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.
[*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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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:
- Just Hungry has an updated list of fundraising events and organizations to donate to. Please visit if you are looking to donate money.
- Tea and Cookies wrote a lovely post about growing up in Japan.
- Use Real Butter wrote all about earthquakes and the majestic planet we live on.
- Gluten Free Girl talked about being heartbroken over Japan and baking soft pretzels.
- Ciao Samin is organizing a bake sale for Earthquake victims on April 2nd. Right now there are locations in Northern California but she’s looking to expand it nationwide.
- Fresh from hosting SXSW, Austin Bakers are also hosting their own Bakesale For Japan.
- Tomato Tart is organizing a virtual bake sale to benefit the Japanese Earthquake victims.
- Munchie Musing is also hosting a virtual bake sale. Check it out.
- Gourmeted is hosting a Bake for the Quake Collective Bake Sale up in Vancouver on April 20th
- La Tartine Gourmand wrote about her connection to Japan even though she has not been there.
- White on Rice Couple published a silent post as a tribute to Japan.
- Chicaron Adventures wrote about how we all have an increased responsibility to watch out for our worldwide brethren.
- She Who Eats wrote a post, and then couldn’t publish it with all that was going on, and so started her own fundraising campaign site as well as a chance to win an akura (cherry blossom) baking ingredient set if you donate.
- Sushi Day is donating all her weekend sales at the Sushi Day Store to the Red Cross. Now is the time to get a sushi kit if you’ve been eyeing one!
- Utterly Engaged and Ever Ours have created For Japan with Love and Blogger Day of Silence, March 18th. Please check it out.
- Tablehopper created a great list of various restaurants and groups that are helping out.
- Speaking of restaurants, Red White Unite is an event on April 6th where restaurants will be donating 10% of their profits of that evening to help benefit Earthquake victims. Right now it’s only in Seattle but they are looking to expand. If you want to participate, please visit their website.
- Eater also listed a number of NYC restaurants donating money to the Japanese earthquake victims.
- And, of course, you can read my last post about my blog anniversary and the Japanese earthquake here.
- You’ll also notice that a number of us bloggers have donate ad space to the Red Cross. If you have your own blog, consider donating an ad space for the victims of the Japanese Earthquake. Just visit the Red Cross webpage and follow the instructions on getting an ad.
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.
Green Tea and Lemon Honey Marbled Castella (kasutera) Sponge Cake
I made a marble matcha green tea and lemon honey flavored castella, but you can leave out the green tea if you don’t have any matcha powder. I also added some lemon zest to it, but that’s a personal preference (and if you follow me on twitter, you’ll know that I have an over abundance of lemons right now, so they’re showing up in a lot of the stuff I’m making) you can leave that out too. You can also marble it with some cocoa powder if you want a chocolate castella. It’s a very flexible versatile recipe.
Recipe adapted from Just Hungry
8 large eggs
1 1/2 cups (300 g) white granulated sugar plus 1 tablespoon more for sprinkling
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/8 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/2 cup whole milk
1/4 cup honey plus 1 tablespoon more for glaze
1 1/2 cups (210 g) all purpose flour
zest of 1 medium lemon finely grated
2 teaspoons of culinary quality matcha powder (optional for marbling)
Large (2 gallon) Ziplock Bag
1. Preheat the oven to 325˚F. Lightly spray a 9” square pan and then line with a piece of parchment paper, with enough so that it hangs over the pan edges by a couple of inches.
2. Place a large pot of water on the stove and bring it to boil. Once it had boiled turn it off.
3. Place the eggs, sugar, salt and cream of tartar in the mixing bowl of a standing mixer fitted with a wire attachment. Take the bowl and place it in the hot water and using a balloon whisk, whip the eggs and sugar together until the mixture feels warm to the touch. If the water cools off, turn the heat back on, but don’t let the water boil. You don’t want to cook the eggs, you just want to warm them up.
3. Once the egg mixture is warm to the touch, put it back on the standing mixer. Turn the mixer to medium and whip the eggs until they are nearly white and the batter falls in thick ribbons, almost soft peaks. This will take a while, at least 15 minutes (I think I might have whipped them for nearly 30 minutes on medium so don’t worry if it seems to be taking a long time).
4. While the eggs are whipping, combine the milk and honey in a small pan and heat on the stove until the honey has dissolved into the milk. Don’t boil the milk. It just needs to get warm enough for the honey to dissolve.
5. After the heating the milk and honey, place the flour in a medium bowl with the lemon zest. Take a balloon whisk and whisk the flour around until it is aerated and the lemon zest is distributed in it evenly.
6. Once the egg sugar batter had been properly whipped to soft peaks, slowly drizzle in the milk and honey liquid while the standing mixer is on at medium speed. Once it has been incorporated, slowly spoon the flour into the batter, one tablespoon at a time, waiting for each addition to incorporate itself.
7. If marbling with green tea, divide the cake batter, pouring 1/3 of the batter into another bowl. Add the 2 teaspoons of matcha green tea powder to the 1/3 batter and whisk until incorporated.
8. Sprinkle the extra 1 tablespoon of sugar on the bottom of the 9” pan. Pour half the plain batter into the pan. Then spoon half of the green tea batter on top. Then pour the rest of the plain batter in to the pan. Finally spoon the rest of the green tea batter on top, in different spots, leaving some plain batter showing through. Take a knife and swirl the green and white batters together decoratively. Don’t over swirl though. You want the cake to show the different batters.
9. Place the cake in the preheated oven. While it is baking, take the extra 1 tablespoon of honey and mix it with 1 tablespoon of water in a small bowl. Bake for about 50 minutes, or until a toothpick inserted in the middle of the cake comes out clean. Do not overbake. Once you have taken the cake out of the oven, immediately brush it with the honey water until you have used it all up.
10. Allow the cake to cool for 10 minutes, and then grabbing the sides of the parchment paper, lift the cake directly up and out of the pan. Then (this is going to sound weird but it’s important) put the cake, parchment paper and all, inside a ziplock bag and seal it. If you allow the cake to cool to room temperature it will dry out. But if you let it cool in the sealed bag, it will stay moist. Place the bagged cake in the refrigerator and allow it cool for at least a few hours. Pull it back out and trim off the edges (traditionally castella is served with the sides cut off but showing the dark brown top and bottom. Serve at room temperature with tea or coffee.
Beautiful cake. Thinking, praying, and hoping. Thank you for sharing your memories and photos of Japan.
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.
I love this cake, they sell it here as Japanese cheesecake. Thanks for sharing the recipe and your beautiful memories of Japan
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kathryn Hutchison says
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!
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.
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
Gah–typing too fast, mispelled your name. Delete! Delete!
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:-)
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…
make my day says
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
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.
Linda M says
I must try your recipe! I love castella cake – so light and fluffy! Gorgeous photos BTW!
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.
Brian @ A Thought For Food says
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.
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!
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.
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).
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.
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.
love the pictures, i can already taste the flavors coming together. 🙂 saving to my online cookbook (http://cookmarked.com)!
Thanks so much Laura! Let me know what you think of it when you make it.
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!
Koyu food says
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
Does this need to be made with a specific matcha powder?
I have Tenzo Tea’s organic matcha but a lot of them look the same
It can be any matcha powder!