Pandan chiffon cake ranks high on the list of things that I miss when I’m away from Singapore, especially if you talking about Singapore desserts.
Like most Singaporeans, it is a cake that I grew up with. My eyes would brighten at the sight of that ubiquitous green cake; I would gobble down three or four slices at a go, with a glass of milk on hand. But judge me not for it is so soft, so light and so fluffy – it doesn’t fill you up though it brings you enjoyment aplenty.
I think I could go as far to say that pandan is one of my favourite Southeast Asian flavours.
Here’s the skinny on pandan for those of you who are unfamiliar with it: Pandan derives its flavour from its leaves (also known as screwpine leaves). It is fragrant and aromatic; it can be used in sweets and cakes or even be used to infuse savoury dishes – I would say that it works magically like vanilla bean though it doesn’t share the same flavours. Its unique flavour works brilliantly with coconut milk; you would rarely mention one without the other.
This chiffon cake celebrates the marriage of pandan leaves and coconut milk; the two provides the cake with its primary flavour. Even though you can probably choose to use a pandan extract/paste, the leaves are the real McCoy.
Back to the chiffon cake which needs no introduction. I think that a well-made chiffon is one that is soft like cotton, light as air and fluffy like clouds. It ought to remind you of a beautiful summer’s morning – blue skies, sunshine, green grass, enough to make your heart sing.
And this chiffon cake is every bit of that beautiful summer’s morning.
A chiffon cake perfection may seem hard to achieve. I, myself, know it all too well. My initial attempts were a mess. All too often they rise beautifully in the oven, only to deflate onto themselves when out of the oven.
After plenty of trial and error (and tears), I’ve found the secret to the perfect rise, every single time. The key lies in whisking the meringue to the perfect glossy stiff peaks, never to overwhisk nor underwhisk them. Then ensuring that you fold through the mixture gently, making sure that it is gentle yet thorough at the same time. An important tip is to bake it in an ungreased tin and never in a non-stick tin, though this may sound terribly unconventional. Lastly (also the most critical point), your cake would only be as good if you nail the baking temperature and baking time; the chiffon cake needs to be in the Goldilocks zone, not too hot, not too cold.
Mastering this cake would open the door to a whole new world of chiffon cakes – the sky is your only limit.
Despite all the exciting flavours of chiffon cake, the pandan chiffon cake would always have that special place in my heart.
Recipe: Classic pandan chiffon cake
Makes a 23 cm (9.5″) chiffon cake
A chiffon is as beautiful as a summer’s day when it is light as air and fluffy like clouds. Though the texture of this cake is feather-light, its flavours are unmistakably pronounced, in a good way. Pandan and coconut milk complement each other and its beautiful marriage can be tasted in this chiffon cake.
100g egg yolks (or approximately 5 yolks), room temperature
40ml corn oil (or any other neutral flavoured oil like canola or soybean)
about 12 fresh pandan leaves, washed thoroughly
160ml coconut milk# (UHT packet)
1/2 tsp pandan paste
120g cake flour+
3/4 tsp double acting baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
270g egg whites (or approximately 6 whites), room temperature
55g caster sugar
pinch of cream of tartar (optional)
1. Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius. Have your chiffon cake tin mould ready. Do not grease it!
2. Whisk yolks with sugar until pale and light. Add in the corn oil and whisk until incorporated.
3. Prepare pandan coconut milk: Using a blender, place coconut milk, water and cut up pandan leaves and blitz. Pour mixture over a sieve and squeeze out the pandan coconut milk. Alternatively, you can use your hands (do wear disaposable gloves as pandan juice can cause your skin to itch) to squeeze out the pandan flavoured coconut milk. Discard the remaining pulp.
4. Mix the pandan coconut milk into your egg yolk mixture. Add in pandan paste and whisk in sifted dry ingredients. Whisk well until there are no lumps.
5. Prepare a meringue: Use group B ingredients to whisk a meringue to glossy, firm, just short of stiff peaks. Start by whisking egg whites until soft peaks before adding the caster sugar and whisk till glossy and firm, just short of stiff peaks. Do not overwhisk.
6. Add in 1/4 of the meringue to the egg yolk mixture. Whisk lightly to combine.
7. Add in 1/2 of the remaining meringue to the yolk mixture. Fold gently to incorporate before folding in the rest of the meringue. Make sure that the whites are folded into the mixture thoroughly.
8. Gently pour the pandan cake batter into the chiffon tin. Using a spatula, level and smooth out the top of the cake batter and gently tap the chiffon cake tin against the kitchen counter twice to remove any large air bubbles.
9. Bake at 180 degrees celcius for about 1 hr. The top of the cake should be lightly browned and springs back to touch when it is done. At about 25 minutes into the baking, check on your chiffon cake. If the top starts to brown or crack, cover the top with a aluminium foil before continuing with the baking. You can turn down the temperature slightly as well to about 170-175 degrees celcius.
10. Remove the ready cake from the oven, place a funnel into the center hole of the tin and invert the cake to cool on a cooling rack. Only attempt to unmould the pandan cake from its tin when it is cooled fully.
*Storage tip: The chiffon cake should be stored in the refrigerator once it is cooled completely.
#If using fresh coconut milk, you need not dilute it with water. Use only 180ml of fresh coconut milk instead.
*I’ve used minimal amount of sugar in this cake for a cake that is less sweet so that it is suitable for older folks to consume. It can do with more sugar so do feel free to adjust the amount of sugar to your preference.
+Ran out of cake flour? Make your own by using a cup of plain flour with 2 tbsp of corn flour. Whisk to combine and sift this mixture twice. Then measure out the amount you need for the recipe.
Some of the common problems with chiffon cakes include
– Chiffon cake rising then collapsing when taking out of the oven
– Chiffon cake not risen well
Tips for baking a chiffon cake:
1. The best tin to use is a stainless steel removable base chiffon cake tin, especially for an Asian chiffon cake like this one. Do not use a non-stick tin and do not grease it as the structure of the chiffon cake is very delicate. It needs to cling on the sides and center of the tin for support as it rises or it will collapse.
2. Do not attempt to substitue recipe into smaller/larger chiffon cake tins or loaf pans. It does not work.
Whisking of the egg whites
3. Always start with room temperature egg whites as they are better able to whisk better and attain more volume quicker. You can add in cream of tar tar as it acts as a stabliser for egg whites.
4. Always use castor sugar when making meringues as the finer granules dissolve in the egg whites better than granulated sugar.
5. Whisk the egg whites to firm, glossy peaks, slightly under stiff peaks. This means that the peaks are still able to hold its form and not fall over itself but they do not stay upright like stiff peaks.
Baking and oven temperature
6. Make sure your oven is at the right temperature. Do use an oven thermometer. This is very crucial when baking a chiffon cake. Too hot, the cake will start to crack. Too cool, the cake would not rise properly.
7. Check your pandan cake when it is in the oven at the mid-way of baking (about 20-25 minutes into the baking). When the cake begins to crack, cover the top of the chiffon tin with aluminum foil. You can also lower the oven temperature slightly to 170-175 degrees celcius. Or choose to move the chiffon cake to the lower third of the oven.
8. The cake is ready in approximately 60 minutes. You should see the cake shrink slightly away from the sides of the tin. Also, it should spring back upon touch.
Cooling the cake inverted (to prevent the chiffon cake from collapsing)
9. After you remove the ready cake from the oven, invert it over a funnel while it cools. This elevation helps air to circulate underneath the cake and will prevent condensation from forming on the cake. It is very important to cool the cake inverted so that it will not collapse on its own weight.
10. Only attempt to remove the chiffon cake when its cooled completely as the cake has a very delicate and fragile structure when it is still warm and may fall apart if you try to do so.
11. To remove the cake after it is cooled, run a palette knife against the sides of the cake tin. Turn it out gently onto a cake board. The base of the cake tin would now be on top. Run a palette knife in one swift motion against the base of the tin. Allow the chiffon cake to gently fall onto the cake board.