January 23, 2006

one snowy weekend in Tokyo

Friday: the weather forecast was telling us that we were going to have quite a bunch of snow in Tokyo on Saturday. Now we usually don't have much snow in Tokyo, really - one winter may typically have a couple of times or so of light snow - but this time, there will be relatively a lot, they said. Here, "a lot" means a few inch deep of snow; if you wake up and see outside to find basically everything is white, that's "a lot". For Tokyo, at least. This winter we happen to have the coldest winter in 50 years or so, and some areas of heavy snowfall have had over 10-feet deep snow, seriously; some hundred people have died in snow-related accidents in the past month and a half. So it wasn't that surprising that we were having relatively heavy snow even in Tokyo.

That evening, I made myself a cup of hot drink, thinking about how much snow we were to have next day...

Warm and sweet white hot chocolate with yuzu and ginger, topped with a mound of "snow" or fluffy foamed milk. Excuse me for keep using the same combination of white chocolate and yuzu over and over, but this was a winner. Usually, I prefer thick and strong one when it comes to hot chocolate, but this time I wanted something nicely light, so I went with a no-cream/milk-only version (based on a recipe that seems to have appeared in Cooking Light magazine); heat water with sugar and slices of ginger, add chopped white chocolate, juice and grated zest of yuzu, and milk, which I separately steamed and whipped up to form fluffy foams.

Finished with thin strips of yuzu zest and a couple of grinds of white peppers, it was nice and mellow but not overly sweet, probably thanks to the addition of tart yuzu and zesty ginger. A keeper.

Saturday: yes, the weather forecast had been part right but part wrong; it did snow quite a lot, only heavier than they had forecasted...

It almost didn't look like Tokyo, or Japan - it was definitely the heaviest snow I've seen in Tokyo in the past five years or so.

To warm up in a cold night such as that one, we had a nabe or hot pot dish for dinner. Nabes are an extremely popular winter dish in Japan, and there must be as many kinds of nabe dishes as there are households in the country; you could almost put anything in a nabe dish, from vegetable to mushrooms, and from meat to fish. That day we had Yuki-nabe, or "snow" hot pot. Also called Mizore (sleet)- or Yukimi (snow viewing)-nabe, Yuki-nabe is named so because of its resemblance to snow/sleet. Here's how;

You put some vegetable/meat/fish/seafood in an earthen pot (which is what folks usually use for a "nabe" dish), then -

Cover with grated daikon radish, a lot of it, as you can see. This white clouds are what makes the dish resemble to snow or sleet (admittedly, more like the latter), so you need a lot of it. It's quite a labor to grate one whole daikon radish or more, but once it's done, your yukimi-nabe is half ready. Cook it over a heat until everything's cooked - we don't usually use things that require long-time cooking for this dish, so it shouldn't take more than 10-15 minutes until done.

When it's ready, serve the dish in a pot, still sizzling...

...with a squeeze of yuzu and a dash of soy sauce...

I don't know about others, but this stuff is my all-time favorite comfort food of the season, definitely.

By that time, though still pretty cold, the snow had turned to icy rain, while the following day's forecast was sunny weather, meaning we weren't likely to have the snow lasting very long.

Sunday: mostly clear, with some clouds rolling in.

This picture was taken in an open space, which is why you still see snow covering the land, but on most roads and sidewalks, there was only what once had used to be snow - muddy and squishy.

Now, here's my good company in a chilly winter afternoon:

I-scream! What's better than indulging yourself with some premium-quality ice cream in a warm room when it's chilly outside? And this time I got Dean & Deluca's (for your information, they now have stores/cafes in Japan). I don't know if the same line is available in the US or it's Japan-exclusive, but there are Bretagne Caramel Walnut, California Strawberry, and Belgian Couverture Chocolate, along with Madagascar Vanilla which isn't shown above.

Now, now. I have no problem with Dean & Deluca's presence in Japan. They seem to have been doing good here, having just opened their 4th and 5th shops/cafes in Tokyo since they opened their first store in 2003, and I am totally happy with it. What doesn't make me happy hands-down is the fact that these ice creams are sold in convenience stores. A Dean & Deluca product in a convenience store; what's going on? Even though this gives me a convenience (yes, literally) of being able to get quality ice cream within a minutes' walk, I just can't stomach this apparent mismatch of a supposedly high-end gourmet food product and a, um, common-or-garden retail store.

Whatever. All told, it looks like I do stomach their ice cream anyways; and they're good. In a fond farewell to the snow that had a short life on this land, I built a snowman with the ice cream...

Ah he's slanted and already melting (and looking yummy, above all), it looks like he's going to have an even shorter life than most other snowpeople out there...

And for the entire week beginning today, we are going to have a more typical Tokyo winter weather; fair and dry. Winter is far from being over.

January 19, 2006

with which I find a good part of Tokyo winter

Despite the piercing cold and harsh dry air, or maybe because of it, there are more than a few things that I look forward to enjoying in Tokyo winter. One of them is definitely this: yuzu.

If you don't really have an idea of what yuzu is, you might want to refer to a post that I did about the winter citrus including some photos. This winter, too, I've been heavily using the fruit in everyday cooking, of course, and in some sweets as well.

The first thing I tried was mousse. One day when I was working on my computer the idea sort of popped up in my mind, so I tried to work it out only to see it miserably fail. I made white chocolate mousse, yuzu mousse, and yuzu-ginger jelly and intended to put all together in a certain shape, but that just didn't work, although they tasted good.

I might give it a revenge when/if the time is ready, but for now, as a quicker and easier solution, I made yuzu-white chocolate creme brulee instead.

This time things turned out better, probably because it is difficult to mess up with creme brulee anyways. I like the combination of yuzu and white chocolate, so I will probably elaborate this a bit further in the future, but meanwhile, I had to try it in the other way, too: with regular (I mean, bittersweet) chocolate.

This winter, hot chocolate is what I'd turn to first whenever I want to try out some new flavor with chocolate. I've done it with herbs, teas, spices, and liquors - most of which I haven't covered on this blog yet, I realize - and why not yuzu? With ample doses of grated zest and juice of fresh yuzu, the bitter and strong hot chocolate turned out beautifully (I used my flavor-of-the-week hot chocolate recipe by Pierre Herme, which doesn't use milk or cream, found in Chocolate Desserts by Pierre Herme by Dorie Greenspan [Little, Brown, 2001]). Personally, I found it a little surprising that bittersweet chocolate actually underscored the flavor of yuzu better than white chocolate did. Or, I might just have used A LOT of yuzu, that's all.

However, you wouldn't usually have to use a lot of yuzu to bring out its flavor in things; even a pinch of needle-thin slices of yuzu peel will do. Last weekend we had one surprisingly warm day in Tokyo, and that's when I savored the unexpected weather, lazily reading by the window with a relaxing cup of Earl Grey (smoky, bergamot-scented black tea) with a slice of fresh yuzu.

I wish. In reality, my work schedule didn't allow me to lazily read all day, but I did have my fill of good tea, at least. A yuzu slice in black tea doesn't seem like a common thing to have even in Japan (some people like a slice of lemon in their tea, though), but it was refreshing and soothing, and instantly reminded me that Tokyo winter isn't that bad, after all.

January 13, 2006

wgb/c project update

Here's an update on my recent pursuit of the wasabi-ginger-black sesame trio with chocolate (wgb/c, that is), originally triggered by Vosges' Black Pearl truffle/chocolate bar and as a follow-up to my latest attempt to realize it in a form of chocolate layer cakes. Inspired by a suggestion by she-who-never-fails-to-come-up-with-an-ingenious-idea, I tried and made something that may (almost) be called Black Pearl molten chocolate cake.

When I found the wasabi or ginger flavor hardly noticeable in my Black Pearl layer cakes, I contemplated trying out the WGB/C combination in something in a way that is more flavorsome, and one of my immediate candidates was cookies. But wasabi especially is a tricky ingredient to cook with - you don't want to heat it too long or its delicate scent and sharp tang will diminish. Then simple molten chocolate cake hit me as an excellent idea, in that it could really showcase the central ingredients in a very simple but beautiful way. Besides, molten chocolate cake is usually dead easy to make, which would be perfect for someone who's particularly pressed with work at this moment, like me. It seemed to fit the bill.

I used this recipe as a base, because I wanted very simple and very chocolate-y one preferably without flour. There I added some grated fresh wasabi and ginger roots along with lightly toasted black sesame seeds. To serve, I whipped up ginger ice cream, which I thought would go good with the cake, with this recipe in my mind. I simply made it by adding chopped crystallized ginger and a dash of rum to store-bought vanilla ice cream though; I had no time, energy, ice-cream maker, freezer space, or whatever it takes me to make ice cream from scratch.

Verdict: dainty. Not ultimately wasabi-y again, for one thing I didn't use enough wasabi (I was running out of it), but it was definitely there. I seemed to have baked the cakes a bit too long (typical!) and the center of the cakes wasn't oozy or runny as it was supposed to be (ugh!), but it was still very fudgy - not of dense, brownie-like fudginess but more of an airy, light feel. I think it was a nice delicacy with a touch of fresh spices and crunch of seeds, alongside sweet and tangy ginger ice cream. And it's definitely far easier to put together than the layer cake. Meanwhile, when it's warmer and when/if I feel like making home-made ice cream, I might try WGB/C ice cream or something; they sell wasabi soft serve in Japan, and it's good!

On another note, as many of you may already know, the 2005 Food Blog Awards have been organized by Kate at Accidental Hedonist and voting is under way. I would like to thank those of you who nominated this sometimes-it-seems-almost-neglected small blog for the category of photography. While I didn't make it to the shortlist like last year, we find outstanding blogs with spectacular photography as the finalists in that category, along with many other yummy blogs in other categories. Give them your votes and see who win!

January 5, 2006

first bake of the year, with a bit of Japanese touch and accidents

What cake would you bake to mark the new year's first? I chose this one, for one thing this features much Japanesey ingredients in a unique way (Japanese people like to celebrate oshogatsu, or a new year, with traditional Japanese things including food, attirement, and decorations), for another I wanted to make something looking pretty and festive. It's called Black Pearl Layer Cake, and you might see why it is called so - black sesame seeds representing black pearls, right?

But there is more than that. If you have ever tried or heard of Chicago-based chocolate shop Vosges' truffles or bars named Black Pearl, you know what's in it; wasabi and ginger.

Now sesame, ginger, and wasabi are all what Japanese people would regard as traditional Japanese food ingredients, but not so much in sweets; sesame and ginger have been increasingly more favored flavors in sweets lately, but you won't usually find, or even expect, wasabi in sweet stuff. It's something you'd find in sushi, not in chocolate cake. No way.

So it came as a surprise when I first found Vosges' Black Pearl chocolate, but did indeed surprised me by how it tasted actually fine. In both chocolate bar and truffle I found a very subtle taste of wasabi or ginger, while black sesame were noticeable only because there were whole seeds. I would have liked them more pronounced, but still enjoyed the chocolate, and I was thrilled when Estelle of le hamburger et le croissant pointed me to the recipe featuring the same three flavors, created actually by none other than Katrina Markoff, owner of Vosges Chocolates. Thanks Estelle!

Fast forward 11 months, I finally got around to trying the recipe to make it the year's first bake. By the way, let's forget about the sesame mousse that I made on January 1st here; it wasn't baked, you know, so it wasn't eligible as the first cake of the new year that I baked. Got it?

This cake was not complicated to make, but it certainly involves more than a few steps, requiring some time and commitment to put together. You will need to prepare ginger syrup using fresh ginger, then chop up the ginger to put in the chocolate cake batter. Meanwhile, you make ganache with wasabi, ginger, and black sesame seeds - so this is really what makes the cake named after Black Pearl chocolate. Lastly, you whip up heavy cream with added ground ginger, and assemble the cake. I made syrup, ganache, and cake in one night and did the rest on the following day.

Now there are a lot of comments of note from reviewers attached to the recipe. Many commented that the amount of wasabi indicated in the recipe wasn't enough for them to notice its flavor in the cake, and quite a few suggested that buttercream be used in place of the whipped-cream frosting, which seemed to be too light to match the dense chocolate cake and thick ganache. Speaking of ganache, it was said to have hardened up overnight, and some said that they reduced the amount of chocolate in the ganache.

I read all of these with much interest, and made some changes when it was my turn to make this cake. For my own records, I almost tripled the amount of wasabi in ganache, and grated a fresh one; have you ever seen real, fresh wasabi before? If not, the root-like thing with brown-green skin and mint-green flesh inside seen in the second picture of this post is a one. I also added a little juice of ginger, squeezed from grated fresh ginger root, to the ganache, hoping to underscore the flavor. Also, I used a little less chocolate in ganache to help avoid letting it harden up. Meanwhile, I reduced the amount of sugar almost down to half, as the cake seemed a little too sweet to my taste but there wasn't much room for me to cut the sugar other than the cake batter. And as you may have noticed, I made several mini heart-shaped cakes rather than making one large hunk, and made them two- instead of three-layer. I made only a quarter of the specified amount of the syrup and cake batter, while preparing one-third of ganache and frosting each.

The biggest challenge to me here was finishing up the cakes; it's really not a task for me - I know I never get to make perfectly smooth surface like some do, so I had given up the idea from the beginning and instead went with a more "casual" ("rough" or "easier-to-accomplish", in other words) finishing. The cakes still looked pretty, especially with the addition of gold flakes on top (let's again forget that I had used the same trick in the mousse I made previously).

And how they tasted like? Well, I agreed with some reviews who claimed the frosting be a little to light compared to the cake and ganache. I had suspected that, too, but didn't feel like starting off the year's baking with buttercream, having made a pretty cake in which killer-sweet buttercream ruined the whole thing a week before. Besides, I prefer light and fluffy whipped-cream frosting than buttercream one, and I thought this one was yummy with a touch of ginger. So if I am to make this again, I'd make the cake and ganache lighter rather than making the frosting thicker. And oh, my ganache did harden up; I let it sit at room temperature, but the "room temperature" in the kitchen must have been as low as that in the fridge, which might have helped the ganache get hard.

Most importantly, I'd have to say that all of us who tried the cakes didn't really taste wasabi or ginger. I tried to make the ganache so that it was really wasabi-y and ginger-y, but when combined with everything else into the whole cake, the flavors got masked. I only found a trace of the spices as an aftertaste, but that was all. Come to think about it, it was exactly how Vosges' Black Pearl bar or truffle tasted like; ginger and wasabi were only slightly there, at an almost unidentifiable level. After all, that might be the whole intension of Vosges in developing the Black Pearl line, I suspect; wasabi and ginger were there only to add a subtle touch, literally spicing up the bittersweet chocolate cake and making you wonder what's in there. That's elegant, but nevertheless, I'd still increase the amount of wasabi, ginger, AND black sesame if I make this again - I'm not sure if I want to do the whole thing again, but I might try the wasabi-ginger-black sesame-chocolate combination in something else.

And by the way, I turned one cake upside down when transferring it onto a plate to take picture. It was the prettiest-looking one of the several cakes I made this time, oh well. Also, while preparing for this cake, I nearly dropped the bowl of ganache not once but twice; the first one almost got my camera (that would have been a disaster). Furthermore, I hit my little toe real hard when leaving the kitchen trying to answer the phone. Later in the day, I even cut myself with a tiny bit of broken glass, accidentally. What a day! But well, I must have undergone a year's worth of troubles in cake baking and won't have to have any more, or so I try to believe. Happy baking 2006, everyone!

January 1, 2006

happy new year!

I wasn't planning to create any fancy sweet on the very first day of the new year, but somehow found myself working in the kitchen in the afternoon, putting together a few small afters for dinner.

Rather fancy it may appear, this really was simple white sesame mousse, topped with strawberries and white-chocolate mizuhiki cord. For a second I was being a little ambitious, thiking about making layers of mousse of different flavors and/or decorating with chocolate sauce or something, but I dropped that idea before thinking twice; it seemed too much for a task to be done on the New Year's day - you're supposed to laze around, people.

Making okay-looking white chocolate mizuhiki was a bit of challenge, though. Considering me hopelessly being clumsy, these turned out good enough, I guess, and they sure looked festive with a few edible gold flakes.

My new year's day has past eventless, and I will probably be working like normal from tomorrow on. But today I would like to wish every one of you a wonderful new year, and hope this year will see you all happy and healthy, full of love and smiles. Thanks for letting me share what I make, eat, and think with you here. Happy 2006!