January 20, 2011
strawberries and snow
Would you believe me if I told you that strawberries are almost at their peak right about now in Tokyo and many other parts of Japan? Well, they are - and come to think of it, I have already mentioned it before, about five years ago. This winter, I saw my first strawberries at the store in mid November.
So here we are, almost in the middle of the strawberry season, and I'd treat myself to an occasional indulgence in these delicacies - they are mostly greenhouse-grown varieties, and many are not exactly cheap.
And as luck would have it, I recently received punnets of this praised fruit, shipped directly from Fukuoka, thanks to a good friend of mine down there. How lucky am I?
The best way to appreciate these gems, obviously, is to do nothing with them; just eat them as is. They seem to be almost too good to be tampered with. Except maybe pop a few in a glass of chilled bubbles, which I never fail to do.
And incidentally, last week as I slowly snacked away the fruits pondering what to do with them, the weather forecasts for the weekend were snow for many parts of the country, including Nagano where I happen to be now (again).
And so this inspired me to play around with ideas of pairing strawberries with snow.
So I spent the weekend having a lot of fun trying to let it snow over the ruby red berries...
Now the first thing I made was a little classic from down under...
pavlova is baked meringue usually topped (or filled) with whipped cream and fresh fruits. I'm not a big fan of baked meringue in general, really, but I enjoy this treat beloved by Aussies and Kiwis every now and then, especially when I have gorgeous fresh berries at hand. Rich cream and tart fruits make a good accompaniment to the sweet meringue.
There are millions of recipes for pavlova out there, but they are basically the same as far as the meringue part is concerned; whip up egg whites, add sugar and cornstarch (and often, but not always, a tiny bit of vinegar), bake slowly at a low temperature, and let cool slowly in the oven. I used these recipes to make several small meringue nests.
... Um, what, this isn't like snow at all? Then how about something icy and light, just like snow?
shaved ice. (Actually, now I think about it, I could have made yogurt granita or something... oh well.)
Anyhow, yogurt sorbet that is for now; this one must be one of the simplest sorbets to make - all you need is yogurt and honey. I'd use a cup of plain yogurt and a couple of tablespoons of clear honey. Combine the two ingredients in a container and mix until thoroughly blended, pop it into the freezer and leave it until it is almost solid. Then break the solid yogurt mass into pieces, process in a blender until smooth and frothy, and put it back to the freezer until firm.
Of course you can churn the mixture in an ice cream machine if you've got one (I don't), but my freezer-blender-freezer method does it fine.
matsoni, which is similar to kefir, and generally known as "Caspian sea yogurt" in Japan. To tell you the truth, though, I'm not partial to the stuff - I find that sloppy texture rather off-putting. But my mother makes it and it's usually there in the fridge, so I used it. Once frozen, as it turned out, the texture was completely changed and it was no longer runny (because, well, it was frozen). So I actually enjoyed it. And more importantly, it went well with the fresh strawberries!
And another dose of cultured dairy products...
simple but dainty version of cheesecake created in the French region called Anjou, which is roughly in the region of Maine-et-Loire.
I'm not sure how popular this classic dessert is outside of France - or in fact, in France; a quick Internet search didn't find me too many references either in French or English. But interestingly, it's given me quite a few results in Japanese, though by varying names. I myself first came across crémet d'Anjou a long time ago, as a specialty of a Tokyo pastry shop; I have since seen variations of it at a number of pastry shops over the years, as well as its recipes in a fair few cookbooks and recipe sites.
There appear to be a lot of variations out there, but basically it's a mixture of creme fraiche (lightly whipped), egg whites (whipped to stiff peaks), and sugar, wrapped in cheesecloth for it to drain a bit while it's chilled. According to sources (in French and in Japanese), creme fraiche here may sometimes be replaced by fromage blanc, or French fresh cheese, in which case the dessert would be called crémet d'Angers, with Angers being the name of city located in the region of Anjou. But even when it's made using fromage blanc and should thus be called crémet d'Angers, it can still be called crémet d'Anjou, too. Confused? Yeah, I am.
this recipe. While the real creme fraiche is nearly impossible to find in Japan and I usually substitute with sour cream, imported fromage blanc may be found more widely - if you are in big cities, that is. But as I happened to be in a small town in Nagano, it was nowhere to be seen - even though they have fairly well-stocked supermarkets here. So I used a mixture of half regular cream cheese and half sour cream - though I think I would have liked it better with a little less cheese and a little more cream. And oh, the berries: I cooked a some with a bit of sugar, pureed and strained it, then tossed some chopped fresh (uncooked) berries in the puree to make a topping.
By the way, I suspect that this might perhaps have reminded some of you of another dessert; anyone thought of coeur à la crème? That mixture of cheese and cream, drained in cheesecloth - usually in perforated, heart-shaped molds? Some recipes call for egg whites and others don't, but they will at any rate make a dessert that's very close to crémet d'Anjou. So my little creation here could have been coeur à la crème, except it wasn't made in the shape of a heart. But heart-shaped or not, it sure makes one simple but elegant dessert.
Now I have the feeling that I might so far have relied too much on dairy products - cream, cheese, yogurt, and egg (whites) - for the "snow" factor. So here is something that doesn't use any of them. Can you guess what this is?
This I suppose is a form of food foams, although there is nothing really molecular gastronomy about it, as far as I am concerned. I first found this type of foamy gelatin dessert in a Japanese recipe book years ago, and I remember I was fascinated by the idea and immediately tried the technique. The recipe said, I think, that you should place a bowl of gelatin liquid over the ice-water bath and whip slowly to make fine, smooth foams.
But I didn't bother this time and just chilled the liquid and processed in the blender; and as I did so, my liquid might not have been cold enough, for the mixture got separated while chilling. I repeated the blender process a few times, but I suspect I would have been better off going for the slow-whipping method.
I used sparkling wine because I like the combination of bubbles and strawberries, but you can use any type of liquid - fruit juice, fruit puree, milk, tea, still wine, you name it - to make foamy gelatin. Whatever you use, the key to making lasting foams is to whip the gelatin mixture while it is thoroughly chilled but not firm. If you'd like a recipe, here's a one (I haven't tried this particular recipe, but the principles are the same).
Alright, now back to the realm of milk and cream... and lots of them. This innocent-looking, soft and fluffy dollop of creamy mousse served with lightly stewed strawberries... I wish I could get you try a mouthful and let you guess what it is before I tell you the answer, because I know some of you - many of you, perhaps - wouldn't dare to touch it if you've heard what it is first.
Before I go in details about the pudding, I should probably make it clear where I stand: I'm no lover or hater of rice pudding in general. (Although I'll openly admit that I have a soft spot for Müller Rice). But it's never my choice of dessert when I want to eat or bake something sweet.
I have made rice puddings several times, and have manged to enjoy them, more or less. But this time, when I thought of rice pudding, I wanted something really light and fluffy - no soggy or sticky one. These criteria eventually found me this recipe. It is from a Los Angeles restaurant named Lazy Ox Canteen, and although I have never eaten there myself, it is apparently a dessert that has won many hearts of rice pudding haters.
Rice is cooked in a lot of cream and milk (half and half in the recipe, but since you just can't find it in Japan, I used a mixture of milk and cream - about 2:1, aiming for a lighter side), as well as sweetened condensed milk. Once the pudding base is done, it's chilled thoroughly, and right before serving, lightly whipped cream is folded in.
The recipe uses almond brittle and caramel to finish the dessert, but I made stewed strawberries instead (have I told you strawberries were the theme ingredient here?); chopped berries and a few crushed cardamom pods in a bit of water and sugar. I also used cardamom in the pudding base, in place of cinnamon used in the recipe, and it worked fine. It indeed made a fine dessert, and I wouldn't mind making it again - perhaps with a bit less cream.
And one last thing...
And this is how they took shape: I wanted to make something with coconut and white chocolate - both reminiscent of snow, you know. I first thought of cupcakes, and searched for recipes, then found this one. Now how I could make them fit the "snow" theme better, with the least fuss? I flipped through a few cookbooks for inspirations, and it caught my eye: sponge rounds filled with whipped cream, a recipe included in this beautiful book (and originally appeared in Donna Hay Magazine, Issue 35, 2007).
The two recipes were created by two different women (both very talented and well respected, no doubt), for two different types of cakes. But they happen to have something in common in their names: White Chocolate Coconut Kisses, and Sponge Kisses with Cream. Get it? Maybe just a coincidence, but an amusing one.
So I sort of put the two recipes together, did a bit of tweakings, and the result was these delightfully light cakes. I haven't double-tested my adapted version of the recipe, but I'm writing it down in case anyone is interested...
Snow Sandwiches (Coconut Sponge with White Chocolate Cream)
To make the filling, heat 180 ml (3/4 cup) heavy cream in a saucepan to a near boil. Pour over 120 g (4.3 oz) chopped good-quality white chocolate and let stand for a few minutes. Stir until smooth, and cover and refrigerate until chilled.
Preheat the oven to 180C (350F).
To make the sponge, sift together 40 g (1/3 cup) all-purpose flour, 20 g (heaping 3 Tbs) cornstarch, and 75 g (5 Tbs) superfine sugar, three times.
Beat 4 large egg whites in a clean bowl until frothy. Add a pinch of cream of tartar and continue beating until stiff peaks form.
Sift the flour mixture over the bowl of whipped egg whites and mix gently with a large metal spoon. Fold in 50 g (heaping 1/3 cup) fine shredded unsweetened coconut.
On baking sheet(s) lined with parchment, spoon the batter by a rounded tablespoonful, spacing about an inch between each. Bake in the preheated oven until golden and puffed, about 7-10 minutes. Remove from oven and let cool completely.
To finish, whip the chilled white chocolate mixture until thick. Sandwich together two sponge rounds with a tablespoonful of the whipped white chocolate cream. Dust with confectioner's sugar and serve with sliced fresh strawberries. Makes 12-14 sandwiches.
* US standard measurements here are for reference purposes only; I measured all my ingredients by weight.
* Sponge recipe adapted from Delia Online; first appeared in: The Delia Collection: Chocolate, Delia Smith, BBC Books, 2007.
And if you just can't bother any of these, you can always go for the simplest solution: strawberries and cream.
my visit to the Wimbledon Championships a few years ago, where I had their famous courtside treat (and champagne!). Theirs are a heap of strawberries dusted with sugar and doused in single cream (like half and half), but I like mine with lightly whipped cream. But it is up to you.
And so, as I had my little "strawberry weekend" with all these snow-inspired strawberry sweets, did it snow after all? Oh yes!
I hope you are all keeping nice and warm (unless it's middle of the summer where you are) - soon enough, snow will be gone and field strawberries will start appearing everywhere. Soon enough.
posted by chika at: 1/20/2011 04:58:00 AM