Sweet bean paste is an acquired taste. I have been eating it since I was very young, so I never went through that initiation phase. But for those to whom an (as it's called in Japanese) is a new thing, if you can get past the intense sweetness and textural hurdles, you are in for a real treat. It's best paired with some type of pastry (preferably rice-based), but I'm sure there are combinations out there that are yet to be invented. I prefer smooth bean paste (koshi-an) to the kind with the bean skins left on (tsubushi-an), a preference I think is akin to smooth vs. chunky peanut butter. You either like it or you don't. However, it really depends on the context of the dessert. In some cases, only the chunky variety will do.
Bean paste can be red or white, and the red variety can be bought pre-made at many Asian grocery stores. I've found it to be too sweet, so making my own allows me to control the sugar. To save a little time, you could buy the canned beans and skip the parboiling step (step 1). Some recipes called for soaking the beans over night, but as long as you parboil 3-4 times, I don't think that soaking is necessary.
Adapted from Apple Pie, Patis, & Pâté
- 180 g. azuki beans (for red) or lima beans (for white)
- 5 c. water
- 1-1/2 c. granulated sugar
- 1 tsp. salt
- Wash beans well in cold water and drain. Pour beans into a medium pot and cover with about 1" of water. Bring to a boil over medium heat. When water is at a strong boil, remove the pot from the heat, drain the beans, discarding the water. Repeat 2-3 more times until the skin begins to peel back from the beans, then drain one last time and wash the pot.
- Return the beans to the clean pot and cover with 5 c. water. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Simmer for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. When beans are soft and "mashable," remove the pot from heat.
- Place a mesh sieve over a bowl and pour the beans into the sieve. With the back of a wooden spoon, mash the bean through the sieve into the bowl with the reserved liquid. When only bean skins remain in the sieve, discard them.
- Pour the mashed beans and liquid into a cheesecloth, and strain out most of the liquid. To gauge if you have removed enough liquid, press your finger into the beans. If it holds the indentation without crumbling, it's ready.
- Place the bean mash back in the pot, add sugar and salt, and turn heat to low. Heat, stirring, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is glossy.