A friend air-mailed me a care package all the way from Malaysia. A box of South East Asian treats and some hard to find ingredients; of which included agar agar. “Agar” is a jelly-like substance, obtained from algae. Similar to gelatin, but plant based, as apposed to ground up bones; so it is vegan friendly. When solidified is basically makes Asian jello. Jello before the flavouring or the colouring.
We had talked about agar and its application in response in the viral “rain drop cake”. This is a cake in the loosest sense. It is clear agar that when it settles looks like a oversized drop of water. It wiggles like jelly and is translucent like water. Variations of this product include injecting liquid in the centre to make flowers or inserting strawberries to “float” at its core.
Upon returning to Malaysia, he himself made a batch and sent me what I needed to make my own. I would be doing this with my mother today. My apartment hardly has the space, and I don’t have all the dish ware or equipment that is needed for more intricate baking or cooking projects. However this was surprisingly easy to make.
Here is the quick ingredient list and how to. Scroll down further to read the actual steps we took and the difficulties we encountered.
A whole pack of agar
1400ml (5.6 cups) of hot water to melt agar
250ml (1 cup) of sugar to sweeten
You can find agar at your local Asian specialty store. I have seen them available at T&T, H-Mart, and Foody Mart.
Melt agar and sugar in hot water over medium heat.
Pour melted agar into desired container.
Add in desired “filling”.
Allow agar to cool.
Serve when agar has harden to a solid and is firm.
Top and dress to suit tastes and sweetness level.
I first confused the package of agar for noodles. They were white in colour and dried in strands. They were also packaged in a lengthy plastic bag and harden like noodle tread.
We began by cutting the agar down and melting the entire package in 1400ml of water (5.6 cups). The less water you use the more firm the jelly ends up when hardened; more water, the more giggly it stays.
The water is heated over medium heat and the agar is stirred in to melt. It required time to fully dissolve with several churns of a wooden spoon. Not giving it the time it needed would result in the yet to be melted strands being visible, after the gelatine solidified; and the whole point is to have a clear and translucent jelly. To it we added sugar, as agar is tasteless. So you can essentially sweeten to taste.
The steps seemed simple enough: heat, mix, and pour. However we soon learned the fussiness of the product, the hard way. It was quick to set, so when we made the mistake of putting the pot in an ice bath to chill, it hardened too quick. The agar hardened before we could transfer it to our intended moulds. It was hardening in the pot that we used to melt it down in. And here we imagined it like packaged, powdered jello; where it takes hours to turn from liquid and solid.
So in order to reverse this, we returned the pot back on to the heat and began stirring. The semi formed jelly eventually returned back to its full liquid state. However, what resulted was a murky end product. You could still see the items we set within the jelly, but the jelly itself wasn’t translucent. We would later improve and learn from our mistakes with the second batch.
Here is how the first blotched batch looked. We added fruit and mint freshly picked from my mother’s garden, and slices from a golden kiwi for colour. We found the bolder the colours, the better our end result. Each completed dome looked like a paperweight.
I do not actually advise using mint or cherries. The next day the mint browned and stained the agar brown, and the dark juices of the cherry did the same thing. The raspberry and kiwi held up well. I would recommend trying this with either of those, strawberries and other berries, or edible flowers.
It was hard to set the fruit in place, as it and the leaves floated up with buoyancy. We tried holding both down with metal skewers until the jelly set, and then using wooden tooth picks to keep pieces from floating away. Both attempts were tedious. We eventually thought to fill part of the bowl with jelly, let it set, add in the fruit, and then pour more liquid to cover it all. The fruit ended up resting on the formed, solid chunk of jelly, centring each element in place. However I made the mistake of not adding enough agar on the initial pour and a few cherries found their way through the thin veil of the jelly dome. Also the heat needed to keep the agar in liquid form cooked the edges of the mint leaves brown and we suspect it boiled the fruit as well. Though this dessert is more about visuals, and at least it looked great.
The second batch was much better looking, with a clearer surrounding jelly. The fruit centre was more visible and better set into place. We found the best container to hold a shape were little round sauce bowls. They were easy to slide the jelly out of once it set. Giving them some time in the refrigerator helped quicken this step. But in total we didn’t have to wait more than 10 minutes for each; from hot pour to cooling fridge. We tried other containers to vary the shape, and what ended up happening was we ripped edges and gouged surfaces. We used rubber spatulas to remove jelly from containers with sharp corners and dents, and even with our best efforts it was a delicate affair.
When it came time to taste, we realized it wasn’t sweet enough. It was probably best to add a full cup of sugar instead of the half we committed to and tasted initially, thinking it would be enough. An easy fix was to serve each piece of jelly with either condense or evaporated milk. Even maple syrup, honey, or ice cream would be helpful for flavouring. After all like jello, it was a dry product and needed some moisture, a sauce or syrup to enhance the rubbery texture.
During the first batch, we realized we weren’t able to salvage our mistake, so we decided to use the rest of the agar to make pandan coconut jelly instead. The jelly had harden, and mixing it with white coconut milk helped to hide the imperfections, as did mixing the agar with the green of concentrated pandan flavouring.
We used even parts of agar to coconut milk, 250ml (1 cup) each. For the pandan it was a 25ml (1 tbs) to 500ml (2 cups) agar. But it doesn’t need to be precise, it is based on taste and preference.
We then made a mistake with this mistake. We didn’t let the coconut layer fully cool, so when the hot green pandan was poured over, it caused a fracture in the centre of the white. Although the end result was a great striped cake of green, white, and more green.
This is such an easy dessert to make. It isn’t too sweet and doesn’t cost much in ingredients. This is one I recommend to bring to impress at parties and potlucks. There are so many ways to make this your own. Use different food colouring, flavour extracts; or fill in with a variety of edible flowers, fruit, or candies. Or even use different moulds like shaped ice cubes trays and cake pans.
I hope you found this walkthrough and recap helpful. Enjoy moulding and don’t deny your cravings.