Good morning Vietnam: pineapple pancakes

I've just returned, jet-lagged and completely dazzled by my month-long trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. I'll be posting more about my trip in due course, but for now I want to share a little post about breakfast, my favourite meal of the day; particularly when the day promises to be a hot and humid one full of stunning scenery, tasty food and Asian splendour.

Breakfast in Vietnam falls into two categories: what the locals eat, and what you find in all the hotels catering for Western palates. In the former category you have pho, the 'national dish of Vietnam', a rich meaty broth housing a comforting combination of slippery rice noodles, fresh herbs, and tender pieces of (usually) chicken or beef. (More on this in another post - I too, with my Western sweet tooth, was sceptical about the notion of noodles for breakfast, but I soon became a convert.) 

In the latter category, you have the usual suspects such as eggs, omelettes and baguettes, but also recognisably Western dishes given a bit of tropical flair, like these pineapple pancakes. 

I first sampled these pancakes at our hotel in Hanoi. I was a little sceptical, I admit, about ordering a menu item that simply read 'pineapple pancake'. Can you guess why? Yes, dear readers who know me and my boundless greed: because it was in the singular. One pancake is simply not sufficient for my morning appetite. A bit like I'm incapable of ever ordering only one scoop of ice cream, a habit that has earned me the somewhat unflattering nickname 'Triple-Scoop McCausland'. 

However, I persevered, because it's simply impossible to go hungry in Vietnam: should the single pancake prove insufficient, I thought to myself, I'll just go to the smoothie bar at the end of the road and get a papaya and coconut cream smoothie (as incredible as it sounds). Or get a plump, ripe mango from one of the many streetside fruit sellers. Or a baguette from the numerous French-inspired bakeries.

I was wrong to doubt our lovely hotel. A few minutes later I was presented with two fat pancakes, rather like crêpes but thicker, into which slices of pineapple had been pressed as the batter was cooking, resulting in sweet golden streaks of caramelised fruit. If you've only ever eaten pineapple raw, without subjecting it to the transformative treatment of heat, sugar, butter, and possibly a little vanilla, a splash of rum, a squeeze of lime or a sprinkling of cinnamon, then you need to sort your life out.

Pineapple when cooked transforms into the most utterly delectable, sweet, tangy, juicy mouthful. Combine this with a soft pillow of pancake batter and you have a dreamy plate of tropical sunshine.

I ate these beautiful creations again during our stay at Phong Nha Ke Bang national park (see photo below), my favourite stop of the whole trip and a place I'm sure I'll be telling you more about. Here I was given a plate of four, which was lucky because we'd just arrived from the overnight train and were feeling a little, well, ravenous (also sweaty, greasy and disgusting, but the hunger thing was the most pressing issue). They came rolled up into little cigars, each one boasting a golden and juicy centre of caramelised pineapple. This is what I've tried to recreate here.

This is a highly simple recipe, but one of those that is more than the sum of its parts. You make a simple crêpe batter (milk, eggs, flour), cook it into pancakes slightly thicker than the delicate French variety, then fill the lot with chopped pineapple that has been cooked over a high heat with a little butter, some brown sugar, a pinch of cinnamon and a drop of vanilla. It turns sweet, jammy and delicious; a beautiful contrast to the thick and comforting squidgyness of the pancakes.

I made these three days after my return from Vietnam, to try and distract myself from what is a pretty bad case of post-holiday blues. I feel completely deflated, like I've been brought back to earth with a horrible bump (and actually, our flight landing at Heathrow was pretty bumpy). In many respects, England couldn't be more different to South-East Asia, and instead of relishing home comforts after a month of travelling, I'm starting to find them grating and alien, particularly where food is concerned.

Why do we happily pay around £20 for a meal in this country? After eating some of the best food of my life for under £1 in Vietnam, it genuinely pains me a bit to have to contemplate ever eating out in England again. Why do we have such gigantic dinner plates and therefore habitually scoff such enormous portions? No wonder we're all obese. Everything in Vietnam is served in tiny little bowls; not only that, but the rice comes out last, so you're mostly too full from good things like fish, meat and vegetables to contemplate ingesting nutritionally void carbohydrates.

Why do we eat with cumbersome and unwieldy knives and forks? Why do we cover everything in fat, especially cheese, when food can be so fabulously delicious without it? Why are we so obsessed with desserts and with sugar? Why is our 'exotic' fruit always rock-hard and underripe? 

I'm sure I'll be back to my usual self in a few weeks, but right now I just feel desperately sad, pining for somewhere on the other side of the world that has called into question everything that once seemed normal to me. 

On the plus side, though, there's nothing like a month away in exotic climes to put everything into perspective. Food, although probably my number one source of enjoyment in life, is far too frequently my number one source of stress, too. I have a tendency to get a little obsessive and perfectionist in the kitchen, constantly inviting friends over for lunch, dinner or breakfast and feeling that I have to present them with some Masterchef-worthy creation when deep down I know they'd probably be happy with a bowl of pasta and a cup of tea. I too often find myself rushing around town, making numerous shopping trips for ingredients because I know that the Asian grocers on the other side of town do better chickpeas than the supermarket, and the bread stall on the market does better bread than Tesco, and this fishmonger is better than that one, and panicking if I can't find a certain obscure ingredient that I deem crucial to the success of one dish, sometimes travelling miles out of my way to get it. 

It's had me close to tears on several occasions, usually when I finally make it to the checkout and there is a queue and my arms are hurting from holding a heavy basket and I'm contemplating how on earth to get everything home on my bike without it squashing or falling out, and then the final straw is when the self-service checkout refuses to work properly (when does this ever not happen, I hear you cry), and I start hitting things. I've driven myself mad trying to frantically write blog posts to various deadlines - many of which are completely self-imposed and therefore fundamentally meaningless - trying to take artful photos of my cooking when all I really want to do is just eat the damn thing, trying to think of new and exciting recipes to share with you all when all I really want to do is tuck into a big bowl of pasta with nutmeg and grated parmesan.

Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, my favourite place of the whole trip

Phong Nha Ke Bang national park, my favourite place of the whole trip

Having a month off cooking and worrying about food shopping was utterly blissful. Savouring the simple pleasures of Vietnam, like a bowl of plain rice noodles with fresh herbs, or a perfect juicy mangosteen, or a delicious piece of tender lemongrass-coated chicken, has impressed upon me the madness of the way in which I live in relation to food. 

Food should be, primarily, something that brings joy, not stress and tears. I contemplated returning to cooking and food blogging with dread and trepidation during my final few days in Asia, asking myself what it was all for, whether anyone really cared, why I torment myself with all this for no apparent reason. I had wild ideas about giving up food and the blog altogether, about shutting myself off from the world of food magazines, food journalism, cooking TV; the faux-drama of things like Masterchef and Great British Menu suddenly seemed laughably trivial - crass, even - compared to the very real drama of fast-paced life in Vietnam. 

But then Sunday morning happened, and all I wanted was to get into the kitchen and to rustle up a batch of pineapple pancakes to remind me of my holiday. That's when I realised that, of course, food can be a wonderful thing, provided it is not taken too seriously. It is a means of reviving happy memories, of sharing experiences, of creating ties. It shouldn't be stressful or a source of anxiety, when done properly with just the right amount of care and good humour. 

I'm really writing this to myself, in the hope that I'll remember all these things in the future, when my basket is heavy and the self-service checkout isn't working and I still have to bike to the other side of town to get some pomegranate molasses from the Asian grocer before rushing home to see if my bread has risen and my home-made cheese has firmed up. 

However, I'm sure many of you out there will be able to relate. Then again, you've probably sensibly realised this already. I just needed four weeks on the other side of the world to come to this conclusion. 

So for that, Vietnam, and those pineapple pancakes: thank you.

Pineapple pancakes (serves 2 very generously, or 4 less hungry people):

  • 200g flour (I used spelt flour, but ordinary would be fine)
  • 2 eggs
  • 600ml milk
  • Pinch salt
  • Butter, for cooking
  • 1 medium pineapple, cut into small thin chunks
  • 4 tbsp brown sugar
  • 1/4 tsp ground cinnamon
  • 1/2 tsp vanilla extract
  • Icing sugar, for dusting

First, make the pancake batter. Sift the flour into a large bowl, then make a well in the centre with a spoon and add the eggs. Pour in a little of the milk then, using an electric whisk, whisk the egg and milk into the flour, gradually incorporating more flour as you add the rest of the milk. You should end up with a thin, lump-free batter. Add the salt and whisk again.

Pre-heat the oven to 120C. Heat a knob of butter in a large non-stick saucepan or frying pan until sizzling, then add the pineapple, sugar, and cinnamon. Cook over a high heat for a few minutes until caramelised and sticky, and most of the liquid has evaporated, then add the vanilla. Set aside and keep warm.

Line a baking sheet with greaseproof paper, and get some more sheets of greaseproof ready for the pancakes. Get a non-stick frying pan or crêpe pan, around 25cm in diameter, very hot, then add a knob of butter and swirl it around the pan. Wipe off any excess with kitchen paper, spreading the butter over the base of the pan, then pour a ladleful of batter onto the pan - you want a pancake about 5mm thick.  Cook for a minute on one side, then flip over using a palette knife and cook for another minute. When done, place on the greaseproof paper on the baking sheet, then put in the oven to keep warm. Repeat with the remaining mixture, layering the pancakes between greaseproof as you go and keeping them warm in the oven.

When ready to serve, place a couple of spoonfuls of pineapple mixture in the centre of each pancake, then roll it up. Dust with icing sugar and devour, preferably with tea.

Adventures with a KitchenAid mixer #4: piña colada cake

When a friend of mine has a birthday, my first thought is generally not "What can I buy them?" but "What can I bake them?" I'm a firm believer in edible, preferably baked, presents, mainly because I have a lot of friends who I don't know well enough to get them that perfect, "oh my goodness this is so me" present, and therefore it would just be a waste of money getting them something that they'll end up putting in a drawer and never looking at again. 

Actually, that's a load of rubbish. My main reason is entirely selfish: it gives me an excuse to hone my baking skills.

So, when a friend of mine announced that he was turning 23, I started thinking of witty and amusing themed cakes I could make. Unfortunately, all the ones I came up with were a bit too complicated, and I knew if I attempted them they'd turn out mediocre and no one would be able to tell what they were meant to be, which would have just been embarrassing for everyone. I was about to settle for my failsafe option, a chocolate fudge cake, when said friend's girlfriend, having seen my recent pineapple and coconut cheesecake, was reminded that "he loves pineapple". Done.

I spent a day idly pondering how to create a cake involving pineapple (obviously I did other things during this day, otherwise that would be approaching scary food-meditation) and decided to go for the coconut partnership again. Particularly because this bottle of coconut essence arrived in the post a couple of days ago, and spells the end to my dilemma of how to extract that real 'coconutty' flavour from desiccated coconut or coconut milk. It's incredibly strong; just taking it out of the bubble wrap it arrived in left my hands beautifully perfumed with coconut for several hours.

I decided to make a layer cake, mainly because I've never made one before and because they look impressive, and also because a single cake would have been too small. Initially I planned to sandwich the cakes together with coconut buttercream, but then I had a better idea. Pineapple curd. I have no idea where this came from; it literally popped into my head when I was doing something completely different, like making tea or writing an essay. I had no idea if it was even possible to create pineapple curd, but surely it couldn't be that different from lemon curd: juice, eggs, sugar.

A trip to the supermarket and a lazy ten minutes of stirring later, and I had a saucepan full of gorgeous, thick, sugary pineapple paste. I used bottled pineapple juice, so it didn't have a hugely strong pineapple flavour; if I were to make it again, I'd use the juice from a fresh pineapple. Like creme patisserie, the curd took me by surprise; I was stirring away at a big vat of juice, and then in literally seconds it thickened to dolloping consistency. Immensely satisfying. You can tell when it's about to turn, because scraping a spoon round the bottom edge of the pan results in a big lump of mixture on the end of it, and then suddenly the rest kind of congeals around it. Like I said, immensely satisfying.

For the cake, I made a coconut sponge based on a Nigella recipe. It uses desiccated coconut soaked in boiling water, which gives the cake a lovely moistness and crunchiness. However, I went one step better, and used my super-potent coconut essence. I was worried I'd overdone it, actually, as the kitchen was immediately filled with the smell, but it turned out just perfect. Naturally, the KitchenAid mixer was integral in creating a beautifully light cake batter.

I creamed together the butter (two whole packets...) and sugar, added the eggs (eight!), flour, coconut essence, baking powder, and finally the soaked coconut. It was a wonderful fluffy white mixture, whiter than any I've made before: I think it might be because instead of having to painstakingly mix the butter and sugar by hand, and get bored after a minute or so, I could just leave the mixer to do it, so it looked almost like meringue by the time I added the dry ingredients.

I baked the cake in two separate springform tins. One was 22cm and the other 20cm, which accounts for the dome-shaped end result. I don't have two matching tins. The smell wafting from the baking coconut was truly wonderful. After they'd cooled, I sliced them in half using a nifty device that my mum gave me for Christmas. It's like a cheese wire, but for cutting cakes in half - no faffing around with a big knife leaving an uneven result. It's even adjustable to suit cakes of different heights. Thank you, mum. I may have laughed at the apparent gimmickery of such a gadget, but I have eaten my words (and the uniformly sliced cake layers).

After spreading each layer with pineapple curd, I decided to add even more pineapple flavour by putting some thinly sliced pineapple slices on top of the curd. I didn't bother removing the tough core; if you slice pineapple thinly enough, it's just crunchy rather than tough and sinewy. I thought it would create a nice contrast in textures between the soft, buttery sponge and the tangy fruit.

Then for the part I had looked forward to most: smothering the entire creation in a thick coating of snow-white, coconut-laced buttercream. Again I used the KitchenAid to whip the butter (another packet...) and icing sugar together to form a fluffy, cloud-like mixture to which I added some more coconut essence and some desiccated coconut. I covered a spatula in it, and slathered it onto the cake. Slather is the appropriate word; a lot of buttercream went onto that sponge. I admit, I nibbled a bit to check the right ratio of butter to sugar, and coconut taste. And I may have licked the spatula clean. And the bowl. And the mixer attachment. KitchenAid are so considerate in providing you with a large surface area to lick clean.

It didn't quite look right when I'd finished. I'm not sure why, but it wasn't as I'd envisaged. I think it just looked too perfectly white and uniform. For this reason, I toasted some shredded coconut strips in a dry pan and pressed them into the buttercream around the sides. They looked great, especially the lightly browned bits, which stood out against the snow white cream. I also figured they'd give a nice crunch to the cake, along with the fruit inside.

Finally, the topping. I kept it simple, just covering the top of the cake with slices of fresh pineapple, and a few glace cherries. I'm not sure why; I think it's because traditionally pineapple upside down cake has glace cherries inside the pineapple rings. I used to make it a lot as a child, and maybe the association stuck in my mind. I think they look great; they add a startling burst of glistening colour to what is otherwise a rather pale cake. They also make it look like something from a 70s dessert trolley, which I think is fantastic. It's reminiscent of some sort of blancmange, or over-the-top gateau. There's definitely a retro feel to this cake. I didn't imagine there would be; it looked very different in my head, but I am so pleased with how it turned out. It has quite a wow factor, largely because of its enormity, but also because it looks different. Unusual. Tropical.

Obviously, taste is the important part. I initially declared to everyone at dinner that I wasn't going to have any of the cake, because I'd seen how much butter and sugar went into it. But curiosity got the better of me, and I wanted to check that it was at least edible, and that I hadn't presented my friend with something likely to put him off his favourite fruit for the rest of his life. Unfortunately, this was my downfall. It was so. good. Even if I say so myself. The cake was as light as a feather, and the sweet, tangy pineapple filling a perfect accompaniment. The teeth-hurting sweetness of the coconut cream finished the whole thing off, particularly the crunchy coconut pieces.

I call this a piña colada cake, because it has all the flavours of that cocktail, minus the rum (although you can use Malibu instead of coconut essence if you like...but I'm not the kind of girl who keeps a bottle of Malibu in her kitchen...). The cream is there, in the buttercream; the freshness of the pineapple in the curd and topping, and the coconut permeates the entire creation. I'm really pleased with this. Its recipient was also pleased, I think. In fact, I think he thought it was from the restaurant initially, because I'd managed to arrive early and give it to the waiter to bring out with candles after we'd finished our main courses. If so, I'll take that as a big compliment. I managed to get a photo of the inside of the cake, with all its layers, but the lighting in the restaurant wasn't great, so it doesn't look brilliant. But you get the gist. It's also a hideously difficult cake to cut, likely to collapse at the pressure of a knife, but the flavour is all there.

Plus, it's deceptively simple to make, as long as you start early on the in day, or the day before. If you have a KitchenAid mixer (you lucky thing, you), you can let it do most of the work for you; leave it whirring away mixing the butter and sugar while you sort out weighing the other ingredients, or chopping the pineapple. The assembly part is probably the trickiest, but smothering on the buttercream is your reward. As is, of course, eating some of the cake.

Piña colada cake (makes enough for about 25-30 servings):

For the pineapple curd:

2 whole eggs and 2 egg yolks
500ml pineapple juice
170g caster sugar
10 tbsp flour

For the cakes (recipe adapted from Nigella Lawson's How to be a Domestic Goddess):

450g butter, at room temperature
450g caster sugar
8 eggs
1 tsp coconut essence (or vanilla extract)
400g self-raising flour
1 1/2 tsp arrowroot (or 50g cornflour)
1 tsp baking powder
100g desiccated coconut, soaked for an hour in 300ml boiling water

For the buttercream:

50g desiccated coconut
150g soft butter
300g icing sugar
1 tsp coconut essence (or 2 tbsp Malibu)

For decorating:

1 fresh pineapple, skin and 'eyes' sliced off and cut into thin slices
A large handful of flaked coconut, toasted in a dry pan
Glace cherries

First, make the pineapple curd. Whisk the yolks and sugar until thick and creamy, then whisk in the juice and flour. Transfer to a saucepan and heat over a medium heat, stirring constantly, until thick - this will take about 10 minutes, and it will turn suddenly. Don't get impatient and turn the heat up too high. Transfer to a bowl and chill in the fridge.

Pre-heat the oven to 180C.

For the cakes, cream together the butter and sugar until pale and fluffy. Add the eggs, one at a time, then add the essence. Fold in the flour, arrowroot/cornflour and baking powder, then stir in the coconut and its soaking water. Pour into two 20cm springform cake tins, greased and lined. Bake for 40 minutes, until golden brown. Leave to cool completely.

Slice each cake in half horizontally and sandwich together with the pineapple curd. Add some pineapple slices between each layer if you like. You'll probably have some pineapple curd left over; it's good on toast.

For the buttercream, whisk together the butter and icing sugar until white and fluffy, then stir in the coconut essence/Malibu and desiccated coconut. Using a spatula, spread the buttercream all over the cake in a thick layer. Don't worry too much about the top, as you'll cover it with fresh pineapple anyway. While the cream is still soft, press the flaked coconut into the sides of the cake.

Finally, decorate the top of the cake with slices of fresh pineapple and glace cherries. Do this at the last minute, as the pineapple might make the buttercream soggy.