It took some time, but winter’s chill has definitely settled over Japan. A few weeks ago, temperatures on Japan’s northernmost island of Hokkaido dipped to -25°C, and the western part of the country, where winters are usually temperate, received some unexpected snowfall. However, winter in the Tokyo area has been relatively mild, with daytime temperatures hovering around 5 – 10°C and little precipitation. No doubt those of you in the Northeastern and Midwestern U.S. will scoff at these temperatures, given the recent slew of blizzards those regions have been subjected to.
Here’s the catch though: most houses in Japan do not have central heating are poorly insulated (if at all). Traditionally, Japanese houses were equipped with a central hearth, or irori, which was used for both cooking and heating. However, unlike the wood and coal stoves that heated American homes of yore, Japanese hearths lacked a chimney, which resulted in very sooty rafters and walls. Thankfully, times have changed, although warding off the cold indoors remains an issue.
Utilities, particularly electricity, are quite expensive in Japan. This, in turn, has led to a wide array of alternative heating strategies, some more practical than others. Walk into any Japanese home goods store and you’ll see that staying warm is big business. To make up for the lack of central heat, many people use portable tōyu (kerosene) heaters, coupled with gadgets like chemically-generated toe warmers, heated toilet seats, and electric blankets and rugs. Then there is the kotatsu, a low table whose underside is equipped with an electric heating source. To trap the heat, a large blanket is sandwiched between the frame and tabletop. Sitting on the floor, one’s legs and feet are then placed under the blanket and kotatsu, preferably while clasping a mug of tea and eating a honey-sweet mikan. Frequent trips to the public bath house or hot spring, a favorite pastime here, also help restore warmth to the body.
Of all these techniques, kerosene heaters are the most economical way to battle drafts. (They are so commonly used that tōyu trucks cruise around residential neighborhoods on weekends, advertising their product with chipper recorded tunes and announcements.) However, safety necessitates that these heaters be turned off at night, so proper bedtime attire is crucial to ensure one doesn’t wake up with frozen toes. A thick pair of wool socks, long pajamas, and a sweater comprise my usual getup, plus a feather blanket (or two). Needless to say, reemerging from this cocoon can be challenging in the morning hours, when the bedroom’s temperature may register a mere 3°C.
Ultimately, I’ve found the most reliable way motivate myself on such winter mornings is with a proper, warm breakfast. Something a little bit indulgent – a simple pastry, a sunny side up egg draped over fried rice, or perhaps oatmeal topped with a drizzle of cream and Japanese winter strawberries – fits the bill perfectly.
These scones were devised for just that purpose. The crumb is tender and moist thanks to liberal amounts of butter and cream, studded with pockets of jammy dried persimmon, their sweetness offset by the slightly bitter crunch of darkly toasted walnuts and ginger’s vibrant warmth. They’re quiet and unassertive, like a good scone should be, and they take well to a mug of hot, milky tea. (Or coffee, if you insist.) But most of all they’re a perfect excuse to linger in the morning, to nibble quietly while reading or chatting with a loved one, to take a brief respite from the chill.
Dried Persimmon and Ginger Scones
You’ll notice that I specify cake flour in this recipe. This helps your scones turn out as light and tender as possible, but all purpose flour is perfectly fine, too. If you can’t find dried persimmons, dried apricots would make a lovely (if somewhat tangier) substitute.
Makes 8 large, wedge-shaped scones
1/2 cup heavy cream, chilled, plus extra for brushing scones
1 large egg
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 tablespoon finely grated fresh ginger
2 1/4 cups cake flour
1/3 cup finely chopped dried persimmons
1/3 cup chopped, well-toasted walnuts
3 tablespoons raw sugar, plus extra for sprinkling scones
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt (reduce to 1/4 teaspoon if using salted butter)
6 tablespoons butter, chilled and cut into bits
Preheat the oven to 400°F (200°C).
In a small bowl whisk together the cream, egg, vanilla, and ginger.
In a separate bowl toss the persimmons with one tablespoon of the flour; set aside. In a large bowl stir together the remaining flour, sugar, baking powder, and salt.
Blend the butter into the dry ingredients until the mixture resembles a coarse meal, with a few larger chunks of butter remaining. (I use my fingers for this, but a pastry blender works as well.)
Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the cream mixture, persimmons, and walnuts. Using a fork, lightly mix to to form a loose dough. The dough will be very shaggy and uneven, so don’t worry if some dry bits remain at the bottom of the bowl.
Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured work surface and gently gather into a cohesive mass. Pat dough into a 1/2-inch-thick round and cut into eight large wedges. (Alternately, use a 2-inch round cookie cutter to cut out the scones, lightly gathering together dough scraps to create additional scones.)
Place the scones on an ungreased baking sheet, brush with cream, and sprinkle lightly with sugar. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown.