Pandan Panna Cotta with Mango and Pink Peppercorn
Sometimes called the vanilla of Southeast Asia, pandan leaves offer a sweet grassy note and faint nuttiness to both desserts and savory dishes. I’ve tasted their unique flavor in steamed rice at Southeast Asian restaurants, wrapped around grilled chicken and fish, and baked into a surprisingly delicious Thai-style durian custard. My favorite health spa even adds it to their water instead of cucumbers or lemons. But I find the leaves particularly delicious infused into creamy ingredients like coconut milk and dairy.
This recipe is inspired by a trip I took to Vietnam and my resulting obsession with pandan tea. One day I was frantically putting together a menu for an impromptu dinner party, but I was stuck on what to do for the dessert finale. On this particular day I was sipping my late-afternoon cup of pandan tea (a souvenir from that trip) when the idea struck to steep some of the dried leaves into cream and make a pandan-flavored panna cotta.
Panna cotta is my go-to quick dessert. It’s simple to throw together before friends show up and does its magical congealing thing in the fridge while the evening progresses. Aside from the ease in making it, I find the cool, ethereal lightness is really nice at the end of a big meal; it manages to be rich without being heavy. The key is to avoid adding too much gelatin—we’re going for just barely holding its shape and super jiggly here, as opposed to the springy texture of Jell-O.
One of my favorite Thai treats is mango sticky rice, and the best version I know has pandan in the coconut sauce that’s spooned on top. With that in mind, I chose mangos for the topping for this pandan-scented dessert. March is prime Ataulfo—aka Champagne—mango season, so be sure to search them out. They are those smaller, kidney-shaped yellow mangos you’ll find at any grocer with a good produce section, but especially at Asian or Latin markets. With extra sweetness and richer flavor than other mangos, they’re perfectly delicious just diced—no need to macerate in sugar or employ other such tricks. But a sprinkling of crushed pink peppercorns on top does add pretty color and a little fragrant punch to complete the dish.
I first tried this recipe with the dried pandan leaf tea I’d brought back from Vietnam, but stateside it’s easier to find frozen pandan leaves in the freezer aisle at Asian markets; they revive beautifully once thawed.