This cake was a pain in the ass to make, and I say that with great hesitation for two reasons, the first being that I know I just scared quite a few of you off even trying to make it, and secondly, I don’t entirely dislike that it was a pain in the ass. Perhaps it’s just the riding crop and ball gag coming out to play, but there was something deeply rewarding about the process. Oh, and the safe word is CAKE.
Problem 1: Pandan. Pandan will also be problems 2 and 3, so I’ll stop with this writing format forthwith. Pandan is a giant grass from Southeast Asia – mostly Thailand, as I understand it – with a strong fragrance used to flavor sweet foods. Describing that flavor is the strange part. I can best describe it as though you threw the following ingredients into a blender: puffed rice cereal, green tea, popped popcorn, fresh mown grass, vanilla custard, Wonder Bread and hazelnuts.
I love it.
It’s also called “screwpine” which makes me laugh. What doesn’t make me laugh is that it’s a little difficult to find, though any Asian market that isn’t Japanese will probably have it. That being said: my mom went to a primarily Vietnamese market in Olympia that answered her inquiries for pandan with the vaguely offended claim of “We’ve never carried that.” I drove to a different market in Olympia that is owned by Vietnamese people but appears to carry a wider range of Southeast Asian products and immediately found a plastic bag with a giant wad of fresh pandan leaves inside. This after my mom got lightly spooked due to her unfortunate sniff of a bottle of artificial pandan flavoring, which smells almost exactly like jet fuel.
Anyway, the giant wad of pandan smelled fresh and lovely and we regained excitement over the project: chiffon cake. Pandan chiffon cake is very, very popular all over Asia, and for good reason. It’s fucking rad. You will love it. What you may not love is that getting fresh pandan extract is not unlike doing yard work.
The leaves are very tough but need to be finely chopped with a small amount of water in order to extract the potent, bright green juice. Recipes online always advise using a blender, but my mom doesn’t own one. Our first attempt involved chopping the leaves with a knife and then hand-blendering it, which was a failure.
Second attempt was the food processor, which was a success. Then the process of squeezing the juice out.
After my entire front side, the counter and some of her kitchen cabinetry were spattered with green juice and lawn clippings, I held forth my precious elixir with the glee of a Skeksis holding a vial of Podling lifeforce.
It doesn’t look like much, and it doesn’t really smell like much either – the toasted, creamy, yeastiness of the intact leaf is transmuted (temporarily, it turns out) into the smell of pretty much pure grass-clippings. We put the juice into the fridge and looked forward to making the cake the next day.
And! Here is where I got the flu.
Two days later my mom agreed we needed to use the pandan juice before it spoiled, whether or not I was still hallucinating and suffering from short-term memory loss, which I was. My mom was entirely in charge of making the final cake, and I barely even remember taking these photos.
I do remember being in charge of folding in the egg whites, which I prefer to do with a whisk. I also remember arguing with my mom over how well to fold them in.
The final cake is a delight. The recipe includes a tiny little 1/4 teaspoon of artificial pandan flavoring to boost the natural flavor, and my mom and I disagree on this final quantity – I think it needed more, and she thought it was plenty. The cake is very, very mildly flavored, mind you, and this is how it should be. The flavor is just so complimentary to baked goods, a sort of slight-of-hand MSG for cake that you don’t want to overdo it. And chiffon cake, in all it’s fluffy, tender, face-cramming glory, should never be over-flavored anyway.
Pandan Coconut Chiffon Cake
recipe by Noelle Carter, via The Olympian
i truly wouldn’t bother making this without fresh pandan, but it’s worth the effort. i’m already planning a trip to a market I know carries fresh pandan leaves so I can make this cake again. i have a lot of questions about fresh pandan, too, that are as of yet unanswered: can you freeze the leaves for future use? freeze the juice? i suspect so, and will experiment at my earliest opportunity.
8 pandan leaves, chopped
1/2 cup water
2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups sugar, divided
2 1/2 tsp. baking powder
3/4 tsp. salt
7 eggs separated, plus 2 more egg whites (9 eggs total)
1/2 cup vegetable oil
1/2 cup coconut milk
1/2 tsp. artificial pandan essence
3/4 tsp. cream of tartar
1/4 cup of the extracted pandan juice from the above leaves and water
for the glaze:
1/4 cup coconut milk
2 cups powdered sugar
1/4 cup toasted coconut, for garnish
- Make the pandan juice: blend the chopped pandan leaves with the water in a food processor or blender until as finely ground as you can get it. Press the pulp into a fine sieve or squeeze between several layers of cheesecloth to extract as much of the juice as possible. Noelle Carter says you should get “almost 1/2 cup” (in other words, all the added water) but I couldn’t get more than exactly 1/4 cup. Luckily, that’s all the recipe needs.
- Heat oven to 325°. Have a 10″ angel food cake pan with a removable bottom standing by.
- In a large bowl sift together the flour, 1 1/4 cups of sugar, baking powder and salt.
- Add the 7 egg yolks, vegetable oil, coconut milk, pandan juice and pandan essence and, using a whisk, mix together until well-blended and smooth.
- In a bowl of a stand mixer or a large bowl, beat the 9 egg whites and cream of tartar until foamy – add the 1/4 cup sugar. Continue beating until it reaches stiff peak stage.
- Fold the whites into the batter by adding 1/3 of the whites at a time, and gently using a whisk to fold, fold, fold them together. You can use a spatula to fold them in if you’re more familiar with that technique, but I think using a whisk to do it is easier and retains more of the air. It’s your call. When the whites are pretty much totally folded in, use a spatula to scrape the bottom of the bowl down and fold three or four times more to make sure it’s all incorporated.
- Gently pour into cake pan and bake until golden brown, about 60 or 70 minutes. The cake will rise alarming big, but it will fall a little as it cools. Remove from the oven when a toothpick inserted into the center comes out clean. To cool it, turn the pan upside down and place it on a wine bottle (or similar bottle) by balancing it in the center tube. Sometimes angel food pans have little feet on them that you’re supposed to rest the pan on when it is cooling, but don’t use these – they are too close to the countertop and will steam the top of the cake. Let cool until completely cool, about 2 hours.
- To make the glaze, mix together the coconut milk and powdered sugar until smooth and well-blended. Adjust to your desired thickness by adding more sugar a few spoonfuls at a time.
- Remove the cool cake from the pan, place on a plate, glaze and top with toasted coconut. To cut chiffon cakes, never press straight down with a sharp knife, always use a bread knife if possible, and saw back and forth. Not doing so will cause the cake to tear as you cut it.