When I need to calm down, baking heals my spirits. I baked these Pan de San Nicolas cookies from a heirloom Filipino recipe. The slower process calmed me down and made me think of times when life was simpler, less complicated. The intricate design of the antique cookie molds drew me to images of a generation when days were less rushed, less busy. Of an era when handmade and made from scratch were the norm. When there were no technical gadgets nor social media whirling around to record or transmit anything. There was nothing instantaneous about this Pan de San Nicolas cookie. That is why the Pan de San Nicolas is a beautiful cookie. Even better, old stories say this is a cookie that heals.
There was a reason why our grandmothers created recipes like this generations ago in the Philippines. This type of cookie was meant to show what was important in life. The effort and the love that went into the making of this recipe, the hand carving of these molds, they were all meant to illustrate what mattered most.
This cookie recipe spoke for itself. It had a few ingredients. It was uncomplicated, nondescript. I mixed it by hand. I shaped the dough with my nimble fingers. I patted it all down on the wooden block of a cookie mold.
The results were an amazingly pretty cookie, that looked like it was hand embroidered. The flavors were exquisite. There was sweetness from the coconut cream, but it was not overbearing. There was a buttery aroma, but it was understated. There was a quiet, breathtaking beauty in the cookie as I held it in the palm of my hand. It had taken a while to mold and bake, so it was taking me a while to eat it right away. I had to sit still and appreciate every vine, every curve, every little detail on its picture perfect prettiness.
“Where did you get these?” my sons exclaimed in admiration. They inspected the hand carved intricate cookie molds of heirloom origin, made of mahogany. Curious, the boys bombarded me with questions. I was glad my boys, now all grown could appreciate the beauty of this heirloom wooden cookie mold, which was solid, thick and heavy.
“I bought these from Lillian Borromeo,during my last trip to the Philippines, when I went on a Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tour organized by Poch Jorolan, “ I told my family. I told them the story of that trip, on that hot, scorching afternoon.
Pan de San Nicolas originated from St. Nicolas, one of the most beloved saints of Pampanga, the culinary capital of the Philippines. This was the province near the town where I grew up. Old folklore stories tell us these Pan de San Nicolas were baked carefully, stored in large jars, and when illness struck were fed to the ailing person, with an accompanying prayer.
Atching Lillian (“atching” means older sister, a term used to show respect) described there were different shaped wooden cookie molds and she could tell by the shape of each which family in Pampanga they originated from. The longer, oval shaped cookie molds belonged to the Lansangan family, who dabbled in music – which explained the harp shaped molds. The leaf shaped molds belonged to the Hizon families, who were vast landowners.
And the circular round molds were to the Bustos and Madrid families, from another part of the province. No matter what interesting origins each varying shaped wooden cookie mold had, there was one single heirloom recipe.
Atching Lillian gladly shared the recipe with me and patiently showed me how to make it, by rolling the dough right before my eyes, amidst the heirloom and antique kitchen artifacts that surrounded us. I was in kitchen heaven.
Back here in my suburban Jersey kitchen, I thought the best time to do these Pan de San Nicolas was during the holidays. I knew my sons, who grew up in America, would be fascinated with this wooden piece of art I brought back with me. And I knew they’d love the delicate, buttery flavors of these shortbread-like cookies.
If you ever get hold of these same antique-like cookie molds, and try your hand at this recipe be patient. Trust me, each time you bake, it gets better and you’ll find it easier after the last time. My first attempts were clumsy and I had to redo the cookies over again.
While rolling the dough and patting it firmly on the antique cookie molds, I felt like a woman from my grandmother’s time. So this is what it was like to bake cookies during yesteryear, I thought to myself. I found that I had to grease the wooden molds well, after each time I used it. I also discovered that freezing the dough, and using it extremely cold, helped make the cookie more malleable, easier to handle.
Once the Pan de San Nicolas cookies came out of the oven, I felt connected to generations of bakers before me because I did what grandmas before me did long ago. I baked what was part of a heritage. I took a bite, savored every crumb, enjoyed the flavors – a mix of butter, coconut cream, with a firm texture similar to shortbread and sipped my warm cup of tea. The sweet, light aroma invited me to reach for one more. It was indulgent, but it felt alright.
Nothing else made Christmas this rich with meaning than this lovely heirloom cookie – the Filipino Pan de San Nicolas. And the most thrilling part? I can now bake it in my own kitchen here in the States. All of it was well worth it!
Pan de San Nicolas - Filipino Heirloom Cookie
- 1 and 1/2 cups Mochiko brand, from Asian markets rice flour
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 Tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 2 Tablespoons granulated sugar
- 6 eggyolks
- 1/2 cup coconut milk canned
- 1/2 cup softened at room temperature unsalted butter or margarine
- 1 teaspoon fresh lemon zest
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- Combine all the ingredients in a bowl : cornstarch, baking powder, salt, sugar, egg yolks, coconut milk, softened butter, lemon zest and oil. Blend well with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the cake flour and the rice flour, knead it into the mixture till it resembles a thick dough and has a smooth surface. Mixing by hand should take about 10 minutes till it is smooth and all ingredients are incorporated.
- Place the dough into an airtight container and freezer for 2 to 4 hours or overnight.
- When ready to bake, take the dough out of the freezer and thaw on the counter for 8 to 10 minutes. Keep the dough very cold so it is easy to roll out and handle on the heirloom cookie molds.
- Grease with baking spray or shortening the surface of the San Nicolas mold which has the design. Make sure to grease the inner crevices and corners so that the dough can be removed easily after shaping.
- Place a chunk of the dough, about 4 tablespoons over the San Nicolas mold, on the hand carved portion. Flatten with your hand to spread it around evenly. Place a piece of parchment or wax paper over the dough, which is over the wooden mold. Using a rolling pin, roll and flatten the dough so it gets embedded in the design.
- Place a round or oval cookie cutter over the San Nicolas mold, to cut the dough to the appropriate shape needed. Trim the edges of the cookie if needed, whether round or oval. Quickly transfer the molded dough onto a baking sheet that has parchment paper or a silicone baking sheet.
- Bake Pan de San Nicolas at a preheated oven of 325 F degrees for 10 to 12 minutes or till top is brown.
- When done, cool the cookies on a cookie rack. They will be crisp on the outside, but will have a slightly soft shortbread texture inside. It will take at least 30- 40 minutes for the cookies to cool on the rack. When Pan de San Nicolas cookies are cooled, wrap in white cellophane wrappers to show off the intricate designs. Store in an airtight glass or plastic jar.
- RECIPE NOTES : The original recipe of Mrs. Borromeo called for 2 cups of arrow root flour (in the Philippines, it is 'uraru'). But it was not easy for me to obtain here in the USA, so I substituted Mochiko rice flour and regular cornstarch, and the recipe worked out well. If you find arrow root flour, use 2 cups in place of the rice flour and regular cornstarch.
- AVAILABILITY : I brought these wooden molds back to the United States after a visit to my roots in the Philippines. These handmade heirloom wooden cookie molds from Pampanga can be purchased from Mrs. Lillian Borromeo during a Pampanga Culinary Heritage Tour in the province of Pampanga, Philippines. It is the culinary capital of the Philippines, and is approximately 60 miles north of Manila, the capital. To get on these tours, contact Outereaters Tours director : Poch Jorolan at this email [email protected] or his mobile phones (Philippines) 0917-510-8961 or 0999-994-8634.
- Acknowledgement : The last photograph on this blog post, which shows the oval, leaf-like Pan de San Nicolas were made by Mrs. Lillian Borromeo. I took this photo of her cookies when I visited her home in Pampanga, just before I returned back to the USA. These were made with the arrow root flour.
- * COOKIE MOLDS SUBSTITUTE : If you can't fly out to Asia and the Philippines right away to buy some antique cookie molds, try using springerle cookie molds which can be purchased online.
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