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

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

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

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

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

rice pudding + a weekend visit

Long weekends are always good cause for extra-special meals and indulgences. In my case, that usually involves tackling another baking project from my to-bake list (I have a list for everything; it’s a problem, I know) and splurging on a drink or two. This weekend, however, brought even more cause for cooking celebration–my wonderful friend from Yokohama and her family came to visit! 

We squashed three futons and a following of pillows in my four-and-a-half tatami living room, and for three incredible days my normally quite apartment was filled with the adorable gurglings of a five-month old baby, cooing words from his mother and father, and thrilled outbursts of his two and a half year old sister. Saturday afternoon, as I prepared the the garlic toasts for dinner and cleaned the last crumbs from my kitchen counter and table, it suddenly occurred to me that small children do not find the same pleasures in a bottle of good wine or entertainment in pleasant adult conversation, and I dropped the kitchen sponge I was using and scrambled off in a mad rush to find paper and markers. As it turned out, socks and blankets and funny foreign friends make as good entertainment as any, and the little baby boy was fascinated in even more humble diversions: my left hand.   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

baseball in osaka + homemade english muffins

October has had a very auspicious, if not terribly fiscally responsible, beginning. The first day of the month opened with beautiful, 25˚ weather (yay for finally getting used to the metric system!) and a visit to Koshien Stadium near Kobe. Along with nearly fifty other Nara and Kyoto JETs, we stuck out in big Gaijin fashion with our hooting, cheering, and English blabbering. But the crowds embraced us, and when the time came for the famous Hanshin Tiger’s Balloon Rally, we all inflated our odd-shaped zeppelins and let them spin and fuzzle upward in a soaring, incredible multitude. 

Twelve stops and two train rides later, I emerged from the bustling subway thoroughfare and by dusk I was walking the neon-streets of Osaka with five other foodie friends. Before it was even 9pm, I had eaten a helping of piping-hot takoyaki (octopus-filled dumplings drizzled in a special brown sauce, mayonaise, sprinkled with seaweed and salty bonito fish flakes–don’t judge until you try one!), downed a milk-flavored bubble tea from a hole-in-the-wall stand, tried an Osaka cabbage-yaki speciality, had my first Shochu on the rocks, and finished off the evening with a healthy serving of ice cream. And that was only the food! I probably shouldn’t get in to the cosplay store or maid cafe we went to…

Continue reading