May 27, 2011

for the love of rice...

Ready for lunch bites, guys?

Last weekend on a very hot day I found myself out in the countryside some miles away from central Tokyo. Someone I know grows his own rice - organically, I might add - in a small paddy field he borrows there, and it was one of his many weekend visits to the field. And it one of the most important, even, as it was to plant seedlings.

He'd often go to work in the field on his own, but with the rice planting being probably one of the most important and labor-intensive processes in rice farming (most of which he does manually), he had an army of helpers for the weekend; his friends, friends of a friend, and their families, a few folks I know among them.

And I happened to be back in Tokyo for a week or so, and was invited to join the party - but not to help the work; they knew perfectly well that I wasn't exactly keen on doing farm work, but simply suggested that I should go out a bit and get some fresh air. I couldn't help but think that I'd feel rather uncomfortable being in the middle of people who would be there exclusively to help out the field work when I'm not. When I told them about this concern, however, they shrugged it off, saying that everyone was to be there because they wanted to, and they wouldn't mind if I was there doing my own stuff.

So I ended up crawling out of bed at six in the morning and spending the next few hours at the back of a seven-seater, dozing off occasionally before we finally reached the end of a narrow country road by patches of fields.

May 12, 2011

sweet in pink, and a little bit salty...

Right. It's already midway through May and I'm still talking about cherry blossoms, you wondered? Especially when I started babbling about it in early March? I know, I know. But now hear me out: the thing is, I've ended up trying a whole lot of sakura sweets (and a bit of savories, too) since March, perhaps even more than I did last spring, and it seems a bit of shame if I didn't write about it at all, which has unfortunately happened alarmingly often on my poor oft-neglected blog.

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.
... Errr okay, most certainly I AM still quite late to be fair. But my lame excuses aside, I thought it wouldn't hurt to look back our customary early spring frenzy over those sweet little flowers.


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.
This pretty platter of little sakura sweets I tried at a cafe called 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:
Soft cakes filled with sakura cream, thin crisp cookies flavored with cherry blossoms and leaves, twice-baked bread slices with sakura icing, sakura macarons... seriously, it's not an exaggeration to say that every single pastry shop had at least one (limited-edition) sakura-themed something on offer in April.

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.
Other things I enjoyed were these simple round cookies, elegant cigarette cookies and unassuming-looking twice-baked bread slices, which were all sakura-flavored and came from a shop called 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?
Isn't this totally pretty? The is 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:
Giant cookies and almond pies! Both larger than my palm, they were very subtly flavored with cherry blossoms - and perfect for sharing!

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!

May 11, 2011

my first ichigo daifuku, with frills

It started simple enough; the most traditional Japanese confectionery using cherry blossoms is, hands down, sakura-mochi. But as I avoid pretty much everything with anko (sweet adzuki bean paste), those anko-filled sakura mochi has never appealed to me.

That said, I don't mind ichigo daifuku, or daifuku mochi filled with a strawberry and anko. Perhaps that's because the use of a strawberry as the filling results in lesser amount of anko involved, making it easier for me to handle. Fresh, slightly tart berries also cut back the otherwise clogging sweetness of anko. And as I found out that I prefer sakura-an (sweet white bean curd flavored with cherry leaves and colored in pink) to regular adzuki-based anko, I thought I'd try and make ichigo-daifuku using sakura-an, thus sakura ichigo daifuku. Simple enough, right?