The Last Taste of Spring – Sakuramochi 桜餅の関西風
The weather these few weeks has been so excruciatingly hot to the point of being unbearable. It is precisely times like these, that we celebrate and embrace the greatest invention of the 20th century, air-conditioning. Singapore knows no seasons. Its either hot, or hotter, and we can only lament that the cooler months left us too soon as we move into the warmer periods of the year. Alas the almost “spring-like” season during the December to March months was much welcomed, albeit a bit wetter than usual, but at least the heat was much more tolerable. How I wish we were off somewhere cooler. And thoughts like this made me reminiscent our trip to Japan last year. Snow in March, countless macarons and pastries, wagashi… all was but too memorable…
Our first encounter with traditional Japanese confections, better known as 和菓子 wagashi stems from a trip to the Kansai region last spring. These little sweets, often made of very simple ingredients like anko (red bean paste), sesame seeds, japanese candied chestnuts and glutinous or rice flour are delicately designed and crafted, often to reflect the changing seasons. We sampled an assortment of deletable wagashi in Osaka and Kyoto, from candied yuzu to 金糖 kinton-styled 菜の花 nanohana, but none left an impression as strong as 桜餅 Sakuramochi.
Sakuramochi is a wagashi traditionally eaten during the 雛祭り Hinamatsuri, though the 桜花祭 Hanami Matsuri, when the acual cherry blossoms would be in full bloom is not due until a good month later. The former coincided nicely with our trip. Hence, sakuramochi was found everywhere, from depachikas to tea shops. We had our first sakuramochi in the plum garden next to Osaka-jo, and remember being taken aback by its taste. Unlike most wagashis which are usually only sweet, sakuramochi uses 桜花漬 pickled cherry blossoms and 桜の葉 sakuraba (cherry leaves) which added a savory dimension to the sweetness，making it very unique in both taste and texture. Enjoying sakuramochi, together with a hot bowl of 酒酿 fermented rice wine against the backdrop of a whole garden of plum trees in full bloom and the Osaka Castle in sight… a memory that would last a lifetime. The sensory profile was derived not only from the food alone, the 香り aroma from the plum blossoms all around us permeated the air and heightened the experience. A moment to savour and treasure…
The making of sakuramochi, like many Japanese food, is highly localised, with each region having their own specific form. In the case of this wagashi, the style is basically divided into the Kansai 関西 and 関東Kanto versions. The former uses 道明寺 domyojiko, which is basically reconstituted broken short-grained glutinous rice while the latter uses 白玉粉 shirotamako, rice flour. I’d decided to make the Kansai version since its the first type that I’d tried.
The composition of a Kansai styled Sakuramochi is rather simple, but sourcing for the ingredients can prove to be quite a feat. Domyojiko can be found in the supermarket section of major Japanese departmental stores like Isetan, Takashimaya or Meidiya, but obtaining pickled cherry blossoms and pickled cherry leaves can be rather tricky. I’d managed some from Tokyu Hands during our Japan trip last year, which I’d used to make a Sakura Roll Cake 桜の花ロールケーキ. Just two weeks ago, I chanced upon some wagashi ingredients at a supermarket in Hong Kong, including those to make sakuramochi. Didn’t take much deliberation for me to bring some back!
潰し餡 Tsusbushi’an (appro. 400-450g) adapted from Aya Yamazaki 山崎 彩 ‘s 我♥和菓子
150g adzuki beans
Wash adzuki beans thoroughly and remove any beans which do not look good.
Add beans to a deep saucepan and cover it barely with tap water.
Turn on the stove to bring the beans and water to a boil over strong heat. Let the strong boiling sustain for one min or so.
Pour more water into the pot until it covers the beans again.
Let it come to a boil once more, and sustain the boiling for 1 min or so, and repeat the cooling process by adding more water.
Repeat the “hot and cold treatment” for another 4-5 times, until one can see that skin membranes begin to dislodge from the beans and the water begins to turn reddish brown and slightly murky.
Pour beans over a strainer to remove water. Return beans to saucepan and discard cooking water.
Finally, add more water until saucepan is about 2/3 full, well sufficient to cover the beans.
Bring to boil once more, before turning down to medium heat.
Let the beans simmer with lid on for 40 min to 1 hour until they have softened considerably.
Periodically check on the beans and top up with water if required. Ensure that the beans are completely submerged in water at all times.
The beans are ready when they can be squashed easily with the back of a spoon or spatula to release the paste-like contents within, which should now be very soft.
Add sugar and stir thoroughly.
Bring up the flame to reduce the water for the consistency to thicken.
When the bean paste is almost done and dried, turn down the flame and continue to stir, squashing the beans to release their contents at this point.
Sakuramochi à la Kansai 桜餅の関西風 (for 12 portions)
150g Domyojiko 道明寺
150g caster sugar
250g anko red bean paste (tsubushi’an or koshi’an)
150g warm water
red or pink food coloring
12 pickled sakura leaves
12 pickled sakura blossoms
Rinse domyojiko with water.
To a shallow metal dish, add domyojiko, caster sugar and warm water. Stir well with a fork to dissolve sugar.The domyojiko should begin to reconstitute and start to get sticky and clumpy.
Add a pinch of red or pink food coloring and mix thoroughly. I used Wilton Pink and literally a teeny weeny amount is required. Better to use less from the start and adjust subsequently than to make it all gaudy to a point beyond resuscitation.
Spread out the domyojiko over metal dish and steam it at high heat for about 10 min or until the grains have completely soften, stirring the mixture periodically with a fork. Never use a spoon over hot and soft rice as it would invariably compress the grains, causing them to lose their structure.
Let the cooked domyojiko cool down completely.
Meanwhile, soak the sakura leaves and blossoms separately to remove excess brine and salt respectively. Pat dry with kitchen towel. Retain the soaking water for the sakura leaves.
When the domyojiko has cooled down, divide into 12 equal portions and roll into balls
Likewise, divide red bean paste into 12 equal portions and roll into balls
Using the sakura leaves soaking water, moisten palms and fingers.
Flatten a portion of domyojiko with either fingers of heel of the palm.
Carefully place a ball of red bean paste in the centre of the flattened glutinous rice disc and work the side to seal it up carefully.
Place the glutinous rice ball over the broader end of the sakura leaves and cover by pulling over the narrower pointed end.
Embellish with pickled sakura blossoms.
Repeat process until all the ingredients are used up. Remember to wet fingers and palms with soaking liquid as required.
Serve immediately with Japanese tea e.g. houjicha, sencha, genmaicha or matcha.
The whole preparation spans about 2 hours, if one is cooking one’s own tsubushi’an and thus best to dedicate an entire morning or afternoon for it. I prefer to do things in a more relaxed mode and thus stretched it over two days, an evening prior for cooking the tsubushi’an and the subsequent morning for the domyojiko and assemblage.
First up was the cooking of the anko. Japanese love their anko red bean paste as apparently in the various forms of wagashis and あんみつ anmitsus that has been derived from this sweet filling. And there are several options for one to choose from as well. 漉し餡 Koshi’an is the de facto filling used in many wagashis, and involves cooking the adzuki beans until they are completely soft, upon which they are pressed through a sieve to remove the skin membrane. It produces a smoother and more refined texture which is much sought after. But it is more painstaking to prepare as it requires washing the anko after cooking and pressing as well as wringing with a cheesecloth. Quite a lot of work if you ask me. Alternatively, one can opt for 潰し餡 tsubushi’an which requires less work as the beans are merely mashed up upon cooking, without separating the membranes. The latter produces a filling which is more robust and has more textural contrast and bite, from the idiosyncratic intact bean which was not mashed up. I opted for tsubushi’an of course.
There are many ways to cook adzuki beans. Some advocate soaking the beans hours prior before cooking while some recipes suggest leaving them in thermopots for a day, or to nuke them in pressure cookers. I chose a traditional method used in wagashi-making, and it works really well. It involves watering down the boiling beans periodically with small amounts of cold water. This “hot and cold” treatment “shocks” the beans by facilitating sucessive expansions and contractions of the skin membranes to hasten the separation of the skins from the beans and thus, speeds up the cooking process. Though the entire process is narrowed down to 1 hour, it still requires quite a bit of patience and can be quite nerve wrecking. The recipe makes about 400-450g of tsubushi’an. Since the recipe for the sakuramochi requires only 250g, the rest of it can be ziploc-packed and chilled for future use for other recipes, be it for Japanese wagashis like manjus and kintons, or for chinese dimsums!
Chinese red bean paste 红豆沙 though similar and probably made in the same vein, IMO should NOT be used despite how tempting it might be to use ready available storebought ingredients. It is too oily to be anything wagashi-like and would probably mar the otherwise dainty flavours. If time is really an issue, go for canned red bean paste from Japanese supermarkets, which professes to use adzuki from Hokkaido. But they don’t come cheap! So the best is still to make your own! If you have a Daiso near you, they do carry Koshi’an at a very affordable price.
For the domyojiko, well I simply followed the instructions on the packaging. Its fairly straightforward to follow, so can’t go too wrong with it! Domyojiko is basically cooked glutinous rice grains which are dried and then broken up. This allows them to be “cooked” fairly easily the second time round, by simply stirring in hot water quite literally. If domyojiko is not available, one can substitute by soaking round glutinous rice grains overnight and then whack it to break them up before cooking. It’s more of a hassle though. Long grain glutinous rice, likening those used in Thai and Chinese desserts tend to be a tad too starchy and sticky for use in wagashis.
The hand-wetting liquid is important as it prevents the domyojiko from sticking to our palms. For that, I used the savory sakura leaves soaking liquid in place of a syrupy concoction that some would suggest and the reasons are pretty simple. Salt, apart from being a flavouring condiment, is a flavour enhancer, adding a lot of unami to the sakuramochi, accentuating the sweetness of the domyojiko as well as the anko within. Secondly, it makes it logistically simpler by preparing one less thing!
Alas, the remants of spring soon come to pass as we stand to brave the heat over the upcoming months. Hopefully this “summer” would be kind and temperatures wouldn’t escalate further. Fat hope! Well, on a more positive note, summer usually sees a fantastic and colorful display of fruits. I’d recently seen apricots and peaches on the supermarket shelves. Hopefully some interesting ones would make their way here soon!
I am submitting this for Aspiring Bakers #19: Dim Sum Affair (May 2012) hosted by SSB of Small Small Baker. It is not a typical cantonese dimsum but a Japanese sweet nonetheless. So I’m keeping my fingers crossed that it gets accepted!