If there's any world culture that knows how to translate the flavors of Spring into food, it has to be the Japanese. A few years ago, my family traveled to Japan to see the cherry blossom bloom and follow it from Kyoto on the southern end of Honshu island up to Tokyo farther North. In Japan, they not only recognize the changing of seasons, they celebrate it: we were lucky enough to be in Kyoto during the Spring festival, when the evenings are a-glow with paper lanterns, and Japanese nationals in traditional kimono show up in droves to write their prayers on little scrolls at the Buddhist temples. And everywhere you turn, they revel in the beautiful pink blossoms that shower the streets with food and pastries honoring the season that signals new beginnings.
We scarfed (yes, scarfed . . . because we're Japanese Americans without a clue about the social graces of those born in Japan) down delicate pink mochi treats and sweet rice wrapped in salt water-soaked cherry blossom leaves. Chirashi came sprinkled with fluffy pink denbu (sweetened cod flakes). Little flower-shaped senbei crackers were tinged green with matcha powder and strewn with shaved toasted nori. And despite it being a 40ºF and rainy March, we intensely felt the turning of a seasonal page and tasted it with nearly every meal.
We haven't quite hit the Spring Equinox, but thanks to some unseasonably warm weather here in San Francisco, my mind is already focused on starting anew. I rediscovered the bundt pan I inherited from my grandmother, and with some mochi flour and matcha powder, I set about recreating those flavors and feelings from our travels.
Ready to celebrate a new season? Check out the recipe at YumSugar.
This week, my neighbor Jamie invited me to a Real Housewives-style lunch (sans crazy drama and plastic surgery) at her house with a couple other ladies from the block. Our other neighbor Cathy offered to whip up some of her delicious egg rolls and noodles, Jamie supplied her precious Lupicia tea, and since Jamie has her hands full chasing around her adorable 10-month-old daughter, I figured I would chip in with dessert. But what do bring that would be tasty next to Cathy's delicious Chinese delectables and Jamie's wonderful tea?
One of my favorite Japanese treats is daifuku manju: sweetened mochi (rice cake) filled with an (sweet bean paste) that is intended to be eaten with tea. I used to love to stop at Benkyo-do in Japantown for a manju sampler: white mochi with red koshi-an (smooth bean paste), pink mochi with white koshi-an, green tea mochi with red tsubushi-an (chunky bean paste). Lately, I have been intrigued with how to infuse my favorite Asian flavors into traditional western pastries, and since cupcakes afford so much flexibility with ingredients and textures, they seemed like a good starting point.
I wanted the cupcake to mimic the sensation of biting into chewy, soft daifuku manju, so I knew that the cupcake batter needed to contain mochiko flour, and the an would need to make an appearance, too. But I also love the flavor of green tea with manju, so I figured: why not use some matcha powder to whip up some green tea frosting? After tracking down a few recipes online, I had a good base to start with. I made my own an, but you can find it premade in Japanese grocery stores (though it tends to be on the sweet side...if you make your own, you can control the sugar). For the recipes, read on.
I have found that frosting is a great way to infuse certain ingredients into a pastry that do not fare well with heating or baking or to add additional layers of flavor to a dessert. Matcha (finely milled green tea) works great as a flavoring agent in baked goods, but it comes through great in frosting, as I found with this recipe. It is on the sweet side, so I might try this again as a cream cheese frosting.
Adapted from Cupcake Bakeshop
- 2 sticks unsalted butter, at room temperature
- 1/4 c. heavy cream or half-and-half
- 1 tbsp. matcha powder
- 3 c. confectioners sugar, sifted
- In the bowl of an electric mixer, whip butter until fluffy.
- In a small bowl, mix cream and matcha until well combined.
- To the electric mixer, add 1 c. sugar and beat until combined. Scrape down bowl, then add 1/3 of the cream-matcha mixture. Beat to combine, scrape down bowl, then add another cup of sugar. Continue alternating until you have used up all of the remaining ingredients. Turn the mixer to high, and whip until frosting is light and fluffy.