If you’re familiar with Southeast Asian desserts, you would know that the leaf of the Pandan plant plays an essential role in enhancing the flavor and aroma of many desserts from the region. Despite its distinctive scent, the slender sleeves of this tropical plant usually plays a supporting role to other ingredients such as split green beans or glutinous rice flour and palm sugar, subtly informing you of its presence, but staying well in the background. Except, that is, when it takes center stage in the pandan chiffon cake.
Slices of these cakes were often sold in the school cafeteria for 30 Singapore cents (about 20 US cents), colored a deep luminous green to unmistakably convey its fragrant origins. Like traffic signals, food coloring was used to symbolic effect when it came to confections and jams counting pandan as an ingredient, so I was socialized early on to associate green baked sweets with pandan.
But I digress. Today’s cake is a pandan cake with a twist. A pretty elaborate, time-consuming, two-day twist. As I was looking for inspiration and ideas for this challenge, I came across a series of recipes for Bavarian cakes in the Tartine cookbook. These cakes get their name from the cream (bavarois), which is spread between layers of a chiffon cake. Using a cooked base of fruit juice or cream combined with egg yolks, this mixture is then folded together with whipped cream and meringue, and stabilized with some gelatin. Although it sounds complicated, it’s actually pretty straightforward to make and is a versatile ingredient for dressing up a variety of cakes and pastries.
In this instance, I adapted Tartine’s recipe for pastel de tres leches (three milks cake) to create a pandan variant layered with coconut syrup, bavarois cream and topped with coconut and icing sugar. There is little difference between a regular chiffon cake and the traditional pandan cake recipe, except for the addition of coconut milk in the latter. For this version, I left the coconut out (literally) as Tartine’s recipe included a coconut syrup to sweeten the layers.
The recipe below seems rather long and daunting, but if you have the time to start on different parts a few days ahead of assembling the final cake, it will come together like a breeze. The trickiest step I encountered was in the making of pastry cream, to ensure that it didn’t burn and achieved the right consistency. For the rest, it’s simple cake-making and assembly to wow your guests with a layered cake (it’s a big deal for me since it’s my first!). I also left out the few drops of green coloring that would broadcast this as a PANDAN cake, but once you smell and taste the final product, I’ve got a feeling that the color won’t matter as much as the looks of satisfaction on the faces of your guests.
Pandan Bavarian (adapted from the Tartine cookbook by Elisabeth Prueitt and Chad Robertson)
Yields one 8-by-2-inch cake, enough for 6 to 8 servings
1½ cups all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 cup sugar
½ teaspoon salt
1/3 cup vegetable or safflower oil
4 large egg yolks
½ cup pandan juice (blend 5 pandan leaves with ½ cup water and strain)
6 egg whites
¼ teaspoon lemon juice
Preheat the oven to 325F/ 170C. Line the bottom of the springform pan with parchment paper cut to fit exactly. Leave the sides ungreased and unlined.
Sift the flour and baking powder, then add ¾ cup of the sugar and salt and whisk to combine. In a separate bowl, whisk together the oil, egg yolks and pandan juice. Making a well in the flour, add the yolk liquid, whisking thoroughly until smooth.
Whip the egg whites until frothy, then add the lemon juice and beat on high speed until the whites hold soft peaks. Slowly add the remaining ¼ cup sugar and beat on high until firm and shiny peaks form.
Using a spatula, scoop about a third of the whites into the yolk batter and fold in gently. Add the rest of the egg whites, folding in slowly and gently until just combined.
Pour the batter into the pan, smoothing the top with the back of a spoon or spatula. Bake for about 45 minutes to an hour, until a cake tester comes out clean.
Let the cake cool in the pan for about 45 minutes, then run a small knife around the sides of the cake to loosen it from the pan. Invert it, peel off the parchment and slice the cake into three equal layers. Set aside.
1½ cups/ 335 ml whole milk
½ a vanilla bean or ½ teaspoon vanilla bean paste
¼ teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons cornstarch
6 tablespoons/ 77 grams sugar
1 large egg
3 tablespoons/ 43 grams unsalted butter, cut into cubes
Prepare an ice bath with a fine-mesh sieve set atop.
Combine the milk, vanilla and salt in a saucepan and heat to just under a boil, stirring occasionally to prevent the milk solids from sticking to the bottom (which would have a higher chance of burning and affecting the final flavor of the cream).
Mix the sugar and cornstarch in a separate bowl, add the egg and whisk until smooth. When the mik is ready, ladle about a third of the milk into the egg mixture, whisking continuously. Pour the whisked liquid back into the saucepan and continue whisking over medium heat until the custard resembles lightly whipped cream. The mixture needs to come to boiling point and once you see a few slow bubbles, take the liquid off heat and strain through the sieve.
Let the cream cool to room temperature, stirring occasionally to prevent a skin from forming. Cover the bowl with plastic wrap, pressing onto the top of the cream and refrigerate until ready to use.
¼ cup/ 100 ml unsweetened coconut milk
6 tablespoons sugar
Pinch of salt
Stir all the ingredients together until the sugar dissolves. Set aside.
Before preparing the filling, have the cake slices and coconut syrup ready for assembly.
1 teaspoon unflavored gelatin
2 tablespoons water
2/3 cup/ 168 ml heavy cream
Sprinkle the gelatin over the water and let stand for a few minutes.
If you’re using freshly made pastry cream which is still warm, whisk the gelatin into the entire batch then place the bowl in an ice bath and let the cream cool before continuing.
If your pastry cream has been refrigerated, scoop about ¼ of the cream into a bowl placed atop a pot of simmering water. Whisk constantly until very hot, then whisk in the gelatin until smooth. Remove from heat and whisk in the rest of the pastry cream in two batches.
Whip the heavy cream until soft peaks form, then quickly fold the whipped cream into the pastry cream with a rubber spatula.
Pandan cake layers
½ cup shredded coconut
6 tablespoons confectioners’ sugar, sifted
Line the sides of an 8-inch springform pan with plastic wrap, leaving enough overhang to cover the top of the cake when assembled. Leave the bottom of the pan unlined.
Place the bottom layer in the pan and moisten the top with a third of the coconut syrup using a pastry brush. Pour half of the filling over this layer, using the back of a spoon to spread it evenly.
Place the second layer over the filling, pressing down gently. Moisten this layer with syrup and pour the rest of the filling.
Place the top layer and moisten it with the rest of the syrup, then fold the plastic wrap over the cake, covering it completely.
Place something heavy over the cake (like a plate or a baking sheet) and refrigerate for at least 4 hours before serving.
To serve, release the sides of the pan and remove the plastic wrap. Mix the coconut and the icing sugar together in a bowl with your fingers and sprinkle it over the top.
The cake can be served immediately or kept refrigerated until ready to serve. It will keep for up to 5 days.