Still thinking of Japan: Matcha Green Tea and Lemon Honey Castella (kasutera) Japanese Sponge Cake

by Irvin on March 17, 2011 · 26 comments

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I can’t seem to keep Japan off my mind. I imagine that is how it is with most people, despite the trauma fatigue that tends to set in, with day after day of terrible news coming in. The bad news keeps coming in and at some point your mind turns it off. But Japan keeps on popping up and I keep thinking back to the one time I was in Japan, over ten years ago. And though I wasn’t quite as obsessed with food back then as much as I am now (it’s relative – I think I’ve always been obsessed with food, but in different ways, throughout my life), I have certain food memories from that trip. Cold soba noodles dipping sauce, the best sushi I’ve ever had, a traditional tea ceremony that made me feel like an extra from the Karate Kid II, but without the sexual tension between Tamlyn Tomita and me*, bowls and bowls of ramen noodles, fuji apples sweeter than honey, snacks that look too cute to eat and a honey sponge cake that nearly everybody in the country ate for their snack time, but I had never had before. It’s called castella (kasutera) and its lovely.

Castella (Kasutera) Japanese Sponge Cake

[*Side note: That said, I did spend a sordid night hanging out with Tamlyn Tomita where she sexually molested me. Okay fine, she didn’t sexually molest me so much as she pinched my ass one time in an elevator. Remind me to tell you that story sometime. Oh wait, I just did.]

I have scant photographic evidence of myself in Japan back then. I had just moved to San Francisco in May of 1998 and the following winter my dad travelled to work in a lab doing research in Japan (he’s a Chemist). For a Christmas present, he flew my brother, sister and me out to Japan and since I didn’t have a permanent job but was freelancing and temping around town, I decided to stay for a three weeks, with a quick week long jaunt to Taiwan in the middle. I brought along my camera and three rolls of film. I don’t know why I thought that would be enough, but it was all I brought and it never occurred to me to buy more there.

Adorable snacks

Adorable snacks.

Japan is an amazing country. I stayed with my parents in the outskirts of Tokyo in a town called Wako. It was an easy to travel around Tokyo, as their train system is always on time (as in “you set your watch to it” on time) with easy legible signs in Japanese characters and Roman Characters (English letters) that point forward to the next station you were heading toward and backwards to the previous station that you came from. It was nearly impossible to get lost using them. Though the subway tunnels themselves were another story, seemingly endless, but once I got use to the tunnels, the mass transit became my friend.

The Inside of a Subway Train

The Inside of a Subway Train

It was a tumultuous time for me, I had just moved to San Francisco six months ago and I had exactly four friends in the city. I missed my family and my friends in St. Louis and I hadn’t grown my roots in San Francisco yet. But Japan was a calming place for me. I took long walks in the park that was near my parent’s apartment and I went out and about in the city exploring it on my own and with my siblings.

park

I saw the temples and the crazy fashion in Harajuku (this was before Gwen Stefani co-opted it). I visited Shinjuku ni-chome (the gay district) a few times and wandered the streets of Tokyo getting lost and finding myself again.

Harajuku fashion

Those crazy japanese kids and their wacky fashion!

And in the end I think I did. I landed back in San Francisco determined to stick it out for at least one more year. Within that year, I had moved out on my own into a studio apartment, found a full time design job and had met AJ. And though I can’t say that Japan was the reason all those things happened, I know that the trip was important in my growth as a person. I learned to get out of my comfort zone, and once there, I grew by leaps and bounds.

It’s been hard for me to get back into the kitchen to bake. I kept on telling myself I need to, I should. Baking for me is a healing thing. And though sometimes I get frantic with my baking, testing recipes, developing new ones and finding them failing on me or insanely baking for a party or an event, it’s the act of baking that is so calming. And then I realized that I needed to bake something Japanese. I needed to bake this castella (kasutera) sponge cake.

Castella (Kasutera) Japanese Sponge Cake

It’s a simple recipe really, almost like a chiffon cake, but without the oil or leavening. It’s a popular cake in Japan, and often eaten during their oyatsu (snack time, a fourth meal that the Japanese eat around 3pm). Most Japanese people don’t make it at home. It’s so ubiquitous that you can buy it anywhere, whether it’s a grocery store or convenience store to a high end department stores.

Castella (Kasutera) Japanese Sponge Cake

That said, it’s a pretty basic recipe with very few ingredients. There are a few things to consider when making it. Most importantly is that you need a standing mixer. Most of my recipes call for a standing mixer, but can be adapted to be made with a hand held mixer or even by hand and some elbow grease. But in this recipe you’ll be whipping the eggs a long time, so you’ll want the standing mixer. I imagine that you can do it with the hand held mixer, but it’ll take even more time, and don’t even bother trying to whip it by hand. It’ll take at least half an hour or more if you try it. Enough for your wrists and arms to fall off!

Castella (Kasutera) Japanese Sponge Cake

But if you have a standing mixer, do try making this. It’s worth it. Soft, with a tight crumb and slight sweetness, it’s the perfect snack for green tea or coffee. And as I reminisce about my trip to Japan I realize that despite my fear and terror at everything going on over there, I also have great hope that they will get through it all. Because sometimes all you can do is hope.

I’m not the only one in the food blogging community that has written about Japan:

If you’ve written a post about Japan or have started a fundraiser, feel free to leave a comment or contact me and I’ll add you to the list. Thank you everyone.

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{ 26 comments… read them below or add one }

Tina March 17, 2011 at 3:50 pm

Beautiful cake. Thinking, praying, and hoping. Thank you for sharing your memories and photos of Japan.

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 5:43 pm

Thank you. I have fond memories of Japan, but scant photographic evidence, as I discovered when I was digging through my closet trying to find these photos. Someday I hope to return for a visit. Until then, my memories will have to be enough.

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chef_d March 17, 2011 at 9:46 pm

I love this cake, they sell it here as Japanese cheesecake. Thanks for sharing the recipe and your beautiful memories of Japan

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 5:53 pm

Thank you. I think I remember seeing it as Japanese cheesecake at various places and being completely confused by that as there is no cheese in it. But yes, I’ve always loved this cake. So glad to finally make it at home.

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Emmie March 18, 2011 at 1:35 am

aw, am feeling nostalgic about the late 90′s now . . . I remember first visiting you in SF and going to . . MOP? Was that the restaurant? That was the first time I discovered that you baked, since you made some amazing cake and had a fancy glass cake stand.

Castella is THE BEST; I am totally addicted.

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:00 pm

I have no memory of going to a restaurant called MOP. What was it like? What did we eat?

And that fancy glass cake stand is so not fancy. I still use it. It’s the most basic cake stand you can find.

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Rita June 30, 2011 at 7:43 pm

Yet I cannot find that cake stand, and I want one just like it. And have for YEARS, ever since you got it!!

This is a LOVELY tribute. I LOVE that you made this Japanese sponge cake to show how Japan is in all of our thoughts.

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Kathryn Hutchison March 18, 2011 at 6:39 am

Thanks so much for the awesome recipe and pictures of Japan. I’m helping some other food bloggers in Austin to put together a bake sale on April 2nd, in conjunction with Samin’s efforts in northern California. Could you please add us to your list, above? Our official website is http://austinbakes.wordpress.com, and people in the Austin area can sign up to volunteer at the website. We also have an online giving portal, which is linked from that website.

Many thanks for all the great work that you do!

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Done! I’m thrilled that the food blogging community has rallied behind the bake sales and are fundraising. So awesome.

Thanks for organizing the Austin event. Amazing.

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tea_austen March 18, 2011 at 9:55 am

A lovely post, Irving, and a tasty cake. The photo of your adorable sweets made me smile. SO adorable.

Thanks for the inclusion. I think we’re all thinking about Japan right now. xox

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tea_austen March 18, 2011 at 9:59 am

Gah–typing too fast, mispelled your name. Delete! Delete!
Too late.
Hey, is that a haiku I just wrote? Modern typo haiku. I kinda like that.
But sorry about the G. Damn G, getting me in trouble:-)

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:05 pm

LOL! No worries. People always are calling me Irving or Irwin. I’m rather used to it now. Even AJ called me Irwin in our first and second date…

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make my day March 18, 2011 at 3:52 pm

you’re a good person irvin. thanks for the beautiful post and also directing to all the other good people! perspective is so important. cheers kari

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Aww thanks Kari! Everyone’s written great posts about it and the food blogging community has been busy rallying to do what they can for Japan. I love it.

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Linda M March 19, 2011 at 9:43 am

I must try your recipe! I love castella cake – so light and fluffy! Gorgeous photos BTW!

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Thank you so much. I was super pleased with this recipe. Definitely light and fluffy, though the green matcha part was a little denser. I’ve been nibbling on it for the past couple of days. So good.

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Brian @ A Thought For Food March 20, 2011 at 6:13 am

I have not yet worked with Matcha, but this cake certainly sounds like something I would enjoy, so I may just have to give it ago.

And I share your feelings about Japan. It’s almost impossible to see how they can get through this… but we can hope and send good wishes and do our part to help them in whatever way we can.

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:32 pm

Definitely. It’s hard to think of anything else, but it’s totally heartwarming that so many in the food blogging community are trying to do something for them. I have much hope for them.

And yes, must get some matcha green tea powder. It’s wonderful to work with!

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susan March 20, 2011 at 8:38 am

Although digital is our way of life, there truly is no replacement for film. Your photos are wonderful and your journey through Japan is heartfelt. You being a “chef” and your dad being a chemist goes hand in hand. You see, the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree. You are a chemist in a different way! Beautiful memory – thanks for sharing.

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 6:41 pm

Susan, thank you so much. It’s true, I do miss film a lot. The quality, though it can be imitated with photoshop and computer filters, just isn’t the same.

And I’ve never really thought of my kitchen experiments as the same as my father’s experiments but I can see the correlation. I do love discovering how food is made and what works together (or not together).

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kirbie March 21, 2011 at 11:27 am

Your post is lovely. I made this cake recently too and succeeded for the first time. I love your idea of adding matcha to swirl into the batter.

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 7:10 pm

Thanks Kirbie! It’s a great cake and easy to make. Just takes some time to whip the eggs. The matcha was a fun addition for me. I’ve always wanted to play with it, so this was a good excuse.

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laura March 21, 2011 at 12:30 pm

love the pictures, i can already taste the flavors coming together. :) saving to my online cookbook (http://cookmarked.com)!

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Irvin March 21, 2011 at 7:16 pm

Thanks so much Laura! Let me know what you think of it when you make it.

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Maura June 25, 2011 at 4:02 pm

Hi!

I get so exited when I see all of your recipes! There is some very original stuff!
Also very funny to read about your french-fries obsession. I am from amsterdam myself, and still have this one place i go to every once in a while. It’s pure nostalgia for me.

Looking forward to new recipes from you!

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Koyu food July 20, 2011 at 4:49 am

Hello

We are very impressed by your matcha cake. We would potentially like to use your image and recipe on our website http://www.koyumatcha.com

Is this something that you would be interested in ? Is there something you would want from us in return ? Please let me know your thoughts

Regards

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