Japanese Christmas Cake

The first year I lived in Japan, I was expecting to feel the most homesick around the Christmas holiday time. Looking back now, I definitely did miss the traditional holiday time with my family, but in terms of helping me to feel at home with Christmas displays and holiday cheer, I found that Japan held nothing back. My high school was located near Laketown, a massive shopping mall that was dizzying in scope. It was so decked out in holiday decorations that it put my hometown holiday commercial displays to shame.

One of the most ubiquitous displays of Christmas in Japan that caught my eye were Christmas Cakes (クリスマスケキー). The most common Japanese Christmas Cake is composed of sponge cake, a whipped cream topping, and a festive decoration of strawberries.

Having researched soft power and cultural influence in college, I decided to dig in a little deeper to examine this Christmas Cake tradition. According to this npr aticle, only about 1% of the Japanese population is Christian. So why the devotion to Christmas? Christmas Cakes first came onto the scene in Japan after World War II. At the time, food in general and sugary treats were not widely available, and the Japanese economy was reeling. American soldiers were the leading force behind rebuilding occupied Japan, and they occasionally gave out sweets like chocolate. Sweets became a symbol of a Japanese desire for monetary prosperity and Americanization. Japanese people began to embrace Christmas and Christmas Cake after the war as the epitome of abundance.

The colors of the Japanese Christmas Cake are also rich with meaning. The cakes are red and white, like the Japanese flag. The cakes are also typically round, which associates them with shrines in Japan. The Christmas Cake is a wonderful example of Japan modifying something from the West to fit its own needs.

Another fun fact, because the Christmas Cakes go on sale after the 25th of December, some old Japanese slang was born. “Christmas cake” was once used to refer to an unmarried woman who was over 25, i.e., past her prime. I guess that makes me a Christmas Cake!

I made this cake using The Spruce Eats’ sponge cake recipe, linked here. Between each layer I slathered on fresh whipped cream and fresh strawberries, cut into quarters. A Christmas Cake isn’t complete without Santa, so I made some little Santa munchkins out of strawberries, whipped cream, and mini chocolate chips. You can consider adding sugared rosemary or a fresh sprig of mint for a pop of holiday green coloration.

Thanks for learning a little more about the Japanese Christmas Cake tradition with us! メリークリスマス from Hadley Go Lucky!

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~