Closer to the true arrival of warmer days, the Bureau of Meteorology starts to chart the (forecast) arrival of the much beloved cherry blossoms (sakura) on a 7-stage scale, from budding, to first blossoms, to full-bloom, to blossoms-and-leaves on a "sakura front". As of late February, the front was predicting full-bloom in Tokyo/Yokohama on March 25, rather earlier than usual. However, a burst of very warm weather in mid March had the Bureau calling "full-bloom" on March 23, the second-earliest such call on record! Luckily, the weather turned cool again immediately after, and we had a long two weeks to enjoy the fleeting pleasures (and cherry blossom viewing parties under the boughs) of the sakura season.
Sakuramochi are the Japanese sweet of the cherry blossom viewing season. There are two basic types: (1) Kanto-style (Tokyo and surrounding areas) sakuramochi, which consist of a ball of koshi-an (smooth adzuki bean paste) wrapped in a pink-tinted pancake made from rice flower, topped with a preserved cherry blossom (like the ones I made last year), and (2) these Kansai-style (Osaka and surrounding areas) sakuramochi, in which the balls of an are covered with pink-tinged glutinous rice and wrapped in an edible preserved sakura (cherry tree) leaf. Both are delicious, but the Kansai style might be a little bit trickier to make (if my maiden effort is anything to go by). But only in as far as the sticky rice layer is, well, sticky ; )
It's hard to describe the scent of sakura leaves; it is something like the the scent of flowers and incense remembered in a dream. They have a lovely floral flavour, too, heightened by the slight saltiness that remains even after soaking them to remove the salt they are preserved in. I bought a pack of 45 from Tomizawaya, where you can also get the an powder (or prepared an) and domyoji-ko (dried pre-steamed sticky rice) rice needed to make these lovelies. The good news is that any leftover leaves can be frozen for later use.
Since I don't make sweets much, never mind Japanese sweets, I chose the powdered an last year. There was plenty left over for making these this year, and a sakura pound cake I made last weekend. This, along with a longer use-by date (don't you hate being under pressure to "use up" special ingredients?...), makes the powder the right choice for me. It does add the extra step of reconstituting the an. That only takes a couple of minutes, though, so no biggie.
This recipe is from a leaflet I picked up at Tomizawaya. It is for 15 sakuramochi, and that's what I made, but it's such a tricky number. I'd advise making 16 instead. They will be plenty big enough.
Since the much-loved whitish variety of sakura had finished blooming by the time I made these, I made the rice layer a darker pink, similar to the later-blooming varieties. Typically, Kansai-style sakuramochi are a more subtle pink. The choice is yours.
For the an
72 g Tomoe koshi-an powder
216 ml water
160 g white sugar
or 300 g prepared koshi-an
150 g domyoji-ko
70 g white sugar
280 ml water
pinch natural red food coloring
15 preserved sakura (cherry tree) leaves
1 Soak sakura leaves in water for 30 min to remove the salt. Dry well with kitchen paper.
2 To make the an if using the powder, bring the water and koshi-an powder to the boil, reduce the heat to medium, add sugar and stir until thickened, taking care not to allow the an to burn. Remove from the heat and allow to cool.
3 Mix the sugar and water in a small pot and bring to the boil, then remove from the heat. Add red food colouring a little at a time to achieve the desired colour.
4 Add the domyoji-ko and cook, stirring with a wooden spoon, over a medium heat for 7-8 min. Remove from the heat. Make a cartouche (covering) from kitchen wrap and place on the surface of the domyoji-ko mixture and leave to steam for 40 minutes.
5 Divide the an into 15 or 16 equal-sized pieces and roll into balls. Divide the steamed daimyoji-ko mixture into 15 or 16 equal-sized portions. With slightly wettened hands, cover each an ball with a piece of the daimyoji-ko mixture and wrap in a sakura leaf, with the vein side on the outside.