Most little cakes, or kashi, made in Japanese homes are mixtures of bean or potato paste and sugar, thickened with agar-agar. Agar-agar is made from seaweed and is a cross between gelatin and cornstarch in the way it makes foods thicken and firm.
In Japan, finished squares of Yokan (which look very much like our American chocolate fudge), are wrapped in cherry leaves and served as a sweet indulgence with a cup of tea.
Yokan (Sweet Azuki Squares)
1 cup red azuki beans*
1 cup sugar
1 tsp salt
1 stick agar-agar* (approx. 1" x 1" x 11")
2 cups cold water
1-1/2 cups sugar
1/2 tsp salt
First Step: Put the red azuki beans in a bowl and cover them with cold water. Let them soak overnight.
The next day, drain the water off of the beans and put them in a deep heavy-bottomed saucepan. Fill the pan 3/4 of the way full with cold water. Turn heat to high and bring to a boil. Lower the heat. Simmer for approximately 1-1/2 hours or until the bean shells break open and the beans become soft. If too much water boils away or is absorbed by the beans, add additional boiling water. Drain the beans in a colander.
Run the beans through a food mill or push them through a coarse strainer with a wooden spoon. Put the strained beans back into the saucepan and add the salt. Add the sugar gradually and mix well.
Set the saucepan over medium heat and cook, stirring constantly, until the paste becomes very thick and leaves the sides of the pan clean when you stir. Remove pan from the heat.
Second Step: Put the cold water into a clean saucepan. Break the agar-agar stick into the pan and bring to a boil over medium heat, stirring constantly. When the agar-agar has melted, add the sugar and stir until dissolved.
Pour through a fine strainer into another clean saucepan. Add the salt and the bean paste and stir until smooth. Set over medium heat and cook, stirring every minute or two, for approximately 20 minutes or until the mixture becomes thickened and looks something like a chocolate pudding.
Pour cooked mixture into baking pan and allow to sit until completely cool. Cut into 1-1/2" squares.
*You can buy both agar-agar and red azuki beans at Asian or health stores.