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ManjuMar 25, 2011

Today I met a friend for lunch at Mifune in Japantown, and after my meal of tempura udon needed something sweet. There's a new cupcake shop in the center that I passed earlier on my way to Kinokuniya Bookstore, but I consider it a travesty to crave sweets in Japantown and not pay a visit to Benkyodo Co. This business opened over a century ago, surviving the WWII internment camps and the slow erosion of Japanese-owned businesses in and around Japantown. Its main attraction is manju -- sweet, pounded rice cakes often filled with sweet bean paste and traditionally served with tea. My parents began bringing me here when I was very young, and I have been manju-crazy ever since.

Despite the end-of-days monsoon we are experiencing here in San Francisco, it is spring -- technically -- so I was delighted to see sakuramochi! Pretty in pink, this little cake is a perfect representation of blooming cherry blossoms and will always remind me of our trip to Japan last year. Spring was particularly cold there, so despite arriving in Kyoto in late March, we had a very difficult time finding sakura in bloom around the city. When we finally came across one in Maruyama Park one drizzly afternoon, it was as though nature celebrated with us because the sun burst out from behind the clouds! Suddenly, I understood why these magnificent trees are such a national treasure. I imagine that this year's emerging sakura flowers must give many Japanese hope in light of the horrible events of the past few weeks.

Today I painstakingly selected a few different kinds of manju and mochi, and just as I walked out of the shop with my purchases, the sun very fittingly crept out from behind the fog. To see descriptions of what I bought, read on.

Azuki-filled Mochi Cupcakes with Green Tea FrostingMar 10, 2011

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.

Mochi Cupcakes with Koshi-an (Sweet Red Bean Paste) FillingMar 10, 2011

Mmmmmm-mochi. There's something about the chewy, sticky rice cake that makes me want to hum a little ditty. Of course, the OG mochi that we stockpile at New Year's is unsweetened, and I like to toast it and dip it in a shoyu-sugar mixture. Most folks know as its more marketable tea go-with incarnation: daifuku manju. As I learn more about wagashi (Japanese sweets served with tea), I have found that there are so many ways to work with mochi and mochiko rice flour. So where to start? Cupcakes became the introductory lesson. For the recipe, read on.

Koshi An (Smooth Sweetened Azuki Bean Paste)Mar 10, 2011

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. For the recipe, read on.

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