--- Palisa Anderson is host of the brand-new series, Water Heart Food with Palisa Anderson, 7.00pm Sundays on SBS Food and On Demand. ---
"I have a special weakness for pandan," says Palisa Anderson, host of Palisa Anderson's Water Heart Food and second-gen restaurateur to Chat Thai restaurants plus Sydney's Boon Cafe.
"When used whole, like the way it is in pandan cake, it lends a verdant vibrancy," she says.
Pandan chiffon cake is a reliable go-to in Southeast Asian countries, fit for a variety of occasions. Malaysian-born cult Instagram baker Raymond Tan says, "it's something we'd eat day in, day out. We'd buy whole cakes as travel gifts for relatives overseas. My mum would also pack a slice in my lunchbox as a sweet treat."
But what makes the trusted dessert taste so good and what defines a great bake? We're going to find out.
What to look for
Springvale bakery HS Cakes sells about 500 pandan chiffon cakes a week across its two stores in Victoria. Owner and baker Hong Sy explains that pandan chiffon cake should be a natural green colour with lots of air bubbles.
"This indicates that it will be light and fluffy.
"It should be as soft as a cloud when touched and eaten. And it shouldn't be too sweet."
Tan adds that a great pandan cake should also smell of fresh pandan, shouldn't taste bitter and shouldn't split.
Should you use store-bought pandan extract or fresh?
All of the bakers we spoke to were unanimous on this point: fresh all the way.
"Fresh pandan and its juices will give you natural colouring, flavour and aromas that store-bought extract cannot achieve," Sy says. "Fresh pandan is affordable, inexpensive and is easily prepared, so why wouldn't you use it in its original form?"
Pandan is often referred to as the 'the vanilla of Southeast Asian cooking', he explains. But adds that the flavour is almost indescribable; grassy with nuttiness and vanilla, verging on coconut.
You can make a pandan extract by chopping up pandan leaves, placing them in a food processor and adding a little water. Strain the mixture and squeeze the remaining chopped leaves to extract the maximum amount of pandan.
A pandan chiffon is only as good as its meringue
Tan says preparing pandan chiffon is akin to preparing meringue. "Separate your eggs carefully, make sure there are no yolks in your egg whites at all. Do not over-beat your meringue, just the start of a stiff peak will do otherwise your cake might collapse and have large, uneven bubbles.
"If you under-beat your meringue, your cake will sink a little and you'll have a 'dead' layer of custard," he says.
Anderson adds some cream of tartar to her meringue, which she says is a bit of a cheat, but a good handy tip. "It really helps hold things together".
Make sure you don't do this...
Greasing your cake tin is a complete no-no for a chiffon cake. The batter must cling to both the base and the sides of the tin.
Once the cake is cooked, leave it in the tin until it has completely cooled so it doesn't collapse.
What about getting fancy and adding coconut?
HS Cakes prefers to leave coconut milk out of its pandan chiffon mixture. "Our opinion is that coconut milk can overpower the fragrance and natural taste of pandan," Sy says.
But the store does weave coconut into the layers and icing of its pandan cakes, which are sold plain, with durian or with pandan coconut kaya.
"It should be as soft as a cloud when touched and eaten."
At Tan's new Melbourne cafe Raya, things are pretty similar. "Though [there's] no coconut milk in our chiffon base, we love to put a toasty coconut layer on the outside of the cake, which also covers up any unmoulding imperfections," he says.
Anderson's Boon Cafe rendition sees pandan chiffon cakes topped with a coconut buttercream and made with butter, coconut cream, icing sugar and a pinch of salt.