Pandan-coconut sticky rice balls

So I was watching the latest season of Top Chef with my friend Amanda, and a contestant named Monique made this really intriguing Filipino dessert called biko. Biko is a Filipino sticky rice cake made with caramelized coconut milk and brown sugar, just to give it this super hearty and rich texture and flavor. As soon as the judges described the sensations and textures of eating it, I immediately wanted sticky rice. And that was where the idea to make these little sticky rice balls came from! So I did some research on biko, and what I found was that it was essentially sweet sticky rice that was cooked with coconut milk and baked into a pan like a brownie almost. While that sounds absolutely delicious, I did not want to wait through cooking rice and then baking it to get my sticky rice fix. So instead, I opted to go in a similar route to botamochi. Botamochi is a Japanese confection that consists of sweet glutinous rice that is cooked and shaped into balls, sometimes covered in red bean paste. I took the idea of shaping the sticky rice from botamochi, but the flavors and initial inspiration from biko in the making of this recipe!

For the rice itself, I recommend using sushi or glutinous rice, since both create that sticky texture that allows the rice to bind together properly. Arborio rice is not a bad option either to accomplish the same effect! Unlike most rice recipes, where you rinse the grains, you do not want to do that here, since those starches you would normally rinse off are what get cooked off and help bind the cooked grains of rice together to create that familiar sticky texture! I flavored my rice with a combination of coconut milk, pandan extract, and vanilla bean, just to give it a really aromatic flavor – rice on its own can be boring, so I wanted to make it less so that! You can also sub out the pandan with cinnamon if you want a more arroz con leche-type of experience with these as well! The idea to coat the balls in coconut flakes is to half keep them from sticking together and to also introduce texture to the sticky rice, which on its own, can be dense and chewy, but the coconut gives that crispy crunch that helps break up all of that monotony! What I love about this recipe is that it is relatively easy to make, straightforward to eat, and manages to be both gluten-free and vegan!

For the rice:
1/2 cup sushi or glutinous rice
1 cup water
a pinch of salt

Cook the rice with water and salt either in a rice cooker, or in a covered pot on medium heat for 10 minutes.

For the pandan-coconut cream:
14oz coconut milk
1/2 cup granulated sugar, in two parts
a pinch of salt
*cooked rice
2 drops pandan extract
1 tsp vanilla bean paste

Add the coconut milk, half the sugar, and salt to the pot that you cooked the rice in and continue to cook on medium heat, stirring every 2-3 minutes, until the liquid is completely cooked off, the rice is cooked through, and the rice is sticky, almost jam-like, in texture. Take off heat and while the rice is still hot, start in the remaining sugar, pandan extract, and vanilla bean paste. Transfer to an airtight container and refrigerate for at least 20 minutes.

For the toasted coconut:
Sweetened coconut flakes

In a nonstick pan, toast off the coconut flakes on medium heat until they are browned.

To assemble:
Scoop your cooled sticky rice mixture into 2 tbsp-sized balls and place onto the coconut flakes, rolling them to coat each ball of sticky rice in coconut.

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