Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

It’s that freezing time of the year where I dread going to the grocery store (I don’t drive). In addition to my usual planning and stocking up the freezer, I borrowed my friend’s bread machine. The bread machine came with a recipe booklet, but most of the recipes included eggs and dairy. Since baking is more exact than cooking, I looked up a vegan whole wheat bread recipe instead of improvising. I then bought a giant bag of whole wheat flour, before realizing I had to go back to the store to buy bread machine yeast. At least these two ingredients will last me for several loaves. Luckily the seeds and vital wheat gluten were listed as optional as I had just used the last of them earlier.

Before getting started, I figured I should wipe the machine down. Turns out it needed much more than a quick clean. Below the bread pan was a horrifying mess. I thoroughly cleaned the machine, and then turned it on bake mode for 20 minutes just to be safe. Finally, I was ready to get baking.

The first ingredient was warm water, so I got started while the machine was still warm. Even though the order goes from liquid to dry ingredients, I should’ve measured them all out to avoid having to wash and dry my measuring cup and spoons half way through. The last ingredient was the yeast, and I’d forgotten the recipe explicitly stated that it should not come into contact with any of liquids. Oops. I rushed to start the machine in the hopes that it wouldn’t matter if it started kneading the dough right away. After a few minutes, I noticed that I had accidentally put it on bake mode. I tried to switch it to the whole wheat cycle, but this didn’t go smoothly either as now the machine was too hot to start. Several minutes later with the lid open, and the machine was finally cool enough.

In the excitement of watching the machine knead the dough, I forgot all of my worries. Then the window fogged up during rise time. While waiting, I planned my next loaf of bread. Turns out milk powder is only used because many people put their machine on a delay, and without a delay I could easily substitute it with non-dairy milk or even yogurt.

When the bread begun to bake, the room filled with the lovely aroma of the honey lavender included in the mix. I was tempted to devour it right as the machine beeped, but instead I carefully removed the bread pan to cool in the oven. I left the oven door slightly open to avoid a crinkly and soggy crust.

The wait was worth it. As I sliced the loaf, the texture was perfect. I had a plain bite, and the taste was incredible. It was perfect alone, or with a simple spread of margarine or coconut oil. But I was inspired to quickly whip up a healthier cashew spread with just a hint of honey.

While thinking of other toppings like almond butter and bananas, I tried to come up with a savoury option that wouldn’t overpower the delicate flavour of the bread. There was a fresh bunch of carrots in the fridge, and I always had extra chickpea flour around, so I decided to make some chickpea omelettes. I even had some chickpea milk, but any non-dairy milk would do (even water works in a pinch). I usually only make enough batter for two, but this time I made enough omelettes for the entire week. A perfect winter brunch. I usually drink a matcha latte when I wake up, as I don’t like eating breakfast too early. Then by the time I’m done sipping on my tea and planning the day, I’m ready for a meal.

Winter brunch with freshly baked bread

The omelette sandwich tasted great with the cashew spread and topped with alfalfa sprouts. It would also be great topped with fresh cucumber, cherry tomatoes, or peppers. The only thing left to improve is the size of my slice. I’m still getting the hang of it, but while my slices are this thick I’ll just have to stick to open-faced sandwiches.  

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

As I crossed the Uji-bashi Bridge, I stopped to enjoy the Uji river view and the surrounding hills before finally arriving at the famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji. The short road leading to the Byodoin temple is chock-full of tea shops selling the best matcha in the world.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji
Statue of Murasaki Shikibu

Although I had a list of matcha brands I wanted to buy, I strolled down the street looking for a quiet teahouse to relax in after the train ride from Osaka. Terashimaya is the first tea shop that caught my eye. The shop had hundreds of wooden tea crates and was extremely busy, which was a good sign, but what drew me was their outdoor seating area.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

One of the shopkeepers was surrounded by customers sampling genmaicha, and so I approached another and asked if they had ceremonial matcha. After gesturing to explain I wanted to drink the tea, the shopkeeper lead me outside. The tranquil seating area was sheltered from the sun and the noise from the street.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

While I had planned on trying to ask for their highest grade of matcha, I lost all of my courage when the shopkeeper didn’t come back with a menu. Instead, I was presented with a beautiful black and red tray. The tray had a hot cup of sencha, a bowl of vibrant green matcha, and two matcha flavoured Japanese sweets. I sipped on the first matcha of the day and relaxed.

Exploring The Famous Byodo-in Omotesando Road in Uji

The matcha served as part of the standard set was good, but not amazing. I later learned that many shops don’t allow you to taste their highest grade matcha. Luckily, I had done my research and was now eager to buy my first tin of the finest matcha powder.

Ordering Ceremonial Matcha in Kyoto

Ordering ceremonial matcha in Kyoto

The good thing about arriving in a surprisingly busy area of Kyoto, was the amble choice of teahouses. In an attempt to be open to new experiences, I embraced under-planning and walked into the first teahouse I came across. After drinking matcha in Shinsaibashi in Osaka, I wanted to try a matcha flavoured food. The menu had a variety of matcha noodle dishes, and appetizing desserts. Since matcha is an acquired taste, flavoured ice cream, tiramisu, and parfaits are a great alternative for those who don’t yet appreciate ceremonial matcha.

There were many food items, but unfortunately no vegan options. Instead, I ordered a ceremonial matcha and hoped it would be served with a sweet treat. In Japanese teahouses, the most expensive matcha on the menu is the highest grade ceremonial matcha and is served with sencha and wagashi. Wagashi is a small Japanese confection, often made from sugar and rice flour. It is typically plant-based, even when it includes a filling.

The order did end up including a delicious pink wagashi. The matcha itself didn’t have that distinct umami flavour, however, it was still extremely fresh and skillfully prepared. I also ordered an iced matcha, which was smooth but much sweeter than expected as they added a generous amount of syrup.

Sometimes it’s nice to stroll around, and visit a place without looking at reviews. Though, I have extremely high expectations for my next matcha tasting as it would be in the highly regarded teahouses of Uji.

I’ll have the yellow and blue

Sweet Hart Kitchen

No trip to Kensington Market is complete without a visit to Sweet Hart Kitchen. After originally tasting their delicious desserts at Veg Food Fest, I was delighted when I found out they had opened a physical shop.

blue lemonade and yellow lemon bar

The last time I stopped by Sweet Hart Kitchen, I got their blue lemonade and yellow lemon bar. The bright colours made for a perfect summer treat, especially knowing they weren’t full of artificial colours and flavours. They both tasted even better than they looked.

Every time I enter the shop, I spot a new and temping item. Here’s a few of their creative vegan and gluten-free creations I’ve had in the past.

Matcha Vanilla Cream
Matcha Vanilla Cream

This cake requires patience and precision. I know because I’ve tried to replicate it. After soaking cashews for hours on end, you’ve got to blend them until the texture is silky smooth. After avoiding cashew bits, you need to worry about matcha clumps. Too much matcha may also affect the delicate balance of flavours. Sweet Hart Kitchen’s Matcha Vanilla Cream cheesecake has the perfect combination of matcha, vanilla, and natural sweeteners.

Cookie Dough Cheesecake
Cookie Dough Cheesecake
Vanilla Earl Grey Bundt Cake
Vanilla Earl Grey Bundt Cake

This beautiful cake appears simple, but since it’s gluten-free I’m betting it took several attempts to perfect. As a London Fog fan, I loved this flavour.

Tiramisu Square
Tiramisu Square

If you’re running short on time, you can always grab Sweet Hart Kitchen to go. Warning: some treats won’t make it all the way home.

Hibiscus + Goji Berry Kombucha and Apple Berry Heart Pop-tart
Hibiscus + Goji Berry Kombucha and Apple Berry Heart Pop-tart
Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich
Matcha Ice Cream Sandwich

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

First taste of matcha in Shinsaibashi

Prior to travelling to Japan, I had done some research into the best places to buy and sip on ceremonial grade matcha in Uji and Osaka.

The first place I visited was Uji-en (Uji Garden) in Shinsaibashi. The tea shop is located near the end of a covered street in the shopping district, which feels like a large yet crowded hallway. Since there were two tea shops on the same area, I checked out the merchandise to try and figure out if I was in the right place. Taking the time to look around, also helped me spot the tea drinking area. Even though I knew Noren were traditionally draped at the entrance of restaurants, I thought the fabric might be concealing a stock room. Luckily, I got a brief glimpse into the back of the tea shop as another customer exited. It felt impolite to walk in, and so I asked another shopkeeper if I could enter while miming drinking matcha by holding my two hands up and tilting an imaginary matcha bowl to my mouth. The shopkeeper understood I wanted to drink matcha, not just buy a tin of tea, and enthusiastically invited me in.

There were plenty of seats, but I decided to sit by the counter to get a better view of the matcha preparation. Before placing my order, I was given a small cup with a deep caramel liquid. The drink was cold, and had a rich earthy aroma and subtle sweetness. It didn’t have the strong bitter aftertaste of green or black tea. I didn’t know it at the time, but that was my first taste of roasted green tea also known as Hojicha.

When my matcha was served, it came with yet another small cup. This time the small cup contained a hot bright green liquid. After enjoying the hojicha, I bravely took a sip of the unknown tea. As soon as I caught a whiff of the tea, I knew I wouldn’t like the flavour. It smelled and tasted exactly like vegetable broth. I was convinced it was vegetable soup, but later found out it was sencha. Apparently most people preferred the taste of sencha over matcha, and so it is served to clear the palate.    

After tasting one of the best and worst teas I’ve ever had, it was time for the main event. I won’t leave you in suspense any longer, except to say that this trip has completely changed the way I drink matcha. The first sip was so exceptional that I had to pause in appreciation before taking another. The matcha tasted incredible, and was obviously very fresh and of high quality. However, the skilled preparation took it to the next level. The delicate foam, the fully dissolved powder, and the perfectly warm water were all signs of an expertly made matcha.

Paying attention to details not only pays off in terms of flavour, but it also makes you appreciate matcha more than you would if you had in a plastic to-go cup while rushing to a meeting. It reminds me of a quote by the monk Jeong Kwan, who said on Chef’s Table: “I make food as a meditation.” Both the quote and this tea experience have had a huge impact on the way I prepare matcha and food in general.

If you are curious, here’s how I prepare my matcha.

  1. Boil filtered water and let stand overnight. Japanese tea tastes best in soft water.
  2. Boil water again once you are ready to drink matcha.
  3. Pour the boiling water into your matcha bowl, and let stand for a minute or so.
  4. Transfer the water into another vessel. This helps warm the bowl, and then cools down the water to 80°C to avoid burning the matcha.
  5. Sift two scoops of matcha into the bowl to prevent clumps.
  6. Add a little bit of the warm water into the matcha bowl.
  7. Whisk quickly in a zig-zag shape for approximately 30 seconds. Once foam appears, slow down and get rid of any air bubbles.
  8. Add the rest of the water. If you’d like to prepare a latte instead, then add half of the remaining warm water along with non-dairy milk.