Wed 19 May 2010
Though I spent most of my life in America, I wasn’t born there. Before Arkansas, San Francisco, Santa Cruz and Los Angeles (all places I’ve lived at one point or another), there was the country of my birth: Japan. Officially I am half-Japanese, half-American, and retain dual citizenship.
This may sound absolutely crazy, but after living here in Ireland for a few months I’m starting to see some striking similarities between the two cultures. The most obvious (to me) is a shared love of alcohol. While the Japanese have a reputation for being quiet and relative conservative, they can drink with the best of them. It’s not unusual to see a drunken salaryman on the first train at 5 a.m., still reeking of liquor and exhausted from a night of post-work drinking with the boss. And while my Irish friends have their fare share of hilarious drunken tales, nothing beats a story from my friend Kayo. She once fell asleep in a ditch on the side of the road; she’d gotten out of the car to get sick then decided to take a cat nap instead (love this type of drunken logic!). I should note that she was not driving, but the driver fell asleep in the car waiting for her to come back. Area residents who could see her from their windows called the police, thinking there was a dead body in the ditch. The only thing she remembers is being poked with a stick by a policeman, who realized she was just intoxicated. He lectured her about being drunk in public before sending her on her way.
The Japanese, like the Irish, also drink an excessive amount of tea – and not just green tea. I grew up drinking black tea with milk and sugar, a common morning beverage in Japan. In fact, milk tea as a flavor is wildly popular there. You can get a can of hot black tea, with or without milk and/or sugar from a vending machine, and get large cola-sized bottles of cold milk tea at the supermarket. There are even cookies that contain small bits of actual milk tea-flavored candy, which is one of my favorite Japanese desserts (it’s really mindboggling how much the cookies taste like a cup of sugary milk tea!).
When I first visited a bakery here in Drogheda, I noticed many of the dessert offerings here are similar in style to those in Japan. In America, the preference is heavy, sugar-laden cakes with thick layers of butter cream frosting and cloyingly sweet toppings. Here, like in Japan, lightly sweetened, fresh whipped cream is favored. The sponge cake with whipped cream and jam, the puff pastry with cream and the light coffee cakes (as in cakes flavored with coffee, not the crumble-topped “coffee cakes” of America) take me back to my childhood in Japan.
It is this taste for lighter sweets that inspires the Japanese cheesecake, a completely different take on the popular dessert. In America, cheesecakes are dense and ultra rich with a buttery graham cracker crust – delicious, but not exactly the ideal dessert after a meal. Japanese cheesecakes are airy and light, almost like a cheesecake-flavored sponge. There is no crust, just a golden-brown exterior that forms during the baking process. I think the Irish would love this fluffy, slightly-sweet version of the cheesecake as it is much more in sync with their palate than the solid, sugary version of the U.S.
Now if only I could convince them to try sushi…
Individual Japanese Cupcakes
(Makes 15 cupcakes)
50g unsalted butter
250g cream cheese
100 ml milk
60g self-raising flour
6 egg yolks
1 TBSP lemon juice
½ vanilla bean pod
3 egg whites
140g caster sugar
Fruit preserves and fresh fruit of your choice
Preheat oven to 160 degrees (325 F). In a double boiler, melt the butter, cream cheese and milk together. Whisk until smooth, and then allow it to cool for 10 minutes. Meanwhile sift together the flour and cornstarch, then mix into the cream cheese mixture until just incorporated. Add in the egg yolks, lemon juice and the seeds from the vanilla pod (use a paring knife to scrape out the seeds). Whisk together until just combined. Set aside.
In a clean, dry bowl, beat the egg whites until light and fluffy, then slowly add the caster sugar and continue to beat until stiff peaks form. Carefully fold the egg whites into the cream cheese/flour mixture using a rubber spatula. Pour into lined cupcake tins, filling them about ¾ of the way. Place tin in a water bath (pour hot water into a roasting pan, then carefully place the cupcake tin into the roasting pan) and bake for 25-30 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out fairly clean (it may have a bit of moist bits on it but the cakes will settle as they cool). Cool completely on a wire rack, and then top with your favorite fruit jam or preserves and fresh fruit of your choice.
Note the cheesecakes will rise in the oven and flattened out and become denser (but still light!) after cooling. Store in airtight container in the refrigerator for up to 4 days.