World Pie Recipe from the Fowler Museum: Buko Pandan Pie

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Pectoral; Isneg peoples, Apayao, northern Luzon, Philippines; Early–mid-20th century; Shell, beads, string; Fowler Museum at UCLA

Good Food’s Annual Pie Contest will hit the Fowler Museum at UCLA this year, and given the museum’s focus on world culture, they’ve provided us with a few recipes of pies inspired from objects on display at the museum.

Buko Pandan Pie

This recipe comes from Roy Hamilton, senior curator of Asian and Pacific Collections, Fowler Museum. Baking food in an oven is not traditional in the Austronesian world—unless one counts underground steam-oven pits such as the Samoan umu or Hawaiian imu. In the Philippines, however, a love of baked pastries became established under the influences of Spanish and American colonialism. Buko pandan pie is a favorite Philippine dessert, best known from the southern Luzon provinces of Laguna, Batangas and Cavite. It uses two classic Philippine ingredients, fresh immature coconut meat or buko, and the fragrant leaves of the pandan plant (Pandanus amaryllifolius). Both of these former “exotics” are now available in Los Angeles. In many versions of the recipe, artificial pandan flavoring is added to an artificially-colored green gelatin-based topping layer, but here natural pandan leaves are used to infuse the filling itself. Look for the long strap-like green leaves in plastic packages in the freezer sections of Asian supermarkets (in addition to pandan, they may be labeled lá dứa in Vietnamese or bai tooey in Thai).

You will need two or three young coconuts for their semi-gelatinous immature meat—the goal, which may take some experimenting, is to find ones that are neither too mature (with hard flesh) nor too immature (for drinking, with only a very thin layer of gelatinous “meat” that will hardly hold together). Southeast Asians will intuitively know how to select the right coconuts and get at the meat—if this is not your heritage, prepare for an adventure. For the timid, buko may be sold frozen or put up in glass jars in the same supermarkets.

Note that the recipe calls for both coconut “milk” and coconut “water.” The “milk” (also sometimes called “cream”) is squeezed from grated mature coconut meat, usually softened up a bit with some hot water—or you can use canned or frozen coconut milk, both widely available. The “water” is the clear, slightly sweet liquid that drains from the center of a fresh coconut when it is opened.

You could make two very different versions of this pie depending on the type of sugar used. In the Philippines it is normally made with white sugar, a neutral flavor that allows the subtle grassy perfume of the pandan to dominate. In Indonesia, however, nearly any coconut-based desert takes advantage of the magnificent taste combination of coconut, pandan, and palm sugar. Javanese palm sugar (called gula jawa or gula merah in Indonesian) is boiled down from sap tapped from sugar palms (Arenga pinnata) or lontar palms (Borassus flabellifer). This delicious dark sugar was until recently readily available in the form of plastic-wrapped cylinders imported from Indonesia, but in the past year it seems to have vanished from the market due to some importation dispute. Lighter Thai palm sugar is available but not as good—for the moment the closest substitute is the organic coconut sugar sometimes sold in Trader Joe’s. If you use the dark sugar, the resultant pie will be delicious but muddy brown rather than creamy white.