Cheap Sweets: Pandan Chiffon
Ben CalderwoodWedges of tinted pandan cake
Countless tax brackets away from the lurid temptations of Jamon Ibérico de Bellota, you will find this slice of minor Asian exotica: pandan chiffon cake. The pale ivy hue comes from pandan leaf, also called screwpine, a tropical shrub cultivated across much of Southeast Asia for its singular flavor and aroma. The slender leaves can be steeped in sugar syrup, coconut milk or cream, which is then added to the dish, staining baked goods or rice a freshly mown green. Prepared pandan leaf pastes and extracts are available, though you will likely spot the acronym FD&C on the label.
Pandan is nearly undetectable on the tongue, but its characteristic perfume makes desserts bloom. Nutty, vaguely hay-like and floral, the longsword-shaped fronds are boosted by sugar and fool the palate into tasting something in between melon and vanilla and freshly steamed Jasmine rice. In simple preparations like chiffon cake it can be intoxicating, especially when served warm.
Chiffon is a European pastry fundamental, a construction of flour, sugar, water, separated eggs and a relatively scant amount of fat that's familiar to any home chef who's intimate with his or her KitchenAid. Leavened with copious whipped egg white and a spoonful of baking powder, it forms an airy, resilient sponge with little flavor of its own, the perfect vehicle for the aromatic, pastel screwpine. The version pictured above substitutes coconut milk for oil and is widely available at Vietnamese bakeries and markets for about two bucks per generous wedge. You can also find pandan chiffon cake, gooey, Emerald City-green platens of pandan-enriched sweet rice cake and pandan extract--occasionally fresh-frozen whole leaves--at Thai, Chinese, and Indonesian specialty shops across the L.A. basin.
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