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!

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.
Along the way I made a few sakura sweets using these ingredients, such as sakura meringues and panna cotta. I've also made a few sakura-matcha combos, namely sakura-matcha hot chocolate and sakura brownies greenies, which I have already blogged about.

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.
But my sakura baking ingredient sampling didn't quite stop there, as you might be able to guess from the picture above. All of them are cherry blossom- and leaf-flavored products, mostly naturally-flavored - and some are even real cherry blossoms and leaves.

salt-cured cherry blossoms and leaves as baking/cooking ingredients

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...
from bottom to top: sakura-an (sweet white bean curd flavored with cherry leaves and colored in pink), cherry blossoms in syrup, cherry blossom jam (jelly), cherry blossom flavoring, sakura sugar, and cherry blossom liqueur

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, 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).
Both happen to be from 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!

>>> sakura for breakfast <<<

Because I seem to be baking a lot for breakfast...
...or not precisely baking, perhaps, as is the case with this sweet sakura toast. I 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:
Scones! 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.
Once baked, I topped each scones with sakura icing (which I'd prepared by combining confectioner's sugar and sakura liqueur), and a few petals of microwave-bloomed salt-cured cherry blossoms (for details, see one of my older posts).

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...
...if you have sakura jelly around, that is. And if you indeed have it, you'll enjoy these raspberry scones with sakura jelly; the recipe for these non-butter scones (with a lot of heavy cream, though) is from 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!

More scones...
Adorned with a blossom and also loaded with white chocolate chunks, these homey-pretty scones got their sakura flavor from saura-an and some chopped salt-cured blossoms used in the dough. This is a 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.
... hang on, perhaps they are more like something I'm glad I'm not making too often! I mean, I LOVE DONUTS... but they aren't exactly in the category of healthy food, and I never really deep-fry anything.

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).
Here I used the baked raised doughnut recipe in 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:
Crepes. Being in the skillet/iron recipe category, crepes have long been on the list of things I can never pull off (others include pancakes and even waffles). I have been trying to make them a few times 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...
How about something spreadable? These tiny jars of white and green thingies are sakura milk jams - plain sakura & sakura-matcha milk jams, more precisely. I first got the idea 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.
I must say that the flavor of sakura wasn't really pronounced, not as much as I'd hoped in either of the two. Perhaps I ought to have added more blossoms, or maybe used sakura flavoring or liqueur.

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:
Perhaps more red than pink, but sakura-flavored nonetheless, this is strawberry-rhubarb preserves with cherry blossoms. And no, I'm not partial to jams in general, and strawberry jam is perhaps at the bottom of my list - but I couldn't resist when I came across this recipe.

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?
But you'd still like dessert (or teatime treats), surely? Come on, I know you would.... (And if not, walk away for a while and do whatever that needs to be done, and come back when you're hungry again.)

>>> sakura for dessert <<<

I'll start with the simplest of all:
White chocolate-covered strawberries with sakura; yes, these are just good old chocolate-covered strawberries, only with sprinkles of cherry blossom flakes on top. Yes, simple as that. But simply good.

Now something a little more elaborate...
Well, by 'a little more elaborate', I meant 'still damn simple to make but only slightly more involving than dipping strawberries in melted chocolate'. Anyhow, this yogurt mousse with sakura really was a breeze to make: combine plain yogurt with lightly whipped cream (about 2 parts yogurt and 1 part cream) together with sugar and a few drops of cherry blossom flavoring (optional), then add prepared unflavored gelatin to make a very soft mousse.

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...
This sakura-strawberry cheesecake looked nice enough, but was really easy to prepare as pretty much all I did was to pop everything into a blender.

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...
One is clear in shocking pink and the other is cloud-like in pale pink, these are Japanese-style sakura jelly - i.e. they were gelled with kanten (agar-agar). The clear pink one may be called kingyoku-kan ('kanten gems'), while the paler version will be awayuki-kan ('kanten snow'), with the 'snow' being the result of the use of meringue in the mixture (see 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...
I can't decide whether these look pretty or creepy. With hart-shaped pastry shells and sprinkles of cherry blossom petals, they were, of course, meant to look pretty, period. But my decoration skills (or lack thereof) somehow jeopardized the aesthetics of what should have been a fine little 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.
And you noticed something? Yes, these were what I made before the sweet sakura toast that appeared above; I couldn't bother to make more than a few of these tartlets, so saved the most of the custard and sakura cream for the following morning and made ourselves the most extravagant toast. The best leftover ever!

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.
But this year, most likely because I was still baking with cherry blossoms in early May, some of the stone fruits started popping up at stores - cherries specifically.

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.
Cherries were left to steep overnight, by then the syrup turned a palest shade of pink from the blossoms (and perhaps the fruit). Now I took out a few Italian ladyfinger biscuits, broke them into large pieces, soaked them briefly in some of the pink syrup, and placed them in a pretty glass bowl. I whipped some heavy cream very lightly and mixed it with some mascarpone cheese, which I spooned into the bowls.

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.

>>> sakura for teatime <<<

Want some tea?
And cookies?

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.
I have made these white chocolate & sakura cookies several times this year, too - in fact, they were the first sakura treat that I made this spring. The recipe is 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:
Although they were cut out with the same small sakura-shaped cookie cutter, these iced sakura cookies had a different dough and decorations.

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:
I got these sakura shortbread for you! Dotted with real cherry blossoms and covered with a thin layer of granulated sugar, these tasted only subtly of cherry blossoms, but in a good way. For the shortbread dough, I used 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.
And these sakura tea cakes were one of the few I made. In the 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.
I could probably done better with glazing, but then again, since when I was great at decorating cakes?

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...
... and suffered a crushing defeat. Well, it wasn't as if all was lost, though; they still tasted every bit as delicious as similar store-bought stuff. I'm talking about 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...
Quite a few of them now I look back like this!

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...

>>> a little extra: sakura for lunch & picnic <<<

Because it's not just for sweets:
You know Japanese people nowadays add flavors of cherry blossom to all sorts of sweets, but our obsession affection to this de-facto national flower doesn't stop there; we do, in fact, use them in cooking (savory dishes), too, though not as often as we do in baking.

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:
No, not the sakura cookies; it's sakura gohan, or sakura-flavored rice - the pink-ish rice balls wrapped in a cherry leaf and adorned with a blossom on top, that's the one.

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.
Here, the two types of rices (I used in 1:1 ratio, about 3 Japanese rice cups combined = 2 1/4 standard US cups or 540 ml) was combined with water seasoned with a piece of kombu, a tablespoon or two of sake, a pinch of salt, and a bunch of pre-rinsed salt-cured cherry blossoms (stems removed; about 20 g or 2/3 oz) - a combined total of 2 1/4 cups or 540 ml. This is optional, but to lightly tint the rice in pink, I also added some umezu (the brine produced when preparing umeboshi) by substituting 1/4 cup or so of it for the equal amount of water.

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.
Indeed, that was what I made for our hanami picnic when the cherry blossoms finally came to full bloom in our neck of the woods in Nagano at the end of April. We (okay, mostly I) had been talking about going to hanami for a whole month, checking the cherry blossom forecasts (which predict when and where the blossoms start blooming, come to full bloom, or start falling - something only we have in Japan...) every so often.

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.
For drinks, my first choice would have been sparkling rose, but instead I got myself a can of non-alcoholic 'cocktail' - shockingly pink and sakura-flavored (surprise!). We also brought some hot tea (green tea and hoji-cha tea) in thermos, keeping us warm and well-hydrated.

And I brought some snacks/desserts, of course!
I suspect you might have seen these sakura cookies and macarons a few lifetimes ago? Well, other than those, I made yogurt 'jelly' cubes using kanten (which doesn't melt at room temperature unlike gelatin-based puddings - another good item for picnic) and took them in a jar along with fresh strawberries. When ready to eat, I served some with a drizzle of sakura-flavored honey - hence yogurt kanten cubes and strawberries with sakura-flavored honey. Shrimp-flavored rice crackers (store-bought, but in pink-ish packaging!) provided a good dose of saltiness to the otherwise all-sweet assortments.

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?
And when you happened to do so under the huge cherry tree where the wind was blowing the petals off and letting it 'snow' on a warm spring day, it would feel like a perfect springtime picnic.

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.

There are some more pictures from the day 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.
Thanks for all the love and thoughts! -cx


Monica said...

Wow wow wow...everything is so beautiful! Thank you for sharing this. I can't wait to see and read more!

tiggerbak said...

Thanks for such a lovely post.
I always look forward into reading your blog.

Lora said...

This post was a true feast for the eyes. I could not get enough of the creative recipes and gorgeous pictures. Wow!

Monika - Twoja Asystentka said...

geee, you make so ... wonderful, beautiful, amazing, lovely, fabulous, great... photos! I have no words for them. they make me speechless.
I would like to make such beautiful pictures. I would like to taste all these delicious tidbits.
I am your big fan!
Monika from

Aizi said...

amaaaaazing post, beautiful photos as always! thank you so much for sharing. i hope also that next year will be happier one, and that Japan will bounce back from the disaster that struck two months ago. wish you well!

Abby said...

Looks so delicious and delicate!

Joyce said...

OMG, I'm sooooooo exhausted now...

Dawn said...

These are gorgeous! Love the colors - pink is one of my favorites. Going to try Google Translate and see how it comes out. Thanks.

Patricia Scarpin said...

Everything looks so beautiful it is impossible to pick a favorite. :)

Love your photos!

Claudia said...


Oh, dear, how amazing your posts can be... Once again you were just sensational, full of excitement and passion. Thematic post is something that definitely drives your enthusiasm in a unique way.

BTW, there is not such a thing as too long post... it is just like saying there will ever be too much love... We can never get enough of you... Long posts? yes we love them.

Loved it all about this post, more than the possibilities behind cherry blossom, it you definitely your passion and enthusiasm and all the effort. Now I wish I could try at least some of those recipes at least once. I'll keep on dreaming on cherry blossom.

By the way, milk jam made with fresh milk and (brown) cane sugar is just unique, can't compare with thosem made with the sweet milk from the can, great idea to add some cream though, the fatty cream definitely makes the milk jam tastier.

Congrats once again.


Elle at Eat Boutique said...

So gorgeous and delicate! I love cooking with flowers (and weeds! just made some dandelion wine at Eat Boutique).

Kate Lifecell Reviews said...

Those pictures made me want to weep. At the moment we are receiving a heavy snowfall, again! Loved your wonderful post.


chika said...

hi all, thanks for your kind words - it's good to know that some people managed to reach the bottom of the post for a comment field! *phew*

Joyce - but you should've known! :D :D

Claudia - thank you! and you're right, i seem to be doing a lot of single-topic/ingredient posts, and this certainly isn't going to be the last one...

Lynx said...

Hello Chika! You have an absolutely amazing blog. I recently visited Japan during their Sakura season and more so to show my support for Japan. I really enjoyed reading your Sakura post of all the different applications. Can you please tell me where I can purchase these sakura ingredients and that would ship to USA? I live in Los Angeles. Thanks again for sharing such a great post.

Anonymous said...

That's SO beautiful. I wish I could go and hanami in Japan too:) Especially if I get to eat that bento!

diva said...

How beautiful! :) I love the packaging and the soft pink of those cookies. I nearly tried Marun Cafe but we were so pressed for time. Gorgeous clicks. x

wineandfood4u said...


Shana said...

This post made my mouth water. I really want to try making some of these things, I love anything that is sakura flavored!