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P is for palm sugar

Monday, May 2, 2011

I'll be honest with you: I never knew palm sugar was a "good" kind of sugar. I wasn't aware it had a low glycemic index or that it is higher in micronutrients than processed sugar. I use palm sugar because it tastes good and has a natural sweetness; it also adds a lovely caramel colour to a dish.

Not all palm sugar is created equal, it seems. The type of palm sugar I am familiar with is made from the sap of the coconut blossom (from the coco nucifera tree, if we want to get technical) and has long been a staple in Malaysian cooking, especially desserts.

We call it gula Melaka (Malacca sugar, because apparently it was first made in that Malaysian state, but I haven't been able to confirm that), gula merah (red sugar, for obvious reasons), or gula tuak (tuak is the coconut flower sap). Gula Melaka is also the name of a moulded sago pudding served with coconut milk and drizzled (or doused!) with palm sugar syrup.

The colour of gula Melaka ranges from a honeycomb yellow to a dark chocolate to a black treacle. It's usually found in a cylinder shape, because it is moulded in bamboo. It is sometimes "tall" like a silo and or a squat disc like an ice hockey puck. Sometimes smaller cylinders are wrapped in coconut fronds. Palm sugar also comes in wafer-like bars and is sometimes sold already grated.

Any which way, it's hard to imagine Malaysian sweets and desserts made without palm sugar. It's very often paired with coconut milk as well as grated coconut and together, they make some of the best confections.

Palm sugar can be substituted with soft brown sugar, but I don't need to tell you that the taste will be different. Like maple syrup, it has a distinctive taste and that's why I chose it for the mousse in the Daring Bakers challenge (previous post).

After I had completed the challenge, I was so inspired by coconut palm sugar that I went out and got a few blocks of it. Here are a few things I made with that wonderful gula Melaka.

A fine spread of coconut milk dulce de leche
I adapted this recipe from Lori Longbotham's Luscious Coconut Desserts. I used both fresh coconut milk and the boxed variety with good results. Remember, the final colour will depend on the colour of the palm sugar you use. I have the feeling the cooking time determines the colour too – the microwave method produced the lightest colour while the stove-top and slow-cooker/crock pot versions were about the same dark colour. Coconut does not appeal to everyone, of course, but if you're a fan, this will definitely please you. It's tropical toffee.

Makes 1 cup
500ml coconut milk (fresh, box or can)
150g palm sugar, grated (¾ cup, firmly packed)
Large pinch of salt
  • Place all the ingredients in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Stir until the sugar dissolves, then bring to the boil.
  • From here, there are three ways to proceed:
Stove-top method
Turn down the heat slightly so that the mixture bubbles gently. Cook it on the stove, stirring occasionally until reduced by half, about 1 hour. Take off the heat and cool before storing in an air-tight jar.

Slow-cooker method
Pour the mixture into a slow-cooker. Cover and turn on the cooker to High. When beads of steam start to form on the lid, remove the lid and leave the pot open. Continue cooking the mixture, stirring occasionally until thickened, 30-40 minutes. Cool before storing.

Microwave method
cookingforengineers has instructions for making dulce de leche with condensed milk and I thought I could cook the coconut milk version this way as well. It worked! Basically, it's putting all the ingredients in a large microwaveable bowl and giving it 2-minute nukes on Medium, whisking in between, until the mixture starts to look curdled. But I suggest you go to the site for the step-by-step instructions with pictures ­­– they explain it much better, mistakes and all. This method cuts the cooking time down to only 15 minutes so it is the quickest way but you still have to keep an eye on the mixture. I halved the recipe and even then, the milk bubbled up high and a little spilled out of the bowl.

Use coconut dulce de leche...
  • as a filling in cakes and sandwich cookies; beaten with cream cheese for a frosting; or as a layer in Millionaire's Shortbread Bars
  • as a dip (diluted with a little cream/milk or coconut milk) with fresh/grilled fruit (the photo above, bottom right, is for illustration purposes; no double dipping allowed!)
  • to turn the English dessert Banoffee Pie (here's a quick recipe) into a tropical version
  • instead of chocolate ganache to bind cake crumbs for truffles
  • swirled through a brownie or cheesecake batter
  • straight out of the jar and into your mouth (best use ever!)
Sweet prawns with pineapple and capsicum
Here's a recipe that's based on the Vietnamese caramel prawn dish called Tom Rim. I am not calling it that since I used vegetarian prawns and included vegetables that aren't normally added. I was inspired to make it with pineapple after seeing this recipe from Jeannie at chinadoll-bakingdiary. I only use vegetarian prawns (it's made with soy bean sheets or foo chok) because that was what I had in the freezer, but fresh prawns will be perfect. Shell and devein them but keep the tails on.

350g vegetarian prawns
Vegetable oil for frying
1 teaspoon sesame oil
2 cloves garlic, sliced thinly
2cm ginger, sliced thinly
½ green capsicum (bell pepper), cut into wedges
1 cup pineapple slices
Palm sugar syrup, recipe follows
1-3 finely chopped bird's eye chillies
1 tablespoon fish sauce
  • Heat a little oil in a saute pan over medium-high heat and fry the vegetarian prawns, tossing occasionally, until golden. Set aside.
  • Leave a tablespoon of oil in the pan and add the sesame oil. When hot, add the garlic and ginger slices. Add the capsicum and pineapple and stir-fry for 2 minutes. Add the palm sugar syrup and fried vegetarian prawns; stir-fry for 30 seconds, making sure  the prawns are well coated with the sauce.
  • Add the chillies (to taste) and fish sauce and let the sauce come to the boil. Cook for another minute, then dish out and serve.
Palm sugar syrup
2 tablespoons grated palm sugar
2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • Heat the vegetable oil in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the sugar and stir constantly until the sugar is dissolved and the syrup is caramel-coloured. Remove from heat and set aside.
Stewed bananas in a creamy sweet sauce
This is a traditional sweet dish with three components that scream Southeast Asia – bananas, coconut milk and gula Melaka.

Serves 4
4 small ripe bananas
6 tablespoons palm sugar
6 tablespoons water
1 tbsp sesame oil
375ml coconut milk

4 tbsp white sesame seeds, toasted
  • Peel and slice banana into 2.5cm-thick slices on the diagonal. Place all the ingredients into a saucepan. Cook over high heat for 3 minutes, then lower heat and cook for another 3-5 minutes. Dish out and sprinkle with toasted sesame seeds.

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