Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Sakura Sweets

The cherry trees are blooming, and that means it's the season for pink pastries in every shop, from traditional Japanese okashiya to fancy French patisseries. Since cherry blossoms are so iconic, this would hardly be surprising except for one seemingly important detail: cherry blossoms aren't actually edible and probably don't taste very good. So what flavor is a sakura sweet supposed to be?
The easy answer is: it depends. In the sakura an-pan at the top, the filling is the typical sweet red bean paste flavored with flower-infused salt, which comes through sour and strong, the taste all the more apparent for being invisible. Sakura mochi, above, don't actually taste any different from ordinary mochi - a spongy rice flour dough (pink, of course, in this case), wrapped around smooth red bean paste - except that they're enclosed in edible sour-pickled cherry leaves and topped with a pickled blossom. It's the tartness of the pickled leaves and flowers that defines any sweets that employ real cherry-blossoms.
Sakura bread? Why not? I didn't buy this, so I can't tell you what it tastes like, but it's certainly pretty and pink. While we're looking at all these labels, a linguistic aside: the character for "sakura," 桜, is one of my favorites. On the left is the character for tree, on the right, the characters for a female and three lines that I like to think of as a crown (though I have no idea what they actually mean). It fits together well, and looks so graceful - plus, I like to think of cherry blossoms as being girly.
One of the more unusual interpretations of the cherry blossom pastry is Sadaharu Aoki's Sakura Eclair (note the golden glitter atop the pink icing - nothing but glamour for Monsieur Aoki). On the outside, it's a typical sakura sweet, pretty and puffy and pink.
Inside is where it gets interesting. Rather than the usual pickled leaf or blossom imparting a fragrant, mildly tangy filling, Sadaharu Aoki has a plain vanilla-bean pastry cream jazzed up with a bold dark-pink streak of sour cherry jam. And it's really sour - a surprising contrast with the sticky-sweet pink icing and mild custard cream.

Cherry blossom season is fleeting, and so are these sweets. You have to get them while you can - in a few days the blossoms will be gone, and most of these confections won't be in the shops for much longer.

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