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...