Chawan Mushi: Comfort in a Cup


Today the high temperature here will be 26 deg. Fahrenheit. It sounds even colder in Celsius: -3 deg.Brrrrrrrrr…

When the weather outside is frightful, it’s nice to have a little something extra to warm you up on the inside. We’ve been getting some harsh winds and cold temps (but little snow) so yes, we’ve had our share of soupsteas, hot cereal and Glühwein this winter. But if you’re looking for a different kind of warming cup to chase away the chill, how about a savory steamed custard?

Chawan Mushi is a Japanese cold-weather classic: delicate egg custard in a light sea-scented broth with hidden treasures, no less — sake-marinated chicken and/or shrimp, pretty pink or red fishcake fans, shiitake mushroom, maybe even a gingko nut or fresh watercress or mitsuba. Despite the fact that my mother is Okinawan (or maybe because she was Okinawan?), she did not often make this when we were growing up. In fact, I don’t remember ever having one of these until I was in college! One taste, though, and it was love at first slurp.

For me, the anticipation of breaking the surface of chawan mushi is very much akin to that delightful moment just as your spoon cracks the glass of burnt sugar crowning a creme brulee. Despite the great anticipation, you almost see your spoon go into slow motion as it nears the egg surface. Then the spoon is under, and a rush of clear sweet dashi broth fills the gash. Your spoon returns with a piece of treasure: will it be a boozy piece of chicken, a shrimp butterfly, or a ginko nut? No matter which, you are the winner!

Chawan Mushi translates as “teacup steam” — a clue as to how it’s prepared and served. Although special lidded cups have evolved specifically to serve chawan mushi, any tall heat-proof cup that will hold at least 4 fluid ounces (120ml) will make do in a pinch. For the first batch, I even used another type of steamed-egg vessel as a pretty chawan mushi cup — an English egg coddler! I’ve always admired porcelain coddlers, though I’ve never had an actual coddled egg (basically, a seasoned soft “boiled” egg cooked with steam). I found this one in a second-hand shop and now it can do double-duty for this too! The coddler was a little small, which meant less custard once the yummy fillings were placed on the bottom. But that only means you might have to eat two!

Sometimes, we cooks can be intimidated about trying something in the kitchen that seems exotic to us, or even something that we just haven’t done before. (I know I can be.) In truth, making chawan mushi is a lot like making that other great egg custard, the quiche. If you can make quiche, you can make this — and you don’t have to make a pie crust! In both cases, the standard of perfection is the quiver — that precise moment when the egg just sets and is cooked through, but is still a delicate, jiggly mass on the verge of collapse. The key to cooking in both cases is lower, even heat so the center has a chance to set before the edges turn to rubber.

Since I only had the memory of mom’s chawan mushi as a guide but no recipe, I turned to the Interwebs to look for those tried and true home-tested recipes for which I’ve come to rely on my fellow bloggers. I’ve tried making chawan mushi using a recipe from a book before, but I know there are so many more out there!

Many that I saw did not marinate the meats before cooking, and I have a clear memory of sake-flavored cubes of chicken and shrimp draped in eggy goodness (also flavored with sake). In the end, I went with Francis’ recipe from hisyoutube video series, “Cooking with Dog,” which he hosts and narrates. For those who have yet to discover Francis’ innovative instructional videos, this is what you need to know: Francis IS the Dog! A grey poodle, I think. And in his perfect, accented English he talks viewers through step-by-step directions for making several dozen popular Japanese dishes while they are demonstrated and prepared by the unnamed human sous chef to his left. Firmly putting aside hygiene concerns about a dog in the kitchen, you can’t help but be entertained by this unlikely duo — and if you’re not careful you’ll also actually learn to make these Japanese favorites! I adapted Francis’ recipe (below) for quantity and filling ingredients, but here for your viewing pleasure and edification is Francis and Friend on making chawan mushi:

So if you’ve no place to go, let it snow, let it snow! You can stay home and comfort yourself up with a (tea)cup of warm egg-y goodness. Me, I’ll be practicing until we get the Quiver.

(adapted from Francis’ recipe in above video)
Serves 4 persons
Let me make this clear: this is not a dessert. Chawan mushi would make a decadent brunch entree — a change-up from Eggs Benedict, for sure. It would also make a unique, light starter for a winter dinner menu. In either case, serve with your favorite bubbly.

For the Fillings:
½ boneless, skinless chicken thigh, cut into 8 pieces
4 small raw shrimp, preferably with tails on (it’s just for show, but I like seeing the tails above the custard)
2 tsp mirin, divided
(or 2 tsp sake + 1/2 tsp raw sugar, stir to dissolve sugar, then divide)
1 tsp shoyu (soy sauce), divided
4 ginko nuts, if using
(we didn’t have any so I used fresh baby corn instead)
1 fresh shiitake or black mushroom, cut into quarters or sixths (whatever will fit your cup)

In 2 small bowls, place 1 tsp mirin and ½ tsp shoyu in each bowl. Put chicken pieces in one bowl, and shrimp in the other. Stir to coat meat/shrimp well. Set aside for 10 minutes.

Prepare your steamer. If you’re using a towel on your lid, as shown in Francis’ video, a simple rubber band will help keep the ends of the towel away from the heat source. Not as much of a problem if you’re using a flat-top cooking surface, but for gas and even conventional electric stoves a towel can become a fire hazard.

Set your steaming vessel over high heat to get it going, then turn down to medium and keep it at that heat.

Place the bowl with the chicken and marinade in the steamer and cook for 8-10 minutes, depending on the size of the chicken pieces. Remove and set aside.

Place 2 pieces of chicken, 1 shrimp (raw), gingko (if using) and a piece of mushroom on the bottom of each cup. Set aside while you prepare the custard.

(If this serves 4, how come there are only 3 cups?
Because I took a cue from Judy at Bebe Love Okazu
to make one super-size cup — it was actually a bowl —
of all the left-overs for one lucky someone**)

For the Custard:
2 cups (500ml) warm water (or homemade katsuo dashi broth, then skip the hon dashi)
1½ tsp hon dashi (powdered bonito broth)
1 TBL sake
1 tsp shoyu
½ tsp sea salt
3 large eggs

Mitsuba leaves to garnish (this is the traditional garnish, these photos show flat-leaf parsley)

The type of soy sauce called for in this recipe, usukuchi, is not what we know in the West as “light soy sauce”, which is low-sodium soy sauce. Since we didn’t have usukuchi and I was using the stronger, sweeter regular shoyu, I increased the amount of sake, cut down the amount of regular shoyu and included some sea salt, which I would have left out completely if using usukuchi.

Add hon dashi to warm water and stir to dissolve, add sake, shoyu and salt.

Beat together 3 eggs. Strain through a medium fine strainer to remove the stringy bits (the chalaza) and any large bits of egg white. Add seasoned dashi liquid to eggs and stir gently to combine, try not to get too many bubbles on the egg surface. If you like, you can remove bubbles with a teaspoon before proceeding.

With a small ladle (a Chinese soup spoon works well for this), carefully spoon custard over filling ingredients in the cup. Some ingredients may start to float if you add too much custard. I only add enough to just cover the shrimp meat so the fillings don’t come to the surface. Again, if there are any bubbles on the egg surface, you can “scoop” them out with a spoon — bubbles on the surface will pop during steaming and leave an undesirable pock mark on your custard.

Place your cups in the steamer. Cover and allow to steam for 10-20 minutes, or until custard is just set. You can check by gently separating one edge of the custard from the cup: if it fills with clear liquid, the custard is ready to eat, otherwise steam a little longer.

Remove carefully from steamer, and top with mitsuba, or other green for garnish. Cover and bring to table. Best eaten while hot!

The first batch in these photos did not meet the “Quiver Standard” to which all chawan mushi must be held. It tasted good, but there was no quiver. I want the quiver, darn it! Of course, this means I will have to do this again. Probably more than once. (I’ll update this with a photo of the Quiver when I get it right.)

**This was what was in the bonus bowl… You’ll have to ask T. how it tasted!!


Soup’s On: Potato, Leek & Rainbow Chard

Well here we are, more than half way through National Soup Month and this is only the first soup we’ve posted! Truth to tell, I didn’t even remember January was set aside to honor soup until my SIL sent me a head’s up about it yesterday.(Thanks, Tra!)

As yours probably does too, our soup consumption climbs as the thermometer starts to dip. And we’ve been near or below freezing for awhile in our corner of Maryland. Therefore, lots of soup.

And for some reason, we’ve had more than our usual share of potato-based soups lately. Maybe because these potato soup recipes usually don’t require a lot of long-simmering stock and can be ready from knife to table in under an hour. Maybe because potatoes are both plentiful and filling in the winter. Maybe because we love potatoes. Probably all of the above.

When first snow, then ice kept this island girl indoors and away from driving last week, by Friday I was really eager to re-stock fresh greens in our larder. I spotted this bunch of rainbow chard from across the crowded produce department of our nearest Korean market, glimpsed in snatches between a shuffling mass of bundled shoppers (transported in 4 buses from a nearby retirement community) all jostling for the best produce. But the chard’s bright colors were a technicolor beacon: Buy Me, it called. And I knew I would.

So now it’s starring in this potato-based soup which I’ve dubbed Rainbow Soup, named for the colorful chard stalks that double as a healthy, low-cal “crouton” garnish. In addition to potatoes, there is a healthy helping of leeks and a whisper of cream. Hmmmm, you’re saying to yourself, this sounds suspiciously like vichyssoise. And you’re right! That is one of our favorite soups — chilled or not — so we’re building on that flavor profile. The inspiration for throwing in the greens comes from another hearty favorite, Caldo Verde, the Portuguese-style potato and kale soup.

The rainbow inspiration also comes from waxing nostalgic about living on Oahu while putting on 3 layers of clothing every morning — and that’s if I’m just staying home! (Did I mention I grew up on an island?) Hawaii is nicknamed the Rainbow State, for obvious reasons, and the vibrant color and crunch from these chard stems are a welcome splash of Aloha against the monotone in both the skies and our soup bowls. (Though I would prefer my Aloha-in-a-bowl in the form of a Loco-Moco, but that’s another story…)

And since we’re taking this 4800 mile segue anyway, I’ve been meaning to give a shout out to the folks at Hawaii’s public radio station, KIPO, and one of our favorite local programs there, Aloha Shortsa weekly program hosted by Cedric Yamanka of short stories written by local authors and read before a live studio audience by local actors and story tellers. The best way to get your weekly dose of island flavor, short of the 12-hour flight from the East Coast!Aloha Shorts has long been available for live-streaming from the KIPO website, but for those of us who are not awake at midnight (EST) to catch the show live, Aloha Shorts is now available as a podcast from Bamboo Ridge Press on the iTunes store! As of this writing, there are 15 weeks worth of readings awaiting your listening pleasure. But there’s a limited window of time during which each new episode is available, so get them while you can. You can also subscribe to the podcast so you won’t miss any new shows. Unlike other podcasts, these aren’t deleted from my iTunes library after the first listen-to so whenever I really need a dose of island sunshine it’s as close as my computer or iPod.
(UPDATE 01/22/2011: I received a comment from one of the producers of Aloha Shorts with the happy news that you can find ALL of the shows episodes on the Bamboo Ridge Press website! You won’t be able to download them from here, but you can stream any show on demand. In her own words:

“Please let your readers know that all the past episodes are available at  Just go to “Broadcast Archives” and click on “Show More.”  We’re happy to warming the hearts of those on the East Coast and around the world with the humor, memories, and wisdom of Hawaii’s local literature.  We’re also on Facebook at  Hau’oli Makahiki Hou.  ~  Phyllis Look”

Thank you for the info, Phyllis. And a great big Aloha to all the folks on the show!
So to recap, a rainbow in your soup bowl and tales of living Aloha in your earbuds… See, winter doesn’t have to be so gray.

Happy National Soup Month, Tracey! Hope the soup’s on in your home, too!
What’s your favorite soup? Speaking of all things Aloha, this is mine.

Serves 4 persons

1 bunch of rainbow swiss chard
3 large leeks, sliced and washed well
4 TBL unsalted butter
2 TBL olive oil
4 large Russet potatoes, about 1½ lbs (680g), peeled and sliced thinly
sea salt and ground black pepper, to taste
4 cups (1L) low-salt chicken or vegetable broth, or water
¼ cup (60ml) dry sherry or dry white wine, such as Pinot Gris or Sauvignon Blanc
2 TBL light cream (optional)
3 TBL grated Parmesan, plus extra for garnish

Wash chard well in a mixture of 2 qt/L of cool water and 2 TBL of distilled white vinegar. Rinse under cold running water and drain in a colander. Separate the stalks from the greens and trim, then dice. Reserve a small handful of diced stalk (I chose some of each color) for garnish. Shred the chard greens.

In a large Dutch oven or small soup pot, saute leeks in butter and oil over medium heat. When leeks have softened, about 10 minutes, add chard stalks, potatoes, salt, pepper and broth. Cover and simmer for 15-20 minutes, or until potatoes are completely soft.

Using a hand blender or potato masher (depending on whether you want a pureed soup or a more rustic version), blend the potatoes into the broth. Add sherry, Parmesan and chard greens, and simmer 10 minutes longer. Remove from heat and add cream, if using, and correct seasoning.

Ladle in individual bowls and garnish with reserved diced chard stalks and Parmesan.

This is very filling, and we skipped the breads we would usually have with soup.
A little ironic, given my current obsession with bread-baking

BMB: Coriander-Spiked Banana Braid

Continuing my resolution to bake bread at home more often (BMB: Bake More Bread), today we’re back to a recipe we first tried 12 years before and know we love: a banana yeast bread from the1000 Classic Recipes cookbook. I had never tried a yeast bread flavored with bananas before then — I had always thought of banana bread as a quick bread (made with baking soda, not yeast). But this lovely yeast bread is a nice change of pace for toast, French toast, and even sandwiches. It is moist, chewy, soft and mildly banana-— the banana flavor is noticeable but subtle. And the bread is really not sweet — other than a couple tablespoonsful of molasses or raw sugar, the only sweetness comes from the fruit itself. Hard to resist eating just as it is, but you can imagine how much better a PB&J would be if made with this bread, can’t you? Warm Nutella or squares of dark chocolate are absolutely heaven (Best.Breakfast.Ever.). I also like to use this for grilled cheese sandwiches, especially with an aged cheese. My dear T. has a problem with sweet breads used for savory purposes — he’s surprised that he enjoys the flavor combination, but at the same time feels “repulsed” (his word) by the sweet-savory combination. He recognizes, though, that he has a problem, so that’s the first step, right? *smile*

The original recipe is spiked with cardamom instead of coriander seed, and we do like the original but I just read someone waxing poetic about the combination of bananas and coriander and wanted to see for myself. The coriander is more subtle, but both spices complement bananas well — choose your favorite! Next time I’m going to try the same combination of spices I use for my banana quick bread: cinnamon, cloves, coriander, and allspice.

This loaf came about by pure serendipity. The market where I was shopping last week had a glut of over-ripe bananas that they were selling at 3 lbs. for $1.49. They weren’t bruised or blackened, just speckled. Can you pass that up? I can’t. What isn’t used in a bread, quick bread or oatmeal in the next 2 days will be peeled and frozen for later use. I was thinking of making our usual quick bread at the time I bought the bunch, but the morning I started to bake, I remembered this long unused recipe and went digging through yet-unpacked boxes to find the right cookbook. In 4 hours the kitchen was filled with the faint aroma of yeasty bananas (good name for a rock band?).

Now if only serendipity could help me find my copy of the original Tassajara Bread Book that my SIL gave me… I know it’s around here somewhere but it’s in a box we haven’t unpacked yet.

(Adapted from 1000 Classic Recipes by Hermes House publishing)
Makes one 1lb loaf

3½ cups/1lb (455g) all-purpose flour
1 tsp sea salt
1 tsp powdered coriander seed
1¼ tsp (1 packet) active dry yeast
â…” cup liquid whey or water, warm to the touch
2 TBL (29ml or 43g) unsulphured molasses
or raw sugar (23g)(used sugar this time)
2 ripe bananas, mashed well
egg wash: 2 TBL beaten egg mixed with 2 TBL water

Combine flour, salt and coriander powder in the bowl of a stand mixer. Make a well in the center of the flour, and add the yeast. Mix together water, molasses/sugar and bananas, then add wet ingredients to the well in the bowl. Attach dough hook to stand mixer, and mix at low speed to incorporate all flour, about 1 minute.

When dough has come together, increase speed to medium high or high for 3-4 minutes, until the dough smoothes out.

Turn dough onto floured table and continue kneading by hand for 6-10 minutes or until dough is elastic and smooth. Let rest for 5 minutes under damp cloth or lightly oiled plastic film.

Divide dough into 3 equal parts. Braid dough and place on baking sheet. Cover again with lightly oiled plastic film and place in a warm spot away from drafts until well-risen, about an hour. Test for doneness by pressing gently but firmly on the top of the dough: if it springs back quickly, the dough needs more time; if the indentation remains, it’s ready to bake.

Pre-heat oven to 425F/220C.

Brush braid with egg wash. Place in middle rack of oven, and bake for 10 minutes. Lower temperature to 400F and bake 15 minutes longer, or until the bottom of the loaf sounds hollow when tapped (you may want to tent with foil if you prefer a softer, lighter-colored crust). Cool on rack.

Toasted Banana Braid with Dove Dark Chocolate:
Toast bread, place 2 chocolates on bread
and return to toaster oven for 30 seconds.
Smear with knife.
Bite. Smile. Repeat.

Red Wine, a Pot and TIme: Cabernet-Braised Short Ribs

It’s truly amazing what time and low heat can do to hunks of meat on a bone. Not only do they tenderize, but in a slow-cooker they even caramelize fats and flesh, and intensify flavor. For the cook, beyond the initial browning much of the work is out of her hands. She’s free to enjoy her day, or her guests as the case may be.

We had these for dinner on Christmas Day, a day I prefer not to cook or to cook as little as possible. We started with a breakfast of beet-pickled eggs, guava-glazed ham and breads — all prepared or purchased well in advance — for a late breakfast. A lazy day by a roaring fire followed, and an early dinner by the same fire rounded out the day.*yawn* and there was still time for a nap!

With the mushrooms cooked the day before, and the baby corn and green beans cleaned and ready to toss in a stir-fry while the rice is cooking, there was little to do or fuss about once the ribs were in the slow-cooker at 5:45am. Thirty minutes before we sat for dinner, the rice was washed and the cooker turned on (the sous chef’s job); the mushrooms were re-warmed; the wok was pre-heated and veggies tossed in; the third glass of bubbly was poured for the cook; and before you know it, dinner was served. We took a vote (it was 2-0) and decided we wanted plain white rice with this, but mashed or roast potatoes, or buttered egg noodles are more traditional accompaniments.

Save your knives, you won’t need them — these ribs emerge fork-tender and oh-so-succulent in their own juices. And rich, very rich. A little goes a long way.

Serves 4 persons

For the Mushrooms:
2-3 lbs of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
(pictured here are 1 lb. cremini, 8 oz. white button, and 8 oz. oyster mushrooms sauteed together
and 1 lb king oyster mushrooms sliced lengthwise and simply browned in unsalted butter)
4 oz/ unsalted butter, sliced into small pats
2 TBL dry sherry
sea salt
black pepper (optional)

You can prepare the mushrooms in advance and keep refrigerated until 30 minutes before the ribs are cooked, then re-heat in the microwave. Or begin mushrooms half an hour before the ribs are ready.

Heatt wok or large skillet over medium high heat. Add sliced mushrooms to dry pan, and allow mushrooms to brown and exude their liquid, about 5-6 minutes. Add pats of butter and sherry to skillet and allow to coat mushrooms. Season lightly. Refrigerate until needed or proceed with recipe.

For the Braise:
5 1/2 lbs (2.5kg) beef short ribs
sea salt and black pepper
4-6 TBL olive oil, 2 TBLs at a time
2 medium onions, sliced in 1/4 inch strips
3-4 bay leaves
1 TBL black peppercorns
cloves from 1 head of garlic, peeled and halved
2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into large chunks
2 medium parsnips, peeled and cut into large chunks
1 finger of ginger, peeled and sliced in 1/4 inch pieces
2 cups (474ml) Cabernet or other dry red wine
1 cup (240ml) low-salt beef broth

Trim ribs of fat and excess silverskin. Pat dry with paper towels, and season well with salt and ground pepper.

Drizzle first 2 TBL of oil on bottom of slow cooker. Add onions, bay leaves, peppercorns, garlic, carrots, parsnips and ginger. Cover, set heat setting to LOW.

Pre-heat large skillet over medium high heat, then add 2 TBL of oil. Place ribs — meat side down — in skillet, about 2-3 ribs at a time. Do not crowd the pan. Allow to brown well, about 5-7 minutes without fussing with them. When the ribs release easily from the pan, they are sufficiently browned and ready to turn. Turn each rib to brown another meaty side, and again leave for 3-4 minutes to brown new side. Repeat with third meaty side. As each rib finishes browning, remove from skillet and add to slow cooker, bone side down.

When all of the first batch of ribs is browned, add 1 cup of wine to the skillet, and using a wooden spoon, gently loosen the browned bits from skillet. Add the deglazing liquid to the slow cooker.

To brown each remaining batch of ribs, quickly rinse the skillet under cool water (no soap), dry and return skillet to medium high heat. Add another 2 TBL oil and repeat browning of ribs.

If 3 batches are required to brown all the ribs, use the beef broth to de-glaze the third batch. Otherwise, add beef broth to the slow cooker after the second batch.

Set timer for 4 hours. Come back in 4 hours and turn ribs over. Set timer again for 3 hours, and check again when timer rings. Meat should be fork tender and ready to slip off the bone; if not ready, allow to cook 40 minutes to 1 hour longer. (We prefer to keep the meat on the bone, but you can remove the bone now for easier eating — try to keep the meat from each rib in one piece.)

Also, if you intend to serve this with mashed potatoes or noodles and would like to keep the jus to serve over the potatoes, just strain the liquid and correct the seasoning — skip the reduction completely. If the strained jus is a bit salty for your taste, add 1tsp of balsamic or sherry vinegar to the jus and heat it to a simmer. Taste again to see if the balance is more to your liking (small quantities of vinegar help to reduce saltiness, and using mild ones such as balsamic or sherry tend not leave a vinegar flavor).

To reduce and glaze:
2-3 TBL balsamic vinegar
sea salt and black pepper, if necessary

Remove ribs to a platter. Strain remaining liquid into a wide sauce pan, and discard solids. Return ribs to slow cooker set on WARM, or keep warm in oven while you finish the glaze. Place saucepan on the stove over medium high heat and bring to a boil. When sauce is reduced by half, add vinegar and continue reducing until the sauce takes on a shine and just starts to become syrupy, then immediately remove from heat. Sauce will continue to thicken in the pan. Taste and correct seasoning.

To plate, place 1/4 mushrooms on individual plate. Top with 2-3 short ribs, and drizzle wine glaze over meat and mushrooms. Serve with your favorite vegetables, and mashed potatoes or buttered noodles. Or rice.