dried persimmon biscotti + miniature plum blossoms

Despite a cold winter rain persisting throughout the weekend, it was otherwise warmed by a lovely afternoon with friends for a visit to the special plum tree exhibition on display in the old castle in my town, which was followed by mugs of tea and the weekend’s baking endeavors. At half past two, my two very good friends arrived and we promptly set out for a wet and chilly walk up to Koriyama Castle. The road was crowded with people who had taken part in a festival that had just finished, and we wandered up to the exhibition’s entrance amidst generations of spectators: newborns bundled up in their mother’s arms, young children running around the garden and grounds, parents tiredly lost in thought, an arm out supporting their elderly relatives.

The compound in which the exhibition was held was a long, connecting corridor spanning the huge castle gateway below. We silently slipped off our shoes to tread the carpet in thin slippers, and entered the hall. The entire structure was made of a beautiful sandy-colored wood, with gold screens along the wall emanating a pleasant warm glow in the low-lit rooms. On either side of the carpet, huge, solid ceramic pots held the miniature trees. Many had started to bloom, and their branches were dotted with delicate, paper-thin blossoms in every shade of pink and white. Continue reading

chai spice shortbread

Having mentioned previously my adoration of chai and its thermal abilities on cold days, these cookies are the perfect antidote for a chilly afternoon.

Beautiful, pale, with a crisp, golden edge, dotted with flecks of spicy pepper; infused with the sweet aroma of cardamom, cinnamon, and cloves. These are the perfect late fall cookie, with the intense fragrance of fellow winter spices like ginger and nutmeg, but not at all overpowering the delicate butteriness of the shortbread. They’re a classic icebox cookie, rolled out into a log and chilled to firmness, then it’s as easy and slice and bake.

Well, that is everything that they should be. But I’m embarrassed to say for all my build-up of such a perfect cookie, I have a mortifying confession–I slightly over-baked my first batch, gone from nearly-there-thirty-more-seconds to two-minutes-later-and-as-close-to-burnt-yet-still-edible.   But even with some very, very crispy cookies, my friend who came over Saturday for dinner and a movie made me feel somewhat less of a failed baker, finding it in her heart to praise the cookies for their “enhanced flavor and texture.” You definitely know a good friend when you find one, someone who waves away your protestations of inadequacy and devours five cookies without a glance at their brown-bordering-burnt-umber edges.  Continue reading

banana bread + fall fruit medley

Fall is finally here! Or, somewhat so. The supermarket proclaims fall’s arrival with overflowing trays of shiny red apples, cheerful, yellow-orange ripened persimmons, cellophane bags of mikans, and my favorite of all: gorgeous, dusky sweet potatoes. Yet the weather and foliage couldn’t be more late summer. Just yesterday I walked in my front door sweating and haggard from a 7 minute walk home thanks to the 80 degree sunshine. In November. But if the harvest is cooperating at least, my kitchen gives its blessing. 

The prolonged wait for fall to truly settle in, however, has made me even more cognizant of the beauty of celebrating food in season. And the bounty associated with harvest, a mere notion for me in years past, has been shared with me by the unbelievable generosity of friends, teachers, and students in the community here. I tried my first chestnut in the office, an oddity to me in its prickly, urchin-esque encasement, brought in by a friendly man in the neighboring cultural division of the city hall. Last weekend on a hike I passed a tray of pomegranates free for the taking, and happily picked one up for snacking later. I’ve been offered more oranges than I can count. And I nearly died of food-induced joy while eating a crispy, freshly baked sweet potato from a street stand in Kyoto. Every moment has been accompanied by a wonderfully unique exchange between myself and the people around me, that beloved quality of food to bring people together and share the love.  Continue reading

banana cinnamon oatmeal

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

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french toast for one

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

cherry scones a-yum-yum

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