Q: I found the recipe for a Dressel's cake in a somewhat recent article of yours ("Reader hankers for a Dressel cake," Good Eating, May 23, 2012.) Exactly what is agar agar, and where the heck does one find that sort of thing? Unless you meant "sugar" and something got mistranslated somewhere? I dunno.
—Scott Buckner, Lansing, Ill.
A: No, Scott, not a typo. Agar agar, also known simply as agar, is a real ingredient. It is made from dried seaweed and has no taste. Agar agar has been used as a thickener for centuries in Japan, where it is known as "kanten." Unlike gelatin, agar agar is vegetarian. It is firmer than gelatin and sets at room temperature.
The Dressel cake recipe called for agar agar to help stabilize the whipped cream filling.
Agar agar is sold as flakes, threads, bars or in powdered form. You can find it at Asian markets, specialty and natural food stores, some supermarkets.
You have likely encountered agar agar but haven't realized it. If not in foods, especially desserts, then perhaps at the doctor's office where agar agar is used to culture bacteria in petri dishes.
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