Back in the days when Ate was still just a university student, we always looked forward to her days off from classes, as it usually meant she would be busy in the kitchen making something special. Not that she was a great cook by any means, and she herself would readily agree with that assessment. What she was very good at making, and still is, were miryenda items. Himagas, great little desserts and sweets that were just perfect for afternoon treats were her specialty and it was quite obvious that she loved making them.
Some of the fondest memories of growing up with her, and she is a good deal older than I am, were the doughnuts she made from scratch on cool, rainy Sunday afternoons. I still remember watching her puttering in the kitchen putting the batter together and shaping them into flat discs, then cutting the centres out to create the holes which she would then drop into a frying pan full of hot oil. After a minute or so, they dough would float to the top, always perfectly golden and steaming hot. A sprinkle of sugar and a few minutes to cool down, and it was a snack that was just irresistible!
But it never stopped there: some Sundays for dessert she would whip up real gelatin molds from agar-agar, made from natural seaweed and has a much more stable bind and texture than any commercial gelatin powder. They always came in long thin bars about an inch and a half thick, which are dissolved in boiling water, flavoured and coloured to personal taste and then set in a mold. Watching Ate turn these rigid sponge-like bars into something pretty and yummy was always, to me, like watching a magician perform tricks. From the bland colourless bars, the end products, once she had filled them with canned fruit or raisins were as beautiful and exquisite as anything that came out of Willie Wonka’s factory. Just the addition of simple canned evaporated milk turned a run-of-the-mill red gelatin into a pastel pink concoction and added a whole different dimension of taste and texture on the tongue.
From a mixture of eggs, milk sugar and flavouring she would create the most silky leche flan, a heftier cousin to custards and crème brulees which she would patiently steam into the right consistency in tin molds called llaneras. Whereas cheaper versions could be made by incorporating egg whites into the mix, Ate always went for the best using nothing but the yolks for a more luscious taste experience. And then she would go overboard: sometimes adding fresh jackfruit, langka, into the mix and thus ruining the creamy consistency!
Even the powdered Klim milk, a staple ration to poor school children attending public school in those days who would otherwise have no access to milk of any kind, was, despite its charity giveaway status, a cause for minor excitement in our household. For it meant that in a few days when she finally found time, and if the powder hasn’t been infested with bukbok, the tiny insects that seem to attack any powdered consumable in the tropics, they would miraculously turn into pastilyas or pulburon, individually wrapped in coloured cellophane or dyed papel de Hapon.
And did she love to bake! I think this is really what she enjoyed best of all, for only the most dedicated baker would actually have the patience to turn out perfect angel- or devil’s- food cakes from a primitive dutch oven sitting on top of a gas element. I am not sure now if it is all a product of sweet childhood memories, but was she really that good? Regardless, when Inay finally saved up enough money to buy a propane gas range with a built-in oven, I am sure Ate was just in baker’s heaven. I could almost imagine her going crazy shopping for those wonderful ingredients: Calumet baking powder, McCormick food colour package with colourful pointed tops that always remind me of decorative garden gnomes, Nestle toll house chocolate packages, brightly dyed red and green cherries in glass jars, candied orange peels and sacks of flour to bind them all together into something wonderful. Unfortunately for all of us, by the time this happened, she had advanced into a more demanding university level, and finally did not have enough time to pursue this passion.
The best memories, though, were those that were least complicated to make but ones that still evoke the fondest memories of those simpler times: gulaman at sago. From boiled brown (sometimes white) sugar and ordinary water with a touch of vanilla or lemon extract, arnibal, the base solution to this tropical drink is made. A short hop to the market right across the street to buy ready made gulaman, dense jellies made from the same natural seaweed agar-agar in white, red or yellow, but never the green ones whose colour never turned out right in the brown syrup, and also sago, the pith of the sago plant, very similar but not identical to tapioca which is derived from cassava roots.
The gulaman is diced into small pieces, the tinier the better, the sago boiled until of ngatngatin or chewy consistency. Once the arnibal is cooled and preferably chilled, it is poured into a clear glass, ice-cold water added to one’s sweetness preference (usually one part syrup to four parts water) and the gulaman and sago then added. The sago would always sink to the bottom if properly cooked, the gulaman floating to the top. More ice might be called for in the summer months.
Ate has in her later years gone back to baking and had won numerous prizes for her wedding cakes, but for me, those simple doughnuts in the middle of a cooling rainy afternoon, handmade and light as air, were the finest there ever will be. They were the essence of the best in my childhood: a caring family that showed and showered their warmth at any chance possible and whose love, affection and generosity still exist to this very day.
© August 2007