Saturday, March 28, 2009

"Sad and Sweet" Farewell

Farewell Presents Given to Me Yesterday


My last day at the language school is coming closer, and I've been saying goodbye to the students who I'm not going to see again. That is not something I truly enjoy, but it has its sweetness, too. Most of them kindly thanked me for my humble contribution there. Some of them looked shocked and said they would really miss me. And, though I didn't expect this at all, a couple of them even gave me farewell presents!

I love this orange-colored bouquet so much. The girl who gave it to me said, "I don't know why but I just thought orange was your color," which made me feel so happy, because orange IS my color. And this chocolate cake! It's so rich and smooth but not too sweet or too heavy -- one of the best I've ever tasted. Oh, you noticed the scotch tape on the package? Yeah, I ate one piece before taking this shot and sealed the package with the tape. ;)


These are the presents I got on my last day there.

************** Thank you. *************


Inexpensive Fun

Homemade strawberry Jam, Apple Preserves and
leftover Hassaku Marmalade

I don't know about other areas in Japan, but around here the price of strawberries is relatively low now. Or maybe the price itself is not very different but I see so many packs of strawberries on a wagon that says "for fruit juice." Yeah, those are overripe ones, almost rotten. Maybe berries are plentiful this year? Even my blueberry plant seems to have more flowers this spring. And at my favorite supermarket, they seem to have apples on sale more often this month than last month. (But why now? It's not apple season, right??)

Well, I don't mind whatever the reason is. I just appreciate the fact that they are less expensive now, and have been making jam and preserves diligently these days. The above photo is showing only half of what I have made. I even make labels myself. It's so much fun and it doesn't cost much because I downloaded a free software and bought cheap sticker paper at Daiso 100 yen shop.

Honestly, I think I'm better at making jar labels than making jam/preserves. To decide the amount of sugar to use, I usually start with "30% of the weight of the fruit" and adjust it according to how sweet the fruit itself is. And I add lemon juice little by little until I feel it was enough. But for some reason, the jam that tasted perfect when hot often does not taste very good when I use it after a few weeks... My tongue is not very trustworthy, I guess.

BTW, I switched from white sugar to beet sugar after the Meniere's syndrome diagnosis. Although sugar was not what was causing the problem, I was told that I needed to improve blood circulation, so I felt like using healthier sugar (polysaccharide). But beet sugar really makes jam brown, doesn't it? I wonder if I could find beet granulated sugar somewhere ...

Anyway, you can expect a homemade apple pie post to come soon.


Wednesday, March 25, 2009

One Year Wiser... Hopefully

Well, I'm not really sure if I'm one year wiser, and that's why you can't see that part of the text very clearly in the photo above. (How humble!) :P

But I'm happy to tell you that I have made a progress.

In the past, I used this kouglof mold only a few times. My first attempt in 2005 was close to a disaster, and on the second one, still the sides of the cake didn't turn brown almost at all. I blamed it on my oven-cum microwave and gave up on the pursuit of "nicely-browned kouglof cake." The mold had been left in the dark corner of my cupboard and forgotten since then.

Yesterday, when I was trying to decide which cake to bake for my birthday, I realized that I was not as enthusiastic as previous years. I didn't want to spend hours in the kitchen decorating the cake, because my Meniere's syndrome was not completely gone and I still felt slightly dizzy once in a while. Also, I didn't want to do a major shopping just for this cake, either. And there was an unopened bottle of maraschino cherries which I wanted to use up somehow. All those lead me to chose this cherry pound cake, my favorite recipe. And I was happy with the decision.

The only problem, though, was the decoration. The typical Japanese B-day cake decoration consists of strawberries and whipping cream, but it didn't look right for this cake. But if baked in a simple round or square tin, this cake would need some kind of icing, which I didn't want. So I thought about baking it in an interestingly shaped tin and simply sprinkling confectioner's sugar on top. The only interestingly-shaped tin I had was the kouglof mold. And I never had a success with it. Mmmmm... should I risk it?

I did. After all. I tried to learn from the previous unsuccessful attempts and did a few things differently this time. First, I downscaled the recipe to 1/4. And this may be a crazy idea, but to brown the sides as much as possible, I pre-baked the mold, then buttered and floured the hot mold right before pouring the batter into it. It seemed to have worked, to some extent. See?

It's slightly browned, isn't it? Much better than the caramel butter cake I baked before. This cake might have browned much more if I were patient enough to keep it in the oven for more than an hour...

Now I don't know why my cake looks so airy with lots of big holes... like ant nest. Too much baking powder? Too much whipping when mixing the batter? Since I have made a little progress, now I want to be even better and be able to bake something like this soon. Would it help if I buy and use a bundt pan instead of this kouglof mold???

Anyway, I'm very happy today with this birthday cake and these small roses. :)


Sunday, March 22, 2009

On A Gorgeous Sunny Day

Home-Baked French Bread

It was such a gorgeous day yesterday!
The day before yesterday (Mar. 20th) was my last day at the daytime job. No more waking up at 5 am to rush to work. Yay! So yesterday, I was almost going for a bento lunch under cherry blossoms as a celebration. But after taking a few photos in the nearby park, I finally decided against it, because only a few trees were blooming there and the ground underneath them was really muddy. (The photos are posted on another blog of mine.) Instead, I chose to have more aggressive(?) fun in the kitchen, kneading and beating bread dough. ;)

Instead of making two baguettes, I baked it into a boule.

After taking these photos, I sliced this boule and used two slices for making garlic toast. They were G-R-E-A-T! (Sorry. No photos.) Crispy, crunchy and garlicky toast... I enjoyed them with sparkling wine and that was my celebration. You know I seldom drink in the daytime, and having sparkling wine with home-baked bread, in the bright afternoon sunshine, was special enough for me to call a small celebration treat.

Maybe next week I'll thaw the frozen slices and make a sandwich with them to eat under the cherry blossoms -- if the weather permits.

BTW, in order to improve my bread and also to use for another purpose, I ordered some packages of "malt flour." I'll use it next time I bake bread and let you know the result.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Simple and Tasty

"Addictive" Tuna and Cabbage Salad?

Another recipe from a Japanese recipe site. It really appealed to my curiosity because the combination of the seasoning ingredients looked strange and too simple to me but so many reviews there were almost worshipping it. Yes, it's just honey, soy sauce and raa-yu (hot sesame oil or chili oil) that are used to season this salad. All you need to do is to heat drained canned tuna with those three ingredients in microwave for one minute and mix in blanched and chopped cabbage. (Actually in the original recipe chili oil is added after the tuna mixture came out of microwave.) How does that sound? And they say, "You could eat half a cabbage at one time all by yourself."

The black sesame seeds was my idea.

Well, let me tell you. They didn't lie. I didn't use half a cabbage but I did use a quater of it and ate it all at one time. The hot sesame oil (or chili oil) is the key. And honey. Using sugar would not be the same, I guess. Gee. I wonder how the recipe author came up with this idea. Some people ARE creative, aren't they?


Sunday, March 15, 2009

Things I Wish I Knew Earlier

Whole Wheat Biscuits with Trans-Fat Free Margarine
and Maple Syrup
/ Strawberry Jam

Going through my previous posts, it was 2003 when I first heard (read) about trans fat. Since then I had been looking for trans-fat free vegetable oil products, especially margarine, because that's what I wanted to have on my breakfast toast almost every day, and substitute butter with when baking. Unfortunately, unlike many Western countries, both Japanese government and food industry have been rather reluctant to look into this issue, and I had been jealous of those who can buy Smart Balance or Earth Balance anytime at nearby supermarkets.

It was early 2006 when I bought imported trans-fat free shortening online for the first time and tried it out for baking. It worked fine for biscuits but not when I substituted the butter in a cookie recipe with it. (BTW now they cannot sell this product in Japan.) As for trans-fat free margarine, the one I could find was this thing called "Burgarine" which cost JPY 600 for 250 g! Too expensive. Luckily (?) most reviews rated its taste negatively and I didn't feel the urge to get one.

But the other day, at an organic food shop here in Kochi, not too far from my place, I found a margarine that contains less than 0.5 g trans fat per 100 g of the product, tastes good, can be used as a butter substitute AND does not cost a fortune!

Actually this margarine was already out in the market a couple of years ago; it was just my ignorance that kept me from getting one until recently. But even if I had found it on those Japanese online shopping sites, the shipping fee must have kept me from ordering some anyway.
But now I can buy this locally. No shipping fee necessary. So nothing stops me anymore. :D

They say that "fermented soy milk" is used for the good taste, and palm kernel oil is used to make this margarine solid.

Yes. This tastes good. So far I have tried this on breakfast toast and with the biscuits in the top photo. I didn't take photos but I also used it as a butter substitute for baking cookies, too. It worked perfectly. And according to their website, they use carotenoid from carrots to color this margarine. (They must have read the Little House series??)

Now, the price-- It costs JPY 330 for 180 g. Yeah, still expensive, but much better than Burgarine. Oh, something like this really makes me happy!

Also, last night I worked on my laptop to try out some tips I found on Japanese websites to make Windows XP run faster. They are similar to what's written here. Now my display is in "Windows classic" style and I don't see Windows logo when the PC is starting up, but boy, it's faster! It made my life so much easier. Why didn't I do this earlier? But it's definitely better than not knowing about it at all so let's not complain.

Things are looking up, maybe?

P.S. To make the whole wheat biscuits in the photo, I used this recipe and replaced some of the a.p. flour with whole wheat flour and used butter instead of shortening.


Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tasting The Bitterness Of Life...

Hassaku Marmalade

One of the students of the language school I work for gave me a few hassaku oranges the other day. Now, I hate to say this but I'm not too crazy about hassaku. It's not easy to peel it like tangerine, and the white part can be quite bitter. Unless the fruit is very ripe and sweet, the bitterness from the pulp can really ruin the overall taste, and I often get disappointed.

So, instead of eating them right away, I decided to make marmalade with them. That way I would be able to do something about the bitterness, I thought. It was not my first time making marmalade out of citrus fruit with bitter rind and pulp, such as konatsu. I had a great success before, and the key was rubbing the shredded rind with salt thoroughly before boiling and soaking it in water. That should work for hassaku oranges, too, I thought.
How naive of me.

I spent so much time doing this:

... and this:
I rubbed these rind strips with salt, then boiled them, drained them, boiled again, drained again and repeated that for a couple more times. After that, I soaked them in water for at least three hours.

Then added the flesh to the rind and cooked with a good amount of sugar.

The result was...

Gosh it was DARN B-I-T-T-E-R!! :O WHY????

I didn't get it. The rind didn't taste bitter very much when I tasted it before cooking. But for some reason, the marmalade turned out VERY bitter.

Now how can you save bitter marmalade? I know something fatty can make bitterness milder, but I don't want any fatty stuff in my marmalade. Maybe more sugar and ... alcohol? Because in my hometown we use distilled spirit to remove astringent taste from persimmons... Finally I ended up cooking the marmalade again with more sugar and generous amount of leftover Myers's Rum.

You know what? It helped!! The rum really added pleasant flavor and the bitterness became tolerable. But still it takes some courage to eat this hassaku marmalade on toasted bread or with yogurt.

And I even tried combining it with something fatty, i.e. butter. I baked some into buttery pound cake.

This cake certainly smelled heavenly with the butter and the rum. If the aftertaste of the hassaku rind did not ruin the harmony at the end, I could have called this cake a great success.
- Sigh -

So what did I learn from this experience? Often hard work does not get rewarded? That's Life? Or it is always sugar and booze that reduces the bitterness of life? :P


Sunday, March 08, 2009

Garden Report - March 2009 -

Mizuna, blooming

I didn't know what mizuna flowers look like, because my mizuna didn't survive the winter last year. I wonder if these leaves are too strong or too bitter to eat now...

I enjoyed mizuna in various hotpot dishes and stir-fries several times last winter. It's such a shame that I was too lazy to post about them. Haha... :P

Blueberry (Sunshine Blue)

I'm taking my sunshine blue with me to my parents' house. Now, what do you think? Would it damage this plant if I transplant it somewhere in mom's garden sometime in May, after these flowers are gone? If I want to harvest some berries this summer, would it be safer to keep it in the planter as it is now?



I don't know if this rosemary is dying or recovering. During winter, almost all leaves looked brown, except the bottom part of each leaf. Now I think I see more green leaves than I did in winter, so maybe it's recovering...???

It's already March. Gosh... Feels like it was only yesterday that I posted about my New Year's Day feast. It's really nice to see my little plants and feel the breath of spring, because I'm not feeling very well recently.

About a week ago, I started hearing my heartbeat pretty loudly in my left ear -- not all the time, but when I was sitting quietly or lying in bed. It was as if my heart moved up to my left ear and was pounding right there. (Well, I'm exaggerating. A little.) Then it got worse every day. Yeah, it was kind of nice to be re-confirmed that my heart was diligently working, but it didn't have to be THAT often, and THAT noisy. LOL Finally one day when I was washing dishes in my kitchen, I felt as if my left ear was totally stuffed up, with terrible buzz in the ear, and I felt a little dizzy. So the next day I went to see the doctor, and there I was diagnosed with mild Meniere's syndrome.

So I guess it was the right choice, after all, to quit my current jobs and move to a country to live a "slow" life. Maybe something told me to make a change even before my body gave me this warning sign. It was good that I made the decision earlier, because now I only have a few more weeks left to work and my successor is already picked and started receiving training.
I think I'm lucky, after all. ;)


Friday, March 06, 2009

New Owner Has Been Chosen!

A new owner of my small donabe has been chosen! :D
Thank you for your interest and sorry to those who emailed me but did not get this donabe. I felt so happy to hear from you.

I might do something like this again before I move out this apartment, so stay tuned! ;)