Sunday, December 20, 2009

Mochitsuki I: Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church

Seattle Nichiren Buddhist Church, December 2009

A paste made from steamed glutinous rice, mochi is one of the confectionery world's most adept shapeshifters. It can be rock-hard and angular (kirimochi) or pillow-soft and spherical (marumochi); fish-belly white or brightly colored; plain or flavored; raw or roasted; stuffed with bean jam, fruit, chocolate, or ice cream. Mochi can even mean different things in different contexts; it is equally appropriate as a offering to the gods or as an afternoon snack . In fact, it's only my own bias that causes me to claim it as a "sweet" at all--though made with so-called "sweet" rice, plain mochi has a neutral flavor that lends itself just as well to savory applications.

While mochi is popular year-round, it is perhaps most prominent during Japanese New Year celebrations. Mochi is a key component in
osechi ryori, a selection of foods customarily eaten over the New Year holiday in order to ensure health and prosperity in the coming year. This mochi is usually made towards the end of December so that it will be ready for the holidays.

The Japanese expression for mochi-making,
mochitsuki, is both an activity and an event. In many places, mochitsuki is a communal undertaking that kicks off the holidays, bringing families and neighbors together to share in the work of preparing for the New Year. The members of Seattle's historic Nichiren Buddhist Church have been gathering for mochitsuki for just about as long as any of them can remember. Established in 1916, the Nichiren Church moved to its current home on South Weller in the spring of 1929. For two days every December, mochitsuki takes over the church's industrial kitchen and large dining hall.

On the first day, sacks full of mochigome (sweet glutinous rice; above, left) are washed and placed in buckets to soak overnight. The next day the rice is cooked, one batch at a time, in wooden steamer boxes (above, right) until soft and translucent.

Traditionally the rice is turned out into a large stone mortar, or usu, then pounded into paste using a wooden mallet, or kine. After years of old-fashioned mochitsuki weakened the floor of the church, the Nichren congregation switched to the electric mochi makers that they use today, contraptions rather like a sausage grinder, driven by a small motor and a rubber belt.

As the machine whirs, two workers use sticks to force cooked rice into the maw of the grinder, which extrudes fresh mochi onto a tray dusted with katakuriko potato starch:

Then the still-steaming mochi is transferred into the funnel of small plastic hand-crank mill; as the mochi emerges from a nozzle on the side, the operator swings a small guillotine at regular intervals, cutting the mochi into equal pieces.

An assistant passes these pieces down the table to more volunteers, who wait at workstations consisting of a well-dusted wooden board and a small bowl of additional katakuriko (fresh mochi is incredibly sticky!).

They roll the mochi between their palms until, satisfied with the shape, they set the finished marumochi onto a plastic tray.

Thanks to the stop-and-start rhythm of the process, between frantic bouts of mochi-shaping there's plenty of time for the volunteers to talk, joke, and show off their flour-sack aprons...

The finished mochi are collected and carefully laid out by the dozen to cool on long paper-lined tables, before being packed in variety of waiting containers.

While many of these mochi will go home with mochitsuki volunteers, the event is also a fundraiser for Nichiren; the volunteers fill orders placed by other congregtions, businesses, and individuals. Orders for 2009 totalled more than 200 dozen pieces.

Some of the mochi was also kept aside to make kagami mochi, a form that is particularly important at New Year. Kagami mochi is made up of two flattened balls, the smaller one stacked on top of the larger. The name means "mirror mochi" and refers to the sacred mirrors associated with Shinto and Buddhist deities. Over the holiday, these and other symbolic offerings are displayed on home shrines and altars.

Akiko-san is Nichiren's designated kagami mochi maker; while kagami mochi are often made by priests, everyone, Reverend Cedarman included, says that Akiko-san has a special knack. Using paper templates, she carefully shaped large lumps of fresh mochi ("Hot, hot, hot!") into near-perfect discs.

Although simliar to shaping the little marumochi, making kagami mochi is much more difficult. Because these mochi are altar offerings, it is essential that they look as good as possible. The balls have to be in correct proportion to one another; they must be circular and not too fat or too flat. In order to make the surface of the mochi smooth and shiny, Akiko-san repeatedly stretched the top of the ball, pulling the excess down and tucking it underneath.

And the work isn't done even when size, shape, and surface are satisfactory; because hot mochi is a slow moving liquid, Akiko-san had to keep nudging and checking each finished shape until it cooled enough to hold its form. She laughed at my taking such a long video, pointing out that she was merely doing the same thing over and over--but it was exactly that repetetiveness--the patience, the attention to minute detail--that I found so hypnotic.

Many of the marumochi will be eaten in ozoni soup, the traditional breakfast on New Year's Day. Some will be roasted, dipped in sweetened soy sauce, and dusted with kinako soy flour--another auspicious treat. Reverend Cedarman will tend the kagami mochi on the Nichiren altars by wiping them with sake; early in the new year he will shatter the discs in a ceremony called kagami biraki.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Missy's Cranberry Walnut Tart

Missy's Cranberry Tart

2c sorted, washed, drained cranberries
1/2c sugar
1/2c walnut pieces
3/4c melted butter
1c sugar
1c flour
2 lightly beaten eggs
2tsp almond extract

Mix the berries, 1/2c sugar, and walnuts and spread evenly in a buttered round cake or pie pan. Mix the other ingredients and pour over the berries. Bake at 325 for 30-40 minutes, until just browned. The tart is best if it sits for 8-12 hours before serving.

(Of course you don't have to wait that long, but I strongly recommend it. Some weird alchemy takes place that plumps up the cranberries and deposits a crunchy sugar crust on the bottom of the tart. And if you're worried that you've slightly over- or under-cooked it, a long rest seems to cure that as well.)

This recipe was given to my family by our former neighbor Missy, a good cook and great hostess. It quickly became one of our holiday favorites--a quick, easy and festive dessert perfect for eating at home or taking to parties.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Tokaragashi III

Tokara's December touryanse collection.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

La Grande Orange

La Grande Orange

This morning my hostess and I had a great breakfast at La Grande Orange Grocery and Pizzeria in Phoenix's residential Arcadia district. The bustling little complex includes a well-curated shop stocked with delicacies and appealling trinkets arranged with affectionate irreverence (above, see the islands of "Old School Candy" and toys for "Kiddos We Love"), a cafe-bakery-coffee counter, and, in the next room, a pizzia kitchen and a large seating area stuffed to the gills with happy patrons off all ages.

My crusty-oozy Croque Madame was exemplary, but didn't leave much room for sweet treats, old-school or otherwise. Fortunately, the bakery case (below) was a feast for the eyes, with elaborate cupcakes and slices topped with crayon-colored puffs of icing, or wrapped in cheerfully striped fondant.

La Grande Orange Grocery
4410 N 40th Street
Phoeniz, AZ

Friday, December 4, 2009

Fry Bread

Fry Bread

When I confessed to the students in my ASU jewelry workshop that I'd never tried fry bread, they took it upon themselves to remedy the oversight. Bless/curse them for it.

Fry bread is pretty much what it sounds like: a generous disc of leavened dough deep fried until golden. While it can be wrapped around meat, beans, and veggies (a"Navajo taco"), mine was covered with powdered sugar and honey. I went outside to eat it so no one would see me gnawing, crunching, and licking the honey off my knuckles.

Like so many historical sweets, fry bread also has its unsavory side. While it is known as a "traditional" Native American food, the prominent use of refined flour and shortening dates to a particular--and painful--point in First Nations history. An article from the Tacoma News Tribune quotes Nancy Games, a Puyallup and Tulalip who lives in Yelm, WA: "In the concentration camps called reservations, the agents would give you flour, and that's what you used to make fry bread." Weighing in at 700 calories and 27 grams of fat per serving, fry bread was a sort of proto-Powerbar, a fantastic source of energy during lean times that resulted from Native Americans being cut off from their lands and livelihoods. Today, times may tough but they are hardly "lean"; fry bread has been characterized as a key contributor to the high rates of obesity, diabetes, and heart disease among Native Americans.

Friday, November 27, 2009

Indian Pudding

Indian Pudding

Until today I had never made or even eaten Indian pudding, an historical dessert that is neither "Indian" as in chai, nor "pudding" as in Kozy Shack, but one of the oldest truly indigenous American desserts. Key ingredients include cornmeal, a New World staple, and molasses, a sugar refining by-product that appeared in the colonies in the mid-18th century and, along with rum and slaves, shaped the triangular route of early Atlantic trade. Although it's more of a curiosity today, Indian pudding was a fashionable restaurant dessert in many parts of the country for much of the 20th century.

A number of recipes are available on-line; I chose the one given in this CSM article based on its modest butter content. The loose batter of eggs, butter, milk, spices, molasses and cornmeal is cooked slowly at a relatively low temperature, which simulates the embers of a colonial cooking fire. I heartily recommend cooking it in a class dish as it goes through several fascinating stages as it cooks, from initially curdling into something like a scrambled dishtowel steeped in beef drippings, to the late-stage growth of a leathery brown hide.

The final product is something akin to a rustic custard or souffle, with the cornmeal texture pleasantly present and the molasses aroma hovering over the dish like localized smog. It was delicious hot with ice cream, and addictive served cool with a splash of milk; if there's any left tomorrow I'm sure I will enjoy it just as much cold with a cup of strong coffee.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Trader Joe's Gingerbread Mix

Deep, Dark, Gingerbread Cake & Baking Mix with Molasses & Ginger
Trader Joe's, $2.49

I just bought 5 boxes of cake mix.

I discovered this mix last fall and came to take its spicy comfort for granted. I even figured out how to cook it in a slightly undersized pan so that the center would come out puffy and moist, like a gingerbread souffle.

When it disappeared from the shelves shortly after the holidays, I was caught off guard--but I really shouldn't have been. While few sweet treats remain tethered to their original seasons or occasions, many of those associated with the winter holidays remain resolutely unavailable at other times--though whether they're unavailable because they seem inappropriate, or vice versa, I can't say.

In Sweetness and Power, anthropologist Sidney Mintz observes that holiday treats are among the oldest continuing food traditions; as the mix box notes, "In the Middle Ages, intricately decorated gingerbread cakes were given by fair ladies to knights going into tournament battle. Still popular today, gingerbread abounds during the holidays as a celebration of the season."

I look forward to having a little bit of Christmas cheer in July--that is, if my 5 boxes last that long.

[Note: if you don't happen to live within Trader Joe's territory, Hodgson Mills makes a boxed gingerbread mix that was my previous favorite.]

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Pâte de Fruit

Pâte de Fruit
Above: William Dean Chocolates, $5/small box
Below: Paris Caramels, $15/large box

Like jam, condensed milk, or astronaut ice cream , pâte de fruit (pronounced not like liver pâté, but as in "Pat the Bunny") is a delicacy born from a difficult challenge: how to make a perishable surplus last a little longer. During the 10th century in France, someone figured out that you could preserve ripe fruit by cooking it down into a semi-solid, super-concentrated state. Sometime later, the shelf life of this fruit paste was extended again when makers began to coat each piece with granulated sugar, a natural preservative.

I first fell for pâte de fruit while visiting France, where the 1000-year-old treat is still a part of modern life. It's a prime souvenir of the Auvergne region where it was invented, while the high-end epicerie Fauchon displays gleaming cubes of every imaginable flavor in a chic display case, and most corner shops sell little plastic-wrapped bars suitable for a kid's lunchbox.

While the US is well-stocked with fruity gems, gels, and jellies, it's decidedly lacking in proper pâte de fruit. What do I mean by "proper"? No "fruit flavorings". No gelatin (first, because I'm squeamish, second, because fruit is packed with pectin, a natural substance that is ready and waiting to become squishy, and third, because fruit + gelatin = jello). No more added sugar than absolutely necessary (again, fruit is already full of sugar). And finally, NO corn syrup, NO artificial coloring, NO preservatives; any so-called pâte de fruit that includes these ingredients is missing the point.

Needless to say, I don't get to eat pâte de fruit very often! I was thrilled to find them for sale at the William Dean Chocolates display at the Seattle Chocolate Salon. The ingredients were staightforward enough (fruit puree, wine, sugar, pectin, glucose, tartaric acid) so I bought a small box including cassis, mirabelle plum, kiwi, pear, raspberry and passionfruit (pictured above). I got the Paris Caramels box (below) from ChefShop, whose website reports that the fruit used comes directly from small-scale French growers. The flavors of lemon, passionfruit, and raspberry come through loud and clear.

Since things can get a little grim during Seattle winters, I'm trying not to eat all of these right away; I can picture myself in the middle of January, self-medicating with a daily dose of these sunny little sweets.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Parfait Ice Cream

Parfait Organic Artisan Ice Cream

I recently learned about a compellingly oddball movement called "Architecture Against Death", led by artist Shusaku Arakawa and poet Madeline Gins. In a nutshell, they posit that comfort is the enemy, that by making our surroundings less convenient, we can lead longer and more vital lives.

If Arakawa and Gins are right, pasty chef Adria Shimada will be with us for a long, long time. As the owner of Parfait Organic Artisan Ice Cream, Shimada cuts herself absolutely no slack.

Open only since July, Parfait stands out in Seattle's increasingly crowded and competetive iced treat arena by doing things the hard way. Within the ice cream industry, the practice of using a commercially-made base mixture of stabilized, sweetened milk is widespread, accepted even by some "homestyle" makers. Next to these industrial ice creams, Parfait's products are strikingly pastoral. Shimada starts by selecting the highest-quality ingredients, relying on local suppliers wherever possible. Her staples include milk and cream from the Fresh Breeze Organic Dairy Farm in Langley, eggs from Stiebrs Farm in Yelm, and coffee roasted locally at Caffe Fiore. As for sugar, vanilla, "...and other items that don't grow at the 47th latitude, we purchase only organic ingredients from sources that use socially and environmentally responsible practices." Most Parfait flavors are created from five or fewer ingredients, and never include corn syrup, preservatives, or added stabilizers. The ice cream is made in small batches and served in fresh homemade cones or biodegradable bowls.

The no-compromises approach means Parfait's products incur higher-than-usual material and labor costs. To compensate, Shimada chose to hit the road instead of going the bricks and mortar route. Parfait's lovely custom-painted "mobile parlor" (pictured below, right and left) makes regular stops at selected farmers' markets and Caffe Fiore coffee shops; a schedule is posted on Parfait's website and other stops are announced via Twitter.

I snagged two pints at the final Queen Anne Farmer's Market of 2009, before the market went into hibernation and Shimada went on maternity break. Parfait's menu emphasizes luxurious updates on classic flavors rather than envelope-pushing novelty. Shimada characterises the Fleur de Caramel (pictured above) as "traditionally French", promising that it would pack none of the salt-lick punch that characterizes many faddish caramels; indeed, it has the perfect amount of salt to bring out the smoky sweetness of the caramel. The Fresh Mint Stracciatella (pictured below, center) is delicate and refreshing, a balanced partnership between Dagoba chocolate and mint from Full Circle Farm.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Choco Coffee Mochi

Choco Coffee Mochi
Viet Wah Grocery, $3.50

While I don't consider myself to be a food critic, I feel honor-bound to say these are pretty awful. Since I'm a sucker for all the constituent elements of Choco Coffee Mochi, it was inevitable that I would cave in to their appeal, but my first box of these stale, over-packaged, artificially-flavored, mass-produced imports will be my last.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Great Wall of Sathers

Sathers Display
Downtown Seattle Post Office

In the lobby of Seattle's central post office there is a small newsstand with a strikingly organized display of Sather's "2/$1.00" candies, arranged in alphabetical order and numbered for easy reference. I was inspired to learn more about the company and surprised to discover a strong affinity between this display and Sathers' corporate identity.

Since it was founded in 1936 by Minnesota grocer, John Sather, Sathers has had many incarnations; most recently it joined with another venerable candy company, Farley's, in 2002 and went on to acquire such brands as Chuckles, Now and Later, Rain-Blo, Super Bubble, Fruit Strip, Trolli, and Brach's. As a "re-bagger", Sathers had existing relationships with many such companies, buying bulk quantities of their products, then repackaging them for sale to consumers. According to Wikipedia, it is as a marketer rather than as a manufacturer that Sathers has made its mark; "The Sathers company is considered to be the innovator behind packaged 'pegboard' or 'hanging bag' candy, now one of the candy industry's primary marketing programs for general line candies." It's hard to imagine that the potential of the pegboard has ever been exploited more fully than at the Seattle PO.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Remo Borrachini's

Remo Borracchini's Bakery

"Seattle's Favorite Bakery"?? Open since 1922?!? How did it take me 6 years and a serendipitous wrong turn to stumble across this place? I mean, they're not exactly hiding their light under a basket...

In the 15 or 20 minutes that I spent wandering the jam-packed aisles of Borracchini's grocery- deli-bakery complex I ate least a meal's-worth of samples and had my socks knocked off a couple of times. From tubs full of crumbled cookies and crackers, I had a chunk of the tenderest, most flavorful amaretti biscuit ever. Back at the bakery counter I discovered that simply letting your gaze linger momentarily on any of the goods in the case would cue the staff to extract an item, snap it in two or more pieces, and distribute the shards to any customers within reach. I especially enjoyed the traditional Italian treats (such as sfogliatelle, a stack of paper-thin pastry sheets wrapped around a citrusy ricotta center; pictured below center) and the seasonal iced sugar cookies (below, right). I also had a couple of bites of delicious sheet cake and watched at least a half-dozen birthday and wedding cakes go out the door.

Remo Borracchini's Bakery and Mediterranean Market
4737 California Ave SW
Seattle, WA

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Banh Xu Xe

Banh Xu Xe
Oaktree Market, $1.99/4

I try not to poke fresh produce, but since squishy treats won't bruise, I prod the little darlings with impunity until I find the tenderest batch on offer. Although I gave these banh xu xe a thorough once-over, the texture was a big disappointment. The padanus-tinted tapioca flour exterior was unpleasantly rubbery--just on the edible side of chewing on a fishing lure. Since another on-line review described banh xu xe as "jelly-like" (and "amazing" and "addictive"), I'm willing to belive that my experience wasn't typical. More likely the trip from Mai's Bakery in Montery Park, CA to the Oaktree Grocery in Seattle, WA didn't do the texture any favors. The paste inside was a tasty blend of mung bean, coconut and vanilla; I managed to think of the green part as just a disposable wrapper.

Banh xu xe appears to be a close relative of banh phu the, a sweet with very particular role in tradtional Vietnamese culture. Because the cakes' sticky texture is considered to symbolize the tenacious bonds of marriage, banh phu the can be given as part of a marriage proposal, distributed to announce an engagement, exchanged by new in-laws, or served at a wedding. The name refers to a tiny origami box folded from fresh coconut leaves for each cake; ideally, the box, lid, and cake should be a perfect fit. has a recipe for a cake that looks almost exactly like my banh xu xe, but calls for entirely different ingredients. Hmm...

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Heirloom Apples

Heirloom Orchards Apples

Metropolitan Market, $2.49/lb

The first day of my freshman year of college I took a "Red Delicious" apple from the dining hall and placed it on a shelf in my room. I'd heard rumors that the cafeteria produce was irradiated so I figured I'd do a little low-tech experiment. When the school year ended, I took the apple down and threw it in the trash. Under its blanket of dorm dust, it was just as shiny, red, and rock-hard as the apples I'd eaten throughout the year--and presumably as tasteless.

After college I spent two years living in a small English village that holds an "Apple Day" festival each autumn. Apples were celebrated in all their solid, semi-solid, and liquid forms. There was a bake sale, apple champagne, and fresh cider, courtesy of an ancient stone-wheeled press and a very patient horse. Among the attractions was a leathery old man that a few of us called the "apple whisperer". Bring him a branch, leaf, or fruit from an unidentified apple tree and he'd tell you the make and model, then diagnose any ailments. I particularly loved to watch him take on a mystery apple; after giving it a long and serious look, he'd whip out an old wood-handled Opinel, excise a wedge, and pop it in his mouth in less time than it would take for me to find a clean cutting board. After a few seconds of furious chewing, he'd spit into the garbage and pronouce, "Dropsey's Amber Fleshpot grafted onto Blackgold Pucker; wants fertilizing." It was tremendously good regional theater.

Another booth sold a bewildering array of heirloom apples. My favorite of all was the tiny Egremont Russet, named for the lord of a nearby village and for the fruit's potato-like papery brown skin. Its creamy-white flesh tasted of honey, roses and jasmine. The first year, I bought a couple of pounds in spite of the stallholder's warning that they "wouldn't hold". I remember being surprised at how quickly they started to go soft, and then delighted that I had a good excuse to eat them one after another. Not in a million years would I trade an over-the-hill Egremont Russet for a dozen ageless, tasteless Red Delicious.

More recently I was delighted to find a selection oddball apples from Heirloom Orchards at a nearby grocery. I bought one of each and had my own tasting. My favorite of the bunch was the King David, a small apple as shiny and red as a garnet, with a sweet-sour tang reminiscent of Sour Patch Kids.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Last-of-the-Blackberries Cobbler

Last-of-the-Blackberries Cobbler

Now that she has absolutely no idea who I am, my 92-year-old grandmother likes me just fine.

Whenever I stop by her nursing home she greets me with a grin and the same question: "Should I know who you are?"

Nope, I always assure her, you don't know me at all.  I'll offer her my arm and for a few minutes we will toddle around the yard, making polite chat about the weather and the relative cleanliness of any cars in the lot. Back at the door of her building, she'll thank me for the outing. If she's had a good morning at bingo, she might even press a mini KitKat or a few peanut M&Ms into my hand.

It wasn't always like this. Although reportedly thrilled to welcome her first grandchild, her enthusiasm for me waned from then on, bottoming out around the time I learned to talk. Decades of holiday phone calls went exactly like this: "Hiya, kid!" she'd cry, then, "Now, pass the phone back to your dad." 

It's an odd thing to have a grandparent who dislikes you; after all, liking grandkids is the main item in their job description. It's odder still when you have a lot in common with that grandparent. My grandma did a lot of things that, even as a kid, I considered cool. She traveled extensively, sewed stylish clothes and knitted complicated sweaters, and always had some screwball craft project on the go, usually involving repurposed rhinestone jewelry and/or googly eyes.  We shared a lot, but only indirectly. We never traveled together. I took sewing lessons at a yarn barn, and learned to knit from a friend.  I started my own stockpile of rhinestones and googly eyes from scratch.

It was only when it came to cooking that I felt some traction. When we visited she'd pass around gooey sandwiches and rich casseroles and I'd think to myself, Surely this is something remotely like love. 

Cobbler was one of her classics. She made it with whatever fruit was in season or in the deepfreeze--most often foraged blackberries or marionberries, a testament to her thrift and persistence.  Sometimes she'd tell me and my parents that the cobbler on the table had been made with the last of the frozen berries, and I'd read into that that she was really happy to see us.  

Cobbler was one of the last things she made before she and my step-grandfather left their home for a assisted living facility.  She'd already slipped pretty far, and her last cobbler was not, alas, her best, but more importantly,  she invited my dad and me over for the making of it, to train us in the way of cobbler.  Better late than never. 

My grandmother was in my thoughts when I set out to gather enough late-season blackberries for one last cobbler.   Along with her craftiness I inherited some more dubious tendencies, most notably stubbornness and irrational thrift.  The latter drove me out into the alley for one last forage, despite the bounty already in the freezer; the former spurred me to stretch to my full tip-toed height, determined to reach a juicy cluster dangling overhead.  I inevitably overbalanced and took a comical spill into the brambles, emerging snagged, scratched, juice-spattered and laughing, recalling a story about my grandma's first week in the locked memory-care unit.  

Finding herself unable to roam freely and unable to understand the reasons for her confinement, Grandma took action.  When the coast was clear she pushed a planter against the wall of the patio; my 5-foot grandma clambered over the 7-foot wall and tumbled onto the grass on the other side.  She brushed herself off and walked around to the front of the building where she was seen and apprehended as she tried to totter out towards the main road (surely one of the slowest-speed chases on record).  

When my dad heard the story he asked her if she was scared trying to climb down from that high wall.  

"Oh, no," she insisted, "when I was a kid I used to do things like that all the time."

"But Mom," my dad pointed out, "that was eighty years ago."

So maybe I'll also inherit her selective regard for the passage of time.  I used the berries I gathered to make the summer last just a little bit longer.  Although the recipe I use is neither my grandma's (which calls for shortening, a non-presence in my kitchen) nor my mother's (Bisquick, same story), the cobbler turned out pretty well.  I would have liked to share it with Grandma, to see if she'd have anything nice to say about a total stranger's cooking.  

Cornmeal Cobbler

2 lbs fruit or berries, fresh or frozen (but preferably free!)
up to 1 c sugar
2 Tbs cornstarch
3 Tbs sugar
1 c cornmeal
1 c flour
2 tsp bp
¼ tsp salt
1 c buttermilk
½ tsp almond extract
1 beaten egg
4 Tbs melted, cooled butter

Mix the fruit and the sugar (to taste) and spread in a shallow baking dish. Whisk together the starch, 3 Tbs sugar, cornmeal, flour, baking powder, and salt. Mix the almond extract, buttermilk, egg, and butter, and stir into the dry ingredients. Top the fruit with large spoonfuls of batter. Bake 30-35 minutes at 375.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Xoi Nep Than

Xoi Nep Than
Mekong Grocery, $1.65

I recently took a joyride on Seattle's new light-rail train, which currently runs from downtown to almost Seatac airport (the airport terminal is due to open soon, followed by more northern stations). It was a great ride--smooth enough for my creaky bones, but bumpy enough to delight David, a talkative 12-year-old fellow joyrider seated across the aisle (he was so adorably excited to take his first train trip that he high-fived the ticket inspectors).

Somehow rocketing along either far above or far below ground level messes with my internal map, so it wasn't until the trip back towards town that I realized the Mount Baker station is mere blocks from one of my favorite Asian shops, the Mekong Rainier Grocery. When I was housesitting in the neighborhood several years ago I made almost daily trips for single-serving portions of spongy duck egg custard, cut in thick golden slabs and laid across a little bed of black sticky rice cooked with coconut milk.

Alas, things have changed. The Mekong is bigger and more bustling, but the slabs of custard are no more. The salesgirl I asked said that it just didn't sell well enough (starting the moment my housesitting gig ended, presumably). So I had a pack of xoi nep than instead; the same mass of coconut black rice, but topped with a schmear of sweetened mung bean paste and sprinkled with flaked coconut. Not quite as luscious as custard, but good enough fuel for a train trip.

Mekong Rainier Grocery
3400 Rainier Ave S
Seattle, WA

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Homemade Amazake

Aspergillus oryzae is practically the stem cell of Japanese cuisine.  A benefical mold, aspergillus plays a key role in foods and beverages as diverse as miso, soy sauce, pickles, rice vinegar, shōchū, and sake.  Perhaps one of the most surprising uses of this protean spore is in making a sweet, creamy pudding called amazake.  When added to cooked grain, the aspergillus enzymes digest the complex carbohydrates, rendering them into mouth-watering simple sugars.  

For the home cook, the most convenient form of aspergillus is kōji, rice deliberately infected with the mold.  In Japan, groceries sell kōji in refrigerated plastic packets that look like long-forgotten leftovers:  kernels of rice bound together by a furry blankets of pure white mold.  In Seattle I was able to buy freeze-dried kōji (Cold Mountain brand, $6.99/20oz.), tiny white pellets that look oddly sanitary and keep for up to a year in the fridge.  

Instead of following the instructions that came with my kōji, I used Sandor Ellix Katz's recipe.  Although the recipe appears complicated and strict, I made nearly every possible blunder and still ended up with edible amazake.  

The most common base for amazake is sweet rice but I opted to use millet instead, cooking the grain very soft and allowing it to cool somewhat before mixing in the kōji.  I didn't have the gallon jar Katz calls for, so I doled my batch out into three pre-heated quart jars, then put them in an insulated bag and poured in hot tap water.  

Overnight the bag popped open and the water temperature dropped much lower than it should have.  The amazake was sweet but not intensely so, so I added more hot water.  A mere hour later I could see white fur and small puddles of alcohol starting to form:  uh-oh.  I quickly brought the whole batch to a boil to stop the fermentation.  

I ended up with about 2 1/2 quarts--plenty to share around.  Although amazake is certainly not to everyone's liking, I've found that it quickly grows (no pun intended) on anyone willing to give it a chance. Because the bran on the millet was intact, my amazake is much chewier than versions made from white rice; if I had a food processor, I would probably run it through for a creamier texture.  Amazake can be eaten hot or cold, or diluted and drunk as a hot or cold drink.  Katz recommends vanilla, ginger, espresso, or slivered almonds as seasonings, or nutmeg and rum for ersatz eggnog; I enjoyed a warm cup with several spoonfuls of cocoa powder.  Amazake is also recommended as a sweetener for baking, and my friend Margaret used part of her share to make pancakes.  

Check out more travel-related treats at WanderFood Wednesday...

Sunday, August 16, 2009

Sunday Ice Cream Cruise

Chocolate Root Beer Float
Sunday Ice Cream Cruise, $4

Preconditioned by the high-end ice cream parlors springing up all over Seattle, I boarded the
Sunday Ice Cream Cruise with unrealistic expectations.  I figured on having to choose between, say, salted caramel and blackberry-zinfandel sorbet; in reality, it was a toss-up between an ice cream sandwich and a root beer float.  

To be fair, the Ice Cream Cruise is only nominally about ice cream.  After launching from Lake Union Park at the south end of the lake, the vintage ferry chugs past some spectacular sights--the Center for Wooden Boats, Gasworks Park, the new high-rise marina, Ivar's, and countless coming-and-going seaplanes.  At the helm is Captain Larry, an entertaining old salt whose loudspeaker spiel namedrops luminaries ranging from John Wayne to Dale Chihuly.  As the ferry passes the clusters of floating houses on either side of the lake, Larry steers in close for a fantastically voyeuristic view.   Among the houses on the east side is a floating shack that then-teenaged Captain Larry had the opportunity to buy for $600; he passed and it's now worth $600,000.  

The 50-minute Ice Cream Cruise departs hourly, 11-5, almost every Sunday of the year.  Adult fare is $11, with lower rates for seniors and kids.  The downstairs galley supplies coffee, soft drinks, and a limited range of ice cream treats--including a "world exclusive" chocolate root beer float.