When people hear that my husband is Japanese they sometimes ask whether it’s hard to cook for or eat with someone who was raised in a different culture. It’s a valid question – food is such an intrinsic part of our lives and is so dependent on the cultures we were raised in that I imagine that married people from different countries who couldn’t come to some sort of compromise in this realm would experience a certain amount of stress. But Tsuyoshi and I are really quite compatible when it comes to culinary matters. There are a few foods he likes that I refuse to touch (like sea urchin, offal meat, and shirako) and he doesn’t share my raging sweet tooth or quite understand my predilection for eating whole spoonfuls of peanut butter, but on the whole we manage to eat whatever the other cooks without much complaint.
Yet there is one ingredient that Tsuyoshi simply cannot stand: cinnamon. I suspect that most of you are probably shrieking in disbelief at the thought that there are actual human beings on this earth who dislike the taste of cinnamon (my dad’s comment was “but that means he doesn’t like cinnamon rolls!”). I know. I was shocked and appalled when I first heard this particular tidbit of information. For some time I just assumed that Tsuyoshi was insane until I happened to encounter a number of other Japanese people who felt the same way, which I can only attribute to the fact that they didn’t grow up eating cinnamon and thus aren’t accustomed to it. And if my husband’s lack of familiarity with cinnamon makes it taste even half as bad as shiso tastes to me…then I guess I can’t really argue.
Tsuyoshi’s vehement dislike of cinnamon is especially problematic to me this time of year because all of the fall desserts I love contain cinnamon. Seeing the word “November” on the calendar especially triggers my genetic longing for pumpkin pie. And while I could certainly make myself a pumpkin pie even if Tsuyoshi hates it, I promise you I have no self-control and would eat the entire thing by myself.
So to satisfy my pumpkin craving I decided to come up with a dessert that would still be good without the spices. Luckily, inspiration is all around me this time of the year because while Japan doesn’t have a lot of pumpkin, they do have a fantastically delicious squash called a “kabocha” (which is also available in American grocery stores) that is somewhat close in flavor and texture and is the star of many autumn desserts at restaurants and cafes. This year, Haagen-Dazs even has a kabocha flavored ice cream on sale. I’ve already eaten kabocha purin (custard pudding) a few times this year, so I decided to come up with my own version that is inspired by the many kabocha purin out there but also incorporates a few of my own touches.
By the way, Japanese people love purin, which is how they pronounce the word “pudding” but resembles a flan more than anything we refer to as “pudding” in English. It’s available at cafes, family restaurants, and convenience stores in a wide variety of flavors like almond and black sesame, and is a fantastic example of a Western dessert the Japanese have modified over the years to fit their own tastes.
This recipe involves kabocha puree, which can be obtained in a few different ways. Most Japanese recipes will tell you to microwave or steam the kabocha and push it through a piece of kitchen equipment called an uragoshi (a type of fine mesh sieve) but I prefer to cook the squash and then puree it in my blender, although it’s often necessary to add a bit of water. If you don’t feel like going to the trouble of making the pureed kabocha then by all means use regular canned pumpkin. It will be less Japanese but it will still be good.
Purin can be either baked or steamed, but steaming it ensures that a skin doesn’t form on top. If you have a steamer I suggest you use it, but if you don’t have one or don’t want to bother with a steamer just cook the pudding in a bain-marie until it is set but still jiggly (be careful not to overcook since the pudding can get rubbery). Instead of steaming or baking I cooked the puddings using the “steam oven” function of my Japanese microwave-slash-convection oven, which only took about twenty minutes. Either way, the main thing to keep in mind is not overcooking the purin which can destroy the creamy texture.
Kabocha custard pudding (Kabocha purin)
This creamy custard pudding isn’t as overwhelming sweet as commercial purin, instead relying on fresh kabocha squash for flavor and sweetness. Inspired by flavors that are often used in combination with American pumpkin desserts, I’ve incorporated maple syrup into the caramel at the bottom of the pudding and infused whipped cream with a hint of ginger for a topping.
Sugar 2 tablespoons
Maple syrup 2 tablespoons
Water 1 tablespoon
Kabocha puree 300 grams
Milk ¾ cup
Cream ¼ cup
Sugar 50 grams
Vanilla ½ teaspoon
Ginger-infused whipped cream (optional)
1. If you plan to steam the purin, prepare your steamer. If you plan to bake the purin, preheat your oven to 300 degrees Fahrenheit (149 degrees Celsius).
2. To make the caramel, heat water in a small saucepan over low heat. Add sugar and maple syrup and simmer, stirring constantly to prevent scorching until caramel has thickened. Divide into four 6-ounce ramekins and set aside to let the caramel harden.
3. Blend the kabocha puree, milk, and cream in a blender or food processor until smooth.
4. Heat, but don’t boil, the milk mixture in a saucepan over medium-low heat. When small bubbles begin breaking the surface, whisk in the sugar and turn off the heat. Add the vanilla.
5. Break eggs into a bowl and beat until smooth. Slowly pour in the milk mixture, stirring to ensure that the eggs are fully incorporated.
6. Strain the mixture through a wire strainer to remove any lumps.
7. Carefully pour the mixture into the ramekins, taking care not to disturb the caramel.
8. If you are steaming the purin, place the ramekins in your steamer and cook according to the directions for about 20 minutes. If you are cooking the purin in the oven, place the ramekins in a baking dish filled with water and cook until firm but still jiggly in the middle, checking the puddings starting at about 20 minutes.
9. To make the ginger-infused whipped cream (optional), cut several quarter-sized pieces of fresh ginger and cook them in cream at low heat for a few minutes. Let sit in the refrigerator for a few hours to further strengthen the ginger flavor, then whip as usual.