The Japanese approach to making desserts, much like their approach to life, by celebrates the delicate beauty found in simplicity and balance. Mochi, for example, transforms a humble ball of rice dough into a sweet, gummy treat after it is pounded, filled with red bean paste, and then steamed. Traditionally, a mix of nuts and fruit known as kashi were enjoyed daily, while more elaborate sweets called wagashi are prepared and gifted on special occasions as small works of art, similar to a box of chocolates.
“Each ingredient really shines through,” says Nicole Bermensolo, author of the new cookbook Kyotofu, which blends staple ingredients in the Japanese diet, such as sesame, soy and rice, with Western-style desserts, like ice cream, parfait and pudding. The Italian-American Bermensolo became obsessed with Japan as a teenager, and spent several years studying the culture and language and traveling throughout the country. At one point, Bermensolo visited a tofu factory that had been pressing soy for four generations, and had a revelation when she tasted a warm spoonful from a fresh batch of tofu.
Bermensolo vowed to bring the velvety custard back to her native New York, and find a new way to inject it into the American culinary landscape. She started experimenting in the kitchen, replacing the cream, butter and eggs used in Western dessert recipes with a silken tofu, which is generally considered as savory in Japan. The smooth texture proved perfectly suited for making crème caramel and panna cotta. Bermensolo also played with unexpected flavor pairings, such as miso to enhance the rich chocolate in brownies, matcha to add a pleasant bitterness to cheesecake and kinako to create a hint of earthiness in shortbread. In 2006, she opened the Japanese restaurant and bakery Kyotofu in Manhattan (which has since been transformed into a catering company).
“The Japanese believe that you eat with your eyes first,” Bermensolo says, adding, “People take time to appreciate the beauty on their plate—there is a mindfulness and deliberateness to everything.” The color of a dish, for example, often takes cues from nature and reflects the change of seasons. In the spring there is sakura mochi a pink dessert wrapped in a cherry tree leaf to celebrate the most iconic spring blossom; in the fall, the sweet sweet chestnut daifuku mochi, is served.
Ultimately, the recipe for the perfect dessert is simple. As Bermensolo says, “The more time spent on a dish, the better it will be. […] Handmade processes result in a better product.”