At first glance, it resembles smooth, pale peanut butter. Or butterscotch sauce, when it has hardened just enough to still be spreadable. Miso usually comes in a glass jar or a plastic, cube-shaped tub, and sits in the back of my fridge for ages between uses. It’s made by combining soybeans with salt, sometimes rice or barely, and the microorganism aspergillus oryzae, a fungus the Japanese call kōjikin, or koji. Koji allows the mixture to ferment, and the longer it goes, the more flavourful it becomes. Surely miso’s fermented nature must make it last forever?
There are three varieties: white, yellow and red. The white has a shorter fermentation time and is gentler in flavour, while the red, at the other end of the spectrum, is more pungent, more complex. All miso pastes are salty, but there are nuances to each variety. Some are sweet, others earthy or even fruity. All the flavours come together under the savoury, umami umbrella, one of the five flavour profiles along with sweetness, sourness, bitterness and saltiness.
Everyone needs a hit of umami, especially at the end of winter, when spring produce in eastern Canada hasn’t quite emerged and roasted root vegetables and soups are still on heavy rotation. Miso is the ingredient in my flavour bombs – the miso walnut paste stirred into at the end of a spicy, mushroom soup, or slathered over roasted potatoes and lentils.
And then, this. An apple cake made with miso folded into the batter and topped with a miso butterscotch sauce. Sweet and savoury (and earthy and fruity?) coming together in one, beautiful cake.
The recipe comes from my cousin Betsy via Honey & Co, a Middle Eastern food shop and restaurant in London owned by Israeli husband and wife team Sarit Packer and Itamar Srulovich. Their website says that Itamar ‘was born in Jerusalem and moved to Tel Aviv to pursue his dream of becoming a backgammon champion beach bum – something he still aspires to be.’ So naturally I liked him right away. And, the pair provide recipes for the Financial Times Food & Drink section. I can no longer get my hands on that pink-hued newspaper, but an online link will do now and again. (Update: Looks like the FT wants us to subscribe to get the link now… some creative googling will get you there).
This gorgeous cake – perfect for afternoon tea and again with coffee for breakfast, isn’t supposed to look quite so brown, as pictured above. I imagine it to be more golden, like the miso paste from which it was made. But sadly I forgot to press start on the timer, and the cake’s aroma told me it was ready, again and again, until I clued in and pulled it out of the oven. It happens to the best of us.
So I challenge you to seek out miso in the grocery store (or pull it out of the back of the fridge) and start experimenting. Scoop it up like smooth peanut butter and whiz it into pestos, slather it over vegetables before roasting or whip it with butter and sugar. There’s enough sweet, bitter, salty and sour flavours in this world. We need umami.
And that the butterscotch sauce drizzled over the cake? Turns out a little sweet umami is also great on ice cream.