Mochi and New Year's article in the Japan Times, plus a very rich buttery mochi dish
I am a few days late posting this, but this month's Japan Times article is about the traditions surrounding mochi or omochi, the sticky pounded rice cake. Mochi is both eaten and displayed in the display alcove of Japanese homes through the New Year's holiday period (which usually lasts until the 3rd). The main display piece is a kagamimochi, or "mirror mochi" (read the article for the origins of that name). I didn't get to include a photos of a kagamimochi in the article, but here's a nice photo of a typical modern version by David Z. from flickr:
As you can see, the satsuma or clementine on top is plastic, and the mochi itself is sealed in a plastic container, which keeps it fresh for eating later. In the olden days the mochi stack was exposed for days, developing cracks along the surface. Some people interpreted the cracks to mean the year would be good or bad. The modern plastic-clad version is not as picturesque, but it probably is a lot more hygenic.
Ready-to-grill dried mochi cakes are easy of course, but if you want to make mochi from scratch and you don't have a mochi making machine, here is my method for making mochi with a heavy-duty mixer, such as a KitchenAid. I've tried this many times and it always comes out pretty well! Although I do have to watch my mochi intake..they are basically compressed and condensed white rice - pure carbs. Ouch.
Speaking of caloric...did you know that the bland taste of mochi is a perfect foil for very Western ingredients such as cheese and butter? When I was a kid, my sister and I used to love making 'mochi pizza' - pre-grilled mochi spread with ketchup (we didn't have pizza sauce in Japan back then), topped with shredded cheese and a bit of Italian seasoning.
I saw the original version of this buttery mochi dish on a Japanese TV show about a small nori maker. I've since tweaked it quite a bit, using brown butter (or in other words, letting the butter cook a bit more until it's browned) which I think improves it quite a bit. The nori maker's wife said it was her favorite way to enjoy mochi. No wonder - it s is absolutely delicious...and so very bad for you. Not the best thing to start off a new year filled with good intentions maybe...so perhaps save it for a special occasion, like surviving the first day back at work/school.
Recipe: Mochi in brown butter with nori and green onions
Serves 1 to 5.
- 5 square mochi cakes (available at a Japanese grocery store in the dried foods section)
- 1 stick or 4 oz / 120g unsalted butter (see recipe)
- 1 Tbs. soy sauce
- 1/2 cup (approximate) chopped green onion
- 2 sheets of nori seaweed, crumbled
Pre-grill the mochi cakes on a mochi grill, or in a toaster oven or regular oven. If using a toaster oven, cook the mochi cakes for about 5-7 minutes or until they puff up, and are blistered and slightly browning on the surface. (The puffing will deflate once you take them out.) If using a regular oven, preheat it to 400°F / 200°C , put the mochi cakes on a baking sheet lined with kitchen parchment paper or silicone baking sheets to prevent sticking, and bake for 5-10 minutes until puffy and blistered. If using a mochi grill, put the grill on a burner set to medium-low, plop the rice cakes on and watch then puff up. Flip over once.
Melt the butter in a hot frying pan over medium heat until it starts to brown a bit (for a more detailed description of how to make brown butter, see Elise's method). Drizzle in the soy sauce - be careful, it may spit a bit.
Put the grilled mochi cakes in the pan in a single layer and cook until the mochi starts to just brown a bit and the whole thing smells caramel-y and marvelous. Flip over and cook for another minute. Be careful not to let the butter burn.
Transfer to a plate, pouring any residual butter over the mochi. Sprinkle the crumbled nori (your hands are the best tool for crumbling) and green onions on top. Serve while piping hot, making sure each mochi bite is well covered in that butter. Tell yourself you'll go on a diet the next day.
If you use salted butter, reduce the soy sauce to 1/2 or simply omit it. You can season with a little salt instead of soy sauce.
If you don't like nori, the green onions alone are pretty good. Or try...crispy bacon and green onion. Really.