To understate the obvious, cherry blossoms are a big deal in Japan. Every spring newspapers and tv programs deliver breathless up-to-the minute reports on the best viewing spots. Photographers offer tips for capturing all that fluttering beauty on film. Friends and co-workers camp out to secure the best spots for ohanami (flower viewing parties), enjoying picnic lunches and sake (and sometimes portable karaoke) under canopies of frothy, pale pink blossoms.
But there's also a somber side to this blossom worship. As the short sakura season wears on, every puff of wind releases showers of loose petals, which drift like tenacious snowflakes onto the picnics and parties below. Short-lived sakura are a reminder of mortality (albeit a fluffy, pink reminder) and therefore a traditional favorite of samurai, yakuza, and all those who aspire to a short, beautiful life.
Every year around this time the global wagashi purveyor Minamoto Kitchoan sells sakura daifuku, little balls of white bean paste wrapped in mochi that has cherry blossom petals mixed into it. The petals infuse the mochi with a delicate but unmistakable perfume. It might not be one of the loveliest Japanese sweet, but it's one of my favorites.
Since I'm nowhere near a Minamoto right now, I decided to try making my own. While it's hard to harvest petals without feeling like a scoundrel, I quashed my guilt by wandering the long way home and taking a single blossom from each tree I passed. At home I rinsed them and separated the petals from the stamen and calyx (I guessed that these would be unpleasantly crunchy).
For the outer casing, I cooked up some short grained sweet rice (mochigome), then worked it over with a potato masher until it became a coherent but lumpy mass (having seen how much labor goes into real mochi, I hesitate to apply the term to my mush). Then I stirred in a little salt and sugar, a touch of beet food coloring, and a handful of petals. I formed my shiroan into small balls and encased each one in the rice paste, then topped each ball with a single petal.
I put a few in the freezer to taste when my diet is over and I can eat sugar again, and distributed the rest to friends. Mmmm, mortality.