The Pandan Chiffon Cake
Remember I was telling you about how I learnt the valuable lesson about persistence from watching my Mom try again and again to perfect her Pandan Chiffon Cake? Well, since I got my new KitchenAid to play with, I decided to re-enact the Pandan Chiffon experience for myself. I thought it should be quite a simple thing to do but little did I know that it would take me quite a number of bakes before I finally felt ready to write this post.
This post is the result of months of research on the internet, reading recipe books, talking to various expert bakers and baking a lot of cakes. My Pandan Chiffon Cake is by no means perfect yet, but I think that I have learnt enough to pen down enough information so that whoever wants to bake a Pandan Chiffon Cake would have all the information they need to make a good Pandan Chiffon Cake.
An early attempt with many imperfections using the standard recipe
So let me start by defining the perfect Pandan Chiffon Cake.
To me, the perfect Pandan Chiffon Cake should taste good, smell good and look good. It is easy to make a cake that tastes good but looks ugly. I made that kind of cake in my second or third attempt. But it was the search for the recipe that gave me a cake that has the right balance of looking and tasting good that took me another 30 attempts.
Just take a look at the photo above so that I can explain what I mean. Everyone loved the taste of this particular cake and if I were to give you a slice, you would probably be happy too. But as you can see from the photo, the sides of the cake is kinked because the outer edges are taller than the centre of the cake. This happens a lot because the Chiffon Cake is a cake where you really need to get everything right. In order for it to stand tall and proud, the top of the cake must have a nice dome after baking. Another of the early problems I had was also with large bubbles in the cake which sometimes appear on the sides. It’s like having a cake with a big pimple which I find unacceptable and so I had to find ways to minimize the problem.
Kiamnianwong’s 9 whites recipe – my final recipe
The current version of the Chiffon Cake is based on my wife’s Aunt’s 30 year old recipe. (This was when the Pandan Cake was the rage) With Kiamnianwong’s recipe, I finally managed to get a nice dome shaped cake which is still soft and velvety on the inside. The top of the cake is not overly cracked and it stands nice and tall. I found that it is important for the cake to have enough of that browning on the outside as it adds a nice caramelized taste to the cake, as well as making it look really nice. While the cake was baking my whole family were really excited because of the sweet pandan and coconut fragrance emanating from the oven. I will share later what I did to get that result.
Addendum: Cake Tin is in cm not inches
For me, the most critical factor was controlling the oven temperature. Let me save you a lot of heartache by saying this. Go and buy an oven thermometer! I think this is the single most important piece of equipment which is often overlooked. In order to achieve a nice dome shaped cake, you need to have a nice hot oven to start with and when the cake is risen and about to crack, you need to reduce the top heat to slow the rise and drying out of the top crust. This is what they do with commercial ovens. Your home oven may or may not have this control. Mine doesn’t, so I had to experiment with all sorts of ways to lower the top heat halfway through the baking process. I tried putting a tray of water on top of the oven, thinking that that would somehow lower the top heat — Failed. I put a cover over the baking tin halfway through the baking process — Failed. What worked for a while was using an aluminum pie dish to partially cover the cake once it is starting to crack. That works but it is a real pain because you had to open the oven halfway and you had to be quick so that the temperature doesn’t drop too much.
Finally what I did was to put the oven on fan forced mode at first and switching to non-fan forced mode halfway through. That worked. But every oven is different, and if you want to get the results, you need to understand your own oven. I found that with my oven, the temperature inside is not necessarily what I set with the knob. That is where the oven thermometer comes in. Your thermometer is the only way you are going to be sure what temperature your cake is baking at.
Whole egg Pandan Chiffon Cake Recipe
Notes on Ingredients
The thing about eggs is that they come in different sizes which range from 55g to 70g in our supermarket shelves. The recipes here use 60g eggs which are considered large eggs. I tried to Kay Kiang (act smart) once and bought the most expensive ones on the shelf. They turn out to be XL eggs which are 70g. My cake overflowed the tin! Fail. The other thing about eggs is that you need to get the freshest ones. Old eggs do not whip up too well. Nowadays I buy eggs based on the expiry dates. I just pick the ones with the longest expiry date.
2. Castor Sugar
Don’t use normal sugar, use fine castor sugar for best results. Sugar has a major role to play both in the stabilization of the meringue (egg whites) as well as to make the surface of the cake more resilient. So if you think you can simply reduce the sugar, think again. If you want a successful Chiffon, more sugar is better than less. At any rate the average cake uses 100g sugar which is 23 teaspoons of sugar. If you divide the cake into ten slices, you are only taking 2.3 teaspoons per slice which is one third the amount found in a can of coke. Just take a smaller slice if you are concerned about your health or take your cake with Chinese Tea rather than Teh Tarik.
3. Baking Powder
You can use self raising flour instead of cake flour and that will eliminate the need for baking powder. Actually baking powder is used only as insurance. I have baked Chiffon Cakes that rised successfully without adding Baking Powder. I thought that by eliminating the Baking Powder I can slow the rise of the cake in the oven so that it won’t crack easily. That didn’t work. So I went back to using Baking Powder, just in case. Don’t think that more is good. Put too much baking powder and your cake will rise too fast, crack, and deflate. And so will your ego.
4. Corn Oil
Other oils like Canola and Sunflower oil can be used instead of Corn oil. The main difference between a Chiffon Cake and, say, a butter cake is the fact that a Chiffon Cake uses oil instead of butter which is a liquid at room temperature. This gives it that characteristic light and moist texture which is why we like Chiffon Cakes. It also contains less saturated fats if not for the addition of coconut milk.
Cake flour is preferable, I use Softasilk flour but any cake flour will work although they might give you slight differences in texture. Even all purpose flour is ok. I used top flour before but my cake lacked structure and I haven’t used it since. However, I plan to try Top Flour again with my latest recipe as I suspect it might make the cake even more velvety. Many recipes tell you to sift the flour three times. I think that is required only if you are measuring the flour by volume instead of weight. If you weigh your flour, you can just sift it once.
Different Pandan Essences available
6. Pandan Juice and Pandan Paste
If this is your first time squeezing pandan leaves, you will be in for a shock. You can get a whole bunch of leaves, chop it up in a food processor and squeeze nothing out of it. What you need to do is to chop it up finely and put one tablespoonful of water and squeeze it like you are trying to get money out of the tax dept. I tried to be smart by trying different methods of increasing the yield. I used sake instead of water because I thought that the alcohol will be able to extract more flavour, ala Vanilla pods — FAIL! I tried to heat up the leaves after I chopped them up — FAIL! I boil them in the coconut to try to extract the flavour, ala Bubo Cha Cha — FAIL. Once you heat it up, you can’t extract any colour and the smell changes! Just smash them up as best as you can and squeeze! And oh, how many leaves should you use? Any number you like, really. I just take the whole bunch and use that. Some recipes say 5 leaves, some say 9. Not much difference. More is better but still not enough. So you still have to add Vanilla and Pandan essence.
If you have no access to Pandan leaves, you can use Pandan Paste. This is basically artificial pandan flavour in a thick green paste. This will give you green colouring as well because without green colouring, your Pandan Chiffon Cake would look like it is jaundiced. To get that fragrance wafting through the house, real pandan leaves is still needed. If you have to get Pandan Paste, get the Koepoe Koepoe brand which is available in Sheng Shiong. That is better than the Bake King one sold in supermarkets. There is also Pandan essence which is available from Poon Huat which does not have colour. So if you like a strong pandan fragrance but don’t want your Chiffon Cake to look like it could glow in the dark, you can use less Pandan paste and use colourless Pandan essence.
Whole egg Pandan Chiffon Cake Recipe
7. Coconut Milk
The tetrapak, UHT coconut milk is the most convenient. I would advise you to use this while you are experimenting with the cake. Once you feel more confident, use the fresh one sold in packets from the refrigeration units. However, once you are ready to show off your cake to your friends, go down to the market and buy a coconut and squeeze out the milk yourself. Leave it in the fridge for a while and skim off the cream on top. That is the way to get everyone excited when the cake is still baking in the oven. The expert baker from Sembawang Confectionary advised me to heat up the coconut milk to get maximum flavour. You are supposed to try to concentrate the milk when you heat it up, so that you get a creamy consistency. I find that if I just leave the milk to separate, I can skim off the cream and that works for me.
Salt is important as it gives it flavour. Omit it and your friends will complain that Bengawan Solo tastes much better!
9. Cream of Tartar
So what the heck is this? I remember hearing of this Cream of Tartar as a kid and never knew that it was connected to the Chiffon Cake. Cream of Tartar is used to stabilize the egg whites. If you remember from my egg poaching video, I explained that we add vinegar to the water when poaching eggs because the acid in vinegar helps to coagulate the egg white. Well, Cream of Tartar is basically Tartaric Acid and it is used to stabilize your meringue (beaten up whites). You can certainly beat up egg white quite well without it if you have an excellent egg beater like the KichenAid, but if you are hand whisking it, the Cream of Tartar helps. It also prevents the egg whites from breaking down if you overbeat the eggs. The proportion of Cream of Tartar to egg white is 1/8 teaspoon for each white.
Notes on the technique
1. Before you do anything, turn on your oven and preheat it to 170 degrees celcius! Last thing you want is when you cake is ready to bake and the oven is cold!
2. If you look at many of the videos available on the internet, they don’t seem to care how you mix the egg yolk batter. In fact, many recipes simply say mix everything together. I did this and somehow I always get a batter which is not so smooth. So I borrowed a technique from making sponge cake and creamed the egg yolk with sugar first for 5 minutes on level 6 on the KitchenAid, using the wire whisk. The volume of the batter will triple you have a nice and light batter. I mix the corn oil, coconut milk, pandan paste, vanilla together and add it slowly to the mixture while whisking . After that I sift the flour into the batter and use the same wire whisk at speed 4 to combine the flour into the batter. I find that mixing flour into a thicken batter is much easier than trying to mix flour into a watery liquid. Doing it this way produces a nice and light batter with 2 to 3 times the volume compared to if you simply mix everything together. The main advantage of this is that it makes the subsequent folding of the batter to the egg white meringue so much easier as this batter is much lighter and easier to fold.
3. Now it is time to whisk the whites. Although this is often touted as the most critical part of the Chiffon Cake, I think that ironically, it is the easiest to master. Make sure you clean the mixing bowl properly. If there is any oil or yolk in it, you will have difficulty whisking your whites. One good way to ensure this is to clean the bowl using a bit of kitchen paper dampened with vinegar. Make sure your egg whites are at room temperature. Make sure they are fresh. For 5 egg whites, whisk at speed 4 for one minute. The resulting mixture should be foamy. Then add Cream of Tartar and whisk for 45 seconds, then add the sugar gradually over the next 45 seconds. Done. Works 100% of the time and takes the guess work out of when the whites are ready. If you are whisking 9 egg whites, its 1 minute at Speed 4, add Cream of Tartar, 1 minute at Speed 8 and gradually add the sugar while whisking at speed 8 for another minute.
Ok, here’s what we are trying to achieve. Contrary to some websites who say that it is better to overbeat the whites, in my experience it is better not to overbeat it. What you need to achieve is the stage just before it reaches stiff peaks. If you overbeat it, it will become dry and lumpy and you are going to have a difficult time folding in the batter. There are some recipes that state that you need to beat it for 15 minutes! Maybe that is if you are using a hand whisk. With the KitchenAid, it only takes 2.5 minutes for 5 whites and 3 minutes for 9 whites.
There are many ways to tell if you got the whites stiff enough. You can flip the mixing bowl over your own head and the white should not fall. This is the most gratifying if you are trying to show off to a group of baking newbies but you would only get a cursory smile from experienced bakers since they have seen it all before. Another way is to lift your whisk see if the peaks droop (soft peaks) or not (stiff peaks). Here’s a trick that is less well known. You can put an egg on top of the meringue and it should sink by half a cm if it is at the stiff peaks stage. If it doesn’t sink at all, you have gone too far. If the egg sinks too much, it is not ready yet. If your egg sinks right to the bottom, give up and just go and buy a Bengawan Solo cake!
4. Now that the batter and meringue is done, its time to mix them both together. Add one third of the meringue to the green mixture and mix it with a spatula so that you get a light green batter which is easy to fold. Then add the rest of the meringue to the batter and GENTLY fold the mixture in. This is where people get superstitious. Some say you must go only in one direction. I don’t think it makes any difference BUT I still go one direction, just in case. What is important is that you handle the batter gently. If you do it as if you are paddling a dragon boat, then you will deflate the batter and there again goes your ego.
5. Okay here is something a lot of recipes don’t mention. You need to make sure that you get a tube cake tin which is just nice for your cake! For a 5 white recipe, you need a 23 cm tin. I used a 22 cm tin and my cake overflowed. For a 9 white recipe, use a 25 cm tin. If your tin is too big, the cake will not rise properly. What you want is for the cake to rise till the sides reach the rim and the middle to keep rising so that you achieve a dome shape. When you use a cake tin that is too large, you will find that the sides of the cake sometimes rises more than the centre and that is where you get a cake that kinks at the side.
Before you pour the mixture into the tin, give your batter bowl a few sharp blows by banging it on the table. This will get the big bubbles to rise to the top and burst. Don’t do it after you pour it into the cake tin as you will get ugly bubbles on the bottom of the cake because air gets in when you bang it. After you get rid of as many bubbles as you can, pour the mixture into the cake tin slowly making sure that as many of the big bubbles burst while the batter flows over the rim of the cake tin. This is the trick that I finally found to be most useful for getting rid of big bubbles! Don’t turn the cake tin while you are doing this as you will introduce more air into the cake. Just keep pouring the batter into the same portion of the tin and you will see that the batter flows around the tin without trapping more air. After all the batter is transferred into the tin, use a chopstick to go round the tin a few times to release any bubbles still trapped at the bottom or side of the tin. It is very important to smoothen the surface properly with a spatula after you do this because if you don’t, the cake will crack along the same path of your chopsticks!
6. Now it is time to put the cake into the oven. Make sure that the oven thermometer shows 170 degrees. and put the cake as low in the oven as you can. Instead of using the rack that comes with the oven, I use a low wire stand. This is to get the cake as close to the bottom heating element as possible. This is one cake where you can’t just set the timer and go and sleep. You have to keep you eye on the cake and temperature at least until you know how your oven behaves. This is what the professional bakers do. Check on your cake every 10 minutes to make sure the oven temperature is constant. At around 20 to 25 minutes, you cake would have risen and start to crack. This is when you lower the temperature by switching to non fan forced mode or by putting an aluminum pie dish over it to reduce the heat from the top. Your oven might be different and require different methods to achieve this. The principle here is that you want to have more heat at the bottom than the top or else the top will brown, crack, become dry and start to sink before your baking is done.
7. Once baking is done, overturn the cake and let it cool. Use either a bottle or a funnel to elevate the cake. This is important because if the cake is too close to your tabletop, condensation takes place and you will spoil the surface of the cake. To speed up the cooling process, my mom taught me to drape a wet towel over the cake tin. This works with no problems. Some websites say that you should cool it for 3 hours. With a wet towel, you can cut your cake within the hour. Once your cake is cooled, it’s time to remove it from the tin.
8. This part is critical if you want your cake to look good. Use a sharp knife and with one movement separate the sides of the cake from the tin, pressing your blade as firm as possible on the cake tin. If you don’t do this properly, you will have ugly sides and top.
9. If you like, you can place the cake into the fridge after it cools. This will stablize the cake so that it will maintain its shape better. I never did this because I would always slice it when it is cooled to take a photo.
Well I think that is about it! I am no professional baker, so whatever is written are just the things I learnt along the way. If you are an expert in this area and you spot some errors or if there are better ways of doing things, please write in to share your tips!
I wish you all the best with your Pandan Chiffon Cake! Do write in and let us know how you went with your cake!