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I know, another dessert from me, what’s the world coming to? Baking-phobic that I am, I have had one signal success in the world of desserts and that’s my pandan cheesecake. I’ve always loved pandan, a flavour that does the work of a kind of Asian vanilla. It is sweet but with a background nuttiness that works in both sweet and savoury dishes. Pandan leaves are wrapped around chicken and grilled in Southeast Asia, but you most often come across pandan in the form of a concentrated essence, like vanilla, used to make bright green cakes or dessert noodles. I have a couple of problems with these uses though: first, the bottles of essence taste kind of chemically and second, I am really not a fan of those dry Asian cakes. I know, it’s probably a cultural bias but I do think cake is one area in which European and American cultures have Asia beaten. So, I came up with the idea of an East meets West dessert: New York style creamy cheesecake flavoured with pandan.
Over the weekend we had a visit from the Crocodiles, down from London and expecting to be impressed with some kind of Asian feast. It was nervous-making: they are very serious foodies with strong opinions on Chinese food in particular. I didn’t have the nerve to cook Chinese for them but I did put together a fun Vietnamese menu: thick rice noodles with fried pork skin and coconut milk, aromatic braised pork osso buco, sour soup with monkfish, and bitter melon salad. The pandan cheesecake seemed like an appropriate end to the meal, even though it’s not Vietnamese. I think I love it because it represents my cooking background – New York influenced by the Asian flavours of Chinatown.
- 3 digestive biscuits
- 6 ginger biscuits
- 85 g melted butter
- 900 g cream cheese
- 6 large eggs
- 2 cups caster sugar
- 400 g sour cream
- 1/4 cup pandan juice (see below)
Your first order of business is to extract the pandan juice, and this you can use for all kinds of things. You need pandan leaves, fresh or frozen, to begin with, which are available from many Asian markets.
Chop 12 leaves into 2 inch chunks, put them in a food processor or blender and add about a 1/2 cup of water.
Now blend until they are as mushed up as possible – you might need to stop and stir them a few times as the leaves are a bit resistant.
Next, put the mix through a cheesecloth and sieve into a bowl. Squish and squeeze the leaves with a spatula or your fingers to get all the liquid out.
You’ll end up with a thin but deep jade coloured liquid that’s ready for cooking.
Heat the oven to 250 F / 130 C / gas mark 1/2. This cake is going to cook very very gently! Butter a springform pan. In a large bowl, mix the cream cheese and sugar with a hand mixer. In a separate bowl, beat six eggs, just to mix, then add these in to the cheese and sugar. This is the part where you have to just not think about how many calories you are planning to ingest. Add the pandan juice and the sour cream and mix well.
At this point, the cake mix will seem very liquidy. The pandan juice adds quite a bit of liquid but have faith. Pour into the springform pan and place on a baking tray on the bottom shelf in the oven. Cook for two hours – keep an eye on it as it may take a bit more or less. When the outside is firm but toward the centre is still pretty wibbly, turn off the oven and let it cool a bit in there. Then take it out and cover with a teatowel to cool before putting in the fridge to set for a few hours.
Bangkok is a pretty bustling city already so Bangkok Chinatown was always going to be a bit madcap. We took the regular bus-type boat down the river and emerged into a shopping street that ‘bustling’ doesn’t even begin to describe. Holy hell, I have never seen anything so crowded and claustrophobic in all my life! I don’t actually have any photos of the experience because there was no real way to take meaningful photographs. We were squashed up like the mosh pit of a Morrissey gig, but with only cheap consumer goods as our objects of lust. We just shuffled along with the rhythms of the heaving crowd for what felt like miles till we found a cross-street and then legged it out of there. This picture below is of a relatively quiet, relaxed and empty thoroughfare…
But for all its insanity, I really enjoyed Bangkok Chinatown. The Chinese lanterns were pretty and there was a different energy to the place than the rest of the city. Also fascinating were the proximities of other immigrant communities: walk west a couple of blocks and you’re among sari stores, pan sellers and samosa stalls. Walk north and you’re in an older Chinatown full of mildly decrepit shophouses selling all manner of knick-knacks.
Naturally, I was partly there for the food and it didn’t disappoint. In fact, my first sensation was being overwhelmed by choice: every corner had maybe five or six food stalls and I was anxious about how much I’d miss, no matter what I chose to eat. I started off with some green sugary coconut things that I wasn’t a huge fan of. I love pandan but whatever I bought tasted mostly of sugar. Mr Lemur enjoyed it more than me as he has a South American sweet tooth. Once in the real market area, I found more to my savoury tastes, but what really piqued my interest were these odd dumpling displays.
The dumplings themselves are not odd – they’re the kind of flat, rice flour dumplings that are often filled with slightly bitter Chinese greens and I love them. But these enormous displays of dumpling architecture built around the edges of vast drums reminded me of nothing more than something from the nest of Ridley Scott’s Alien. I think it’s the gelatinous, sticky consistency of the dough, which is so appealing in the mouth, but becomes a bit abject en masse like this. I expected something to emerge from the bottom of the pile and bite me. Plus, the perfect tiling of the wall doesn’t give me the impression that these dumplings are being cooked and served quickly…it was a hot day and the alien dumpling nest looked, well, dank. I ate one and lived to tell the tale, but I was slightly concerned about food safety here, I have to admit.
To recover from the freaky Alien dumplings we stopped off in Hong Kong Noodles cafe for some dim sum. This wasn’t the best dim sum I’ve ever had in my life but it was perfectly serviceable and one shrimp dumpling with chili sauce was amazing. Siu mai and har gow were fine with good fresh seafood and it was mostly good to find a place to sit down after all the crazy crowds.
The only thing I really couldn’t bring myself to try was these little Asian ‘tacos’ that they sell at lots of food stands. I know they’re not tacos and I am willing to bet that they’re delicious. But the filling just looks SO MUCH like nasty American orange cheese and sour cream that they put me right off.
Last weekend, I finally caught up with Thrifty Gal and got to try out my tua nao, or fermented soy bean pods. Thrifty Gal is a vegetarian who never eats Southeast Asian food in restaurants because she also has a nut allergy and it all just seems too Russian Roulette-ish. Of course, I delight in making Asian food that won’t kill her, and I was especially excited because I’d discovered in Chiang Mai a vegetarian alternative to shrimp paste. Southeast Asian food is tricky for vegetarian cooking because fish sauce and shrimp paste aren’t ingredients but foundational flavours, imparting salt and umami to dishes. You can salt with soy sauce or plain old sodium chloride, but rich umami sensations are a bit harder to achieve. Fermented fish and shrimp are basic to Thai cooking and I’ve read that poor families sometimes eat little but rice and fermented fish in the leaner months: you can’t just omit flavours this essential to a cuisine. But in the Shan market in Chiang Mai, Naomi showed me tua nao, flat dry disks of fermented soybeans which do the same job in Northern Thai and Burmese cuisines. Perhaps because these regions are further from the sea, they developed a soy-based means of creating deeply savoury notes. Read the rest of this entry »
Regular readers will have noticed that I’m not really a dessert person. First of all, I don’t have an enormously sweet tooth but mostly I am just not a baker. I completely subscribe to the idea that the world is split into cooks and bakers and I’m massively impressed by anyone who can do both. My grandmother was a baker: family lore has it that she was frustrated by my grandfather’s culinary conservatism and channeled all of her creative energies into the medium of cake. As a child, I loved going to her house because there was always a freshly made coconut cake or an Albert cake on hand. My mother, by contrast, is a cook: her lasagne is legendary and she makes a pretty good chicken korma too. I’ve inherited my mother’s love of cooking but whereas she can actually make a lovely dessert, I am terrified of the entire world of baking. I never know what things are supposed to look like at each stage and it all seems so unforgiving. That’s why I love this beautiful Seville orange cake recipe, which seems entirely idiot-proof… Read the rest of this entry »
Remember when I wrote about how nice and welcoming Vietnamese people are? Well, this is another one of those instances. When we were on our Mekong homestay, the breakfast provided was a perfectly lovely spread of omelettes and French baguettes with jam. But as we sat on the verandah waiting for our Vietnamese coffees to drip through, our guide Anh arrived on her bike from the village with a whole other set of breakfast goodies. She’d heard me say that I didn’t eat eggs and knew that I loved eating little snacks at morning markets, so she’d picked up an array of local treats at the market for me. How sweet is that?
The ones pictured above are bánh chuôí (the little rhizomes made with rice flour and banana, which were really delicious and kind of reminiscent of the steamed banana cake we had in Saigon) and bánh bò (the flat white discs, which look very plain but were actually really good, flavoured subtly with coconut milk).
Around the outside of this plate are bánh bèo, made with rice and beans, and in the middle are bánh lá, which are also made with coconut milk and look a bit like papardelle. These are probably the least photogenic of the lot but they tasted amazing dipped in coconut milk. And of course there was still a vast pile of French bread to get through with lovely runny fruit preserves.
It was incredibly relaxing to sit on the verandah, looking out at the jackfruit trees and eating our way through all these beautiful looking breakfast snacks. I mean, really, not only did Anh go out and buy these for me, our homestay hosts presented them so beautifully. They could have been annoyed that the picky guest didn’t want to eat their eggs but instead they created this elegant Vietnamese spread. Tourist with a personal touch is one thing but the Vietnamese welcome was a whole other level. (Let me give you another example. I had mentioned to Anh at one point that this trip was for a ‘special’ birthday. When we were in our hotel in Chau Doc, she arrived at our door with a package: a birthday cake with my name and age iced onto it, candles, lighter, vase and a single rose. When we were checking into the hotel, she’d had a sly look at my passport to find out how old I was and my exact birthday, and had gone out and had a cake iced for me! I was so touched. There I was, thousands of miles from home, and someone had brought me a personalised birthday cake.) So, this was a simple breakfast but a really lovely gesture. Fortified, we went out to explore the Mekong around Co Co, where the fruit trees are abundant and the fruit sellers also super friendly.