Is it possible to long for Christmas memories in July?
The aroma of the burnt banana leaves flew around our backyard. It was the smell of a burning sweet leaf mixed with the aromas of butter and coconut that hit me. The soft breeze escalated the food fragrances and brought back poignant memories of Christmas when I was growing up.
How is it possible to miss Christmas when it is only July, and the day has a torridly hot 101 degree temperature?
A bibingka can do that to me (say “bee-bing-ka”). This is a rice cake that has grounded sweet rice, eggs, butter, coconut, flour, two kinds of cheeses and wrapped in a bundle of banana leaves. Traditionally it is cooked in an outdoor clay pot with fire kindled from both under and over it. It is also a very traditional holiday cake in the Philippines and typically cooked in December when the tropical weather gets cooler. It is a time honored rice cake and recipes have been passed on for generations.
One of the pioneers of Philippine cuisine and food writing, the late Doreen Gamboa Fernandez described this delectable rice cake well : “Baking, as of bibingka, was done by putting heat on top (as well as below) — glowing coals on the clay pot or skillet lid.”
IACP award winning cookbook author, Amy Besa, owner of the Filipino restaurant “Purple Yam” in NYC, another noted authority on Philippine food described the bibingka’s method of cooking as “a type of baking that requires very high heat at the top with low heat at the bottom, which gives bibingkas their characteristic caramelized tops.”
I remember seeing the authentic, original way bibingka was baked, from when I was growing up in the Philippines and Amy Besa described it well in her cookbook “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” when she said this : ” Since most people in the rural areas in the Philippines do not have ovens, many local bibingka makers form a makeshift oven. The bibingka is baked in a pan lined with banana leaf over a low fire, covered with a metal sheet with a burning coconut husk, wood, pili shells (a type of nut), or hot coals heaped on top. This method defines the concept of bibingka.”
Even if my family and I have lived in the USA for over twenty years, I have not forgotten my roots and have kept our heritage alive by continuously cooking Filipino recipes for our daily meals, most especially Sunday suppers.
I had been cooking outdoors this summer using banana leaves on different dishes. I’ve wrapped fish, meat, vegetables and rice cake desserts with banana leaves and grilled them. I love the sweet scent of a burnt banana leaf. I love to touch the crisp, blackened edges of the leaves as it gets off the grill. I love to unwrap what I just cooked with the banana leaves. I love to watch the steam of the cooked food burst out when I open the leaf. Best of all, I love the moist, tender flavors preserved within the ingredients which a banana leaf so superbly does.
So this hot July month, during one of our family cookouts, I decided to recreate a bibingka, even if it was not Christmas yet. I just had to sniff the scent right this minute. Even my family agreed. When we sat down to our regular family Sunday Supper, we had this bibingka right there along with the rest of our entrees.
As it came straight off the grill, and I unwrapped the banana leaves, the familiar fragrance gripped me, like a hug from an old friend I’ve missed. The site of that slab of melting butter in the middle, caressed by the grated coconut tendrils, just drew everyone around the supper table. The rich butter and cheeses melted on the rich sweet rice cake and in the process warmed our hearts.
Like the banana leaf that held the cake together, the bibingka rice cake reminded us of the many Sunday suppers we’ve celebrated that has been our family’s core always.
This is one of my most trusted recipes for the Filipino Bibingka, rice cakes baked in coconut milk, eggs, flour, butter, cheeses and nestled in banana leaves. Traditionally, this is served during the colder months in the Philippines, especially during Christmas. Here in the USA, I tried to recreate it as best as I could using the recipe from "Memories of Philippine Kitchens" by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan. This recipe has been cooked throughout the year in my backyard or in my kitchen oven. This makes two 9-inch round pans. Servings 4 to 6 for breakfast, brunch or snacks.
- sweet rice or sticky rice, Filipino - 1 and 3/4 cups, soak in water overnight ( sweet rice from Asian markets)
- galapong or ground rice batter - 1 and 1/2 cups (obtained from soaking sweet rice, see procedure below)
- all purpose flour - 1 and 1/4 cups
- baking powder - 1 Tablespoon
- salt - 1/2 teaspoon
- eggs - 4 , yolks and whites separated
- coconut milk (canned) - 3/4 cup
- whole milk - 1/4 cup
- salted egg - 1 whole, peeled, quartered (from Asian markets)
- Gouda cheese - 1/2 cup grated
- feta cheese - 1/2 cup, crumbled
- unsalted butter - 2 Tablespoons, melted, for brushing
- banana leaves - 2 large pieces, cut to fit and line 9-inch round pans (from Asian markets)
- For the galapong, rinse the rice under cold running water, drain and place in a medium bowl with cold water to cover. Refrigerate overnight. Drain and rinse again, then drain in a colander for 30 minutes. Transfer to a food processor and process until the mixture is finely grounded about 1 minute. Then work again to press the galapong through the sieve. You should have about 1 and 1/2 cups galapong. Discard any extra.
- For the bibingka, prehat the oven to 425 F degrees and prepare two 9-inch pie pans with parchment rounds or line them with banana leaves the shape of the pans.
- In a large bowl, combine the flour, 1/4 cup sugar, baking powder and salt in a bowl. Add the galapong and whisk to combine so that no more lumps remain. Stir in egg yolks, coconut milk, and regular milk.
- In the clean bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment, beat the egg whites till stiff. Fold the whites into the galapong mixture.
- Grease the banana leaves lining the pans with softened butter. Divide the mixture between the lined pans. If you're using salted eggs, nestle a quarter into the middle of each cake. Sprinkle each cake with 2 tablespoons of the Gouda, followed by 2 tablespoons of the feta, and finally 1 teaspoon of the sugar.
- Set the cakes on the top rack of the oven and bake until firm and set, for about 20 minutes. It should be lightly browned on top. If the bibingkas are firm but not browned, preheat the broiler and broil them 6 inches from the heat source, watching it carefully till it is bubbly and light brown, in 3 minutes.
- Brush the bibingka with the melted butter while still warm. Let cool slightly and serve straight from the banana-leaf lined pans.
- COOK'S COMMENTS: To get the outdoor burnt banana leaves aroma, I put the entire rice cake, covered in banana leaves on the outdoor grill. The heat should be set to a medium high and the rice cakes are left for 10 minutes. Soon the fragrance of the banana leaves mixed with the coconut will fill the air.