The most basic ingredients in baking are flour, eggs, shortening, sugar, and liquids like milk and water. We call recipes “formulas” because baking is an exact science. Any changes in quantity or the ingredients used would require re-balancing these formulas.
Making Filipino desserts is still a mystery until today. It is amazing how the old provincial folks could cook without measuring ingredients and yet still come up with a homogeneous product, and they would almost taste the same anywhere! Most of these inherited recipes are based on tanisya or guesswork. Sure there is a basic template of ingredients to follow, but the quantity can be adjusted along the way. Sometimes we add more liquid to balance the starchiness of rice and root crops, or to create more yield out of cream pressed from coconuts.
Kakanin comes from the Filipino word kanin, meaning “rice”. Most kakanin recipes call for coconut milk. The Philippines is situated along the typhoon or cyclone belt, and the Filipinos thought it would be good to plant coconut trees because rather than break due to strong wind, the trees would just sway with it. It is also important to note that the Philippines is not a dairy-producing country. The use of carabao’s milk is often associated with dessert recipes of Spanish influence and with the central plains or rice producing regions. The carabao is used more for tilling the land than for producing milk. In Pampanga, the recipe for maja blanca uses carabao’s milk instead of coconut milk and is called tibok-tibok.
Most cream-based recipes, like leche flan, uses cow or carabao’s milk. When the Americans later invented canned food and brought with them evaporated milk and condensed milk, the milks became very popular because of their extended shelf life. They soon replaced carabao’s milk in the recipes we inherited from the Spanish.
The Philippines exports sugar to the rest of the world. Refined, or white sugar is sold for profits, so the locals make use of its by-products like muscovado, panocha, and molasses. Incidentally, these ingredients have strong and powerful preserving qualities. In ancient times and until today, most Filipino desserts, or kakanin, do not require refrigeration.
Root crops like camote, ube and cassava are more popular in the mountain areas. They can survive the terrain and easily withstand any storm. Filipino ingenuity has turned these simple root crops into sumptuous desserts like ube halaya, pici-pichi, and cassava cake.
The funny thing is that we have been using banana leaves, palm leaves, bamboo and coconut husks to wrap our desserts. So if you talk about environmental consciousness, Filipinos have been way ahead when it comes to biodegradable packaging.
Making Filipino desserts is a tradition and is considered a social event until today. Families happily gather together to exchange stories to keep themselves amused as they endure the slow cooking process of preparing big batches of local dessert for a town fiesta. The stickiness of our kakanin also signifies close family ties.
This article was published in the book Baking Secrets by Rudolf Vincent T. Manabat, Anvil Publishing 2012. RV was a former student and asked me to write an introduction for his chapeter on Filipino Desserts. Congratulations to RV and we are so proud of you! The book is now available at National Book Store.