“If desserts are made with healthy ingredients, we can enjoy something small every day. The Japanese do!”
KYOTOFU Bakery was one of New York’s favorite dessert spots, a legend on the sweets scene. However, its founder and acclaimed chef, Nicole Bermensolo, closed the business at the height of its popularity, choosing to focus her business on wholesale operations. Now, anyone can recreate KYOTOFU’s signature sweet treats, thanks to the scrumptious recipes and photographs in her new book, KYOTOFU: Uniquely Delicious Japanese Desserts (Running Press). Bermensolo sat down to give Chopsticks NY a tasting.
Congratulations on your book Nicole! Please tell us what was your goal in writiing the book and sharing your dessert recipe secrets?
The purpose of my entire culinary career has been to introduce Americans to Japanese ingredients and the Japanese philosophy around food and desserts.
The book is titled KYOTOFU: Uniquely Delicious Japanese Desserts. What is the most unique dessert you’ve included in the book, and how difficult is it for readers to make?
The most unique dessert is probably the anmitsu – my take on a traditional Japanese favorite. It’s time consuming and has a lot of steps, but it is not technically difficult.
The beauty of KYOTOFU sweets is that you combine Japanese ingredients within the American sweets tradition. Are your innovative techniques easy enough for any home cook to implement?
Absolutely. These recipes are geared to be executed in a home kitchen. That’s the whole purpose of the book! All recipes are straightforward and don’t require pastry training.
Dessert is such a favorite part of any meal – you reveal that it can actually be healthy. That’s wonderful, but how is it possible? Please explain.
Desserts can be healthy! The key is moderation – moderation in terms of sweetness and heavier ingredients, and integrating seasonal, natural fruits and flavors.
Your book highlights healthy aspects of the Japanese diet. Can you please describe the key healthy aspects, and how you use them to make delicious desserts?
The key to the Japanese diet is balance. To omit an entire class of food is bizarre to the Japanese. Instead, have smaller portions of fat, carbs, fruits and vegetables – all in balance. I apply the same mindset to desserts.
If desserts contain healthy ingredients, can we eat those desserts more often? And if so, how often?
Absolutely! If desserts are made with healthy ingredients, we can enjoy something small every day. The Japanese do!
Are there any Japanese ingredients that may be surprising to make dessert with?
Definitely. Ingredients like brown rice, miso, sesame, yuzu, and green tea are all surprising to make dessert with. But that’s just the point – dessert shouldn’t be all about chocolate, cream, and butter. You can integrate other, healthier ingredients for a healthier dessert. They are more interesting in terms of taste and texture, too.
Some of the Japanese ingredients might not be familiar to Americans and are even unavailable in the U.S. – can you give us a few examples? Any tips on how/where we can obtain those exotic ingredients?
Sure: Genmai, yuzu, matcha, and kanten are just a few. Fortunately, all are available in the U.S. via Japanese grocery stores or online. A lot has changed since I first became interested in Japanese cuisine 20 years ago!
Was it hard to narrow down your amazing repertoire to the 75 recipes you introduce in the book?
Yes, I had hundreds of recipes from seven years of operating the restaurant. I tried to choose recipes that home cooks could execute without too many special tools or techniques.
You built your career on Wall Street, but made a daring switch to the restaurant business. What motivated you to make such a risky career move?
My heart wasn’t in my job on Wall Street. I kept being called back to Japanese cuisine. I feel that I have a purpose in life: to introduce aspects of Japanese cuisine to a wider audience.
When you opened KYOTOFU in 2006, it was a pioneer of healthy, restaurant desserts with a Japanese influence. How did you develop the concept and determine your signature flavors and combinations?
The concept was simply little bits of amazing things I had seen and tasted in Japan. In developing the concept, I tried to look at traditional Japanese flavors and ingredients in a new way.
KYOTOFU was very successful for many years, but you revealed that it was hard to keep the business going. Please share what was the hardest part about keeping New York customers interested and coming back for more?
New York customers weren’t the hard part. For the most part, New Yorkers know good food and appreciate an earnest effort to make good food. Overhead in New York City, especially rent, is very prohibitive for a small food business.
Today, you’re the pioneer of a different venture: Hana Kitchens, a bicoastal business located in California and New York. Please describe the unique role of Hana Kitchens?
Hana Kitchens are incubator kitchens dedicated to guiding food entrepreneurs through the building and scaling of all aspects of the food business. It’s very exciting to help other people start and grow their food concepts!
You traveled to Japan several times to do research. What are the things and places that impressed you most, and why?
The most impressive place in Japan, to me, will always be Kyoto. The richness of its history, the centuries-old family food businesses, and the attitude and reverence shown to food is something very special. I have not seen any place else like Kyoto in my travels around the world.
What do you think are the next big Japanese ingredients that will make a splash in the American food market?
I’m really hoping to see shochu, or Japanese distilled liquor, make a bigger impact in the United States. It’s so interesting, both as a drink and an ingredient. It can be distilled from a variety of things; I’ve had coffee shochu, sesame shochu, green tea shochu, sugar cane shochu … the list goes on and on!
—— Interview by Julia Szabo
Nicole Bermensolo founded KYOTOFU Bakery in 2006, one of the most popular bakeries in New York City. As business grew, Nicole closed the bakery in order to focus exclusively on her wholesale operation. She currently runs KYOTOFUand Hana Kitchens, selling her products nationwide. Nicole splits her time between New York and Los Angeles.
KYOTOFU: Uniquely Delicious Japanese Desserts
by Nicole Bermensolo
$25.00 US / $31.50 CAN
The book introduces readers to the unique mix of healthy Japanese ingredients and American desserts that were pioneered by baker, Nicole Bermensolo at her award-winning New York bakery, Kyotofu.
It presents seventy-five delicious recipes of both traditional Japanese desserts, and exciting modern interpretations, including Chocolate Soufflé Cupcake, Miso Chocolate Tart, Matcha Crème Brûlée, and Black Sesame Caramel Mousse. Each chapter focuses on an ingredient—like miso, soy, kinako, and yuzu—and, along with the recipes, discusses how it is made, its traditional role in Japanese cuisine, and its health benefits. It’s the ingredients that make these desserts truly unique and KYOTOFU provides a range of different sweet ways to showcase these unique Japanese products with familiar but innovative recipes you’ll treasure for years to come.
Reprinted with permission from KYOTOFU
©2015 by Nicole Bermensolo, Running Press, a member of the Perseus Books Group
Photos by Steve Legato