I am going to a potluck dinner today! (More on that another day.) I wanted to bring something a little different that some people may not have tried before. This is a South-East Asian vegetarian and dairy-free gelatin dessert that uses a couple of ingredients that may seem exotic to people unfamiliar with food from Vietnam, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines or Malaysia.
Pandan leaves (also known as pandanus or screw pine leaves) are a plant that is often used in South-East Asian cooking and appears in desserts, flavoured rice, curries, etc. The taste and smell of pandan is uniquely floral and slightly grassy. It is often paired with coconut; in fact, if you buy something that is coconut flavoured and it is green coloured, it probably has some pandan in it as well. People sometimes say that pandan leaves are as important to South-East Asian cooking as vanilla is to Western cooking. In Edmonton, you can purchase pandan leaves frozen from Asian grocery stores like T&T Supermarket and 99 Supermarket. I picked up pandan extract at 99 Supermarket.
Agar agar is a derived from an algae and is often used as a substitute for gelatin. It is most commonly used in South-East Asian and Japanese desserts, but sometimes gets used as a general thickener for food. You can sometimes find them in Asian grocery stores as long, dried strips, flakes or as a powder.
I originally was going to use a recipe that I found on the Internet or from a cookbook, but all of the ones I found weren’t quite what I was looking for. I ended up doing a test run and finally settled on these measurements as my preferred recipe.
Pandan Agar Agar
1 1/2 cup water
400 ml (approx 2 cups) thick coconut milk (use a higher fat milk – the one I used had 17 g of fat per 1/2 cup)
2/3 cup sugar
3 tsp powdered agar agar
approx 1/2 tsp pandan (also known as screw pine) extract (also sometimes called essence or paste)
Place the water, coconut milk and sugar into a pot and bring to a low boil.
Sprinkle the agar agar powder into the pot slowly while continuously stirring the mixture. Be careful because the powder can easily clump in the liquid if you add it too quickly. If it does clump, then break it up as much as you can and keep slowly stirring until the lumps dissolve in the liquid.
Slowly add the pandan extract until the desired green colour is achieved. I added 1/2 tsp, but really the amount added depends on your preference.
Place the mixture into molds or a casserole dish and let cool. Agar agar will become solid at room temperature, but it will solidify faster in cold temperatures. I generally let the agar agar cool down a little bit, and then pop them into the fridge. I recommend making your layer about 1/2 inch tall or less; once you get much bigger than that the mixture will settle toward the bottom and the top part of the agar agar will become translucent. The flavour will fall to the bottom as well.
Once cool, unmold or cut the agar agar into squares, rectangles, parallelograms. I used a small cookie cutter to create fun shapes.
N.B. Alternatively you can use pandan leaves and make a pandan juice instead of using the extract. To create the juice you take about 8 long leaves and rinse them. Chiffonade the leaves if you can, or at least try to slice them into as small pieces as possible. Place them into a blender with 2/3 a cup of water and puree. Strain the mixture with a cheesecloth. If you substitute the juice for the pandan extract, remember to reduce the amount of the water in the above recipe to 1 cup.
This dessert can be made vegan if vegan sugar is used. It is Celiac-friendly as well, but you probably need to use the juice instead as I am not 100% sure the extract is gluten-free.