January 28, 2014

going green

Happy 2014! Well, it may be a tad late to say New Year's greetings this late into January, but it wouldn't feel right if I didn't to begin my first entry of the year without saying something of the sort, so there. And I wouldn't even go into the question of whether or not it should feel right to leave your humble little blog in a state of near abandonment for so long. Better not say a word, friends.

And it also feels a little funny when I think that my last entry here was about granola (and muesli), because it is precisely what I am going to write about today. Yes, granola. Not your usual granola though, it's matcha granola. Yes, us Japanese never cease to find a new, less exploited way of using our beloved matcha in.

The idea of using matcha in granola has been in my mind for some time, but I never had a chance to actually have a stab at it. Then over the New Year's, I was eating a slice or three of matcha stollen with candied chestnuts that a friend of mine had baked for me, and decided that it was about time I got down to this matcha granola business, perhaps with some chestnuts thrown in the mix.  It was partly because I was at my sister's in Tokyo, where I had hardly any baking supplies to use; granola would be one of the few things I could throw together there.

First I did a bit of research (i.e. googling 'matcha granola'), and found a couple of recipes both in Japanese and in English. I went for this one (in Japanese) for matcha chestnut granola as a starting point, adding a bit of tweaking here and there.

The recipe makes a point that you should cook your oats and nuts at a very low temp so the matcha would not lose too much of its striking flavor and color, and that you add your dried fruits after the oats etc. have been cooked and removed from the oven, which is something I tend to do with any granola recipe. I stuck to these points, then brought it a bit further by sort of dry-frying my oats first, before I throw in other ingredients and add powdered matcha. This way, you can reduce the time for the matcha to be heated in the oven, which should help preserve its bright color and flavor in the finished granola.

As other ingredients, I used white sesame seeds (included in the original recipe - good match for matcha), macadamia nuts (because I preferred mild-tasting nuts for this), pistachios (for the color), pumpkin seeds (ditto), green sultanas (ditto), and a mixture of berries - dried cranberries, raspberries, blueberries, currants, and red raisins.

When the granola mixture has cooled to  room temperature, I added Tenshin Amaguri, or 'Tianjin-style' sweet roasted chestnuts which we have in common in Japan as a snack, as suggested in the recipe.  Along came a good handful of chunks or matcha chocolate, which was my idea - or more precisely, my riff on the lovely Kerrin's idea; you see, once you have started adding chocolate chunks to your granola, it's hard to go back.

My first batch came out fine, not too bad for a first try - but not excellent, either. I tasted a bitterness, which I guessed was due to the fact that I had, rather foolishly, used pre-toasted sesame seeds. And I didn't like the noticeable tartness of cranberries in this particular mix; I found it clash the flavor of matcha. I also found the taste of honey, my choice of sweetener, slightly off too. The addition of matcha chocolate, meanwhile, was a huge hit and well made up for all the other shortcomings of the whole thing.
And it was still tasty as I had it with some fresh strawberries (a good match for matcha), and soy milk which would take on a gentle shade of green.

On my next try, I made sure I used raw sesame seeds to begin with, ditched dried cranberries, and replaced honey with maple syrup, as the original recipe does so. I didn't change the part of par-baking the oats first.

This time the granola came out beautifully, just as bright in color and flavor as the first batch, not a hint of distracting bitterness or tartness.
For my second batch, I got a few more Japanese-y ingredients in addition to the chestnuts: candied kuromame (black soy beans) and candied sweet potato cubes, both a dry-finish kind like marrons glacé.

Both the kuromame and sweet potato cubes are fairly sweet, but they worked nicely in the not-too-sweet granola. They are probably both hard to find outside of Japan, though, but I assure you that the granola tasted great without kuromame, sweet potato, or even chestnuts.
Speaking of hard-to-find, I suspect matcha chocolate might also be a bit of pain in the back to hunt down unless you are in Japan. So I took some of the finished granola aside, divided in two portions, and added dark chocolate to one and white chocolate to the other, both chopped. White chocolate and matcha are a natural, and they indeed went very well together, while I was pleased to find that dark chocolate wasn't bad at all either. But again, you can go without any chocolate at all, and the matcha granola will taste great on its own.

I tried and throw some crashed freeze-dried raspberries into the white choc batch, and loved it too. They added such an electric touch to the otherwise mild-colored and -flavored granola I think.
And since I had quite a few people asking me for the recipe when I posted a couple of photos of my matcha granola on Instagram, I'm writing it up here.  I've only made it twice and cannot say it's perfect, but perhaps you could start from here and adjust it to your liking.

+++ matcha granola (with chestnuts) +++

2 cups rolled oats
1 heaping cup mixed nuts and seeds (I used macadamias, pistachios, and pumpkin seeds), roughly chopped
1/3 cup white sesame seeds, untoasted
2 Tbs powdered matcha, plus more for finishing
2-3 Tbs vegetable oil, preferably a neutral-tasting kind
4-5 Tbs maple syrup
a pinch of salt
1 heaping cup mixed dried fruits (I used green sultanas, dried raspberries, currants, blueberries, red raisins... not cranberries!)
1/2 cup matcha chocolate, chopped (optional, but highly recommended; substitute with white or dark chocolate if unavailable)
1 cup Tenshin amaguri roasted chestnuts, chopped (optional; may be substituted with candied chestnuts but in a smaller amount)

Preheat the oven to 120C/250F. Line the baking sheet with parchment.

Spread the rolled oats over the lined baking sheet and bake for 30 minutes, stirring once or twice along the way. Remove from the oven, leaving the oven on.

Tip the par-cooked oats into a large bowl, and mix in the chopped nuts and seeds. Add the matcha and toss, so that the whole thing is evenly covered with the powdered tea. Add the oil, then maple syrup and salt, and mix thoroughly.

Spread the mixture back onto the lined baking sheet, and cook for 20-30 minutes, until dry but not browned, stirring once or twice along the way.

Remove from oven. Add the dried fruits and a good sprinkle of matcha, and stir well. Let cool completely before adding the chopped chocolate. Add the chopped amaguri chestnuts just before serving if using. Serve with milk and fresh berries, if desired.

Recipe adapted loosely from this.

May 31, 2013

breakfast from the jar

Growing up, I was always a big breakfast eater, even when I had little time (which was often the case). I would never skip breakfast, whether it was a bowl of rice with whatever we had from the previous supper, or an occasional piece of toast or two. What I never had, though, was breakfast cereals. Cornflakes and Rice Krispies were never really part of my diet, breakfast or otherwise.

That was, not at least until I was in high school, when I started picking up an odd carton of All-Bran, which to this day I still have a soft spot for.
It was when I was a college student and went to England on a trip that I got hooked on breakfast cereals. My newfound love was muesli, which I'd read about before in a book, but had never actually found its way into my life. I wasn't used to eating oatmeal, but I quickly took to the stuff, and for the following years I'd be seen smuggling bags of muesli back to Japan from every trip to Europe. When my precious stock ran low, I'd go and buy some at one of those fancy import food stores in Tokyo.

Now muesli may be considered healthy, but when you gorge yourself on the stuff every day for breakfast, afternoon snack, and even late-night nibbles, all those nuts and dried fruits do add up fast (do you have any idea how small their 'recommended' serving sizes actually are??), and soon I realized I was eating way too much and stopped buying it.
It has been years since I dropped the habit, and I have treated myself to it only occasionally. But recently I had a sudden craving for muesli and decided to make my own. By "make", I mean tossing all the ingredients together in a bowl.

You can find lots of recipes out there, but here my reference was the ingredient list for Tesco Fruit And Nut Muesli - the one I used to bring home with me.
[oat flakes / almonds, brazil nuts / raisins, prunes, apricots, papaya]

...Okay, my fruit and nut muesli wasn't quite the same as Tesco's, but this would have to do for now, and it did. On a side note, brazil nut was another thing I got hooked on on my first visits to England, along with - and actually, in - museli. Brazil nuts are really hard to come by in Japan even today, but I love muesli with them in it.

Now, if muesli was my old addiction, granola would be my flavor of the week - or in fact, flavor of the year, to be more precise.
I was introduced to granola about the same time I was to muesli, but I preferred the latter, as I found store-bought granola in general a little too sweet for me to eat on a daily basis. Though I did indulge myself every now and then.

And then about a year ago, it struck my fancy all of a sudden, and I found myself craving for granola - more to bake a batch of my own, than to eat it, though the former would surely be succeeded by the latter.

So here goes!

April 30, 2013

lemon yellow, from winter to spring

I don't know about you, but I have always associated lemon with summer. Fresh, vibrant, and sharp, it seemed to embody all that you crave when it's numbingly warm and sticky, as it usually is in summer in Tokyo. But as many of you know, lemon is actually a fruit of winter, just as almost all citrus fruits are - although it doesn't thrive in cold climates. And now I think about it, the sun-kissed lemon coming from somewhere warm when you are coping with bitter coldness may be a blessing, something that helps you go through the last few months of winter and look for spring.

At the end of January this year, I ordered a 5-kilo (11-lb) case of organic lemons, fresh and ripe, shipped straight from a tiny island on the inland sea in Hiroshima where they are grown.
In the past, lemons you buy in Japan were almost always imported. More and more domestically-produced lemons, mostly from the southwest part of the country where the climate is mild, have become readily available over the last decade or so. Nowadays you can buy them at many supermarkets even in the countryside, including ones in my neighborhood.

Here I wanted a LOT of them for my purpose, so I went ahead and got them by the case - quite a change from the usual pack I get at the store that contains 2-3 lemons! (Pictured together are yuzu from Kochi and kumquats from Miyazaki I had around the same time.)
The reason why I wanted a lot of lemons was to make our own limoncello. During my last visit in Italy last spring, my friend Sigrid had me very well looked after, and saw me off with loads of Italian goodies for me to take with. One of them was her Italian mother-in-law's homemade limoncello.

I brought it back home and shared with my folks, and we were all blown away - it was strong but smooth, sweet but not cloying, and bursting with lemon flavor. My mother in particular loved it so much we begged Sigrid to ask her mother-in-law to share her recipe with us. She has very kindly done so - in a form of hand-written (!) recipe, which Sigrid translated into English for us.

As far as home-made liqueurs go, the most common kind we use here in Japan is what we call "white liquor", a 35% alcohol neutral grain spirit. As the recipe we received did not specify the type of alcohol to use (it was simply mentioned as "alcohol"), I did a bit of research myself, and found that limoncello is typically made with spirits with much higher content of alcohol. The limoncello Sigrid gave to us was also very strong.
So for our limoncello I got myself a few bottles of spirytus, a 96%(!!) alcohol rectified spirit, as well as our staple 35% stuff. Our plan was to make two batches using the two different kinds of spirit, and see how they each turn out. We also prepared a batch with yuzu in place of lemon and spirytus.

The recipe itself was simple enough; let wafer-thin strips of lemon zest steep in alcohol for a week, filter, combine with syrup and leave it to sit for some months. It called for quite a lot of lemons (hence my 5-kilo case) - more precisely, zest of a lot of lemons. At the end of the first step (combining zest with spirit) we were left with 20 lemons (and six or so yuzu), sans zest but otherwise whole.

So I spent the next couple of days busy using them up....