If your are in Japan right now, you lucky person you, you might have noticed tons of bakeries and shops selling the Japanese Christmas Cake. Practically every street has someone selling this holiday treat, which makes sense, since along with fried chicken, this cake is an essential part of Christmas in Japan. Unlike western Christmas Cakes, which are usually some form of fruit cake, in Japan they are sponge cakes covered in whipped cream and topped with a number of perfect, red, ripe strawberries. This year, I decided I had better make one myself.
If you read my last post about karaage, fried chicken, you may recall that I spoke briefly about Christmas in Japan and how it differs from the rest of the world. This is mostly because there are so few Christian in Japan, only around one percent, so there is less focus on the religious aspects. But why do they celebrate it at all? you may wonder. It all goes back to the post war years when the country was in tatters. The American soldiers who were occupying the country and helping to rebuild, brought the concept of an American Christmas, with all its prosperity and luscious overindulgence. To a people whose entire economy was in ruin, this seemed like the height of the capitalist life style.
When the economy rebounded after the war and Japan started to become one of the most successful countries in the world, they adopted Christmas as a festival, less about Jesus, and more about capitalism and consumerism. It still isn’t a national holiday, but is celebrated more like Valentines Day in the US. (It’s even partially thought of as a holiday for couples where dinner and a room at an expensive hotel must be booked months in advance.) With Santa, Christmas trees, and KFC it is a homage to the American holiday, but what about the cake?
Sponge cakes have been around in Japan since the 1500s, brought over by Portugal, but the ingredients were so rare that only the very wealthy could afford to eat it. After the war, when things like flour and sugar became widely available, the new middle class embraced the once rare cakes and, of course, made it part of the prosperity festival. While American’s celebrate with family around a Christmas feast, in Japan everything centers around this beautiful and delicious dessert.
As for making it, I used the recipe from Japanese Cooking 101. It was very easy, though my sponge cake didn’t come out very light. This was definitely because I used spelt flour rather than cake flour as they recommended. I did this because my mother is allergic to wheat and I wanted to share it with her. Still, the sponge was very good, I just had to make two of them to create the layers and height. I haven’t eaten whipped cream in around six years, and there is about enough of it on this cake to last me a lifetime, but I enjoyed it immensely. Plus, the ripe and delicious strawberries made the whole thing heavenly. The cakes in Japan are usually decorated with Christmas scenes, so I made my strawberries into little Santas. I am not a cake maker usually, but I thought that it came out beautifully, and it really did make me feel Christmasy.
I hope that you have a wonderful holiday, if you celebrate Christmas or any other winter festival. May it be full of cheer and family. After my holiday celebration I shall be back to tell you all about Japan’s biggest holiday, New Years.
Until next time, Merry Christmas!