As I’m writing this, despite the best efforts of Third Winter, the cherry blossoms are still in bloom in Jackson Park and at the Chicago Botanic Garden’s Japanese Garden. But by the time you read it they might be gone. Such is the transient nature of hanami, the Japanese tradition of soaking in the beauty of springtime blooms, preferably in the company of delicious snacks.
If you’re reading this it’s likely you live by the idiom “hana yori dango” anyway, which means you prefer dumplings over flowers. I didn’t catch the sakura blossoms this year but I wasn’t going to miss the sakura boxes put out by baker Jaye Fong who, during the pandemic has been dropping gorgeous Asian and Asian-inspired pastries under the handle Maa Maa Dei.
Fong, who grew up in her parents Chinese and Chinese-Japanese restaurants in Bloomington, was working in marketing and catering at London House when she was officially furloughed in July. She used the time off to double down on her passion for pastry. She launched Maa Maa Dei in September in collaboration with Nine Bar, celebrating the Autumn Moon festival with peanut butter white miso chocolate chip cookies, lavender milk tea cookies, pandan coconut shortbread, and, of course, mooncakes. Since then, she’s celebrated most major holidays with a new and fascinating pastry menu.
The Insta-ready highlights of her hanami menu were the sakura blossom shortbread cookies, each imprinted with a cherry blossom preserved in sugar, and the red bean paste-stuffed sakura-shaped Chinese flake pastries, both almost too beautiful to suffer the indignities of the digestive process.
Fong quickly sold out of these and her strawberry-cherry jam filled melon pan, and the matcha milk tea sugar cookies. When I picked up my box, I asked if she’d be doing them the following week. Also, no. The season was over. All beauty must die.
But later Fong told me she’d been asked to submit a pastry for a Baker Box release from With Warm Welcome, a west coast-based project highlighting the work of female Asian American chefs and bakers, which is planning to release a Chicago box on May 4. If you missed the sakura shortbread, they’re coming back.
And if you miss them again, Fong’s next major menu release will occur in June around the time of the Chinese Dragon Boat Festival. v