April 23, 2010
sweets over flowers...
It is hard for me to admit the fact that the cherry blossoms are mostly, basically gone here in Kyoto. For one thing, it's sad not being able to see the blossoms any more (what, are you saying you STILL haven't had enough???, I can hear somebody saying), but another thing is: gosh, is it already the end of April?? Where has the month gone??? Well, the answer is this: it's gone while I was chasing cherry trees across the town during the day and baking with cherry blossoms at home in the evening.
The Japanese are known to go crazy about sakura, or cherry blossoms, and when we go crazy about something we seem to go really far; getting excited at the sight of every cherry tree we see is just one thing, and these days our obsession has penetrated deep into the realm of food.
cherry blossoms in cakes, in wines, in desserts, and in bentos - anything and everything.
Once upon a time, cherry blossoms in food would be largely limited to sakura-mochi, or rice cake filled with anko, or sweet adzuki bean paste, and wrapped in a salted cherry leaf - a quintessential Japanese sweet in the early spring. And maybe sakura-cha, or cherry blossom "tea", which is basically a salted cherry blossom added to a cup of hot water.
Before I go any further, I should make one thing crystal clear: I never liked sakura in food, sweet or savory. Period. I don't care for wagashi, or Japanese sweets, in general because I positively dislike anko (which is found in pretty much all wagashi, really). And I'm not particularly fond of cherry blossoms (and leaves) that are used in cooking and baking, which are usually preserved with salt and then in vinegar and impart very peculiar smell that somehow puts me off.
So I had never willingly looked around for cherry blossoms even if they are practically everywhere in early spring in Japan. Well, that was until this year, when something somehow made me feel like trying a bit of sakura stuff. And now that I did, I was amazed by just how much everything indeed is cherry blossomed up; and I was ready to dive into this new-found world of cherry blossom sweets (but not wagashi, because I still don't like anko!)...
Sakura sweets are always wrapped pretty (in pink, mostly); whether or not you like it what's inside, that's another story...
sakura rice crackers, sakura cream puffs, sakura dacquoises, sakura marshmallows, sakura macarons, sakura cheesecake... you name it. Other sakura things I saw but did not get include sakura cupcakes, sakura ice-cream, sakura cookies, sakura pound cakes, sakura jelly rolls, sakura chocolate, sakura jelly, and the list goes on. And that's besides the whole world of sakura-themed wagashi, which I keep my distance from. Phew!
Having (half curiously, half reluctantly) tried several different sakura sweets, I came to a conclusion: I am mostly alright with sakura stuff, as long as the sakura flavor isn't too potent. A very delicate, subtle, barely-there sakura flavor can be nice and that's just right as far as I am concerned - If I really taste it, it's too much. Well, if you like it only that much, why bother with the stuff in the first place?, you might ask, but I actually enjoyed experiencing (and experimenting) flavors that I never positively liked, in a way that works for me - and being able to (somehow) enjoy cherry blossoms in food makes things double fun in the blossom season, I discovered.
Rather content with my first few encounters with sakura sweets, I decided to take things into my own hands: baking with sakura! And once I started looking around, I was surprised to find a lot of sakura ingredients available, just like ready-made sakura sweets...
cherry blossom ingredients (clockwise from top left): salted cherry blossom mince, powder, and flakes, plus salted cherry leaf powder; sakura sugar (granulated sugar mixed with dried flakes of salted cherry blossoms and leaves) and sakura-honey syrup (honey infused with cherry blossoms); salted cherry blossoms and leaves, and sakura-an (sweetened white bean paste flavored with chopped salted cherry leaves and colored to a light shade of pink); salted cherry blossoms "blooming" - in warm water and microwave-dried
Salt-packed, preserved cherry blossoms and leaves are traditional ingredients made of sakura, and sakura-an would be fairly common, too. But other things were new to me, and they proved to be quite convenient, especially when I wasn't really going to use blossoms or leaves as is, but instead chop and mix into other ingredients.
My other sakura product discoveries not photographed here include sakura liquors and cherry blossom extract; I haven't tried liquors, but I should note that the extract was a little different in flavor from other cherry blossom ingredients, in that the extract was more of a cherry flavor than the distinctively salty and vinegary taste of most other things, which are all based on preserved sakura.
Although I didn't particularly like the salted cherry blossoms, I did like how they "bloom" in warm water - and even more so when microwaved. To do so: soak the preserved blossoms in cold water for about ten minutes, changing the water a few times, to remove excess salt; gently pat dry with kitchen paper and heat in microwave on high until the blossoms pop open, careful not to burn the petals. The cooking time will vary, but it should be well less than a minute - for some specimens it can even be just a few minutes. Watch closely.
Popped blossoms make a nice decoration, dressing up anything to a springy cuteness...
How about matcha latte with sakura? It was just a decoration (for me anyways) and I didn't eat it, but you'd smell a hint of sakura as you sip the latte. I must admit that I used a store-bought matcha latte mix (a just-add-water sort) here, but you can make your own if you wish: add a little hot water to matcha powder and whisk until thoroughly mixed and foamy; combine steamed (and foamed, if you like) and sugar in a cup, and top with the matcha mixture.
Another tea drink with sakura...
Hojicha latte with sakura sugar: strongly-brewed hojicha (roasted green tea) with warm/foamed milk, topped with the sakura sugar (or granulated sugar and cherry blossom flakes). Although tasting very subtle and delicate, my cup didn't turn out exactly photogenic - hence the picture with the latte not in focus! Sorry.
And the cookie that is in focus?
These were sakura-hojicha biscotti, baked with ground hojicha tea leaves, strong-brew hojicha, chopped salted cherry blossoms, and cashews. I got the idea of using hojicha and sakura in biscotti from here (in Japanese), but actually used another recipe for the dough but I can't remember where I found it...oops. I'd suggest you use a recipe for tea biscotti and use hojicha leaves in place of regular (black/English) tea, and add some chopped blossoms (remember to soak them in water first).
And these biscotti were one of the first things I baked with sakura, probably in mid March. That was the start to my month of intense sakura-baking...
Cut into a shape of cheery blossom and adorned with cherry petals, these pretty sakura cookies were the thing that I baked the most in the past month - I must've baked these at least four times, perhaps more. I loved them.
Recipe is here (in Japanese), and I'm afraid I can't publish a translation in English here for it's not my own recipe, but the dough itself is a simple one - butter, sugar, egg yolk, pastry flour, corn starch, and some melted white chocolate for a bit of milky sweetness. And just a bit of cherry leaf powder for a hint of sakura, and petals of microwave-dried blossoms as a topping for a visual appeal.
When I took the pictures above, I was out of regular pastry flour and used whole wheat pastry flour instead, which wasn't a good idea, for here you'd want as light a color as possible. Oh well. They still tasted good.
If you don't have access to cherry leaf powder but do have regular salted cherry leaves, you can still make these cookies; all you need to do is to soak the leaves in water for ten minutes, pat dry with kitchen paper and heat in microwave until dry, then crumble with fingers to fine powder/crumbs.
Another sakura cookies...
Sakura snowballs, in pink (blossoms) and green (leaves)! Based on recipe here (in Japanese), these are pretty much regular snowballs, just with chopped (microwave-dried, in my case) cherry blossoms and leaves, respectively. Oh, you have a bit of condensed milk in the dough, by the way... just like white chocolate, a bit of milky sweetness seems to go very well with salty cherry blossoms, it seems.
Rolled in confectioner's sugar with cherry blossom/leaf powder, these might make about the most elegant cookies around (well, sort of!).
My only problem here, though, was that I seemed to have added a tad too much cherry blossom powder to the confectioner's sugar; it may not look THAT pink in color, but the amount of powder I needed to make the sugar mixture pink enough to recognize seemed to be a bit too much to my taste. When/if I make these again, I'd probably roll the cookies in just plain confectioner's sugar, then top them with a thin layer of sifted cherry blossom powder, just to add a pink finishing touch.
Another cookie batch, another matcha-sakura combo...
Matcha cookies with sakura sugar; it's a freeze-and-slice cookie dough flavored with a liberal amount of matcha, only it's made using olive oil rather than butter, resulting in a pleasantly crunchy texture but not overly so thanks to the addition of ground almonds (almond meal). And oh, yes, a bit of sakura in the form of sakura sugar; I rolled the frozen log of dough in sakura sugar before slicing and baking the cookies.
The original recipe was for cocoa cookies, found in an olive oil baking book (authored by Yoshie Isogai, in Japanese), and I replaced cocoa powder with matcha powder in the same amount - but it seemed to have been too much, for the flavor of matcha overpowered sakura completely. I should have used a little less of the tea!
Now in case you've wondered how come I was baking so many cookies and ONLY cookies, that was because I don't have a decent oven where I am now and had to use an old, simple toaster oven instead. It works okay, as long as I keep a close eye on the stuff in the oven while cooking, for what you cook in a toaster oven is extremely close to the heat source (a bit like broiler) and very easily burn. I use multiple sheets of aluminum foil in layers on a baking tray, and cover my cookies with another sheet of foil before they start browning.
Well, but I did stretch the boundaries in toaster oven cooking and ventured a batch of something other than small and thin cookies (but with cherry blossoms, of course!).
Sakura and white chocolate scones; another sakura-white choc combo in baking with chopped (and microwave-dried, again, in my case) cherry blossoms and white chocolate chunks in the dough, a real surprise here is the use of sakura-an, the sweet bean paste made from white beans rather than more common adzuki beans, and added to with cherry leaves. It substitutes a part of butter (and sugar, obviously) in the dough, and works wonderfully well - you don't taste the anko at all, for better or worse - definitely good as far as I'm concerned!
The recipe is here (in Japanese), and the author says you can use regular adzuki bean anko paste instead of sakura-an in the dough, and it might be interesting to try (non-sakura) scones using anko, with milk or white chocolate chunks and maybe some nuts.
I liked the scones so much I've made these a few times, too, but in smaller sizes for them to be more toaster oven-friendly. For my first batch I topped the scones with salted cherry blossom buds, but I found them tasting too strong to my liking, so from the second time on I used a bit of cherry blossom flakes instead. The only thing is that they were extremely prone to burn - especially in a toaster oven!
For this time I opted to give scones an extreme sakura flavor, by serving them with sakura cream (a mixture of sakura-an and sour cream - could have done with cream cheese) and sakura-honey syrup, just like regular scones that come with jam and cream :)
Well, maybe it was a bit of overkill, I must be honest - but still good.
And something even more suitable to make in a toaster oven...
Crumbles! I love crumbles, and I must be turning every single kind of fruits I have my hands on into a crumble at least once. They cook quickly, and are totally doable in a toaster oven, as long as you watch closely so they don't burn. (Layers of foil will help.)
This is strawberry & milk crumble with cherry blossoms, in which the crumbles have chopped salted cherry blossoms and leaves mixed in, and the fruits are tossed in a few drops of cherry blossom extract. Strawberries are not baked here (I'm not a big fan of cooked strawberries), and served chilled with a drizzle of condensed milk, covered with a generous amount of baked crumbles, and another drizzle of the milk.
Because the condensed milk sweetens up the whole thing nicely, neither the fruits or the crumbles was sweetened. I just sort of made up a batch, but it turned out fairly good - I will certainly try and make it again, even without all the sakura.
One last baked goodies...
...before baking: look, cherry blossoms and leaves! Now I know some of you might go, like, hm, these aren't really looking like cherry leaves at all? (um, holly?), but if you would be so kind as to go easy on me with the shapes, well, these are intended to resemble the blossoms and leaves. And what are they exactly? These are a variation of yatsuhashi, one of the most widely known wagashi - or could possibly be THE most widely known - from Kyoto for souvenir.
Made from rice flour and flavored with cinnamon, yatsuhashi can be divided into two types, one baked (yaki-yatsuhashi, or simply yatsuhashi) and the other unbaked and filled with anko (nama-yatsuhashi). Nowadays the unbaked nama-yatsuhashi seems to be more popular, but I much prefer the baked yatsuhashi because, well, it's anko-free. (Just to be fair, there are unbaked nama-yatsuhashi that are not filled with anko, and they can be nice. Also, these days nama-yatsuhashi come in a large variety of flavors from matcha to sesame to chocolate, and some of them are actually rather good.)
Although I knew and had my fair share of yatsuhashi over the years (mostly received as a souvenir from someone who'd come back from Kyoto), it was only a few weeks ago that I learned that you can make your own yatsuhashi at home. That was an eye-opening experience; well, wow, really??
I saw some super-lovely yatsuhashi, both baked and unbaked, home-made and beautifully photographed by a professionally-trained former pastry chef here (in Japanese, but just seeing the stunning photos alone is totally worth it), and was totally up for it: making my own yatsuhashi!
Made almost entirely from rice flour and sugar and baked into thin squares (or rounds, or some other shapes), yatsuhashi has the texture of crisp rice cracker but taste more like cookies because of the sweetness. It's traditionally flavored with cinnamon only, but it can come with a whole bunch of other flavors these days, and I chose to make my sakura yatsuhashi with strawberry and ginger for the pink blossoms, and matcha and cinnamon for the green leaves.
(I thought about using cherry blossom and leaf powder here, too, but I would have had to use a lot of it to color the cookies in pink and green enough, and that way I suspected the sakura flavor would be too strong; so I decided against it.)
The dough was simple to make, but a bit tricky to roll out really thin (for me anyways). And in fact, my first batches were apparently too thick, and underbaked; they managed to look pretty-ish, but didn't have the crunch that yatsuhashi should have.
I ended up re-bake them, while doing my best to make the subsequent batches as thin as possible (which I succeeded to a certain extent, but I now overbaked them. Doh!)
Even though aesthetically-challenged, they were still good tastewise, and very more-ish; I am thinking about giving them (or myself?) a second chance sometime soon. I referred to the above-mentioned Mio-san's post for the ingredients and also to another website for specific instructions, and both are in Japanese; but there are some references available in English, such as this one, if you are interested.
By the way, I used freeze-dried strawberries (crushed and sifted to a powder form) for my sakura yatsuhashi; I can't say they tasted REALLY like strawberries (ginger is easily overpowering), but perhaps I should use a little more of the powdered berries if I am to make them again...
Oh and I almost forgot, but I bought a sakura-flavored amazake, too - and I don't even like amazake! haven't opened this one yet, but maybe I should sooner rather than later.
Okay, if there is anyone out there still reading this rather annoyingly long post (sorry!), well this is it. Well, almost - this is it for baked sakura sweets, that is. There were a bunch of other sakura recipes that I wanted to try, but I ran out of time and the cherry blossom season was, again, basically over (*sob*). Recipes I couldn't tick off on my to-make list include mousse, ice cream, truffles, jelly, among others. Also, I made a unsuccessful batch of sakura meringues and never got around to giving it another shot - well maybe next year. Or maybe not?
The only chilled dessert I did make with cherry blossoms this year was sakura panna cotta; nothing special, just good old panna cotta, only topped with sakura-honey syrup. Oh, it was made using kanten and flavored with cherry blossom extract - okay, maybe it was a bit special? Looking certainly pretty, for sure.
Like I mentioned earlier in this post, I never liked sakura in food. And after a month of being immersed in sakura sweets, I'm still not sure if I like it. But I do know that I now can handle it, if just a little bit, and that's good enough for me, honestly; as a Japanese who tends to go all ga-ga over cherry blossoms this time of the year, it's nice to be able to appreciate the blossoms, delighting both the eyes and the palate.
There is a Japanese saying that goes hana yori dango, which may roughly translate as "sweets over flowers", referring to "people attending hanami for tangible things like the food and drink rather than the abstract appreciation of the flowers' beauty (quoted from here).
It's a very common expression and often used in a more general term outside of the context of hanami ("cherry blossom viewing"), and while I can identify myself as being a hana yori dango kind of girl, who'd most likely choose sweets over flowers in general, I tend to be an opposite when it comes to cherry blossoms. Can that change at last, as I now have started working on sakura sweets? Let's see how it develops in the next spring.
I'm wrapping up this sakura post with something that I think is really me: adding sparkling wine! Because everything tastes better with a pour of good sparkling wine in my book. It's sakura-honey syrup topped with dry sparkling wine, and a blooming cherry blossom, hence sparkling wine with sakura; could have done it with a sparkling rose for an ultimate sakura-pink drink, but this was just lovely.
One last note about the ingredients and recipes here: I purchased many of my sakura ingredients on the Internet, from specialty baking/cooking supplies stores such as Cuoca and Profoods. Unfortunately their websites are in Japanese only and currently do not ship to addresses outside of Japan. The recipes I used here are mostly in Japanese, too, and I'm not publishing an English translation, but you could try online translation systems such as this; Japanese-English machine translations are usually a bit wonky, but in many cases you can at least get the list of ingredients, which often give you a good idea about the recipe.
Cherry blossoms may be gone (okay, they are gone in Kyoto), but I still intend to come up with some more shots other than those on my recent post from Kyoto National Gardens (Imperial Palace). Maybe a little more sweets, too.
posted by chika at: 4/23/2010 06:46:00 AM