Off the Shelf: Okashi by Keiko Ishida

Saturday, December 10, 2011 14 comments
Chocolate Almond Cookies

Creatures of nature do not need a glossy calendar to tell them what time of year it is: Subtle changes in temperature, the positions of sun and moon, and pure animal instinct all serve as natural cues to the changing seasons and signal the start of primal behavior, especially during winter.

Birds fly south. Bears hibernate. Squirrels hoard nuts. Noodles bake.

No matter where I am - humid South, frigid Midwest, tropical Asia - the last months of the year bring about a familiar thrumming in my system with every holiday season, urging me to sift flour, cream butter and beat eggs. This year, that sensation is accompanied by a subtle word: Okashi.

Sweet Meanings

(image: marshallcavendish.com)
I don't recall from whom I first read about Okashi: Sweet Treats Made with Love (Marshall Cavendish, 2009) by Tokyo-born, Singapore-based pastry chef and instructor Keiko Ishida. It may have been from Singaporean Ann of Ancoo Journalwho turns baked goods into edible works of art, or maybe it was Sydney blogger Lemonpi's review for Gastronomer's Bookshelf. Whomever is to be credited - or blamed, depending on how much weight I eventually gain - this book quickly became an obsession.

Okashi is the Japanese word for 'confections', 'snacks' or, as the rest of the title goes, 'sweet treats'. And there is no shortage of them in this book, starting with the striking monochromatic Black Sesame Chiffon Cake on the cover. It sets the tone for what readers will find inside - uncomplicated recipes and unfussy photographs of cakes, cookies, pastries and other delectables, whose simplicity belies an elegant fusion of classic French technique and minimalist Japanese style.

The author's acknowledgments and introduction concisely explain the childhood inspiration (baking with her mother), personal influences (husband, friends and instructors) and professional experience (extensive culinary training in France) behind the book's concept, leaving the subsequent recipes uncluttered by sentimental anecdotes. In fact, Ishida makes it clear that this book is not about her, but rather about the joy of baking:
"[N]othing beats the pleasure of baking simple sweets in the comfort of your own home... More than anything else, it is sincere desire that you will make your family and friends happy with your baking, just as I have!" (Okashi, 9)
Simple By Design

So that even the most novice of bakers might share in this pleasure, Okashi is designed to be a beginner-friendly cookbook. The first chapters offer a helpful glossary of equipment in text and photos, and a list of all ingredients used. Most of these should be familiar items in any kitchen, while a few, such as the blow-torch and agar-agar (a.k.a kanten, a seaweed-based gelling agent) may require a visit to a specialty store or some sort of creative substitution. The recipes are mostly composed of gratifyingly short ingredient lists and methods, and are easily contained in two pages, one of which is a full photograph of the finished treat.

Basic Recipes are the foundation components for more elaborate desserts, from a genoise sponge used in a Japanese-style Strawberry Cake to a custard sauce that forms the base for both Green Tea and Black Sesame Ice Creams. Under New Creations, Ishida puts an Asian twist on classic Western desserts, such as Bean Curd Cheesecake, while All-Time Favourites, from Blueberry Crumble Muffins to Mont Blanc (Chestnut Cake), retain their original essence.

Not everything in Okashi is rich with butter and eggs or sweetened with refined sugars, and some aren't even meant for humans. Ishida presents two chapters of alternative baked goods: Special Recipes offer more than a dozen essentially vegan recipes that look just as scrumptious and decadent as their egg- and dairy-laden counterparts, while Bonus Recipes for Pets include a carrot cake-like confection that honestly looks good enough for both two- and four-legged eaters.




If at First You Don't Succeed...

Okashi is indeed a lovely bakebook, but it apparently was not always the case. Published in late 2009, the book inexplicably disappeared from shelves and online vendors for a period of time shortly after it came out; I recall searches on Amazon.com resulting in 'no copies available', while a bookstore in Manila told me it was out of print. A hint as to the reason why came when I finally got around to baking from my first-print copy. The chosen recipe had just six ingredients but one helluva typo that called for a whopping 100 grams of baking powder! I'm no Ruhlman, but I know enough to realize that the correct ratio of leavening to flour is NOT one-to-one, unless you are baking a brick.

A comparison between the original 2009 edition and a 2011 reprint of Okashi reveals an overhaul of the entire book that mainly simplified the text in some parts while clarifying methods with extra steps in others. The above error was corrected (it now calls for a mere pinch of BP), but I must note that ingredients or measurements in a half dozen other recipes were also changed, which may yield different results between the first and subsequent editions.

Though it may seem unfair to bring attention to errors that have since been addressed by the publisher, I haven't done so in order to magnify the book's old faults. Instead, I hope to highlight its virtues. Not knowing what costs are involved in publishing, I imagine it's not an inconsequential sum to pull** a product from the shelves, re-edit it entirely, then print and market it all over again. In doing so, publisher Marshall Cavendish seems to be saying that Keiko Ishida's work is well worth the effort and expense to try again. It is a statement of faith in the essential quality of her book and recipes, and although I have made only one other Okashi recipe so far, it is enough to convince me of the same.

If you have ever admired the effortless elegance, subtle sweetness and sublime simplicity of French-inspired Japanese bakery, and would like to try recreating it for yourself, this may be the book with which to begin.

For sweet treats made with love, Okashi is the word.

**Correction 12/12/11: I suggested above that Okashi: Sweet Treats Made with Love was pulled from booksellers in order to correct errors and to re-edit the book. In fact, the first edition was SOLD OUT; publisher Marshall Cavendish then made the corrections during the second printing. I would like to apologize to Keiko Ishida and Marshall Cavendish for my erroneous assumption and to thank Tammy Rip of Marshall Cavendish for setting me straight. TN

Chocolate Almond Cookies
(From Okashi: Sweet Treats Made with Love by Keiko Ishida. Reprinted with publisher's permission)

Of all the recipes in Okashi: Sweet Treats Made with Love, it figures that the first one I picked had the most egregious typo. If only I had this kind of luck with picking lottery numbers...

Fortunately, my backup choice resulted in greater success: These Chocolate Almond Cookies are classic refrigerator cookies, so-called because they are meant to be chilled in the fridge before being sliced and baked. This is the epitome of the go-to treat, keeping beautifully in the freezer until needed, then yielding irresistible fresh-baked biscuits when surprise company calls on short notice.




These baked bites have a buttery crispness like an airy shortbread and are studded with a smoky, salty flavor from the almonds. More importantly, they taste of cocoa - not chocolate, mind you, but rather a dark, intense richness that makes them more than simply a cookie version of a chocolate bar. Even rolled in granulated sugar, they retain just a hint of sweetness, making them too dangerously easy to nibble on dozens before the appropriate blood sugar level is finally reached.

Makes about 40 cookies

Ingredients:


40g sliced and blanched almonds

150g pastry flour or top flour
20g cocoa powder
120g unsalted butter, softened
70g icing (confectioner's) sugar
A pinch of salt
1 egg yolk
Granulated white sugar for dusting

Method:

  1. Preheat oven to 150C. Place almonds on a baking tray and bake for 20 minutes. Sift flour and cocoa powder together once.
  2. Beat butter, icing sugar and salt until softened. Add egg yolk and mix well.
  3. Fold flour and cocoa powder mixture into butter mixture using a spatula. Add toasted almond slivers and fold through. Cover dough with cling wrap and refrigerate for about 15 minutes.
  4. Divide cookie dough into two portions. Place each portion on a sheet of parchment paper and shape it into logs about 4cm in diameter. Wrap logs with parchment paper and refrigerate. If not baking cookies immediately, wrap logs again in cling film and freeze for up to 2 months.
  5. Preheat oven to 160C.
  6. Slice cookie dough log into 7mm thick pieces. Roll side of cookies in granulated sugar and place on a baking tray lined with parchment paper or a non-stick baking mat. Bake for about 20 minutes. Remove from heat and leave to cool on a wire rack.
  7. Serve or store cookies in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 10 days.

An Okashi Gift
Blogger's Note:
This blog post was originally conceived as a review of my personal first-print copy of Okashi. Many thanks to Marshall Cavendish Asia for sending me a complimentary updated copy after I inquired about permission to reprint a recipe for this post.



Irresistible treats

14 comments:

  • Betty Ann @Mango_Queen said...

    This is no ordinary book review...it's a Japanese cookbook on sweets? Wow, it must be amazing. I have to look for this on Amazon. Thanks for the review. I already love the book, including this recipe of Chocolate-Almond cookies.

  • Noodle's Ate said...

    Sweet goodness! Now I know what to bring to the holiday cookie exchange party next week. I will enlist our beautiful niece's skills and patience to bake this cookie recipe for me :)

  • carolineadobo said...

    Okashi, learned a new word today! :) This is going on my holiday baking list now. I love that it's easy to put together and stays fresh for awhile after they're baked. So perfect for care packages, too!

  • Tangled Noodle said...

    Thanks for your comments! I hope you'll pick up Okashi -- it's a wonderful book!

    Jay - It's a fabulous recipe! The flavor and texture are truly excellent and it's so easy to make. Thank you!

    Betty Ann - Definitely pick up a copy! The recipes are wonderfully easy and yet look so elegant. I am already plotting my next attempt - if it turns out, you can bet I will take lots of pics and then post about it! 8-)

    Ate - You and our Beautiful Niece will love this recipe. In fact, if you are looking for a gift for her, then definitely pick this one up! If you do make it, please let me know how it turns out!! 8-)

    Carolineadobo - That's what I totally thought, too! And I can vouch that it keeps extremely well - I had them in a covered container at room temperature for several days and they retained their crispness and flavor PERFECTLY! You know how humid it gets here... Hope you give it a try!! 8-)

  • Hornsfan said...

    Beautiful cookies from what appears to be quite a beautiful cookbook! Even though your original thoughts on why you couldn't find the 1st edition of the cookbook weren't quite right they still made me laugh...1:1 ratios of leavning to flour :)

  • Jenni said...

    I'm glad they fixed what needed fixing--nothing should kill cook book sales more rapidly than crazy typos in the ingredient amounts!
    Aside from that, I love the concept of the book--hooray for recipes for pets, too!

  • Manang said...

    Thanks for this post, now I will have a Japanese bakebook. I love Japanese pastries. My brother is working in Ji-Pan, a Japanese bakeshop in the Philippines. He once brought home a booklet of "recipes" with stunning photos, but guess what...it was written in Japanese! And at the time I had no experience in baking. This book should give me a head start. I am gonna give myself a copy as my Christmas gift. :)

  • zerrin said...

    Thanks for introducing this 'sweet' baking book! I love the sound of the word 'okashi'. And your cookies look awesome! Would be a great holiday gift.
    Wish you and your husband a wonderful new year!

  • Lori said...

    I love a simple cookie like this and the cookbook sounds outstanding. Honestly, I get in such a zone when I cook that I may have actually missed the error. Ha, ha! So glad you have an eye for detail. ;)

 

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