Sunday, August 24, 2014

Magnolia Bakery in Tokyo - The Best Cupcakes in Town

I first heard about Magnolia Bakery opening up shop in Tokyo while leafing through a magazine on a train ride home. I was engrossed in an article about the virtues of toenail clipping when I saw it. Magnolia Bakery opens in Tokyo!

As soon as I made sure I wasn't seeing things, I involuntarily yelled "YES!" at the top of my lungs. Seconds later, my fellow passengers were doing their best to avoid eye contact with me, most likely thinking I was some kind of lunatic with a rare brain disorder. I got off at the very next station to save myself from further embarrassment.

So you can imagine my excitement when I finally got the chance to visit this summer. Based in New York, Magnolia Bakery opened it's doors in 1996, on a small corner in the West Village of New York City. Their cupcakes became famous after making appearances on movies and TV shows such as Sex and the City and The Devil Wears Prada.

I arrived on Magnolia Bakery's pastel-colored doorsteps on a hot and humid summer afternoon to find it absent from any long lines ( typical of new dessert places, doughnut shops and pancake houses in Tokyo ). A glass window at the entrance lets you see the cupcakes being made and watching the staff frosting the cakes with Magnolia's signature "swirl" was hypnotizing.

The interior is airy with lots of space, a welcome change from the cramped and claustrophobic interiors of most bakeries in Japan. The look is vintage America using calming colors of off-white and light pastels. In fact, it sort of feels like a shop you'd find on Main Street U.S.A. in Disneyland. I like it!

Checking out the goodies on display, I knew I was in trouble. There were so many of my favorites that I knew I had to choose wisely to avoid spending a fortune. In addition to their famous cupcakes, there were a selection of old-fashioned cakes, cheesecakes, brownies, homemade pies, icebox cakes and puddings! Where else in Japan, can you find a selection like this? I don't think there is.

The menus and prices are pretty similar to the offerings in the U.S. stores. I already knew I wanted to try the basic cupcakes they are famous for. I had my eye on the cheesecake display and although the brownies and other bars caught my attention, I knew they could wait.

After scrutinizing the options, I decided on these.

1. Vanilla cupcake
2. Chocolate cupcake
3. Peanut butter cupcake
4. Red velvet cheesecake
5. Banana pudding

The total came out to a little over ¥3,100, which is around $30 US. Yes, good desserts don't come cheap, which is what made it so hard to decide.

So how were the famed cupcakes of Magnolia bakery? They were everything I imagined they would be. The cakes were perfectly moist with good flavor, nothing tasting artificial. The vanilla stands out for its perfect balance of buttery cake and creamy vanilla frosting, but my favorite was the chocolate cupcake. Moist, chocolatey and simply decadent. The peanut butter was my least favorite.

The cheesecake was good but not too sure if it was worth the ¥900 ($9US) price tag. It was very good as far as cheesecakes go, but there are many good cheesecake shops in Tokyo. 

The chocolate crust really made this cheesecake stand out.

Their signature banana pudding was good though, and reminded me of the old-fashioned desserts of a bygone era.

After I finished off this buffet of desserts in one sitting, I decided I needed to go back to pick up a few other items, all in the name of research and a proper blog post. Of course I didn't go back on the same day. That would be beyond crazy even for me!

So, a few days later I found myself going back you pick up another cupcake along with a few bars, including the brownie that was just begging me to take it home.

These found their way into my cute Magnolia Bakery Takeaway Bag.

1. Coconut cupcake
2. Double fudge brownie
3. Magic cookie bar
4. Lemon bars

I decided to devour the cupcake at the store, taking home the rest for later. You see, I learned something from my last visit. It is extremely important, in fact crucial, to eat the cupcakes as soon as you can. In the summer heat, the frosting will melt and leave you with a topless cupcake ( Sounds sexier than it sounds )! Although they supply those ice packets to keep the cheesecakes and puddings cold for up to an hour, they don't do the same for cupcakes.

Finding a seat was a breeze as there is additional seating right outside the store. Without wasting any time, I dug right in the the coconut cupcake. Honestly, it wasn't my favorite. It was a coconut cupcake. Nothing special. Meh. I wish they added something extra to it. Perhaps a coconut filling? Or instead of just topping it off with shredded coconuts, perhaps make the frosting taste like coconut as well. It sure would amp up the coconut flavor up a notch or two. It simply tasted like a regular vanilla cupcake with a light sprinkling of coconut on top. Oh well, moving on.

Back at home, I got ready to sample the bars. Starting off with the Lemon Bar. This was very good and not that different from other good lemon bars I've had in the U.S. The one I had at Kaka'ako Kitchen in Honolulu tasted almost identical. Which came first? Who really cares.

The Magic Cookie bar was also tasty, but too much dry coconut for my taste and it simply wasn't "magical" enough for my sophisticated taste buds ( uh huh, right ).

Finally the humble looking Double Fudge Brownie. I saved this for last because frankly it didn't look like much, but boy in this case, looks can be deceiving. This was definitely the winner in my case. One of the most perfect brownies I've tasted, with chocolate chips hidden inside the rather bland exterior. The slight chewiness combined with the perfectly-balanced sweetness was pure heaven. With each bite, you got chewiness, sweetness and one or two chocolate chips. Seriously good stuff.

I love Magnolia Bakery and I'm thrilled they opened one in Tokyo. I no longer have to fly all the way to New York for a good old-fashioned cupcake. I am happy. My life is complete.

Essential Information

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Thursday, August 21, 2014

A Rewarding Hike Up Koko Head

It's surprising to many when they first hear of the numerous hiking trails that can be found all over the island of Oahu. When it comes to Hawaii, most people envision pristine, white sand beaches, beautiful hula girls and sipping Mai Tai's at the hotel bar. But it's true! From the fairly easy-to-hike Manoa Falls to the difficult Olomana Trail, there's truly a hike for everybody.

On this fine day, a couple of my friends and I decided to take up on the challenge of climbing up Koko Crater. Although it's a rather short hike, it can be super tough depending on your fitness level. This hike, or rather a climb up the side of Koko Crater goes straight up, which basically makes this nature's version of a Stair Master from hell!

Signs are posted at beginning of the hike, warning hikers to be extremely careful. The roads are not maintained and accidents can sometimes happen. Also if you're not wearing proper shoes, it's highly recommended you skip this climb altogether, lest you slip through the cracks midway of the trip! 

I'll be completely honest with you. After reading the reviews on tripadvisor, I had second thoughts about doing this hike. But in the end, I knew that if I was ever going to do this hike, it might as well be now. I'm definitely not getting younger and from what I hear, I'll need all the stamina and strength I have to complete this hike.

The entire hike consists of an endless flight of stairs, 1048 steps to be exact, and they are far from your normal everyday steps. The trail is lined with railway ties and was originally built to transport supplies and military personnel up to the summit.

Here we are at the 100th step marker. So far so good and I'm actually feeling quite good today. There's a cool breeze in the air and it keeps us from overheating. Making sure to take occasional breaks, we continue upwards.

One thing I noticed on the hike was how steep the road up really was. In fact, the higher you go, the steeper it gets. There were many athletic people that were running up and down the steps, multiple times. I have absolute respect for those guys as I can't imagine ever doing that!

After 400 steps, I find myself breathing harder. Still if you're used to working out a few times a week, everything should be OK. Making sure to pace yourself is important especially if you want to make it up to the summit. 

After the 500th step or so, we encounter something that would make anyone with a fear of heights dizzy. I'm not sure if you could call this a bridge, but this section is suspended in the air with large gaps in between the wooden planks. One slip and you could injure yourself quite seriously. Time to take a deep breath and conquer my fear of heights!

Once you start to cross, I found it was quite impossible to stop. With my eyes focused at my feet, I concentrated on just getting to the other side. There were a couple of people that got stuck coming down, afraid of going any further. I didn't want to end up like that so as I crossed, I concentrated and decided to just count. 1,2,3,4...arrrgh....5,6...damn don't look up...not even close to the other side....7,8,9.....

As I mentioned before, I came on this hike with two friends. It became obvious that we all had different levels of fitness. The fittest one made it to the top first while the other one kept having to rest every 20 steps or so. I was stuck in the middle which was a good thing because I could sort of keep an eye on both of them. 

After that harrowing walk across the bridge of death, the trail became noticeably steeper. And as one looked up towards the summit, it was apparent that it would only get steeper. One of my friends was already a the top but I was worried about the other one. He looked like he would give up any minute. So I waited for him to join me so I could give him some encouragement.

Almost at the summit, but not yet. You can see how steep the incline is. Seriously, it's no different than being on a StairMaster on level 20 in the blazing, hot sun! At this point, I can hear my friend at the bottom cussing to himself!

The final portion gets super crazy steep. I'm not kidding! It's really just the final 20 steps or so, but I found myself taking breaks after every 10 steps! I really have to get myself back in shape.

Finally we make it to the top and the feeling is absolutely exhilarating! Looking down, you see how far you've come and there's a sense of accomplishment that you don't get on other hikes. Perhaps it's because it feels more like a workout than a leisurely hike, or the fact that I never thought I'd be doing this hike ever.

Whatever the reason, those who make it to the summit are rewarded with this incredible view.

Just look at this view! I know photos don't do the real thing justice, but you are literally surrounded by the cobalt blue of the ocean. The view was breathtaking to say the least and while my friend who struggled was busy throwing up his breakfast ( yes, unfortunately this is true ), I took a deep breath and just enjoyed the moment. It felt incredible!

Looking around I could tell that I wasn't the only one that was feeling this way. There were people with both arms in the air while some were deep in meditation in various yoga poses. Many were taking selfies, which is de rigueur these days, especially for the social set. 

Before making our way back down, we took photos in front of this sign, letting the world know you've made it to the top! Ahhhh! Mission complete! But wait. Hold on! We still have to get down!

Now you would think going back down was going to be easier. Wrong! It was even harder going down and crossing that "bridge from hell" was nearly impossible for me. With help from my friend, I was able to get up from a rather pathetic sitting position so that I could get off the damn thing!

So if I had the chance, would I attempt this climb again? You bet! The climb up wasn't too difficult and I like the cardio workout you get ( To burn off those calories from the huge slab of cake from breakfast ). The view from the top is absolutely amazing and that alone, is reason enough to go again. The "bridge from hell"? That's the iffy part for me.

Essential Information:

Review of Koko Crater Trail on Tripadvisor
More Information on the Koko Crater Hike

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Monday, August 18, 2014

Easy-to-Make Cherry & Blueberry Tart

Every year during the very brief weeks when cherries are in season, I find myself dreaming about those juicy, succulent spheres of delight all day long. The cherries that are available here in Japan are different in taste, texture and even appearance than their American counterpart.

Japanese cherries are sweet with just a hint of tartness. The skins are extremely thin and fragile, which demands extreme care when handling. So when I decided to make a tart with them, I had no idea how they would turn out.

I also had a box of blueberries to use up before they spoil and thought it they would make a perfect complement to the cherries. In fact, I already had everything I needed because the ingredient list is a short one. Flour, sugar, butter and cornstarch. Oh, and ice water. Who knew making a tart could be so easy?

Now for the crust. I always prefer making my own and it's really a cinch to make. Of course you could go with a ready-made crust but if you do, try and get one that's high-quality for the best results. A bad crust can ruin a perfect pie! Actually a bad crust WILL DEFINITELY ruin a good pie!

I've kept this recipe simple without extra additions as I really wanted the fruits themselves to shine. If you like, you could add a dash of cinnamon or a hint of vanilla for additional flavor.

Ingredients :

1 1/2 cups flour
1/4 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons sugar
8 tablespoons cold unsalted butter
4 tablespoons ice water

2 cups fresh cherries (pitted)
1 1/2 cups blueberries
1/2 cup blueberry jam or jelly
2/3 cup sugar
1 1/2 tablespoons cornstarch

Instructions :

1. Combine flour and sugar in a large bowl.
2. Using your fingers, cut butter into dry ingredients until it's the texture of sand.
3. Add ice water to mixture. Mix until just mixed. Add more water if necessary.
4. Shape the dough into a flat ball and cover with plastic wrap.
5. Refrigerate for 30 minutes.
6. Combine cherries, blueberries, sugar and cornstarch in a bowl. Stir to combine
7. Roll dough into a flat circle on a floured surface.
8. Prepare tart pan with non-stick spray or butter.
9. Place the pastry onto the tart pan, pressing with your fingers to create an eve crust.
10.Spread jam into crust.
11. Add fruit filling into crust. Top with additional sugar
12. Bake in a preheated oven at 375F/190C degrees for 30-40 minutes or until the crust is golden brown.
13. Cool for 10-15 minutes before serving.

Sprinkle some powdered sugar and serve with a scoop of ice cream for a special treat.

It's always important to let the pie cool down. I know it's difficult to do, especially when it's sitting right in front of you, but believe me it's for your own good. If you don't heed my warning, you'll burn your tongue and once you do, nothing will taste good for days! I speak from experience.:)

So what are some of your favorite kind of tarts? Do you think it's worth baking your own in the first place? I would love to know what you think.

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Monday, August 11, 2014

No-Churn Lemon Lime Ice Cream

Well, the inevitable has happened. Summer has arrived with full force bringing with it maximum heat, sticky humidity and general discomfort. So as with every year, I fight back with my army of kitchen utensils and a host of yummy ingredients to help me survive the summer heat. 

If you're one of those who happen to live in extreme heat like myself, get yourself a bowl of ice cream to help cool you down. It definitely helps and I should know. I just made a batch of it myself and the great thing about this recipe is that it doesn't require anything other than simple ingredients. In other words, no ice cream maker necessary! How cool is that for ya?

Keep scrolling down as the recipe is waaaay down at the bottom of this post. ;)

Today was an exceptionally hot day and on days like these, there's nothing more refreshing than lemons. Add some lime to the mix and this lemon-lime ice cream is like a dip in the ocean. Just tastier!

This is quite simply the easiest ice cream recipe that I know of. You start of with one of the simplest ingredients, which is sugar. For today's version, I chose to go with some icing sugar instead of the regular kind, just to see if that made a difference in texture. 

After thoroughly washing my lemons and lime clean, I added the lemon zest. Obviously I don't have a proper zester ( I promise to get one soon ) so I'm using this really sad one.

I also need the zest of one lime. Of course I could have just gone with lemons but the addition of lime adds a hint of limey bitterness. Just a hint. It really makes a difference believe me. 

After zesting my citrus fruits ( 1 lemon & 1 lime ), I add it to the icing sugar like this.

Now, I just need the juice of two fresh lemons. With a tad bit of embarrassment, here I show you how I juice my lemons with my very humble one-lemon-at-a-time-old-fashioned-manual juicer from the 100 yen store.

After the lemons, I squeeze out the juice from two limes. I know all this work looks tedious and gives the illusion of lots of work but believe me, it's easy peasy. My huge photos just make it look harder than it actually is I assure you.

Next, just add the citrus juices into the bowl of icing sugar.

If you juiced your fruits properly, this is what they should look like now. I'm thinking about saving these peels for something, but not really sure what for. If you have any suggestions, please feel free to comment below.

Using a whisk, mix the juices and the sugar together until well combined. At this point, you could just stop here and mix this in with some cold soda water to make a refreshing lemon-lime drink. But you're going to make ice cream right? In that case, let's move on shall we?

You'll need 2 cups of heavy cream. If you live in the UK, you would use double cream but you want a cream that's at least 40% milk fat if you want the creamiest results.

Add the heavy cream into the sugar/juice mixture and beat until soft peaks form. At first I thought I could manage with a hand-held whisk but decided to change to use my electric hand mixer as I really wanted to get this done before day's end.

Once that's done, put the contents into a shallow container that comes with an air-tight container. Freeze for at least 3 hours, preferably 5.

This is what your ice cream should look like after 5 hours in the freezer. Due to the sugar and fat content, it doesn't freeze into a hard object, even after frozen overnight.  The bits of lemon and lime zest is absolutely stunning combined with the creaminess of the ice cream. 

And finally here is the recipe! You deserve it especially since I made you scroll all the way down here.


2 lemons
2 limes
1 1/2 cups icing sugar
2 cups heavy cream


1.Grate the zest of 1 lemon and 1 lime. 
2.Squeeze the juices of 2 lemons and 2 limes. Add to the bowl of icing sugar. 
3.Mix with a whisk until well combined. 
4.Add the heavy cream into the mixture. Whip with electric beater until soft peaks form. 
5.Pour into shallow air-tight container with lid. 
6.Cover and freeze for 3-5 hours. 

Bon Appetit!

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