Setsuko: Bringing Japanese Sweets to America

setsuko_500She knew she wanted to be a baker at a young age, back when she was living in Osaka. “At age 5 or 6, I would make a mess in the kitchen,” Setsuko Tanaka tells me. “I wanted to see how things mixed together, and what happened when you heated things up.”

So while she sometimes helped her mom, she started doing things on her own, not wanting instruction. She never wanted to follow recipes, preferring instead to experiment on her own. One of Setsuko’s earliest inventions: a biscuit sandwich of sorts, with a marshmallow dusted with Ramune powder and stuffed between two biscuits—then microwaved. She admits it was weird, liking it more for the process than for the taste.

Even now, Setsuko’s not a dessert eater. “I prefer pickles or senbei,” she tells me, adding, “I’ll take salt and sake over something sweet.”

But for someone who’s not inclined to eat sweets, she sure knows how to make them.

Setsuko went to culinary school in Japan, where the curriculum required students to learn Western/French style, wagashi, and bread. She worked at a cake shop and after having a child started teaching home baking classes to other women who wanted to cook healthier and more simply after pregnancy.

After coming to Seattle, Setsuko worked at the now-defunct Saiko Bakery, where the owner was melon-pan fanatic. And now she works out of the kitchen at Issian Stone Grill.

Challenges for her include working with American flour, which is heavier than Japanese flour. (She adds cornstarch or potato starch to all-purpose flour to reduce the gluten and make her products lighter.) Also, the matcha here is too dark (she thinks it’s too old or exposed to too much light), so she imports 2 kg bags from Kyoto.

Setsuko’s goal is to make as much from scratch as possible, and to make it healthy. And her desire is to continually expand beyond her Asian clientele, introducing more Westerners to Japanese sweets. She says that Americans claim to be “adventurous” in eating, but while they say they’re looking for something new, they’re timid to actually do so. “They want to know new things, but in reality, are eating hot dogs and hamburgers,” she asserts. When she worked at Floating Leaves Tea, she noticed that Asians would be anxious to enter (“Japanese people are used to small doors in Kyoto”), whereas Americans would be afraid.

A positive attitude goes far for Setsuko. “Eat one time, and I’m sure you’ll like it,” she tells new customers. Her rare cheesecake is popular, and she offers it in flavors like mango, red bean, green tea, and tofu. (I explained that when I first saw the word “rare” used in Japan, I was excited to have stumbled upon a most unusual cheesecake, and was a bit saddened to learn that “rare” simply meant uncooked.)

Also popular, pictured, is her green tea roll cake. “The Seattle population likes green tea, as they know it’s healthy.” It contains whipped cream (we talked about the art of making it just right) and homemade red bean paste.

This particular plating includes her mochi with whipped cream and red bean paste, and an experimental truffle she wanted to try out on me, made with tofu. Always the experimenter!

The roll cake was exquisite, with nice hints of ever-so-slightly bitter green tea coming through the slightly sweetened whipped cream. After all, when the Japanese eat dessert, you’re likely to hear, “That’s good; it’s not too sweet.” Quite the contrast to our overly sweet American-style desserts.

You can find Setsuko’s pastries at places like Issian Stone Grill, Kozue, and the Panama Tea House, to name a few. Or contact her directly at Setsuko Pastry to place a custom order.

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