How to Tour Japan Like a Pastry Chef
It all started with a matcha custard pie.
While fine-tuning their recipe, Emily and Melissa Elsen — the sister-sister duo behind Four & Twenty Blackbirds — stumbled on a source that would eventually lead them all the way to Japan. “We met a woman who knew the owner of Ippodo Tea, a 300-year-old family business in Kyoto,” Emily says. “They produce a superfine, high-quality matcha, and sourcing from them really improved our custard. That’s probably what prompted everything.”
That pie would end up connecting the Elsens with more Japanese producers and, ultimately, the New York Fair — a Big Apple-themed arts and culture festival at Osaka’s Hankyu Department Store. For the past two years, the sisters have been the fair’s pie ambassadors, and last year they extended their trip into a full-fledged dessert research expedition.
Their latest project, a 10-seat bar and pie counter in Brooklyn’s Prospect Heights neighborhood, channels the hyper-focused, hole-in-the-wall restaurant culture they admired in Japan, where some restaurants only do ramen, some only soba.
The Elsens? They do pie.
Here are some of the sisters' reminiscences, recommendations, and favorite desserts from their trip:
Emily and Melissa
Finding harmony — through ice cream
Emily: We got these ice creams at one of the many stalls near the Fushimi Inari shrine in Kyoto. One is black sesame, and the other is yuzu. We had a scoop of hōjicha as well, a roasted green tea with a hint of toasted marshmallow.
Melissa: One thing Japanese desserts do well is balance. Nothing is too sweet, and ingredients that might traditionally be savory are used to add nuance. That’s something we also try for in our flavor profiles.
A city of temples
E: We loved the temples in Kyoto, like Kiyomizu-dera. We hiked there from where we were staying, and there’s a beautiful view of the city. Kyoto is a very sacred place, both spiritually and to Japanese culture as a whole.
Women in traditional kimono
E: For a lot of the larger shrines, and particularly Kiyomizu-dera, you can come and rent all the traditional garb. People get dressed up, then go and get their photos taken.
Yamanashi, Mount Fuji, and Japan's hidden wine country
E: We went to Yamanashi, a day trip from Tokyo, to see Mount Fuji and the surrounding fruit-growing region. There, we visited the Haramo winery, which was special since we had no idea there was wine making in Japan. They’re known for their Koshu white wine, and they served a lunch of fresh produce grown on the property.
M: This Mount Fuji cake was so cute.
E: We bought it at the mountain base — it was angel food with a dusting of cocoa and powdered sugar. For Japanese sweets, the way things are crafted and presented is really important.
M: There’s always a little special something. We found the dedication to quality incredible.
Thoughtfully crafted souvenirs
M: This cute little trinket at a shop in Kyoto looks like a macaroon, but it's actually a little planter with a succulent coming out. Adorable.
E: In general, the way things are packaged and presented is meaningful. You could get a cookie, and each one will be packaged individually — and then it will be packaged again, and then that package will be packaged.
Market and restaurant culture
E: We were interested in the whole canon of Japanese cookery, and we saw that the idea of people cooking in front of you is important. At Nishiki Market in Kyoto, there’s vendor after vendor selling prepared foods — yakitori, grilled octopus — and stalls with, say, every kind of seaweed. I could spend days there.
M: There’s a real appreciation for anything delicious. I couldn't choose a favorite place. Every time we ate, it was yet another amazing experience.
And, of course, pie.
E: We spent two weeks in Osaka baking more than 500 pies. We baked all day long. People watched us behind the glass and lined up — our salted-caramel apple pie is always the best-selling food item at the festival!
M: Only a few places in Japan bake pie, and even then, it’s presented as an American product. We would love to open a shop there.
E: For now, we have hōjicha and black-sesame-custard pies on our menu, and we’re thinking about developing other flavors we loved, like salted cherry blossom.