pandan kaya cake with a coconut frosting

yes, it’s that green.

I don’t seem to have much affinity with pandan desserts – they all require second-tries-and-the-promise-of-practice. in truth, it’s probably not the fault of the screwpine leaf – all the recipes calling for it are inevitably asian desserts, which also inescapably means vagueish instructions and a felicitous mix of finesse and experience (and fengshui, let’s not forget that).

this wasn’t bad actually, just a tad too sweet and lots of I-should-haves on hindsight. no recipe for you today, therefore, but a few notes if you’re thinking of trying this out!

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it looks pretty gorgeous ( horn-tooting-here) and I think the idea holds: the coconut icing serves as a foil for what is otherwise a rather monotonous cake of sponge and jelly. if you haven’t had this cake before, it’s a green confection of sponge layers flavoured with the extract of the pandanus leaf, encased in an opaque, firm fudgey-agar kind of jelly. usually served cold, this is an old-school kind of cake you’d get as a child in singapore, and sold in many of our local bakeries. that jelly is the difficult part here – you want it with a softer give than asian mango pudding, but still with a slight gelatinous resistance when poked into, and smooth and fudgy on top of that.

you achieve this ideal texture by expertly (an adjective best applied to diligent housewives and grandmothers) cooking a mixture of coconut milk and mung bean flour, smoothing it between cake layers in a mold and chilling till set. you want that green colour – food colouring is almost definitely a must. laborious extraction from natural leaves may produce a darker extract, but without the almost-playdoh vibrancy that these cakes call for.

I used the recipe here, and it was simple enough – though I have no idea if it flopped for me because it was my first time – let me know if you give it a try! here are my notes:

  1. make sure you have a ring mould. I assumed I had a cake ring brought back from london hiding somewhere, and lo and behold my panic when it wasn’t. I ended up using an upturned loose-base tin, which made my jelly layer a bit thicker than I wanted, and very difficult to spread as I couldn’t see the sides, and had to navigate through the smaller opening.
  2. make more jelly than you require. the ingredients are cheap, and you might end up with a bit of wastage, but there is nothing I would not have given for more jelly to prevent my next problem.
  3. use a spoon to squeeze the mixture into nooks for flawless, no-gap coverage. I couldn’t see very well through the small opening of my cake tin, and so some of the jelly didn’t settle properly down the sides of the cake. the mixture will be relatively thick and sticky when still warm, and I think piping would be a great option. lay your first cake layer down in the centre, pipe jelly around the circumference and atop the layer until an even surface, lay the next layer and repeat.
  4. make a big enough layer – you need to trim the sides. this isn’t wholly necessary, but if making this for an occasion (it was my partner’s mum’s birthday), then you’ll want to trim off the brown bits of the sponge so the entire cake is a pristine green. you don’t want your cake layers so small that you need to use too much jelly (if this happens, refer to tip 2). stuff your face with the trimmings.
  5. traditional icing sugar type frosting doesn’t stay on the smooth surface of the jelly. I had gaps in the jelly near the bottom of the cake that so annoyed me, I gouged at it until I reached the cake within, and piped a stream of coconut icing (coconut milk + icing sugar + dessicated coconut) across the bottom. condensation happens on the surface of the jelly once removed from the fridge, which takes on a green tinge from the colouring. keep in mind that singapore’s crazy humid, and so alot of green cake-sweat can run down and mar your frosting. that dampness also meant the frosting didn’t like to stay in place, and I had to compact it rather vigorously so it did.
  6. paper flowers are a great alternative to candles. I wanted something different, and this worked so well I’ll be sticking with it – easier than candles, and a matter of minutes to stick on toothpicks and into a cake. truly gorgeous – scrapbooking shops are great for this.
  7. a coconut element really adds interest. next time, I might bake this with coconut sponge layers, or do a variation with jelly between the layers and around the circumference, but a coconut buttercream schmeared on top. coconut yum!

I hope I haven’t scared you off – it isn’t so difficult to make so much as it might set you off on a zealous pursuit of perfection. and it doesn’t hurt that serving this cake is pretty much a winner in singapore (and if you’re outside asia, then it will win you novelty points!). let me know how you make yours, and in the meantime, I’ll keep staring at the photos for motivation – I do like that green.

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