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

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

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…

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fresh fig torte

For weeks now, while walking by the local produce stand just around the corner of my house on my way to work, I’ve looked longingly at the cartons of fresh figs nestled among the other bountiful fruits and vegetables. I could look at food all day, enchanted by the brilliant colors, earthy, exotic aromas and savoring the by turns rough and waxy-smooth tactility. But the figs captured me especially: soft, spongy globes of fuchsia and green and deep purple, stacked neatly in a plastic container. So finally, on Saturday, I gave in to irrational food purchases and walked out of the shop with two cartons–15 figs in all–without a thought as to how I might use such a quantity. As it turns out, there are a plethora of uses for fresh figs, and within minutes of returning home and browsing the web, my fingers were already itching to bake.


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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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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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