Friday, September 9, 2011

moon-viewing festival (more rabbit manju)

The Tsuki-mi (moon viewing) celebration is fast approaching, and while debating whether to bother making a pile of the traditional tsuki-mi dango (moon viewing dumplings), I came across these adorable rabbit-shaped steamed manju being promoted as an alternative treat for the occasion. In the Japanese mind, rabbits are closely associated with the moon, as it is not a man's face, but a rabbit pounding mochi that we see when we look up at the full moon on a clear autumn evening.

I know we covered rabbit confections aplenty in honor of the year of the rabbit, but the moon viewing festival is another thing entirely, and rabbit manju is a nice change from the simple, round (i.e. moon-shaped) mochi dumplings that are usually displayed (and eaten) on this occasion. I ordered the rabbit manju shown here from a wagashi confectionery called Piyonta in Kyoto. The box that arrived contained six manju, two each of three different flavors: "plain," "chocolate," and "green tea."

According to my trusty tongue (and the ingredients list printed on the box), the outer layer of these manju is made with wheat flour. The "plain" flavor has a creamy tan-colored outer shell and creamy tan-colored filling flecked with chopped chestnuts and red azuki beans. The "chocolate" flavor has a dark brown outer shell and a light-brown filling flecked with almonds and chocolate. The "green tea" flavor has a green outer shell and smooth green filling, each colored and flavored with powdered green tea (matcha). In each case, and regardless of the color, the filling is White bean An-based.

Further complexity of flavor and a gentle sweetness result from the addition of egg yolk, butter, and sweetened condensed milk, which gives it the familiar fragrance and flavor of Western-style cakes and cookies. I've noticed that sweetened condensed milk pops up more and more often in wagashi ingredients these days.

Someday I'll try to reproduce this wheat-flour manju and post a recipe, but not today. I lost most of the photos I took, and didn't realize it until the manju were eaten up and it was too late to take more photos. Sorry about that. By the way, these manju were delicious! : )

While you're here, check out the rice-flour based bunny manju and bunny mochi recipes too!

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

salt-preserved cherry leaves


tender leaves of a sakura cherry tree, (preferably yae-zakura)..... 50 grams
salt......10 grams (20% of the weight of the leaves)
white plum vinegar...... 50 cc


1. Pick the sakura cherry leaves while they are still young and tender (large ones work best) along with about 1~2 cm of their stems, and clean them well by rinsing in water.

2. Drain the leaves, and pat them dry. Place them in a sieve and pour boiling water over them.

3. Quickly place the leaves in very cold water to prevent further cooking or change in color.

4. Drain the leaves again and remove excess moisture by patting dry or using one of those plastic spinners you use to remove excess moisture from lettuce leaves.

5. Lay the leaves out on paper towels or a tray and separate them into groups of similar-sized leaves.

6. Sprinkle 1/3 of your salt over the bottom of a glass cake pan (or round plastic storage container). Divide up the leaves into groups of ten leaves of roughly the same size, and stack them on top of each other in the same direction. Lay the stacks in the pan on top of the salt, preferably without overlapping one stack with another.

7. Sprinkle the rest of the salt over the top of the leaves, and pour the white plum vinegar around and in between the stacks of leaves.

8. Place plastic wrap over the leaves. Then lay a flat lid or dish over the wrap, and something heavy, like a clean brick or some cans of soda, on top of the flat lid/dish.

9. After two or three days, each stack of leaves can be placed in a small freezer bag (press out the excess air). Do not remove the salt at this time. The leaves can be stored in the refrigerator or freezer this way for up to two years.

10. Soak the leaves to get rid of excess salt before using them in a recipe. When I use the leaves for sakura mochi, I like them to retain a slight saltiness.

NOTE: If you can't get hold of white plum vinegar, you can dissolve 50~60 grams of salt in 100 cc of lukewarm water and pour that over the leaves in place of steps 6 and 7.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

salt-preserved cherry blossoms

I love using salt-preserved cherry leaves and blossoms in my spring desserts. Check out my sakura mochi recipe to see the most common way the leaves are used. My sakura cheesecake recipe uses both leaves and blossoms. If you do not live where these can be purchased, you might try making them yourself, though it is a lot of trouble. Today I am posting directions for salt-preserving the blossoms. I will post directions for preserving the leaves in my next post.

Please keep in mind these two things: (1) Most of the sakura fragrance and flavor is in the leaves, so use the leaves for cooking, and the blossoms mainly for decoration or to add very slight fragrance to green tea. (2) Try to use the deep pink blossoms of the Yae-zakura tree. These tend to bloom later than other varieties of sakura, and have large, multi-layered petals.
Choose a tree that is far from the exhaust fumes of motorized traffic.

yae-zakura blossoms..........200 grams
salt (first stage)..........50 grams
ume-zu (plum vinegar, either white or pink will do)..........4 Tablespoons
salt (second stage)..........50 grams

1. Remove the blossoms from the branch at the point they are connected to it, stem and all. Rinse them gently, but thoroughly, in cold water. Drain the water, and pat the flowers dry using paper towels.

2. Toss the first 50 grams of salt with the blossoms and place the salted flowers in a small bowl. Place a weight (400 grams) over the flowers, cover all with plastic wrap, and set aside overnight. This will draw out the excess water from the flowers.

3. Next day, gently squeeze out the water from the flowers, then sprinkle them with the plum vinegar. Place a weight (this time only 100 grams) over the flowers, cover all with plastic wrap, and let sit for three days.

4. Spread the flowers (still with their stems) over a paper towel-lined, woven bamboo tray so that no flower overlaps with another. Place the tray in a dry, shady place for three days.

5. Toss the dried flowers with the second 50 grams of salt, and store them in a small, clean, screw top jar to keep at room temperature for future use. Or you can keep the plum vinegar-steeped flowers from step #3 in the refrigerator and eat them like pickles.

More detail and photographs of the procedure can be found at this Japanese site.

Monday, February 28, 2011

ebi senbei (shrimp-flavored rice crackers)

My favorite version of homemade ebi senbei uses all mochi (glutinous) rice, is flavored with dried shrimp, and fried in oil to become puffy and crispy. The basic recipe can be adapted for different flavors and cooking methods. It's a great way to use leftover rice.

cooked rice (I use mochi rice, or a mixture of regular rice and mochi rice)....120 grams
sakura ebi (dried tiny pink shrimp)....3 tablespoons
a little bit of salt, oil

1. place cooked rice in a suribachi (ribbed mortar) and grind it with a surikogi (wooden pestle) till the rice is partly mashed. Add shrimp and grind a bit more, mixing shrimp into the rice.

2. Using a wet spoon, divide the partially mashed rice into 8 ~ 10 roughly equal portions. Lay them on a piece of waxed paper or plastic wrap that is about the size of your microwave tray. Place another piece of plastic wrap over the rice and press with your hand to flatten each portion to a tenth-of-an-inch thickness.

3. Remove the top layer of plastic wrap. Sprinkle the tops of the rice portions with a little salt. Cook in microwave for about 3 minutes at 500 watts to evaporate excess moisture.

4. Replace the top layer of plastic wrap over the rice and flip it over, so that the bottom layer of wrap (or wax paper) is on top. Remove the layer that is now on top, salt the rice once again, and cook in microwave for 2 ~3 more minutes.

5. Let the rice cool to room temperature, then cook the portions in hot oil for one minute on each side, or till the crackers are crispy and light brown. Remove from oil and drain in a wire net or on paper towels till cooled. The result is a light, air-filled, crispy senbei.

The senbei will cook most evenly and quickly if excess moisture has evaporated from the rice portions by sufficient microwaving and being left on the counter to air-cool. If the rice has been flattened unevenly, it will cook unevenly. Experiment to find out how much microwaving, and how much frying, will result in the kind of sembei you prefer.

A. Instead of shrimp, try mixing kizami-konbu (finely shredded kelp seaweed) into the rice.
B. Instead of frying the senbei in oil, grill it on a wire net over a gas fire or hot coals. Grilling results in harder sembei that has a dry crispiness some people prefer. Grilling may result in some burnt areas, but that can also be appetizing, so no worries.
C. Instead of sprinkling the rice with salt, sprinkle with sugar crystals for sweet senbei.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

usagi manju (steamed dumpling)

These rabbit-shaped dumplings become especially popular in the Year of the Rabbit, such as this year. I made them with traditional tools and cooking methods. No food processors or microwave ovens appear in this post. I was never as fond of manju (which has the texture of steamed bread or cake), as I am of mochi-type confections, and haven't had much experience making them. But these turned out wonderfully moist and flavorful. So much so that I'm determined to devote more time to manju-making in the future.

Yama-imo (mountain yam) is a central ingredient in the best usagi manju recipes, but my experiments with the most commonly available mountain yam-- naga-imo-- failed because this yam is much too loose and watery for the purpose. I was finally able to get hold of a much denser mountain yam called Tsukune-imo. Tsukune-imo is often packed in sawdust to make it stay fresh longer, and has the shape of a fist. This yam is ground to a paste and combined with joshinko (non-glutinous rice flour) and sugar in a ribbed mortar called suribachi, using a wooden pestle called surikogi.

A common filling for usagi manju is shiro-an (white bean an), perhaps flavored with yuzu zest, or blended with mashed cooked egg yolk for a bright yellow color. But for today's filling, I used what I had on hand, and ended up with a combination of kinako (parched soybean flour) moistened and flavored with ume (usually referred to as Japanese plum, though it is really a kind of apricot) jam and umeboshi (salt-pickled ume). This oblique reference to plum blossoms seemed appropriate for this time of year, as they symbolize the beginning of spring.


Tsukune-imo, cleaned and peeled.............90 grams
Joshinko ....................................................90 grams
Sugar..........................................................90 grams
Kinako .......................................................50 grams
Ume jam............................................50 ~ 80 grams
Large, soft umeboshi.................................1

1. Peel the yam and grate 90 grams of it with a metal grater to give yourself a head start. Then place the grated yam in the ribbed mortar and grind it with the pestle until the yam is a smooth paste. Stirring vigorously with the pestle also helps to fold air into the yam.

2. Add sugar a little at a time and keep grinding and stirring with the pestle. You don't have to use all 50 grams of sugar if you prefer it less sweet.

3. Sift the joshinko and add it to the yam mixture a little at a time, mixing with the pestle until the dough is tender, but firm enough to hold a shape. This is hard work, as the yam gets stiffer and more glutinous the longer you stir it.

4. Divide the yam dough into 8 equal segments and make each segment into a ball. Set aside.

5. Place the kinako in a small mixing bowl. Using a spoon or spatula, mix in a little ume jam and chopped umeboshi (seed removed), adding more jam until the kinako mixture is moist enough to roll into balls that keep their shape. Make 8 balls and set aside.

6. With moistened hands, gently flatten a yam ball on one palm. Place a kinako ball in the center of this and wrap the yam dough around it. Using gentle finger pressure, shape the dumpling in the traditional rabbit shape, as explained in the usagi mochi post. Repeat procedure with the rest of the balls. Simple round manju are perfectly fine too.

7. Put some water to boil in the bottom level of a steamer pot. Place the uncooked manju on little squares of wax paper and place them on a rack above the boiling water so that no manju touches another manju or the boiling water itself. Cover the steamer and cook the manju over medium heat for fifteen minutes.

If, like me, you don't have a steamer, improvise with a regular pot and a metal vegetable steamer.

8. When the manju are done steaming, remove them from the heat and let them cool to room temperature. Add ears and face details with food dye as described in the usagi mochi post.

Note:You can also experiment with shaping the yam dough itself to look like each dumpling has ears and a tail. However, this tends to make the dough thinner in some places than others, and the manju may split in the thin places during steaming. The splitting of the manju (thus revealing the filling) is not a bad thing, and some round manju are made like this on purpose to give them character. But if you want your manju to look like a rabbit, it isn't helpful for the dough to split.

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

usagi mochi (gyuuhi series)

I've been busy in the kitchen making all kinds of rabbit-shaped confections in celebration of the year of the rabbit, and had meant to post some of them before the end of January. Unfortunately, I used up all the ingredients for the popular Usagi Manju before I could refine the recipe enough to share with you.

So while I wait for my pantry to be restocked, I've been playing around with gyuuhi. Gyuuhi is made from shiratama-ko (glutinous rice flour, sometimes sold as "mochi-ko"), sugar, and water. Confections made with gyuuhi usually have the word mochi in the name. You may remember that I first introduced gyuuhi a year ago, in the post on plum blossom confections.

Gyuuhi is easy to make, tender,and smooth, so using it to cover a ball of filling and shaping it as you please is relatively easy. In today's post, I wrapped the gyuuhi around a ball of koshi-an, and gently patted it into the rabbit shape that is traditional in the world of wagashi (thick in the rear and slimming to a rounded point in the front). Gyuuhi is too tender, however, to use for shaping the bunny ears, facial features, or bunny tail. So I marked the ears and face with a toothpick dipped in red food coloring. This is common in the world of wagashi, but I find it less than aesthetically satisfying.

Koshi-an (smooth an)......200 grams
Shiratama-ko.............50 grams
Sugar.........................50 grams
water.........................80 cc
katakuri-ko (potato starch)... enough for dusting work surface
tiny bit of red food coloring dissolved in water

(Note: measurement conversions can be found in the plum blossom post)

1. Divide the koshi-an into 8 pieces and roll into balls. Set aside.
2. Place shiratama-ko, sugar, and water in a microwaveable bowl and whisk ingredients briskly till there are no clumps at all.
3. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and heat in microwave oven at 500 for 3 minutes.
4. Mix the goo-ified ingredients rigorously with a wooden spoon or spatula, and remove the resulting clump of dough to a katakuri-ko (or cornstarch)-dusted surface.
5. Divide gyuuhi dough into 8 pieces and flatten each into a circle. Place one an ball in the middle of each circle and wrap gyuuhi around the ball.
6. Pat the filled dough into the rabbit shape described above. Dip a toothpick into the dissolved food coloring and press into the "rabbit" at the right places to mark its ears and face.

Give me a couple more weeks, and I should be able to post a recipe for Usagi Manju.

Friday, September 24, 2010

wagashi and the five senses

One of the staff at Obubu Tea drew my attention to the TORAYA website, and I really wanted to share it with you because it has a lovely but concise explanation of how good traditional Japanese confections appeal to the five senses. Check it out! (I borrowed the attached image from the TORAYA website.)