april fools and flowers

Sunday afternoon: Earl Grey tea, rich with a splash of milk, a spoonful of sugar, and cream–my most luxurious cuppa yet! 

April Fool’s! 

Despite the honest resemblance, this deceptive cup is actually a creamy, tea-infused milk jelly. It might seem slightly off-putting, I know, to read “milk tea” and “jelly” in the same sentence, let alone envision them as cohorts in the company of dessert. But despite any reservations I may have had previously about adding gelatin to such a familiar thing as brewed tea, it was only for lack of acquaintance with such a confection, because the little cup I had for an afternoon pick-me-up completely exceeded my expectations and tickled my senses in a most pleasant, beguiling way. It certainly looked and smelled like a cup of sweet milk tea, yet when I dipped my spoon in, the surface broke with surprising resistance, like scooping sorbet. It was like having the most intensely flavorful tea pudding–I could taste the sweet bergamot, actually bite into the richness of the milk and cream. 

I first came across such a dessert in the repetoire of Japanese sweets, where jellies are often served with fresh fruit, sweet rice dumplings, or even scoops of ice cream. On its own, I don’t know that gelatin will ever have a fighting chance as a stand-alone treat for me, but in its incarnation as milk jelly, it allowed me the unique pleasure of enjoying a fragrant tea with the added feeling of indulgence any cold-cream treat usually invokes (and with hardly any pangs of conscience!).  Continue reading

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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

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

rum raisin cheesecake

Sometimes there is no helping it–we all have our bad days. Or, in my case, a not-so-great week of running late, catching a cold, misunderstandings, and a painful toe-stubbing to round it all out. By Friday, I was as miserable as the muggy, rainy weather outside. But weekends are a blessing and I knew exactly how to remedy the gloom of the preceding work week: bake something! And that is what I did. 

And what’s more, my baking had a purpose (other than to sit in my fridge taunting me every night)–delight the palates of four excellent friends coming over on Saturday! I had planned a casual afternoon of all-out food enjoyment, aptly christened a “Baking Celebration” afterward, complete with freshly brewed tea and coffee, homemade bread, spiced persimmon jam, yoku moku butter cookies sent to me by a friend, and tiny squares of the heal-all rum-raisin cheesecake I made.  Continue reading

sweet bean cake

I realize the combination “sweet bean” and “cake” may sound a little odd, but in Japanese okashi confectionary cuisine, sweetened adzuki  beans are a traditional flavor in treats such as pastries, buns, taiyaki, and sticky red bean mochi cakes. This cake is a beautiful tribute to the sugar-dusted, jem-like sweet beans that are pressed into the cake halfway through baking. The cake itself is more akin to a torte–a simple batter made from butter, sugar, and eggs with a splash of rum to spice things up–but looks lovely and classy in a square pan. It’s a light, delicate treat for an afternoon coffee, which is exactly how I shared it with my wonderful fellows at the Koriyama City Hall Board of Education. 

The recipe comes from my beloved “tiny stick cake recipe book” I first discovered at the library, and then promptly went to purchase for my own use after falling in love with the adorable wrapping and bite-size confections. If you’re making this outside of Japan, you may have to venture out to an Asian food market to find the Amanatto, or sweet beans, but here they’re readily available in any supermarket in the okashi snack aisle. I also used a special 15cm x 15cm cake pan with a removable bottom, but if you have a comparable size tart pan or springform pan, those would work just as well.  Continue reading

afternoon blueberry muffins

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.

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apricot + date rolls

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*


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kinako shortbread cookies

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