Spring made a fleeting appearance last week in the early plum blossoms and briefest of warm spells, but this week winter seems to be dragging its feet and making its ill-humor known through bouts of cold rain. For a few days, however, I made a short escape of the dreariness and took a holiday to visit a dear friend in Yokohama, Kanagawa Prefecture. On Friday I boarded the local train to Kyoto, where I spent a leisurely hour browsing the many wonderful cafes and shops in the crowded station. After an extravagant late-morning meal of darjeeling tea, matcha ice cream, and a chestnut and creme de marron muffin (a less than wholesome, but completely satisfying lunch), I set off to catch my 1:00 Shinkansen train, ascending escalator upon escalator to finally arrive at the bright platform, encased in clear glass roofs above the whole of Kyoto station.
For five wonderful days, I had the pleasure of being a guest among my friend and her family. With a daughter nearing three in May and a ten-month old baby boy, there was never a dull moment or lack of endless entertainment at hand in the form of picture books, crafts, or make-believe with a multitude of stuffed animals. On my arrival Friday evening, we celebrated with a fabulous home-cooked Japanese meal, champagne, and beautiful, exquisite little cakes my friend’s husband picked up on his way from work. Over the next few days, with kids in tow and me the happy pack-animal to dispense sippy cups, snacks, toys, or hand wipes at any moment, we traveled to Mitaka to see the magical Studio Ghibli art museum, drove to historical Kamakura to stand beneath (and inside!) the bronze Buddha Statue, strolled along the Yokohama harbor, and even immersed ourselves in the bulky overstock haven of Costco!
While a week of travel is undoubtedly pleasant change of scenery and pace, for a homebody like me, who is as likely to enter willingly into social outings as a fish is to live among birds, the greatest pleasure of the entire trip was in being a (albeit temporary) member of a family. We wrestled unruly kids into pajamas, reasoned with a toddler over what to eat for lunch, read Curious George at least nine times, and savored the very few quiet moments just after both children had fallen asleep, though we three adults were not long to follow!
Among our big city escapades was a walk to the famous Chinatown, marked by a huge multi-colored and gilded gate. The streets were thronging with people and filled with so many foreign sights and unusual, spicy smells that it truly felt as though we’d entered another country. Though the proliferation of meat and fried dishes made me somewhat reluctant to try any of the street stall foods, I needed no prodding to enter the sweets shops, enchanted by signs of golden moon cakes, bean-filled pastries, and marzipan confections. I bought an armful of various cakes with coconut, dried fruit, bean, or nut fillings and for an afternoon treat to take back to the seaside park. The moon cakes were dense, thick, and rich with flavor, and the soft pastry dough embossed with a lovely pattern.
It was these cakes, and their intensely fruity and spicy flavor, that drew me into thinking about baking a similarly heady, dense quick bread. And it just so happened one of my Japanese cookbooks had a basic recipe for a dried fruit bread that I’d been eager to try out. Though I had to make do with the only dried fruits I had on hand (a mix containing apricot, pineapple, and raisins) instead of the called-for figs and cranberries, with the help of a little rum-infusion any misgivings I had about the substituted fruits were quite forgotten :) Despite the fact that the recipe uses less than a 1/2 cup of oil and minimal processed sugars, it is a rich bread with a wonderfully sweet aroma! If you prefer less of the rum flavor to come through in the baked bread, omit the microwaving step and only soak the fruits in rum overnight or for a couple hours instead.
Fruit and Nut Cake
80 grams flour
40 grams whole wheat flour
20 grams almond powder
1 tsp baking powder
100 ml milk
50 ml neutral oil
50 ml maple syrup
20 grams brown sugar
40 grams walnuts
100 grams dried fruit (figs, apricots, cranberries, raisins, etc.)
2 Tbs rum
In a microwave-safe bowl, combine dried fruit and rum, cover with plastic wrap and microwave for 1 minute. Strain and set aside. In a small frying pan, heat walnuts over medium-low heat until fragrant and colored, about 2 minutes. Preheat oven to 180˚ C (350˚F).
In a small bowl, add milk, oil, syrup, and brown sugar; whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, combine flours, almond powder, and baking powder and stir. Add wet ingredients to dry flour mixture, and stir until just incorporated. Fold in dried fruits and walnuts. In a parchment-lined small loaf pan (I use a particularly tiny 6 x 8 x 21 cm pan), pour batter and spread evenly with a spatula. Bake for 35 minutes, or until golden and a tester comes out clean. If the loaf begins to brown quickly on top, cover with foil to prevent burning for the remainder of the baking time. Cool on a wire rack before slicing.