Ever wonder what those attractive tri-colored gelatin in Vietnamese deli and banh mi shops were? It’s coffee, coconut, and pandan flavored agar, a gelatinous substance derived from seaweed. Now don’t let that scare you off…agar is vegetarian and an extremely popular ingredient for Asian desserts, including this popular Vietnamese variety.
Pandan (pandanus amaryllifolius) is a tropical plant with a jasmine-like aroma and is very commonly used as a flavoring agent in Asian cooking, often steeped in coconut milk. Pandan leaves are often found frozen in Asian groceries, but bottles of flavoring extract can also be found.
He loves the aroma of pandan, I love the boldness and flavor of coffee, and we both love the sweetness of coconut. This dessert is so fun and easy to make and the flavors of coconut, pandan, and coffee work surprisingly well together.
Vietnamese Coffee, Coconut, and Pandan Jelly (Thach Rau Cau) (makes 1 small jelly cake, about 3-4 servings)
- 1 packet of agar (we use the Telephone brand, found at most Asian markets)
- Green food coloring
- Vanilla extract
- Condensed Milk or Sugar
- Pandan extract (or use Pandan leaves, about small handful, tied together in bundle)
- 1 small 8 oz can of coconut milk
- 2 tbs of instant coffee (adjust to taste and use any brand or flavor you like)
- 4 cups of water
- Jello mold or baking dish
Have multiple, ideally 3, small saucepans ready. Split the agar packet into thirds for each layer. The amount of condensed milk/sugar is really up to you as some people like this mildly sweet and some really sweet, so adjust according to your tastes.For the coffee layer, heat about 1.5 cup of water in small pot, add about 1/3 of the agar packet, stir constantly until the agar dissolves. Add 2 tbs of instant coffee, add about 2 tbs of condensed milk or 2 tbs of sugar and a drop of vanilla extract. Taste, adjust condense milk/sugar to your taste and bring to boil. Carefully pour this into your mold. This will slowly set so in the meantime, start the next layer.
For the coconut layer, heat about 1 cup of water and can of coconut milk. Add 1/3 of agar packet and stir constantly. Add about 2 tbs of condensed milk or sugar and then adjust to taste and bring to boil. Before adding to the bottom coffee layer, check to make sure it is not fully set…test with your finger–it should not perforate through but spring back but still slightly sticky. You don’t want it too soft or else the coconut will just mix with the coffee. Conversely, you do not want it to completely harden or else the layers will slide apart when cut. Carefully ladle on the coconut layer to the slightly hardened, but sticky coffee layer.Finally, for the pandan layer, heat about 1.5 cup of water, the rest of the agar packet, 1 tbs of pandan extract (if using pandan leaves, tie in bundle with twine and remove at last minute), 2 tbs of condensed milk or sugar, and a drop of vanilla extract and 2 drops of green food color. Stir constantly and adjust to taste and bring to boil. Now you’re ready to add the final layer. Again, before adding this layer, check to make sure the coconut layer is slightly hard and still sticky to the touch and then carefully ladle this on.
Let the jelly cool at room temperature or refrigerate to quicken the process (around 10 min-the thinner and larger surface area, the quicker it will set) and enjoy!