“How do you describe a flavor that doesn’t quite exist in the West?” Mia P. Manansala says of pandan, a tropical plant whose leaves perfume many Southeast Asian desserts, including Manansala’s own crinkle cookie recipe below. Since she is a mystery novelist who writes lovingly and delectably about food, however, she is better suited than most people to characterize an unfamiliar taste.
“It’s kind of like a grassy vanilla, maybe with some coconut or floral overtones,” she says of pandan. “It’s very fragrant, and the flavor can be quite subtle.” She calls it “quintessentially Filipino.”
Manansala is Filipino, as is the protagonist of her Tita Rosie’s Kitchen Mystery series, Lila Macapagal. Lila’s aunt and grandmother run a Filipino restaurant, and in Manansala’s most recent book, Homicide and Halo-Halo, Lila opens a café with her friends featuring baked goods that fold Filipino flavors into American desserts. Like Lila, Manansala loves to bake, and has shared recipes on her website for dishes (not just desserts) that have graced her books, including cookies with another defining Filipino flavor: ube, or purple yam.
“Why can [ube and pandan] only be prepared in certain ways? Why can they only be enjoyed by a small group of people? Why can’t we rethink how we use these ingredients?” she says of her inclination to put such common Filipino flavors into a new context. “I think it’s a lot of fun to take these flavors that I really, really like and use them in ways that maybe people hadn’t imagined in the past.”
Manansala’s pandan crinkle cookies show up in the third volume of the Tita Rosie’s Kitchen series, Blackmail and Bibingka, which comes out October 4th. (There are currently six books projected for the series.) Bibingka is a Filipino rice flour cake traditionally cooked in banana leaves over charcoal. It can be topped with everything from butter to sugar to cheese to salted duck eggs, and is most commonly associated with Christmastime, which is when Blackmail and Bibingka takes place.
Manansala’s father would pick up bibingka from Filipino stores in Chicago at Christmastime when she was growing up, but her favorite holiday treat was puto bumbóng, which requires an even more specific cooking technique. “It’s another kind of rice cake, but it uses a special heirloom purple rice, and you have to grind it and steam it in a special bamboo tube,” she explains.
Another Filipino specialty popular around Christmastime that shows up in Blackmail and Bibingka is lambanog, a liquor distilled from coconut or palm sap. In the upcoming book, Lila’s ne’er-do-well cousin returns to their hometown and opens a winery that also makes lambanog. “He’s a bit of a troublemaker; he ghosted the family about fifteen years ago,” Manansala explains. “And now it’s like the return of the prodigal son.” Soon, a murder occurs involving someone at the winery, and another mystery ensues.
We’re sure you’re hungry to see what happens next. In the meantime, you’ll just have to enjoy some pandan cookies—an appetizer of sort for Blackmail and Bibingka.
Pandan Crinkles Cookies
1 stick of butter, softened
3/4 cup brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
2-3 tsps pandan extract*
2 1/3 cups flour
1 1/2 tsps baking powder
1/4 tsp salt
*Pandan extract often has green food coloring included. If yours doesn’t but you want that distinct, Christmas-y, pandan-y shade, add a few drops of green food coloring. You can also mix various extracts for a more complex flavor, such as two teaspoons pandan plus one teaspoon vanilla, or two teaspoons pandan and one teaspoon coconut extract. Buko pandan extract (young coconut plus pandan) is also excellent here.
1. In a large bowl, cream together the butter, brown sugar, and granulated sugar until light and fluffy. Add the eggs one at a time, scraping down the bowl and beating well to fully combine.
2. Add the pandan extract and mix to combine.
3. Add in the flour, baking powder, and salt, and then mix again. Make sure to scrape the bottom so that everything is fully incorporated.
4. Cover the bowl and chill the dough for at least one hour, preferably overnight and up to two days. I wouldn’t skip this step because the dough is sticky and you need it to keep its shape for rolling in the powdered sugar. The flavor is also better developed after resting, and the cookie is less likely to spread when well-chilled.
5. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit and line two baking sheets.
6. Fill a small, wide bowl with powdered sugar. Use a medium (size 40) cookie scoop or tablespoon to scoop cookie dough. Roll the dough in the powdered sugar to coat generously. You want a very thick layer so that you get the characteristic crinkle effect.
7. Place dough on baking trays, leaving room for the cookies to spread in the oven.
8. Bake for 10-14 minutes, until cookies have a crackled top but are still a little soft in the center. To ensure a more even bake, you can rotate and swap the cookie trays between the top and bottom oven racks halfway through the baking time.
9. Let cookies cool completely since they will seem a little doughy straight from the oven. Enjoy!