August 19, 2022

why it works

  • Cooking bibingka in banana leaves imparts a distinct tropical flavor.
  • Adding baking powder produces a soft, spongy texture.
  • Finish the bibingka with melted butter and sprinkle with sugar under the broiler to caramelize the top.

Eating bibingka, a fluffy and slightly sweet rice cake, is closely associated with the Christmas season in the Philippines. It was the main reason I attended all those midnight masses as a child – the intoxicating smell that wafted through the aisles of the church and drew me closer to the doors in an effort to be the first at the famous bibingka stand.

Bibingka belongs to the category of kakanin, a category of indigenous sweets consisting entirely of rice-based snacks, such as bike. It is traditionally made from slightly sour galapong (ground fermented sticky rice), coconut milk, water and sugar. The thick paste was poured into earthenware vessels lined with banana leaves, topped with more banana leaves, and surrounded by hot coals. This baking technique produced a moist, spongy cake infused with the tropical aroma of roasted banana leaves.

My recipe for this simple rice cake is a nod to the ones I ate growing up, the famous bibingkas from Balasan, a township in the central Philippines province of Iloilo. Conveniently baked (no hot coals required), this bibingka is flatter and chewier and topped with caramelized macapuno (the soft, jelly-like flesh of a coconut varietal). I made the banana leaf optional, but if you can get your hands on a banana leaf, use it to line your pan. To make it, whisk together melted butter, sugar, egg, coconut milk, baking powder, a pinch of salt and a combination of white and sweet rice flours into a batter, pour into a mold cake pan or cast iron pan and bake the cake in a moderately hot oven until it starts to set around the edges. At this point, take the cake out of the oven, spread the macapuno on top and put it back in the oven until the cake is completely set. Take it out once more, fire up the grill, dust the top of the cake evenly with sugar, then a short stint under the intense heat of the grill produces a lightly charred bibingka with sweet caramelized macapuno.

Bibingka is best eaten hot with a hot cup of coffee or tea, and although it is associated with Christmas, it is delicious any time of the year. Feel free to also top yours with sliced ​​salted duck egg, grated cheddar cheese or even pineapple slices!

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