"There are lots of uses for tofu in sweets," says Nicole Bermensolo, author of Kyotofu. She explains how to use Japanese ingredients in desserts like Chocolate Souffle Cupcakes with Shiro-an Cream and Dark Chocolate Brownies.
Bermensolo is the co-founder of the New York bakery and restaurant Kyotofu, which closed in 2013.
Melissa Clark: Are you making traditional Japanese sweets?
Nicole Bermensolo: When you say traditional Japanese sweets, I think what comes to mind is wagashi, a traditional kind of beautiful, exquisite sweet that went with the tea ceremony. We're going back hundreds and hundreds of years. If you fast-forward to today, Japanese sweets run the gamut -- of course there's still wagashi, but then you'll find green tea cheesecake and Western desserts. I think we're at the crossroads between using some traditional ingredients and components and then doing our own thing with Japanese ingredients.
MC: What are some of the ingredients that you're using in your sweets?
NB: We use things like miso, which is fermented soy paste; matcha, which is green tea; genmai, which is toasted brown rice; and yuzu, which is a Japanese winter citrus that is really delicious. Then of course we use a lot of soy: tofu, soy milk, things like that.
MC: I've had miso soup, and it's a very savory flavor. How do you use that in a dessert?
NB: Miso is great. It's one of my favorite ingredients of all-time. The reason that I like it so much is because it's salty and it can be used as a salt replacer. But it has all kinds of interesting flavor dimensions to it. It has the umami, it has the butteriness, a little bit of nuttiness. When you add it to something that goes well with something kind of salty and savory like chocolate or caramel, miso just adds this whole other dimension that you don't get with just straight salt.
MC: In your book you have a recipe for miso brownies.
NB: Those are our No. 1 best-sellers hands down the last 10 years.
MC: Can you use any color miso in them? Or do you have to use white miso only?
NB: I really like white miso, not that mellower yellow miso and not the darker red miso. The color, by the way, not only comes from what has been fermented, but also how long it has been fermenting. Your most basic miso, miso that you find in miso soup, is just a regular white miso.
MC: You mentioned matcha and you mentioned the green tea ceremony. Matcha is a very traditional Japanese ingredient, but you're also using it in newer ways?
NB: Matcha is a really, really, very interesting ingredient. It's basically the best, nicest green tea leaves with all the undesirable parts, the stems and things, picked out by hand. It is then ground by a stone grinder.
It was historically used in the tea ceremony. The bitterness of matcha was supposed to remind us of the bitterness of life. Interestingly enough, matcha is always paired with a small sweet, a wagashi, to balance out the bitterness of the matcha. There's this history in Japan going back of matcha and sweets.
Fast-forward to today and you can find everything under the sun made with matcha: matcha pudding, matcha cheesecake, matcha muffins, matcha cookies. We've followed suit with that. I would point anyone to our green tea creme brulee recipe, which was one of the most popular items on our menu.
MC: What about soy -- tofu and soy milk? How are you using them?
NB: Soy has gotten a bad rap lately in the U.S., but it's such an amazing, versatile and vitamin-rich ingredient. There are so many different things you can do with it, from the most basic, using soy milk and tofu in things like puddings and cheesecakes and things like that, to using okara, which is the skin and the pulp of the soybean, in things like muffins and cookies as an egg replacer. There are many, many wonderful things you can do to take down the fat content, increase the protein and fiber content. I think that utilizing things like soy and tofu -- it's a little bit lighter than using traditional dairy milk or butter.
MC: You tell people to make their own soy milk in your book. Is that hard to do?
NB: It's actually not. You just simply soak soybeans. I always recommend Japanese soybeans; they've always been non-GMO. [Editor's note: A GMO is a genetically modified organism.] They're absolutely beautiful. You can get them in Japanese grocery stores or online. Soak them overnight. Wash them. Boil them. Grind them down with a food processor or an immersion blender. Then use cheesecloth to strain out the okara, the pulp and the skins. Then you're left with the okara and you're left with soy milk.
MC: So you get two things: You get the okara and you use that in muffins, and then you get the soy milk and you can use that in pudding or wherever else you'd use soy milk.
NB: Then you can take it a step further and use the soy milk to make tofu.
MC: We always think of tofu as being primarily a savory ingredient. But what do you do with it in sweets?
NB: There are lots of uses for tofu in sweets, from just simply flavoring the sweet tofu to make almost a healthier panna cotta to using it as an ingredient in cheesecakes, custards and things like that. It's super versatile.
There are lots of different kinds of tofu depending upon the water content. There's silken tofu, which has a very high water content, all the way up to very firm, which has water drained out of it. They all have different culinary applications.
MC: You use the softer one for more pudding-like things?
NB: Sure. Because we're doing a lot of cheesecakes, custards and puddings, we do make our own silken tofu, then we use that as an ingredient.
MC: You also mentioned yuzu. Can you buy fresh yuzu?
NB: You cannot. A while back, somewhere in California, a few farms tried to actually plant yuzu and grow it fresh here. But after a few seasons it didn't work. You can't import fresh fruit from Japan. So no, you can't get fresh yuzu.
But you can buy straight juice. You can buy rind. And if you're lucky, every once in awhile I can find the frozen, fresh rind, which is kind of cool.
MC: What about genmai? What's that?
NB: Genmai is another really great ingredient. It is toasted brown rice. It's typically used as a tea. The toasted brown rice grains are chunked up a little bit and sometimes combined with green tea leaves, sometimes not, and then brewed as a tea.
What we've done is taken just the toasted brown rice grains and ground them down a little bit. They make a great ingredient in shortbread cookies, in chocolates, anywhere that you want to add both a roasty, toasty flavor and also some texture. They have a great crunchy texture.
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