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.
Among them, my favorite for the past few years has been amao, a variety known for its exceptionally large and sweet fruit, developed and grown in Japan's southwest prefecture of Fukuoka.

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?
Berries arrived in a pristine state - large and round, shiny and red as they should be. We admired the beauty, then shared some of them with neighbors.

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.
But my friend suggested as she arranged the delivery of berries to me, that I should do my own little "amao festival", which basically meant that I should make good use of the supply and enjoy them in as many ways as I could think of. And when you have a large supply of something this good, have the luxury of eating them in ways other than just popping one straight into your mouth - why not experiment? Honestly, how truly lucky am I?

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.
Of course, not the real snow, really. Not for eating purposes, anyway. But for eating, I thought I'd make something (edible) that might look like - or evoke an image of - snow. Something white, light, and delicate. And preferably tasty, too. And hopefully in a variety of ways.

So I spent the weekend having a lot of fun trying to let it snow over the ruby red berries...

My idea here was to do as little as possible to amao strawberries that are best eaten as is, while whipping up 'snow' that complements the fresh berries. I did cook some of the berries, but tried to keep it to a minimum.

Now the first thing I made was a little classic from down under...
Strawberry pavlova; crisp and brittle outside while chewy and soft inside, 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.
Because the meringue itself is heavily sweet, I like to keep the other elements as simple as possible; I usually don't sweeten my whipped cream, and use only a small amount of sugar for the fruits. Here I tossed some chopped berries in just a bit of granulated sugar and a dash of kirsch, just to bring out the flavor of the strawberries.

... Um, what, this isn't like snow at all? Then how about something icy and light, just like snow?
Okay, you can't let it fall down from the clouds, but this yogurt sorbet might possibly be the closest thing to the idea of "edible snow" - except maybe 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.
Rather than plain yogurt, this time I actually used 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...
This may look suspiciously like the pavlova you've seen a minute ago, but they are two very different things; this was meant to be crémet d'Anjou, a 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.
Here I turned to 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 may look like a bowl of soapy water, except the foams are quite stiff. It is, as I'd call it, fluffy champagne gelatin - and no, all the bubbles weren't from the sparkling wine. Nor any cream or meringue was added to it, like I promised. It's simply sparkling wine, lightly sweetened with honey, gelled with unflavored gelatin, and chilled. But before it set, it was whipped up in a blender (or with an electric mixer) until foamy all over, then chilled until set. The result is firm, spoonable foams that will stay steady in your serving bowl, but melt away in your mouth.

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.
Despite my laziness, I still got a plenty of fluffy stuff, and I served a few spoonfuls with fresh strawberries - now this sort of really looks like snow, right?

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.
Okay, here goes: this is rice pudding - now I could almost hear yucks and blahs. But really, this bears little resemblance to your usual rice puddings, in both look and taste. In fact, there isn't much rice in it, in the first place. It's mostly cream - light, fluffy, and sweet.

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.
And I could see why. Like I've said, it's more of cream than rice, and you might not even recognize it's rice pudding if you haven't been told.

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...
I felt that my ingredient list of the weekend had been a little too heavy on heavy cream and egg whites, and wanted to make something a little different. And I ended up using cream and egg whites yet again, but as supporting players. These are coconut sponge rounds with whipped white chocolate ganache, a.k.a. snow sandwiches.

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.
Dusted with confectioner's sugar, these puffy sandwiches may not look exactly like snow, but still have an air of fresh powdery snow, I think. And they are superb with fresh strawberries - I first served the berries alongside the sandwiches for a "snow & strawberry" look, but they tasted better when filled with the strawberry slices together with the cream.

And if you just can't bother any of these, you can always go for the simplest solution: strawberries and cream.
Fresh berries and cream, and a generous dusting of confectioner's sugar make a simple yet excellent treat that will totally fit the strawberry & snow theme. I have a fond memory of this little classic, from 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!
Pretty, isn't it? Japan has had a lot of snow this winter in many parts of the country, but so far not in Tokyo - so this was first snow of the winter for me. It's mostly gone by now, but they say there are more snows to come. I plan on staying in, watching the snow fall through the windows, sat right by the fireplace, enjoying the winter comfort.

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.


Skye said...

oooh, those look so delicious!

Coming from countries where you pick strawberries out in fields in the hot summer sun, and weigh the full buckets to take home, I've never quite come to terms with the hot-house winter-version available in Japan. Partly it's because I'm cheap, but partly I think it's cultural associations - for me strawberries mean summer, and summer means strawberries.

Although it's nice to have something to look forward to in winter...

Shalum said...

Strawberries are one of the most beautiful things in the world!

chika said...

Skye - i have a similar sentiment. it's been years since strawberries became widely available in december, but i still find it odd, and idoubt i'm the only one here. although, it's more like late spring/early summer that i associate strawberries with - i guess full-on japanese summer is generally too hot for them!

Xiaolu @ 6 Bittersweets said...

This is probably the most thorough, creative, and beautiful realization of a dessert idea I've ever seen. I'm so glad to have discovered your blog last year. And I love that you took your inspiration from the snow outside.

Emily said...

As a reader living in Fukuoka, I was thrilled to read this particular post ^^ Your culinary adventures with amao are delightful, and your photographs amazing as always!

Siobhan said...

An essay on strawberries of the most beautiful kind. Thank you.

Emma @ Shichimi said...

I always look forward to poring over your beautiful photos, but these really take the cake! (or should I say the cream?) A truly lovely post.

Tanvi@Sinfully Spicy said...

What a beautiful and simple way with strawberries.I m totally in love with this concept of fresh snow & red them.So glad to find your beautiful blog.

Anonymous said...

What a beautiful post. Living in Los Angeles, we have strawberries all year at the farmers markets. I try to restrain myself from buying any until I can smell them from 2 stands away. Last year I played around with using finely ground freeze dried strawberries in my pavlova and it worked like a dream. Beautiful pink clouds that actually tasted like strawberries.

Winnie said...

How dreamy! It is the middle of summer here in Australia, so it was so romantic to see such pretty photos of snow!! Oh - and the pavlova of course =D

The snow foam reminds me of a Chinese dessert called coconut pudding (a common dessert at dim sum lunches), which is exactly as you described...and i never thought to try the technique on anything else!

Thanks for another fabulous post!

Suzanne said...

I would love to try each and every strawberry dessert you made! They all look wonderful!

carbon copy pro said...

Thank you for an interesting recipe!

Ronnie Lavi said...

I just love your photos and style in the blog.

chika said...

hello all, thanks for your comments and kind words.

Emily - you really should be proud! hoping to get a few more before they are gone for the year...

fiona - pavlova with powdered dried strawberries sounds like an excellent idea! a truly dream dessert..

Valerie said...

Love visiting your pages. Keeps the love of Japan in my mind after spending 10 years in Japan. Hope to return to visit some day. Would love to see all my friends. I am going to try a couple of your strawberry recipes. Thank you.

Deena said...

Those strawberries look so red and very attractive - I am sure no one could resist such deliciously looking fruit. I especially love to eat strawberries when it is cold that is the reason why I love to mixed it with my ice cream recipes.