December 30, 2005

christmas cookie quartet, with teas

Now it's the last Thursday night (okay, Friday morning to be precise) of the year, and exact a week ago I was being busy making cookies for Christmas. Christmas was just a few days away when I suddenly made up my mind and started making cookies for the holiday, like I had done for last Christmas as well as the one before the last.

I didn't have much time, but I managed to make four kinds - pistachio & lemon snowball cookies, szechuan pepper biscotti with pistachios & cranberries, pistachio & pomegranate florentines, and honey, cinnamon & lemon oatmeal cookies. You may probably notice the ingredients are heavily overlapped (pistachios in three out of four, cranberries, citrus, and honey any more?), but I guess the cookies themselves managed to differentiate themselves from each other, thanks to the varying shapes, textures, and flavors.

These biscotti were what drew my attention the first in the latest issue of Waitrose Food Illustrated (December 2005). It was called Pistachio & Szechuan Pepper Biscotti and the recipe can be find here. I love Szechuan Pepper, usually in cooking but in baking as well. The recipe uses caraway seeds, but I skipped that part (did I ever tell you I hate anise flavors?) and instead added ground ginger. I also added some dried cranberries to give a bit of Christmas touch to the cookies with their color combined with green from pistachios. I tried them with sweet white wine in a traditional style, but let me tell you that I liked them better paired with white peach-flavored oolong tea.

Snowball cookies are definitely the cookie of my choice for Christmas. It wasn't a very long time ago that I tried this very combination of pistachio and lemon in snowball cookies and forgot to put lemon, and I was glad I got myself a chance for revenge so soon. This time I simply followed the recipe in donna hay magazine (Issue #22, 2005), and it worked fine. I liked pistachio and lemon together, but I'd boost the amount of lemon zest if I make them again.

These oatmeal cookies were also from Waitrose Food Illustrated (December 2005), with recipe also available here. These sugar- and wheat-free cookies (they use honey as a sweetner and steel-cut oats in place of flour) reminded me of American homemade granola a bit, except these are in the form of cookies. Sesame seeds added an extra crunch, while my addition of dried cranberries gave soft and tart fruitiness.

The least easy and quick-to-make among the four, possibly, was these Florentines. This was found in book In The Sweet Kitchen: The Definitive Baker's Companion by Regan Daley (Artisan, 2001), called Pistachio-Cranberry Florentines with White Chocolate and Orange. The list of ingredients was as long as the name of the cookies, but once you've got them ready, making the dough (or more like a lumpy mixture) was a breeze. For the record, I used homemade candied peel of Japanese summer-orange instead of orange, and zest of yuzu rather than orange, and pomegranate seeds in place of dried cranberries. Loaded with fruits and nuts, these cookies tasted as gorgeous as they looked - really sweet but tart, chewy but not overy so, although I have to say they got a bit limply on the next day.

To match the cookie assortment, I had assorted Christmas teas, too;

A holiday assortment of blend teas from Lupicia, a Japanese tea shop formerly known as L'epicier. These were called Cache-cache (assorted fruits), Jingle Bells (yogurt & citrus), Christmas Wreath (apple, cranberry, & spices), White Christmas (white chocolate & apricot), and Carol (Straberry & vanilla), respectively, coming in a box along with three other teas. I wouldn't daresay Lupicia is the best tea shop around, but they certainly know how to attract tea shoppers with their selections of seasonal flavors packaged in limited-edition pretty tins.

I guess I said we were having another warm winter last month, but the weather suddenly turned to the opposite as we entered into December; lots of places had a record snow for December, and while Tokyo hasn't seen real snow cover yet, we are having cold evenings so far.

This was up in the mountain, by the way... we'd rarely see this much snow in Tokyo. Stay warm if you're having a cold weather, and if not, well, enjoy the warmth of the sun!

December 27, 2005

christmas day and the day after christmas, sweetwise

Starting with a bottle of Gosset, we had a quiet, small but joyous dinner at home in the Christmas day evening. Usually, businesses don't close and people don't take a day off on Christmas day in Japan, but this year it was Sunday and we even had a 3-day weekend, so I reckon a lot of people got to have real Christmas "holidays" this time. I, meanwhile, had a deadline on the 25th and had been in the homestretch from the night before, although, I did get around to putting together a cake for the day early in the morning.

We rarely have snow around Christmastime in Tokyo, and we didn't this year, either. But I had some in my house, on a plate, upon a pretty small white cake called Snow Forest Cake. Ever since I had found its recipe in book Je veux du chocolat! by Trish Deseine (Marabout, 2002) I had meant to make one myself; all in white, it looked just so pretty in the picture.

This was a layer cake, with cake made using melted white chocolate and heavy cream, filled with lemon curd and butter cream, frosted with butter cream, and topped with white chocolate pine trees and a finishing snow of confectioner's sugar. To tell you the truth, I hadn't particularly been fascinated by the components - it sure looked adorable, but seemed to be rather plain, sweet cake, frankly. I actually got intimidated by the amount of sugar used, so cut some down in the cake and buttercream (for the lemon curd and pine trees parts, well, there wasn't much I could do).

Little did I know. First one bite into it knocked me down; it was sweet - sickeningly so. It's not that the taste was bad, but come to think about it, it was too sweet for me to taste anything but the sweetness. My first bite ended up being the last bite of the day, I really couldn't take it any more. I was shocked by the fact that I made something that I myself actually couldn't eat.

It was buttercream that ruined the whole thing. The cake was okay, white chocolate and lemon curd acceptable, but buttercream - it's not that I hate buttercream in general, but this particular batch was way too sweet, even though I had cut down the sugar in it. As I couldn't bring myself to use it up in the cake, I desperately made the remaining buttercream into another cake next day.

Basically, the buttercream was whipped butter with sugar. There I added an egg, some sour cream and flour along with mazipan paste, which I used in place of ground almonds. I baked the batter with apple slices, and there came out a decent square of apple cake. It tasted quite good - in fact, it tasted at least two thousand times better than the buttercream itself. Besides, I felt relieved as I didn't have to chuck the stuff away.

By the way, a bite of the pretty white cake made me not want to eat any more sweet stuff on Christmas day, I ate my fruit cake on the next day.

Having sit for a week or so, the cake was supposed to have fully developed its taste by then, according to the recipe I used. Or was it? We found it a little too boozy, still; it would be tasting a little better after another week or so. Hopefully.

But at least the tea was good:

The vanilla-citrus flavored black tea in this beautiful tea caddy was among the exciting stuff (like White Chocolate Reese's, rose candies, and curried macnuts, I mean) in a package that Santos had sent me over from Guam a while ago. I had never had tea from Harney & Sons, but it was a kind of tea that I like - strong, full-bodied, and aromatic. Thanks Santos!

I had made some more Christmasy stuff other than these, which will come in the next post. In the meantime, I hope everyone had a lovely weekend, whether it was for Christmas or just another ordinaly weekend.

December 25, 2005

with or without snow

Hope everyone is having a wonderful day.

Happy holidays to you all.

P.S. I've done quite a little Christmas baking over the past few days and am hoping to do a post about them early next week.

December 21, 2005

warm-me-up treats, hot or cool

Chilly nights, I like nibbling small pieces of chocolate with a cup of hot, spicy mulled wine, enjoying the aroma of cacao, spices, and wine blending together. What if I put all together in one, I wondered, and so I tried.

The idea of mulled wine hot chocolate came to my mind when I was thinking of making spiced hot chocolate that I found in Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme by Dorie Greenspan (Little, Brown, 2001). Some of Herme's hot choc recipes don't use milk or cream, really showcasing good quality chocolate and cocoa powder, and the one for spiced hot chocolate is one such recipe.

I simply replaced water with red wine, and when I test tasted it it tasted really bitter even to my taste which usually prefers bitter hot chocolate (and I had already tried his non-dairy hot chocolate recipes, which had been good). So I added a little bit of cream in the end, and everything fell into place, or so I felt. It was still a quite strong drink, and frankly, it wasn't something you'd drink in big gulps but was a sort of thing which would make you satisfied with a few sips out of it.

In fact, I had already tried the combo of chocolate and mulled wine before. Last year I made Gluehweingugelhupf, or mulled wine cake that features mulled wine, orange, and chocolate, and liked the combination together. Sadly, the recipe is no longer available online due to the website's shakeup, but I remember I liked it, so I wanted to do something of the same sort again. While preparing mulled wine hot chocolate, I thought, "well, it doesn't have to be hot chocolate that pairs with mulled wine, really".

So it came mulled wine non-hot chocolate, or mulled wine ganaches. It was a total coincidence that I found a recipe for spiced wine chocolate in a Japanese dessert book (whose title and author I can't remember right now, will follow when I do) at a bookstore. I took a mental note of the recipe and made one at home, loosely following the recipe. Bottom line is that you reduce red wine with some honey and a lemon slice, add spices and cream, followed by chopped bitter chocolate, and chill the mixture until set. The recipe also adds homemade honeyed ginger and store-bought candied orange peel, but I used store-bought crystallized ginger and peel of home-made candied kumquats, which were what I had at my hand.

Dusted with a plenty of cocoa powder, my small ganaches tasted fantastic; they were packed with things I love, and here they seemed to be in a perfect balance. For the whole time I was making, taking pictures of, and actually eating them, I was blessed with the seductive fragrance of mulled wine and chocolate. And I found it a bit funny but understandable that when we pop one into the mouth, it'd make us feel somewhat warmer even if the ganache itself was chilled; work of wine and spices, that is.

December 20, 2005

not overdue, but overbaked, probably

No, I haven't forgotten about it. I am talking about the dried fruits that I steeped in rum and brandy for Christmas fruit cake in October; back then, I did plan to bake my fruit cakes one month before Christmas, which would have been at the end of November, but I've changed my mind. The recipe of cake I have decided to use for this Christmas suggests that the cake should be ready to eat after 4th day from baking it, and best eaten between the 1st and 2nd weeks. This makes it perfect that I baked the cake on this past Sunday, one week before Christmas day, I thought.

And the recipe is by none other than Monsieur Pierre Herme, in one of his books called La Patisserie de Pierre Herme (Japanese translation published by Shibata Shoten, 1999). The recipe was for cake aux fruits, or literally fruit cake, It uses a bunch of dried fruits such as melon and apricot, which for the most part I ignored; I just used my fruits, including two figs, two plums, sultanas, pears, and candied orange and lemon peel that have been soaked in rum and brandy for two months now. I used a small portion of the whole thing and was left with almost a jar-full of it, so it looks like I will be having a one-year old fruits when I make fruit cake for Christmas next year.

And although Monsieur Herme doesn't use nuts in this particular fruit cake, I used some anyways, because I like lots of nuts in my Christmas cake, and that's what I do all the time. For this time I had walnuts from France, Brazil nuts from the UK (originally from Bolivia, the package says), pistachios and hazelnuts from Italy, and almonds from Spain. I also used cassonade (brown sugar) in place of regular sugar. Basically, I am aware that I was making something which is not what Herme tells you to make in the book, but it's okay.

What isn't okay was that I, lo and behold, overbaked the cake yet again. Heck, I was watching it carefully every 10 or 20 minutes, but I must have missed the critical moment. Unlike last two years when I used mini-loaf pans, I baked a cake in a regular, 6- or 7-inch loaf pan because I wanted to use the pan that I had just bought last month, and I messed up here. I also baked a mini one using the extra batter, and ironically, this one seemed to have baked better.

Anyways, I've wrapped up the cakes tight and we'll see how they turn out a week from now.

By the way, while I don't mind waiting for a cake to "mature" over the period of a few weeks or months after making it, I do want to have something I can eat right away, too. That's why I baked pistachio-chocolate cakes and fig cakes on the same day I baked Christmas cakes last year and the year before the last, respectively. Likewise, this year I made pistachio-fig-cranberry cakes.

I had made fig and pistachio cake based on a recipe from dona hay magazine (Issue #18, 2004) last month and liked it a lot, so decided to give it another go. But then, when I was about to make one, I somehow changed my mind and made sugar-, egg- and butter-free fruit cakes (original recipe is this [in Japanese] but I've made changes to better suit my taste), using the conbination of nut and fruits I had originally had in my mind. I soaked the them in red wine (a bit sweet one), a little brandy and balsamic vinegar, but their delicate flavor was overpowered by wholewheat flour used in the batter, I thought. Other than that, the cakes were okay and made a little nibbles on any given day of this week leading up to the Christmas day. And yes, I sprikled some cassonade over those supposedly sugar-free cakes, but that's minor....

December 18, 2005


Shall we walk through a chilly, snowy morning with the bear brothers... click here to watch them snowballfight and then have a break with some snowball cookies in a warm room.

I meant to make pistachio & lemon snowball cookies inspired by a recipe called Pistachio & Lemon Bites from Donna Hay Magazine (Issue #22, 2005), using my snowball cookie recipe (its hazelnut-praline version can be found here). Instead of roughly chopping the nuts, I simply ground them all the way to have pistachio flour, which I baked into the cookies.

It worked just fine, except that I forgot to put lemon zest (Ouch!). So they were just pistachio snowball cookies, which was okay, but I'd have loved to taste the combination of pistachio AND lemon together... maybe next time.

Bears by Bearista® Bears ©2003 Starbucks Coffee Company.

December 16, 2005

edible gems

While every gift of mother nature is a beautiful creation, what fruit or vegetable would deserve the adjective "gemlike" more than pomegranate?

When you split it open, exposed are numerous shiny, deep-red garnets crowding in.

To me, fresh pomegranates were relatively unfamiliar until quite recently, even though I always liked soda with pomegranate syrup as a kid (although, most of commercially available pomegranate syrups don't really contain pomegranate juice). This year I got a few handsome pomegranates and searched up more than a few recipes for me to try. Among several options, what I chose first was something very simple...

Pomegranate pavlovas, for which I basically used a recipe from Nigella Lawson's How to Be a Domestic Goddess: Baking and the Art of Comfort Cooking (Hyperion, 2001)(US edition). A couple of years back, this would not have possibly been an option, considering that I don't care for baked meringues in general. But over the last one year or so, I have sort of developed a taste for them, starting with French macarons; so I thought I could now give it a try.

And I am glad I did. They turned out very pretty, and quite a delish; I even liked them, although I could only eat a couple of bites a time. To be honest, I was horrified by the amount of sugar I was pouring into my bowl of egg whites, but I paid respect to classics here, to successfully have pretty mini pavlovas that had fragile crust on the outside and slightly chewy, marshmallowy inside. The tart and fruity pomegranate-lemon reduction and light whipped cream, for both of which no sugar was added, beautifully balanced out the super-sweet meringues, and the topping of pomegranate seeds not only made the dessert look gorgeous but added a nice, crunch texture. I don't mind making these again, sometime when I have a crowd, probably, but I should probably better try to make these a little smaller to suit my own taste.

Back to pomegranates; on another occasion I made another simple stuff with them - a little less sweet ones; muffins.

I came across a recipe for ginger-pomegranate muffins in one of Japanese food blogs that I frequent, and couldn't resist the idea (the ginger part, of course). Here I added some cooked apple dice along with pomegranate seeds, and some grated fresh ginger root in addition to crystallized ginger. I changed a few more details, but overall, muffins came out good; there wasn't really anything special about the resulting muffins despite the addition of rather unusual fruits, but pomegranate seeds still reserved the crunch and went very good with both apple and ginger. I think I will do a bit more pomegranate stuff while they're around, as these red dots give some festive look to winter platters....

December 12, 2005

chocolate is hot

Take a guess: which one of the three is herbed chocolate cake? Or spiced? Or plain?

Well, no one knows the answer, including myself who actually made and shoot these. Truth is, they all looked pretty much identical, basically, and even I wouldn't know which-is-which by merely seeing them. Besides, I made these a long time ago - a couple of months back - and can't quite remember how I arranged the cakes for photo shooting, so and so by now I've lost the clue.

Moreover, they didn't taste dramatically different from each other. My family even said that they couldn't quite taste the difference after trying all the three flavors. For the spiced cakes, I added a bit of ground cinnamon, nutmeg, cloves, cardamom, and ginger, along with a minced chili pepper. I tried to go for too little rather than too much in terms of spices, because as a spice addict, I knew I'm prone to use a rather overpowering amount of spices in anything I make. And then, it turned out to be a bit too subtle this time; we'd taste something spicy very faintly, and it was only as an aftertaste that the tang of chili came. I'd liked them a lot more better with more of a kick.

For the herbed ones, meanwhile, I used fresh mint and rosemary. While I am electric with anything rosemary-y, this time it was mint that was meant to take center stage. I chopped up a good amount of fresh mint leaves together with a little bit of rosemary needles and simply added to the cake batter. When they came out of oven and served, there definitely was that soothing scent of mint in them, but again, not so much. I didn't get to trace rosemary at all.

All in all, the cakes were delicious, nonetheless. For the cake batter, I used a Trish Deseine recipe that appears in (at least) two of her books: Petits plats entre amis (Marabout, 2001), and Je veux du chocolat! (Marabout, 2002), both of which have an English version published. I might have overbaked them a bit, but they still had a very soft and velvety, melt-in-the-mouth texture that the cake is supposed to have up to its namesake: "Fondant de Nathalie" (it is called Nathalie's Melt-in-Your-Mouth Chocolate Cake).

Now I don't know about you, but chocolate is something I associate with winter the most. I could (almost) eat chocolate and anything chocolaty on any given day of any given season, but it is in the winter when I'd get in a twitter looking for choc-flavored sweets in the shops while busy flipping through my pool of chocolate recipes that have been stocked up.

This winter, I'm particularly in the mood for flavored hot chocolate. I love classic, thick and sweet plain hot chocolate made with good bittersweet chocolate, but for now I'm having fun playing with possibilities of flavorings for this wintertime specialty. So far I've tried it flavored with some herbs, spices, and teas - and here's a very simple minted hot chocolate made with only a real, fresh mint leaves. I warmed my milk with sprigs of fresh mint and let steep for a while, then used the minted milk to make hot chocolate. The milk didn't smell of mint very much, but once it was mixed with chocolate, it gave out a fresh, sweet aroma of the herb, making a refreshing addition to a strong bittersweet drink. More of record of my flavored hot chocolate will follow shortly.