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When I moved to Singapore I started seeing green. Green cakes, green buns, green bread. At first I thought it was because of green tea. Wrong. (I wasn't too far off; green tea flavors and scents many things here, including dish detergent.) Instead, the source was pandan, a tropical plant with long palm-like leaves and a fragrant, nutty flavor. I think it tastes a bit like hazelnut.
Pandan leaves are used extensively in Southeast Asian cooking—you'll find it in chicken rice, kaya jam, nasi lemak, breads, cookies, pastries, and more. Folks here are just mad over it. I'd compare it to vanilla, except that pandan is as common an element in savory foods as it is in desserts.
Because it's such a popular flavoring, fresh pandan leaves are easy to find, whether in a local wet market or the corner supermarket, where I get mine. I've experimented with pandan a few times, using it in kaya jam and the popular pandan chiffon cake. I love how Southeast Asian baking has adopted this indigenous flavor into an American cake. This cake is so delicious, especially with the inclusion of coconut milk, a popular replacement here for dairy.
Chiffon cakes are light, fluffy cakes made by folding beaten egg whites into a batter that has oil as the fat. Oil keeps this cake super moist. To get the pandan flavoring in there, however, you kind of have to work for it. The leaves are pulverized and then squeezed through cheesecloth to extract the neon green juice. Many cakes and pastries simply use purchased extract. For mine, I use both, just to make sure the flavor is nice and bold. Fresh pandan is fairly mild. If you can't find fresh or frozen pandan, simply up the amount of extract.
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About the author: Yvonne Ruperti is a food writer, recipe developer, former bakery owner, and author of The Complete Idiot's Guide To Easy Artisan Bread. You can also watch her culinary stylings on the America's Test Kitchen television show. She presently lives in Singapore as a freelance writer for Time Out Singapore. Check out her blog: shophousecook.com. Follow Yvonne on Twitter.