Of all the flowers one could associate with Japan, from the chrysanthemum of the royal throne to the short lived morning glories and the ume which marks the official start of spring, the sakura or cherry blossom is the flower that most captures the hearts of the people. A stark black skeleton of a tree stretching limbs skywards, wreathed in soft pink garlands that delicately flutter from its fingertips creating a carpet of blush snow underfoot- one of the most celebrated images signalling the progression of the seasons, and catching a glimpse of this natural wonder has been a national obsession since the eighth century. Poetry is composed, love is declared and sake is drunk (often in excessive quantities) as people party in the shade of the cherry trees and take part in one of Japan’s favourite pastimes- Hanami, or ‘looking at flowers’. School children, salarymen, old ladies, weather beaten fishermen, celebrities and priests alike all stop to view the beauty of the sakura blossoms, and like the ethereal blossoms themselves, contemplate the fleeting nature of existence and the meaning of life.
The sakura petals are used in all manner of foods, from the salted preserved flowers pressed into cookies and wagashi, to brightly coloured syrups added to lattes and ice creams. The flower itself has a complex but delicate flavour and a hint of bitterness somewhere between the sour cherries that one would assume it tastes of, and its close cousin the almond; even when eaten, this most philosophical of flowers manages to echo Japan’s cultural beliefs.
As our tribute to these beautiful blossoms that herald the forthcoming warmer weather, we’ve composed a parfait dessert combining sweet, sour, bitter and creamy elements along with cubes of soft sponge cake and brittle shards of nutty caramel- the perfect sundae to eat whilst reclining on the floor, wishing you were in the shade of a gnarled old cherry tree. Although there are a lot of components in this recipe, they can nearly all be made in advance and stored until needed, meaning that a tasty reminder of spring can be whipped together in a matter of minutes.
Perhaps coming by its name through a translation error, or maybe an evolution of an earlier Western recipe, Japanese strawberry shortkeki bears little resemblance to the dessert of the same name eaten across America and the UK, and has grown to become the nation’s most widely purchased cake. A celebration, no matter how small, would be incomplete without a gleaming snowy-white, cream-covered, red berry studded shortcake; it is even the Christmas cake of choice and a flood of signs reminding you to order yours pop up in bakeries from October onwards.
The cake is, in its purest form, an incredibly light and fluffy genoise sponge in two or three layers, filled with silky whipped cream and juicy strawberries, and iced with more of the same. The success of such a simply presented cake depends greatly on the quality of its ingredients: enormous, fragrant Amaou strawberries from Fukuoka, the finest eggs from free range chickens fed on speciality grains, the richest, tastiest cream from Hokkaido, and flour and sugar with refined flavours far surpassing those you would normally expect from basic ingredients. Getting hold of Fukuokan berries in England is nigh on impossible, we’re in luck though since Britain grows some of the finest strawberries in the world and the first crops are just starting to come into season, meaning right now is the perfect time to enjoy this most Disney princess-like of confections.
As was the case across much of the world, sugar didn’t become widely available in Japan until the late 1800s- it was an expensive luxury ingredient exclusively for the kitchens of the wealthy and was used by artisan craftsmen to create elegant desserts and sweets. Outpriced by the upper classes, the sweet cravings of everyone else were instead satisfied by a uniquely Japanese ingredient; a mellow, toasty, nutty, yellow flour called kinako. Made from finely ground roasted soy beans, kinako has a delicate sweetness, much more subdued than that of sugar, but more than just sweetness, it imparts a wonderful flavour of its own wherever it is used- a distinctive, warming, caramelly mixture of freshly popped corn and roasted nuts. Typically used as a powdery topping for sticky rice cakes like daifuku, warabi mochi bracken jellies, or heaped atop a mound of snowy shaved ice, kinako also makes a fantastic flavouring for baked treats like airy chiffon cakes and impossibly light French style cookies.
When one thinks of French cookies, macarons are normally the first image that springs to mind- the perfectly round sandwiched confections, with their shiny, smooth outer shell and concealed creamy centre- and, while kinako does make for an exquisitely flavoured macaron, I’d much rather eat this humble powder in a gutsier, less delicate form. That form is in the macaron’s unassuming, rustic country cousin, the dacquoise. More straightforward to make than a macaron, the dacquoise uses much of the same ingredients and techniques- folding ground almonds and icing sugar into beaten egg whites- but produces a much cakier cookie, with a meltingly chewy centre and a craggy crisp exterior. The nutty aromatic toasted kinako pairs wonderfully with the almond in the cookie shell, and the brown sugar in the silky buttercream filling heightens the rich, warming, caramel flavours. Despite their homely appearance, these dacquoise make a fantastic addition to an afternoon tea or packed as part of a picnic for your next blossom viewing party.
Wagashi- traditional Japanese confectionery- tends to be an elegant and artistic representation of the season. As we’ve recently passed the equinox and the cooler nights are starting to extend, nature is gradually turning from green to red and it’s time to embrace the change and eat something a little more Autumnal. Alongside kabocha, mushrooms and persimmons, sweet potatoes are one of the key flavours that the Japanese look forward to eating during shokuyoku no aki or ‘the increased appetite of autumn’ and one of most popular ways to enjoy them is as a smooth, firm bar of imo yōkan.
Yōkan is one of the oldest forms of sweet still eaten regularly across Japan and is essentially a block of jellied mashed azuki beans, or in this case, mashed sweet potatoes. We’ve enhanced our yōkan further with the addition of pieces of intense, almost chestnut-tasting, candied sweet potato to exaggerate the earthy, woodland flavour and add an extra texture to the jelly. This delicately coloured, refreshing treat is the perfect accompaniment to a cup of matcha both in looks and taste, the sweet gel coating your mouth, balancing and rounding out the bitterness of the tea.
Like a large number of foods popular in Japan today, Purin owes its name and heritage to visiting Portuguese traders who, in the sixteenth century, brought over their jiggly, set custard dessert, pudim. Much like the French crème caramel or the Latin American flan, caramelised sugar is topped with a sweetened egg and milk mixture then steamed in a bain-marie before being inverted onto a plate and served with the caramel on top- the slightly bitter caramel sauce creating an elegant contrast of colours and offsetting the sweetness of the custard.
Although it is a staple snack or dessert all year round, purin to me marks the start of Summer; a chilled, lightly set, creamy custard has a wonderful soothing effect and refreshes your spirits after a hard day at work in sweltering temperatures. We like to infuse the milk and cream with the toasty, almost caramel-like flavour of hōjicha, roasted green tea. Eating just a spoonful of this dessert brings back comforting childhood memories of lifting the rim of a cereal bowl to your lips and drinking the milk after you’d finished the bowl of crunchy flakes. You could easily swap out the hōjicha in this recipe for vanilla to create a classic European version or matcha powder to make an intensely coloured, green tea flavoured variation. However you choose to flavour it, serve your purin with a handful of fresh seasonal berries to really highlight the time of year.
The powdered Chinese green tea favoured by the Southern Song dynasty arrived on the shores of Japan in the late twelfth century, carried by the monk Eisai Zenji who had returned home from studying Chan Buddhism. After two hundred years of being a purely religious beverage, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa secularised the performance of making and drinking tea and it slowly evolved into the ritualistic ceremony we are familiar with today. Whilst nearly every country the world over now drinks the later-developed steeped or infused tea, the powdered green tea known to us as matcha has remained a singularly Japanese drink, even being lost to the Chinese during the Mongol invasion. The differences between the two types of tea are remarkable, to the extent that even some of the most enthusiastic of Western tea drinkers can sometimes find the deep green flavour and slight bitterness of matcha difficult or off-putting. We’ve found that the easiest way to introduce the new and perhaps unexpected flavour of matcha to people is through desserts or baked goods such as these delicate, crisp tuile biscuits. The buttery tuile batter and drizzle of rich, silky white chocolate help to balance out the mild astringent taste of the tea to create a biscuit perfect for snacking on or for accompanying a cup of your favourite brewed tea.
Partially down to the way Japanese meals are structured, and partially because they tend to specialise in one type of dish and not stray far from that, many Japanese restaurants don’t tend to offer desserts. When you do stumble across one that does serve a sweet course, a lot of the time it’ll be the perennial favourite, anmitsu. At first glance appearing to be a fruit salad, the closer you look the more you start to notice key Japanese flavours and ingredients within it. Sweetened red bean paste and green tea flavoured cream sit atop a mound of cubed kanten- clear water jelly made from red algae, and small round rice dumplings are anointed with a slick of kuromitsu black sugar syrup, before the whole dish is adorned with the selection of fresh or preserved fruits that first caught your attention. Shiratama dango are traditionally made from just rice flour and water, but we’ve added silken tofu to ours to make a softer, more delicate dango that dries out less and has an irresistibly bouncy, squidgy bite to it. All of the elements combine harmoniously to create a very refreshing dish, perfect for eating after a particularly rich or spicy meal or it makes an excellent snack on a hot Summer’s day.