This is part of a series where we discuss a special ingredient and how it can be used in the kitchen.
I first encountered pandan while studying in Singapore, and I’ll admit, I was a little disconcerted when I saw bright green pandan waffles topped with chocolate ice cream. The bright color made them look like they were straight out of a Dr. Seuss book, and my American taste buds didn’t know what to make of the combination of flavors. I still devoured that pandan waffle ice cream sandwich like there was no tomorrow, and thus began my love affair with the fragrant leaf from the tropical plant, pandanus amaryllifolius.
Pandan , or screw pine leaf, is to Asian desserts what vanilla is to American pastries. The flavor is sweet, subtle, and slightly floral, which makes its extract a delicious addition to desserts like Vietnamese pandan waffles, Indonesian pandan chiffon cake, or Filipino buko pandan salad. Sometimes you’ll even find it in savory dishes like Thai Gai Hor Bai Toey, where its leaves are wrapped around spiced chicken and steamed to infuse the chicken with its unique flavor.
Most dishes require the extract of pandan, which means that the leaves must be boiled with water or pounded into a paste so that its extract can be separated from the tough leaves. In some dishes, the whole leaves are used to flavor rice, meat, or soup. It’s even purported to have medicinal benefits such as relieving headaches, arthritis, and skin ailments.
The frustrating thing about pandan is that it can be difficult to get fresh, even in a foodie haven like California. If you’re lucky enough to live near an Asian market, you’ll find it in the far corner of the produce section next to the Thai basil and banana leaves. If you live in a culinary desert in the middle of nowhere, never fear because you can still find frozen pandan leaves or pandan extract in stores or online.
If you’re a pandan newbie and are experimenting with it for the first time, the following recipe for Pandan Shortbread Cookies is an easy introduction to the delightful flavor of pandan. The tropical flavor provides a Southeast Asian twist to the classic shortbread cookie. Give it a try!
Pandan Shortbread Cookies (Yield: 40 cookies)
1 cup unsalted butter, room temperature
½ cup coconut oil
1 ½ cups sugar
4 tablespoons of pandan juice (about 20 fresh pandan leaves OR 4 ounces of frozen leaves)
**coconut milk (This is if you use a food processor instead of a juicer. See directions below)
1 teaspoon of green food coloring (optional)
3 ½ cups flour, sifted
- Cream together the butter, coconut oil, and sugar together until smooth.
2a. Chop up the pandan leaves into small squares. If you’re using a juicer (which I did) simply add the leaves to the juicer and measure out 4 tablespoons of pandan juice. Be careful while juicing – pandan leaves are very fibrous and can get stuck if you add too much too fast.
**2b. HOWEVER, if you’re using a blender, you have a little bit more work to do. You’ll need to add liquid so that you don’t break your blender. Add about 2 tablespoons of coconut milk, but feel free to add more if the mixture is still too thick. Once you have a nice pandan paste, use a sieve or muslin cloth to strain the liquid out of the paste. You should end up with 4 tablespoons of pandan juice.
- Add the pandan juice to the butter mixture. If you want a richer green color, add 1 teaspoon of green food coloring.
- Sift the flour into the butter mixture in small increments, mixing in between.
- Chill the cookie dough in the refrigerator for 30 minutes. While the dough is chilling, preheat the oven to 350F and prepare your baking sheets by greasing them lightly.
- Once your cookie dough is firm to the touch, you can roll it out onto a floured surface and use cookie cutters to shape your cookies, or roll them by hand, your choice. I found that cutting them out made them more uniform and crispy, while rolling them into gum ball-sized balls and flattening them onto the cookie sheet made them thicker and softer.
- Bake cookies for 15 minutes at 350F.
Disclaimer: I experimented with a pandan syrup, which is easier to find and more accessible, but that cookie batch went straight into the trash. I’ll post an updated recipe when I find a better pandan extract.