Thursday, March 31, 2005

Cooking ABC: March 2nd Half

Since I wasn’t interested in the cooking menu that was on offer, there are many cakes and breads for the second half of March.

This walnut and banana cake may not look like much, but hidden inside the batter are caramel coated banana pieces, almond powder and rum.

It tastes of perfectly ripened bananas, sweet with just a hint of alcohol. Jason and I agree it’s the best banana cake we’ve had. We like it with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream.

After recovering from my strawberry-picking weekend, I went for a bread course, and made this cheese filled loaf.

Jason maintains his stance of being indifferent to butter breads, but my friend Rachel seemed to like it. I thought it was quite flavorful too, and chockfull of cheese.

Right after the bread session, I scheduled a free trial lesson with Rachel, and we each made a cute little chocolate mousse cake with cherries inside. You probably can’t tell from the picture, but it was tiny.

We baked a small chocolate chiffon cake and split it into three rounds. Two of the rounds served as base for our cakes, and the other round we cut into cubes to pile on top of the chocolate mousse layer. I took this cake to a friend’s house for tea, but because I didn’t expect it to be so tiny (probably because it was free) I had to make another pumpkin pie so I had enough food to feed four people. My friends really loved the cake though, and I thought it was all right too but you couldn't really taste the cherry.

My next bread lesson was hotdog and hamburger buns.

Nothing too exciting, but the buns turned out really chewy and flavorful as far as buns go. I am even considering making my own hotdog buns from now on, since the ones sold in supermarkets are totally tasteless and way too soft.

The next cake I made was the exact opposite of the banana cake, looks fancy but tasted surprisingly blah. My friend Anna said it reminded her of a Ho-Ho, and I think she’s right. Needless to say, Jason didn’t think too much of it either.

Chocolate plum cake: I was way too greedy with the white chocolate drizzles and the lines turned squiggly because it was still warm and not completely set when I brought it back on my bicycle.

I then scheduled two free trial lessons with Rachel and Tomoko, back to back. It was a long day.

First, Rachel and I made the café aulait bread, which I made before joining the school. Then Tomoko and I made these cinnamon coffee almond rolls.

I took these pictures before we drizzled them with coffee flavored icing, and you can see the cinnamon sugar oozing out of the rolls because we were too greedy and put in probably twice as much cinnamon sugar, hehe… Tomoko and I shared one while it was still hot and it tasted like cinnamon roll, but not as sweet or fattening. Jason, predictably, didn’t think it was all that great, and I have to agree with him.

Losing My Mind

Hey y’all, turns out 32 is the magic number: the age that I go senile!

I have always been a scatter-brain but somehow my friends all have the impression that I am this super-in-control person that has everything planned out. Well, my absent-mindedness went into overdrive yesterday at round 3 of the birthday celebration, and a few of my friends got a glimpse of the slippery road to senility that I am sliding down to, fast. (I know I’m really milking the B-day thing this year, but it just so happens that Anna and Hsin-li’s daughter both have birthdays within a week from mine, and Hsin-li herself turned 30 last month while she was back home in Singapore. So we decided to do a joint birthday tea party.)

It started the day before the party actually, when I was making mini lemon tarts and forgot to butter the tart pans. This is me we are talking about, a seasoned tart-maker who can make a tart base with my eyes closed. Yet, I made a blooper so big that resulted in us eating tarts right out of the pans with plastic spoons.

The climax was on the day of the party itself. After settling in comfortably in Hsin-li’s living room and talking with the girls, I all of sudden realized that after grabbing the bags of food and gifts, I had left all of the tarts on my kitchen counter. Good thing her house is so close to mine, so I jumped into my car and headed back home. I only noticed that I didn’t have my house key with me after I was in my own garage. I thought I had left the key on Hsin-li’s coffee table when in fact I had dropped it into the bag of food I brought. So I drove back to her place again to get the key. Then it was back at my place again, when I realized that I had also forgotten to bring baking sheets which Rachel had asked to borrow.

You would think that two trips back home and I’d have everything, but nope, I still managed to forget about the pastry bags and star-shaped pastry tip. I improvise with kitchen bags and parchment paper, and ended up with tarts that look like this, instead of this.

And I am still not done yet. Came present time, I was one bag short. When I went to check my car, there it was, a lone paper bag in my empty trunk. How could I have missed it unless Alzheimer’s kicked in?

The final touch? When I left Hsin-li’s place, I forgot to take my hand-held mixer, which I needed to use today, along with my present.

My friends tried to comfort me by saying that I was just having a really bad day, but if this is what I’m like now, can you imagine what happens when I turn 40?

Wednesday, March 30, 2005

Manmade Mother Nature

Jason and I had this illusion that if we tried hard enough, we could be the outdoorsy/nature type too. Of course we never quite get it. There was the time when we went camping by the sea, and I was kept awake all night by the sound of our tent flapping against the wind and worrying that it would get blown away. When we stayed in a tree-top cabin inside the Daintree National Park in Queensland, Australia, we freaked out when we thought a wild animal had gotten into our room after the rain when it was merely making a lot of noise on the roof. We swore off camping for good last summer when we saw a snake less than 200 meters from where we set up camp in Izu peninsula, but were still not smart enough to stay away from a cottage in the middle of Hakuba snow country on a recent ski trip. All these mishaps and more finally made us realize that we are hopeless city folks who would not last a day in the real wilderness. That notwithstanding, we do like to venture out of the city once in a while to “get in touch with mother nature” even if it’s the manmade kind. This time it brought us to Chiba, a prefecture just outside of Tokyo city, to get a taste of life on the farm.

Our friend Tomoko and her colleague Taka planned the two-day trip and invited us to tag along for the fun. We (eight in all) met up at a highway rest stop on a Saturday morning and went to a place called the Mother Farm, as in mother nature? Or the mother of all farms? Probably the latter because this place has everything: cows, sheep, ducks, pigs, horses, the biggest rape blossom field in Eastern Japan, a Mongolian barbecue restaurant, and a mini amusement park. Everything runs on a schedule: the ducks march three times a day; sheep breeds from around the world are on parade in the auditorium; you can try your hands at milking a cow; and kids can race alongside miniature pigs in a ring. There’s fun to be had by the whole family.

The next day, we went to a farm for 30 minutes of all-you-can-eat strawberry picking for 1200yen. I had expected a tiny patch of field with half-ripe fruit, but instead it was a giant greenhouse with rows and rows of strawberries of different varieties. My favorite was a long strawberry called Akihime, so sweet! We soon realized that our worries that thirty minutes is not enough time was totally unnecessary; we slowed down and all but stopped eating after the initial fifteen minutes. A classic case of “eyes bigger than the stomach” (眼大肚子小)

With a full belly of strawberries, we set out for our final destination: tsuribori, Japanese-styled fishing on a fish farm (you toss back your catch or pay exorbitant price to bring it back). We opted for the toss-back variety, so for 500yen, Jason and I rented a skinny bamboo pole of a fishing rod, and a small basket full of tiny shrimps. We hooked the shrimp onto the line and dropped it into the fishpond. Soon afterwards, a fish swam towards the bait and started nibbling at it. We held our breath and waited for it to bite, yet it never did. It just kept on nibbling until the whole shrimp was gone. Shrewd fish, these are! They must have learned their lessons the hard way and found out how to circumvent the problem. An hour later, after having caught only one fish, we started sprinkling the water with handfuls of shrimps to hide the one that’s on the hook. This is where the fish really impressed me. They would dash quickly to the bait, then upon seeing the shiny hook, come to a skidding stop and slowly swim away with a disdainful look on their faces. How smart!

You can see photos from this trip here, including the cute Komimi that I befriended.

Monday, March 28, 2005

My Baby Can Howl

Like all mommies, sometimes I’m just so darn proud of my baby that I have to share it with the world, or just those who read my blog.

So here is the thing. In the ward that I live in, Minato-ku, a melody is broadcasted over the entire ward at exactly 5 pm everyday. I heard it’s to remind kids to go home for dinner (nice to see my tax money go to good use, eh?). It’s hard to describe the melody if you have never been to Japan, but for those who know, it’s like the chime played at school.

One day, I happened to walk under one of the loudspeakers with Libby at precisely 5pm. A few seconds after the melody started I heard this really funny hoarse kind of noise. I turned my head around to see where it’s coming from and then realized that my Libby was the source of this strange sound. She had her neck stretched out and nose pointed upward, like a little wolf! This being the first time in her life that she attempted to howl, half the sound died off in her throat and what came out sounded more like choking than howling. I was so amused by it that I burst out laughing in the middle of the street, and I think Libby was immensely embarrassed. She didn’t give up though and would try every now and then to perfect her howling.

She finally succeeded today! Since we are grounded at home by the incessant rain, Libby spent most part of the day on the couch by the window. When the chime went off at 5, she felt inspired to answer. Still curled up in a ball with her chin rested on her front paws, she effortlessly howled the most beautiful mezzo-soprano howl that I’ve ever heard.

Bravo, Libby! Mommy’s so proud.

Sunday, March 27, 2005

Birthday Celebration Round 2: French

So did you think that after my seam-bursting dinner at Luxor on my birthday I’d take a break from heavy eating? Oh no, we got right on it the very next day at Sens & Saveur , the super chic French restaurant that opened a couple of years ago on the 35th floor of the new Marunouchi building. S&S is the brainchild of the Purcel brothers (one word of advice: instead of your own pictures, please put shots of your food on your PR material, they are much more attractive) and the Hiramatsu group. Jason has been there twice already for dinner and liked the food and the ambience, so I thought it’d be the perfect venue for a day-after-Bday lunch. Another ulterior motive for going at lunch-time is so that I can take pictures. (Jason had agreed to break the no-pictures in restaurants rule reluctantly for just this once, as long as I snap my pictures at lightening speed. Deal!)

Despite the dark wood and blood red entrance, the main dining area is light and airy, with floor to ceiling windows overlooking the Imperial palace and the tops of some ugly buildings in the surrounding area. Jason comments on how differently it looks during the day.

We start off with a glass of champagne from the Île Saint-Louis, the group’s main restaurant in Paris, for Jason and a glass of ginger ale for me. There are three lunch courses, ranging from one with a simple entrée, main, and dessert to a five-course affair. I was having an internal discussion with my sensible self on whether to go light, taking into account of our heavy dinner last night, or to pig out again, when Jason said, “Do you want to go with the 8000yen course?” Which one is the 8000yen course? Wait, there’s no price in this menu. How does he know how much? We then discovered that our menus differ in that everything is the same, except there is no price in mine. I don’t know whether a woman with more feministic views would be offended, but I found this immensely amusing. In the end we decided to go with the in-between course and I refrained from saying to the waiter, “I’ll take the 8000yen course.” They were only trying to be thoughtful.

We started with a creamy cold soup with a dollop of tomato mouse and dribbles of pesto sauce. Very refreshing. Next came a skewer of Dublin bay prawn and new potatoes sitting atop a ratatouille of southern French vegetables and basil vinaigrette sauce. The prawn was meaty and tasted like lobster, and the thin cheese cracker on top was so fragrant and warm like it just came out of the oven.

The fish dish is sea bream grilled until the skin has achieved the perfect crunchiness, served with green pea puree and balsalmic sauce. The thin slice of grilled pancetta on the side was the best I’d ever had. Wait, isn’t pancetta Italian? We then had guinea fowl stuffed with foie gras in a lovely green bullion sauce (looks like green cappuccino). The baby carrots on top are a variety from Kyoto called Princess carrots. How dainty!

After the creamy green sauce, I felt like something spicy to end the dinner, so we ordered a mimolette cheese plate. It was scooped out of a wheel the size of a kabocha and had the color of golden apricot. I finish mine and also had some of Jason’s =o)

Up until this point, everything was perfect: each course was brought out in a slow but nicely timed pace; the service was tentative but not obstrusive; the staff very politely tried to explain things to Jason in English whenver they could; and the Christofle flatware was a nice touch. Sure, the sommelier could use some deodorant, but since I wasn’t drinking, it wasn’t a big deal, and the place was kind of warm after all, with all that glass.

Then we waited for our dessert and waited, and waited. I was about to say something, but remembered the last time I did so, at L’Atelier De Joel Robuchon, our dessert turned out to be chocolate fondant. Since I don’t remember what the dessert is this time, and whether they are cooking it the oven at that very moment, I decide to wait. What’s my hurry anyway? It’s only been two hours since we started eating! So fifteen minutes later, a plate of chocolate macaroon sandwiched with mascarpone mousse and some sort of ice-cream finally came out. This took almost thirty minutes to assemble? Were they whipping the egg whites and baking the macaroons one by one?

I don’t know about you, but a three-hour lunch sure seems long to me. At this point we just wanted to end this saga and get home so I can walk Libby while the sun is still out. So we hurriedly gulped down the cappuccino and the three kinds of little sweets: mini madeleine, lemony marshmallow, and teeny meringue drops, and grabbed the check. This could have been a perfect lunch, had it not been for the eternal wait for the dessert.

Saturday, March 26, 2005

Birthday Celebration Round 1: Italian

I figured I was going to give up celebrating birthdays after I turned 30, but I just couldn’t say no to good food and great company. As it happens, on my birthday, my friend Tania and Pierre are in town from Beijing. I also found out that my friend Amy’s birthday is only two days after mine. So Amy, Dara, Tania, I and our husbands had dinner at Luxor, an Italian restaurant in Shiroganedai created by Mario Frittoli, who used to be head chef of Il Pinolo in Kamiyacho (also appearances on Iron Chef).

I had actually been to Luxor once before, more than two years ago. I remembered the funky décor (a Lucite column filled with knives and forks greets you when you step inside) and the friendly sommelier. The sommelier is no longer there but the décor remains the same.

Now, Jason NEVER EVER lets me take pictures in a restaurant (he thinks it's totally unnecessary and very bumpkinish of me to want to take pictures of EVERYTHING) but since he was sitting at the other end of the long table, I managed to snap these shots. Lighting was low so I was forced to use flash and a couple of them turned out blurry, but it’s better than nothing.

For entrée, I chose a giant Hokkaido scallop baked in its shell with uni (sea urchin) sauce. The creaminess of the uni played off the crunchy breadcrumb topping really nicely, and I mopped up all the sauce with nice warm bread. We girls then shared two pasta dishes: the gorgonzola sauce of the gnocchi was punchy, and the black truffle risotto had a nice bite to it. My main dish of lamb chop baked in puff pastry was robust in flavor but at that point I was so stuffed I couldn’t finish it. What a shame.

Just when we were contemplating whether or not to order dessert, the restaurant staff brought out this plate for Amy and I. It turned out that Amy’s husband Gary, or maybe his secretary, made the special arrangement. She also ordered this chocolate birthday cake. Of course by this time everyone had his/her eye on the chocolate fondant with pistachio ice cream that we ordered two to share, on top of the cake. We are pigs!

I ate so much that I was dreaming of food that night. Burp.

In case anyone wants to try the place, this is the address: 5-4-7 Shiroganedai, Minato-ku. Tel: 03-3446-6900

Thursday, March 24, 2005

IMBB #13 – My Little Cupcake

This is the lesson that I learned through IMBB 13, hosted by Makiko: When one eats something for the first time, it is paramount that one only eats the very best. Otherwise one will spend years hating and staying away from that certain something; and only if one is really lucky will an event like IMBB come along to right the wrong.

I wasn’t going to take part in this IMBB, because I have hated cupcakes for as long as I can remember. When Karen kindly reminded me of the event, I told her I was going to sit out. Writing my reply to her, I realized that the only cupcakes I’d ever had were from American supermarkets. The icings were always so disturbingly sweet that I thought I was going to die from a hyperglycemic attack every time I ate one. But, should I write off cupcakes based on my limited experience with supermarket bakery goods? I also hate supermarket cakes (I think they use the same icing for everything) but that doesn’t mean I stay away from cakes. Maybe if I found the perfect cupcake and made it to my taste, I would love it. And that's how I decided to give the cupcake a second chance.

I set out to search for the perfect recipe, something light and flavorful, without the sugary icing. As luck would have it, I found a copy of Baking in America by Greg Patent at the library and it has a large section on cupcakes. I wasn’t surprised to see that most have icings that call for 2 cups of confectioner’s sugar. Just looking at them gave me a toothache. However, two recipes did catch my eyes: a Double Espresso cupcake with espresso syrup; and something called Ginger Cupcake Triple Play with a white chocolate icing. These are perfect! I love anything coffee flavored, and you simply cannot go wrong with ginger and white chocolate. I decided to cut the recipe down in half and make both.

The Double Espresso cupcake was good without being spectacular. I actually found the syrup to be a bit of a distraction from the cupcakes as it was a little too sticky and didn’t really add that much flavor to the cupcake itself.

The Ginger Triple Play, on the other hand, surpassed all my expectations from a humble little cupcake. It was light as air (I think the technique I learned from my cooking school helped in this front as well) and very complex in both taste and texture. The flavor from the three types of ginger: ground, freshly grated, and crystallized, jerked my taste buds to attention, but was at the same time not overwhelming. Since I didn’t have crystallized ginger, I used Japanese candied ginger instead, and boy was it a treat to bite into one of the little pieces that had soaked up moisture and plumped up inside the cupcake. My friend Anna who acted as my taste-tester refused to believe they were merely dried candied gingers. Of course, the white chocolate and sour cream frosting deserves special mention because it was the answer to my aversion to frosted cupcakes. White chocolate goes with everything, doesn’t it? I could just use this frosting for all future cupcake recipes that catch my fancy.

Now let’s hear it from my toughest critic: Jason liked them okay but was scarred too deeply from previous experiences with nauseatingly sweet versions that he was unable to look past the name and shape to enjoy them. Well, it’s his loss.

As for me? Now that I’ve found my little cup-a-cake, I’m a converted cupcake lover (non-sugary icing only please). Thanks Makiko and Karen!

Following is the recipe for Ginger Cupcake Triple Play from Greg Patent’s Baking in America, with my comments in Italics.

1 ¾ cups sifted cake flour
½ tsp baking soda
¼ tsp salt
1 tsp ground ginger
½ tsp allspice
8 tbsp (1 stick) unsalted butter, at room temp.
1 tsp vanilla extract
1 1-in cube peeled fresh ginger, finely grated (plus any juice)
Finely grated zest of one orange
1 c firmly packed light brown sugar
1 large egg
¾ c buttermilk
¼-1/3c finely chopped crystallized ginger

3 tbsp heavy cream
3.5 ounces white chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 tbsp sour cream

1. Adjust an oven rack to the lower third position and preheat oven to 350F. Line 14 muffin cups with paper liners; set aside.
2. Resift flour the baking soda, salt, ground ginger, and allspice (another three times) ; set aside. 3. In a large bowl, beat the butter with an electric mixer on medium speed until smooth (color should turn a bit white). Add the vanilla, fresh ginger, orange zest, and ¼ c of the brown sugar. Beat for 1 minute. Beat in the remaining ¾ c brown sugar about ¼ c at a time, beating for 20 seconds after each addition. Scrape the bowl and beaters and beat on medium-high speed for 4 minutes until smooth and fluffy. Add the eggs (in tiny little portions so the oily ingredients do not separate from the watery ingredients), beat until smooth.
4. Use spatula (do not use mixer) to fold in flour mixture in 3 additions (sift flour mixture one last time into the bowl), alternating with the buttermilk, beginning and ending with the flour. Mix only until smooth after each addition. Stir in the crystallized ginger. Divide the batter evenly among the muffin cups, filling them about two-thirds full. Don’t bother to smooth the batter; it will level itself during baking.
5. Bake for about 25 minutes, until the cupcakes are golden brown and spring back when gently pressed in the center. Cool in the pans for 5 minutes, then remove them to wire racks to cool completely.
6. Meanwhile, for the frosting, heat the cream in a small heavy saucepan over medium heat until it just comes to the boil. Remove from heat and add the white chocolate. Whisk until the chocolate is melted and the mixture is smooth. Whisk in the sour cream. Set aside, whisking occasionally, until the frosting is completely cool and thickened enough for spreading.
Place a teaspoonful of frosting on top of each cupcake and spread evenly with the back of a spoon. Let stand until set before serving.

Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Pierre Herme – Desire

This is the second of my Pierre Herme series. As I mentioned in the first entry, I plan to eat all of his creations, or whatever is deemed worthy for sale at his Tokyo Aoyama store, one at a time. What I didn’t realize was how complicated it was to time these tasting events. Several factors are in play. First, I must not choose a day when I have homemade dessert waiting in the fridge (very rare these days since I’m taking cooking lessons twice a week). Second, I must purchase the PH dessert at a reasonably early hour to have ample natural lighting so I can photograph these pieces or edible art under optimal conditions. Third, it must be on a sunny day, for the same reason mentioned above. When you combine all these factors, and throw in the days when what I’m making for dinner simply doesn’t measure up to PH’s caliber, we’ve got an almost three-week gap between the first and the second tasting. But alas, the perfect day for another PH masterpiece finally came.

This time, I bought a piece from his 2005 Spring collection called Desire.

Don't you feel the desire just by looking at it? I love how the silky dome of lemon cream glistens under the light and oozes fresh flavors of spring before you even taste it. Hidden underneath the milky white cream is a layer of bright red strawberry jelly. The combination of strawberry and lemon is heavenly enough, but to tame the tartness, a layer of sweet banana cream is added for good measure. Then, to counter all the soft-textured creams and jelly, a flaky tart crust on the bottom provides a welcoming contras. It’s the perfect harmony of flavor and texture.

Oh, and let’s not forget the cut strawberry laid at an perfect angle on top of the creamy dome of desire either. A masterpiece in the art of dessert presentation indeed.

Jason was very impressed with it and kept on asking if I could reproduce it at home. Oh honey, while I am immensely flattered by your confidence in my patisserie skills, I regret to tell you that the closest I could get to this tour de force was probably putting the lemon cream, the strawberry jelly, and the bananas in a bowl and stir in some cut strawberries. Now that just wouldn’t be the same, would it?

Wednesday, March 16, 2005

Zojoji - Unexpected Discovery

I had to go to the Minato Ward office recently to change my residential status. It was a beautiful day so I decided to visit Zojoji across the street.

As you can see, the scale is quite impressive. It is the major temple of the Joudo Shu (Pure Land sect) of Buddhism, and was relocated to the present site in 1598 by Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Tokugawa shogun.

Almost as soon as I walked in, I noticed something very unusual: along one side of the temple wall are rows and rows of little stone sculptures wearing colorful capes. On a closer look, they all seem like children and the plastic toy windmills stuck by almost every sculpture further confirmed my suspicion. Some of them have names written next to them, some of them don’t; some of their caps and capes look new and some look faded, denoting that they haven’t been visited in a while.

What could these statues mean? Are they for children that have passed away? I tried to look for a sign that explains this but found none. When I walked further inside, I found a shrine for a Kannon Buddha that’s responsible for child-rearing. So maybe these statues are guardian angels for living kids? But that just seems so weird that it simply cannot be true.

When I got home, I searched the official Japanese website of Zojoji but it didn’t give a satisfactory explanation so I had to resort to “less than reliable” sources, i.e. other gaijin’s take on this. And I found this which basically says that the statues are dedicated by the parents of unborn children (aborted, still-birth, etc) so that they’d be taken care of in the underworld. Apparently there’s the strange theory that the souls of these children will be tortured otherwise for bringing grief to their parents (what about the aborted one? Who’s causing grief to whom?).

There I thought I was just taking a stroll in the sun. Never did I expect to uncover this never-talked-about Japanese tradition. (If anyone knows otherwise, please let me know).

On a different note, I also found out that 2005 is a very bad year for me, this according to a giant placard hung above the entrance to an important-looking hall in Zojoji. It says I should donate lots of money to the temple in order to have an uneventful year. Yeah, right! Does donating to charities count?

See more pictures of Zojoji here.

Cooking ABC: March 1st half

Just a quick post before I take Libby for a 4km power-walk around the Gaien. It’s 9:30am and it’s gorgeous outside. I’ve already finished doing 50 minutes of pilates and had breakfast. Life is good.

Ok, without further ado, I present to you the things I made so far this month. First, a typical Japanese home-cooked meal with a spring theme (春のおとずれ):

Clockwise from the bottom: rice cooked with various ingredients (五目炊き込みご飯), yellow tail cooked with Japanese radish (鰤と大根の煮物), yomogi rice ball topped with red bean paste and bean powder(あずきときな粉のよもぎ白玉), miso soup with clam(あさりの味噌汁). I never knew that daikon (Japanese radish) could taste so good after being boiled with fish. I must try this recipe at home too while yellow tails are in season.

For my first bread lesson, I made this Almond butter bread.

The look is very deceiving because you would expect it to be sweet seeing all the almond slices and powdered sugar on top, but it tastes just like regular butter rolls and you need to eat it with jam. My taste-tester Anna had the same comment.

I then made this strawberry mousse cake for which I am very proud of.

I am not a fan of mousse cake, or any kind of mousse for that matter, but this cake made me look at mousse in a whole different way. In the past, my impression of mousse is a thick creamy glob. Not so with this cake. It’s airy and light (at least in taste) and delightful to eat. Jason enjoyed it tremendously and was very impressed with the look of it. My friend Tomoko, who also didn’t like mousse before said she’s a changed woman too. And Robbee practically inhaled the slice in under one second (did he get a good taste at all?).

Here’s a sliced shot for your drooling/viewing pleasure. (Look at the layers!)

In addition to finding my love of mousse cakes, I am now also a fan of pound cakes. Who says they have to be dense and heavy?

This humble pineapple pound cake tastes better on the next day after it’s aged a little and had the chance to soak in all the pineapple and coconut flavors. However, the pineapple slices dried out a little bit and didn’t look as plump and juicy the next day. (the photo was taken on the first day).

Then yesterday, I made these butter rolls.

Cute little things aren’t they? Jason, who normally doesn’t even touch butter rolls in restaurants, did me a favor by tasting one and liking it. Still not a big fan, he said they were better than he expected (is that a compliment?) I must confess that I prefer crusty rolls to butter ones, but I found these quite nice and chewy. Just don’t think I’ll be making them at home any time soon.

So that’s it for now. Gotta hurry and finish my workout so Libby and I can have a picnic lunch in Yoyogi park, and maybe stop by Pierre Herme on the way back to get another one of his divine creations.

Monday, March 14, 2005

Like Mother like daughter

I have an annoying habit of only being able to sleep in absolute darkness. Even the dim green light emitting from some digital alarm clocks installed into the headboard in some business hotels throws me off. So I have to wear an eye-mask to bed. I recently discovered that Libby hates light when she sleeps just as much as I do. Isn't that unusual in a dog?

Look at her trying to stick her head under the coffee table to escape from the bright light. Maybe I should make her a doggie eye-mask ;oP

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Of Rice, Snow, Earthquakes and Breast Pudding

When I hear the word Niigata, one of the 43? Prefectures in Japan, I immediately think of their fragrant rice and the fluffy snow in the winter. People living outside of Japan probably know Niigata, if they know it at all, because of the devastating earthquake that occurred towards the end of last year. Little did I know that Niigata is also famous for its secret dessert: the breast pudding.

I only found out about this on our recent ski trip to Naeba, in Niigata prefecture. Before the trip, our friend Robbee mentioned that someone who went to Niigata brought him back a special omiyage (souvenir). When he told me what it was I thought for sure it was one of his jokes. I mean, we go to Niigata a couple of times a year, for skiing or hiking, but never did I once see a breast pudding. Could there really be something as vulgar as the name suggests?

After a satisfying crab dinner on our first day in Naeba, we took a inspectorial tour of the many souvenir shops in Naeba Prince Hotel. I saw sasadango (sticky red bean filled rice balls wrapped in bamboo leaves); ibushi-daikon (a type of picked Japanese radish); and every type of red bean paste filled Japanese dessert you can think of bearing Naeba’s name; but no breast pudding. And suddenly I turned around and there it was:

Ok, so they call it bust pudding, but the Japanese really means breast, or boobs.

When you open the box, a cute pop-up Japanese girl in a pink bra (with the clasp conveniently in front!) greets you with a whisper, “Please eat gently.” Ewww, goosebumps!

For the final X-rated image, I invite you to click here (don’t want no pornography on my blog). Again, I say this: ONLY in Japan.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Libby's Best Friend

Libby is quite picky about the company that she keeps. As a result, she does not have many doggie friends. They are either too big, too small, too shy, too aggressive, or too whatever-it-is-that-turns-Princess-Libby-off. The friends she does make though, are instant, like Mu-kun, a five-year-old Border Collie. It was a mutual attraction at first sight and you can feel the chemistry between them.

We ran into Mu-kun today at the cemetary again, and they had their usual little dance before saying goodbye. It's always kept short but full of excitement nonetheless.

Shall we play?

By all means.

Until next time.

(The person lying on the ground in the background is the resident homeless guy in Aoyama cemetary. I always find him in the same spot on sunny days. I wonder where he goes when it rains.)

Monday, March 07, 2005

First Signs of Spring

A plum tree in Aoyama cemetery started blooming in mid Feburary.

This sakura tree on the corner of Tokyo Weather Bureau and KRR Hotel, across from the Imperial palace is always way ahead of every other sakura trees in Tokyo. By the time the rest of them start to blossom, this tree will be sporting a full head of new green. Heck, the leaves are already out even now.

Pork Soup for the Soul

My food cravings almost always coincide with weather elements. In anticipation of the snow storm last week, I found myself craving for a bowl of Yan-Duo-Xian (腌哚鲜) which loosely translates into “salted simmering the fresh.” Except the middle character doesn’t exactly mean simmer (it’s something less than a simmer) and I’m not even sure if I wrote the right Chinese character. You see, the name is uttered in Shanghai dialect, for this delicacy is the best kept secret of Shanghai home cooking, and therefore has no need to be understood by any outsiders. (Shanghai people traditionally are not very friendly to people from other parts of China, a very snobbish bunch.)

The salted part of the ingredient can be any kind of air-dried salted pork, the most famous of which being Jin Hua salted ham (金华火腿)produced in the Zhe Jiang province, where Shanghai is located. The fresh part can be many things, with fresh meat being the indispensable one, plus any number of fresh vegetables. I guess I should confess that I don’t actually remember ever eating this soup at home, so what I make is part what I imagine it should be, and part what I’d eaten at restaurants.

For this edition of the Yan-Duo-Xian, I decided to use fresh bamboo shoots, fresh shiitake mushrooms and a beautiful pork loin as the fresh ingredients. Digging through my freezer, I found the frozen Jin Hua salted ham that I smuggled back from my previous trip to Shanghai. This will be the essence of the soup, to bring out the flavors in all the fresh ingredients. After all the ingredients are in the slow cooker, I sprinkled it with some Chinese cooking wine, threw in a couple of pieces of ginger and a green onion knot.

The traditional way is to set it over really low fire, and let it “Duo” for hours, but the slow cooker relieves me the mundane duty of watching over the simmering pot, adjusting the fire constantly. It takes all day to make this soup. You know when it’s done when the fresh pork falls apart easily when you poke it with chopsticks (a good reason to get a piece of pork loin wrapped in mesh so it doesn’t disintegrate before you eat it), and the salted pork has given all its flavor to the soup stock (it should be discarded before serving as it would have become completely devoid of taste and dry). I usually add sugar and salt (white pepper too if you like it spicy) and adjust flavor one hour before I plan to eat it. The amount of seasoning all depends on how much salted pork you add, or how salted the pork is. When I can’t find fresh shiitake I use dried ones, or sometimes I use both, but I have never made it without fresh bamboo shoots. It just wouldn’t be the same without it.

Eat it with a bowl of steamed white rice and some green vegetables on a cold snowy day and your soul will be happy.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

I Eat Pierre Herme: Emotion Ispahan

Ever since I spotted the new Pierre Herme store on Aoyama-dori in its pre-opening days, I've been meaning to go for a visit, but somehow, even though it's only a 15-minute walk from my house, I never found the time. Then last week one day, walking back from Shibuya with a bamboo stick that’s too long to carry onto the train (more on that later) I passed it again. I wasn’t going to go in, what with the shopping bags and the 2m stick, but the displays in the windows were just too attractive to ignore and I found myself stepping into the bright and airy space.

It’s a room about the size of a small café. In the part facing the street were rows of Lucite pedestals showcasing jams and loaf cakes, but the real jewels were kept in the glass counters: macaroons, Plaisirs Sucres, Ispahans of different sizes and shapes… There were so many of them that I lost count. What to do? How does one choose just one? Then it dawned on me. With the store so close to my house, I can take my time and go through them one by one. When else will I ever find myself in such ideal circumstances that allow me to sample the creations of the Picasso of French pastry so easily? I mean, I could come everyday if I choose to: walking Libby, on the way to my cooking lessons, or just out for errands (never mind it took me almost a whole month to make it here). So it was decided then and there that I would eat everything in the store, one at a time. See, doing things systematically has a lot of merits. One, decision making is so much easier because you don’t feel like you are leaving anything out. You know you will get to it later. Two, instead of wolfing down two or three things at a sitting and having trouble remember any one of them later, by spacing them out, I am sure every item will have my full attention.

There was no question about what my first picking was going to be though: Emotion Ispahan, pleasing to the eye and contains one of my all-time favorite fruit, lychee. To be exact, a refreshing lychee julep jelly lines the bottom of the glass, followed by a layer of punchy raspberry compote, then a layer of rose infused cream. A delicate piece of rose macaroon is laid on top of the glass, with a deep crimson rose petal perched on top as a final touch. Perfection!

Now let’s talk about the taste. The shop girl wanted to make sure that I use a long spoon to scoop up the three layers so I taste all the flavors in one bite. I just want to say that I don’t know why nobody else thought of putting lychee and raspberry together before. Lychee on its own is sometimes almost too sweet, and raspberry too sour, but the blending of the two complimented each other so well that it could only be described as divine. The genius of this dessert however, lies in the rose cream layer, which reigns in the two strong yet distinct flavors in a subtle finish that leaves you yearning for more. I am speechless with glee. Jason, on the other hand, thought it was just *average* and nothing *special*. Now do you believe me when I say he’s one picky customer?!

Friday, March 04, 2005

Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

It's snowing again! Just last week, I thougt for sure that spring is here, and look what we have here now! I took Libby out for a walk to snap some pictures. She did not particularly like the wet snow, but was game enough to put on her fleece lined rain coat and accompany me on this slippery mission.

The snow-covered cherry trees lining the centre boulevard in Aoyama cemetary forms a nice canopy.

And this playground stands desserted.

I have to leave for my cooking lesson in 30 minutes, but I think I will take the subway this time.

10' 40"

I did a practice run for my kitsuke test next week and clocked in at 10 minutes and 40 seconds to put on my kimono and tie the obi into this.

I am allowed to do all the prep work first, before the timer is started, such as setting up the obi and laying out all the necessary strings and whatnot in the order they will be used.

My sensei said 10 minutes and 40 seconds is good for a first try. I just need to shave off that 40 seconds for the test, some how. AND, when I go on to the next level, I have to be able to do this in five minutes. Yeah, right!

Thursday, March 03, 2005

Crumpets on a Snowy Day

Last week one morning, after an unseasonably warm day, I woke up to this.

Yup, snow first time this year in Tokyo at the end of February. The weather has gone haywire! The snow brought back memories of winters in Ann Arbor, Michigan. I know, it’s not even on the same order of magnitude, but somehow it reminded me of it. And with that, a craving for crumpets, something I discovered while there. I don’t think most American have had crumpets, but somehow the Kroger in Ann Arbor carried them, in plain and blueberry. I think it was all the little holes on the surface that first drew me to the crumpets. I just love them, for how they make the crumpets look the way they do, and for sucking in all the butter and jam that you spread on top.

The more I thought about it, the more I found myself craving for some warm crumpets with tea. Since I’d never seen crumpets sold anywhere in Tokyo, the only way to quench this craving was to make it myself. I wasn’t going to go out in this miserable weather so might as well occupy myself with something.

I searched the internet and found this recipe. Everything was measured in cups and teaspoons, with no grams or milliliter to convert. I declared it a winner.

One little problem though, I don’t own any crumpet rings. Some digging in my pantry later, I came up with two heart-shaped pancake rings and the brass oak leaf cookie cutter I bought while in the States for Christmas. Hmmm, crumpets shaped like hearts and oak leaves, I like it! I had to give up on the oak leaf crumpet idea, however, because the cookie cutter leaked batter everywhere.

I settled on the two rings and slowly churned out crumpets two by two, over a 160C griddle. It seemed like it took forever, but it was worth it. At precisely four o’clock in the afternoon, I had myself a cup of tea and some crumpets with butter and marmalade.
(Had some extra batter so I made a mini heart crumpet with a cookie cutter, and used an even smaller cutter to make a butter heart, for kawaii factor)

The verdict: my batter was very thin following the recipe (I blame it on the low gluten flour again) so I had to adjust by adding flour, but in the end, it was probably still not thick enough. As a result, my crumpets were a lot moister inside than they should be, even after toasting, and they didn’t have nearly as many holes. They taste really good though, with a nice crusty crunch. Even Jason liked it. My friend Anna, who had never had a crumpet before, said it reminded her of pancakes. Yeah, I think the center was too moist. Will remember not to add all the water next time.

Quest of the Perfect Char Siew Pao

I got it into my head that I shall make the perfect char siew pao, just like the ones pushed out in carts at dim sum places, steamy hot with sweet gooey fillings. I’ve always known it wasn’t going to be an easy task so I was prepared for failure but wanted to do thorough research before embarking on the project so I don’t get too discouraged and throw in the towel on first try.

As luck would have it, a blog that I frequent, Su Good Sweets by Jessica did a post on baked char siew pao for Chinese New Year. Her char siew looked delicious so I followed Jessica’s recipe for the barbecued pork and filling. These are the product.

I actually selected the wrong cut of meat and ended up with way too fatty meat, so I had to cut most of the fat out after the meat was baked (Libby had a nice snack on that day).

Upon hearing my intention to make steamed char siew pao, Jessica was kind enough to offer a couple of dough recipes. I was going to try the recipe from I was just very hungry but the photo didn’t look like the typical dim sum char siew pao, so I decided to go with my friend Hsin-li’s mom’s tried and true family recipe.

I cut her recipe down to 2 cups of flour, necessitating the 3/5 conversion factor for everything else. Why I didn’t cut down the flour more and just make it half will forever be a mystery. The following is the recipe I used to make the dough:

2C (240g) flour
1 ½ tsp baking powder
2 tbsp potato starch
1/2+ tbsp oil
3 tbsp sugar in 4 oz H2O

½ tsp yeast
1 ½ tbsp lukewarm water
½ tsp sugar

1. Combine ingredients A and B and knead for 10 mins. Cover with wet teacloth to proof for 1 to 1.1/2 hours. Punch down and knead at least 20 times. Rest dough for 10 mins. If the dough pulls back, the rest time is insufficient, extend the rest time.

2. Divide dough into 1 oz pieces and fill with chosen filling. As you pleat the closing, be sure not to grease the edges so that the dough will stick.

3. Steaming time: 15 mins for each 1 to 1.1/2 oz dough pao

* Wrap lid of steamer with teacloth to prevent codensation from dropping

This is when the paos are ready to be steamed, and the final product. Not too good looking because I was greedy and rolled the rounds too big, resulting in skin that’s too thin. Combined with the fact that I didn’t use a towl to catch condensation, some of my paos leaked, as you can see from the picture.

The verdict? I thought the filling was close enough to the real thing, although I prefer mine really sweet, so next time I will add more sugar. The dough, however, is still not the same as the dim sum pao, but it’s a whole lot better than the one I came up myself so I will definitely use it again. Jason, ever the critic, said I shouldn’t call it char siew pao at all because it was a completely different thing. Supportive, huh? Our friend Danny (Hsin-li’s husband) was more forgiving in his evaluation. Although surprised that he had never had homemade pao at his in-law’s house, he praised the pao dough but also admitted that it’s different from the dim sum version. He thought the filling was very good and almost the same as store bought ones but mine was leaner, therefore not as soft. Must be because I trimmed off all the fat before cooking the barbecued pork.

Now, where oh where am I going to find a restaurant recipe for the fluffy dough? I wonder if they put something really bad in it to make it fluffy like that, which is the reason they don’t want people to know.

Wednesday, March 02, 2005

Cooking ABC: February Roundup

Up until recently, I had never taken any cooking or baking lessons, not even one. I’m not too bad for an amateur, but I wanted to improve my technique and make cakes that not only taste good but look perfect too. I was unwilling to jump head-in, however, and begin formal training. So before shelling out major dough and enroll in Le Cordon Bleu, I wanted to find out if I really am passionate about patisserie, so I thought I’d enroll in a less intensive course first. A school visit and two trial lessons later, I found myself enrolled in 24 cooking lessons, 26 bread lessons, and 18 patisserie lessons at ABC cooking studio.

It had actually never crossed my mind to take the bread course. Why, I already make pretty good bread, don’t I? Except for sourdough, of course. But this is what suckered me into signing up for bread too. It’s so cute and fragrant. How could I resist?

Café Aulait bread

And I signed up for the cooking lessons because I wanted to learn how to make these.

They are temawari-zushi, eaten at Hinamatsuri (Girl’s Day) on March 3rd. They are sometimes called hina-zushi too and are distinct due to their round shape. I made four different types (clockwise from top: unagi, ham, smoked salmon, tuna). My favorite, however, was the kabu (a white round radish) salad with yuzu dressing, very fragrant and refreshing. The sakura liquor flavored pudding was also delicious and very easy to make. Of course, it wouldn’t be a complete Japanese meal without a soup: asari and daikon clear soup in this case.

For my second cooking lesson, I chose the so-called Asian Taste menu.

The rice with beef and bean sprouts has a Korean flavor while the steamed egg with jumbo shrimp and scallop tasted distinctly Chinese. For dessert, we made pumpkin filled spring roll with cinnamon sugar coating. My favorite, however, was the Yannyom (sauce) for the rice made with two different types of onions; and the Chonamuru (salad) with a Korean dressing.

Last, but not the least, is this crepe cake with cheese and blueberry filling.

Impressed? Don’t be. If you know how to make crepes, the cake was a breeze to make. What I AM proud of, however, is bringing this cake home in one piece, precariously balancing the cake box on the handle bar of my mountain bike with one hand and steering the bike to dodge Shibuya traffic and pedestrian. After I am done with the 18 cakes, I think I will be able to qualify as a bicycle ramen deliveryman. You know, those guys on bikes that sometimes don’t even have functioning brakes, weaving in and out of traffic carrying a wooden tray with anywhere from two to six bowls of hot soupy ramen, delivering to offices and residences. Yup, eighteen years of formal education and a doctorate later, my aspiration is to be a ramen delivery woman!