Monday, 30 March 2009


Spring has very definitely arrived. Although the weather can be anything between 6 and 22 degrees on any given day, the real sign that winter is really over is the blooming sakura (cherry blossom). And that, combined with a bit of sunshine, is enough to put anyone in a better mood. A few things have happened lately to really fill my sky with grey clouds, but this week there have been huge sunbeams breaking through to make me smile again!

Firstly, on Saturday I was able to spend the day with the friend I told you about recently and her family :D The boys played together all day and we grown ups had plenty of time to chat and laugh, we had a great time. Of course now my boys keep asking when they will come again, soon I hope!

And then today... WOOOOHOOOO, the kids and I headed for Matsuyama 3 hours away (I confess, I didn't think it would take that long to get there!) for a day out with some other foreign wives! My goodness, it was just FANTASTIC to be able to spend time with other women in the same position as myself AND to get to speak English all day!! We went to an awesome restaurant (Charlie's Vegetable) for lunch - basically a huge salad bar, so perfect for veggie me. M's behaviour was not so great (isn't that typical?), so I ended up having to take her outside while the others finished their meals. And now I'm wishing that I'd remembered to take my camera out whilst there, but to be honest I was just so excited to meet all these new people that it completely slipped my mind... but I will definitely try to go back there again some day. After lunch we headed up to the castle:

There were tons of visitors, it was a perfect day for hanami (cherry blossom viewing).

The children had a fab time running around and NOT fighting for a change, M discovered how much fun she could have playing in the dust, and the time flew by as we women chatted and chatted...

So this evening I am smiling again. Oh, how I am thankful for the breaks in the clouds!

Wednesday, 25 March 2009

Testing, testing...

You may have noticed that my oven and I do not get on very well. It doesn't like it when I try to my own thing. It refuses to work at the temperature I want it to cook at, and seems to work on it's own time scale. Hence my baking efforts since arriving in Japan have ended up either burned, undercooked, or flat as a pancake, and quite frankly it's embarrassing. I CAN bake, honestly. But here I am, apologising about the state of every offering I put before my guests...

So I've started experimenting. The oven came with a handbook packed with recipes that are pre-programmed into the oven. I have to say, the photos do not really do anything to tempt me into trying them out. But today it was getting near 10 o'clock and I had three hungry boys in the house, so I decided to try out the scone recipe (I made scones my way (actually, Mary Berry's way) a few months ago and they were dreadful - it took 40 minutes for them to cook through, and by that time they were dry as a bone). Half an hour later...

...they turned out perfectly! In fact, they were really light, absolutely scrummy! So I then decided to try out Nigella's Coca Cola cake using the automatic cake setting (using steam). Not so good. Came out rather flat and dense, and had to cook it for an extra 15 minutes. (Still got eaten, though - can't have cake go to waste, now can we?) Grrrrr.

Anyway, I would like to reassure any of you who are unfortunate enough to find yourselves round my place at tea time that I WILL master the use of this oven, eventually, oh yes I will! Mama & Me mums, you will not always have to smile politely and eat around the burnt bits. Really, I can bake:


Sunday, 22 March 2009

Plane spotting

Today is Mother’s Day. At least, it is back in the UK. Never mind.

I showed my Mama & Me group how to make Simnel Cake on Wednesday. I’d wanted to introduce the Easter story into our session, and the timing was perfect for this week as this cake is traditionally made by girls to give to their mothers on Mothering Sunday. It was thrown together very hurriedly (8 mums and 10 kids crammed into our living room, M screaming for the entire duration), so not as pretty as it should be:

I did toy with the idea of sending it to my MIL as a ‘thank you’ for looking after M and J last Saturday, however I really wanted the mums to try a piece (and there was none left by the end of the day!).

Simnel Cake

Almond Paste:
175g icing sugar
175g ground almonds
175g caster sugar
3 egg yolks, lightly beaten
vanilla or almond essence
juice of half a lemon

175g soft butter or margarine
175g light soft brown sugar
3 eggs
175g flour
3 level teaspoons mixed spice
1 level teaspoon baking powder
2 tablespoons milk
275g mixed dried fruit
50g glace cherries, coarsely chopped
zest of 1 lemon
50g ground almonds

1 egg white

First, make the almond paste. Sieve the icing sugar into a bowl, then stir in the ground almonds and caster sugar. Add the egg yolks and essence, then add the lemon juice until you can work it into a smooth ball.

Cream together the butter and sugar, then stir in the remaining ingredients and mix well. Place half the mixture in a prepared cake tin and smooth the top.
Take 1/3 of the almond paste and roll out to a circle the size of the tin, then place on top of the cake mixture. Cover with the remaining cake mixture and smooth the top. Bake at 160c for about135 minutes, or until cooked through.
Turn out; remove the paper and leave to cool.
Brush the top of the cake with honey. Take 1/3 of the almond paste and roll into a circle to fit the top of the cake. Press in place and pinch the edges.
Shape the remaining paste into 11 small balls and arrange around the edge of the cake. Brush with a little egg white, then bake at 220c for 2 - 3 minutes to lightly brown the almond paste. Leave to cool.

On Friday K had a day off work (national holiday) and we took the children to Kodomo no Kuni, a cool park on a mountain plateau right next to Takamatsu airport. The runway is only a few hundred yards away from the play area, separated only by a 6 foot wire fence with a bit of barbed wire at the top (yes, it’s an international airport – well, domestic and Korea, but still…), so it’s a paradise for plane spotters and potential terrorists. There's a bike circuit with all kinds of funky vehicles to ride, the children (all four of them) had a great time:

J and W decided to try and race a plane taking off:

Thursday, 19 March 2009

What a difference a day makes

It's taken me a while to recover from Saturday's graduation ceremony... won't bore you with all the details, just the highlights...

First of all, the event itself was great - super-organised, fun and moving (although there wasn't as much sobbing as I'd anticipated). W had been counting down the days and could barely contain his excitement as went got ready to leave. Hard to believe when you see this photo of us ready for the off:

Not a great photo - I was somewhat nervous about leaving M for the first time, but didn't have much choice as I had been told categorically that neither she nor her biggest brother could attend (as this was such a serious occasion), plus we had be fed and dressed in all our finery by 7.15am, so it was not exactly a stress-free zone. Fortunately, Baachan was able to drop everything to help us out, and J was on hand to act as interpreter in our absence (ie, that scream means...), and actually they all got on fine. Hurrah! Perhaps she'll babysit again some time! In case you're wondering, yes, W's uniform includes a pink hat (it took a whole week at kindy for him to agree to wear it!) and yes, he is wearing something under his tunic (very short shorts). I thought we looked fine, it wasn't until we were at the kindergarten, seated and waiting for the ceremony to begin that perhaps my outfit was inappropriate... I'd got the colour right (every single women there was dress head to toe in black), however the problem was that they were all dressed literally head to toe, as in up-to-the-neck! And this was confirmed as the woman seated next to me took one look and told me to cover myself up, please! I was mortified and spent the 4 hours that followed (a typically long and drawn out affair) trying my gaijin best to be inconspicuous.

Anyway, I was feeling pretty embarrassed about looking like a tart, and very low having realised that the mums from the kindergarten were doing their best to ostracise me (I thought I'd been imagining things over the last few months, but even K could see it on Saturday) that I've been having a bit of an 'Oh woe is me, I hate Japan pity party'.But today things took a turn for the better, and it looks as though I have a new friend, too! W was desperate for his buddy to come to play, so his mum brought him round this morning - and they stayed until it was time to fetch J from school at 3pm! Hahaha, we spent the time chatting and eating cream cakes (no chocolate). It turns out that she and I have a lot in common, including finding it difficult to get to know other Japanese women as friends. She herself is Japanese, but she is deaf and so feels alienated in much the same was as I do, in that other people tend to avoid trying to communicate with her and that she is rarely made to feel part of things. I feel really blessed to have spent today talking with her, and we will definitely be getting together for more cake very soon. :) Suddenly the sun is shining again!

Before I sign off, I've decided to join in with all the 'pay it forward' posts I've noticed over the last few days - don't know if I'll have any takers as it looks as though a lot of you out there are already doing it, but hey the offer is there:

Do you run to your post box several times a day hoping to find a little something? Do you find the wait 'til Christmas way too long? Then leave me a comment below and the first 3 will receive a package of goodies from me (eventually). Perhaps some Sanuki udon or some locally produce olive oil... I'll get my thinking hat on. And if you're fed up to the back teeth with Japanese stuff then I'll get creative with some baking treats. There is a catch, though. You have to be willing do the same (ie. pass on surprises to 3 others)! Don't forget, I need to know who you are in order to send you anything, so make sure to include some kind of contact detail if I don't already know you!

Friday, 13 March 2009

Catching up

I am so behind in everything (e-mails, blogging, cleaning, ironing, phone calls, washing up...), can't believe how busy life seems even though I don't do half the things I used to do back in the UK (remember the song 'Busy doing nothing?). Hopefully will be able to catch up with myself after W's graduation tomorrow (which I'm not sure if I'm looking forward to or not, I've been warned to expect WEEPING!). W's teacher is expecting a baby in a couple of months, so I've made her a nappy cake (neutral colours as we don't know what she's having):

Finally got my outfit sorted last night. It's a 'formal' occasion, so I've been told to wear black. I've got a 'Magic' dress from M & S, which is supposed to suck everything in in all the right places. Problem (a nice one, though) is, I've lost weight and so it's not really doing any sucking... Tried on my ensemble (dress, bolero shawl, sparkly necklace and earrings and killer heels) last night and felt fab for the first time in years!!

As well as tomorrow being graduation day, it is also White Day - the day when those who received chocolates on Valentine's Day (boys) reciprocate by giving cookies (or hankies). J and W both have admirers who treated them in February, so we've been baking. Found some very cute boxes in the 100 yen shop to package the cookies in:

Ah yes, and my camera is full of picture of food so here's some to be going on with!

Shiitake Mushroom and Potato Cake

100g dried shiitake mushrooms
140g butter
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
1kg large potatoes

Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Tip the mushrooms into a bowl and pour over boiling water to just cover them. Leave to cool, then drain (reserve the stock for another time), squeezing out excess liquid.
Heat about a fifth of the butter in a pan and stew the garlic over a low heat for 3-4 mins. Throw in the mushrooms and continue to cook for 15-20 mins until tender. Season well and set aside.
Peel and slice the potatoes (don't wash them, as the starch holds the cake together). Butter a 20cm ovenproof pan, then overlap a layer of potatoes on the bottom. Build up the cake with layers of potato, scatterings of mushroom, dots of butter and seasoning, finishing with a layer of potatoes. Cover with foil and bake for 50-60 mins, until a knife slides into the cake easily. Remove from the oven, run a knife around the outside to make sure it doesn't stick, then leave to relax for at least 5 mins before carefully inverting onto a plate. Serve cut into wedges.

Rosemary Chicken with Tomato Sauce

1 tbsp olive oil
8 boneless, skinless chicken thighs (I used more as the ones here are tiny)
1 rosemary sprig, leaves finely chopped
1 red onion , finely sliced
3 garlic cloves , sliced
2 anchovy fillets, chopped
400g can chopped tomatoes
1 tbsp capers , drained
75ml red wine (optional)

Heat half the oil in a pan, then brown the chicken all over. Add half the chopped rosemary, stir to coat, then set aside on a plate.
In the same pan, heat the rest of the oil, then gently cook the onion for about 5 mins until soft. Add the garlic, anchovies and remaining rosemary, then fry for a few mins more until fragrant. Pour in the tomatoes and capers with the wine, if using, or 75ml water if not. Bring to the boil, then return the chicken pieces to the pan. Cover, then cook for 20 mins until the chicken is cooked through.

Better get going, the MIL will be here at the crack of dawn tomorrow...

Friday, 6 March 2009


Took the scenic route (i.e. got a bit lost) to kindergarten the other day, drove through lots of fields and downs some extremely narrow (and barely used, by the looks of them) roads, and stumbled across a very bizarre vegetable plot:

Pretty neat and tidy, eh? Looks pretty lively... except it's not. Look closer, those people have no faces:

Scarecrows! Me thinks the farmer has too much time on his hands. In fact, this farmer hit the news a few years back with his scarecrows. His fields were being wrecked by wild boar, so he made loads of real -looking scarecrows in a bid to keep them away. K's colleague was having a similar problem on his land and laid traps - the next day he had caught 12 wild boars! If only he had a butcher friend...

The other day I held a baby shower for a Japanese friend. Very small scale, only a few of us, and it's not a British custom so wasn't really sure what a baby shower should entail. Played a couple of games, one of which was quite gross but very funny - I melted various chocolates (and no, I didn't eat any)and squished them one-by-one in nappies, then the guests had to try and guess what kind of chocolate they were. Highlight for me was watching my very, very cute friend Hiroko sniffing and then tasting! We ate lots of goodies and treats, including a baked camembert which was very simple to put together:

Brown sugar Dijon Camembert

1 camembert (I used a small one, 125g, if you use a bigger one you may need to double he recipe)
25g brown sugar
1/2 tablespoon Dijon mustard
20g flaked almonds

Chop half the almonds and combine with the sugar and mustard. Cut the camembert in half horizontally and put one half cut side up on a baking tray. Spread with half the mixture, then put the other half of the cheese on top (again, cut side up) and top with the remaining mixture. Sprinkle with the rest of the almonds, then bake at 190c for about 12 minutes. Serve with slices of apple, chunks of French bread, etc. to dip in.

I love camembert, but wasn't so keen on the mustard in this recipe. Would make again, but with a different filling (chilli and apricot, mmmmm)>

I also made another nappy cake for the guest of honour to take home:

Thinking I might like to make these to sell...

Wednesday, 4 March 2009

All dolled up

Yesterday was Hina Matsuri (girls' festival, hina is a small doll). Strangely, it's not a national holiday (as the boys' festival is), but there are special traditions to mark the event. Namely dolls. Not your average Barbie, but fancy ornamental dolls that cost an absolute fortune and are displayed for a few weeks leading up to the festival. W's kindergarten marked the day by organising a mochizuki taikai (a special event pounding rice to make bean-filled chewy cakes) for grandparents. I knew that they had the most amazing display set up on the stage, so I sneaked in to get a good photo... but they'd packed it away! You'd think they'd leave it up at least for the day of the festival, especially as they had visitors. But W told me that they had to pack it up so that they can practise for the graduation ceremony (stand up straight, hold the certificate with arms out just so, bow at this angle... don't get me started), so I've borrowed a picture for here:

Baa-chan came for the day, I think she was feeling pretty chuffed to have been invited. I made chirashizushi for dinner (a traditional dish for this festival, basically rice prepared as for sushi but with veggies (lotus root, carrot, shiitake and bamboo) stirred in and various toppings (finely shredded sweet egg, shiso leaves and crab) sprinkled over the top), amongst other things. Was slightly nervous as this was the first time I have cooked a proper Japanese meal for MIL. K didn't think I'd get it right but later gave the thumbs up:

W was very proud of his mochi (the plate of pink, green and white balls in the middle) and couldn't wait for us to eat them. In order to get first pick, he wolfed his way through the sushi, karaage (chunks of marinaded and fried chicken), japanese-style potato salad and a bowl of sumashijiru (soup with tofu) - yes, this is the same W who would only eat rice six months ago!

Sunday, 1 March 2009

Getting back on track

After the last few calorie-laden postings, I thought it was high time I posted something healthy. This is a dish I prepared for our church lunch last week. I decided to cook vegetarian this time so that I could enjoy it too, and I really, really did enjoy it! I just fancied doing something a bit different, and when I spied a packet of cous cous in Kaldi (an import shop) I had a flash-back to my time spent in France, of evenings dining in Moroccan restaurants. I decided to make a vegetable tagine:

This is exactly the sort of food I would like to eat more of - spicy, fruity, full of flavour and texture - but I'm not quite sure how it went down with my fellow diners...

Fruity Veggie Tagine

4 carrots , cut into chunks (I used 2 'normal' carrots and 2 red ones - I don't know what they're called but they seem to be in season here, they have a more earthy flavour)
1 sweet potato, cut into chunks
1 wedge of kabocha (pumpkin), cut into chunks
3 red onions , cut into wedges
2 red peppers , deseeded and cut into chunks
2 tbsp olive oil
1 tsp each ground cumin , paprika, cinnamon and mild chilli powder
400g can chopped tomatoes
2 small handfuls soft dried apricots
2 tsp honey

Heat oven to 200C/fan 180C/gas 6. Scatter the veg over a couple of baking trays, drizzle with half the oil, season, then rub the oil over the veg with your hands to coat. Roast for 30 mins until tender and beginning to brown.
Meanwhile, fry the spices in the remaining oil for 1 min - they should sizzle and start to smell aromatic. Tip in the tomatoes, apricots, honey and a can of water. Simmer for 5 mins until the sauce is slightly reduced and the apricots plump, then stir in the veg and some seasoning.

I can see myself making this regularly now, it was so tasty and a painless way to get my 5-a-day in one sitting. Very, very yum!