Thursday, June 16, 2011
Two days ago my beloved family dog died; today I made coffee daifuku. It was the most fitting tribute I could come up with. (If you want to skip the backstory and head straight to the recipe, it's at the bottom of the post.)
Tucker was a rescue who ended up at the Nashville Humane Society after his previous "family" moved out their apartment in the middle of summer and left him locked up inside with no food or water. When the landlord found him three days later he was in pretty bad shape, and when my mom and I spotted him at the shelter he was about as energetic and engaged as a wet rag; all the other dogs jumped and wriggled and twinkled, but Tucker just laid in the corner of his cage, avoiding eye contact. The same impulse that compels Mom and me to buy stained, one-eyed stuffed animals and spindly Christmas trees led us to take the world's most depressed dog home for a trial adoption.
It was awkward from the get-go. Tucker was ferocious towards strangers, but a whiny crybaby around us, so fearful of separation he'd keen and jam his front paws under the closed bathroom door if you just wanted to pee in private. Neither extreme was attractive. Eventually we had a dog therapist come in, and she said some things that made sense. We humans changed our ways and gradually Tucker transitioned from impossible to merely difficult to, finally, an awesomely affectionate little dog with some residual quirks. He was devoted to my dad and the two of them developed a program of entertainingly elaborate rituals; here's what would happen every morning when Tucker saw Dad for the first time:
One problem that we never really sorted out: Tucker was a binge eater. Our previous family dog, Mac, was a classic Westie, with stumpy legs, a pig body, and a piggish attitude towards food; he'd eat almost anything, but given his limited vertical range, it was usually easy to keep him out of trouble. Tucker, in comparison, could practically levitate. He was roughly the same size as Mac, but leggier by inches.
The first weekend we had Tucker we briefly left him alone in the kitchen; first, he climbed onto the counter and took a polite but dismissive nibble out of every item in the fruit bowl before discovering the real prize, a boxed Derby pie (pecan with chocolate chips), bought at a church sale that morning. When I wandered into the kitchen a little later, hankering for a slice of pie, I was confused to see a brand-new empty pie pan shining in a patch of sun on the floor: no dents, no marks, not a single crumb. The solution to the mystery was around the corner; our catatonic 15-pound dog lying on his side with his emaciated legs stuck straight out and an entire Derby pie swelling his belly like a cow inside a cobra.
On the vet's advice, I took Tucker outside and proceeded to funnel hydrogen peroxide into him at 10-minute intervals until the pie reappeared. If I thought he'd looked dejected at the pound, I hadn't seen anything yet. That pie was probably the best thing that had happened to him in years, and it had gone horribly wrong. He was stoic about the treatment but the look on his face could have been used to solicit charitable donations.
That was only the first of many crises stemming from Tucker indulging in too much of a bad thing. I know this makes me and my parents sound horribly irresponsible, but Tucker was devilishly quick, silent, and so dexterous you'd swear he had thumbs.
Once when he was accompanying my dad on a car trip, they made a few stops on the way out of town: first at Starbucks, where Dad bought an enormous latte for the drive, and then to drop something in the mail slot outside the post office. In the seconds it took for my dad to walk from the car to the building and turn around, Tucker had lifted the venti cup out of the console between the seats, flipped off the lid, and commenced slurping. Dad didn't make a sound ("I knew if I startled him he'd spill the whole thing"), just walked calmly back to the car as Tucker watched him over the rim of the cup, lapping for dear life. By the time Dad reached down and took the cup from between Tucker's paws he'd drunk about half--but hadn't spilled a drop. As they drove off, Tucker curled into a little ball on the passenger-side floor and went to sleep. My dad finished the coffee.
So there's something right about the fact that I was at a chocolate and coffee tasting when Tucker had a stroke. When my parents called with the news, there was sadness but no shock. Over the last couple of years, Tucker's much-abused body had begun to shut down. When I last saw him, about a week before he died, he was totally deaf and blind, his bony little frame studded with lumps and growths, his smile gummy, his coat--to quote my dad--"moth-eaten".
And yet he was still so cute people in cars would slow down and grin out their windows as we jaunted around the block, me as "seeing eye person" trying to keep him from running into trees or spilling off curbs as he clipped along. Even more impressive, he was seemed happier than he had been in his anxiety-riddled prime; sure, he slept 23 hours a day, but every single time you roused him he'd deliver an abbreviated version of the joyful dance in the above video.
The first stage of mourning a rescue dog is raw sadness, and the second is this: "At least I gave him/her a better life than he/she would have had." But that's where my mourning process derailed. Tucker was certainly better off with us than with his first owners, and probably better off than with many other potential adoptive families. So he had a better life--but I didn't really give it to him.
About four months after I incited my family to adopt Tucker, I packed up and moved to Tokyo. As an irresponsible act it wasn't perhaps on par with leaving behind a baby or even a horse, but it wasn't particularly fair to either parents or dog. Tucker's death got me thinking about that stage in my life, about the fine line I walked between adventure and escape, about the things that helped me to adjust to my new life just as Tucker was adjusting to his.
Which is where coffee daifuku finally comes in. Daifuku are basic Japanese sweets, balls of bean paste skinned in fresh rice dough. As an illiterate vegetarian, I was initially drawn to the rack of daifuku at my neighborhood grocery store on the assumption that I could expect them not to contain meat. I visited more regularly when I realized that just around the time I got off work, the day's unsold daifuku were marked down to half-price. And then, eating my way through the rainbow of options, I got to the brown one: it was coffee and it was delicious.
After that I ate them every time I got the chance, sometimes even paying full price. My habit ran for months, until one day, the coffee daifuku were gone. The next day, none again. And the next.
Emboldened by my addiction, I cornered a clerk and in shaky Japanese asked about my treat. He said there were none, which of course I already knew.
"Tomorrow?" I pleaded.
He responded with a clear shake of the head and a well-enunciated "No" (rare in Japan). I never saw those daifuku again.
So today I was feeling sad about Tucker and thinking about Japan and the fact that I hadn't eaten coffee daifuku in almost exactly eleven years when I suddenly realized that I had all the ingredients to make them sitting in my kitchen. And whereas I would normally mull and research and make lists until the impulse passed, today, in Tucker's honor, I made them right away.
I've learned a lot of things from dogs in general and from Tucker in particular: the importance of a good stretch, the need to trust one's instincts, the nobility of expressing unrestrained affection. And whether because of their short lives or their tiny bladders, dogs are also masters of the immediate: they don't make to-do lists, and they don't let things drag on. So with that I headed into the kitchen for a date with coffee daifuku, feeling the ghostly touch of a wet black nose goading the back of my leg.
Spur-of-the-Moment Coffee Daifuku
250g (freezer-burned) shiroan white bean paste; you could also use store-bought red bean paste
1 tsp instant coffee
1 1/4 c water
1/4 c sugar
1/2 tsp instant coffee
1 1/2 c (not-too-expired) mochiko sweet rice flour
starch for dusting (eg cornstarch or more mochiko)
Let's say you had big plans to make fancy Japanese sweets last year so you spent a couple of days making a stockpile of white bean paste and that cured you of your urge to make wagashi; unearth a package of forgotten shiroan from the freezer and defrost. Mix the instant coffee with just enough water to make a smooth paste and blend into the shiroan (photo below).
You might also have some mochiko, with which you planned to make microwave mochi, but then the microwave died and you were intimidated by the idea of making stovetop mochi so you pushed the box of mochiko into a dark corner of the cupboard; dig it out and dust it off.
Combine the water, sugar, salt, and coffee over medium heat, stirring until everything has dissolved. Use a dampened wooden spoon to stir in the mochi about 1/3c at a time. Once it's all in, continue to stir the gluey mass vigorously for 2-3 more minutes.
Dump the mochi out onto a surface heavily dusted with cornstarch or more mochiko. Allow to cool for a couple of minutes, until you can handle it without wincing. Roll into a fat snake and divide into 10 pieces. Dust your hands well, then roll each piece into a ball and flatten into a small patty. Top that with about 1 Tbs of the bean paste, and stretch the edges of the mochi up until they meet and pinch them together to seal the shiroan inside. Set the daifuku seam-side down on the starched surface to cool.
You can tweak the daifuku to make them as round as possible but don't expect them to look like something a machine plopped onto a conveyor belt; you are not a machine. They will be lopsided and lumpy but you will enjoy the hell out of them anyway, as will the friends you share them with.