time, effort and quality of foods into a breakfast for one. And now that I’m living on my own, and quite full-up with opportunities for breakfast with just me and my lonesome, it’s the perfect time to foster a little self-love and treat myself to a breakfast I’d be proud of sharing with others. I encourage everyone to care for the content and appearance of their meals as much as you would when entertaining. If you’d go to all that trouble for someone else, then certainly you yourself deserve it :)
Having said all that, I have to admit now that it’s really just a poor rationalization for my becoming a food-obsessed recluse. For this reason, and because I have no life, and am a recipe-hoarder, I spent my entire Friday night browsing my favorite food blogs for good French Toast ideas. Everyone had their own twists and styles–true to French taste, Chocolate & Zucchini offered a genuine pain perdu recipe using old Brioche; Smitten Kitchen advocated a sinful alcohol-infused baked creation–but I wanted something basic, not indecently bad for you, and using ingredients readily available in my town, where things like Brioche are altogether impossible to find. So I condensed the essentials from each recipe, curtailing the extravagances, and came up with an experimental formula. Continue reading
I finally did it–I mastered the mysterious microwave/toaster/oven contraption in my kitchen! It is now no longer a derelict object collecting crumbs and dust on my refrigerator; instead, I’ve given it a good cleaning and fiddled with every button and setting it has. Without food inside, of course.
Although my first attempt at baking with the microwave oven was a dismal disappointment (I’ve never made a more unsatisfactory batch of cookies–burnt, flat, and dry), I told myself that with some research, experimentation, and a willingness to possibly fail again, I would give it another go. And so, with all of the above Ganbare attitude I could muster, I ended up spending a lovely Thursday evening making a batch of my favorite stand-by baked good: scones.
The recipe for these scones is one of my absolute favorites. I’ve had it for almost seven years, given to me by the mother of a close friend in high school. They were a staple in her kitchen, and now they’re a fixed part of my cooking repetoir. I can’t think of how many times I’ve thrown together a batch as a last-minute dessert or thank-you gift. And in all the years I’ve had the recipe, and despite the countless times I’ve made it, I’ve hardly changed a thing. Although I did have to make some unavoidable substitutions the other night due to a decided lack of buttermilk in Japanese supermarkets (or at least my inability to read the labels >.<). But all it took was 1/2 cup of plain yogurt instead of buttermilk, and in fact, I found that the scones turned out even more moist and golden than with buttermilk. Possibly healthier too… But more than anything, I think it was my pain-staking blending of the butter (with a regular fork, no less!) that gave the scones a little something extra. Or at least I’d like to think so. Continue reading