Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Pumpkin Spice Lattes are afoot, and Halloween cards and plastic pumpkin pails are already on jaunty display at your local Target wonderland.  ‘Tis the season for garish pumpkin goodness!  In order to welcome autumn without making my readers roll their eyes, I decided to make some muffins using kabocha squash, a sweet and subtle reminder of chillier days to come.  My first bite of sweet kabocha squash took place in the mountains just outside of Saitama Prefecture, Japan.

I lived with various host families during my two years in Japan.  More than one of my host mothers teased me that I have the sweet tooth of a Japanese grandmother… It’s no secret that I’m still crazy about the depth in flavor and texture of red bean paste, black sesame, and satsumaimo sweet potatoes.  Kabocha is another flavor that I’ve learned that I can’t live without, especially when autumn rolls around.

The taste of kabocha is a food memory forever linked with a pottery class that my host family and I took together in the aforementioned mountain hideaway.  After crafting a beautiful mug and candle cover with the help of the pottery senseis, I made a bowl modeled after the sprightly forest spirit Totoro, the Studio Ghibli character, with my extra clay.  After the focused pottery session, we went to the adjacent cafe to rest up and refuel before our journey back to Tokyo.  The cafe’s menu was seasonal and earthy; it transported me to a lush world where Studio Ghibli sprites might actually emerge from underneath the teapot or from behind the salt shaker.  Of course, all of the utensils and tableware at this gorgeous cafe were handmade in the pottery studio by more adept craftsmen than myself.  Rich kabocha soup and roasted kabocha were served alongside other autumnal dishes.  This lavish and hearty meal remains a flashpoint of Japan’s seasonal care and attention to detail in my memory.

This caramelized kabocha muffin recipe captures the sweet kabocha essence without overpowering it with too much sugar.  The chunk of roasted kabocha on top of each muffin has a soft and chewy texture that balances the muffin crumb.  After baking the muffins, let them cool and top them with a few pinches of coarse turbinado sugar.  Blast the sugar with a culinary torch until the sugar melts and caramelizes.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Some treasures from a pottery studio hidden in the mountains outside of Tokyo!

Caramelized Kabocha Muffins

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups (250g) all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons baking powder
  • 1 teaspoon baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
  • 2 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1 cup (240ml) vegetable oil
  • 4 large eggs
  • 1 cup (200g) packed light or dark brown sugar
  • 1/2 cup (100g) granulated sugar
  • 1 (15 ounce) can pumpkin puree
  • 1 and 1/2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
  • 1/2 kabocha squash
  • turbinado sugar, to taste

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350°F and grease muffin tins.
  2. Whisk the flour, baking powder, baking soda, salt, cinnamon, and pumpkin pie spice together in a large bowl. Set aside. Whisk the oil, eggs, brown sugar, granulated sugar, pumpkin, and vanilla extract together until combined. Pour the wet ingredients into the dry ingredients and whisk until completely combined.
  3. Cut the kabocha squash into chunks, about 1/2 inch thick.
  4. Roast the kabocha for 30 minutes in the oven.
  5. Spread batter into the cupcake pan. Place one piece of kabocha in the center of each muffin.  Bake for 30 minutes. Baking time may vary based on your oven. The cake is done when a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean.
  6. Take the muffins out of their pan an let cool on a cooling rack.
  7. Sprinkle each muffin with a large pinch of turbinado sugar.
  8. Torch the turbinado until it melts.
  9. Let cool and enjoy!  Itadakimasu~

Sakura Mochi Layer Cake

This cake is inspired by sakura mochi, a wagashi treat that is served during the springtime in Japan.  It is typically sweet rice covering a dollop of red bean paste, then wrapped in a pickled sakura leaf or topped with a pickled sakura blossom.  I incorporated these elements and gave them an American layer cake twist.

Three layers of sakura cake are covered with ethereal sakura frosting; not too much of it, as I wanted the flavor of the cake to really shine through and buttercream can often dominate.  In between the cake layers are two layers of sweet red bean paste (koshian), and bits of chewy homemade mochi. The cake is dotted with pickled sakura blossoms. You can preserve the sakura flowers yourself if you have access to cherry blossoms, or you can buy small packages of them on Amazon.

Last year, I went to the sakura matsuri at the Brooklyn Botanic Garden and was blown away by the number of people.  I don’t think I had seen so many New Yorkers in one place before! The people watching proved to be just as delightful as the petal watching.  I went to the festival alone, lending it a similar feel to the days I wandered Kyoto’s streets alone as an exchange student.

This cake reminds me of the beauty of wandering alone in a strange place.  When you’re alone, you can absorb the little details without being distracted or rushed.  I hope that you can make and eat this cake in a similar fashion – leisurely and with the luxury of noticing every deliberate detail.

Scroll down for the recipe!

Sakura Mochi Layer Cake

For the Cake

Ingredients:

  • 3 1/4 cups cake flour
  • 3 teaspoons baking powder
  • ¾ teaspoon salt
  • 1 cup unsalted butter, softened
  • 2 cups granulated sugar
  • 6 egg yolks
  • 2 teaspoons sakura extract
  • 1 1/2 cup whole milk
  • Pink gel food coloring

Instructions:

  1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees.  Prepare two 6 inch circular baking pans with cooking spray and parchment.
  2. Whisk together the dry ingredients and set aside.
  3. In a stand mixer, beat the butter and sugar until light and fluffy.
  4. Incorporate the egg yolks one at a time, and add the sakura extract.
  5. Add pink food coloring, if desired.
  6. Alternate adding the milk and the dry ingredients until just incorporated.
  7. Evenly distribute the batter in your pans.
  8. Bake for 45 minutes, or until a toothpick comes out clean.

For the Frosting

Ingredients:

  • 12 tbsp butter, softened
  • 3 cups powdered sugar
  • 4 tbsp heavy cream
  • 1.5 teaspoon sakura extract
  • Pinch of kosher salt

Instructions:

  1. Beat the butter in a stand mixer until light and fluffy.
  2. Slowly incorporate the powdered sugar.
  3. Incorporate other ingredients and mix until all are combined.

For the Mochi

Ingredients:

  • 3/4 cup mochiko flour
  • 3/4 cup water
  • 1/4 granulated sugar
  • corn starch, as needed

Instructions:

  1. Mix the mochiko with the granulated sugar.
  2. Add the water to the mixture and mix until a paste forms.
  3. In a microwave, heat mixture for 2 and a half minutes.
  4. Using corn starch to prevent the mochi from sticking to the table or your hands, roll the mochi into small balls.

Additional notes:

Add store bought packaged red bean paste in between the cake layers.

When working with pickled sakura, be sure to soak the blossoms before use, as they are preserved in salt.  I soaked the blossoms for about 30 minutes and sprinkled sugar on them after laying them out to dry on a paper towel.