Sunday, August 06, 2006

Kyogashi? Konashi and Shiro Koshian!

When I had begun my search for Yatsuhashi and other types of specialty sweets from Kyoto, I kept coming across the term "Kyogashi." At first, I thought it was just a word to denote all sweets that came from Kyoto. However, if I searched under "kyogashi," Yatsuhashi didn't appear. Why was that? Afterall, this wagashi was a specialty of Kyoto. Eventually, I learned that Kyogashi actually referred to the specially crafted cakes and confections that were made and presented in the Imperial Court. Eventually these cakes found their way into the Tea Ceremony where they were developed to be "in harmony" with the bitterness of the various matchas (powdered green tea) served in the ceremony. The ingredients and in many cases the appearance of the cake were meant to reflect the essence of each of Kyoto's distinct seasons.

The end result of all this history is a confection that is a simple cake in its ingredients but beautifully and intricately crafted to remind you of how nature does the very same thing. It is a confection that can be appreciated and enjoyed on many levels even if you don't want to eat it.

Konashi: a wagashi make of Shiro Koshian, flour and sugar. It tastes like a almond paste candy.

Genyo and Gotochi never did an exclusive Kyogashi line, but they did do a limited promotional line on wagashi sweets that are traditionally paired with green tea.

Kashiwa Mochi is a mochi filled with adzuki bean jam, and wrapped with an oak leaf. It is associated most often with "Children's Day" on May 5th. Originally, this holiday was known as "Boys Day" - a time when Japanese families hoped/prayed that their sons would grow up to be strong and healthy. The oak leaf denotes the succession of the family line through the young boys.

I think in this version, Kitty demonstrates the "Kanto" style of Sakura Mochi or Cherry Mochi that is served during the Cherry blossom viewing season (late March?). A thin layer of pink tinted glutinous rice is wrapped around adzuki bean jam and the whole thing is enfolded in a salt-cured cherry leaf. The color and the cherry leaf are the only "cherry" substances in this cake, but again, it reflects the time of year when this cake would be traditional made and served.

Here's one that I love to look at, but would rather not eat. Hanamidango is sweetened mochi, colored to reflect the colors of spring and served on a skewer. Sometimes the green is flavored with powdered green tea or Yomogi (mugwort). While I love mochi, I prefer mine more savory than sweet.

Kitty sits upon a box of deadly Neri Yokan...sorry just kidding. It is red adzuki bean jam jelly that is made with kanten (a kind of seaweed gelatin), sugar and water. Its very dense and sweet. Of course there are other kinds and other "bases" other than beans, but in this version, Kitty presents 'ol reliable.

The line also includes another type of Yokan and also another seaweed-based gelatin dish called Tokoroten. I mention this last one because another blogger has a great entry on Tokoroten and the process of making the gel from sea weed. She has also dedicated an entry a month to a seasonal wagashi - check it out!

At the time my wagashi mania began, I was more interested in some of the beautiful hand-crafted cakes that appeared to be a little more complicated than daifuku or Yatsuhashi. These cakes seemed unapproachable to the novice, but nevertheless, they ensnared me. I had many sleepless nights wondering whether I should embark on these cakes. I asked myself, "How many times did you have to dump a failed batch before you could get your yatsuhashi not to look disgusting? Now you want to try and make cakes that look like this?" I knew I was being overyly ambitious, but as some motivational speaker once said (no, I really can't remember which one it was) something that keeps you up at night like this is something you can learn with passion. Well, it's basically week 3, so I guess I am still passionately stumbling my way through the wagashi basics.

First thing I had to learn was making "Shiro Koshian", a smooth white bean jam. This type of bean jam is an important ingredient for a number of "Kyogashi" items such as Nerikiri and Konashi. It would be the filling for the Nerikiri and play a double role in the Konashi.

Unfortunately for me, this stuff doesn't come in a convenient, premade vacuum sealed package like the red bean version. I'd have to start from scratch. I was able to find two recipes that essentially agreed with one another, but I lacked the Alton Brown-esque answers to all my "why-do-it-this-way" questions. For example, one recipe called for a soaking period after the first boiling phase (shibukiri). From what I could tell, it had some affect on the flavor? If that was true, what did a minimum soaking produce versus longer? Why did I need to keep changing the water after the beans reached a few boiling points? It was frustating because all these little details were prolonging the boiling time but more so because I wanted to know why. I also felt like I had to OBEY these rules or I wouldn't have a good Shiro Koshian.

One recipe suggested I peel the bean skins before I cooked them if I were using lima beans. It seemed like a very tedious task, but in the end, peeling beans was a surprsingly relaxing.

I'm supposed to mash the beans through a sieve, but that was more tedious and not as peaceful as peeling beans. Finally I resorted to brute force and mashed the remaining beans.

Somehow I managed to get a smooth bean slurry and end up with this. Its a pitiful amount from one pound of beans, but I wasted so much "bean-matter" from inexperience...and undercooking beans.

The recipe called for 200 grams of sugar. Knowing I didn't have a legit amount of bean matter from 1lb of beans, I cut back the amount. I should have cut back more...

There it is. My first batch of Shiro Koshian!

Recipe sources:


*Both these sites have a great selection of traditional wagashi recipes

After 5 hours of Lucy & Ethel antics in my kitchen, I managed to make JUST enough Shiro Koshian to go onto with a full blown Kyogashi - Konashi. When I read the recipe, I imediately thought of marzipan and other kinds of almond paste based sweets. Flour and more sugar would be added to half of the shiro koshian so that it could be kneaded and shaped like a sugar cookie dough. The dough would then be wrapped around small amounts of the remaining shiro koshian.

Like I said, I was ambitious -- I wanted to go right ahead and make some truly stunning cakes. Unfortunately, I lacked experience, know-how and patience. I also lacked the traditional tools, but I did my best to improvise. I tried to use my Hello Kitty microwave cake molds as a "kashigata" (traditional wooden molds), but the Konashi dough was so dense and sticky that I needed to forcibly pull the cakes out which in turn, ruined the overall shape of the cake. I tried banging the Kitties out, but all I ended up with was flying Konashi Kitties. It was quite funny and quite messy.

One Kitty, post-flight and some plain round cakes. The shiny coating is from a sugar-water syrup called mitsu.

Well, was it worth it? I have to admit that even after cleaning up the kitchen of bean residue, yes it was. I will never be a master wagashi artist, but at least I can say that I came closer to understanding these seemingly strange sweets and what they mean to me in a larger context... I can't really say what that is since I'm still trying to figure it out myself...

The Shiro Koshian is a nice compromise for folks like me that don't like the red adzuki bean variety. However, part of that is due to the seemingly total lack of flavor. Its very sweet, but does suggest great potential for flavorings such as vanila, chocolate--perhaps even coffee.

If you're intersted in seeing a real master make Konashi, has some video clips on the basics of the dough, how to wrap the dough around the filling and how to color and decorate your cake to look like a rose. While the videos are in Japanese, the visual instructions are quite helpful even for kitchen spazzes such as myself.

The dull side of a table knife worked as a make-shift tool for these flowers. However, as you can see, I need lots more practice before I start blaming my lack of tools.

The next project I am looking towards is Nerikiri. It too has another component that has to be mastered and it doesn't look easy - Gyuuhi. It is mochi, but its made in a manner that is suppose to make it much softer than regular mochi. I can remember having certain types of daifuku that had mochi skins that were so tender to the bite. Others had harder, chewier skins and I was never quite sure whether it was the cook or the cake itself. It looks as if it was the cake itself - I send my apologies to those I may have offended with my reaction to their chewy daifukus.

Intrigued yet? Youtube has a video of Flickr photographer and wagashi master jam343 making a "nadeshiko" cake - not sure if its a konashi or one that uses gyuhi, but it is fun to watch. You can also see his work at the Flickr site



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