Last year, when Time Out New York published an article on the best desserts in the city, my brilliant friend Chelsea Sue suggested that we go on a dessert walk. The plan was to walk through Manhattan stopping along a pre-mapped route of about fifteen shops mentioned in the article. At each stop, one of us would buy the featured dessert to share (as well as anything else we just couldn’t resist…like that gooey, buttery, pecan-loaded sticky bun at Amy’s Bread).
We met up at Levain bakery on the Upper West Side and kick-started our sugar tour with one of Levain’s signature chunky, scone-sized cookies, Double Chocolate Peanut Butter. We followed that up with a chocolate brioche chaser. And yes, the word “chaser” does apply to dessert. Trust me on this one.
We might have been a little over-zealous at our first stop of the day, because at stop 2, Jacques Torres, there wasn’t much interest in Jacques’s famous chocolate chip cookies.
But a few blocks down, we stopped at Grandaisy Bakery and shared a zesty Lemon Ginger Sandwich Cookie. Next up was Amy’s Bread, where we dutifully sampled the Kitchen Sink cookie featured in the article, and then devoured that sticky bun I mentioned. Well, it was mostly me doing the devouring.
After a brief digestion hiatus around the fountain at Columbus circle, we visited Momofuku Milk Bar for a disappointing Blueberry Cream Cookie and Borne Confections, where we split a cup of rich pistachio gelato.
Our seventh stop was something different: Minamoto Bakery. Minamoto Bakery specializes in wagashi, traditional Japanese style-desserts. Most of the bakeries we had visited so far were warm and inviting, but Minamoto was distinctly Japanese; formal and sparsely decorated, with sample desserts artfully arranged on pedestals in a glass display case (the ones people actually eat safely out of sight behind the counter). At Minamoto we tried a chestnut bun (栗馒头) with a dry crusty shell and mamedaifuku, mochi (glutinous rice dough) mixed with azuki (red) beans and filled with anko (sweet red bean paste).
Now, I love buttery brioche and chunky chocolate chip cookies as much as the next Westerner, but I have a soft spot for the unfamiliar flavors and funky textures of Asian desserts. I love dense lotus paste mooncakes with salty duck egg cores, taro bubble tea with chewy tapioca pearls, fried sesame balls stuffed with red bean paste, Chinese mango pudding in a heart-shaped jello mold, and, of course, mochi.
Mochi, sticky glutinous rice dough dusted with potato starch, is delicious by itself, and even better flavored with a spoonful of matcha and filled with sweet azuki paste. You can buy canned red bean paste at an Asian grocery store, but it’s better homemade, sweetened to taste and textured with chunks of actual bean.
Anko (Sweet Red Bean Paste)
2/3 cup azuki beans (red beans)
2/3 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1 cup hot water
1 cup granulated sugar
1 cup glutinous rice flour (sometimes called sweet rice flour)
1 tablespoon matcha green tea powder (optional)
Tons of potato starch or cornstarch
To make the anko:
Soak the red beans in a big pot of water overnight. The next day, bring the water to a boil over high heat, then reduce the heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Drain out the water and return the beans to the pot. Add 5 cups of water and bring to a boil again. Reduce the heat and let the beans simmer for about one hour, or until they are soft. You should be able to easily pierce them with a fork.
Note: You don’t want the beans to burn, so if all of the water has evaporated and the beans still aren’t soft, add more water as needed.
When the beans are softened, add the sugar and salt (if you want very sweet red bean paste, you can add a full cup of sugar; you can also reduce the sugar to ½ cup if you don’t like your beans too sweet). As the sugar melts, keep simmering and stirring. Stir occasionally if there’s a lot of liquid in the pot, and frequently if there isn’t much liquid.
The beans are done when there is no liquid left, the mixture is thick, and you can easily mash the beans with a fork or one of those mashed potato mashers. It doesn’t need to be as thick as you want it to be for the daifuku, because it will thicken considerably as it cools. Remove the anko from heat and let it cool for 10 minutes at room temperature, and then in the fridge.
To make the daifuku:
Generously coat a surface with potato starch or cornstarch (I recommend a Silpat because mochi is super sticky, but you can just use a clean counter).
In a big microwavable bowl, dissolve the sugar in the hot water. Mix in the glutinous rice flour and the matcha powder and stir until the clumps are gone (it might help to use a whisk). Put the bowl in the microwave for two minutes, then grab a wooden spoon and stir the dough really well. It will look really clumpy and gelatinous at first, but keep stirring vigorously until it smooths out into an even texture.
Heat the dough in the microwave for another 2 minutes, or until the dough inflates. Again, pull it out of the microwave and stir it well with a wooden spoon.
Coax the mochi out of the bowl and onto your starched surface. Generously cover the mochi with more starch, and coat a rolling pin with starch. Roll out the mochi to ¼ inch thick. Using a drinking glass or mug, cut out rounds of mochi.
Fill each mochi round with a spoonful of red bean paste (I used a heaping tablespoon, but unless we have the same drinking glass set, your mochi rounds might require more or less filling). Gather the round of mochi up around the red bean paste and pinch it together at the top. Because you used so much starch, you may need to do a lot of heavy-duty pinching to get the mochi to stick together. Flip over the completed daifuku, sort of round it out with your hands, and you’re done! Store at room temperature in an airtight container.