While the last few posts I’ve written have been singular in focus (palm sugar, mochi), this one is a grab bag of techniques. Not only did staging in Asia introduce me to a variety of foreign ingredients, but also many new ways to treat already familiar foods.
Pandan (a.k.a. Asian vanilla)
Pandan, the ubiquitous green leaf used in Asian desserts and also known as screwpine, is often tagged as Asian vanilla because of its prolific use and vexing flavor profile. Just as it is difficult to describe the nuance of the flavor “vanilla,” it is equally challenging to explain how pandan tastes without having any on hand. Floral and sweet, somewhat nutty, but also starchy in the way good horchata smells, pandan is an essential ingredient in Asian desserts, the “1 teaspoon vanilla extract” that is included in every cookbook for every cookie and cake in America. After tasting fresh pandan leaves, pandan juice, pandan extract and pandan paste in Thailand, I’ve found the best way to describe it to Westerners is that pandan tastes the way an ice cream shop making fresh waffle cones or pizzelles to order smells.
Here in the U.S., pandan extract is readily available at Asian markets in small green plastic bottles. And to cook with it, making kueh is a good gateway recipe. Kueh are the Southeast Asian analogue of American bars (brownie cheesecake, raspberry streusel) or Australian slices (chocolate caramel, oatmeal raisin). A two-layered sweet, roughly an inch high, the bottom half of a kueh is comprised of sticky rice (or rice flour) that has been steamed with coconut cream and pandan leaves and compressed to condense it into a chilled sliceable bar. The top layer is typically a baked or steamed pandan custard that is set with egg yolks.
If you’re lucky enough to live in a city with some serious Asian markets, you may be able to find fresh or frozen pandan leaves, which can be run through the vita prep with a little water and passed through a chinois to produce pandan juice.
Asian desserts are big on texture. Shaved ice sundaes will often be topped with three or four flavored jellies, all slightly different in their jelly-ness. [Agar is king when it comes to setting liquids in SE Asia, and it’s common to have a single dish include pandan, coconut, palm sugar, and grass jellies, set at 0.25%, 0.5%, 0.75% and 1.0% agar, respectively.]*
Rubies are another common dessert element, a clever way to incorporate soft and crunchy textures within a single component. Something mildly sweet and firm (water chestnuts, apples, Asian pears) is diced and soaked (or compressed, if possible) in a flavored syrup. After infusing for a few hours the fruit is drained and tossed in tapioca flour. The excess flour is shaken off and one by one the pieces of fruit are dropped into simmering water. The fruit is cooked until it floats to the surface (~1 minute) and then immediately shocked in ice water, setting the tapioca gel on the outside of the fruit. For service (i.e. while you’re standing on a street corner in 100 F heat making coconut milk slushies for passersby), the rubies are kept in the same syrup they were compressed in.
*These amounts are rough estimates—when I watched a street vendor making their agar jellies, they were using the cap from a liter bottle of Coke as their measuring device.
The Portuguese love egg yolks. Egg yolk tarts, egg yolk beverages, egg yolk candies—they’ve covered every texture, temperature, viscosity, and density when it comes to egg yolk products. Nuns would use egg whites to stiffen the laundry and the surplus of yolks had to get used. At some point during the 16th or 17th century, Portuguese explorers introduced fios de ovos (“egg threads”) to Thailand and Malaysia. Now called foi thong in Thai (meaning “golden threads”) the candy is made by whisking egg yolks until they’re runny, placing in a bag, and cutting a very small opening. The yolks are then drizzled quickly (as if you were making a funnel cake) into gently simmering simple syrup. The protein in the yolk sets the strands and after a few minutes the excess water is driven off and what remains is a crunchy egg yolk candy that is similar in texture to instant ramen noodles, pre-boil.
Backpacking through Jakarta on my way to stage in Bali, Indonesia was one of the more terrifying and legitimately dangerous things I’ve ever done. However, were it not for several sunrise to sunset walks in my attempt to cover as much as I could of the 250 square mile city, I would never have discovered bingka ambon. Translated as honeycomb cake, the sweet contains no honey but is prepared and baked in such a way as to have a structure similar to its namesake. Rice flour, coconut water, palm sugar and yeast are mixed and left to proof for 30 minutes. If you didn’t know any better, you’d think you were starting to make Indonesian brioche. In a separate bowl, eggs and more sugar are beaten to the ribbon stage, coconut cream and melted butter is added, and finally tapioca flour is folded in. This is then combined with the yeasted mixture, poured into a pan, and left to proof for three hours.
Once the surface is dotted with air bubbles, the cake is par-baked on a contraption that inspires awe with its ingenuity and jankiness. Using a propane tank and a wok burner, a stone is heated to about 375 F, the pan is placed on the stone, and a larger pan is inverted over it. The idea here is to create an “oven” that only heats the cake from the bottom. As the proofed yeast on the bottom of the cake creates CO2 and expands, the direct bottom heat pushes the gas upward through the cake, creating its signature rivulets. The cake bakes this way for an hour and every 15 minutes the inverted pan is lifted to release excess steam. Finally, the cake is transferred to a regular oven set at the same temperature and baked for an additional 15 minutes to set the interior structure.
After cooling, the cake is sliced with a sharp chefs knife. This process is fascinating to watch when performed on street carts—unlike an American kitchen, where I might slice something delicate using a knife, a clean towel and a torch or bain of hot water, Asian hawkers slice honeycomb cake using a knife that is repeatedly rubbed with oil.
This bottom-heat-only technique is also often used on very thick (think ¾ of an inch) pancakes in Singapore. The pancake batter is cooked at a low temperature on just one side until fully set. Then the surface (which has gelled and is not raw, but is extremely soft and pillowy) is scattered with chopped peanuts and granulated sugar, the pancake is folded in half and sliced into wedges. The crusty, caramelized exterior gives way to an almost custardy center. Sometimes the vendor will ask if you would like sweetened condensed milk drizzled on top—the answer is always yes.