We Filipinos love kakanin, a native rice cake that’s good for breakfast, merienda, midnight snack, even dessert. Some are light, but most are heavy because they have glutinous rice and coconut (grated coconut and/or coconut milk), as well as root crops like ube or purple yam and kamoteng kahoy or cassava as main ingredients. They are loaded with carbohydrates, but oh-so-delicious and crave-worthy. Since they are part of Filipino culinary tradition, they are always on the table in every special occasion, including Christmas.
The kakanin we associate Christmas with are bibingka, puto bumbong, suman, puto, kutsinta, maja blanca, halayang ube and leche flan, among others, and we make it a point to enjoy them with family and friends during this festive season. These days, these are still served the traditional way, although several innovations already emerged in recent years. Halayang ube and leche flan have, for example, been combined in ube leche flan, which is a layer of leche flan on top of a layer of halayang ube in a traditional oval leche flan shape and drizzled with caramel. Suman is sometimes cut up in segments and served fried with a tablea tsokolate dip. Kutsinta has evolved into different variants, including black kutsinta served with caramel sauce and toasted grated coconut. Lately, puto bumbong has been dressed with not just butter, a sprinkling of sugar and fresh grated coconut but also drizzled with condensed milk and topped with strips of leche flan. That’s a fine indulgence for the holidays.
Sta. Cruz Bibingka Cheesecake.
Then there are the kakanin that have taken on a cake form. These are the kakanin cheesecakes of multi-talented pastry chef Gel Salonga-Datu of Aurora Filipino Cuisine and Ted’s Kitchen in Santa Cruz, Laguna. This ingenious kakanin cheesecake series has shot the amiable and petite financial expert-turned-pastry chef to gastronomic stardom, as everyone who has tried her cheesecakes — and even her cookies, bars, and other cakes and pastries — could only sigh and throw superlatives at her creations.
There are actually four variants — Kesong Puti Cheesecake, Sta. Cruz Bibingka Cheesecake, Ube Halaya Cheesecake, and Maja Blanca Cheesecake.
Kesong Puti Cheesecake started it all for Gel, as it was the first kakanin-inspired cheesecake she came up with. “I wanted to promote ingredients from our home province of Laguna. So I thought of using fresh kesong puti (which cheese), our hometown’s most famous export. It was all trial-and-error. I started with a recipe I thought would be great and just kept on adjusting and tasting until I got it right. We never had so much cheesecake in our lives,” says Gel.
slice of Ube Halaya Cheesecake.
Then came the Sta. Cruz Bibingka Cheesecake, followed by the Ube Halaya Cheesecake, and rounded out by her personal favorite, the Maja Blanca Cheesecake.
“The Maja Blanca Cheesecake was the easiest kakanin-based cheesecake to develop. Simple adjustments and additions resulted in a really balanced flavor. It’s also the most surprisingly delicious. I like the simplicity and the contrast that corn brings to the cake. I also feel like it’s the lightest among the four,” she adds.
All four kakanin cheesecakes are now available in regular seven-inch and mini three-inch sizes, with the regular-sized cake packaged in a bayong box woven by a local women’s cooperative in Luisiana, Laguna, and the mini cake coming in a white box from Santa Mesa.
Gel Salonga-Datu’s kakanin cheesecake series (clockwise from top): Maja Blanca, Sta. Cruz Bibingka, Ube Halaya and Kesong Puti Cheesecake. / Photographs courtesy of Gel Salonga-Datu
While the kakanin cheesecake series happens to be Gel’s best-selling and most popular products, she also has other delectable kakanin-inspired creations, such as her Ube Leche Flan Cake, a Sagobe mousse dessert (inspired by Laguna’s version of ginataang bilo-bilo) and Mama’s Royal Bibingka (a lighter version of the traditional bibingka). Her other best-sellers, Mango Kasuy Sansrival and Tablea Chocolate Cake, do not stray too far in concept, and are also available this Christmas season.
Orders may be placed via Gel’s Instagram (@baker_gel_salonga) or Facebook (@cakesbygelsalonga) accounts, preferably two to three days in advance.
“I put a lot of thought into our desserts and constantly experiment. Sources of inspiration vary from local produce to classic flavors to trends. But I feel most proud of locally-inspired desserts.
Aside from being unique but familiar, the use of local ingredients means that I get to work with and support small producers and artisans,” says Gel.
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