Chef Helen Nguyen Puts a Vietnamese Spin on a Traditional Easter Cake

Make this vibrant pandan honeycomb cake to celebrate spring.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist
Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

In this edition of our Hot Bake series, we explore the honeycomb cake, a beloved Vietnamese-style Bundt cake that’s rich in flavor and color—a perfectly vibrant Easter treat. We spoke to Chef Helen Nguyen of Saigon Social in New York City for her take on an Easter dessert to be shared with loved ones.

Nguyen prefaces her instructions with a gentle warning, but don’t let it deter you; this recipe is worth the effort. “If this is your first attempt at making this, double the recipe and don’t be discouraged if the first try doesn’t yield the desired result,” Nguyen notes. “This cake is fussy to make. It took me dozens and dozens of trials before I made one that I was proud of.” So buckle up, folks, Easter Sunday is calling, and this cake is dressed to impress.

What’s the reward for the baking risk, you ask? The crumb of the cake comes to mind—it’s airy and spongy, reminiscent of the beautiful, porous structure of honeycomb, from which it’s named. The cake retains a bright-green hue from incorporating pandan leaf extract. Pandan, a tropical, herbaceous plant that grows abundantly in Southeast Asia, has naturally sweet leaves. The flavor is somewhat grassy, like a matcha powder, and has notes of rose, almond, and vanilla. Its floral and earthy qualities are a perfect celebration of springtime. “Easter means the welcoming of spring as well as a time of reflection and reset,” Nguyen says. Pandan is a beautiful ingredient to celebrate the change of seasons, considering its flavor shapeshifts from nutty to grassy to floral.

Nguyen’s recipe is one that’s rooted in Vietnamese culture—the dish itself, Bánh Bò Nuong as it’s traditionally known, can be found in most Vietnamese delis and pastry shops. She’s tested and tweaked this recipe many times, and, according to her, adjusted it further through the help of friends and trial and error. “Growing up in California and Seattle, Vietnamese delis were bountiful. You could find one a minute's drive away and they all offered a variety of Vietnamese pastries, desserts, and food on the go,” Nguyen says. “This honeycomb cake was one of them and a favorite of mine. I also looked forward to house gatherings when my mom’s friends would bake them.”

While the ingredient list is fairly concise, with just six things to stock in your kitchen, be on the lookout for single-acting baking powder—a key ingredient that shouldn’t be subbed if you can avoid it. Single-acting baking powder reacts on contact with liquid, but not when baked, whereas the more commonly used double-acting baking powder reacts once it’s exposed to moisture, and again to heat exposure. The thought for using the former is supported by the fact that the cake can be quite sensitive and may end up with a fallen structure or be too dense, similar to over-proofed bread should you use double-acting. That’s better baking through chemistry, folks.

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Your first attempt may not be your best, and that’s okay. Nguyen encourages home cooks to keep trying if you don’t succeed at first—because cake in the face of adversity is cake well deserved. Once you master it, though, this cake will surely be a centerpiece at your table. While its exterior is a more modest hue from the baking process, the interior is the real showstopper. You may very well want to serve it presliced, just to get the proper visual representation.

The honeycomb cake is truly a delight. Visually, it’s joyous and pacts a bright, chlorophyll punch. But we’re in it for the texture, all the way. The tapioca starch acts as a perfect binder—giving an almost mocha-like toothsome chew while staying aerated and light. Let Bánh Bò Nuong put a spring in your step. After all, you’re still getting your greens in with this one.

Photo by Cole Saladino for Thrillist

Bánh Bò Nuong (Pandan Honeycomb Cake) Recipe

• 14 ounces tapioca flour
• 6 ounces Alsa baking powder (or other single-acting baking powder)
• 8 eggs
• 2 cups sugar
• 13 ounces coconut milk
• 1½ teaspoon pandan extract

1. Preheat oven to 375 degrees.
2. Sift baking powder and flour together, then set aside.
3. In a mixing bowl, lightly whisk the eggs and sugar together, until smooth. Do not over stir the eggs, or it will cause the cake to collapse.
4. Add/stir in coconut milk, pandan extract, and flour mixture.
5. Using a strainer or sieve, strain the mixture into another bowl.
6. Lightly brush the baking pan with oil. Pour the mixture into the pan. Place pan in the middle rack of the oven.
7. Bake for 1 hour, or until the crust is golden and flaky.
8. Let it cool, then slice and enjoy.

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