Right now I would very much like to be eating these lovely Japanese sweets.
Pâte à Choux is the pastry base for a number of sweet cream-filled treats, but it’s often overlooked as a stage for more savory flavors.
In Germany, I remember running into “cream puffs” with such savory fillings, generally built on Frischkäse, essentially anything along the lines of cream cheese, quark, or soft chevre. Sometimes the filling is little more than whipped butter, an egg, and cheese. It’s possible for the filling to involve cured ham, and I’ve seen some recipes that have them topped with a bit of extra soft cheese and some variety of caviar. Occasionally such treats are served to guests at the home of a particularly generous host.
Maybe due to the weight of all that cream and butter, they are often described as “hearty” (Herzhaft), though sometimes as “pikant” (savory).
I went the savory route, with American style cream cheese, parmesan reggiano, thinly sliced scallions, garlic, pepper, and a tiny splash of whiskey for aroma. In an ideal world, I should have used cognac, but none was handy Sunday morning. It worked well enough, and I might even specifically seek out that peaty character again.
Hiromi was fond of the blue cheese gougères we recently indulged in at Pair Restaurant, a tasting-friendly small plates-focused restaurant hidden away in the Ravenna area in Seattle. I thought it would be fun to make gougères at brunch, but then I remembered I had a package of cream cheese in the refrigerator crying for attention, and found myself distracted by the temptation of something creamy surrounded by that crisp choux.
The biggest difference is that gougères have the cheese incorporated into the choux pastry, whereas in savory cream puffs the cheese is a filling. While I’m attracted to the simplicity of gougères, I just can’t help but indulge in the tempting contrasts of savory cream-cheese filled puffs.
This week was somehow maddening… I just had an insane amount of stuff to do. Last weekend we ate out with people Friday, Saturday and Sunday nights, which sounds a bit like leisure, but mostly contributed to waistline expansion and lighter wallets. Beyond that, with a fair number of days when we have been underway at the dinner hour, we’ve just eaten rather haphazardly.
We did have a fun dinner a week ago Friday night, since when I’ve been too distracted to post about, but Hiromi described the menu in Japanese. It basically involved an eclectic mix of dishes that I frequently make for parties, with a few variations and minor innovations. We had some visitors mostly attended by people connected to the International English program at the University of Washington. Probably the most interesting dish is the one dessert I made, which I adapted from a smart, elegant cookbook by a Jewish French Moroccan woman, Nadine Abensur, called Secrets from a Vegetarian Kitchen. That beautiful book is now out of print, but the essence of the dish is grilled, caramelized figs and kumquats, with a light sauce based on wine that, in my variation, I thicken slightly with katakuriko, and then garnish with mascarpone mixed with a small amount of finely chopped candied ginger.
We did have a bit of home cooking midweek and on the weekend, but nothing terribly spectacular… some penne with pesto made from slightly sad basil, and various repurposed ingredients or leftovers from the party, such as a minestrone with mustard greens.
This weekend I had a bit of a reunion with some former colleagues, as Hiromi was invited to a dinner in Redmond featuring various members of MSN’s international products group, including several visitors from the Japan office. Yesterday she went snowboarding with a few of them while I ran business and home-related errands, and we ate out again at Seven Stars Pepper in the International District, after some abortive attempts to get a table at some more Northwesty restaurants.
Tonight we ate at home, but kept things simple. I made quinoa with asparagus, onions, a bit of rosemary, and a topping of heavy cream…
One of our guests from a few weeks ago, who visited us on SuperBowl weekend, sent a care package with nifty snacks back with her visiting coworkers…
Matcha mousse pocky, Cha-dango (tea-flavored dango or small dumplings), Girl’s Day sugar coated dried peas, and spring-themed Sakura Kit Kat… the Kit Kat bar has a taste vaguely resembling salt-preserved cherry blossoms or cherry leaves.
Last night we visited a friend who had planned a sort of traditional lamb dinner, to be followed by Easter egg decoration. I don’t really remember much about Easter dinners from my childhood, since we focused more on the egg thing, so I brought some gougeres made with Valdeon blue cheese (which I’m sure I’ll make again, but I didn’t take a photo), and pressure-cooked baby artichokes prepared with shallots, Meyer lemons, garlic, butter, olive oil, and a splash of wine, and a broccolini dish.
Hiromi made Doraemon. Mine is the ugly one in back. It was supposed to be an owl, but turned out to look more like Frank Zappa.
For breakfast, I made an apple coffee cake with a little allspice, black pepper, cinnamon, clove, and grains of paradise. It’s topped with a simple salted butter streusel. I was a little careless, so it turned out slightly underbaked, so it was a bit pudding-like, but still perfectly serviceable. I used very little sugar, so it was more spicy than sweet. Next time, I should let it bake a bit longer.
We stayed at an onsen ryokan (hot springs resort) called Asamushi in Aomori city.
Most Japanese ryokan, given sufficient advance warning, are reasonably accommodating of vegetarian needs, though they don't always quite understand them. Usually things work out, with occasional use of non-vegetarian soup stock or a garnish of katsuobushi. In some cases, the food ends up being a bit ascetic.
Ryokan also tend to veer toward the fairly esoteric, so some of these dishes I've never seen before.
I was mostly happy with the taste of the food at our first ryokan this trip, but the meal ended up being surprisingly devoid of protein... usually there's at least a bit of tofu or some egg dish, or sometimes some yuba. This time, though, there wasn't even a hint of that. Even my nabe dish was little more than a suimono, though I think Hiromi's had a little tofu. The actual dishes were actually quite nice, but I felt a bit low in energy after the meal, which rarely happens when I eat at ryokan.
Hiromi's had a bit more seafood, of course.
A few side dishes
These were some of Hiromi's side dishes.
Apparently Aomori has a fondness for youshoku, or Western food, as we discovered later in Hirosaki. I think this presentation, offered to Hiromi, was meant to be a kind of cute deconstructed pasta dish. My version had some grilled bamboo shoots with a miso sauce.
One of Hiromi's dishes, this features fu (the cute cherry blossom shaped wheat gluten item), kagomi, shrimp, and takenoko (bamboo shoots).
Itadouri no ohitashi
Itadouri, Japanese rhubarb or knotweed, one of many spring sansai (mountain vegetables). While not technically rhubarb, it has a slightly acidic bite to it. When lightly dressed, it's slightly vegetal and gently bitter.
Fuki no tou
Fuki no tou, the sprouts of butterbur. This is particularly common in spring in northern Japan, but it's also found, and eaten, frequently in other parts of Japan.
A simple dish of blanched greens.
Or so I think...
Kagomi no aemono
More mountain vegetables...
I don't quite recognize this, but I believe this is the mountain vegetable that we spotted along the river...
I always seem to end up with tempura at ryokan... even if they aren't serving it to everyone else... It seems to be a typical substitution for a sashimi course. This one features some mountain vegetables, mostly kagomi.
Some more vegetables with sakura
I think this is was a mustard-flavored aemono, but my memory is failing...
Daikon to negi no suimono
A light clear soup with daikon and negi.
As a special treat for Hiromi, the ryokan brought a small dish to our room featuring these nama-shirasu, which were still alive and kicking.
I've seen Hiromi refuse to taste something only twice. The first was bundaeggi, and she pretty much says all bugs are off limits. The second was this. I'm not sure the taste or aroma would be terribly shocking, but it seemed just a bit too disturbing for her. Actually, strangely, I think it bothers me less than it does her... and I don't eat any fish... Though I guess the point is moot.
Note the splashes of soy sauce along the side of the bowl are the work of the fish, not of sloppy plating.
(Video Link, in case video embedding doesn't work for you)
After dinner, I ate some kurogoma ice cream to get at least a little hint of protein, and Hiromi ate a really nice apple sorbet.
(See also: Breakfast at Asamushi)
So my low-protein dinner transitioned into the extreme opposite in the morning... not only did everyone have a pot of tofu, made right at the table in bunrai nabe style, but we also had this surprisingly nice egg dish.
Where's the egg, you ask?
Well, it's on the side. There's a little negi, soup stock, and miso, and we mix the egg in using waribashi... Within a couple of minutes, the flame underneath the seashell cooks up the egg.
Hiromi's version of the egg dish also featured some dried scallops.
Fresh and creamy tofu, served with a little negi and shouyu for dipping.
Of course there's a fair assortment of tsukemono (pickled vegetables), some yamaimo, a little hijiki... a very complete, very substantial breakfast.
Our breakfast is served with a little houjicha, roasted green tea, which somehow seemed a very homey way to start the day.
It’s not been my habit to overeat for the last few years… I tend to indulge in things that, if eaten in excess, are not terribly healthy, but tonight, in spite of not feeling terribly hungry, I managed to eat a little bit more than I would normally consider natural when dining at Bamiyan in Gilman Village. We stayed firmly in the Afghan side of their dual Afghan/Persian menu, and the food was mostly quite well executed and tasty, but the portions were unnaturally large and we ordered too much for three and a half diners.
I kept eating, even though I wasn’t really hungry.
It’s not really my style. I tend to like eating more modest portions of things… six bites or so and I start to become bored of a dish, generally speaking, and would like to move on to something else.
Maybe it’s just stress or nerves, but I just kept nibbling. The food was, after all, still in front of me.
The primary impetus for this adventure was to see Once On This Island, a beautifully staged contemporary musical at the Village Theatre on Front Street in Issaquah, for which a friend of mine was running audio.
I overspent. This isn’t a good time to be self-indulgent. I think my entertainment budget for the next 4 weeks has been busted with today’s and yesterday’s excitement.
Maybe I need to be doing some more sales work…
On a whim, last Friday night I made a savory galette-style cheesecake. I improvised the dough, cutting a bit of clarified butter into flour, adding a bit of mace and salt, then working in a bit of cold water in a well.
I hurriedly caramelized some onions, which is not a process that likes to be rushed, but it worked out reasonably well. I mixed soft chevre, cream cheese and sour cream together, beat in an egg, adjusted salt, and filled a large round of dough; I baked the cheesecakes until the filling set, and served warm.
Tonight I took advantage of a bit of leftover dough and filling, and made a smaller version to go with yesterday’s borscht.
Savory mini galette cheesecakes
Roadside dining options in the United States tend to depress me. I usually end up at burger-and-shake stops looking for a token veggie burger or a milkshake, or at some poor satire of a Mexican restaurant serving things made with canned black olives, reconstituted refried beans, salsa from foodservice jars or ketchup-like portion packs, and piles of yellow Cheddar cheese.
In Japan, the toll highway system creates a captive audience for restaurants at various highway turnouts, much like spiffed up highway rest stops. Most of these places have one or two full service family-style restaurants, a cafeteria-style quick service option that usually includes ramen, soba or udon as options, and then, most importantly, little yatai-style vendors at the front of these facilities selling tai-yaki (fish-shaped, generally bean paste stuffed, waffles), mitarashi-dango or various things on sticks.
In all fairness, the quality of cuisine at highway “service areas” in Japan is not much better than the US; it’s sometimes equally artificial, full of stale flavor-enhanced instant katsuo-dashi, mostly prepared in advance by foodservice manufacturers. However, the options are a little more diverse. And those yatai in front of these facilities often offer comforting snacks that I sometimes actively crave.
A few years ago, I finally discovered my roadside snack of choice. Atypically for Japan, they are quite often vegetarian; some of them even eschew the ubiquitous katsuo-dashi flavor base. They are not fancy, and are not usually particularly inspired flavors, but are somehow comforting. They are quite filling and usually reasonably inexpensive.
Oyaki cooking in a cast-iron pan
Oyaki can be considered a simpler form of Chinese stuffed buns (baozi, called humbow in Cantonese, nikuman or anman in Japanese), but unlike baozi, the dough is not made with yeast. They are a little more like certain types of stuffed pancakes (turnip cakes, sesame cakes, etc) only with an even less elaborate dough-making technique. In fact, there’s little to this dough; it’s just a sticky dough of flour and warm water, maybe with a bit of salt. No yeast, no baking powder, and minimal waiting.
Unlike baozi, oyaki are typically grilled on a cast-iron pan, ideally over an open fire. At an indoor “service area” stall, they will be cooked on a gas burner. Some recipes actually have them steamed, but this seems to defeat the concept of “oyaki”; steaming could help them cook more evenly, if they are finished on the grill.
My favorite filling is probably kabocha, which is just an absolute carbohydrate-loading feast. But I also like the classic nozawa-na (turnip greens) version. Alas, after my recent jiaozi-making adventure, I had a bit of a mismatch between the amount of my mustard greens filling and my skins, so I decided to use the remaining filling for my oyaki. I also remembered I had a small stash of turnips in my refrigerator, and some spring onions, and so I grated a turnip with a nifty micro-plane until it was the texture of oroshi-daikon or nagaimo. I seasoned the mix with a bit of miso and soy sauce.
I made a dough in the same way as noodles: I placed a bit of flour in a bowl, and made a well in the flour and filled it with some warm water; in this case, I added a pinch of salt. I kneaded the dough until it was cooperative: sticky and mostly smooth. Ideally, it should rest a bit, but I quickly went ahead and divided my dough with a dough cutter, and rolled the dough very thin.
Plated Karashi-na to kabu no oyaki
I am not particularly skilled in the art of making oyaki. I filled each round of dough and brought the ends together, twisting them and then pressed as close to flat as possible. Little to no oil is required; they just need to be added to a hot, heavy pan on a medium flame. They are cooked for a few minutes on each side, and the process of flipping and cooking is continued until the dough looks cooked and then browned.
It seems that one or two of them suffered from minor structural flaws, which resulted in tiny eruptions. I think a pinprick on the side of each oyaki would help release steam.
After exchanging a dozen or so email messages with my shipping vendor, a company that I’m meeting with on Monday, and a Taiwanese tea company, and a few others, I was able to contact a friend in San Francisco via MSN Messenger who may help me with sales and logistics a little bit. We talked a little bit about the Hong Kong confection I’m interested in.
There’s nothing in Japan untouched by foreign influence. This is perhaps even more true of Yokohama, as I was reminded today during the times that I was not focused on work.
Around lunchtime I walked over to World Porters near the Akarenga area in Yokohama, and I ended up eating at a sort of Indian-fusion type place. One of the Indian managers of the place came over and greeted me in English and took my order after the hostess up front seated me… Either my Japanese seemed hopeless when the hostess greeted me or they have a very involved manager. The food was elegantly presented and tasted good enough, but not terribly special; I think it suffered a little from being produced with a sort of factory/corporate restaurant mentality.
Afterward, I finally got around to buying a business card holder. My temporary solution of using an envelope was a little embarrassing. The one I picked up was black and gray leather and, in the realm of Japanese department stores, sold for a reasonable price.
At “Cake Mania” I had a nice yuzu cheesecake with a green tea flavored bundt-shaped cake around the filling. It was even decorated with broken green tea leaves and a little gold leaf. I drank a “maccha float”, which was maccha tea with cream (or possibly ice cream) blended like a shake.
I had a little snack after going back to the hotel to do some more work. Hiromi was planning to meet me around 10pm tonight, so I didn’t actually leave the hotel until almost that time, and we met in Sakuragicho.
We walked around in search of a late dinner, but all of the corporate owned options near Sakuragicho were already past their last order time, if open at all. After a long walk in fairly cold winds, we ended up at a place near the Oosanbashi pier named “Jack’s Café”, which was still open at 10pm and seemed to have a few potentially vegetarian items.
Entering Jack’s Café is a completely surreal experience. The interior transports you to Chicago to some 1930s Bohemian old-school café, apparently run by a middle aged woman who bought a better stereo system and decorated with some dried flowers. Lounge-style jazz standards are playing at a comfortable volume. A few cheesecakes, puddings, and cakes are shown in a small rectangular display case near the entrance. The menu could be found in a place run by Seattle or Chicago hipsters: a vaguely Indian spicy potato dish, cold tofu dish with lots of strip cut nori and a soy-based dressing, a semi-Japanese spaghetti dish with various mushrooms and asparagus, and a tomato-based spaghetti dish similarly adorned. I worked around the unexpected pieces of bacon. Although we didn’t have anything to drink, the menu offers coffee with sambuca, a negroni cocktail, and other interesting concoctions.
After dinner I had a cold crepe served over whipped cream and adorned with ribbons of cassis sorbet. Hiromi had a pumpkin pudding with a caramelized sugar sauce, possibly with a hint of Japanese black sugar. The food was all surprisingly decent for a late night haunt, and reasonably priced. I doubt the evening could have ended on a more satisfying note.