cream scones, french almond cake, and more flowers


At the risk of calling the existence of this very blog into question, there are some moments of unparalleled food pleasures that cannot be adequately described in words. This past Sunday was such a day, one so filled with wonderful meals, happy spring sights, and lively conversation that I feel I can hardly do the memories justice in simple linguistic devices. The surest way to convey the same delight and happy atmosphere would be to recreate it in more decadent lunches, suppers, and afternoon teas, of course! At the very least, I invite every reader to stop and smell the roses, as they say, and take in the littler pleasures of spring and the new season.

Sunday morning dawned with more elegance than spring usually affords: birds chirping, sunlight filtering in through the curtains, cheerful cries from young children on their way to the still on-going cherry blossom festival. Even after a rather sleepless night (coffee after dinner–never again), I awoke bright-eyed and positively giddy with excitement for the afternoon lunch I had with the same wonderful two ladies of Ichi Hana flowershop where I bought the first of the season’s sakura. And since there’s nothing more lovely than showing gratitude through baked goods, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to whip up a batch of fresh cream scones to take with.  Continue reading

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matcha shortbread squares


I’ve long been itching to try a matcha-flavored confection, not only because I’m exceedingly fond of the tea itself, but also due to the fact that I currently live in the very heartland of green tea and tea-flavored sweets. Of all the various possibilities of matcha treats–cookies, tiramisu, puddings, trifles, to name a few–I settled on a more simple but classic method: shortbread. It had been far too long since I’d made a batch of the crisp, flaky, buttery cookies, and having prized upon Clotilde’s own especially tempting sugar-rolled recipe over at C&Z, the call of the tea leaves summoned me to my kitchen, irregardless of the fact that it was already past nine on a Monday night.
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lemon curd in three variations

When life hands you lemons…
 

I have a newfound appreciation for the old adage on lemons. With the less-than-desirable circumstances I found myself in over the weekend, in my case a defunct oven and a Saturday full of rain and gloom, it seemed decidedly defeatist to take it lying down (albeit on the couch cradling a mug of tea and the delightful French Women Don’t Get Fat), so I made my own sunshine in the kitchen: tangy and sweet lemon curd! And not just the usual citrus affair, but three exceedingly delicious versions, all with a simple last-minute addition. Very much taken by Clotilde’s lemon and almond curd, from the lovely Chocolate & Zucchini, in similar form I added ground almonds to the finished curd for an even creamier spread, and also tried stirring in a handful of unsweetened coconut flakes for another variation. Obligated to taste-test the results, like any good chef, the pale yellow lemon-almond curd was by far my standout favorite among the three, truly a match made in lemon curd heaven.  

With a preliminary taste of the creamy spread on an english muffin half, I was so arrested by the tang and zest alighting on my tongue that I wondered if perhaps I’ve let winter linger a little too long in my kitchen. It was a good thing the lemons came three-to-a-bag, because now I can’t resist dashing off a fresh squeeze on everything–fried eggs, sauteed spinach, lentils, a bowl of blueberries and yogurt. In fact, my readiness to apply lemon without reserve to any and all things inspired a lighter take on eggs benedict for an easy weekend or weekday breakfast:
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raisin-studded irish soda bread + very unfortunate news in the kitchen

Although it’s nearly two week’s after the holiday, I’ve been enjoying the fruits of my belated tribute to the Irish: sweet, dense soda bread.  Sadly, with nothing to recommend St. Patrick’s Day here in the land of the rising sun, and even despite my quarter-self given to Irish heritage, March 17th quite passed my notice entirely! But when I began my research on locating a suitable soda bread recipe, it seemed the culinary world had not forgotten the happy green day as I had, and it was a pleasure to peruse the assorted loaves: some craggly, some smooth, some studded with currants or nuts or laced with sharp caraway seeds, but all engraved with a deep cross on top. Yet the more loaves I visually devoured, I was surprised to find that the rich, butter and eggs glorified scone version I thought to be the traditional soda bread seemed to be actually more of an American embellishment. The most basic recipe I found claiming authenticity was simply four ingredients: flour, salt, baking soda, and buttermilk. I was genuinely curious then to find out where, in this spectrum of soda breads, the true, authentic Irish notion lay…

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I sent an inquiring email to my good friend, a fellow JET and Irishman himself, to ask his opinion and personal taste in a food marked with such national pride. And in his experience, growing up with homemade loaves from his grandmother and mother’s kitchen, using eggs did not make it any less authentic by any means. He surmised that eggs and/or butter were traditionally not used due to poverty in the country, rather than particulars of taste. Using butter and eggs would certainly have been a luxury at that time, I imagine.

So, in the end I decided to work from a basic recipe and took only modest liberties with some add-ins: continuing with the dried-fruits-in-breads-kick, I tossed in a generous quarter-cup of raisins, mixed a tablespoon of milk with yogurt for buttermilk, and added a scant tablespoon of sugar for some added sweetness. And since there’s only one of me, I cut down the recipe’s original call for 4 cups of flour down to just over one :) And out of the oven came a beautiful, golden, raisin-full loaf of sweet soda bread, perfect for breakfast spread with a spoonful of the homemade marmalade, its citrus-punch mellowed with a few days in the fridge and cutting the sweetness of the bread delightfully.  Continue reading

fruit and nut cake + travels to yokohama

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!  Continue reading

oatmeal raisin muffins + regrets for an overly long absence

It is a failure of a blogger indeed to be dormant on one’s own site for almost three months! I offer my sincere apology for neglecting the kind readership that has encouraged me in this fledgling blogging enterprise. I admit, it wasn’t that the baking had stopped, but rather that the time between freshly baked, out-of-my-oven and wrapped, into the hands of others was cut tremendously short. Our lovely Saint Valentine’s day, for example, was a case-in-point: six dozen baked overnight and dipped in chocolate, packaged and given away the very next day!

Why six dozen cookies? Why the rush, you ask? Well, in Japan, Valentine’s day is somewhat different from the flower and box-of-chocolates tradition in America: it’s a day exclusively for girls and women to make homemade treats and truffles for friends, boyfriends, supervisors, coworkers, teachers, or in my case, all of the above. I should have taken advantage of the incredible ready-made boxes of exquisite fine chocolates–ganache, milk, dark, and white chocolates of all shapes, designs, and sizes–to dole out to my many kind fellows, but no, as a steadfast and silly stubborn goose, I refused all commercial help and made the darned things myself, all seventy-two hearty-shaped cookies. Next year, I’ll trade in my pride for a peaceful, stress-free St Valentine’s Day.  Continue reading

persimmon sponge cake

Anyone who is treated to a dinner party is a lucky duck indeed. Anyone who is treated to three full-out dinner parties in one week is far too popular for her own good. I was convinced my life here in Japan was already too good to be true, and last week’s marathon of social events only added to the surreal beatitude. 

On Monday, God said, Let there be drinks at a local bar owned by a kind Hawaiian, and so delicious kahlua-milk drinks were had. 

On Tuesday, God said, Let there be unending plates of sushi, sashimi, fried squid, eel, mussels, sting-ray, cod-roe, octopus, and innumerable rounds of sake, and so there was ceaseless food and drink among Junior High School teachers and the Vice Principal. 

On Wednesday, God said, Let there be a feast of thanks among expat friends, and so there was turkey, stuffing, pasta, salad, mashed potatoes, bread, cheese, wine, Bailey’s, coffee, and pumpkin pie

On Thursday, God said, Take a break and eat raw vegetables, and so there were carrot sticks and a baked sweet potato.

On Friday, God said, Let your coworkers shower you with platters of crab, rare $100 mushrooms, marinated chicken from France, spaghetti with truffles, risotto, fresh cuts of beef and pork, white wine, plum wine, beer, and a blueberry cake, and so each person consumed half of his or her own weight in food delicacies. 

On Saturday, God said, Let there be a repeat of Friday except for at lunchtime, and so more exquisite food was consumed in an indulgent fashion. 

On Sunday, God said, Run in a 5k race, and give thanks to all those around you, and so a persimmon sponge cake was made and distributed in gratitude.  Continue reading

thanksgiving pumpkin pie

Traditions have a way of sneaking into our lives and customs without our really ever being aware, and then as soon as you’re somewhere other than home, you realize the irreplaceable feeling of being with family for the holidays. And although I couldn’t recreate the charming sibling banter nor the desperate vying for story-telling over the dinner table, I could maker sure my Nihon-Thanksgiving did not lack its most critical element: pumpkin pie! 
 With the help of an expat-run meat-bartering website, a turkey was ordered, a location was set, and thus was born a multi-cultural JET feast of thanks on the conveniently timed holiday on the 23rd. There were meat pies from Australia, salad from New Zealand, pasta from Scotland, chocolates form Ireland, and bread and cheese from England. I eagerly volunteered to represent America by bringing stuffing and pumpkin pie.
I admit though, I was a little troubled at first with the prospect of trying to live up to Thanksgiving tradition in a foreign country. It was a scary enough prospect to find the perfect recipe, let alone track down all of the ingredients and fixings. The pie tin merited trips to four different stores, and the pumpkin puree was a lucky find at an international store at the Osaka train station weeks ago. As for the recipe, I was lost in a maze of online articles, blogs and cooking magazines each proclaiming to possess the best, the classic, the just-like-grandma-makes-it prizewinning pie recipe. My Mom swears by Libby’s classic pumpkin pie recipe, the one straight from the back of the can of puree, but I couldn’t bring myself to go on another manhunt for evaporated milk. Instead, with a few tweaks and additions, I decided on a more old-fashioned recipe, one replete with cinnamon, cardamom, nutmeg, and cloves (sound familiar?) and finished with a delightful kick of freshly grated ginger. Continue reading

honey-rum tea cake

This cake means so much more to me than just another successful translation from the Japanese baking book I bought–it means I finally have a real friend here to give it to! I came home from work Friday afternoon with the thoughts of a crazy person: wishing, praying to just skip over Saturday entirely and wake up to Sunday’s lunch, shopping, and dinner date with my new friend from school, Mina. We got along like two peas in a pod from day one at Koriyama West Junior High School, where she teaches English, and where I was visiting as the resident Assistant Language Teacher for four days last week. Somehow our discussions in the teacher’s room veered from the weather and Japanese studying to confessions of love for ice cream, Sex and the City, J-Pop, and a mutual commiseration over our long-distance boyfriends. When we realized we live just ten minutes away from each other on opposite sides of the Koriyama train tracks, it was like a match made in heaven!

So when Mina asked me out for lunch at a Thai restaurant in Nara, followed by photo-booth pictures, yogurt parfaits, window-shopping, and homemade dinner at her parent’s house, I nearly died of happiness. And it was a good thing after all that Saturday paid no heed to my hopes of expedition, because I was determined to bake my feelings of joy, relief, and bonhomie at making such a great friend into the perfect hostess gift: a lightly sweet, fragrant tea cake. Continue reading

bare-bones toasted pumpkin seeds

Halloween has come and gone, and in its wake I’ve been left with a pair of Minnie-Mouse ears and battered prints of pictures featuring trick-or-treaters, costumes, Jack-O-Lanterns, and general good-old American Harvest-time fun. But aside from my now-abject educational props, I feel as though I’ve really made a lasting contribution to the Japanese classroom via cross-cultural exchange: I carved three darling Jack-O-Lanterns out of kabocha squash!

It was almost too perfect. There just happened to be three lonely little kabocha sitting on the desk behind me in the teacher’s room, and when my curiosity got the better of me, I ventured to ask whether it would be alright if I got crafty with them. To my delight, the Vice Principal handed me the squash, a box knife, some newspaper, and, at my request, a spoon, and I set up shop on a coffee table. One hour later, I had a bagful of mealy pumpkin innards, a smattering of lopsided chunks of squash, and amidst all that mess, three grinning faces.  It was a joy to watch the looks of surprise and amusement when passing teachers and students saw the Jack-O-Lanterns :) Continue reading