Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Conbini Cakes

Day one
: Conbini Cakes

For all the talk about Japan’s historic isolation, most of its sweets have far-flung origins. Baking was one of the technologies (along with firearms) introduced by Portuguese sailors in 1543, and over the following decades it spread like, well, hotcakes. One of the hottest cakes of all was, and still is, a dense eggy brick known as kasutera, based on the Portuguese castella (much more on this later).

Although ovens are still not a standard feature of Japanese homes, baked goods have become a part of daily life. Countless European patisseries ply their wares throughout the country and the Japanese return the favor by frequently nabbing top prizes at the world baking championships with their flaky croissants and flawless millefeuille.

At the other end of the spectrum are the buns and cakes on offer at every neighborhood convenience store, or conbini. The shelves of every 7-11, Lawson’s, and Sankus (“Thanks”) strain with the Twinkie family’s Asian cousins, foamy cakes that are not so much baked as “chemically activated”.

Because conbini are ubiquitous and 24-hour, they are often the first place that travelers taste “real” Japanese food. The first thing I ever ate in Tokyo was a plump pillow of crustless wonder bread filled with a explosive pocket of peanut-flavored goop; it was like a repulsive post-nuclear ravioli. Thankfully, things went better this time around; my first meal was a spongy, semi-sweet “Milk Lemon” cake from 7-11 (not pictured—I was just too hungry). Mercifully it had no hidden goo pockets. For the second course, I had the cake in the photo, a poundcake flavored with matcha (powdered green tea) and studded with azuki beans—perfect jet-lag fuel, and a nice refresher on Japanese flavors and textures.

These fusion treats were very thoughtfully provided by Alice and Drew, the English teachers for whom I am housesitting until mid-August. I’m being supervised by their cats, Nuey and Lala. Pictures of the cats, house, neighborhood, etc, can be found here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/14494106@N04/sets/72157606407285368

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