23 January 2009

Slappy New Year

I've needed to restock my tea supply for over a month now. My freezer may be full of sugary treats, but I was running low on what to wash them down with. It's just been so very cold, and with that pesky economic collapse it's hard to justify dropping $50 on dried leaves.

But even so, on a recent day that could only be described as feeling Jack Frost's wintry slap (I'll admit I lifted that from weather.com, circa 2005), it was still worth walking 20 blocks to Ito En (822 Madison Ave.) for the tea I discovered.

Stalling so I could thaw out, I asked if there was anything new in stock, and was introduced to obukucha ($10 per ounce).

This Kyoto tea consists of a shincha, or first sencha harvest of the spring, which is aged in clay pots- unusual for Japanese greens, because the whole point is to have them as fresh as possible- until a few weeks before New Year's. It's served to celebrate the upcoming year with a taste from the old, and to usher in good fortune (something we all could use at the moment).

Even though it was almost a year old, the scent of the aged leaves, when I stuck my nose deep into the bag, was intensely sweet and grassy. I could hardly wait to get home to make a cup.

It brews up a pale florescent green, like the stems of those first brave snowdrops that unfurl through the thawing spring ground. And the smell is almost more nuanced than the taste, which is the roundest, least-brassy Japanese green I've had: Close your eyes and imagine the pale sun hitting bales of hay in a barn on a March morning. (Trust me on this one, even though the closest barn is probably 200 miles away.)

I had to keep making more to attempt to describe the flavor- every time I looked down, the cup was empty. It's that smooth.

The only thing this tea possibly needs is a stack of these simple, crispy almond brown-sugar cookies (adapted from the December 2008 Gourmet) beside it.

Almond Cookies
Makes: about 100 cookies.

1 1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1/4 teaspoon baking soda
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 stick unsalted butter, softened
1 cup packed light-brown sugar
1 large egg
1 teaspoon almond extract
1/2 cup slivered or whole blanched almonds (2 1/2 ounces)

1. Whisk together flour, baking soda and salt. Beat together butter and brown sugar in a large bowl with an electric mixer until pale and fluffy, then beat in egg and vanilla. At low speed, mix in flour mixture until a dough just forms. Stir in almonds.

2. Divide dough in half. Using a sheet of plastic wrap, form each piece of dough into a log about 9 inches long (about 1 1/4 inches in diameter). Refrigerate, wrapped in plastic wrap, until very firm, at least 4 hours. Freeze 30 minutes to facilitate slicing.

3. Heat oven to 350°F with racks in upper and lower thirds. Line 2 large baking sheets with parchment paper. Cut 1 log of dough crosswise into slices less than 1/8 inch thick with a thin sharp knife, rotating log after each slice to help keep round shape. (If dough gets too soft to slice through nuts easily, freeze briefly.) Arrange cookies about 1/2 inch apart on baking sheets.

4. Bake cookies, switching position of sheets halfway through, until golden brown all over, 12 to 15 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment to racks to cool. Repeat with remaining dough.

There's still a bit of the obukucha left at Ito En, so if you want to enjoy 2009, I'd suggest getting yourself some as soon as possible.


Camille said...

When I was in Annapolis for a swim meet there was a tea shop, something like the one you must frequent. I could kick myself for not stopping by simply to breath in the aromas. (My son who swam like crazy was falling asleep in his lunch as I gazed out at the store.)

Those crisp cookies are on the "to make" list. Yum!

Anonymous said...

Sincha reccommended it, I can't wait 2 try it!

Camille said...

One of the first things I thought of was a little copper pot...you must have read my mind! I've wanted one for so long. But, the practical me went for some items that were badly needed or in need of a new replacement. Darn that practical side!

Penelope said...

What wonderful sister gave you that teapot?

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