Hokkaido cheese tarts
A memento from a snowy trip north
Kinotoya cheese tarts
A little over two years ago, I spent a very blustery week in Japan’s most northern prefecture of Hokkaido. Whispers of COVID were limited to Asia in February 2020 and Hokkaido (with a whopping 40 reported cases) was the most infected part of Japan (the Diamond Princess aside). Our cohort had dropped from six to three and we left for Hokkaido1 as though entering the ultimate Pandemic State. The rest of Japan decided to stay away from Hokkaido (see: 40 reported cases) and the country had also locked down against its main source of tourism (see: China). There were no lines at the Niseko lifts and the famous conveyor belt sushi at Nemuro Hanamaru was open to us without a wait. As a last minute tagger on to the trip, I didn’t even need to plan it. Never have I ever been so pampered!
Hokkaido and its dairy
Hokkaido feels very much like just another prefecture, albeit one with excellent seafood and skiing. However, it has historically been a site much conflict between the indigenous Ainu2 (also indigenous to the Kuril Islands) and the majority (wa) Japanese population and was something of a frontier thanks to its geographical distance from the mainland. In fact, the Japanese commission tasked with the development of Hokkaido (開拓使 - Kaitakushi) that was established in 1869 is translated both as the Development and the Colonization Commission. This Development/Colonization Commission was tasked with establishing industries in Hokkaido (notably agriculture) and encouraging its settlement by former samurai (at the expense of the Ainu).
The Development/Colonization Commission scouted areas with similar climates to determine the most appropriate crops for Hokkaido (Hokkaido now produces foods like corn, potatoes, and azuki). As part of this scouting mission, Kiyotaka Kuroda (then official of this commission and later prime minister) made an official visit to the United States in 1874. Dairy cows were imported to Hokkaido as a result of this expedition3 .
Hokkaido has since become synonymous with dairy based foods like soft serve, parfaits, and milk candies, but up until the establishment of its dairy industry, the Japanese diet did not traditionally include beef or dairy4.
LeTAO tarts in matcha, chocolate, and original hues
The icy weather of this (not quite) winter trip made it the most opportune time to sample the uniquely Hokkaido cheese tart: an oozy (when warm) cheesecake filling set in a shortbread base capped off with a bruleed top. My favorite tart was from Kinotoya, but we also sampled versions from LeTAO and the Niseko Takahashi Dairy. Kinotoya shops are scattered throughout Sapporo and produce batches throughout the day, giving them quite the advantage in this tasting.
From the Niseko Takahashi Dairy
My Cheese Tart Experiments
Facing months of pandemic lockdown upon returning to New York, recreating the Hokkaido cheese tart became something of a hobby. I consulted several Japanese recipes and learned that the filling is based on a thick custard that has been enriched with cream cheese. Through trial and error, I decided on whole milk in lieu of cream in the custard and add yogurt and cottage cheese to the cream cheese for additional tang and funk. I started off baking them in my muffin tin but eventually moved on to a tart pan.
An early homemade cheese tart
The version here was baked so many times in various iterations, but was never nailed down as a final version. There are also no cook times, because I have a sixth sense for checking on baked goods which means I don’t check the clock.
I’ve tinkered with different crusts, but have decided that the Smitten Kitchen shortbread is my favorite base. I used to bring the crust up to the top of the tin, but now use it to only line the bottom as the top would often burn during the final broil.
I have also tinkered with the filling, adding different ratios of cottage cheese and yogurt. I keep half of the mixture (100g) as cream cheese.5
For the crust:
1 stick butter, softened
40g powdered sugar
pinch of salt
Combine butter, salt, and powdered sugar in a bowl and mix until the sugar is incorporated. Add the flour and knead until just combined. Press into the base of a tart/pie pan and chill for at least 30 minutes.
Poke with the tines of a fork and bake in the oven at 325 (I’m not sure! maybe 20 minutes? keep an eye on it) until lightly golden.
For the filling:
2 egg yolks
100g cottage cheese (or 50g cottage cheese to 50g Greek yogurt)
100g cream cheese
Heat the milk in a pan and combine the egg yolks, sugar, and cornstarch in a Pyrex measuring cup. Temper this mixture with a ladleful of the warmed milk and combine together in the pan. Stir over low heat until the mixture has thickened.
Put the cream cheese and cottage cheese/yogurt into your Pyrex measuring cup. Pour the mixture from (1) over the top and blend with an immersion blender.
Pour this mixture onto the crust and bake at 375 degrees for about 15 minutes until set. If you want the burnished top, turn on the broiler for one minute or so. Keep your eyes on it!
In New York
TBH I was baking these so often that I haven’t tried many in New York. It’s hard for store bought versions of simple foods to compete with what you bake yourself, as you can customize the home made versions exactly to your liking. Having said that, the photos of Pinklady Cheese Tart look excellent!
All of the airports were so empty! Because I wanted to bookend my trip with family time in Nara, I flew so many legs. NYC→Osaka (short layover in Taipei); Osaka→Sapporo; Sapporo→Osaka; Osaka→NYC (longer layover in Taipei during which I lugged around a Canada Goose in tropical weather). Aside from the final flight to NYC, I was one of only a handful of fliers.
Toyotomi Hideyoshi appointed a daimyo to Hokkaido in 1590. Increasing efforts by the majority Japanese (wa) population to take control of Hokkaido led to numerous subjugations and rebellions. It would seem that even Japan is not entirely ethnically homogenous.
There is a museum devoted to the history of Hokkaido dairy that is a 15 minute walk from the Naebo JR station (one stop away from the Sapporo JR station). It tells stories of how Kiyotaka Kuroda invited Horace Capron (President Grant’s State Commissioner of Agriculture) to advise on Hokkaido agriculture, which led to the import of livestock (among other developments). Capron stayed on in Hokkaido for four years!
There were small pockets of dairy consumption as early as the Asuka period (583-710). Such consumption is said to have been introduced by the Chinese doctor Zenna, who made an offering of milk to the Emperor Kotoku. While consumption of dairy was very limited and largely medicinal, it spawned a local hotpot of chicken cooked in milk that is local to Nara (fittingly called the Asuka-nabe).
I once added cheddar based on a cheesecake from an Austin BBQ truck. This version was not my favorite (too akin to a casserole top), but it was not without its fans.