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I miss a lot of things about Japan, but in late March and early April, I really miss the cherry blossoms.
I also really miss all the sakura-flavored treats that can be found, in abundance. I could really go for a sakura frappuccino from Starbucks right about now. Oh, man, were those good.
It’s hard to find any kind of sakura flavoring in the States. I’ve looked. Many times. I’ve had other people look for me. The closest thing I had to any kind of sakura flavoring was some sakura sugar that I’ve had for who-knows-how-long. I know I bought it near Mt. Fuji, so I’m thinking I got it when Geordie and I took our New Year’s road trip in the winter of 2010/2011. In other words, I’ve had it for a long time.
And I decided it was about time to use it.
I actually couldn’t find any sakura-flavored cupcake recipes online. There are plenty of cherry-flavored cakes, but sakura isn’t the same as plain old cherry. I mean, I like cherries, but they’re not like sakura at all. It’s impossible to explain how sakura tastes. Very similar to how it smells, but then, it’s hard to explain that too.
It smells like spring.
It smells like . . . hope and magic and beauty.
It smells like sakura. That’s the best I can say about it.
What I found was cupcakes flavored with lavender sugar – the recipe is here at Not Quite Nigella. Interestingly enough, it is a recipe from Nigella Lawson.
I simply replaced the lavender sugar with my sakura sugar. The only problem was that I didn’t have enough of the sakura sugar. I had to supplement it with regular sugar. The proportions turned out to be about three-quarters sakura sugar to one-quarter regular sugar. I hoped it was enough to keep the sakura flavor prominent.
It was not.
There was the barest hint of sakura flavor to this cupcake. The barest. It was harder to detect with the frosting (I used the remainder of my vanilla bean frosting), but even by itself, the cake had such a subtle sakura flavor. It was hard to tell if I was really tasting sakura or just remembering what it tasted like.
Despite that, it did taste good. The cake had a very delicate crumb, light and spongy. I’m sure it’s quite tasty with the lavender sugar! And naturally, the frosting continues to be terrific. I can’t begrudge this cupcake its flavor. It’s fine. It’s a good cupcake. It’s a tasty cupcake. It’s just isn’t the cupcake I wanted.
Not what I wanted, but nobody complained. Geordie brought none of them home, though he wasn’t sure if anybody had actually tasted the sakura. Oh, well. Perhaps I’ll be able to try again in the future.
Between the two of us, Geordie and I drink a pot of coffee every day. To be honest, Geordie drinks most of it. Now that we’re TTC, I’ve limited myself to a cup a day, but even before that, two cups was the most I could ever drink. We’ve estimated that Geordie drinks at least twelve ounces from the coffee pot at home (and sometimes more), plus another thermos-full at work. In other words, he’s a coffee-drinking machine.
Because we both like our coffee sweet and creamy, we go through a lot of creamer. At least a quart a week. Since actively trying to eat healthier, the one thing I’ve really avoided eliminating is creamer. I like it too much. It’s almost like an addiction.
A couple of weeks ago, I looked at the container of creamer I was using and saw the words “lactose-free.” That broke the spell. I didn’t even have to look at the ingredients. I knew it was time to look for an alternative. Not just plain old half-and-half. That’s not good enough. If I couldn’t have creamer, I wanted something as close to it as possible.
I found this recipe.
You take: a can of sweetened condensed milk and a couple of cups a milk. That’s it. Plus a little bit of xanthan gum as a thickener. She’s also got a great list of flavorings to try. And, for the truly ambitious, a recipe for homemade sweetened condensed milk.
I went with plain vanilla for the first batch. Simple enough to make.
Very fast, very easy, very real milk.
But I’ll be honest: it’s not perfect. For one thing, I won’t be using the xanthan gum next time. All it did was form globs that floated on top. It didn’t mix in, and it didn’t thicken it up. I don’t think a thickener is necessary anyway. It’s just going into coffee. I’m more interested in taste.
God knows what goes into creamer to make it taste so good. Nothing natural, I’m sure. Impossible for me to replicate that. This isn’t the same. It’s okay, but it isn’t the same. If you’re expecting it to taste exactly like store bought creamer, that’s not going to happen. It might take some getting used to. It might take a little tweaking. That’s alright, I’m willing to give it some time. I haven’t made another batch, but I plan to. I don’t dislike the homemade creamer (although I do dislike the xanthan gum in it), I think I just need time to adjust from the artificial stuff. I also want to play more with flavors and find something that really works for me.
And if it turns out that it doesn’t work for me? Well, I’ll try something else. Because I’m pretty sure that, even if this doesn’t taste perfect, I prefer the idea of drinking it over the idea of drinking lactose-free creamer with a list of ingredients I can’t really decipher at all. Because: ew.
Usually when Geordie takes my cupcakes to work, he comes back and tells me that his co-workers gobbled them all up and they were thoroughly enjoyed. Every so often, he’ll add that someone commented that just plain chocolate or vanilla cupcakes would be fine too. I’m never quite sure how to interpret that. Are the cupcakes I make too complicated? Exotic? Weird? Or is it just that a good old-fashioned chocolate cupcake is a form of comfort food, and who wouldn’t want one of those every once in a while? (Probably that one.)
But often, the cupcakes I make are about making something I’ve never made before. I like to try new flavors, new methods. The more I bake, the better understanding I get about the basics. And I get to have a little fun with it. Experimentation in the kitchen is a good thing. But I appreciate the classics too. After all, chocolate cake, white cake, or yellow cake serve as the base for nearly every other cupcake out there. One of these days, I’m going to bake-test yellow cake recipes and finally see which one I really like best. Maybe white cake too. That’s on my baking bucket list. For now, I’ve already planned out which cupcakes I’m making in the next few weeks.
Then there are cupcakes like this one, which I decided to make simply because strawberries happened to be on sale last week.
There’s really not much too this. It’s a white cake with strawberries, topped with a strawberry coulis buttercream. I used this recipe from Baking and Cooking, A Tale of Two Loves. Except, instead of pureeing a few strawberries for the frosting, I used some of the strawberry coulis I had in the fridge from Valentine’s Day. Because the coulis already had sugar in it, I cut back on the powdered sugar that went into the frosting. It was still pretty sweet, but I had also reduced the amount of sugar in the cupcake, so it all worked together rather nicely.
The cake itself was kinda muffin-y, with big chunks of strawberry, but I thought it was a pretty fine cake. A very nice introduction to spring, which cannot get here fast enough, in my opinion. Temperatures have been up near 80° this week, and the forecast suggests it’s going to get even warmer next week. You won’t be hearing any complaints from me!
Also, today is Pi Day, and we’re celebrating with a classic southern Tomato Pie. Yum yum! Do yourself a favor and go out and have some pie today!