I am a pandan lover and am surrounded by a group of pandan lovers. Pandan leaves are leaves from pandanus palms with a distinct and subtle fragrance; they are commonly used in Southeast Asian cookings, such as curries, nasi lemak, mango sticky rice (Khao Niaow Ma Muang) and steamed layer rice cake (Khanom Chan). Pandan leaves can be easily found in Southeast Asia, but not so the case in other parts of the world.
When I was in Sydney, it took me a while to find these good stuff; I went to several Asian grocery stores in China town after searching at the stores in my neighbourhood. I thought they would be sold freshly, tied in bunches and placed next to the other herbs and spices in the vegetable section. But one day after given up looking, I saw them in the freezer at one of my local Asian grocery stores! The ones I found in Sydney were smaller in size, but tastewise I think they were as good as the fresh ones.
After settling back in Hong Kong I kept searching for pandan leaves. Unlike in Sydney where various kinds of Asian groceries can be found in one store, in Hong Kong you will have to go to a particular store for a particular kind of cuisine; like you go to Jusco or Yata supermarket for Japanese mirin and dashi sauce, you go to Kimberly street in TST for Korean groceries and Thai grocery stores in Kowloon City for Thai ingredients. It is indeed less convenient and there is less space for improvisation of cooking a specific cuisine, but I think it’s easier to find better quality and fresher ingredients in Hong Kong.
Let me take pandan leaves as an example: I bought these fresh pandan leaves from a Thai grocery store called Three Thai Grocery (三泰雜貨) in Wan Chai market for HK$4 (I asked for 2 bunches). These leaves are bigger and fresher than the ones I used to see in Sydney and are cheaper in price too.
Some of you might wonder why don’t I simply use pandan extract for pandan desserts. The answer is I do! I have a little bottle of pandan extract at home for the colour and some additional flavour when I think there isn’t enough. If you only use pandan leaves for desserts like pandan chiffon cake or steamed layered cake, you won’t be able to get that vibrant green colour you usually see in those desserts, instead they will turn out in a yellowish colour, which makes perfect sense if you are only looking for the taste and do not wish to add any food colouring to your desserts. Pandan essence can be found in baking supplies stores and Indo market.
Pandan Chiffon Cake
Makes a 20cm wide chiffon cake (with a hole in the middle) OR around three 12.5 cm wide ones
… you can also bake them in small paper cups to make cupcake sized ones …
the heavy batter:
… 5 egg york (average weight of a large egg is 60g)
… 20g caster sugar
… 100g cake flour
… 1 tsp baking powder *
… 100ml coconut milk (I had used Ayam and OSC before)
… 3 tbsp vegetable oil (or any tasteless & light oil) *
… 1/2 tsp fine salt
IF you are NOT using any fresh or frozen pandan leaves:
… 2 tsp pandan extract
IF you are using fresh or frozen pandan leaves:
… 10 small pandan leaves or 5 large pandan leaves (you can add more if you wish to have a stronger flavour)
… 2 tbsp of coconut milk FROM the 100ml listed above (cause you don’t want any extra liquid added into your cake to affect the texture)
… 1/2 tsp of pandan extract for the vibrant colour (if desired)
the light egg white mix:
… 5 egg whites
… pinch of salt
… 1/2 tsp of cream of tar tar OR 1/2 tsp of fresh lemon juice OR 1/2 tsp of white vinegar *
Preheat the oven to 170*C
Using an electric mixer, beat the egg white mix on high speed until it reaches the ‘firm peak’ stage then set aside *
Use the electric mixer to beat the egg yolks and sugar until the mixture becomes pale yellow in colour and has doubled in size
Add coconut milk and pandan extract OR fresh pandan juice and combine
Sieve 1/3 of the cake flour at a time and use a plastic spatula to mix until well incorporated, then add in another 1/3 of cake flour and so on. You can use a hand mixer or an electric mixer on the lowest speed to help you a bit with this step
Add vegetable oil into the batter and mix until combined
Add around 1/3 of the light egg white mixture into the the heavy egg yolk batter first, use the spatula to gently (!) fold the egg white into the batter. Careful not to press it but to ‘fold it’, try to avoid squeezing out the air in the egg white mixture or else the cake will end up not being very fluffy *
Pour the egg yolk + egg white batter back into the egg white and fold again until the mixture is JUST incorporated (until you don’t see any ‘egg white lumps’), be gentle and do not over mix the batter!
Slowly pour the batter into the chiffon cake pan (DO NOT grease the pan!), do not keep moving the mixing bowl and pour the batter around the hole but pour the batter down to one point and let it flow and spread out across the cake pan itself
Bang the cake pan against the bench top hardly for 2-3 times until you see big bubbles floating up the top of the batter and disappear
Use a chopstick (or anything similar) to gently run through the edge of the cake pan to further release any hidden bubbles in the batter, then use the spatula to smooth out the surface *
Put the cake pan into the oven, place it on the lowest rack possible
Bake for 15 minutes or until the cake starts to crack, then lower the temperature to 150*C and turn off the upper heat in the oven. The total baking time should be 40-45 minutes, insert a long toothpick into the middle of cake; if it comes out clean without any batter sticking onto it, your cake is done! *
Take out the cake pan and turn it upside down. You can either use a bottle with bottle neck that fits into the hole of cake pan so that you can rest your flipped over cake pan on top of the bottle; or simply rest it on a cooling rack (if you don’t mind leaving some marks at the bottom of your cake). Let the cake cool completely and use a knife to run through the sides of the cake pan and gently release the cake from the cake pan.
* Some people never add baking powder in their chiffon cakes; theoretically the cake can rise without the help of the baking powder, but the baking powder acts as an insurance that it ensures the cake to rise nice and high every time
* Some people suggest beating up the heavy egg yolk batter first because the whipped up egg white mixture cannot stand for too long. But I personally like rinsing my mixer and mixing bowl with boiling water before I beat up egg whites, because a tiny beat of grease will stop the egg whites from whipping up properly! Then I can just briefly clean my mixer and beat up my heavy batter; and these two steps shouldn’t take too long to complete.
* I have used vegetable oil, corn oil and sunflower seed oil before and they were all fine. I do not recommend using olive oil as it is slightly ‘tasteful’. Definitely don’t use melted butter as it is ‘heavier’ than the rest and will stop the cake from rising up high
* The cream of tar tar/ lemon juice/ white vinegar are acids that act as stablising agents for the egg white and allow it to reach the optimal level of stiffness
* Some recipes suggest to beat the egg white until it reaches the ‘stiff peak’ stage because that is when the egg white contains the highest amount of air. But I reckon it will be pretty hard to mix stiff egg whites with the heavy egg yolk batter and I often end up over mixing the batter. Also, cakes that are made of stiffer egg white mixtures tend to crack more easily.
* If you try to pour in the heavy batter into the light egg white mixture directly, you are basically mixing two kinds of stuff with very different levels of density. Adding 1/3 of the light egg white mixture into the heavy batter first will help lightening the heavy batter and so making it easier to mix everything together.
* What you do in steps 9, 10 and 11 are to avoid having big bubbles in your cake
* On top of turning off the upper heat, some people also place another baking tray or metal racks wrapped with aluminium foil on the upper rack above the cake to further prevent forming of cracks on the surface which is a result from having excessive heat at the top