Ube Macapuno Molten Lava Cake and more maximalist Filipino desserts

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Freeze-dried fruit from Trader Joe's adds flavor to polvoron, a traditional shortbread cookie. Photo by Nico Schinco.

When Abi Balingit was 17, her parents got her a KitchenAid stand mixer for Christmas. When she wasn't volunteering at Key Club events or running her school's Harry Potter fan club, she baked, combining her Filipino family's pantry into the desserts. "Instead of just being a dork, I was a dork who baked," says Abi. Her blog, The Dusky Kitchen, evolved into a cookbook, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, which blends the familiar with something sweet and special.

As a bonus for lovers of ube, this Saturday, December 16, 2023, you can head to Long Beach Ubefest from 3:30 to 9:30 p.m. to get your fill of the purple treat.

Evan Kleiman: I was also a dork who baked. I think that's a really good identity to have when you're younger.

Abi Balingit: It was funny because I spent so much time at home and that was my only hobby. I guess sometimes being a homebody makes you feel kind of dorky. You're just reading and baking. But I think that's what makes people really cool, now that I'm 28

You're a first generation Filipina living in New York but raised in the Bay Area and Stockton. What do you remember about meals from your childhood growing up in a large family and your mother's perception of how Americans fed their children?

I feel like a lot of the time, living in the intergenerational home that we were living in, my grandparents would also cook. My parents, when they were done with work, sometimes they would cook too. So I think there was always an abundance of food on the table. Visiting aunts and uncles, you would always come back with more food. So I'm very lucky, in that sense, to have always grown up with Filipino food. 

Growing up, we would go to other friends' birthday parties and [my mom] would always complain because there was not enough food, just cold pizza. I think she was slightly judgy about the fact that for Filipino birthday parties, and any type of gathering, there is a central focus on a large spread of aluminum trays filled with different rice dishes, different noodles, anything under the sun that you could want. It felt like Thanksgiving every time we would go to any Filipino party. I think I carry that a lot. Even when I bake, I think that I'm very maximalist in flavors sometimes. I love a party of all types of things happening at the same time that hopefully work very cohesively. But it's something that I think has definitely influenced the way I make desserts now. 

Christmas Star Bread with Pan de Regla Filling (c) Nico Schinco.jpg
Pan de regla is a bread roll with a bright-red vanilla custard filling. Photo by Nico Schinco.

What are the cornerstone ingredients in Filipino desserts? Your pantry section is such a revelation.

Oh, thank you, Evan. I think for me, and most other Filipino kitchens, in our pantries for desserts a lot of it is coconut, rice, in terms of rice flour, sticky rice, glutinous rice. Those are staple, core ingredients. But also flavors. 

Ube is something I can't get away without talking about it ever, and I love it so much. There's frozen ube, there's also dehydrated ube and there's ube extract, if you can't get the actual tuber in your hands. It is really hard to come by. I definitely want to talk a little bit about it to make sure that people know that some of it is kind of a mystery even to Filipinos in our own communities. It's like how can we get more of it, especially with the way that it's grown in the Philippines? I don't think there are many growers here in the US yet. So that's a definitely major ingredient. 

I think there's such a tropical focus with Filipino desserts because of where we are located in the world. I love the idea of adding jackfruit and coconut and everything together at once. It feels very much like the food that I grew up with. And my parents' influence is huge in what I make today.

Speaking of ube, can you describe what halaya is and how it differs from an extract?

Halaya is kind of this jam. Basically, you're taking frozen or fresh ube but dehydrated ube works for this too. You're adding condensed milk and sometimes you're adding coconut milk to create more of a sweetened ube jam mixture. A lot of great desserts, like cookies and brownies or other types of cakes, can also use halaya as either filling or for flavor. It adds a bit more of the ube flavor than just using extract alone.

Let's get into some of the Filipino spins that you put on traditional desserts, starting with your Ube Macapuno Molten Lava Cakes.

That one I was so eager to talk about because I think the influence of that one was watching Chef the movie. Growing up, I loved the kitschy desserts you would get at a lot of chain restaurants like Chili's, Applebee's, the whole lot of them. Molten lava cakes were such a phenomenon when I was a kid. I think they've grown less in popularity but I still love to make them. 

Using ube and white chocolate as the source of the chocolate flavor of this lava cake, it has a nice vanilla pistachio nutty tropical flavor, but also the macapuno is this mutated kind of coconut. It has this jelly-like consistency, and it's very much prized as a delicacy in the Philippines. A lot of times, I get it preserved in jars. That's one of the main ingredients on the very top with a little cherry and whipped cream. Altogether, it's just such a great mouthful. One of my favorite birthday cakes was ube macapuno as a flavor combo of going to Filipino bakeries as a kid.

I really love your pantry section because it's illustrated. There are so many things that I've never bought and put into my pantry to play with. One of the items in there is Halo Halo Fruit Mix and Beans In Syrup. Can you describe what it is and tell us what you would do with it besides just making halo halo? But maybe you should describe halo halo, too.

This one is very unique. Halo halo literally means "mix mix." It's probably the most signature Filipino dessert. It's a shaved ice dessert. Then there are the components that give it most of its flavor besides having ice cream on top. In the actual mix, which is preserved in syrup, is usually jackfruit, red bean, yellow bean, and these juicy, chewy cubes called nata de coco, which are basically coconut gel. If you've ever had boba or bubble tea that uses lychee or coconut jelly, that's exactly what the jelly is made out of. There's also kaong, which are sugar palm fruit, another chewy consistency, very sweet. All that together, including sometimes ube halay, is in this jar. 

Traditionally, we would put this on top of shaved ice and we'd have some evaporated milk and ice cream and call it a day. But on the cover of the book is a Halo Halo Baked Alaska. I make a granita with evaporated milk that's steeped in jackfruit but also adding in those chunks of everything in that halo halo mix. It's fascinating because I think that I would use this halo halo mix for anything except for halo halo. It has to be something cold still. Using this, I think you can still have a delicious sundae, maybe without the shaved ice or maybe a premade pie and then you add in a custard layer, some of this halo halo mix on top and more coconut whipped cream. I think anything with coconut and this sounds really delicious. Thank you for pushing my mind. I think that I haven't really gone out of my comfort zone with the halo halo mix yet.

Abi Balingit grew up in a multigenerational home in Stockton, California, where food was always on the table. Photo by Nico Schinco.

I'm happy to be of service. I really love polvorones. Can you describe what they are and how you inform them with a Trader Joe's ingredient?

Yes, I think this is a great secret ingredient that no one uses outside of their oatmeals or shakes but freeze-dried fruit really does add a lot of flavor to baked desserts. This is not even a baked dessert. It's a no-bake recipe, really. But there's something really great about all the flavor of that fruit without the extra water or the texture that might throw off your cookies. So these polvoron and this Filipino shortbread base, I think it originates from Spain, but it's basically toasted flour, then butter, then freeze-dried fruit, sugar and milk powder. Then it's compressed into these little shortbread cookies. There's a polvoron mold that is made out of stainless steel usually at your local Filipino grocery store or any place that you can find that. Unfortunately in New York, I haven't been able to find those molders yet so I've made do with these fondant plunger molds. All sorts of brands have them. The key is to have compression. So if you pack anything tightly into that kind of mold, it produces the effect of the cookie. Then you chill it and it's extra solidified. I love using the fruit shapes because it's fun. I love having a little bump of food coloring because it adds a bit to what you're eating and enjoying. That is the spiel on the Rainbow Fruit Polvoron. It brings me a lot of joy and it's a great recipe to make with kids.

"Mayumu" was born from Abi Balingit's blog, Dusky Kitchen, written in her tiny Brooklyn apartment. Photo courtesy of Harvest.