Saturday, January 30, 2010

Tiramisu Class

"From Cheese to Tiramisu"
The Seattle Free School

Almost fifteen years ago I spent a week in Florence with my mother and my surrogate grandmother, Carleen, in honor of Carleen's 75th birthday. Carleen is a native South Carolinian who had heard about Florence when she was 13 and dreamed of visiting for the next 60 years. Teaching her a few requisite words of Italian was like a Laurel and Hardy routine:

Me: Buon giorno. Ok, now you try!

Carleen: Bone journey ooooh...

Several years before our trip, Carleen's husband, Bruce, had had a heart attack and a series of bypass sugeries; as a show of support, Carleen had joined him on his special low-fat diet. But in Florence, all bets were off: Carleen took a gleeful break from skim milk and fiber crackers and "heart healthy" spreads. We gobbled ravioli and pizza and panini and slurped full-fat cappucinos, and from the moment that Carleen discovered it, we ended every meal but breakfast with a helping of tiramisu. Carleen got pretty good at "per favore" and "grazie"!

Since that trip I haven't eaten much tiramisu. The name of course, means "pick me up", and a good tiramisu should put a smile on your face and a wag in your tail. The ones I tried stateside tended to be too heavy and sodden, too insubstantial (angel food cake and whipped cream), or too fusion-y (kiwi and goat cheese?). So my attention was snagged by an ad for a tiramisu-making class offered by the Seattle Free School ("The Seattle Free School is for the community by the community. All are welcome. No money ever exchanges hands. All we exchange are skills, knowledge and experiences.").

"From Cheese to Tiramisu" was held at the Cascade People's Center and led by Jessica, Free School founder and veteran cheese maker. Her premise is that homemade mascarpone elevates an everyday tiramisu to something extraordinary.

Jessica's Free School Tiramisu

For the mascarpone:
1qt cream
1qt half-and-half
1/2tsp tartaric acid

For the tiramisu:
2c mascarpone
3-4 eggs, separated
1 Tbs vanilla sugar (put a vanilla bean in a jar of sugar and give it some time)
3/4 c cold strong coffee (leftovers from the morning are perfect)
1/2-3/4 c Kahlua
18 (or so) ladyfingers
unsweetened cocoa powder

Pour the cream and half-and-half into a large pot and stir while heating it to at least 185 (it boils at 205); too cool, and it won't curdle. Since you have no way of knowing the acidity of your dairy products, start by adding a small amount of tartaric acid. Stir well for 3-5 minutes to see if anything will happen.

Still no curds? Add a little more acid and do the stirring act again. Unlike, say, ricotta, mascarpone will not separate dramatically; the curds are small and will always look creamy rather than watery, and the whey you pour off will look more like 1% milk.

When you think you have enough curds, it's time to strain. Dampen a good cheesecloth (not the supermarket kind; get one from a kitchen supplier and keep it lint-free by handwashing) and lay it over a collander. Put the colander over another pot to catch the whey (so if you don't have as many curds as you expected you can start again). Cool the mascarpone to room temperature (so it doesn't cook the eggs).

Whip the egg whites into peaks. If you choose to use sugar (some people find this tiramisu plenty sweet without it), stir it into the cheese, then add the yolks and gently fold in the whites. Mix the Kahlua and coffee together in a small bowl.

Smear a little cheese on the bottom of dish ("Just like lasagna, " says Jessica, "-lasagna with cheese and cookies." "And booze!" adds a wag in the audience.) Quickly dip the cookies for the first layer in the coffee; don't get them too damp because they'll be getting the brunt of the soaking as the tiramisu sits. Place them in the dish, breaking as needed to create a tiled layer. Spoon on some cheese. Let the cookies for the next layer soak up a little more coffee, rolling them around a few times until they darken. Gently spread on the last of the cheese and top with a generous sifting of cocoa powder.

Then comes the hard part: let it sit overnight. My heart sank a little as Jessica told us how much her co-workers would enjoy the demo tiramisu the next day, but I soon got over it. To be honest I did show up to the class hoping for a little taste, but you know what they say: teach a woman to make tiramisu...

Grazie, Jessica! From me and grandmother Carleen.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Taza Almond Chocolate

Chocolate Mexicano
Taza, $4.99

While a silky mouthfeel is one sign of well-made chocolate, too much smoothness can sometimes, paradoxically, wear me down, making me feel like I'm been spoonfed pudding from a hospital tray. When I want a more assertive chocolate experience, there's Taza.

Based in Somerville, MA, Taza makes "Mesoamerican-style" chocolate using a blend of traditional and innovative approaches. Like those wheels of chocolate I used to buy at a Mexican market, Taza's chocolates are highly textured thanks to stone-grinding process. This leaves intact and appreciable particles of cacao and crystals of sugar in the final product--but where those grocery chocolates fall on the cement side of the grittiness scale, Taza's are pleasantly sandy.

They offer three single origin bars made from Dominican cacao, as well as a limited-edition Chiapan bar from beans grown in the Soconusco region of Mexico (what's with the "limited"? according to their website, Taza was only able to get 17 sacks of these beans). The current line-up of Chocolate Mexicano discs includes: plain, yerba mate, cinnamon, vanilla, guajillo chili, and salted almond. The discs come wrapped two to a pack and are easy to break up or grate for making hot chocolate or mole.

All of Taza's ingredients are organic and some are bioactive. They practice direct trade and maintain close relationships with their farmers. Their website spells out a host of other enviromental and community intiatives in which the company is active. Just how transparent is Taza? On the website, you can enter the batch number from your disc or bar and see photos taken during the manufacturing of that specific bar.

Sunday, January 24, 2010

French Waffel

French Waffel
Scandinavian Bakery, $1.50

This potent little pastry is an eye-opener for anyone who equates vanilla with the absence of flavor, or a special treat for those of us who already appreciate that well-endowed orchid's intoxicating perfume. Two crispy rounds of puff pastry, sanded with crystal sugar and sandwiched together with a thick, intensely flavorful frosting. Perfect paired with strong coffee.
More on Scandivanian Bakery coming soon...

Scandinavian Bakery
8537 15th Ave NW

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


Uwajima, $3.19/15

Teeth still on edge after several disappointing purchases of grocery store sweets (eg
choco coffee mochi, banh xu xe), when I spotted the Uwajimaya superstore's display of Korean cakes, I almost kept walking. Something snagged my attention though--the colors? the textures? a whiff of cinnamon escaping the plastic-styrofoam trays?--and I lingered long enough to realize that these rice cakes were fresh and tender, not the thawed blobs I was expecting.

I chose a pack of small round
kyung-dan (also spelled gyung-dan), dumplings made of boiled rice flour dough (much like Japanese shiratama dango). They were filled with an impeccably smooth red bean paste and rolled in five different but equally delicious toppings: confectioner's sugar, black sesame, two kinds of bean powder, and cinnamon.

Kyung-dan are among the many Korean confections manufactured at Han Yang Oriental Food in Lakewood, Washington (yep,
that Lakewood) and sold in Asian markets around the Pacific Northwest. Judging from this cooking lesson, they're also reasonably easy to make at home.

Han Yang Oriental Food Mfg
3819 94th St.
Lake Wood, WA 98400

Thursday, January 14, 2010

"The Japanese Snickerdoodle" in Edible Seattle Magazine

If you are in Seattle, please check out my article, "The Japanese Snickerdoodle: Art Oki and Umai-do Manju Bakery" in the January/February issue of Edible Seattle magazine. In it I profile Art Oki, a fellow wagashi enthusiast forging a second career in home-style Japanese sweets (above, his dorayaki, kinako manju, and imogashi). At some point the issue will also be available online, and I will be sure to post the link.

3/4/10 update:
This article is now available on Edible Seattle's webpage.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Matcha Kuzuyu

Matcha kuzuyu
Maruta Shoten, $1.89/5

My first experience with kuzuyu was on New Year's Day, 2001. I had traveled from Tokyo to my friend Yukari's home on the southern island of Kyushu using a special local-routes-only train ticket; the trip took 29 hours and 13 trains. Then I fell off the vegetarian wagon in a big way, eating nothing but fish in its many forms for about 36 hours, washing it down with can after can of beer. 

 So I was already feeling pretty delicate when we set out for a New Year's visit to Yukari's local shrine.  The usual protocol when visiting a Japanese shrine involves dropping a coin in the offering box, clapping, and bowing to the awakened gods:  choreography so simple, even I can usually manage it.  However, on New Year's Day at any popular shrine, there will be a sea of people between you and the collection box; your chances of getting there with your coin are about equal to your chances of rushing the stage at a Taylor Swift concert--from the balcony. 

As Yukari took out her coin purse and unconcernedly hucked her offering in the general direction of the box, I began to sweat.  Throwing has never been my thing; whatever the projectile, whatever the goal, odds are it will land on my foot.   But that's defeatist, right?  "New year, new me, " I thought, "Maybe 2001 is the year I finally grow into my arm."  I took a deep breath and slung my coin as hard as I could...into the guy standing in front of us.  

As he turned around, rubbing the back of his head, I tried to blend in, but as the only non-Japanese in sight, probably didn't do a good job of it.  The look on the guy's face almost broke me. I was cold, tired, bloated, hungover,  and now, mortified.  Yukari took one look at me and steered us through the crowds to the teahouse.  Moments later, I had in my hands a steaming bowl of cloudy ginger-scented phlegm. 

Yukari explained that kuzuyu is a winter drink made of starchy powdered kuzu (aka kudzu or arrowroot) and various flavorings.  She commanded me to drink it down, and I did. Moments later I could feel my stomach unclench, and warmth and something like dignity seeped down my appendages.  I stood up straighter, and in bad but audible Japanese, ordered another cup. 

Last time I went to Japan, I brought home some kuzuyu for just such emergencies, in ginger and black sugar flavors.  It's a pale powder that comes in small envelopes; when you add hot water the kuzu thickens almost instantly.  I found this matcha flavored stuff at a local Japanese grocery.  While the color and texture remind me of those tubs of "Ghostbusters" slime, it is tremendously warming and comforting.  

Kuzu is also used to make cool summer sweets like kuzu mochi and kuzu kiri.  Like many old-fashioned Japanese ingredients, kuzu is difficult and expensive to produce.  Products that feature hon ("true") kuzu will generally say so on the label.  It is far more common for kuzu confections, such as this one, to include a supplemental amount of a cheaper starch  (in this case, from potatoes). 

Tuesday, January 5, 2010

Blackbird Bakery

Salted Bay Caramel Chocolate Tartlette
Blackbird Bakery, $3

Most of the days that I make the trip from Seattle to Bainbridge Island have something major in common: sunny, warm weather that begs for a ferry ride and screams for ice cream. When I get to Winslow, the little town where the Seattle ferry docks, I usually head straight to Mora for three scoops of whatever's in season (plus about 20 taste-tests).

So I'd always walked right past the Blackbird Bakery, despite the long lines and rave reviews from every Bainbridge travel guide. Until yesterday, when it was grey and chilly, and I need some solid food to keep all the mochi in my stomach under control.

The bakery was crowded but not unpleasantly so, and the infamously surly service wasn't in evidence. We had a bowl of adequate lentil soup and a big slice of the best spinach quiche I've ever had, then pooled our change (cash or check only!) to take home the last, lonely chocolate tartlette.

Blackbird Bakery
210 Winslow Way East
Bainbridge Island, WA

Monday, January 4, 2010

Mochitsuki II: Bainbridge Island

Mochitsuki 2010
Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community and Islandwood School

Having never previously participated in making mochi, one of my favorite foods, I've recently had a run of good luck: two mochi-making events (mochitsuki) in two weeks! In my previous post on the annual mochitsuki at Seattle's Nichiren Buddhist Church I talked a little about mochi's religious significance and the reasons that mochitsuki so often take place just before the New Year holidays.

The annual mochitsuki hosted by the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Community (BIJAC) generally takes place after New Year's and is resolutely secular--but that's not to say it's without larger significance.

When Japanese Americans living on the West Coast were officially "relocated" in the aftermath of the Pearl Harbor attack, Bainbridge Island was where the process began. On March 30, 1942, 227 island residents of Japanese descent were rounded up and packed onto a ferry, bound for an isolated detention camp in Idaho. As the first to be taken from their homes, the Bainbridge Island detainees were among the last to return, but during their long absence they were not forgotten. The editor of the local paper publicy decried the Exclusion Act, and other islanders resisted it in quieter ways. After the war, Bainbridge Island welcomed its detainees back to homes, farms, and business that had been maintained for them.

With its free public mochitsuki, the BIJAC's commemorates the detainees (at least one of whom, a spry 99-year-old, was present for the event) and thanks the larger Bainbridge Island community for its support. With free mochi and performances by Seattle Kokon Taiko, the event is so popular that for the last 3 or 4 years it has taken place at Islandwood School, the island's largest venue (and even so, the parking lot filled in the first hour and cars lined the approach road for blocks).

These days most non-commercial mochi is made by steaming pulverized glutinous rice (mochiko), often in the microwave, or by using a home "mochi maker"--an electric countertop rice cooker that steams the rice, then processes it into a fluffy paste. It's a rare treat to see mochi made the "old-fashioned" way with usu (above left) and kine (above right), a stone bowl and wooden mallet. A stump placed under the usu raises it to a comfortable height and absorbs some of the reverberations. The kine are soaked in water to keep them from getting mired in the sticky mass of rice.

At the BIJAC event pre-soaked rice was cooked in stacked wooden steamer boxes over gas cookers placed at the edge of the lawn. Then, batch by batch, the freshly-steamed rice was dumped out of the steamer box and into the usu (below left). Before vigorous pounding could start, the rice had to be pre-mushed (below right); otherwise everyone within a 10-foot radius would be showered with flying grains.

Then came the main act. The area where the pounding took place had a kind of carnival air, as a crowd gathered to cheer, applaud, and pitch in. The pounding was emceed by a middle-aged guy had a great sense of humor, crack timing, nerves of steel, and hands of asbestos, Shoichi Sugiyami.

After selecting voluteers from the audience, Sugiyama armed them with kine and arranged them around the usu. Becuase keeping a rythym is essential for avoiding kine clashes, he also gave each pounder a number and counted them out as they went, intervening when things got too synchopated.

With the batch well on its way, Sugiyama would rotate in kids from the crowd, some barely taller than the kine:

Finally, one strapping volunteer would be called upon to strong-arm the mochi into submission. As the lone pounder hammered away, Sugiyama screamed instructions while darting in between blows to turn or wet the mochi or pick out stray splinters (like I said: steel and asbestos).

Every time Sugiyama judged a batch to be ready, the crowd errupted in cheers. Then, like a dad tossing a toddler into the air, he would flip the lump of mochi out of the usu and drop into onto a tray (below left).

Inside the Islandwood dining hall, the fresh mochi was deposited on a large work table, where a volunteer divided it among a crowd of waiting children (and a few adults) before showing them how wrap the mochi around small balls of red bean paste (anko). Meanwhile, in the Islandwood kitchen, more volunteers were expertly preparing and rolling more mochi, which was boxed up as two-packs (one plain mochi, one anko-filled; above right) and given away at a central table (free, but donations appreciated). The dining hall quickly filled with dozens of visitors making a picnic of succulent mochi and cups of hot tea.

Fresh mochi can be eaten right away--plain, dipped in soy sauce or kinako (toated soybean powder), or stuffed with anko. It can also be refrigerated or frozen. Hardened mochi can be re-steamed, broiled or toasted; exposed to heat it swells like a marshmallow, developing a gooey center and a crispy, bubbled exterior. The reheated mochi is often added to a savory soup called ozoni, or to a sweet red bean soup called zenzai or shiruko.

Friday, January 1, 2010

Pie Party 2010 / No Crust Hot Fudge Pie

Pie Party 2010

Every New Year's Day my friends Ross and Harriet throw open their doors to a day-long parade of pies. Ross and Harriet provide a range of festive beverages; guests bring along a favorite pie to share.

The rules are few, but strictly enforced. Every arriving pie is photographed with its maker, then labeled and placed on the appropriate table (sweet versus savory). Every departing guest must take with them a generous selection of pie; ideally, there should be no leftovers.

No Crust Hot Fudge Pie

While I normally view the pie party as an excuse to try something new, I was just too tired to go out on a limb this year. No Crust Hot Fudge Pie to the rescue! The recipe comes from a cookbook put out decades ago by my maternal grandmother's Sunday School group, the Gleaners. It's quick, easy, and calls for ingredients that you probably have in your cupboard. Some may quibble that it's not a "real" pie, but they'll eat it anyway.

My mother transcribed the recipe for me and I have to laugh every time I look at it. After "Serves 8" she has added "(theoretically)"; when she and I are involved, it serves 2.

No Crust Hot Fudge Pie

4 heaping(!) Tbs cocoa or 2 squares baking chocolate
1 stick butter
2 eggs
1c sugar
1 tsp vanilla
4 Tbs flour
1/4 tsp salt

Melt the butter and stir in the cocoa (do not boil). Allow to cool slightly. Stir in sugar and flour, then eggs, vanilla & salt. Beat until smooth, then pour into a buttered 8" pie pan. Bake at 350 for about 25 minutes, or until it passes the toothpick test.