Catching up (1)

We’re now close to the graduation ceremony of the entire course, so I have some catching up to do with my posts. This one runs until the end of the basic course in our complete pastry program.

My house in Daikanyama feels very much like home already, especially after bringing in some furniture and decorations. I don’t see my flatmates often in the mornings as they leave earlier than I do. Sometimes we eat together in the evenings, even though I eat much more with my friends from school. Most of the people in the apartment are working and only a couple are students.

As a digression back to the real world, last month I had a Skype interview with both the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and the Weizmann Institute of Science for the upcoming school year. Being interviewed is quite hard as it is but having the interview over Skype, crossing all of Asia, seemed to me much worse. While the first interview with the Hebrew University went pretty well, the Weizmann interview was pretty bad. We had at least 50% word-loss on both ends and I had no idea whether they get what I’m saying or not. We’ll see.

Back to school, one of the more complicated cakes we were working on during the time was the Black Forest Cake – a famous chocolate and cherry combination. In it, there’s a specific preparation step which requires mixing cold whipped cream with lukewarm chocolate ganache. This step requires precise temperature control and careful mixing, otherwise bad things will happen. Naturally, I had the creme a little too cold, which immediately caused the chocolate to become lumpy, the worst nightmare of every pastry chef. I tried to fix it somehow before Chef Honda could notice but to no avail. He advised that it could get a bit better by heating the mixture up a little bit.

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The problem is inside.

During one of the passing weekends I went on a Meetup group tour to Totoro forest at Saitama, near Tokyo. Totoro is the main character of a movie by the Japanese director Hayao Miyazaki called “My Neighbor Totoro” (となりのトトロ). I haven’t actually seen the movie yet so I probably missed some of the references in the trip but going outside Tokyo to get some nature was worth it anyway. The theme song of the movie is well-known though, especially the cover version in which a parrot whistles the song. The group trip was organized by Kimio, who does that voluntarily. The group consists of foreigners and Japanese. Some of them enjoy the company, some want to practice English, and some simply enjoy the trip. Right on the beginning of the trip I met Yumi and we hang out together for the remainder of it. The place holds a shrine for Totoro and is surrounded by nature, bamboos, and flowers. Of course there’s also lots of merchandise for fans.

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Exiting the shrine we went up a road which also appears in the movie, or so I was told, leading to an area filled with flower fields. During spring time there’s a calendar for the times in which specific flowers bloom, the most famous are the Sakura, but there are others, such as Wisteria.

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Going back home I went on a little hair-cutting adventure. I was looking for a place to get a haircut for a couple of days and found some cheap Japanese-speaking-only barbershop in my area. I reckoned that the risk is too high so instead I went for a barbershop in my neighborhood. Since it’s a very trendy neighborhood the price was accordingly high. I went inside and after verifying that the barber understands me sufficiently we started the process. At first he got me a men’s haircut magazine and asked me to choose a haircut. As each haircut was more anime-styled than the other I just asked for the same haircut I currently have just shorter. Easy enough. Then I went to get my hair washed, a process that took 20 minutes, and during which there were three different lotions applied to my head, plus a head-massage session. Then we went to the chair and the haircut itself started, using scissors only. After half an hour, half of my head was done, I got a glass of Shochu (Japanese high-alcohol content drink), and we continued for the other half. We talked quite a lot and the barber was pretty interested in my story and how come I got to Japan and specifically his barbershop. I think that many Japanese are still quite surprised when a foreigner enters an all-Japanese place. At around two hours since I got in I went out with a brand new haircut.

On the same weekend I went to another Meetup event in which we hiked up Mount Takao (more like a hill actually), which offers nice views over the Tokyo vicinity, some nature and temples, an easy day trip from Tokyo. When I told the people there that I’m from Israel they excitedly noted that there’s another Israeli guy in this trip. There I met Ron, who’s been living and working in Japan for some months already.

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Scouts and festivities.

At the summit of these mountains it’s common to find some marking that you’ve reached the summit, a shrine, and a souvenir shop for your pleasure.

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After the hiking Ron and I departed for Akihabara. It’s a well-known electronics, anime and manga district in Tokyo. We entered the store Yodobashi camera because I wanted to buy a speaker for my room. The store is huge, of course, contains numerous floors, and is full of advertisements in any direction you look at – right, left, up and down. As a stark contrast, there was an Apple corner in the store which looked like a desert among all other departments. Ron’s Japanese was quite good and one of the sellers was very impressed. Japanese are highly impressed when a foreigner speaks Japanese. He always gets immediate admiration.

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The surroundings are manga heaven:20150419_180927.jpg

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The next day we worked on some cake which required accurate work with whipped cream. It’s surprisingly easy to manually whip cream. It’s also equally easy to over and under whip it. And when it’s ready it’s crucial not to touch it too much. If you need to spread it over the cake it should be done in a couple of motions and that’s it. Anymore and it becomes only worse. The layers are visible, the texture becomes grainier and less smooth. That’s what I learned *after* I was done with it anyway. One of my worse cakes to date. And if that wasn’t enough it fell when I was trying to put it in my bag :/.

Well, there you go:

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The better looking one is Stefanie’s.

During one evening we out to a ramen shop called AFURI. It’s a small chain of ramen shops operating in Tokyo (and one shop in Yokohama) which has a signature broth containing yuzu (similar to lemon and lime). This is my favorite ramen so far.

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Buying the dish is similar to other shops and requires buying a small ticket at a machine in the entrance to the shop. The dish above is their classic. It contains the noodles, onion, meat, daikon and the special ramen egg, which is half done, and seaweed. The use of the spoon requires some technique and unintuitively it’s not used for drinking the soup. By looking around and learning from my friends and locals I could see that the spoon is used as an intermediate station for the noodles between the bowl and my mouth. It helps in cooling them down and making overall less mess.

During one of our last lessons for the basic level, Chef Honda demonstrated his chocolate writing abilities. Turns out it’s super difficult and requires a steady hand and lots of determination. The chocolate is held in a small cone of which the tip is removed. Then, you turn the cone to face down and have the chocolate flow. You have to keep moving all the time or else you’ll just get a heap of chocolate. Every time Honda created a specific pattern or wrote something there was a great sigh of amazement from the class and some clapping. This seemed to embarrass him quite a bit and he raised his hand as if saying “no need, no need”. Everyone admires him in class.

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As we were approaching the end of the basic level we had to pass two tests. The first one was theoretical and consisted of several questions about specific cakes, methods, tools, etc. and was quite easy. The second was a practical test, in which we had to prepare one of the cakes we had learned during the lessons without the written recipe and having only the ingredients list. To add to that, the exam cake was kept secret until 30 minutes before the exam started so we had to memorize the preparation steps of all of the cakes. As it is pretty difficult to memorize the steps, Emira and I decided that it would be better use of our time to just prepare during the 30 minutes after we know the identity of the cake.

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Serious students preparing for the test.

At 15:00 sharp Honda walked in and announced that the exam cake would be Black Forest Cake. Not completely unexpected, as it’s quite a complex cake. Last time I had some trouble with the chocolate mousse inside, so now was the time to outperform that.

So we went inside with only the ingredients list and started to work. The atmosphere was much more stressed than usual and everyone was trying very hard to be efficient. When I mixed the cold cream with the melted chocolate for the mousse I prayed hard and it apparently worked as I got silky smooth chocolate mousse. When we were done each had to take down his cake to a room, in which you put your cake next to a random number, for a blind cake-tasting by the chefs.

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The chefs went over all cakes and tried them all. We were then all gathered and it was announced that everyone passed except one student (his cake collapsed so he’ll have to retake the test).

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Relieved faces after exam.

The next day I took the Yamanote to Harajuku station. Going out the station looks like a rainbow has collapsed on the street. Every color from every direction, especially pink and cute. In Japanese there’s a word, Kawaii, which means cute. It’s more than a word, though, it’s an entire culture of cuteness. Ranging from merchandise to clothes to food. Everything can be kawaii.

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Kawaiii.

In the vicinity there’s also the famous Omotesando street, aka fifth avenue of Tokyo. A lively street full of people queuing for things: popcorn, shaved ice, apple store and more. I was heading for Omotesando Koffee, a specialty coffee situated in a small street just north of Omotesando. At the entrance there’s a small garden with just a couple of benches and bamboo plants growing around. The barista is especially professional and nice and the coffee itself was divine. I took my time sitting in the garden, sipping the cup.

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Highly recommended for the coffee and the atmosphere.

I went back to school for a special masterclass with a patissier from Tokyo, but before that I sat down with Emira and Yvonne to have our photos taken to appear in a school brochure.20150424_143638.jpg

I’ll post the results as soon as I have them.

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During the masterclass.

Finally, on the next day we had our graduation ceremony for the basic level. Before though, I met up with Yumi to have breakfast and visit the Ueno zoo. The chosen place for breakfast was a maid cafe. Well, there’s a lot to be said about that place, most of it quite embarrassing. The idea though is cuteness. The place is aimed for teenage girls. I would not recommend going alone, nor in a group of boys, and definitely not as an older man. Anyway, the dishes are very kawaii, as evident from the following:

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and:

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After getting the food and drinks you are not allowed to touch them unless you perform some small dance, including making a heart shape with your hands and saying “gyuu, gyuu, kyuu” (and as Yumi explained, “kyuu” is the sound created upon love at first sight). I tried very hard not to but our maid-dressed waiter was strict about performing the dance.

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On the way to the ceremony I stopped at Urth Cafe in Daikanyama with Sam, Kim, and her sister Jaclyn. They urged me to try the Green Tea Boba, which is a green tea based drink filled with chewy, 1 cm in diameter, tapioca balls. Every pulp-hater’s worst nightmare. It really was disgusting.

Finally, we got to the ceremony. Each one of us was called up on stage to receive a diploma for having completed that stage in our studies. Of course there was lots of food and pastries cooked by our chefs for the dinner.

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Chef Honda and myself.

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