Thursday, October 22, 2009


Oh how I love pandan. I grew up with many pandan-flavored desserts without really knowing what pandan was until a year ago when my mom handed me a couple bottles of pandan extract. I always wondered why some Vietnamese desserts were colored green. Well, the answer to that is pandan.

Its aroma and taste are floral, leafy, and tea-like, with the taste being much more subtle than the aroma. Pandan has a real affinity for coconut and vanilla flavors. Almost a year after receiving the pandan extract from my mom, I finally got to making my first pandan dessert a few weeks ago: Vietnamese pandan banana bread. More on Vietnamese banana bread (bánh chuối nướng) in the future, as it's one of my favorite things to eat ever. However, this past weekend, I made a pandan chiffon cake. A disclaimer: I suck at baking and sometimes it utterly scares me.

My first step towards pandany goodness was to buy a tube pan. I'm not sure why having a tube pan is so critical (from what I've read) for a proper chiffon cake. Perhaps the unique distribution of heat caused by the inner cylinder helps for a fluffier and lighter texture? Also in terms of hardware, I should point out that I accidentally left my coffee/spice grinder at the Lincoln Park Community Shelter when I volunteered there a couple months ago to prepare dinner for the guests. Hopefully it's still there by the time I cook dinner there again in December. I needed the grinder to produce some caster sugar, which is finer than regular granulated sugar. Instead, I just used my food processor which did the job just fine.

Taking Michael Ruhlman's advice from his book Ratio, I made sure to get all my other mise en place locked down and organized. I think the main concern here was to prevent as much air loss from the whipped egg whites when they are sitting around waiting to be folded into the batter. Creaming sugar and egg yolks and then adding in coconut milk, oil, and the pandan extract was uneventful.

I don't think I beat enough air into the egg whites. I always have problems telling when I have stirred egg whites versus soft peaks versus stiff peaks, which is just one of the many reasons baking scares me. More on this later.

After folding in the egg whites and putting the batter in the pan, I crossed my fingers and put the pan in the oven. But, after about 20 minutes I smelled some burning. I opened up the oven and saw this:

It's hard to make out, but the top the cake had a crack in it like cakes and bread sometimes get. I honestly thought the top of the cake had exploded and some batter fell to the bottom of the oven directly onto the heating element. It wasn't until I was washing the pan did I realize that the batter probably leaked out from the bottom of the pan. The tube pan is actually 2 separate pieces: the outer circumference and then the inner tube which also consists of the bottom of the pan. I ended up having to poke the charred cake out of the oven with a wooden spoon.

Once the cake is baked, it needs to be cooled upside-down. I think the reasoning behind this is to allow the air expand and ensure that the weight of the cake doesn't deflate itself.

The wine bottle worked great...until 10 minutes later when the weight of the cake (the recipe I followed turned out to actually be a double up of yet another recipe) and probably the fact that the pan is nonstick made it slip out of the pan.

:( I ended up having to cool the cake on a cooling rack and there were 2 big cracks in the cake. I forgot to take pictures of the cake once I ate it, but the top half of the cake was super fluffy and light as a chiffon cake should be. However, the bottom half was super dense and super eggy. I'm not sure if this was due to underbaking the cake, not whipping enough air into the egg whites, or the cake falling out of the pan while it was cooling. The taste was mostly of coconut and vanilla, with a hint of pandan on the finish. This is what I love most about pandan: it is so subtle and delicate yet there is no doubt that it is there.

As for pandan desserts that I grew up with, it was pretty much anything Thai or Vietnamese that had green in it:

Thai lod chong nam ka ti (pandan rice noodles with coconut milk)

Vietnamese bánh bò nướng lá dứa ("baked pandan cow cake"; yes cow cake and more on that in the future). Photo via

Vietnamese bánh xu xê ("husband and wife cake"). Photo via

Vietnamese bánh da lợn ("pig skin cake," but looks like the photo has a more American-friendly translation of "green leaf cake")

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