Elle Lei has a knack for teaching herself how to do things—and do them well. She had made basic chocolates before she decided to launch her candy brand SUGOi Sweets a few years ago, but nothing as ambitious as the vibrant, hand-painted, airbrushed bonbons that are now her signature. So she taught herself. Inspired by the elaborate packaging for desserts that she encountered in Japan, she wanted the design surrounding her candies to be equally eye-catching. So she taught herself Adobe Illustrator and designed her packaging and logo. She wants to incorporate illustrations into her packaging. So she she’s going to teach herself.
“It’s so fun,” she says. “I think that’s what makes [SUGOi] different, because the product itself to the packaging and the website and the photography was designed by the same person. So it’s a more cohesive experience.”
Quickly mastering new skills is a pattern that has marked Lei’s culinary journey. Born and educated in China, she had to start a new career when she and her husband moved to the United States because her degree and work experience didn’t easily transfer. She decided to work in restaurants. “I didn’t know how to cook at all,” she laughs.
But she found a job as a dishwasher in a restaurant in Louisville, Kentucky, where her husband was studying for a degree. After about a month, the chef offered to let her replace the garde manger, who is in charge of salads and cold dishes. Eventually she moved on to another admired restaurant, which often hosted touring chefs. “I tasted a lot of different cuisines along the way,” she recalls, “and learned a lot of fancy stuff.”
When she and her husband moved to Illinois, she again decided she wanted to do something new. When she noticed a job baking macarons had become available, she learned how to make them, applied, and got the position. After a year, she uprooted again and spent a few months in Japan, where she was dazzled by the desserts and the culture surrounding them. “Japanese people celebrate the seasons very, very well,” she says. “The desserts all changed with the seasonal ingredients, and so did the packaging and presentation. It’s almost like a fashion brand. That whole experience is so fun. I wanted to recreate something like that and bring it to the United States.”
But first she wanted to learn more skills, so when she returned to Chicago she became a pastry cook at Leña Brava in the West Loop. She had one more career step to make, as a confectioner in a grocery store. When that store closed, she finally decided to realize her Japanese-inspired dreams and start her own confectionery brand.
She named it SUGOi, after a Japanese word used as an expression for “amazing, awesome, wow,” she explains. She incorporates some Japanese ingredients—matcha, yuzu, sudachi—but also includes an eclectic range of other flavors. She offers black sesame and ube malt balls, passion fruit caramels, and bonbons in such varieties as Chicago corn, Mexican hot chocolate, peanut butter and jelly, and raspberry rose. She makes everything herself, with a little bit of help from her husband with cleaning and shipping—and she’s planning to hire one additional employee.
In celebration of the arrival of spring—which is marked by in Japan by cherry blossom viewing and, of course, season-specific desserts—she shared a recipe for an appropriate treat: Ichigo Daifuku, or a strawberry-filled mochi, complemented in her version with whipped cream for a twist on strawberries and cream, as well as matcha powder if you’re so inclined.
Strawberry and Cream Daifuku Mochi
For the mochi dough:
250g mochiko flour
130g powdered sugar
2 teaspoon matcha powder (optional)
400g whole milk
Cornstarch (for dusting)
For the whipped cream:
4 cups heavy whipping cream
1/3 cup powdered sugar
1/2 teaspoon vanilla paste
Washed strawberries (remove stems and tips, pat dried)
Matcha powder (optional)
1. Whisk together mochiko flour, cornstarch, powdered sugar, and matcha powder (if using) in a microwavable bowl. Add milk and water and mix until liquid is fully incorporated. Strain the batter to remove any lumps if necessary: the mixture should be smooth like pancake batter.
2. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and microwave on high for 2 minutes, occasionally stirring the mixture with a spatula. (You will see the mochi dough is forming). The mixture should look semi-translucent. Uncover and microwave for another 30 seconds to 1 minute, until the dough is evenly cooked. All the dough will be the same color, and it should be sticky, thick, and elastic.
3. Using a spatula or gloved hand, stir in butter little by little while the dough is still hot, incorporating the butter until fully absorbed. Knead the dough until it is glossy and almost translucent. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap and set aside.
4. Place the bowl and whisk of a stand mixer in the freezer for at least 15 minutes to chill.
5. Pour heavy cream, powdered sugar, and vanilla paste into the cold mixing bowl and whisk on high until medium to stiff peaks form. Do not over-mix. Transfer whipped cream into a piping bag and set aside in the fridge.
6. Transfer the room temperature mochi dough onto a cutting board or kitchen surface dusted with cornstarch. Dust the mochi dough and rolling pin with cornstarch as necessary, then roll the dough into an approximately 1/4-inch thick sheet. Use a round cookie cutter (preferably 4.5 inch diameter) to cut out multiple rounds.
7. Place a mochi wrapper onto a half sphere mold or a ramekin that is thinly dusted with cornstarch. Pipe whipped cream into the center of the mochi wrapper, then add a strawberry onto the cream and finish with more cream to surround the strawberry. Pinch the mochi closed: fold the edges together over the filling, pinching tightly so that they stick together. Unmold the mochi upside down onto a plate or a cupcake liner and brush off the excess starch. Decorate as you please; for example, dust with matcha powder or top with dried salted cherry blossoms.
8. Enjoy immediately or store in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one day.