Wednesday, June 18, 2014

My Sister's wedding cake (part 1)

Would it survive being packed in a check-in suitcase and thrown around Heathrow airport? Would they lose my case? Here follows the first post detailing the adventures of my sister's traditional British wedding cake!

The top tier, ready for feeding with brandy

For Christmas last year I experimented with taking sugar flowers and a fondant-iced and royal-iced traditional Christmas fruitcake to my sister in England, for a taste test and to see if the cake could travel well in my suitcase.

This trial run was successful and as I type this part of the blog post I'm back on another plane, 6 months later, with a much larger fruitcake, a smallish one, and a ganached and fondant-covered chocolate cake to use for the day itself... Please, Virgin Airways, please don't lose my case, don't throw it around too much and don't drop it!

The two fruitcake tiers of the wedding cake began life over a month ago, just after my kitchen was up and running. I would have liked a longer time to mature the cakes, but hoped that a month with regular feeding with brandy would be enough to develop some good flavour. I baked a couple of practice fruitcakes and moved onto the monster bottom tier which is 26 cm in diameter by about 10cm height.

It's, oh I don't know, it must be almost 4kg all on its own with all that fruit! It practically fills my case in its hefty box, leaving just enough space for a smaller tin for the top layer, oh, that and my 'Cadbury's purple' bridesmaid dress (thanks sis) ;).

The top and bottom tiers are going to be traditional wedding cakes. Fruit: currants, raisins, sultanas, homemade mixed peel, apricots all soaked in brandy and later added to orange and lemon zest, nuts, molasses, homemade mixed spice and cinnamon, brown sugar etc. It's a heady and heavy concoction. The middle tier will be a moist chocolate cake filled and covered in rich ganache and then covered in purple fondant to match the bridesmaid dresses.

Once tied up in paper to protect against the long bake, and baked for hours - making my balmy April Tokyo kitchen smell like November in England - the cakes are fed with more brandy and packed away to mature.

The feeding with brandy was repeated numerous times over the coming weeks, and the cake was stored in the 12C cool table - a decision made due to the impending hot and humid Tokyo weather, because we want a matured cake and not a truly fermented one.

The weekend before I set off to England and the time came to marzipan (also home made, and yes I just used the word marzipan as a verb, oh dear). Trying out a few tricks I found in an old cake decorating book, I plugged with marzipan some of the larger dimples in the cake that had been formed by raisins getting sucked inward during baking, and built a collar around the rounded edge of the top of the cake, that was to become the bottom. This was then left to dry out completely for a few days before applying the icing.

Despite the superior taste of royal icing, we went for rolled fondant. The main reasons were that fondant is much easier to cut (for the cake cutting ceremony smoothness (!) and for slicing into the traditional 1-inch sticks of cake with all guests), and that we wanted to stack the cakes directly on top of each other in 3 layers. Stacking like this requires dowelling the cake, for stability, and this isn't advisable/possible with a royal iced cake.

Perhaps if we had gone with all 3 layers of wedding cake being made of fruitcake (and quite thick royal icing) we could have placed the cakes directly atop each other, but with one of the cakes being a softer, chocolate cake, I didn't want to risk it collapsing under the weight of the top fruitcake tier on my sister's big day. Fondant and dowels it was then.

The flowers were chosen to match the theme of the wedding - purple and ivory. My sister's bouquet is to be made from purple calla lilies and ours, as bridesmaids will be white. Above and below are some pictures of the practice cake and early stages of making some of the flowers.

Join me again shortly, for the next thrilling installment of the wedding cake adventure story. Did it make the trip?..!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The swinging shop sign

When deciding what type of shop sign / 看板 / kanban I would have for MonCre I considered various painted, home-made, vinyl lettered, wooden and professional facade signage options, and nothing really took my fancy.

The finished sign!

I've always had a bit of a thing for wrought iron style bracketed swinging signs, and couldn't believe my luck when I stumbled across Black Fox Metalcraft who made exactly what I was looking for at a reasonable price, and would ship to Japan! The shipping part of the price was under 100 pounds from the UK to Japan, and there was just a couple of thousand yen to pay on customs fees on arrival. Have a look at Black Fox's website for individual prices for items they make, or contact them directly for a custom quote.

Black Fox do custom designs as well as a range of pre-designed options you can just affix a name or house number to - many of their customers are individuals who want house name plates and decorations for gardens like weathervanes and hanging baskets. I set about seeing how our logo might work as a hanging sign and sent off some ideas to Jenny and John at Black Fox.

It turned out that some time ago Jenny had attended the same college as me in Stockport, though at different times :) I was thrilled to hear that they are based in Greater Manchester, not far from my hometown. How perfect that my sign should come from a small business from back home. I was probably a bit too excited in my emails with Black Fox, but they were kind and patient with me ;)

It was less than two months from the initial placing of the order to the sign arriving. On the day it came I spotted the UPS van pull up outside and started snapping and tweeting photos before the poor guy could get it out of the truck.

Here is the sign, aligned with its bracket on the floor of the shop. It looked rather large lay there on the floor, but once it was up high it seemed smaller and was the perfect size for the shop front. Clearly noticeable but not ostentatious, it matched well with the modern grey and black of my building, and the landlord and lady who live upstairs love it too!

I'd asked Jenny if she could do our precise font for the lettering, and look at the amazing job they did! It's hand-painted on both sides of the sign.

Here are a couple of pics of the grand putting-up-of the sign, with Antonio up the ladder. We had to make sure it was high enough to avoid clattering against the door that opens outwards, so we put it about as high as the traffic signs along the road, which worked out to be a great plan as the sign can be spotted from down the street.

Here we are, my very own beautiful, Diagon Alley-style swinging sign. ;)  Hoorah!

Thursday, June 12, 2014

The hokenjyo health inspection for business permits

Finally, after a few visits to consult with the local health department on the minutiae of their requirements, officially submitting my application and paying for the permits a few weeks earlier, the day of the hokenjyo/health department inspection arrived! (This is another of the catch-up posts I'd been planning to get around to for a few weeks now...)

Paying for biz permits at the health dept.

I had spent some time getting to know the lady who would be carrying out the inspection, and through a few enquiries learning what she would be paying attention to, only to find that with the inspection being around the end of the financial year in April she would be transferring departments and a completely new person would be attending my inspection! Ah well.

The days leading up to the inspection were busy, and a certain level of construction was completed on time, with cosmetic additions to be completed later. It was a particularly busy time for construction-related parties and the health department itself, as from April 2014 the VAT amount in Japan increased from 5% to 8%.. In practical terms this meant that places like tile companies in Japan had run out of stock (people paid upfront in March for jobs planned in the upcoming months to save money on the increased tax), and Tokyo Gas were backed up in a similar way with new businesses wanting their gas connections opened and businesses up and running before the tax hike.

Another surprise slight inconvenience was the last-minute scrabble to get a locker to put the cleaning equipment in. After trying to order a cheaper, second-hand locker I ended up paying too much to get a new one from the Askul office supplies service, just so I would have a locker for certain by the time of the inspection. It's a bit big really..

I probably needn't have worried too much however, as the inspection itself went very smoothly. I guess it might depend on who you have doing the check, and perhaps the size and nature of your business, but it was all quite quick really.

The lady who came was mainly concerned to know whether anything had changed from the plans I had consulted about with her predecessor, aside from which she noted that the fridge and freezers indeed had temperature monitors, that the floor was washable, the toilet was far enough from the kitchen and that the kitchen was divided clearly from the customer space. She also checked how many exits there were to the property and said that the low glass partition that had been held up at the workshop for tax-increase related reasons definitely needed to be in place as soon as possible. This didn't impede me being granted the business permissions however, I was given the license numbers on the day, and was to pick up the actual certificate a week or so later at the health centre.

I say "permissions" in plural, as it turned out that I needed to apply and pay for two separate licenses, as I planned to do internet sales (which required a confectioner's 菓子製造業許可 / kashi seizougyou kyoka license) and occasional bakery (which required a cafe/restaurant license / 飲食店営業許可 / inshokuten eigyou kyoka). Incidentally, I checked specifically, and the baking school part of the business didn't actually require a business permit… interesting! Applying for these business permits cost 16,000 and 14,000 yen each.

One thing that I'd consulted about in advance was regarding whether or not we needed to 'raise the floor' in the kitchen, meaning building a type of stage, under which a drain could be plumbed in to allow for a wet-space and thorough mopping. Larger businesses and those doing a lot of frying, working with oil and so on usually require such a floor drain (they are usually designed in Japan as a drain in a long strip down the middle of the floor.

My business was deigned to be light-capacity and so a floor-draining wet kitchen wasn't required, as long as the floor covering for the kitchen itself was water-tight vinyl or some similar durable and washable substance. Raising the floor would have added at least a hundred thousand yen to the construction budget, so this was lucky! I did however choose to fit a small grease trap. For my light-capacity business type it wasn't strictly necessary, but I wanted to get along with my neighbours and that means not blocking up community drains and causing a stink.

There was a little discussion about when to pick up the permit, when it would need to be renewed and re-inspected, and also something regarding an Azabu initiative against gangs involving displaying a "No! to gangs!" type sticker on the premises. Apart from that, it seems that the health inspection isn't quite as big and scary as I had imagined it might be.

I feel that if you consult with them well previously and make sure you cover the non-negotiable requirements (size and number of sinks along with their individual taps with hot and cold water, separation of customer space and kitchen space) and prepare in good faith, you'll probably be fine.

Monday, June 9, 2014

The day my oven arrived!

(Still catching up on old posts here..) After researching oven options a couple of years ago, testing the one I wanted at the Japanese seller's test kitchen, I finally went back to the shop where I first saw it, and made my purchase of the Garnet oven.

The most important piece of kit in my new kitchen, it was quite a momentous day!

I'd been awaiting the day I'd no longer have "more than 5 hours of shortbread ahead of me" but could bake all 8-rounds of shortbread in just one session of 40 minutes. I just needed to wait until the 200v socket and water pipe for the steam function were in place.

Careful now!

I had also ordered the official stand for the oven. Though it was a little pricey at around 70,000 yen, I decided against the IKEA udden console which had roughly the same dimensions at less than 10,000 yen because the oven is fairly heavy and I didn't want to risk it falling or being pulled off the surface, or the whole thing toppling forward. The official stand has a ridge in which the oven nestles and nifty racks for your oven trays.

Since a little time has now passed since the oven came I can also comment on using it. I love it :)

There are a couple of things I initially needed to get used to - the fans are quite strong, and so anything quite light, or that only holds down part of the baking paper with its own weight needs to go in with bits of batter or magnets holding down the corners of the paper, if you're baking high cakes or those with extended paper collars such as Christmas cakes, then the available width between the racks in the oven is fairly narrow (about 25cm).

Overall though it's amazing - the texture of cakes is tremendously improved from my home oven, flapjacks bake nicely on the base, and overall cooking time for most things is shorter. Oh! And finally proper steam! My sourdoughs are getting lovely red-brown crusts and great oven spring. I'm a happy camper indeed. A particular feature of this oven is that it runs on single phase electricity (単相 / tansou) and so regular houses that don't have commercial 3-phase electricity can also use it, as long as you have a 200v socket fitted.

It's already worth its weight in gold, and I'm very happy with the purchase.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Construction report! Building my Tokyo kitchen

A post about our work on the space and some of the issues we encountered along the way.

My property was already a beautiful space when I first viewed it, so I was pretty lucky. Many business properties in Japan are let as スケルトン "skeleton" spaces, which means that they are stripped back to the bare concrete for you to build walls, raised floors and your own plumbing and electrics. It's considerably more expensive to renovate a skeleton space than one with the fittings remaining from the previous tenant - unless you don't want to use those fittings and need to pay to rip all those out of course.

Panorama of the space

Casa do Namiki 101 used to be a ceramics shop. It had a gallery-feel about it, big bright windows, wood-effect tiled floor and subtle gallery lighting. It didn't have a kitchen, and so after some deliberation we decided to build a large (for Tokyo) kitchen in the back nook of the space, facing the main window. This would mean people could watch me as I worked, and I'd also have a nice view out of the window.

Where we built the kitchen

I've never actually designed a kitchen before, so working with a builder who would be a bit collaborative with me and provide consulting as well as good work at a reasonable price was important.

My 内装 / naisou / refurbishment budget being what it was, I knew I couldn't afford to be too demanding, but after meeting with a few different people including 大工さん / daikusan / carpenters, space planners who work with teams of designers/carpenters etc, and all-round construction contacts, I was happy to meet with Antonio Canales of Rising Son Express.

Antonio is a long-time Japan resident with years of experience on a range of construction and electric work in Japan from small businesses like mine to larger residential projects involving sets of apartments. American, with good Japanese language and people skills, he works with a team of Japanese colleagues based on the work and budget for the project.

Sketching out plans...

My initial ideas about the space was to have bare concrete walls with the wooden floor in the customer space, with bookcases around a mantlepiece, and perhaps a brown leather wingback chair. The kitchen was to have stainless steel, glass and also white tiles with black grouting, like I had photographed at Mornington Crescent tube station.

Flat white tiles and dark grouting

We ran into some challenges with this plan. The long thin tiles that I wanted were nowhere to be bought, any type of white tiles in fact were impossible to get for a short time in Japan! The tax increase in April meant that people had paid upfront in March for materials for projects in the upcoming months and all stock was already promised out to other people. There was nothing we could do but wait for some of these things until May.

Come May and the tiles arrived! We put them up offset like bricks, not in the more usual to Japan grid pattern. Here they are on the front counter, before and after we put the grout on. My glass screen in place too, my very own sushi counter ;)

Another problem we came across was with my idea about bare concrete walls. This is not as easy to achieve as it might sound - a number of builders I had consulted with advised against it as a waste of time and money, as the backing paper under he existing wallpaper was glued directly to the concrete of the space and would be difficult to remove. In the end I decided to have a go myself with a steamer, and I managed to clear a whole wall... only to find that the concrete under the paper wasn't the pure grey of my imagination but had a whole host of weird and wonderful colours that would look great on a painting, but were probably not the best look for a food establishment.

Instead, concrete-effect wallpaper then, with a slightly heavy heart is what I compromised with. Having worked in the space for a little while now, it has grown on me and I'm quite fond of it.

On one wall, and still to come as a refurbishment, will be some special wallpaper and a set of higgledy-piggledy framed portraits of some of my favourite people. I really fancied having flocked velvet wallpaper in a greenish hue, and got all excited when I found *the original* BBC Sherlock wallpaper from Zoffany available to buy online in the UK! I quickly ordered a few samples to be sent to my sister's house and she sent them onto me...

I narrowed them down to the two samples I liked the best. Recognise the one on the left in the image below? :) But which, oh which, did I end up choosing for that wall.... to be continued! (Once I bring the rolls back in my suitcase.)

Antonio made me a beautiful floor in the kitchen with this water resistant vinyl, which, with my red oven makes the space feel ever so slightly Lynchian :)

Here we've got the counter getting built, the big fridge/freezer in place, and the gas table in the corner. Antonio raised the height of the second-hand cold table and sink to gaijin-friendly 90cm (and my back thanks you, Tony!)

Starting to build up the bookcases and mantlepiece. Woo, moody! Still not sure if there is really space to have a leather armchair in there.

And here we have the largely finished effect. The most beautiful kitchen I've ever owned. It's such a luxury to have a large work surface, big fridge-freezer and 4 oven shelves to work with after struggling in tiny kitchens for such a long time.

On completion of this phase of the project Antonio gave me this amazing clock as a gift! A great craftsman with a sense of pride in his work, and a nice guy too. I'm so lucky :)

Just to think, once upon a time the space was only an idea..!

Thursday, June 5, 2014

Launch flowers in Japan

Catching up on a few overdue posts - When you launch a new business in Japan, if you're lucky you'll receive flowers to display at your premises to celebrate the opening.

These are usually from business partners and other parties related to the set-up of your shop, such as real estate agents, and they come with a card on a stick saying something like 開店祝い / kaiten iwai / congratulations on your new shop, and also including the name of the business who sent the gift such as XYZ不動産 / XYZ Real Estate Co. Aside from indicating to passers-by that a new business has opened in the space, these are also advertisements for the related companies, who might hope to get a little additional exposure.

You've probably seen a variety of large and small displays outside new businesses in Japan, from ostentatious flowers on tall stands outside the shop, to small displays of dried or 'preserved flowers' that don't require any upkeep.

A traditional offering would be orchids 胡蝶蘭 / kochouran. These are presented potted, in soil, to represent the wish for the new business to set down firm roots at the premises and flourish much like the plant.

It's a lovely, and quite practical tradition, and I was thrilled to receive a number of celebration flowers and balloons upon the opening of the business - all the more exciting as I hadn't expected that anyone would send them to my little shop. Thanks everyone!