Cook This: Three Filipino baking recipes from Mayumu
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Cook This: Three Filipino baking recipes from Mayumu

Jul 07, 2023

Make Abi Balingit's strawberry shortcake sapin-sapin (layered rice cake), ube cheesecake bars with a sesame cracker crust and rainbow fruit polvoron (shortbread cookies)

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Our cookbook of the week is Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed by Abi Balingit. Read an interview with the author.

Jump to the recipes: strawberry shortcake sapin-sapin (layered rice cake), ube cheesecake bars with a sesame cracker crust and rainbow fruit polvoron (shortbread cookies).

Baker and food writer Abi Balingit put a fresh spin on sapin-sapin for her cookbook debut, Mayumu.

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The layered cake is a Filipino favourite belonging to a family of desserts called kakanin, made from rice and coconut milk. In precolonial times, kakanin were ceremonial offerings to the gods, Balingit explains. Now, they’re popular merienda snacks.

The tri-layered rice cake traditionally features tropical flavours, such as ube, jackfruit and macapuno, topped with latik (toasted coconut curds). “Sapin-sapin literally means layered,” says Balingit. “So, it’s layers of different flavours of rice cake. Basically, you just steam one and then the other on top of the other.”

Inspired by the Good Humor strawberry shortcake bars she grew up eating in California, Balingit opted for red, white and brown layers: strawberry, vanilla and cinnamon-molasses (“to evoke some type of shortcake, graham cracker-type of a flavour”).

“I wanted to incorporate some new flavours that I hadn’t seen before in a sapin-sapin that I traditionally have.”

The Good Humor bars of Balingit’s childhood were dotted with cake crumbs. In her take, she uses latik and freeze-dried strawberry powder. (“Instead of latik, you can use crushed shortbread for a similar textural component,” she writes.)

“It was really important for me to include this kind of recipe because sapin-sapin is something that I think of iconically at Filipino parties and something that I think is a staple of desserts,” says Balingit, adding that she’s interested to see what other flavour combinations readers come up with for each layer. “It’s kind of limitless.”

A ready-made treat was also the starting point for the second recipe Balingit shared with us: Philadelphia Cream Cheese’s discontinued strawberry cheesecake bars. Driven by a sense of nostalgia, Balingit incorporated ube halaya (purple yam jam) and Gosomi (Korean sesame-coconut crackers) in her nod to the bars.

“I love ube. Ube is one of those main Filipino flavours that has really gone mainstream, but I love the idea of incorporating that into a cheesecake. Also, I think it goes well, naturally, with more tropical notes of coconut and with that kind of cracker,” says Balingit. “(Gosomi) gives it this sense of toasted saltiness that goes really, really well with ube itself, which has more of a vanilla, pistachio-y, subtle flavour.”

You can use graham crackers if you’re unable to find Gosomi crackers, she adds, “but it’s fun seeing how much flavour you can infuse into just a crust itself.”

Lastly, we have another staple Filipino dessert, polvoron (shortbread cookies). While sapin-sapin dates to precolonial times, the no-bake cookies came to the Philippines with the Spanish colonizers.

Balingit’s family would buy their polvoron from Filipino bakery chain Goldilocks, which flavours its cookies with the likes of ube, pinipig, and cookies and cream. She landed on using assorted freeze-dried fruits, pulverizing them with a rolling pin instead of a food processor to minimize the washing up.

“A lot of flavour is maintained in having (freeze-dried fruits) in certain desserts, and it’s really, really a great asset to use anytime you’re making cakes or cookies.”

The shortbread cookies are typically pressed together using stainless steel polvoron moulds with a distinct oval shape, which can be difficult to find in North America. Instead, Balingit uses fondant plunger cutters in a range of playful shapes.

“They’re really, really cute,” says Balingit. “This is one kids can make pretty easily with their parents, just because it’s something that’s fun, and I think the colours really speak to children.”

(Layered Rice Cake)

Makes: 18 mini sapin-sapin

2 tbsp coconut oil, melted, for brushing 1 1/2 cups glutinous rice flour 1/2 cup rice flour 1 cup sugar 1 (13.5-oz/400 mL) can unsweetened, full-fat coconut milk 1/4 cup organic strawberry preserves 2 to 3 drops red gel food colouring 1 tsp vanilla extract 2 tbsp robust molasses 1/8 tsp cinnamon 1 oz (28 g) freeze-dried strawberries 3 tbsp Latik (Toasted Coconut Curds, recipe follows)

Prepare a steamer by filling a large pot with 2 inches of water and fitting the pot with a steel steaming rack. Bring the water to a boil over medium-high heat. Using a pastry brush, grease 18 aluminum egg tart moulds with the coconut oil. Set aside.

Whisk the glutinous rice flour, rice flour, sugar, and coconut milk together in a large bowl until the mixture is smooth. Divide the mixture evenly among three small bowls.

In the first bowl, mix in the strawberry preserves and red gel food colouring. In the second bowl, mix in the vanilla. In the third bowl, mix in the molasses and cinnamon. Set aside.

Pour 1 tablespoon of the strawberry mixture into each prepared mould. Place the moulds on the steaming rack and cover the pot with a lid. Depending on the size of your steamer, you may have to steam the sapin-sapin in multiple batches and add more water as you go. Steam for about 5 minutes, or until the layer is set and no longer liquid.

Remove the lid, pour 1 tablespoon of the vanilla mixture over each of the strawberry layers, and cover with the lid again. Steam for another 5 minutes.

Remove the lid, pour 1 tablespoon of the molasses mixture over each of the vanilla layers, and cover with the lid again. Steam for 5 minutes, or until the last layer is set and firm to the touch. Using tongs, remove the moulds from the steamer and let them cool completely at room temperature.

In the bowl of a food processor, blitz the freeze-dried strawberries until they turn into a powder. Set aside.

Use a small rubber spatula to gently loosen the sapin-sapin from their moulds. Invert upside down on a plate with the strawberry layer facing up. To serve, top each sapin-sapin with 1/2 teaspoon of the latik and 1/4 teaspoon of the freeze-dried strawberry powder. If not serving immediately, store the sapin-sapin in an airtight container in the fridge for up to three days.

(Toasted Coconut Curds)

Makes: 1 cup

1 (33.8-oz/1-L) carton coconut cream

Pour the coconut cream into a large saucepan and bring it to a boil over medium-high heat. Immediately reduce the heat to low and stir occasionally with a wooden spoon to prevent the cream from boiling over. Continue to cook as the oil and solids start to separate, stirring frequently to make sure nothing is burning at the bottom of the pan. Keep cooking until the curds are a golden-brown colour, 65-75 minutes.

Once they’re done cooking, turn off the heat and strain the coconut oil from the saucepan using a large sieve. You can save the oil at room temperature in a glass jar with a lid for up to two days; you will be left with latik in the strainer.

Store the latik in an airtight container in the fridge for up to one week if not immediately using it.

Makes: 6 bars

Nonstick spray 1 1/4 cups Gosomi cracker crumbs (from 64 crackers, about 4 packs; see note) 1 1/4 cups sugar 4 tbsp (1/2 stick) unsalted butter, melted 2 (8-oz/226-g) cream cheese blocks, left to soften at room temperature for 1 hour 3 large eggs, at room temperature 1/4 cup sour cream, at room temperature 1/4 tsp kosher salt 1 tsp vanilla extract 3/4 cup ube halaya, store-bought or homemade (see note) 3/4 cup white chocolate chips 1/2 tbsp coconut oil

Position a rack in the middle of the oven and preheat the oven to 325F. Line an 8 x 8-inch (20 x 20-cm) square pan with foil. You want enough overhang on all sides to be able to lift the dessert out with ease later. Lightly grease the surface with nonstick spray.

Mix together the cracker crumbs, 1/4 cup of the sugar, and the butter in a medium bowl until well combined. Use the bottom of a cup to press the crumb mixture into the bottom of the pan in an even layer. Bake for 10 to 12 minutes, or until lightly browned. Transfer to a wire rack to cool while you make the filling.

Place the softened cream cheese and the remaining 1 cup sugar in the bowl of a stand mixer fitted with the paddle attachment. Beat on medium-high speed for 1 minute. Reduce the speed to low and add the eggs one at a time, beating after each egg until it is fully incorporated into the batter. Scrape down the bottom and sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula. Add in the sour cream, salt and vanilla until just combined, 1 to 2 minutes.

Pour the filling into the prepared crust. Bake for 40 to 45 minutes, or until the centre has a slight wobble but the edges are set. Turn off the oven but leave the cheesecake in there for 18 to 20 minutes with the oven door cracked open slightly. Transfer to a wire cooling rack to cool at room temperature for 30 minutes. Cover the cheesecake with plastic wrap and chill in the fridge for at least 4 hours, preferably overnight.

Once the cheesecake is done chilling, use the foil overhang to remove it from the pan. Divide into six equal rectangles. Using a melon baller, scoop out the centres of the cheesecake bars. Be careful not to scrape into the crust. Set the innards aside and eat as a snack. Fill each hollow centre with about 2 tablespoons of the ube halaya.

Place the white chocolate chips and coconut oil in a small microwave-safe bowl. Microwave for 30-second intervals and mix between each round with a spoon until the chocolate has melted completely.

Using a spoon, drizzle the surface of the bars with chocolate. Let the chocolate harden before serving. Store any leftovers in an airtight container in the fridge for up to five days.

Notes: If you can’t find Gosomi, you can use graham crackers as an alternative.

Ube halaya lends a richer ube flavour to desserts than extract alone. Halaya comes from the Spanish word jalea, which means “jam” in English. While you can eat ube halaya as a dessert by itself, it’s often used as a topping for halo-halo or as a key ingredient in an ube chiffon cake. Even though you can always buy jars of ube jam at your local Filipino grocery store, you can make a more delicious version at home. (Three recipes are in the book: Frozen Ube Halaya, Powdered Ube Halaya and Ube Pillow Butter.)

(Shortbread Cookies)

Makes: 80 cookies

2 oz (57 g) assorted freeze-dried fruits (I like to use raspberry, mango, banana, etc., for a variety of flavours!) 1 2/3 cups all-purpose flour 2/3 cup whole milk powder 1/2 cup sugar 1/4 tsp kosher salt 1 1/4 cups (2 1/2 sticks) unsalted butter 1 tsp vanilla extract Assorted gel food colouring

Depending on how many different flavours of freeze-dried fruits you have, divide them equally into separate plastic snack bags. Seal the bags and use a rolling pin to pulverize them. Once ground to a powder, set aside.

Place the flour in a large saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the flour turns light brown and fragrant. Turn off the heat and transfer the toasted flour to a large bowl.

Add the whole milk powder, sugar, and salt to the bowl. Whisk together until all of the ingredients are well combined.

Place the butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals until completely melted. Stir in the vanilla. While still warm, add the butter mixture to the flour mixture.

Divide the crumbly polvoron dough into different bowls, based on the number of flavours you want to make.

Mix a freeze-dried fruit into each bowl by hand. Add drops of your choice of gel food colouring to tint the different dough flavours. It helps to wear gloves during this process, so you don’t stain your hands.

Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Form desired polvoron shapes by packing the mixture into your polvoron moulder or plunger cutter. It’s best to shape the polvoron when the dough is still warm, so feel free to pop your bowl in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds if you feel like the mixture has gotten cold. Be careful not to press the mixture in too hard or it will get stuck in the mould. Release each shaped polvoron onto the prepared baked sheets.

Once you’re done shaping each polvoron, place the baking sheets in the fridge and chill for at least 1 hour to allow the polvoron to set.

After chilling, you can wrap each one individually in tissue paper or cellophane. Alternatively, you can skip that step and serve the polvoron on a plate. Store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.

Recipes and images excerpted from Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, by Abi Balingit. Copyright ©2023 by Abigail Balingit. Photography by Nico Schinco. Used by permission of Harvest, an imprint of William Morrow.

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