Growing up in San Leandro, Kaori Becker remembers how her mom would make mochi every January, a Japanese tradition for the new year: using a mochi machine that soaks sweet rice overnight, steams it and pummels it until it becomes a dense, glossy dough.
It’s a modern progression from what Becker’s grandmother would do in Japan, pounding glutinous rice paste with only a bowl, a mallet and her two hands. These days, Becker takes an even quicker route than her mom: the microwave.
These different styles of mochi are all explored in Becker’s new cookbook, “Mochi Magic.” Microwaved mochi might be a short-cut, but it still produces a soft, chewy texture that Becker argues is only slightly less supple than the more common steaming method — plus faster, less messy and easier to learn for beginners. As for hand-pounding mochi — well, not even Becker’s mom, Yukiko Zinke, does that anymore.
Becker’s book runs through dozens of traditional and modern flavors, with the mix-and-match approach. It also dives into savory mochi and baked mochi, a style popularized in the Bay Area by the mochi muffins and doughnuts by Berkeley’s Third Culture Bakery. And there are recipes for ice cream-filled mochi, many Americans’ first introduction to the sweet confection.
Ultimately, Becker’s story is a classic tale of a half-Japanese woman feeling a sudden pull to her cultural traditions as an adult and then making them her own. Her book shows a wide range of possibilities for mochi, inspiring readers to invent their own creations.
While Becker remembers eating mochi frequently as an East Bay kid, scarfing down red bean-stuffed daifuku at Japanese community bazaars, she didn’t consider making mochi herself until she was a graduate student in Ohio.
On visits home, she started asking her mom for lessons, and Zinke introduced the microwave method using mochiko, sweet rice flour. Around the same time, Becker developed an interest in food and cooking classes. She volunteered at a cooking school so she could drop in on classes for free, then jumped in with her own class devoted to ramen.
But it wasn’t until 2016, when Becker realized she wanted to start a family and that she was more interested in food than teaching high school English, that her professional mochi life began.
Becker moved back to the Bay Area and started Kaori’s Kitchen, a cooking school focused on Asian cuisines. She enlisted her mom to co-teach a mochi class — what she believes was the first mochi-making class in the region — and it quickly turned into Kaori’s Kitchen’s most popular offering.
The classes would start out with traditional pounded mochi, with students taking turns with the wooden mallet and dropping pieces into ozoni soup, a traditional New Year’s dish. Becker’s recipe features dashi, chicken and seasonal vegetables, and when the mochi pieces fall into the hot broth, they stretch like mozzarella.
Then, Becker and Zinke would show the students microwaved mochi, perhaps flavored with matcha tea or rose water. They’d demonstrate the smooth, translucent look of the fully cooked mochi and dump the hot, sticky mound onto a cornstarch-covered cutting board, letting it cool before rolling it into a log and pinching off balls, ready to be filled with soft bean paste and fresh fruit.
“As we started teaching these classes, I realized you can make so many kinds of filling for mochi,” Becker said. “It’s so versatile.”
She paired cocoa-flavored mochi with Nutella, then made her own rich chocolate truffle filling. She discovered white chocolate truffles as a prime vessel for new flavors such as hojicha tea and freeze-dried strawberries. She blitzed black sesame seeds into cream cheese and wrapped coconut milk-enriched mochi around squares of jiggly coconut pudding.
With the pandemic, those classes are all happening online now — and Becker and Zinke typically teach separately, as Becker returned to Ohio in 2019. Meanwhile, Becker launched her own pop-up mochi bakery, bringing a taste of the Bay Area’s baked mochi doughnut trend to the Midwest, and Zinke began selling her daifuku under the name Taste of Mochi, with pop-ups in Hayward and delivery available throughout the East Bay.
While writing “Mochi Magic,” Becker devoured books to learn about the history of mochi, but she have even more fun interviewing her mom. “Being able to be there in person in Japan and grow up with these traditions is so different than being in America,” she said.
Zinke talked about how her mom would pick yomogi, Japanese mugwort, growing wild along the sidewalks to flavor mochi. She recalled seeing neighbors literally throwing mochi from newly built homes to spread good luck. In the Bay Area, however, Zinke and Becker would have to hunt down powdered yomogi and mochi at Japanese stores.
After moving back to Ohio, Becker made ozoni soup with mochi in January 2020 to remind her of home. For 2021, she plans to make pounded mochi, soaking the rice overnight, cooking it in a rice cooker and pounding it with her stand mixer — again, a mix of traditional and modern.
She misses her family, but in ways, the pandemic brought them even closer together through mochi. She and her mom promoted “Mochi Magic” together, and the drop-off in cooking classes is what led Zinke to sell mochi for the first time. Becker’s sister stepped in to help her mom with the online store, while her dad drives around delivering the mochi to customers.
“We’re a mochi family now,” Becker said. “We’re always talking about mochi all the time, and I don’t get tired of it.”
Coconut Mochi Filled With Haupia
Makes 12-15 pieces
This mochi is richer than standard versions thanks to coconut milk, while the haupia, a Hawaiian coconut pudding, tucked inside is light and creamy. This recipe, adapted from Kaori Becker’s “Mochi Magic” (Storey Publishing), is the sort of mix of modern and traditional that the book showcases so well. If you don’t want to make the pudding, feel free to fill each mochi with a teaspoon of store-bought red bean paste or Nutella instead. Since microwaves vary in power, pay more attention to the look and texture of the mochi dough than the times listed in the recipe. For the softest mochi, enjoy within a few hours while it’s fresh, though can you store leftovers in an air-container at room temperature for a couple of days.
1 cup coconut milk
¾ cup water
⅓ cup sugar
¼ cup cornstarch
Pinch of salt
1 (13.5-ounce) can full-fat coconut milk
2 cups mochiko (sweet rice flour)
1 cup sugar
½ cup water
¼ cornstarch or Japanese potato starch, plus more as needed for dusting
Unsweetened coconut flakes, for coating (optional)
For the haupia: Whisk together the coconut milk, water, sugar, cornstarch and salt in a medium saucepan until thoroughly uniform in texture.
Set the pot over medium heat. Whisking constantly, cook until the mixture comes to a boil and thickens.
Pour the pudding into an 8-inch square pan (or other small pan), cover with plastic wrap or a lid, and refrigerate until firm, about 3 hours.
Once firm, the pudding can be cut into 1-inch squares. You’ll have leftover haupia, which you can store in the refrigerator and eat on its own.
For the coconut mochi: Whisk together the coconut milk, mochiko, and sugar in a large microwavable bowl until combined. Whisking constantly, add the water in a steady stream until the mixture is about the consistency of pancake batter and no lumps remain.
Microwave, uncovered, on high for 2 minutes. Stir the mixture with a spatula until well mixed.
Microwave until the mochi becomes a thick, cohesive, glossy and translucent mass, with no more runniness. Start checking after 2 minutes, and continue microwaving in 30 second bursts as needed, potentially as long as 3 more minutes. If in doubt, err on the side of overdoing it — a slightly too stiff dough will be easier to work with than a slightly undercooked dough.
Cover a large cutting board with ¼ cup cornstarch, spreading it around lightly with your fingers. Transfer the mochi to the board. Let cool for 5 minutes.
Generously sprinkle cornstarch over the mochi mass. Carefully roll the mochi into an approximately 3-inch-wide, 10-inch-long log, with all sides adequately covered with cornstarch. If the mochi is still hot, use gloves or wait 5 more minutes for it to cool. Pinch off golf ball-sized pieces from the mochi mass until the whole mound is used.
To fill the mochi, cover your hands in cornstarch. Slightly flatten a mochi piece into a circle about ¾-inch thick and place a haupia square in the center. Fold the edges of the mochi together over the filling, pinching tightly so they stick together. You may have to trim the haupia square slightly to get it to fit. Flip the mochi upside down and brush off excess starch with a pastry brush. Repeat with the remaning mochi.
If desired, pour the coconut into a medium bowl and fill a separate small bowl with cold water. Submerge one piece of filled mochi in the water, moistening all sides, then roll the mochi in the coconut until coated. Repeat with the reamining mochi for a beautiful look.
Chocolate Mochi Brownies
An excellent introduction to the world of baked mochi treats, these mochi brownies adapted from Kaori Becker’s “Mochi Magic” (Storey Publishing) come together as easily as conventional cocoa brownies. The results are crispy on the edges and gooey-chewy in the middle. They’re also excellent served still warm from the oven with vanilla ice cream.
Butter or neutral cooking oil for greasing pan
3 cups mochiko (sweet rice flour)
½ cup unsweetened cocoa powder
1 tablespoon baking powder
½ teaspoon salt
2 large eggs
2 cups packed light brown sugar
2½ cups whole milk
½ cup vegetable oil
½ cup melted butter
2 teaspoons pure vanilla extract
1 cup semisweet chocolate chips
Preheat the oven to 350°F. Grease a 9- by 13-inch baking pan.
Sift together the mochiko, cocoa, baking powder and salt in a large bowl.
Beat the eggs in another large bowl. Stir in the sugar, milk, oil, butter and vanilla. Mix well. Scrape this mixture into the bowl with the mochiko mixture and whisk until uniform in texture (make sure there are no lumps). Stir in ½ cup of the chocolate chips.
Pour the batter into the prepared pan, then scatter the remaining ½ cup chocolate chips on top.
Bake for 50 to 60 minutes, until golden brown. Let cool to room temperature. Cut into squares and store in an airtight container at room temperature for 2 days, or in the freezer for up to 1 month.
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