Cold Comfort

Look familiar?

Nestled in that spoon is what is known as okayu in Japanese, tchok in some dialect(s) of Chinese, and...rice porridge in English--this last I never use because, for me at least, the word "porridge" conjures up something thick and glutinous, nothing that could apply here.

I caught a cold recently. I'm almost fine now, except for a lingering cough and a weird swollen throat that makes eating almost impossible, damn it. But even during my grave illness, I thought of this blog. I had no desire to actually write anything but I thought about it. After the fever broke and my regular appetite returned (nothing keeps this stomach down for long), as I was about to have a warm bowl of okayu, I thought, Hmm, this might be something interesting and informative to write about.

In Japan, okayu tends to be thought of as food for sick people because it's essentially rice that has been boiled in lots of water until soft and, hence, it's easy to digest. From what I've seen, it's usually eaten with a bit of fish, pickles, or ume boshi, which is a Japanese apricot that has been mascerated for months in salt, until the flesh is reduced to a meltingly soft consistently tenuously held together by a paper-thin skin.

As a child in Singapore, when I was ill I was given tchok, usually with a wedge of salted goose egg--I would painstakingly spoon out the impossibly white, chalky flesh, which clings stubbornly to the shell, and leave the red-orange yolk behind. But we ate tchok all the time, even when we were happy and healthy. Tchok is good stuff and there are so many kinds.

A Few Kinds of Tchok:
1. Plain tchok - this is the kind you'll get when you're sick, but it's better when you're not because then you get to enjoy it with the full spread of condiments and side dishes. Plain tchok is amazing because of how sweet and clean it tastes. It's warm and comforting, yet very light. I think my favorite thing to eat with plain tchok is a pickle called kiam chye, preferably julienned and stir-fried with thinly sliced pork. And a great condiment to sparingly spoon over plain tchok is cured black olives in oil--this is very different from your regular Kalamata olives and I have no idea where they originated from (but I promise to do a little more research and add more links to this post when I'm feeling better).

2. Chicken tchok - as an alternative to plain, tchok can be cooked together with other ingredients to simplify things (like a one-pot meal), but at our house it was invariably shredded ginger, black peppercorns, chicken broth, and big pieces of chicken.

3. Teochew tchok - this is just like plain except that it's a lot thinner, and the rice is only *just* cooked, so each grain is still separate and fairly firm--anyone ever had chicken and rice soup? Kinda like that. If you're in Singapore, when picking side dishes, you have to have the simmered goose with firm tofu (which has absorbed a lot of the dark sauce)--O dear lord, that stuff is HEAVEN!

4. Hong Kong style - I don't really know what the name of this tchok is, but it always seems to be served at Cantonese restaurants. I consider it "deluxe" tchok cause I've never had it home made. Instead of water, this tchok is simmered in some kind of stock, and it usually comes with its own "goodies"--usually nice things like sliced abalone or fish--so you don't need side dishes. I don't know how they do this but the tchok comes out beautifully--smooth and creamy (you can't even tell that it's rice anymore) but still light.

This past week, I've pretty much stuck to plain tchok. Call it early conditioning, but tchok is what I crave when I'm sick. It's comfort food without the usual heaviness of comfort food, and my rice cooker actually does all the work so I don't have to weave unsteadily around hot stoves and pots and pans, and be even more of a kitchen hazard than usual.

Especially the first day, I wanted something very simple--so, tchok and convenience store pickles (tip: don't ever buy pickles from Japanese convenience store):

For another meal, I heated up some tchok with a beaten egg, and then topped the whole thing with ume boshi:

At the risk of grossing you all out, here's a picture of everything mixed together. You have to kind of mash the ume boshi because it's very salty and needs to be evenly distributed. The black bits are actually purple shiso, or perilla, leaves that are cured with the ume boshi and which smell divine.

That's about it. Sorry, I'm not terribly inspired when my head's all fuzzy.

Oh, I just realized I don't have a recipe (for those who don't have a tchok-cooking setting on their rice cooker). I hate to sound like my mom but you don't really need exact measurements for making tchok. I guess it's good to know that a little rice goes a long way. Usually, I'd say a single portion of tchok only needs about a quarter cup of rice. As for water, I just did a quick search for recipes and the first one I found says "1 cup of rice, 6 1/2 cups water/broth." If anyone has a more confident formula, please feel free to comment!

If I'm making a small portion of tchok in a pot, usually it goes something like: put rice and cold water in pot, bring water to boil, turn heat to low, simmer with lid only partially covering pot (I stick a chopstick under the lid so it doesn't close tight and cause the tchok to bubble over, which is a common problem) for about an hour, stirring occasionally--although the timing does vary, depending on how soft you like your rice.


Fuwa Fuwa Soy Milk Cakey

(Note: In Japanese, "fuwa fuwa" is used to describe something soft and flouffy, like lambs wool; "cakey" is actually Japanese for cake, quite possible because the first Japanese person who ever saw the English word pronounced the "e" in "cake" as "ee.")

Although food is something easy to love, it has its share of underdogs who find wide acceptance a little harder to come by--dried prunes, bran, and soy quickly come to mind. I think of these guys as the nerds of the foodyard, esculent equivalents of the brilliant, sensitive child that the grownups made the mistake of praising to the rest of the class.

Of all the dried fruit, prunes somehow got singled out for its laxative qualities. The words "prune juice" say it all--does anyone drink that stuff cause they think it's yummy? Uh, maybe. Next, bran. This word seems unable to go anywhere without "health" tagging along like an annoying little brother.

And then there's soy, the teacher's pet. When I was living in the U.S. a few years back, to me at least, soy often seemed sadly misunderstood. Magazines and newspapers were touting the benefits of soy, and people listened. They just didn't enjoy. All sorts of tricks were devised to sneak soy into the diet: soy milk blendered with lots of fruit in smoothies and shakes, tofu disguised in heavily seasoned casseroles. Recipes would come with promises like, "You won't even know there's tofu in here." Poor soy, swallowed dutifully like a vitamin supplement.

In Southeast Asia, soy enjoys a different status. In Singapore, for example, soy milk and tofu are as common, and loved, as bread and butter. You can find them in any supermarket and on many menus. And I don't know any Singaporean who consumes soy because of the health benefits. I actually didn't know there were health benefits until I moved to Canada and something godawful called soy burgers crept onto supermarket shelves. Taste a spoonful of cold, uncooked tofu: if it's good, there'll be a sweet, fresh fragrance and flavor, a pure delight.

So, for this eleventh (and my first!) Is My Blog Burning?, hosted by Cathy at My Little Kitchen, I thought a tribute to my favorite nerdy white kid--soy--would work nicely with the theme of beans. I did initially have another kind of bean competing in my head for attention, as I described in my slightly crazed post here. However, while flipping through a Japanese recipe book recently, I soon found myself riveted by a lovely picture: "Souffle Cheese Cake," the book said. It looked pale golden and pouffy and perfect for showcasing soy.

I, er, sort of memorized the recipe (Did I mention I was browsing in a bookstore?)--but then made HUGE changes, enormous changes. The original ingredients list included sour cream, lemon juice, and flour--none of which I use in my recipe--and of course didn't include soy milk (even in Japan, a country that adores tofu, soy milk is generally viewed as something more healthy than delicious; but then soy milk only comes in two forms here, salted or non-sweetened, neither of which I'd want to drink either). Also, I reduced the oven temperature to 160'C because the first time I baked at 180'C, there was quite a bit of cracking, and my cake did not in any way resemble this person's proud creation.

I swear I'm winding down and will get to the recipe in a second. I just wanted to explain a few things about this cake. First of all, although outside of Japan it seems to often go by the name "Japanese Cheese Cake," this cake isn't anything like a typical cheesecake. It is cheese-creamy, but it's also light as foam, and as it melts on the tongue, you can actually hear and feel all these little bubbles bursting.

Here's a macha (green tea) version whose color more clearly shows the bubbly crumb--although this picture doesn't do justice to how light the real thing is

One other point. All the recipes I came across for Japanese cheese cake included flour and/or corn starch, but perhaps because of the delicacy of the cake, I found the presence of flour disturbing. I could taste and feel the chalkiness on my tongue. I first tried cutting down the amount of flour, but still the floury taste lingered. I then tried substituting ground almonds, thinking the cake would collapse without something to offer support. But eventually, I said, "oh, heck," and just made a cake without any kind of flour. And the thing stayed up! The texture was creamier, and thus also a bit harder to slice into.

Messily cut cake: its fault, not mine

But a wonderful and unanticipated result: the taste of the soy milk was suddenly much more distinct. Suddenly, this wasn't a cake that just had a bit of soy milk in it; this was a fuwa fuwa soy milk cake!

Okay! I'm done. But I have to apologize for one thing: this recipe is for a mini cake that serves two to three people. You have to understand. I was making countless experimental versions. I simply couldn't keep making full-sized cakeys or my arms would probably have dropped off from all that egg white whipping.

Fuwa Fuwa Soy Milk Cakey (aka Japanese Cheese Cake)
60g cream cheese
3.5 tablespoons sugar (I use light brown)
2 egg yolks
75ml 100% fresh soy milk (use regular milk if you really hate soy, you big meanie)
1 egg white
*2 tablespoons candied beans (optional--they look pretty and actually taste delicious, but they also sink to the bottom and detract from the soy flavor)

1. Line bottom of 12cm/4.7-inch round cake tin with parchment paper; make a separate paper collar that rises about 5cm/2 inches above rim of tin.
2. Preheat oven: 160'C/320'F
3. Soften cream cheese in microwave or double boiler and stir until nice and smooth.
4. Beat into cream cheese: 1 tablespoon of sugar, egg yolks, and soy milk.
5. Whip egg white and rest of sugar only until soft peaks form.

6. Add a spoonful of whipped egg white into cream cheese mixture and mix gently but thoroughly.
7. Fold in rest of egg white in two parts. You want to be soft-handed but don't be too timid. The batter needs to be well mixed or it will separate while baking and you'll have a denser layer at the bottom.
8. Pour batter into tin. Soak some kitchen cloths with water (should be very wet). Put one cloth on oven tray and set tin on top. Twist rest of cloths into long ropes and wrap snugly around side of tin. Many recipes suggest a water bath, but my cake still cracked when I tried that. I find the wet towels work better--thanks to shiokadelicious! for teaching me this trick.

9. Bake for about 35 minutes. Let cake sit in oven, with heat turned off for about 5 minutes. Open oven door and let cool completely or as long as you can stand waiting before you have to unwrap it and have a taste. Mmmm.

Notice the bit of separation going on at the bottom? I didn't do a good job of mixing.

By the way, if you're curious to see what a typical Japanese cheese cake recipe looks like, this seems like a pretty nice one (it's at the bottom of the page).


Two Infuriating Words

In my life, work is irregular. There will be these dry spells where I'm literally lying on the floor next to Edward, just waiting for a phone call or an email announcing a new job. And then there will be the weeks where everybody contacts me at once, everyone needing my special brand of magic. Okay, that makes me sound like a prostitute. I'm not a prostitute. I certainly make a lot less than one.

Right now, I'm going through a rainy season of work--lots of it, pouring down in sheets, everyone needing my time "right this second." So not a lot of time to blog, and yet I just have to say one thing: I suddenly realized today that I HATE the words "chick flick." I was walking Edward, thinking about this, and I actually started getting angry.

I hope you don't think I'm being an overreactionist. I'll have you know that I happen to be the subdued one in a family of drama queen, king, and princes. I'm a fairly easy-going type, but...chick flicks--aaaaaargh!

What's a chick flick (let's just shorten it to "CF" from now on, since I don't want to be known as someone who expansively strews this word around her blog)? It seems to me that a movie flirts dangerously with being labeled a CF if it contains any of the following:
-conversation (as opposed to dialogue, which doesn't have to include feelings or personal thoughts)

First of all, what is so wrong about any of the above three elements? I ask this because nobody says "CF" in a approving manner. It is almost always used as a cautionary device or as a term of derision and condescension.

Second, since the "chick" in CF immediately absolves men from having any part in this vaguely generalized medium, one has to wonder: why do people who use the words CF feel they have to shame others who might find pleasure in conversation, friendship, and romance?

I think the party that suffers the most here from this labeling is not women but men. This strikes me as rather similar to the case of happy housewives who are made to feel ashamed by successful working women. No one should be pigeonholed. So why shouldn't men be allowed to openly enjoy:
-a good cry;
-the simple pleasure they might derive from the company and conversation of other men (without feeling the need to camouflage the time together with something distracting, like sports or television);
-a feel-good romantic story;
-an exploration of their own, as well as others', feelings?

I don't want to be hypocritical and force everyone to acknowledge that life without the above list would be less full. But if you do enjoy such things, you shouldn't be made to feel silly either.


I'm an Idiot!

Big gusty sigh.

I've always known that I am not the sharpest tool in the box. But this latest discovery has me feeling...extremely aggravated.

I've just discovered that one U.S. measuring cup is not the same as one Japanese measuring cup. Do you realize what this means?

It means I've been baking with my little Japanese measuring cup for an entire year under the mistaken assumption that one cup equals 200ml. Why? Because the stupid thing says quite clearly on its side in happy, cherry red: "200ml - 1 cup." So what did I do? I looked and I believed. I trusted my measuring cup! Well, there goes my innocence, my naive heart, my faith in measuring cups.

For anyone who didn't know (probably nobody but me): one U.S. cup equals 240ml.

I suppose this explains why I've had so many baking disasters since I came to Japan. All this time I thought it was...me. But since we now all know exactly what sort of doofus I am, it should be assumed that I would have found a parallel path with which to mess up. I mean, I've always known that "one cup" in America and Australia were different, but I just nuttily assumed Japan and America shared some sort of measuring cup fraternity. But then, why in the name of god does there need to be so many different versions of something that sounds as singular and assured as "One Cup?" Okay, best not to go there because then we'd have to ask why we couldn't all just pick either the left or the right side of the road to drive on, so that waffle-brains like me wouldn't drive on the wrong side and have car accidents...

Not that I've actually driven on the wrong side of the road--fine, I have driven on the wrong side of the road because when you move about all the time, it can get really confusing. BUT, I've never had an accident from driving on the wrong side of the road. However, that's really not the point I'm trying to make.

I actually don't have a point. I simply wrote this post to unload some self-scorn and to warn others so that they don't make the same mistake.


Alert! Alert! Food Porn Alert!

You can take or leave these recipes, but CLICK on the pictures--oh my god, who knew parsnips and pork could look so lovely?


O Bean-sanity

I am currently in a dangerously preoccupied state about beans (beans!), and the blame rests entirely on my friend Lynn's shoulders. It all started with an innocuous email, whereby Lynn began to enthusiastically describe the upcoming IMBB 11, whose theme is beans. "Let's do it!" she wrote.

I demurred. IMBB is for people who regularly cook and bake things that they are proud to exhibit and share with others. They usually are part of a food blogging ring and are confident of their right to such a membership. As you can see, I do not belong to Blogs that Cook or any such assemblage.

But right after I hit send in reply to Lynn's mail, I suddenly could not stop thinking about the possibilities. I've been going crazy! The first thing that popped into my head was miso--fermented beans, you know. I recalled a miso manju I once ate that had tasted quite good. I then pondered the possibility of a cake with miso. I then tried making such a cake.

And it was sickening. Okay, the first attempt was not sickening. But it did not...rouse me.

Today, I tried again. This time, miso cheesecake.

This time definitely sickening. I really love miso. Drink miso soup almost every day and all that. But I never realized until now that it has, well, a cheesy odor--quite natural, actually, since it is fermented material--which you would think would work nicely in a cheesecake.

But no, no it did not work nicely. It was sickening. And salty.

Well, it could just be a matter of fine-tuning. I don't actually have a basic recipe to work with. I have, in fact, simply been haphazardly scooping lumps of miso into my batter and doing little salmonella-friendly finger taste tests (if you live in Japan long enough, you really have to get over any FDA-conditioned fear of eating raw eggs, or you'll end up hiding in a cave, nibbling on sand and straw).

I did make a non-miso cheesecake at the same time, and I must say it was delightful. In keeping with the beans theme, soy milk and tofu have also been flitting about in my head, so I made a tofu souffle cheesecake. It was bloody excellent. Airy, fluffy, aromatic. Unfortunately, it also had cracks the size of North Dakota and it shrunk and sank pitifully after being removed from the oven. Still, it tasted wonderful.

So now I'm torn. Do I buckle down and keep working on my miso cake. Or do I turn to gentle, not-so-pungent soy for inspiration--possibly, a delicate soy milk custard tart or perhaps a soy milk pound cake with little candied beans.

But the main problem is that I'm obsessed. I cannot stop thinking about beans. I've never had so many bean byproducts in my little fridge at one time. This is insanity.


(I just returned to my miso cheesecake, which has since cooled down. Setting aside memories of my earlier "ugh" response, I went back in for another taste. You know what? Not so sickening. It actually tastes much better now that it's cold. Of course there's too much miso. But even so, it's actually...kinda good! It has a rather bold flavor, nicely complemented by the cream cheese. Hmmmm... Will have to have my husband give me his opinion. He thought yesterday's cake was pretty okay, but he wasn't thrilled either. Asked me why I didn't bake things like chocolate chip cookies--grrrr.)

(Me again. I just had some miso soup for dinner, and I was running out of my usual stuff, so I added a dollop of the red miso I bought for my cake experimentation. It's the red miso! It smells cheesy! My regular miso doesn't--it just smells divine. Of course it would seem the solution would be to simply use my regular miso. Unfortunately, after some quick calculation, I discovered my regular golden brown miso has double the salt content of the red miso. This means I'd have to use half as much, and perhaps my cakes would still be on the salty side. What to do?)



Seijin No Hi

Today was Seijin No Hi, or Coming of Age Day, which marks the passage of all twenty year olds into official adulthood. On this day, the "new adults" gather in their respective districts for a special ceremony, sometimes bumping into friends they haven't met since elementary school.

The young men typically wear a formal black suit.

But the young ladies--waaay more fun. In the midst of crowded streets and train platforms, they are small explosions of color and texture, and primped from head to toe: Hair intricately arranged, pinned, and adorned. Makeup expertly applied. The deliberately exposed nape protected by a big puff of fur while outdoors. Body painstakingly wrapped in a shimmering, jeweled-tone kimono with elegant sleeves that pool almost to the ground--the sign of a young, unmarried woman. Feet encased in sleek tabi and zori.

From what I can tell, Seijin No Hi seems like just a good excuse--and one of the rare occasions--for young women to dress up in kimono. These days, if you see someone wearing a kimono, it is invariably an older woman. The kimono is definitely not easy to wear. I had two experienced ladies helping to dress me in kimono for my wedding, and despite the fact that they were working as fast as possible, it still took them a whole hour. For that reason alone, I can understand why the kimono is losing out to dresses that you can slip on in seconds.

It is a pity, though, for the flocks of girls in kimono that I saw today looked absolutely lovely.

For more info on Seijin No Hi, this is a good article.


I Link It Like That

You may or may not have noticed that I finally got around to adding a blogroll to my list of favorite links.

When I first discovered blogs, I was rather disdainful of people with ridiculously long blogrolls. What I wondered was, one, does that person read all those blogs? And, two, what visitor is going to plow through that skyscraper in search of new and interesting sites?

Well, now here I am, presenting you with my own little tower of names, and I'll admit that, one, I do read every blog on the roll, but only a handful would consider me a regular. There are just too many good ones out there. And, two, as a visitor of other blogs, I have perused some seemingly endless blogrolls, so perhaps others do as well.

Rather than just tossing my blogroll at your head however, I feel obliged to offer a little guidance, a little...summarization of the sites listed, at least of the ones I know enough about (if a blog is not described below, this only means it's fairly new to me, and although I enjoy what I've seen so far, I've yet to form a solid conclusion) (I thought about being nice and actually including the hyperlink in each title, but...I just...ugh...lazy. The links are in fact very close by, in the sidebar, to your right. A little lower down. See them? Great.):

1. 101 Cookbooks - does she really have 101? I don't know, but her photos are extremely lovely, and she very nicely asks permission of author and publisher before posting a recipe from her vast culinary library. Some nice stories and--yay--a description of what to expect at the end of a recipe. I hate it when all you get is a recipe. What will the dish look like? Taste like? I think sites like epicurious could learn a thing or two from food blogs like this one.

2. Amateur Gourmet - he actually makes little docu-dramas (sometimes of the musical variety) of his cooking/baking. I just like his total enthusiasm for food.

3. Spoonful of Sugar - EVERYTHING she makes and shows a picture of, I instantly want to bake too... except I'm usually stumped by her tendency to list ingredients by weight. Still, I go often, just to gawk and be inspired.

4. Feeding Dexygus Seconds - a pastry chef in the making. And sometimes recipes from Saveur, the magazine which lured me from Iowa to New York, and with which I have the ultimate love/hate relationship.

5. Il Forno - I know, impossible to tell, but this guy *seems* so nice and gentle as he tells us all about his native Italian cuisine, or just food in general.

6. In My Kitchen - I consider Deb the mommy (and daddy) of food bloggers, partly because she was the very first food blog I stumbled upon while searching for information on sourdough starters, and in my opinion is still the best food blog out there that I'm aware of; and also because her writing voice comes across to me as sort of mothery (not "motherly," which is more old-ladyish, somehow)--in a kooky, fun-loving way.

7. Dan and Hsin's World - one thing missing from my blog is that fresh awe of a newcomer to Japan. Hsin-Li is bravely raising her new baby in a new country, and she's blogging about it!

8. Homeless in Nashville - I approached this one rather cautiously at first, but if this were a hoax, I just can't figure out the point or the fun. I don't read this guy's blog as a novelty, but more as a way to--I don't know--offer encouragement to someone who seems quite alone and yet retains hope. The Internet is proof of how we need connections, and how little real connection there is in the real world. This man is no different in that basic need. One admission: whenever I leave a comment, I leave it "anonymously," with my name, but no link. It isn't cause I'm suspicious of him but because I honestly couldn't bear for him to read my frivolous blog and see the kinds of things I whine about, like being cold.

9. To Short Term Memories - Lynn's a wonderful baker, a mad traveler, and a chronic class taker. She's fluent in Japanese and so has the insider's edge into the mysterious world of the Japanese corporation. She is also permanently enrolled in one class or another--curious about how to wear a kimono, for example?

10. What, You Too? - I absolutely love Jessica's writing: funny, endearingly honest, more eloquently expressed than 90% of the blogs I come across, and she uses big words that have me clicking on my Merriam-Webster toolbar frequently. The more I read, the more certain I am that this blog's title is perfect.


Hana Mochi

Hana mochi means "flower mochi," mochi being the chewy stuff you get from beating Japanese glutonous rice to a squidgy pulp.

Long before the days of delivery vans, in the cold mountainous regions of Japan where flowers were scarce in January, people would press little pink and white balls of mochi to slender tree branches. These "bouquets" were used to add a festive touch to homes during New Year's.



Okara Bread

I wrote a while back about okara and the okara donuts sold at the tofu shop down the road, and finally decided to try experimenting with okara myself.

First of all, a reluctant disclaimer: I am not some kind of health junkie who drinks green juices and knows what to do with quinoa and kasha. This disclaimer is here because, unfortunately, often anything with the word "soy" in it seems more commonly connected with "healthful" than "delectable," and I don't want to scare anyone off. The okara bread I make is all about really wonderful flavor, and the fact that it is healthy is essentially an afterthought.

One of the reasons I got into sourdough bread baking was because I found yeast breads extremely bland, unless the flavor was bolstered with things like lots of fat, eggs, dried fruit, etc. Sourdough bread might be nothing but flour, salt, and water, and yet it tastes brilliant--something of a miracle, in my mind.

But admittedly, sourdough can be a pain, and in my case, downright uncooperative. So, yes, sometimes I leave my sullen starter sleeping in the fridge, and unfaithfully turn to the easy, enthusiastic arms of... instant yeast. I always get great oven spring, a fine open crumb, and light fluffy loaves, even if in my heart I realize something is being compromised.

But then I baked my first okara bread. It has good flavor for such a plain yeast bread. As for the texture: downy soft and moist, despite the addition of whole wheat and very little fat. Today is the third day that the loaf has simply been sitting uncovered on the kitchen counter, and it hasn't dried out at all.

I took the basic recipe for white sandwich bread from Peter Reinhart's book Crust & Crumb, but I've changed it enough (in both ingredients and technique) that I think of this recipe as my own. Ideally a day before making the dough, a biga needs to be mixed together. A biga is a preferment, a mixture of flour, liquid, and yeast that is allowed extra time to ferment slowly--long and slow being key elements in the making of good bread--to build flavor that it will then pass on to the bread when it is mixed into the dough.

1 cup whole wheat flour
3/4 cup bread flour
1/2 tsp yeast
3/4 cup cold water

Combine the dry ingredients in a big bowl. Slowly add the water, stirring with a big spoon, until the dough comes together in a soft, smooth ball (you may not use all the water, or you might have to add more if the dough feels stiff or dry). Knead the dough a few minutes, just until there are no more dry spots or lumps.

I keep the dough in a clear tupperware container, so I can track the progress of my rising biga. It's ready when the biga has almost doubled in size--about three to six hours, depending on how warm your house is (my biga took about eight hours). To allow it further time to develop, I then put my biga in the fridge to retard, which means the yeasts get dozy and work very slowly. It's almost like putting the video on pause while you go to the bathroom. You can use the biga right after it's risen, or you can put your yeasts on pause for up to two days in the fridge.

OKARA BREAD (one loaf)
All of biga in above recipe (take out of fridge about an hour beforehand to let warm up)
1 1/4 cups bread flour
1/2 cup dry/toasted okara (I find wet okara gives the bread a heavier texture)
1 1/2T honey
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon instant yeast
20g (or roughly 1 1/2T) butter
1/2 to 1 cup of soy milk

(You don't have to do this, but I'm sort of a fan of autolysis. This is where just the flour and liquid is mixed together and allowed to rest for 30 minutes. There is a thorough explanation here; search the page for "Step 2: Pre-Mix (or Autolyse)". Having the dough autolyze is kind of annoying when there's a preferment and you're trying a bread recipe for the first time, however, because you don't know exactly how much liquid you're going to be adding.)

Break biga into pieces. Mix all (or rest, if allowing for autolysis) of ingredients together--but add the soy milk gradually. Because I knead by hand, I like a fairly wet dough, which is easier to work with. Also, I've read that a wet dough produces a lighter bread. I consider my dough the perfect wetness if, while grasping one end and sort of slamming it down on the table in a whipping motion (or like casting a fishing rod, I guess), the dough elongates a bit.

Knead for about 15-20 minutes, more or less, until your dough passes the windowpane test (gently coax a piece of dough as thin as it will go, and if you wiggle your finger behind the dough and can see the movement fairly clearly, your dough has passed the test!).

Next, you want to shape your dough into a nice, taut ball. (I realize I'm getting very basic in my instructions about bread making, but I don't want to go too far and bore any experienced bakers who might be reading this recipe. The best learning experience for me in really understanding the rudimentaries of bread baking came from watching Danielle Forestier make baguettes on the show Baking with Julia, which you can hopefully view online here. I highly recommend the episode.) You can put the dough in a bowl. I just leave the dough on the counter with a damp towel covering it.

After about an hour, or when the dough is about 1 1/2 times its original size, give the dough a turn--meaning, gently stretch the dough with your hands until it is elongated, then fold both ends toward the center, first one side, then the other (make sense? If not, you can watch Ms. Forestier demonstrate if you follow the above link). Turn the dough 90 degrees and repeat this folding. Again shape into a ball and cover. Note: If the dough is sticky, I find that, rather than flouring everything, wetting your hands under the sink makes handling the dough very easy.

Let the dough rise again until it's 1 1/2 times its size, about another hour. Do that turning thing, explained above, again.

Shape the dough and slide it into a loaf pan or form a boule or little rolls. Whatever you like. If using a pan, I'd line it with parchment paper (I use this technique). Cover with damp cloth. Let rise another hour, until dough is almost doubled in size. If it's in a pan, the dough should be reaching the rim.

Bake in 350'F/175'C oven for about 40 minutes. The finished loaf should be about 180'F/80'C in the center. If making rolls, I'm guessing you should bake them for about 25 minutes.

Let bread cool for two hours before you cut into it cause it's still cooking!

Effusive apologies for my longwinded instructions. I highly recommend copying and pasting my recipe onto your computer's notepad, and erasing all my annoying comments, so you're left with just the bare-bones recipe.


Tart Kumquat Tart

Groan, stupid title, I know. But it had to be done.

This was the tart I made for yesterday's pie party. The tart itself was only okay, but I thought the little kumquats look rather merry.

And for anyone eyeing my crust critically, it's supposed to be rustic.

To be honest, I wasn't crazy about the crust. I used this recipe (it's actually for a chocolate crust but I wanted something pure and simple, not chocolate and raspberries (don't be confused; see explanation below for what happened to the raspberries), so I substituted the cocoa powder for ground almonds--which, by the way, I find to be a very satisfactory substitution, if ever you come across a chocolate recipe that you want to unchocolatize. Wow, I believe I just invented a new word, probably because a normal human being could not conceive, I suppose, of wanting to take the chocolate out of something. I do love chocolate. But sometimes I come across a recipe I am amazed by, and I wonder how I can play with it, change the flavors, and sometimes this requires committing the act of unchocolatizing.). Anyhow, repeat: not crazy about the crust. It was soft. I like my tart crust to be a bit snappier, ever-so-sort-of like shortbread. Perhaps my clever idea of substituting ground almonds for cocoa powder isn't so clever when it comes to tart dough--but it does work beautifully for cakes, rest assured.

So, to be fair to my kumquat tart, perhaps it was simply a case of a pretty picture trapped in an ugly frame. Except that the filling...

For the filling, I used the recipe in Ruth Reichl's book Tender to the Bone, inspired by a luscious picture in the Amateur Gourmet's blog, and conveniently found here, under "Oleron Raspberry Tart (the best raspberry tart in the world)"--the parenthesized part remains to be tasted. Unfortunately, the recipe asks for 3/4 cup of whole almonds, which you are then supposed to grind up in the food processor that I don't possess, and so I bought ground almonds and kind of...guessed at the quantity. Another obstacle I encountered: no raspberries. Raspberries are painfully expensive in Japan and not in great demand; sometimes, in a specialty store, you might find a glass case of four berries nestled in white satin for a hundred dollars. Or something like that. We don't have them kinda stores where we live. But I spotted some kumquats and thought that using seasonal fruit would result in a better tasting tart anyway. Right?

Of course, when I got home, I first sampled a kumquat to reassure myself it would be acceptable in a tart, and then hastily replaced my backup can of peaches was pleased to note the kumquat tasted quite fine. For anyone who's never tried one, a kumquat is about the size of a cherry tomato, and is somewhat like an orange in flavor and scent, except that the peel is sweet (and edible) and what little fruit there is is tart. I think for some people, the idea of eating raw citrus peel can be a bit unsettling, and even I sort of hesitate when I'm about to pop an entire kumquat into my mouth.

Anyhow, I spread the frangipane into the base of the blind-baked tart shell, cut the kumquats in half, deseeded them, and gently pressed them into the tart. Sprinkled a teaspoon of sugar over top and baked.

The frangipane turned out weird. Kind of black in the center, rather than the warm, golden brown I was anticipating. It was also rather dense--the result of too much ground almonds, I believe--kind of marzipanish. Tasty though. Just not what I wanted.

The kumquats were lovely after baking, jewel-toned and glowing. I thought they tasted pretty good in the tart, and I liked their bright, fresh aroma. My husband proclaimed their presence overwhelming. I think if I ever try this again, I'll slice the kumquats into thin disks instead. I just thought the kumquat halves would make for a prettier presentation.

(For anyone wondering why I didn't just use the pastry recipe for the raspberry tart, the Amateur Gourmet wrote that the dough made from Reichl's recipe was rather uncooperative, and so I went in search of an alternative, and found myself enticed by the chocolate crust instructions that claim: "Don't worry if the dough breaks; it can easily be repaired," which was a welcome change from most pie dough recipes that so happily tell you: "If you tear/stretch/so much as breathe on the dough, your pastry is DOOMED to cracker hell.")


Sun and Stars

A delicate branch of coral stretching toward the ocean's surface...

Well, actually, it's just an ordinary, earthbound tree branch. But it looked like an underwater shot for a split second, didn't it? The sky was that blue today.

This tree I came across was bare except for little white fruit or nuts that continue to cling to the branch tips. Looking at these bright specks against the sky, it almost seemed as if the stars had come out in the middle of the afternoon. I tried to capture the strange image, but I'm afraid my cell phone wasn't up to the task and the snowy polka dots are, sadly, invisible.


Baby It's Cold Inside

Today, I stumbled upon a horrible truth: a badly insulated apartment in the middle of winter has... a benefit. One. It's really great for making pie dough.

A friend of mine, who's going to have her baby any day now, was telling me recently that her little guy has been craving pie (you know, I can really see myself enjoying being pregnant and having a convenient scapepig inside me...I just wouldn't know what to do with *it* after it was born). As I've been wanting to practice my pie-dough making, I suggested a pie party.

So this afternoon, I made two types of pie dough: a sweet dough for a frangipane tart and a regular shortcrust pastry for a quiche. And it was so easy, she coos even though she hasn't actually baked either crust yet and has no way of knowing how her pastry is going to come out.

But it was easy. The one thing recipes always emphasize regarding making your own pastry is that everything has to be cold cold cold. This is partially cause you want whatever fat you're using to stay solid; then when it bakes, the fat goes *poof* in the heat and leaves little pockets of empty space between the layers of pastry, resulting in a light, airy texture--i.e., flaky. Some people even go so far as to put their butter, flour, and blender in the freezer. Well, thanks to my home being naturally nice and frosty, I didn't have to do any of that.

For the shortcrust pastry, I simply combined 1 tablespoon of shortening and 4 tablespoons of butter with 1 cup of pastry flour (or 5 tablespoons of cake flour and 11 tablespoons of all-purpose) and a pinch of salt; and then proceeded to cut up the fats with a fork and knife. Nice and easy. No frantic sawing, no rush. And no frightening sight of glistening butter--a sure sign that's it's GASP! softening. When the fat was cut into tiny pieces, I gently rubbed the remaining creamy lumps into the flour with my fingers. Then I gradually dribbled in 4 tablespoons of tap water, while tossing everything with a fork. I gently squeezed the lumpy mass together into a rough oval. Wrapped it in parchment paper. Ziplock bag. Fridge. (For blind baking instructions, see note below)

Will get back to you on how my tarts actually come out.

As much as I enjoyed today's non-hysterical (as compared to a previous attempt at making croissants in the summertime) pie dough session, my entire body was really starting to stiffen into a rigid state from lack of warmth. I finally broke down and had a hot shower. I think it fair to say I am not exaggerating the low temperature in my home, seeing as the shower room was instantly enveloped in a thick fog of condensation the instant the water turned warm, and I was forced to blindly fumble around in search of the shampoo bottle; not to mention the burning sensation in my toes as the shower water hit--a common occurrence in the first stages of frostbite, no?

See, no matter how many layers of clothing I wear, if I'm going to do something inactive, like write a post for my blog, I have to prep for it. Being in an expansive mood, in honor of cold apartments, I offer you my list of Top Five Ways to Be Temporarily Warmed When One is Indoors and Yet Freezing One's Ass Off:

1. Hot shower
- Toasty factor: delicious level of heat without any effort
- Drawback: overabuse can result in expensive water bill and tight, dry skin

2. Have dog chase you around the room, using toy fishing rod as a puppy lure
- Toasty factor: warm enough to possibly remove one sweater
- Drawback: need to keep moving for at least 15 minutes

3. Turn on some music and dance!
- Toasty factor: hot and sweaty to mildly warm, depending on the music
- Drawback: dancing at home alone can be rather sad and embarrassing unless you're that chick in Flashdance; dancing alone in front of other people can be equally sad and embarrassing

4. Bake bread
- Toasty factor: very warm during dough kneading, and also when oven is on
- Drawback: none! (Unless you're on the Atkins Diet, I guess)

5. Sit on your heated toilet seat (if you live in Japan, your home should have one of these babies)
- Toasty factor: superb; you'd be amazed how nicely the heat radiates from your butt to the rest of your body
- Drawback: well, obviously, you can only sit there so long before your back stiffens up

Note: blind bake pie crust in oven (line with foil, add beans, the works) 375'F/175'C for 15 minutes and another five without the beans.

Akemash-teh Omedeto Gozaimasu -- Happy New Year!

A kadomatsu faces the encroaching snow

In Japan, as the new year approaches, the front of many homes will be ornamented with a pair of kadomatsu. Kadomatsu can be as elaborate as the photo above or as simple as two branches of pine hanging on the front gate.

According to my husband, the kadomatsu is set out like a welcoming banner, to beckon toshigami--the "year's god"; although who this god is exactly seems to be somewhat unclear)--into the home. For more information on kadomatsu and what the different components (pine, bamboo, plum, etc.) represent: check out this link.