Plum Lovely

On days when the husband is home, I like to do the grocery shopping solo. Much as I enjoy the company of the toddler – lately she likes to reel off a shopping list as we walk around the supermarket, usually (ba)nanas, (avo)cados, and tissuuuuue – there is a certain luxury in taking half an hour to buy five things. Reading the ingredients of products I have little intention of buying, choosing the very best pineapple, spending far too long deliberating over which tofu to buy.

The way to the supermarket – to pretty much anywhere, really – from our flat, is along a gently winding, tree-lined cycle/pedestrian path, mountains visible in the distance, on clear days at least. There are rose bushes and hydrangeas, giant beech trees, pine trees and more, something for every season and some for all. Right now, the ume (commonly referred to – see title of this post – as plum, but actually more closely related to the apricot) trees are in bloom, and although several have had their branches drastically hacked, just a few blossom-covered twigs hanging on, there is still a whole lot of blossom going on. Bolder than the more celebrated, yet-to-come cherry blossom*  and so very beautiful for it.

*not long to wait, though – blooming date forecast is March 28th here, according to this post from the ever-helpful Surviving in Japan.

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Wagashi for my Sweet

Yet another blur of a weekend over, one step closer to Spring. If only the seemingly endless rain would, well, end. Saturday (March 3rd) was Hina Matsuri, or Doll’s Festival, aka Girl’s Day (sadly not a national holiday, unlike Boy’s Day/Children’s Festival on May 5th) in Japan. Not having a set of hina dolls for our own small girl, the least we could do was partake in some of the edible traditions, and hina matusri is, in the words of my elderly neighbour (more on her in a bit) an “oishii matsuri”.

Chirashizushi (scattered sushi) and clam soup are traditional, but we stayed on the sweeter (and more ready made) end of things. Tempted though I was by some locally produced amazake, a sweet, non-alcoholic fermented rice drink, I wasn’t convinced the three of us would make it through the bottle, and so settled instead on some sakura mochi. Red bean paste inside sticky rice, wrapped in a salted cherry leaf, I was expecting a reaction of decided indifference from the toddler. She surprised me though, by seeming to quite enjoy it (the bean paste and rice parts anyway, the cherry leaf was roundly rejected, and honestly, I’m with her on that one.).

Home from buying wagashi (and other, more prosaic foodstuffs*) we bumped into our neighbour, who apologised for not having seen us for a while, explaining that she had been having her ‘winter sleep’, and presented us with a box of hina matsuri sweets. Inside were hishi mochi – diamond shaped mochi in layers pink, white and green, reminiscent of neapolitan icecream, sweet emperor-and-empress-adorned rice cakes, and brightly coloured, super sweet sugar birds and flowers. The toddler, unused to such free flowing sugar, inhaled a bird before clamouring for “more more”. Mean mama that I am, she was denied, and placated with a raisin muffin instead.

*Including eggs, two of which broke when I dropped the bag they were in. Last week I did the same though, breaking six, so I’m counting this as a win.

Making Almond Milk

We are, for a variety of reasons, not a cow’s milk-drinking household. Back in the UK, there is a plethora of non-dairy options to choose from, but in Japan, milk alternatives are pretty much limited to (soya) bean squeezings and the occasional overpriced carton of rice milk. I am by no means a member of the anti-soy brigade (I’m a non-dairy-consuming vegetarian in Japan, tofu is pretty much on a par with oxygen) but neither do I feel great about guzzling soya milk by the gallon, or it playing too large a role in the toddler’s diet.

What, then, to put in tea/on cereal? Almond milk appealed – I liked the idea of incorporating more nuts into our diet, rather than another grain or bean, as we tend to consume rather a lot of those in their original forms. It is technically possible to purchase almond milk in Japan, via personal import from the foreign buyer’s club, but it takes a while, and besides, making it sounded more fun. (Spoiler alert: it’s also really easy).

There is no shortage of ‘How To’ guides out there, but here, anyway, is what I did, using about one cup of nuts:

Step one: Blanch almonds. For some reason I thought this was going to be difficult. It wasn’t – pour boiling water over almonds, let sit for two or three minutes, drain, rinse in cold water and slip off the skins.

Step two: Soak almonds. I put the nuts in my blender jug along with three cups of water and stuck them in the fridge overnight.

Step three: Drain, rinse almonds.

Step four: Blend (I used an immersion blender).  I used a ratio of one:three nuts:water, which resulted in a fairly thin but not too watery milk.

Step five: Strain. I strained three times through a mesh strainer/sieve and then one final time through some “Healthy Cooking Paper”, purchased due to a picture on the package of dashi being strained. I’m pretty sure almond milk wasn’t what the manufacturer had in mind, but it worked well, although honestly, another go through the sieve would probably have done the job.

Some recipes suggest adding a pinch of salt, or a couple of dates, and I think I may do so with the next batch, but it was really pretty good straight up, or – in a rice pudding-y kind of way – with a grating of nutmeg. It made for a thoroughly tasty, toddler-approved banana-strawberry smoothie, too.

Milk made, the question arose of what to do with the leftover pulp. A quick google revealed a ton of recipes –a whole website  even – for using it up. A lot of them, though, required drying, and, in an impatient mood, I decided to simply sub the wet pulp for some of the flour in a batch of oatmeal-raisin cookies, dialing down the liquid accordingly. Despite a poor track record when it comes to making up cookie recipes, they were good – not “here’s the recipe, make them now” good, but perfectly pleasant with a cup of coffee.

Much as I enjoyed the almond milk, I am tempted to try my hand next at hazelnut milk, which I’ve only just discovered exists. although it will be a challenge to avoid making a giant vat of this vegan nutella instead.

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P.S. For anyone looking to make nut milk in Japan, I buy my almonds – and a good deal of my baking supplies – from this rakuten shop, which has a good range of reasonably-priced organic and non-organic ingredients.

P.P.S. It took a lot of willpower to make not one double entendre in this post.