While assembling and tasting a matcha tiramisu to take to dinner at a friend's place recently, it struck me that the dessert I was making was uncannily like life this year. Bittersweet.
Take the occasion for which I was making dessert.
This is a milestone birthday year for my school cohort and there has been a flurry of meet-ups and reminiscing on WhatsApp and Facebook.
I learnt at my primary school reunion dinner a couple of months ago that two people were no longer with us. If you want to sugarcoat it, they passed away.
But nobody "passes away" in The Straits Times or, indeed, The Sunday Times. They die. That word, which I have typed countless times in place of "pass away" when copy-editing, sounds harsh and unrelenting, especially when childhood friends are involved.
Yet, it has been sweet to see old school friends doing well, to meet their articulate children, to see how well we've all survived getting older, to find that the years melt away once we're in a group of friends we hung out with in the school canteen or skipped classes with.
Work has been bittersweet too.
I miss colleagues who are gone, although it gives me great satisfaction to know they have moved on to better things.
After years of procrastination, I finally got my cookbook out. That Hunger Management is now in its second print run is sweet to me.
So has meeting readers at book signings and other events and listening to them say they can finally throw away those yellowed newspaper cuttings. And asking for certain recipes to be in the next book. They are optimistic enough to think there will be another book.
These precious people remind me why I do this crazy job and why it is work worth doing. To know exactly why you do what you do is a luxury. For many years, I found myself busy doing goodness knows what; looking for, well, who knows what.
Bittersweet permeates my personal life this year too.
I have made some progress in preparing for the next stage of my life; in casting off the same-old, same-old; in going forward with the kind of optimism I have not felt since I was a university student with a head full of dreams.
In the process, I have had so much support from friends old and new, and people I least expected. They have cheered me on, been there to talk me off the ledge too many times to count or just been genuinely happy for me.
Back to dessert.
If you are a fan of matcha and its unrelenting bitterness, make this.
Like in life, the bitterness is balanced by sweetness, which comes from sugar added to the matcha and the grains of sweet stuff that coat the Italian sponge fingers.
I have made this dessert using Japanese-style castella cake and it was a success.
Don't use Taiwanese castella, which is more fluffy and will not prop up the cheese layers convincingly.
I have tried all manner of booze and can report that my usual go-tos for tiramisu, cognac or rum will not work here. Sake does not either - it does not have enough alcohol. Shochu might be used in an emergency, but I like the clean whack of a good slosh of vodka. Save gin to drink in all its aromatic glory on the rocks.
Use the best kind of matcha you can afford because its aroma is what makes this dessert sing.
To make it look Christmassy, I dress it up with raspberries.
Tumble them over the tiramisu or, if you are borderline obsessive-compulsive like me, invert the rim of a water glass over the tiramisu to etch a round shape on the surface and just line the berries up.
Another thing occurred to me as I was testing the recipe. In Italian, tiramisu means "pick me up".
We can all do with that.
2018 had better deliver. If it doesn't, we will just take the bitter and find the sweet.
35g matcha powder (above), divided
150ml boiling water
150ml vodka, divided
750g mascarpone cheese, at room temperature
4 egg yolks
24 to 36 Italian sponge finger biscuits (above)
Raspberries, strawberries or red currants for garnish (optional)
1. Place 25g of the matcha powder and the sugar in a deep bowl. Pour the boiling water over it and whisk to combine. Let the mixture cool completely before proceeding.
2. Add 100ml of the vodka to the matcha and whisk
again to combine.
3. Scrape the cheese into a large mixing bowl. Add the egg yolks and the remaining vodka. Whisk vigorously to combine. The mixture will curdle somewhat but continue whisking until it becomes thick and creamy.
4. Have on hand a 20cm by 20cm or a 25cm by 20cm container. Dip the sponge finger biscuits into the matcha mixture, making sure the tea soaks into the biscuits. Line the bottom of the container with the biscuits, breaking them up to fit if needed. Spoon half the cheese mixture over the biscuits and smooth the mixture with the back of a spoon.
5. Repeat the dip-and-line routine for a second layer and top with the remaining cheese. Cover the container with cling film and place in the freezer for 45 minutes. Then refrigerate the tiramisu overnight.
6. Just before serving, sieve the remaining matcha powder over the tiramisu and top with fruit, if using.
Serves six to eight