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.)

Sunday, September 19, 2010

respect-for-the-aged-day (and rakugan confections)

Today we are celebrating Respect-for-the-Aged Day (敬老の日 Keirō no hi), which is a Japanese national holiday to honor elderly citizens. It used to be held on September 15, but now it's held on the third Monday of September so that we can make a long weekend of it (hopefully to use for entertaining our elderly parents and relatives).

Yesterday I was an observer at an event where celebratory confections were being handed out to everyone over seventy. One of these senior citizens, a good friend of mine, pulled a fancy box out of her handbag and asked me if I would like to have it. When she opened it for me, it turned out to be a rakugan confection in the shape of the face of a smiling old woman. My friend was daunted by the size of the thing and didn't care to eat it.

Rakugan is a confection made from a dough of sugar (or sweet syrup) and starchy powder (such as rice powder or potato starch). This is usually shaped into ornate, thumbnail-sized shapes in wooden molds where they become dry and stiff before being tapped out and arranged in pretty boxed collections, most often to accompany the somewhat bitter matcha tea in a tea ceremony. But there are larger versions to give as gifts or display as Buddhist altar offerings on holidays like today.

I'm not a huge rakugan fan (they're too dry and sweet for my taste), so I passed on my friend's offer, but then I thought it might be cool to take a photo and post it at the top for you to see. The photos below show the usual miniature confections in pretty, seasonal shapes. You can find a photo of some rakugan molds in the right column of the blog.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

kushi dango w/ 3 sauces

I've posted dango here before in various presentations, but today I thought I'd go with the very traditional presentation of kushi dango, which is dango threaded on bamboo skewers, lightly grilled, and spread with a variety of sauces. The sauces shown in the photo, from left to right are: mitarashi (sweet soy-based), matcha (green tea powder), and goma (black sesame). My recipe of choice for basic dango is the one where silken tofu is mixed with shiramatako: details can be found on my shiratama an'mitsu post.

1. Prepare the wooden skewers by soaking them in water. This will make it easier to thread the balls, and the skewers will be less likely to burn during the grilling process.

2. Make the dango according to directions described in the link above.

3. Thread the boiled-then-chilled balls, four to a skewer, and grill on a wire net over the cooking ring on your stove or over a charcoal fire, only until the balls get slight, but yummy-looking burn marks. (You can even make these burn marks in a frying pan, if you'd rather not grill.)

4. Remove grilled skewered dango from the heat and spread each row of dango with one of the following three toppings (sauce= tare, paste=an).

Mitarashi sauce
soy sauce...... 2 Tablespoons
white sugar........ 2 Tablespoons (remove any lumps with a sifter)
mirin..........1 teaspoon (optional)
water.........2 Tablespoons
katakuriko (potato starch or corn starch)...1/2 teaspoon

Place soy sauce, sugar, mirin, and water in small cooking pot over medium heat and stir with wooden spoon till the ingredients are well dissolved. When it begins to boil, slowly add katakuriko which has been liquified with a bit of water, and stir into the rest of the ingredients till it becomes clear and thickened. Remove from heat. Spread the sauce over the dango.

Sesame Sauce
: Blend black sesame paste (tahini) with sugar and enough water for desired spreadability and flavor.

Matcha paste: Mix a desired amount of green tea powder into store-bought shiro-an (white bean an), and add enough water to get the desired consistency. Or, if you can't get shiro-an, make a soft version of kinton and mix in matcha (powdered green tea) to taste.

Note: In this recipe, grilling the skewered dango is only for aesthetic purposes. You can skip that step if you want. Adjust ingredients for desired consistency and sweetness.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

beko mochi

Beko mochi is a simple sweet that was common in Hokkaido when I was a child. Families would make it at home using small wooden molds that might have been passed down for generations. It consists of little more than a steamed dough of two kinds of rice flour sweetened with sugar (white sugar for the white dough; dark brown sugar for the brown dough). It contains no an, and no flavoring other than the sugar.

The Hokkaido version of beko mochi is almost always shaped like a leaf-- part white and part brown. City folk sometimes purchase them from wagashi shops-- more for their nostalgia value than for the flavor or appearance. But in the countryside, grandmas still follow the multi-step procedure of kneading two kinds of rice flour (glutinous and non-glutinous), steaming the dough, kneading again, pressing it into molds, and steaming it again.

I was taught to make beko mochi years ago, when I was working for a small coastal town in southern Hokkaido with a population of 2700. The town's one and only hardware store sold several different kinds of roughly carved wooden molds that charmed me so much, I bought one of each before I even knew what they were for. I haven't made beko mochi since then, and had no real desire to do so, but recently I came across a boxed beko mochi mix that came with its own plastic leaf mold. I bought it with the full intention of making a batch for this blog.... but I never got around to it. Sorry. (Blame this monstrously hot summer.)

So the photos I've posted are of store-bought beko mochi, and the store-bought beko mochi mix. :D

Sunday, May 2, 2010

kashiwa mochi

Japan is now in the middle of Golden Week, a series of holidays starting from April 29 and going till May 5. When I was little, May 5 was called "Boys' Day." Various foods and displays that symbolized the parents' prayers and dreams for their sons were the highlight of this festival. And even as a girl, it was exciting to be a part of of the celebrations.

Nowadays, the holiday is called "Children's Day," but the festival retains much of its masculine feel. Typical displays include old-style warrior helmets and armor. This contrasts with March 3 which is officially called "Doll's Day," and is a festival to celebrate the traditional feminine qualities that parents once wished for their little girls. The typical display is dolls dressed in the costumes of the ancient imperial court. I think both festivals are fun, and no amount of indoctrination in political correctness will change that.

One of the sweets traditionally associated with Boy's Day/Children's Day is Kashiwa Mochi. A Dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hosking defines it thus: "Round shaped mochi filled with an and wrapped in an oak leaf. It is especially eaten on May 5, Children's Day (formerly Boys' Day), the symbolism being that oak leaves do not wither." (p.74)

Here is a recipe from Denshi Renji de Kantan Wagashi (easy Japanese sweets made with a microwave oven) by Matsui Michiru:

smooth an (koshi-an, sieved sweet red bean paste)....200 grams
non-glutinous rice flour (johshinko)......200 grams
water............................280 cc
oak leaves.....................8

1. Divide the an into 8 portions of equal size and roll each portion into a ball.
2. In a microwave-safe dish, place rice flour and water, mixing them well.
3. Cover the dish and heat in microwave for 4 minutes. Remove dish from microwave, mix contents again, and microwave for 3 more minutes.
4. Remove the dough from the dish and wrap it in a clean, moistened kitchen towel. With the dough wrapped in the towel, knead the dough until it is smooth.
5. Moisten your hands with water and divide the dough into 8 equal portions, pressing each portion gently into an oval shape. Place one an ball in the middle of each dough oval. Fold the dough over the the an ball, sealing the edges .
6. When the dough has cooled, fold an oak leaf over each of the an-wrapped dough balls.


These freeze well. Defrost at room temp when you're ready to serve them.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

stuffed kumquats

I'd been saving a bag of kumquats (kinkan) in syrup to serve as a special dessert one of these days. But "one-of-these-days" kept getting postponed, and in the meantime I decided to turn these little bitty citrus fruits into wagashi by stuffing them in a manner not unlike the stuffed dried persimmons I posted a couple months ago. The kumquats were smaller and more fragile than the dried persimmons, so it was a little tricky, but the results were definitely worth it!

kumquats in syrup, syrup drained and reserved for other use
shiro-an (white bean an)
walnuts, chopped
granulated sugar (optional)

Pat the kumquats dry and slice them in half, preferably not all the way through, so that the peel is still connected on one side. Stick a fork in the center of the exposed flesh on one side of the halved fruit, and gently tug at it so it all comes out in one piece from the peel. This is surprisingly easy. Do that to the other half, then follow procedure for all the rest of the kumquats.

Remove any seeds, then chop the kumquat flesh. Mix it with an equal amount of shiro-an, and stir a much lesser amount of chopped walnuts into the mixture. Using a teaspoon, stuff the mixture into the two halves of each kumquat, then press the halves together so that they appear whole again. Sprinkle the stuffed kumquats with granulated sugar, and spear with toothpicks to serve. These sweet/bitter treats go great with hot green tea, and just as well with coffee.





Thursday, March 4, 2010

sakura mochi

What better way to welcome the spring cherry blossom-viewing season than with cherry blossom-scented wagashi and a cup of fragrant, newly-harvested green tea (shin-cha)? Sakura-mochi is one of my absolute favorite wagashi of all time, and I was thrilled to discover it can be easily made at home. There are two main regional variations for sakura-mochi. My preferred version uses doumyouji-ko (道明寺子粉), granules made from mochi rice that has been soaked in water, steamed, dried, and then coarsely ground. If doumyoujiko is not available at a market near you, it can be ordered online, or you may be able to persuade a wagashi shop to sell you some from their stock.


Ingredients for 8 confections:
Koshi-an (smooth red bean an).....160 grams/6.5 oz
Doumyouji-ko (mochi granules).....100 grams/3.5 oz
sugar.....1 Tablespoon, or more to taste.
very hot water.....150 cc/5 oz
red/pink food coloring, the barest pinch
cherry leaves preserved in salt.....8
cherry blossoms preserved in salt....8 (optional)



1. Soak cherry leaves in cold water for 15 ~30 minutes to remove excess salt. Pat dry.

2. Divide the koshi-an into 8 equal lumps, and roll each into a ball. Set aside.

3. Put doumyouji-ko, sugar, and very hot water in a microwave-safe bowl. Stir it around, and add just a pinch of red food coloring so that the mixture turns a pale pink. Let this sit for 10 minutes.

4. Microwave the bowl with its contents for 2 minutes, uncovered. (My microwave oven only does 500 W, and is a bit on the weak side, so I nuked it 1/2 minute longer). Let this sit for 15 minutes.

5. Use a wooden spatula to stir the contents of the bowl, to bring out the stickiness of the mochi.

6. Moisten your hands and separate the mochi mixture into 8 equal lumps. (I moisten my hands from a bowl of slightly salty water. This adds just a hint of salt to the mochi to supplement whatever salt remains in the cherry leaves, and helps bring out the sweetness of the confection.) Gently flatten each lump into a circular patty.

7. Place a ball of an in the center of one of the mochi patties and gently stretch the patty so that it envelopes the an ball. Do this to all the mochi and an.

8. Place one of the an-wrapped mochi balls on a cherry leaf, on the half nearest to the pointy end, and bring the rounded end of the leaf over the top of the ball. Do this to all of the balls and leaves. Press gently to flatten the balls just a bit, to insure that the leaves adhere.

9. Let the sakura-mochi settle for a while before serving. The fragrance of the leaves will transfer to the mochi. The leaf is edible, but you may want to pull away the tough center vein in the middle of the leaf if you decide to eat it along with the mochi. (This is what I do).

Traditionally the mochi is wrapped so that the smooth side of the leaf (the side where the veins don't show prominently) is visible. The veiny side had a brighter green, so I tried it both ways; some with the smooth side facing out, and some with the bumpy side facing out.






Variations: You can decorate some of the mochi balls with cherry blossoms (gently rinse the salt off the blossom and blot dry) instead of wrapping them in leaves. Or try stirring minced cherry leaves into the mochi mixture before you microwave it, for another flavorful, un-wrapped version of sakura mochi. Garnish tops with cherry blossoms. The blossom is edible.

The leaves are where the cherry blossom fragrance is strongest. The blossoms are mainly for show. Click to see my recipe for Sakura Cheesecake.


Thursday, February 25, 2010

lily root kinton

lily root, sometimes called lily bulbs (yuri-ne)....2 heads
sugar.....1 Tablespoon or more to taste
salt....a pinch
food coloring, sesame seeds and sprinkles for decoration (optional)


Lily root looks a bit like a head of garlic, but flatter. It should be available at an Asian food market. It usually comes to the consumer packed in sawdust. Kept this way, lily root can stay fresh for months in the refrigerator.


Turn the lily root over and you'll find a gnarly "belly button" that must be cut out before you can separate the "petals" of the root. This can be done easily with the pointy end of a potato peeler.


Carefully pry off the "petals" from the outer row of the root, working your way towards the center. When the "petals" have been separated, rinse them well in water to get all the dirt and sawdust out of the nooks and crannies. Cut away any brown edges or spots. Place the lily root segments in vigorously boiling salted water for about five minutes, or until the petals are soft enough to mash between your fingers.


Drain the lily root and mash finely while it is still hot. I do this by using a fine-meshed wire colander as a sieve, but a small-capacity food processor would probably work just as well. If the mashed lily root is too wet/soft to form into balls, put it back into the cooking pot and stir it with a wooden spoon over medium heat until enough liquid has evaporated to make it firmer. Add sugar to taste. After it's cooled to room temperature, mix in a pinch of salt.

The mashed lily root will be creamy white, but at this point you may add food coloring to all or part of the lily root. (With small children in mind, I decided to make colorful balls and dyed part of the mashed lily root yellow, and part of it orange.) Divide the mashed lily root into six equal segments and shape each segment into a ball.



Twist each ball in a square of plastic wrap, and set aside for ten minutes or more. When the balls have settled, unwrap them carefully so as not to disturb the "wrinkles" that the plastic wrap made in the sides of each ball. To make the balls even more colorful, I sprinkled the yellow ones with black sesame seeds, and the orange ones with multi-colored chocolate sprinkles. For adults, I would probably have left the mashed lily root its natural color and topped each ball with grated citrus peel.

Lily root is very mild in flavor, but it has a fun crunchy texture when simply blanched, and a distinctive creamy texture when cooked through. To see how I use it in savory (non-dessert) dishes, go to Lily Root in Three Courses.

Friday, February 5, 2010

stuffed dried persimmons (2)

I once suggested this version of stuffed dried persimmons waay, waay back, as a short postscript to a post about dried persimmons stuffed with cream cheese and candied yuzu peel. But since I finally took some photos of the An & Walnuts version, I thought I'd post them to show you how easy and attractive it is.

Dried persimmons (I used Ichida-gaki, a soft and gooey brand of dried persimmon from Nagano prefecture)
Shiro-an (white bean an)
Walnuts, chopped


1. Mix the walnuts and an together.
2. Gently remove the woody caps from each dried persimmon. Use a knife if you need to.
3. Press a finger through the hole where the cap used to be and gently create a cavity in the persimmon without breaking the outside skin.
4. Stuff the cavity with the an/walnut mixture, little by little till it is full.
5. Replace the woody caps over the holes, and dust the stuffed persimmons with granulated sugar.



Serve with strong, unsweetened Japanese tea.

Monday, February 1, 2010

shiruko/zenzai in three variations

According to A Dictionary of Japanese Food by Richard Hosking, shiruko is a "sweet soup made from the an of azuki beans with mochi or dango [dumplings] of shiratama added. If the an is not sieved, the soup is called zenzai." Hosking defines zenzai as "sweet red bean (azuki) soup. Toasted mochi are served in a sweet soup of an. The type of an used varies with the part of Japan."

Well, call me an ignorant country bumpkin, but I didn't hear the term zenzai till I lived in the Kansai region as an adult. When I was a child growing up in Hokkaido, we called all soupy an by the name of shiruko. I was congratulating myself on learning the difference at last, when I discovered that in these modern times, traditional definitions often no longer apply. Curiosity led to experimentation, and experimentation led to the three recipes I've posted here.

Let's start out with my version of traditional shiruko/zenzai. I heat the contents of a can of sweetened boiled azuki beans (or an) and thin it with water to the desired consistency. Meanwhile I grill some mochi on a net over my gas burner. I like brown rice mochi because I find it is more fragrant and flavorful than the white version. And I like to grill it so that it burns a little around the edges. This gives it a pleasant smokey flavor. I spoon the hot azuki soup into individual bowls and plunk grilled mochi into each bowl. To raise the dish to the level of a dessert for a celebration, or for guests, I add to each bowl one chestnut that has been bottled in syrup. So simple!



Next, give this refreshing, chilled version of shiruko/zensai a try. The ingredients are an, yogurt, and shiratama dumplings. Find my recipe for shiratama dumplings here. I use tofu instead of water when I make my dumplings. This produces dumplings with denser flavor that stay soft longer that ones made with water, even after they've been chilled in the refrigerator. I usually make a lot at once, and freeze them in small batches for later use.

Blend an with yogurt to desired consistency (add sweetener if you must), pour into individual serving bowls, and plop a few shiratama dumplings in the middle. No heating with this recipe. Serve chilled. It has a very pretty pinkish-purplish hue that makes me think of blueberries.




Finally, here's a recipe for shiruko that doesn't include azuki at all. Heat some sesame paste (neri-goma) in a saucepan and gradually thin it out with some milk till you get it to the desired consistency. Add sugar till you get it to the desired sweetness. Blend well. When the soup is smooth and heated through, pour into individual bowls and add sliced bananas and shiratama dumplings. I played with the color combination of this one, using black sesame paste and adding dried yomogi (mugwort) to the shiratama-ko to produce green dumplings in addition to the usual white ones. The black-speckled soup with green and white dumplings and yellow banana slices made for an amusing/entertaining/startling shiruko that appealed to my passion for colorful food. This was a big hit with my husband, who is not partial to desserts with an.




I haven't bothered with measurements, because the important thing here is the idea of these variations, and you can adjust as you please to make more/less, sweet/not-so-sweet versions of these desserts. Some of you may want to make azuki an from scratch. More power to you. I don't use an enough to make it from scratch myself.

Friday, January 22, 2010

plum blossoms (gyuuhi series)

Though in northern Japan we are still snowbound, and will be for at least three more months, we were comforted, along with all of Japan, when the TV weather girl announced last week that plum blossoms had begun to bloom somewhere down south. Plum blossoms are one of the official harbingers of Spring. Yes, it's that time of the year when any self-respecting, Japan-based foodie will insert something plum-related into the menu.

Today's recipe is for a plum blossom-shaped, plum-flavored confection made from gyuuhi, a mochi-like dough that is tender and easier to mold than mochi. The original recipe uses plain white bean an (shiro-an) as the filling, but I mixed preserved plums into the an. Half with chopped red pickled plums, and the other half with chopped sweetened green plums left over from making plum wine. Sometimes you can find these green plums at the bottom of a bottle of plum wine. Don't throw them out. Freeze them and use them for just such a recipe as this.

Ingredients (for 8 confections):

shiratama-ko (glutinous rice powder)...50 grams/1.6 oz
granulated sugar..................50 grams/1.6 oz
water.................................80 cc/ 1/3 cup

katakuriko (potato flour, may substitute corn starch).....1/2 cup or less
shiro-an (white bean an)....................160 grams/ 5.5 oz
soft umeboshi (red salt-pickled plums) and ao-ume (preserved green plums)...2 each
the yolk of a boiled egg, for decoration



1. Finely chop the red and green plums, discarding the pits. Mix half of the an with the pickled plums, and the other half with the green plums. Divide each half into four equal portions (eight total) and roll them into balls.

2. Place the shiratama-ko, sugar, and water in a microwave-safe bowl. Stir with a whisk till any lumps are gone. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and cook in microwave at 500 watts for 3 minutes. When done, use a wooden spoon or spatula to stir the mixture thoroughly. This is the gyuuhi dough.

3. Dump the gyuuhi dough onto a surface sprinkled with katakuriko (or corn starch) and divide into 8 equal portions. Roll each portion into a ball, then flatten each gyuuhi ball and wrap it around one of the an balls.

4. Use the dull edge of a knife to press 5 lines from the outer edge of each ball to its center, to represent the petals of the plum blossom. The gyuuhi will bounce back, so press firmly.

5. When all eight balls look like plum blossoms, place a pinch of boiled egg yolk in each center.




notes: The red plum-an mixture was very soft due to the moisture in the umeboshi. It was hard to form it into balls. But the flavor balance of the sour umeboshi and the sweet shiro-an was fantastic. The green plum-an, on the other hand, had the interesting crunchy texture of green plums without much added moisture, so the an was easy to handle. I liked the flavor of the red plum-an filled confections best.

My conversions into ounces are always approximate. Please use metric if possible, and if not, check the conversions with your own reference books to make sure.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

wagashi-style imo-mochi

wagashi imomochi L

The area where I live is famous in Japan for its potatoes. We are used to having potatoes in our diet in a variety of forms, including a snack loved by children and tourists. This is imo-mochi, a dumpling made only of potatoes and potato flour, and pan-fried in a bit of butter. The potato flour (you can substitute corn starch) gives the dumplings a glutinous texture like mochi rice cakes- hence the name. Ordinarily we shape the potato mixture into roughly circular patties, but given a fancier shape, this rustic snack becomes a pretty confection that is suitable for a tea party. It is not usually sweetened, but for this post, I've offered a sweet alternative.

ingredients (for 10 confections)
potatoes.....cooked and mashed (without skins), 250 grams/8 oz
katakuriko (potato starch).....50 grams/1.6 oz
soy sauce, seaweed flakes (salt, sugar, optional)

1. Mash the potatoes while they are still hot, add the katakuriko (or corn starch) and a pinch of salt. Combine ingredients thoroughly with a spatula. Depending on the potato or how it was cooked, it may need a tiny bit of water to make it malleable. If you decide to add water, start with one teaspoon or less.
2. When the mixture has cooled enough to handle, knead it with your hands till it is a smooth, elastic ball.
3. Roll the dough into a rope about 15~20 cm (6-8 inches) long, then cut it into 10 equal segments.
4. Place one of the segments on the palm of your hand and shape it into a leaf. Using the dull side of a dinner knife, make vein-like impressions on the top of the leaf. Do this to all segments.
5. Heat a frying pan over medium fire and melt the butter in it.
6. Place the leaves in the frying pan (vein side down), and cover the pan. Cook till they begin to brown- about 2 minutes should be enough.
7. Turn the leaves over and cook for 1-2 minutes more.
8. Remove potato leaves to a plate and brush a little soy sauce over the surface of each. Then sprinkle a bit of seaweed flakes over them in an irregular pattern.





These little imo-mochi leaves will be crispy on the outside, soft and chewy like mochi on the inside. The dish and fork in the photo are very small, so the leaves are smaller than you might think-- no more than 3 inches long, and 2 inches at the widest part. They are best eaten hot.

If you want a sweet version, add sugar to taste when preparing the potato dough in step #1, omit step #8 and instead, add soy sauce and sugar to the pan just before the potato leaves are cooked through. This will form a syrup with which you can coat the potato leaves, just as we did in the previous post on renkon yakimochi.