Ohanami, a picnic for cherry blossoms

pink bike at tokyo ohanami picnicIn Japan, the blooming of flowers is cause for national celebration. When the cherry trees bloom, everyone parties. It’s called ohanami, the viewing of honorable flowers. Soccer moms and bike messengers alike pack picnics, spread out blankets and drink under a snowfall of petals. I partied with them all when my trip to Japan coincided with cherry blossom season.

ohanami picnic in Chiba

I picnicked in a playground with suburban moms and and their toddlers (and one teacup puppy) as the first flowers of the year popped open. While the kids played, the moms unpacked bentos of homemade food, carefully separated by plastic wrap within each container. We sipped sweet plum wine poured from tetra packs: it looked and tasted like the Japanese equivalent of white zinfandel. They giggled and questioned me about my American boyfriend--why I was in Japan, and where was he? Sharing food under the cherry blossoms, I felt at ease with them in spite of how little of each other’s language we understood.


ohanami picnic with tokyo bike messengers
At the height of the season, bike messengers invited me to their ohanami under a huge canopy of blossoms in a downtown park. Every way you looked, the ground was covered with picnic blankets and flower petals. The white blossoms and black branches popped against a backdrop of overcast sky. Bike fanatics arrived in waves as they finished a pirate-and-cherry-blossom themed scavenger hunt. They added their tricked-out bikes to the glittering candy colored pile, and sat down to sip beer out of seasonal pink cans. As the day wore on the group got drunk and rowdy, and we took turns going to the convenience store to load up on flower-themed junk food.

Everywhere I went in Japan, I found myself drinking and making friends under flowering trees. Taking part in a national flower party was a foreign experience, but cherry blossom picnics conjure nostalgia for my own childhood in the Pacific Northwest. Wild cherry trees in the woods by my house signalled the beginning of spring, and my mom took us every year to eat boiled eggs on a red blanket beneath flowering trees on the University of Washington campus. Now sweet memories of that month in Japan make ohanami picnics doubly special to me. I won’t let a season pass without packing a picnic and viewing some flowers.


flowering wild cherry tree at my childhood home

Here is a recipe for an ohanami snack.

Bakers Without Borders

Cupcakes are more American than pie; yet they tap into nostalgia and delight that is virtually universal. Marie-Cecile fell in love red velvet while staying in Manhattan last year, and hasn’t had one since. Making cupcakes in France is more challenging than you might think, but not half as hard as finding them.  

Marie-Cecile is my hostess in the Rhone countryside. She’s been serving me meals of tomatoes from her parents’ garden, crackly baguettes, super-local cheeses and exquisite wine. This is my chance to thank her: I’m going to teach her to make cupcakes!

But modifying an American cupcake recipe for a French kitchen is a multilayered challenge. We translate the ingredients, find substitutions for things that aren’t available, convert the measurements to metric, and cut the recipe in half. She has no idea what “baking soda” is until I look up the chemical name, “ah-ha! bicarbonate!” It’s much less common here than baking powder. We can only find red food dye in tiny bottles packaged with other colors. And buttermilk? As far as I can tell it’s not sold at all, so we sour fresh milk with a little vinegar.

With so many conversions, it would be really easy to change a quantity and not notice–until you bake the cakes and they fail. Marie-Cecile is already on the phone boasting to her family about the treats we’re making, while I secretly wring my hands and wish for success. Miraculously, they turn out beautifully on our first attempt! The recipe follows.

 getting started


we didn't have a great mixing bowl, so we improvised to prevent splattering


light and fluffy


...plus one yolk


flour, milk, flour, milk, flour


 about 2/3 full


perfect! it's important to taste before serving


icing on the cake


Marie-Cecile with her cupcakes!



French Red Velvet Cupcakes

makes about 12


210 g flour

3.5 g sodium bicarbonate

23 g unsweetened cocoa

pinch salt


160 mL milk

15 mL cider vinegar

45 mL red food coloring

6 mL vanilla extract


90 g butter

200 g sugar

1 egg plus 1 yolk


Set your ingredients out to allow them to reach room temperature. Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius. Prepare a muffin tin with cupcake liners, or use freestanding aluminum cups lined up on a cookie sheet.

Gently warm the milk until tepid, not hot. Add the vinegar, then the food coloring and vanilla.

Whisk together the flour, bicarbonate, cocoa and salt, eliminating any lumps.

Cream the butter and sugar together with an electric mixer until uniformly light and fluffy. If you are using a hand held mixer, this may take a while (5 to 10 minutes): be patient. The mixture will change texture and color. Then, add the egg and yolk and mix until smooth. 

Stir in the flour mixture in three additions, alternating with two additions of the buttermilk mixture. Mix just until smooth.

Fill the cups about 2/3 full. Bake for 20 minutes, rotating once. Check with a toothpick or sharp knife to see if they are done: it should come out clean, or with just a few crumbs.



Cream Cheese Icing

1 package Philadelphia cream cheese, or Neufchatel, or something similar

1 stick butter

powdered confectioner’s sugar, equal volume or to taste

1 tsp vanilla

The butter and cheese need to be at room temperature. Use an electric mixer to whip the cream cheese and butter together. Gradually whip in sugar, until the mixture is stiff enough to spread on cupcakes, and tastes like icing. If it gets too stiff, add a tiny bit of milk or cream.

Allow the cupcakes to cool completely before icing them. If it’s a really hot day, or you will be travelling with these, put the iced cupcakes in the refrigerator for 30 minutes to set the icing.