And cherry blossoms were in full bloom only just last couple of weeks or so here in this mountainside area in Nagano, so I daresay I shouldn't be all THAT late in doing another sakura post.
As far as commercially-made sakura sweets are concerned, my being in a countryside meant that I didn't have as much chance to try sakura treats from restaurants/cafes/pastry shops as I would have done in a big city like Tokyo or Kyoto.
But so it happens I made a small trip to Kyoto towards the end of (their) cherry blossom season, so I got to try a few things.
Marun Cafe, near Kiyomizu-dera Temple. It was called "all-sakura spring hanami plate", and consisted of sakura mochi dumplings with matcha sauce, sakura cheesecake, and sakura ice cream with sakura macaron. Everything came in a tiny portion, but that suited me as each was fairly sweet.
I also brought a few sakura sweets back home from Kyoto:
Some can be boring and rather forgettable, but some are quite nice, such as the thin sakura cookies that come in two colors (pink for cherry blossom and green for cherry leaf) from Yokumoku.
Marun - in fact the same place as the cafe I had the sakura sweets platter. All beautifully packaged and very pretty indeed.
Speaking of beautiful packaging, how about this?
Baumkuchen from Club Harie, a shop best known for dreamily soft Baumkuchen. They apparently do special packaging for seasonal themes and special events, and this was their spring version.
While the cake itself wasn't sakura-flavored (although some pastry shops do offer sakura-flavored Baumkuchen), Club Harie did have sakura-flavored something else:
I wish I could have tried more of these stuff, but this is about it (except for sakura chiffon cake and Danish pastry at Starbucks, which I don't have a picture). Perhaps because I didn't have much chance to try store-bought sakura sweets, though, I ended up setting my sights on making some by myself... and boy I worked hard if I say so myself!
Now, in mid March I put together a sakura baking set for a giveaway as a part of my little fundraising campaign for the benefit of relief efforts in Japan in the wake of the devastating earthquake and its disastrous consequences.
sakura meringues and panna cotta. I've also made a few sakura-matcha combos, namely sakura-matcha hot chocolate and sakura
I used such things as sakura flavoring, freeze-dried cherry blossom flakes, and sakura sugar, and I've already elaborated on the sakura baking ingredients I've included in my set.
Nearly all Japanese sakura baking ingredients are made from, flavored with, or in imitation of, salt-cured cherry blossoms or leaves. Both are common, but leaves are what gives sakura-sweets the distinctive flavor that many people associate with cherry blossoms; as the most traditional Japanese sakura sweets, sakura-mochi takes its flavor from the salt-cured cherry leaf that wraps around the mochi, and the pink mochi is usually colored with a (natural) food coloring. That said, the blossoms are also widely used. (*Note that both blossoms and leaves should be rinsed with cold water before use to remove excess salt.)
And from there, there is a whole wide world of sakura baking ingredients out there...
Indeed, there are now so many of them around I gave up on trying to getting them all. And I have been pleasantly surprised to find that I liked quite a few of them; well, as I confessed last year, I'm not really crazy about sakura sweets...no, really! I find sakura flavor in many store-bought sakura sweets to be overpowering to the point of being off-putting, and I don't fancy Japanese sweets (wagashi) in general anyway.
But I found sakura-an to be quite nice if used in moderation, even though I don't like anko (sweet adzuki bean jam) on principle. I also liked the cherry blossoms in syrup and cherry blossom 'confiture' (= jam).
the same manufacturer and in fact the jam (or more like jelly) is, I suspect, a jellied form of the blossoms in syrup.
And the following are things I made using these ingredients, which I've categorized into 'breakfast', 'dessert' and 'teatime', in an attempt of making them a little organized.
*Please note that, due to the fact that sakura sweets and sakura ingredients are by nature very Japanese, most recipes I used and provide links here are written in Japanese only; I suggest you try and use an online translation system such as Google Translate, which isn't perfect but can give you some idea about the ingredients and methods used.
Also, I'm afraid but I am not selling or otherwise offering my sakura baking ingredient set or individual ingredients; the set was a one-off creation for the fundraiser. I appreciate that they are really hard to come by outside of Japan, but I won't be able to accommodate everyone's request. I might do something similar again next spring, but not for now. Thanks for your understanding!
Because I seem to be baking a lot for breakfast...
did a sakura-sugared version earlier, but this is a full-blown, all-frilled sort; here a piece of white bread toast was spread with chilled custard, topped with slices of fresh strawberries, then finished with sakura cream, which was made by combining sakura-an, cream cheese and whipped cream. Very sweet indeed! Nobody needs to know that this was in fact created using leftover ingredients for something else (which, however, you will find out in a few moments).
Now for baking, really:
I love me good scones, and these sakura scones were good.
I made a few different variations, and pretty in pink stripe are what you may call coffee-shop style scones. Studded with white chocolate chunks, they were good and plain except for the fact that, well, they had a bit of sakura flavor.
I used this scone recipe and added a bit of cherry leaf powder and chopped white chocolate in the dough in place of orange zest and currants.
Blurry in the background in the first scone picture, by the way, were another type of sakura scones I made, a variation on strawberry-chocolate scones with an addition of chopped salt-cured cherry leaves; they tasted good as a scone, but I could have added a little more cherry leaves to really taste it.
But you know, even non-sakura or sakura-flavor-two-subtle-to-taste scones can easily be sakura-ed up...
this book that includes recipes for teatime treats offered at a lovely NYC teashop called Tea & Sympathy, which I'd love to visit one day. My friend Joyce first shared this recipe with me years ago, but now it is available for view online.
Here I threw in a handful of frozen raspberries and a bit of chopped salt-cured cherry blossoms in the dough. Well, a bit of blossoms turned out to be a little too little (?) for us to taste sakura in the scones, but a teaspoonful of sakura jelly on top of a dollop of whipped cream solved the problem. No harm done!
recipe that I found last year, and made quite a few times last spring; I made these several times this spring, too. I like how the bean-based sakura-an replaces some of the butter in the dough, and gives just the right level of sakura flavor to the scones.
Now, scones are one of the things I bake most often for breakfast (along with crumbles), but there are a few other breakfast items I wish I'd make more often. And one of them is doughnuts.
But since last spring I was thinking on making sakura doughnuts, and this breathtakingly beautiful post on cherry blossom doughnuts by Aran just did it - only I had to wait for a year to actually try and make them. And I opted for a non-deep-frying option.
I know some of the most devoted doughnut lovers do not approve of the idea of baked doughnuts, but I find some of them quite good. I've tried doughnut muffins (back in 2004!) and enjoyed them a lot, so I'm quite open to the whole world of non-fried doughnuts. (Except maybe for those "baked doughnuts" popping up everywhere in Japan these days, which are plainly just mediocre cakes with a whole in the middle).
Lara's doughnuts book, which provided a simple, easy-to-make vehicle for my sakura doughnuts. I'm quite frankly inexpert at making anything that involves yeast, but I'm happy to report that the recipe worked perfectly well for me (although I ended up using a little more flour than the recipe says), producing soft and puffy goodness.
I added a bit of cherry leaf powder to the dough, and once the 'doughnuts' were out of the oven, I drenched them in melted butter, then rolled half of them in sakura sugar. The other half were glazed with white chocolate glaze (melted white chocolate mixed with heavy cream), and topped with some cherry blossom flakes. Both went down really well in our household, and while I adored the simple sakura sugar doughnuts, my mother seemed to be quite taken with the sakura- white chocolate doughnuts. A tough call!
And another things I really wish I could make more often for breakfast:
since last year, and for these last few batches I seem to have been finally getting the hang of it. At least this batch turned out very well, thanks probably to the recipe rather than my potentially improving skills.
Once you have a good stack of crepes fried and ready, the rest was easy: spread a crepe very thinly with sakura jelly, smear a half of the crepe with lightly whipped cream, place thin slices of fresh strawberries on top, then fold it - and your sakura crepe is ready! I dusted mine with sugar and a sprinkle of cherry blossom flakes, which certainly gave an extra dose of sakura to the crepes.
And if I am to make a confession, I'll admit that my original plan was to make sakura mille crepes. Mille crepes, which literally mean 'a thousand crepes' and are also called crepe cakes, are a layer of crepes filled with pastry cream and/or other cream and/or fruits, standing tall and magnificent. I didn't quite get around to trying it this time, so I compromised by just filling a few crepes instead of thousands (or twenty). Maybe next year.
Now, here are a few breakfast-friendly items...
here for sakura milk jam, then found this for matcha milk jam, and I sort of mixed up the two.
Perhaps you know that you can make milk jam, or perhaps better known as dulce de leche or confiture de lait, by cooking sweetened condensed milk and caramelizing it. You can actually make it using fresh milk, too, which simply takes longer to cook - and that is basically what I did here. Except, I added some heavy cream to milk, and didn't caramelize my batch but stopped cooking when it was very thick but not brown. (In fact, the result was a lot like sweetened condensed milk now I think about it - you could probably just use store-bought sweetened condensed milk - oops).
Anyway, when my milk jam was cooked, I added seemingly a lot of salt-cured cherry blossoms, and a bit of matcha powder dissolved in a small amount of milk jam to a half of the batch.
The jars of pink spreadables, by the way, are sakura jelly and sakura honey. I've used the sakura jelly in a lot of desserts, while sakura honey mostly ended up in my bowl of yogurt, which was still good.
And a home-made pink-ish sakura-flavored spreadable, as well:
What is interesting about it is that, when you cook the fruits, you separate the fruits and cooking liquid, and boil down the liquid only, while the fruits are cooked only very briefly (though you do need to macerate the berries overnight). This way, you can preserve the vivid and fresh flavor of the fruits while getting a consistency of jam. Think of compote with jam-ish syrup.
I followed the methods given in the recipe, but not the list of ingredients; for instance, I didn't measure the fruits but just used whatever I had in hand. Another thing is that I used honey (to taste) instead of sugar, which worked fine. And oh, I threw a few salt-cured cherry blossoms into my pot when the jam was done. Again, the flavor was really subtle, but it was nice to find a hint of floral scent and a bit of saltiness in the sweet-tart preserves. As suggested in the recipe, it was lovely with french toast, too!
Now, have you had enough of sakura for breakfast?
I'll start with the simplest of all:
Now something a little more elaborate...
Served with sakura jelly that's been loosened with just a bit of Kirsch (or water), it makes really simple but adorable dessert, especially if you make it in pretty molds/cups like I did here.
And something yet more (only) slightly elaborate...
The recipe and can only be viewed in Japanese (it's flash-based, so Google Translation wouldn't work), but basically, you put softened cream cheese, silken tofu (yes, this happened to be tofu cheesecake), chopped fresh strawberries, and sugar in the blender, process until smooth, and add prepared unflavored gelatin - and in my case, a bit of syrup from the cherry blossoms in syrup and sakura liqueur. The mixture was then chilled until set, with thin slices of sponge doused in white wine-spiked syrup on the bottom.
Now, although the cake turned out decently pretty and tasty, I should add that using both the sakura syrup and liqueur wasn't a good idea; they added somewhat funny flavor to the finished cake, which may have been because the flavoring was overpowering. If I make it again, I'd use only one of the two, perhaps the syrup.
And with this finding, I decided to use the syrup and liqueur separately...
here for more information). You couldn't give the dessert more appropriate names than these, right?
The kanten gems were made using cherry blossoms in syrup, combined with sparkling wine (like the sparkling sakura cocktail I did before); you can use unflavored gelatin instead of kanten to ensure that your dessert is crystal-clear (kanten can cloud the liquid a little when it's set). The kanten snow, meanwhile, was simply stiffly whipped egg whites (with a lot of sugar, of course) gelled with kanten; I added a bit of sakura liqueur for a subtle flavor and color.
They were both okay, but interestingly, they tasted a lot better when eaten together. A new finding? The cherry blossoms in syrup and sakura liqueur can be had together, but how you use them seems to matter. Hmmmm.
Now something other than gelatin dessert...
But once you've tucked in, chances are you'd find them taste more than just fine - they were pretty darn delicious! These were sakura-strawberry mont blanc tartlets, a bite-sized, pink-colored, fruit-filled, and pastry shell-embedded cousin to the chestnut-based dessert that was named after the well-known mountain. I made it years ago (also in 2004!), and you can see how my piping skills haven't improved a bit.
But let's talk about how they tasted, rather than how they looked. Each tart shell (store-bought, I must admit) was filled with a bit of chilled custard and topped with a fresh strawberry, cut in halves or quarters if necessary. Then the sakura cream (which was a mixture of sakura-an, cream cheese and whipped cream) was piped on top of the berry to cover the whole thing.
But now you know what I suspect you might have noticed other than that? It's so obvious, but I was probably relying a little too heavily on strawberries when it comes to the fruit pairing with cherry blossoms. Sure, I've used rhubarb and raspberries, too, but not nearly as much as strawberries.
There are good reasons for this: strawberries go excellently well with cherry blossoms, both in color (red-pink) and flavor. Also, they are in season when the blossoms are around, and probably the only fresh fruit that is abundant at this time of the year and pairs well with cherry blossoms. Sure, varieties of citrus fruits are around, too, but I don't find them a great match to cherry blossoms. Meanwhile, I think stone fruits would complement the flavor of the flower nicely, but they are rarely seen in April.
...well, not in April, no.
Of course, I'd considered pairing cherries with cherry blossoms before (why not?), but fresh cherries for eating don't usually become available until late April, and even when they do, they are outrageously expensive. They are still not cheap now (or for the rest of the season, actually), but not as bad as they are in April. So when I found a not-so-outrageously-pricey basket of local cherries at a nearby grocery store, I got one to use them for a sakura dessert.
And although it goes against my grain to cook the fairly expensive, first-of-the-season sweet cherries, I decided to gently poach a handful of them in a honey-sweetened light syrup (a mixture of white wine and water half-and-half), and popped a few salt-cured cherry blossoms in the syrup as I took it off heat to infuse everything with the flower.
Topped with a few poached cherries along with a few more spoonfuls of the syrup (with petals in it), they made cherry trifle with cherry blossoms - pretty without being too precious, light and fresh, sweet and a bit salty. They were a hit! Well, I was glad my precious cherries hadn't been cooked for nothing....
Now I don't necessarily distinguish desserts from teatime treats, as I tend to eat them just when I like to, either in the mid afternoon or after dinner (or first thing in the morning!). But below are things that I think will fit for snacking with a cup of tea or coffee during your work break - or any time of the day, indeed.
Want some tea?
I made a variety of sakura cookies last spring, from biscotti and snowballs to Japanese-inspired spiced thins and matcha-flavored rounds. I enjoyed them all, but the one that I came back to over and over again was a crunchy sakura-shaped one with melted white chocolate and cherry leaf powder in the dough and a few petals on top. They were pretty and quite addictive.
here and I've explained a bit about them in my past posts.
I would have been pretty happy eating these same cookies the whole spring, but I did try a couple of other sakura cookie variations:
For the cookie recipe I loosely followed this one - a pretty standard cookie dough with a bit of ground almonds mixed in. I've replaced about one-third of the butter with sakura-an, which didn't seem to change the flavor or texture of the baked cookies (oh well). Icing was basically the same with the one I'd used for pink scones: confectioner's sugar mixed with sakura liqueur. This did add a waft of sakura scent to the cookies.
Fancy something a little thicker and larger? No problem:
this recipe for shortbread dough and left out fennel seeds (but left lemon zest in).
Now, while I made certain recipes (such as these cookies), more than once in this spring, there were a bunch of things I wanted to make with cherry blossoms and never did, such as mille crepes, chiffon cake, ice cream, financiers, among others. Overall, I wish I'd baked some sort of sakura cakes or maybe even muffins - perhaps next year.
original recipe, they were made as madeleines, but I don't own a madeleine pan, so tea cakes that is. I do have a set of small flower-shaped baking cups, so I used them.
These cakes use cherry leaf powder mixed into the batter and are glazed with sakura glaze (simple glaze with cherry blossom flakes mixed in). I followed the recipe, except for cutting the amount of cherry leaf powder to less than half of what the recipe says, which seemed to be way too much. It looked like my tweaking worked, as my cakes still came out distinctively green inside and tasted a lot of sakura.
And as if I had needed a reminder that I'm really clumsy at decorating/shaping cakes, I faced one great challenge in my two months of baking with sakura...
my days of trial and error with "my sakura-mochi - or sakura-cream ichigo daifuku (strawberry mochi with whipped cream and cherry blossoms).
Every daifuku cake encases a whole fresh strawberry, a bit of sakura-an, and whipped cream in a tender mochi shell - juicy, sweet, fluffy and soft all in one bite! To celebrate the sakura season, they were sakura-nized with the sakura-an inside and the sakura flakes in the mochi shell. I may never be expert at shaping these into perfect spheres like some are, but no matter what shape my sakura-ichigo cream daifuku takes (or not), I know they will always taste great.
Phew, that's it for my sakura baking this year...
But you know what? Since this post is already well past the this-is-so-long-it-is-completely-ridiculous point, I might as well squeeze a few more stuff in here...
Because it's not just for sweets:
One of the more common sakura-flavored savory items may be noodles, such as udon and soba. I have long been rather skeptical about the whole lot of them (well, I didn't use to like sakura flavor in anything in the first place...), but thought I'd try. And this sakura udon was alright; we had it as a sort of noodle salad with what we happened to have at home (onion, cabbage, and plum tomatoes), seasoned simply with olive oil, juice of lemon, and salt and pepper.
Meanwhile, this is probably the most common savory sakura dish of all:
More common than other savory sakura dishes as it may be, I had never particularly liked sakura-gohan myself - in fact, I can't remember if I had ever tried it. But this year, my mother (heavily) hinted that she'd like to have sakura-gohan as I busied myself with cherry blossoms in the kitchen, so again, I thought I'd try.
There are a bunch of recipes around, and I more or less followed these recipes. Both use a combination of regular Japanese rice and mochi-gome (Japanese glutenous rice); this is a common method to make a batch of rice that is slightly stickier and heavier than the regular cooked rice, often with a variety of mix-ins.
Once you've rinsed your rice, you can start cooking it straight away; there is no need to steep it in the water as you might do with regular rice. I cooked it in a rice cooker on the regular white rice setting, but I assume you should be able to cook it in a pot on a stovetop as you would do when cooking regular (Japanese) white rice, but not 100% sure. Whatever you do, make you have the right amount of liquid when all the seasonings have been added; you want your seasoned water in the equal amount to your rice by volume.
When the rice has been cooked, gently fold in a few extra (pre-rinsed) salt-cured cherry blossoms. I made it into rice balls, but you don't have to. Either way, it tastes pretty good when cooled to room temperature, thanks perhaps to the addition of the salt-cured blossoms and the umezu brine - which makes it perfect for taking to a picnic.
And I wanted to make bento lunch by myself this time; I went to a hanami picnic a few times last year while in Kyoto, but all those times we'd buy food from store (or eat at a makeshift outdoor izakaya restaurant), as we didn't get around to making one ourselves. So this year I was determined to make my hanami bento, and sakura-gohan seemed to fit the bill. And it certainly did!
As the sakura-gohan onigiri (rice balls) was trusted to take center stage in my bento box, everything else was kept simple - just some spring veggies, omelet, things like that.
And I brought some snacks/desserts, of course!
Personally, I was very pleased with my own hanami bento, and we all enjoyed it - you know how everything tastes twice as good when you eat it outdoors?
On that day, we went to a place called Kaikoen Garden, or the ruins of Komoro Castle, a short drive trip from where I am. It's a big hanami site for the locals, and sure enough, we were among quite a few folks on a picnic even if it was a weekday afternoon.
here if you are still awake. And this wraps up (for real!) my two-month musings on cherry blossoms this spring. I know a lot of you aren't be as obsessed with cherry blossoms as we are here, but I hope you got to enjoy a glimpse of our once-a-year fever over the flower.
It's truly one of the most beautiful time of the year in Japan, and with all that has been happening this spring, the fleeting beauty seemed to break and cure my heart somehow at the same time. Here's my hoping that we will all be able to truly celebrate the season in a happier heart next season.