Dessert is not negotiable in our house. Hubs daily craves something sweet after dinner, and glares balefully at my proffered plate of fresh fruit, when guilt drives me to seek healthier alternatives. It's only minutes before he'll be opening and closing the fridge and pantry cupboard doors in search of something for his throbbing sweet tooth. Determined resistance on my part only sends him down to the McDonald's outlet five minutes away on foot, for his cinnamon melts fix. I now know better than to even start peeling an onion for the main dish, if dessert isn't ready and waiting.
This delicious Malay kueh (cake in Malay) is one of his favourites as it's wobbly, creamy with coconut milk and amazingly fragrant because of the ridiculous amount of pandan leaves I use to flavour it. That gorgeous jade-like green did not come out of any bottle, let me tell you.
Bakar literally means to burn or burnt in Malay, though in this case, it refers to the fact that this is baked, rather unusual for Malay cakes as most of them are either steamed or grilled over direct heat. The name kueh kemboja is either a reference to Cambodia or to a flower called bunga kemboja (frangipani) as this is traditionally baked in a flower shaped mould. Sadly the beautiful metal mould is increasingly hard to find in shops so I made mine in a roasting tin.
My boys love how much this tastes like kaya (coconut milk, pandan and egg custard). I love how almost ridiculously easy it is, with one proviso; you really have to blitz the pandan leaves with water and squeeze the very life out of them to get that beautiful colour and aroma no extract or essence can give, no matter how "nature identical" the label insists it is.
I have the greatest admiration for the good folk in their labcoats who toil to give us all manner of flavourings and aromas in handy little bottles, but I have to say that the humble pandan leaf has bested them all. To this day I have not found a pandan flavouring or essence that comes close enough to the real thing.
If you have sensitive skin, please get a pair of gloves on before you start squeezing. I have pretty hardy skin, but squeezing out pandan juice always turns my hands red and maddeningly itchy, especially at the webs of skin between the fingers. Extremely uncomfortable and completely avoidable, so please, not without protection ;)
I can't remember ever eating a slice without a layer of pearly white seeds crusting it. So, leave them out if you're in mum's camp, or sprinkle them over, if like me, you love playing with your food, and testing the laws of physics. They do add a scrumptious nuttiness and seem to prevent cracking on top too. But what I appreciate most about them is their visual appeal and how they stop the slices looking like green pencil erasers. Don't tell me you don't see it too ;)
Prep 20 mins Cook 45 mins Makes 24 slices as pictured
12 pandan leaves, washed, and cut into short lengths
200 ml (1 cup) water
200 g (1 1/3 cups) sugar
1/2 tsp salt
500 ml (2 1/2 cups) coconut milk
175 g (1 3/4 cups) plain or all purpose flour
2 tbsp sesame seeds
Preheat oven at 165 C . Generously grease a square or rectangular baking tin with butter.
Put pandan leaves and water into a blender and blitz until smooth. Pour mixture into a fine strainer and squeeze out the juice. You should have 1 cup of juice (200 ml). Discard the pulp.
Combine eggs, sugar and salt in a large mixing bowl and stir with a whisk until well combined and sugar has dissolved. Don't overbeat or the batter will rise dramatically in the oven then sink and form a depression in the middle. Doesn't affect the taste, but not very pretty.
Stir in the coconut milk and pandan juice. Gently whisk in the flour in two or three lots. Again, don't overbeat.
Strain batter to get rid of lumps, into the greased tray. Sprinkle over the sesame seeds in a more or less even layer.
Bake for 45 minutes or until set and sesame seeds are a pale gold.
Remove from oven and cool before slicing into rectangles, squares or diamonds. If you're feeling artsy, cut out shapes with cookie cutters.