Friday, April 29, 2005

Pierre Herme: Emotion Ludic & Inca

You thought you weren’t going to hear anything on Pierre Herme until I’m back in Tokyo, didn’t you? (Whoever this hypothetical “you” that is holding your breath waiting for the next edition of the PH series is.) Did you think I’d abandon you like that? Oh no, I’m way ahead of you! The week before I flew back to the States, knowing that my only choice of store bought dessert would be Dunkin donuts and Cheesecake factory cheesecakes for the next month, I treated myself to, not one, but two PH creations. Watch and weep, my friends, watch and weep.

Emotion Ludic

The first item that caught my eye was Emotion Ludic. It must be a new spring release item as this was the first time I have seen it. Like everything in the Emotion range, Ludic is a study of layered flavors. While I still remember, here are the layers from top to bottom: strawberry marshmallows, strawberry mousse with mascarpone cheese and poppy syrup, strawberry and beets cooked in strawberry juice, and finally, strawberry compote. Did you notice the beets? Yes, beets with strawberries. Besides the color, I never would’ve thought these two could go together, but went they did. It broke the monotony of a pure strawberry dessert, which would’ve been perfectly fine, but the beets brought it to a whole different level. Playful? Definitely!

The next item I chose was quite unusual. I was trying to decide whether or not to get the millefeuille, but you know how millefeuilles are: a pleasure to behold, but a pain to eat. (What is the best way to eat one anyway, without completely butchering the delicate layers that someone so tenderly positioned and aligned into perfection?) At that moment, I noticed a little dome pale yellow in color, encircled in a thin wall of white chocolate, with a curl of dark chocolate perched crookedly on top.

Its name is Inca. Why Inca, I wonder. Did PH conceptualize the shape based on an Incan fortress? It takes some leaps of imagination, but what other reasons to name a dessert after an ancient civilization? Certainly the ingredients don’t seem to have any relationship to the Incans. To provide you with a better idea, here is a cross section: hazelnut pastry and a thin layer of chocolate ganache provides the base for this dome of avocado and banana cream topped with grapefruit confit.

The shop girl assured me that the taste is very “grown-up” when I asked her to confirm the presence of avocado. Hmmm, my taste buds must be lagging behind in aging then, as I didn’t quite enjoy this combo. Jason said he tasted something metallic, but I was more bothered by the slightly bitter after taste. But look at how cute it is!

Urrrgh, I wasn’t going to say anything, I really wasn’t. I know this entry is about food, pastry to be exact, but would you look at the pictures? Look at how dull they seem, and believe you me, the Inca is not this shade of unhealthy grayish jaundiced yellow. Did you think I would have picked it out of the line-up over PH’s famous millefeuilles if this was the real color? And Emotion Ludic! Can you even tell the strawberries and beets apart? I wish I had my Nikon D70 to take these pictures. Now that I am used to the depth and range of colors the D70 produces, I can never look back on my Olympus 3040 or Sony T1. Here’s an analogy: the images produced by the D70 are like Hermes screened silk scarves, and the ones that came out of the T1 are like Salvatore Ferragamo scarves. If you’d never seen an Hermes scarf, you might think the Ferragamo ones are pretty good. Once you've laid eyes on a square of silk that underwent Hermes’ painstaking process of weaving, engraving (as many as 36 screens for one scarf), printing, cutting, and hand-stitching, however, you will never want to look at another Ferragamo scarf, ever. There aren’t enough colors to start with, and whatever there is, all seem so dull when compared to Hermes. The camera is the same. I won’t bore you with the technical details of why D70 produces much more vibrant colors, lest I be taken as a geek, but suffice it to say that I do have scientific evidence.

Sorry, now that I got that off my chest, back to Pierre Herme. As I said, we didn’t like the Inca too much, but Emotion Ludic we loved. Jason was wowed for the first time by “those over-priced cakes that even you could make” (his words). After we almost licked the glass of the Emotion Ludic, I asked how my strawberry mousse cake measures up. “Oh, there’s no comparison. This is sooo much better, not in the same league,” he said without hesitation. For once I am not the least bit insulted.

Other Pierre Herme entries:


Emotion Ispahan

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Are you going to school there?

… asked an acquaintance of my parents’ when we ran into him at the office of the acupuncturist that my dad is seeing. This was after my dad told him that I was back from Japan for the month.

He thinks I’m still in college! Hell, I’ve been out of grad school for almost eight years! It’s good to know that I’ve still got my youthful looks, heehee. Note to self: must pull hair into ponytail more often, and wear the magic jean jacket as much as possible. (When we were in Marrakech last year, all the merchants in the souk flocked to me with offers of “student discount” when I wore the said jacket. The next day when I left the jacket at the hotel, all such discount offers vanished.)

Whatever it was that made me look like a college student, that question by a stranger just made my day =o)

Sunday, April 24, 2005

IMBB 14: Orange

At the same time that I found out about the Sugar High Friday, I discovered the subject for the IMBB: Orange. After my disappointing attempt at the molasses themed SHF, I was determined to redeem myself somehow. I have to prove that I can make desserts outside of my own kitchen too, without the plethora of fancy kitchen tools at my beck and call. So it was decided that I shall make a dessert for this edition of the IMBB.

The host for this IMBB at Foodgoat says that orange does not necessarily mean orange, that the ingredient just has to be orange in color. Then she mentioned sweet potato. At the thoughts of sweet potatoes, my bleary jet-lagged eyes came to life. I love orange-fleshed sweet potatoes, but somehow in Tokyo the most common type is light yellow in color. They taste great, but I miss the color. Now that I am in the States, I have access to orange colored sweet potatoes. A perfect chance to make something with them!

A short search on the internet later, I hit the jackpot when I came upon a recipe for Sweet Potato Oranges : a variation of the sweet potato pie in that the pie shells are oranges!

· 6 oranges
· 3 cups cooked, mashed sweet potatoes
· 1 cup white sugar
· 1/4 cup orange juice
· 2 eggs, lightly beaten
· 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
· 1 cup butter, softened, divided
· 1 tablespoon grated orange peel
· 1 cup brown sugar
· 1/2 teaspoon all-purpose flour
· 1 cup chopped pecans

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C).
2. Prepare oranges by cutting tops off, 1/4 to 1/2 inch down. Spoon out the flesh, leaving a shell.
3. In a large bowl combine sweet potatoes, sugar, orange juice, eggs, vanilla extract, 1/2 cup butter and grated orange peel. Spoon mixture into orange shells. Place in a deep casserole dish.
4. In a small saucepan over medium heat, combine remaining 1/2 cup butter, brown sugar, flour and pecans. Cook until sugar dissolves in melted butter. Spoon over oranges. Fill casserole dish with water to reach 1/2 inch in depth.
5. Bake in preheated oven for 30 minutes.

I took a reviewer’s advice and instead of just cutting off the top of the oranges, I cut the oranges in half so it was easier to scoop out the flesh. I also wrapped the oranges in foil to preserve the flavor. Besides the messy process of getting the flesh out of the oranges with my bare hands, the rest was really easy, including mashing the sweet potatoes with a fork (See? No fancy tools!)

I have to say that this is by far the best sweet potato pie I’ve ever had. Sometimes a normal pie crust can feel heavy, especially after a fat laden dinner such as the Thanksgiving feast, of which the sweet potato pie is an integral part. From now on, I think I will serve these individual orange cups as dessert at my Thanksgiving dinner table. Oh, did I mention you could eat the orange cups too? The orange skin soaks up all the goodness that’s in the sweet potato and the pith adds the slightest hint of bitterness, which goes so well with all the flavors. Mmmm, I think I’m officially cleared of jetlags too. Three days, it’s a record! Must be the sweet potato oranges. Thanks, Ladygoat, for a wonderful IMBB!

Friday, April 22, 2005

SHF: Molasses – Indian Pudding

Extremely jetlagged after my seventeen-hour flight to my parents’ house in Virginia, I turned on the computer and read blogs to keep awake. And what do you know? It’s time for another Sugar High Friday. The theme is molasses, and it’s hosted by Derrick of An Obsession with Food . Then I realized that the deadline is this Friday, meaning I only had one day to think of what to make (relying on internet entirely, since I didn’t bring any of my cookbooks home), and to make it in alien territory (my mom hardly ever makes dessert and has a very chaotic way of organizing her things so ingredients are never where you’d expect them. Just now I found curry powder nestled among a variety of flour and sugar).

But molasses, how can I say no to molasses? It's one of those things that I loved when I was a kid in China but never learned its proper name until I'm an adult (I used to call it burned sugar or something to that effect). In fact, one of my favorite Japanese desserts is very soft mochi pieces coated in bean powder, eaten drenched in molasses. See, I would’ve loved to try to make that if I were back in my own kitchen in Tokyo, but here in Virginia, I wouldn’t know where to find half the ingredients. A quick survey of mom’s pantry later, I am resigned to the fact that besides vanilla extract and cinnamon powder, both of which I bought on my last trip home, there is not much in the dessert-making department. Simple has to do then, so I found this extremely easy recipe for Indian pudding on the internet . I’ve never heard of an Indian pudding before let alone eaten one, but I was instantly sold on the corn meal and molasses combination. Preparation was minimal so all there was left was waiting for it to cook for two hours in the oven.

While baking, it didn’t fill the house with any irresistible aroma and when I peaked inside the oven, it was as if an angry swamp was heaving up and down with each release of hot air. Hmmm, I wonder how it’s going to turn out.

When it was set and cooked, it looked just as ugly and I am not sure what kind of doneness is expected. Mine is a kind of semi solid that reminded me greatly of pumpkin pie filling in both taste and texture when it was hot. Although I would’ve preferred if the molasses flavor shone through more, I did enjoy it. The taste, however, deteriorated after it’s cooled down and was not very pleasant to eat at all cold, even with raspberry vanilla frozen yogurt. It’s really disappointing (the pudding, not molasses) to tell you the truth, and I almost didn’t enter it for SHF, for it’s certainly not worthy. But hey, I already made it in my jet-lagged state and hopefully someone can tell me if it sounds even remotely like what an Indian pudding is supposed to taste like?

Thursday, April 21, 2005

My New Toy

I've been shopping around for a digital SLR as a birthday present for myself (oh no, the three major pigging-out sessions do not count as presents) and was weighing the pros and cons of a Nikon D70 versus a Canon EOS 20D . I was so paralyzed with fear for making the wrong decision that I couldn't bring myself to buy anything for the longest time. This is an SLR we are talking about after all. If I chose the wrong brand, I would forever be stuck with the body and all the lenses that are sure to follow. I, the archetypical impulse buyer, couldn’t make a buying decision for the first time.

Ultimately, it was my dad who saved me from this shopping dilemma. Since he’s no longer using his Nikon D70, he will loan it to me so I can use it and see if I like it. If I do, I can just keep it and buy him another camera of his choice (Hey as long as I don’t have to pick out the camera). If I don’t, at least I will know what added features I should be looking for in the Canon EOS 20D, or something else.

So my first day back home I spent poring over the D70's manual. Damn this thing is complicated! I am so used to having the onscreen menu taking care of everything I need, but the D70 is so chock full of functions that in addition to the onscreen selections, it has tons of tiny little buttons all over the camera body. Navigating those has been a challenge, but I am slowly getting the hang of it.

This is the first “real” photo I took with my new toy (no surprise it is of food, eh?). I miss the macro function on the non-SLRs. Of the over ten shots I took of my dinner tonight, this is the only one that didn’t come out completely blurry. (I know Jason's going to criticize the composition, but like I said, this is the ONLY one that wasn't blurry.) Steep learning curve. (That and a macro lens!)

Orange Juice Chicken and Roasted Fennel and Carrots

Sunday, April 17, 2005

He Did It!

Four hours and fifteen minutes is the time; Nagano is the place; and April 17, 2005 is the date. Not bad for a first marathon, eh?

Other than some minor muscle aches and a painful ankle, Jason is recovering surprisingly well. He even hobbled to our favorite izakaya for a little celebratory dinner. Meanwhile, I am thoroughly exhausted from being chauffer, cheerleader, and photographer/videographer. I'm just glad that he's got the marathon out of his system, so we can have our weekends back.

Friday, April 15, 2005

Falling, Fallen, Gone

A full day of rain on Monday brought the 2005 hanami season to an end (hanami means viewing of flowers). Cherry blossom petals floated down in twirling dances from the branches and landed on every horizontal surface within reach: playgrounds, stairs, cars, drinking fountains… Overnight, the trees gave up their white geisha makeup and sprouted the freshest shade of spring green.

Even though this is my fifth hanami in Japan, I never seem to tire of this event. I love seeing the sea of white froth on treetops, even though they make all the photos look blanched. I also cherish all the times when I turn a street corner and come face to face with one single sakura tree in all of its full blooming glory. But this year’s hanami was truly the best I’d ever experienced (best weather, best flower, and best of all, I didn’t have to work so I went hanami-ing everyday for seven days straight) so I’m going to attempt to highlight some of the interesting parts of this phenomenon that is so uniquely Japan.

Such is the obsession with hanami that weeks before any sakura tree even showed any signs of a flower bud, you could find out the predicted date of blossom on the internet, categorized by city and by individual parks. (Because sakuras bloom so briefly, it is essential to catch them at the peak.) From what I can tell, when most of the sakura trees are about 50% blooming, the madness of hanami is officially in full swing.

First, you have to understand that everybody in Japan (everybody plus everybody’s visiting friends and family, plus everybody’s dog) comes out for hanami, so crowds is as much a part of hanami as alcohol and food. Due to this massive spillage of people to limited coveted spaces under the sakura tree, it is essential that someone goes early to reserve the space for the entire group. In an office, the most junior person is usually entrusted with this important task. On my morning walk last Friday, before the big hanami weekend, I saw a variety of place markers, from carefully taped down blue tarps, to a few pieces of haphazardly placed newspapers with a name written on it. It’s strictly a first-come-first-serve system and no one questions the authority of a little piece of paper. When dusk falls, large groups of people will descend on their “reserved” spot, lay down food and drinks, and proceed to hanami.

I also discovered that Japanese people have no qualms about where they go to hanami, as long as there are sakura trees, hence the strange sight of people eating, laughing and drinking to a stupor in the middle of a cemetery (Aoyama cemetery has a large number of sakura trees). There are even food stalls set up among the tombs specifically to serve the hanami crowd. Whatever happened to respecting the dead?

Besides looking at sakuras, I also look at people photographing them. I look at their cameras, their tripods, the kind of bags they carry their equipment in, and the angle they are taking a particular shot. I think the national hobby of Japanese people has got to be photography, and nothing brings out amateur photographers (yours truly included) in drones more than hanami season. There are the obasans and ojisans toting cameras with lens the size of a daikon on one end of the spectrum; on the other end are the young people with their cellphone cameras. My favorite hanami photographers this year is this couple. The husband carries all the photography equipment, and lovingly holds an umbrella over his wife’s head so she doesn’t get sun-burned. How sweet!

So this concludes the 2005 hanami season. It was good when it lasted, but now that it's over, spring can begin! Yippy!

The Big Day

I have been feeling really nervous these couple of days. I wake up at 5am every morning for no apparent reasons and can't fall back to sleep. I feel my heart pounding but don't know why. During the day I get tired due to lack of sleep but am unable to take a nap. What is going on?

Finally, it hit me. I am experiencing sympathy stress for Jason. His marathon is this Sunday, and although I said all along I neither understand nor support this self-torturing madness, I must really wish him sucess deep down somewhere in my heart. Or I won't be such a nervous wreck, right?

Deep breath.

Inexplicable Fashion Trend Part Deux

Along with the half pants of awkward length, another disturbing trend this spring is the cardigan worn backwards, as demonstrated by this lovely young lady.

The first time I saw one, I thought the person had somehow managed to contort her head all the way back (me and my astigmatic eyes). I hoped this was just one single girl’s idea of creative dressing, but knowing how Japanese fashion works, I braced myself for more. Not surprisingly, everywhere I turn my head, there’s another one.

Do they find comfort in wearing their clothes the same way they did their kindergarten smock? Does it bring back childhood memory of being pampered and taken care of? Or are they recently released from a long hospital stay and had gotten so used to tying on the hospital gown in the back that they have yet to adjust to wearing clothes the normal way? Or maybe it’s a new way of incorporating yoga into every aspect of their lives: twist while getting dressed!

Regardless of what’s going on in these girls’ heads, this look is disturbing in so many ways. First of all, when I see a row of buttons on a crew neck cardigan, I expect to see a face at the top of the buttons, instead I see a neckless head of hair! It looks like the head is screwed on backwards. Talk about freaky! Then there’s the problem with the cut. Do they not understand that the front of the torso and the back of the torso have different topography? Do they not feel what is supposed to be the back of the neck hole choking the breath out of them? If it looks UGLY and feels UNCOMFORTABLE, what possessed them to wear it like this?

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

Princess Chariot

Libby is picky about the surface that she walks on. She prefers grass and carpet over asphalt and hardwood floor, and she especially hates uneven surfaces such as those covered with small pebbles.

On our hanami trip to the palace on Sunday, Libby decided that she simply could not walk even one more step on those horrendous pebbles and made a great effort to feign pain and discomfort. So daddy rose to the occasion and carried the Princess over his shoulder until she could touch down on concrete pavement. Even concrete is better than pebbles!

Saturday, April 09, 2005

Inexplicable Fashion Trend

I admit I don’t do quirky when it comes to dressing but although I’m no Carrie Bradshaw I certainly do read my Vogue and know what’s “in” and what’s “out.” However, a recent trend in Tokyo fashion has me completely baffled: the skinny half pants that awkwardly fall right at knee level. I’ve seen this look all over town ever since the temperature crept up to double digits, and honestly, not one person looked good in them. I mean, unless you are a supermodel with super long limbs, chances are you are going to look like an amputee.

Another thing I’d never been able to understand is the skirt over jeans look. It’s as if the person couldn’t decide when she got up in the morning whether to go with skirt or jeans, so she threw on both, without looking herself over in the mirror before stepping out the door. Having said that, I do admit that certain people, namely those who resemble supermodels in their proportions, can pull this look off if the skirt is flowy and the jeans skinny.

What I saw today on the train, on the other hand, is so … (hmmm, how should I put it, hideous comes to mind, but I am not going to be too harsh) God awful, that I am at a loss for words. And I'm not even going to comment on those black sockies that peak out from the shoes.

Girl, go get yourself a full-length mirror for crying out loud!

Thursday, April 07, 2005

Let the Hanami Begin!

Mori Tower in Roppongi Hills

The cherry blossoms in Tokyo are finally in full bloom! I remember every year around this time for the past three years I wished I could be out enjoying the beautiful sakura instead of sitting in a stuffy office doing meaningless so-called work. This year, I really can.

I’ve been “hanami-ing” (looking at flowers) everyday this week. I have been sticking to the less popular places so far: Mori garden in Roppongi Hills (twice), the Nogizaka shrine (once) and the Aoyama cemetery (everyday walking Libby). I used the sakura in the cemetery as my gauge. Yesterday the flower to bud ratio was still only 50% but this morning, it was a sea of sakura the faintest shade of pink. This means I must now shift into high gear and cover all the sakura-meisho (famous place for viewing cherry blossom) within the next three or four days, before the petals start falling, which is beautiful in its own right (like pink snow flakes) but right now the mission is to look at them while they are on the tree.

A branch of the lone shidarezakura in front of Nogizaka shrine

So the battle plan goes like this: tomorrow I am taking my in-laws to Shinjuku-Gyoen, one of my favorite sakura viewing places, with a large parking lot. My in-laws need a break from walking after I dragged them the long route to Roppongi Hills and Azabu-Juban today. (I don’t think my MIL knew what she was getting into as I innocently pointed to the Mori tower from my house, “Look, it’s just there!”) On Saturday, we will brave the crowd and go to Kamakura (I’m hoping to snap a couple of pictures of the Giant Buddha with sakura branches swaying in front). Sunday we will go to either the Imperial Palace or Yoyogi park, and if we are insane enough, Ueno park. Next week, maybe we’ll go to the Meguro river and look at petals in the water.

Phew, it’s tough to hanami!

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

Doggie Helper

Since the in-laws are coming to stay, I am having to haul home twice the amount of milk. So I saddled up Libby and made her carry milk for me on the way home from our walk.

The cat says, “What the heck?!”

Sunday, April 03, 2005

A Photo Blog is Born

I've decided to move some of my photos to a photoblog. So far I've only uploaded three pictures, but you can check it out here, or from the side bar of this blog.

Spring Blooms

Before the sakura come the magnolias.

And the nameless blue flowers.

Saturday, April 02, 2005

Black-Eyed Pea Cake

Ever since I saw the picture of this cake on Jessica's blog, I'd been wanting to try it. Of course, when I decorated it, I was too lazy to check the photo and cut my apricot slices too thin, resulting in the limpy-withered-petal look. The taste was great though, and very unique.

I followed the cake recipe almost exactly (but changed the icing), except instead of boiled apricot, I spread apricot jam in between the layers. I also sliced it into four layers because I thought it might be dry with only one layer of jam. It turned out to be entirely unnecessary however, because the cake was surprisingly moist. The batter looked so pretty and tasted heavenly (in fact I think I might even prefer the raw batter to the baked cake!) but since I was using my butterfly shaped silicone pan for the first time, I burned the cake a little bit. Nothing a little trimming wouldn’t solve though.

I took the cake to my friend Anna's surprise birthday party and it received good reviews. I think the unusual taste and texture might have thrown some off, but a number of people told me they really liked it. Even Jason said it was good. I do have this really strange thing where sometimes when I eat food containing beans and corn, my forehead goes numb. I had the same reaction to the cake today but it’s not a bad sensation, so I didn’t mind at all. I did think it was maybe just a little too apricotish, however, that’s probably because I added the two extra layers of apricot jam.

Oh, and I'm particularly proud of the icing because after researching for something that won’t give you instant cavity, I decided to combine a couple of recipes and make my own version. So I mixed together 3oz of cream cheese, 2 tbsp of butter, 3.5 oz of mascarpone cheese, and about 3/4 cups of honey. It was the perfect sweetness and spreading consistency. I even have some leftovers to use on another batch of ginger cupcakes.

Thanks for sharing the recipe, Jessica. I am definitely going to make this cake again, maybe in cupcake forms with individual black-eyed susans on top. I bet those would look so cute!