March 24, 2011

spring: hope and memory

Is spring around your corner yet?

Having never stayed in this mountainous countryside that is Nagano this time of the year, I have little idea as to when it should start feeling like spring here. The day is getting longer and the sunlight is becoming warmer, yes, but the wind is still bitterly cold and our fireplace is thus rarely out of fire. I think we had several warm days over the past few weeks, but it has definitely been mid-winter cold for these last few days.

So when I thought about whipping up a drink with a sakura flavor, I found myself drawn to a wintertime favorite...

...except it had a whiff of spring: sakura & matcha hot chocolate. Both matcha (green tea) and sakura tend to be paired with white chocolate rather than brown chocolate, perhaps to keep their colors - bright green of matcha and delicate pink of cherry blossoms -, but they both work well with bitter/milk chocolate, too.

Here I loosely followed a recipe found in here (in Japanese): for each serving, heat 80-100 ml or so (little over 1/3 cup) of milk together with 2-3 heaping tablespoons of chopped dark chocolate, stirring to melt the chocolate thoroughly; in a small bowl, whisk together a heaping teaspoon of matcha and 2-3 tablespoons of boiling water until thoroughly blended and foamy; pour the chocolate milk in a glass and top with foamy matcha; sprinkle with some sakura sugar and a few petals from "blooming" sakura (a salt-cured cherry blossom soaked in water for a few minutes to remove excess salt, then microwaved until dried and popped); serve immediately.

It's best not to stir before you take your sip, but allow the flavors of matcha and chocolate mingle together in your mouth, with a hint of salty sakura along the way.

And did I say matcha and sakura tend to be paired with white chocolate? Well, they are, and for a good reason; mild, mellow white chocolate seems to take the bitter or sour edge off matcha or sakura (which, in food items, are usually prepared by curing cherry blossoms/leaves in salt), as it did in these matcha and white chocolate squares with sakura.
The recipe (in Japanese) is basically a one for brownies, except the results were, well, not brown. Should I call them greenies? That sounds sort of wrong, but I don't know.

You can look up the recipe in English courtesy of google translation - the translation leaves much to be desired, but you can at least get the ingredients (for your information, "soft flour" is supposed to refer to pastry flour, "tea" to matcha powder, and "BP" to baking powder). I used a little less white chocolate than specified, and added 1/2 teaspoon of sakura leaf powder. It can be a one-bowl (or -pan) recipe, as you can just melt the butter and chocolate together, add the egg, sugar, and sifted dry ingredients, mixing well after each addition of the ingredients.

I sprinkled sakura petals (also from a microwave-bloomed cherry blossom) over the batter before baking (and some more before serving), but the sakura flavor here comes mainly from the leaf powder used in the batter. At first, I was disappointed as I didn't taste much of sakura, but when the squares were left overnight, the flavor became a lot more pronounced - though not overpowering. I used sliced blanched almonds, but chopped pistachios would have been nice, too.

And yes, all the sakura stuff I used here?

March 16, 2011

hope for sakura

First of all, let me THANK YOU ALL for all the thoughts, sympathy, and love that you have sent our way as we face the disasters that have been hitting us hard here in Japan, particularly the north and east parts of the country. Your words, prayers and helping hands have touched to my core as we struggle to get through a tide of problems as more are mounting up.

And THANK YOU also for your support to my little campaign to raise fund for disaster relief efforts in Japan by making a donation or spreading a word, when I haven't even given full details on the little giveaway I say I am doing as a part of the campaign. So without further ado, let's get down to the business: it's a sakura (cherry blossom) baking ingredients giveaway that I would like to offer in appreciation for your generosity.
* UPDATE 3/22: the giveaway is now closed - thank you everyone! Donation is still accepted and very much appreciated.

As I have already mentioned in my last, quick post here, I had been thinking for a while about doing a little giveaway, as over the past year I have had quite a few inquiries as to where and how they might be able to find some of sakura-flavored baking supplies, especially cherry blossom extract (flavoring), among other things I used when I baked a bunch of things in cherry blossom flavors.

Many of these sakura things are available only for a limited time of the year, i.e. in early spring - before the real blossoms come to full bloom. They usually come around at the end of February or early March. So I started my shopping, mostly online, at the beginning of this month, and things had started arriving... when the earthquake hit.

As an ominously long quake we felt here in Nagano turned out to have been a humongous earthquake that struck the coastline in Tohoku hundreds of miles away and devastated hundreds of thousands of our people, I became less and less sure if this was the time for me to be doing such a lighthearted thing as a baking supplies giveaway. But since I had already bought far more of the stuff than I'd use up before the end of this spring, I wanted to put it in a good use - and thought it would make indeed a good use if I used it as a part of fundraising for the relief efforts.

So there we go - my little sakura baking ingredient set:

March 12, 2011


I was going to write about how I baked cakes and made desserts using yuzu, after I'd turned a good lot of them into marmalade. It took me days to write the post (I'm a slow writer...) and I had nearly finished it. Then... I couldn't. I was not able to bring myself to publish a post about how I baked this or that. Not after seeing all that was happening, and still is happening, here in Japan.

By now most of you are probably aware, a massive earthquake struck off the coast of northeast Japan in early Friday afternoon. The magnitude 8.9 quake is said to be the largest one ever recorded in Japan, and the fifth largest (I think) in the world in the last century or so - but that was only a part of the story. We have since been (or even before that, too) hit by who knows how many aftershocks, including pretty big ones, in a widespread area mostly in the northern parts of the country.

The big quake was bad enough by itself, but it triggered apocalyptic tsunamis that then crashed over the already damaged areas and caused more damage, engulfing cars, ships, houses, buildings, fields... and towns. And smashed up cars and houses were swept away in the flooding water, catching on fire here and there. I remember watching a live footage of a particularly ferocious tsunami on TV, about an hour after the massive quake; I stood there transfixed as it gushed out over the fields, carrying cars and houses, and easily smashing roads and bridges...

...And it has been about 36 hours since that deadly shake, and I've spent those 36 hours pretty much in front of the TV, glued to the news, barely having any sleep. I am extremely fortunate that I know all of my families are safe and well. I was, and still am in Nagano, where the damage has been minimal (though a northern part of Nagano has had its own big quakes). I managed to get a hold of all of my families within a few hours after the big quake. I have also got in touch with my relatives and friends in Tokyo eventually, all shaken, but safe.

And over those 36 hours, things seem to have gone from bad to worse, as the full extent of damage gradually unfolded. So I feel both fortunate and anguished to be able to stay in a warm room and eat and drink as normal, following the news on TV and staying mostly up-to-date with whatever information that becomes available, with full knowledge that my families are all safe. I feel fortunate for all that I have, and feel anguished to think about all the people who at this moment have little or none of it, in the midst of affected area. It's devastating, traumatizing just to watch all these terrible things happening, and it's beyond my imagination how it would be like for the people who actually go through all these.

So I just had to put off publishing the nearly finished yuzu post, perhaps until next winter now that the yuzu season is nearing to end. Instead, I decided to bring up something that has been in my mind. Actually there are two things; first is something that I have been pondering on and off over the last year, and it's a little giveaway.

How would you like it if you got your hand on some sakura (cherry blossom)-flavored baking ingredients?

Yes, it's (almost) that time again - sakura!!! Remember how I got almost obsessed with playing around with cherry blossom flavors in baking last spring?

I have lost count of the number of e-mails I have received from abroad over the past year, asking me how they could get their hand on sakura-based baking supplies, particularly cherry blossom flavoring. So I have come to wonder what if I just did a giveaway and got done with it (if I can). The truth is, I felt bad I couldn't help them all - I did help a few of them, but obviously couldn't help every single one of people who asked me about this or that sakura thing.

So I started shopping sakura-flavored baking supplies about a week ago or so to create my "sakura set". Then the earthquakes hit, and as I was watching TV yesterday, following the news, thinking what I could do to help them, one of the packages I'd ordered for some of the ingredients arrived. Then it hit me; what if I made this little giveaway a fundraiser at the same time?

I was buying all the ingredients at my own expenses to give away, and wasn't going to ask anyone for payment. But if some people found this as an opportunity to help the disaster relief efforts that are needed in the land of cherry blossoms, wouldn't it be okay for me to ask them to make a little contribution?

Maybe this is just my naive idea of emergency relief support, but I've decided to do what I can do. So here is my little fund-raising campaign site I've set up. I would like to invite you to take a look, and make a contribution if you find it worthwhile. And I'll pick a few winners from among those who have made a donation, and send them a little sakura baking ingredients.

I am still in the process of creating the set, and will do another post on full details sometime next week. Now I'm fully aware that you'd find it odd that I invite you to enter to a giveaway before showing you what exactly it is that you are going to enter to win, but I thought people in disaster zones would need your support now rather than next week. If you're curious, you can take a glimpse of some of the things that go into the set here.

So forgive me for not doing things in the "right" order, but I hope you'll understand. You can of course wait until I do the full giveaway post next week - or just simply go and make a contribution, no sakura involved. It's up to you. But if you are unsure, wait until I post the full details.
* 3/17 UPDATE: full details are now available here.

Lastly, I wanted to thank those of you who sent us your thoughts, sympathy, prayers, and love - it meant a whole lot to us. We are safe, but there are so many others who aren't, and they need our support. Any support will be appreciated. Thank you! -cx

* Fundraising + giveaway - Japan Disaster Relief with Sakura