Every citizen of this majestic and beautiful country worth his or her citizenship knows what ensaymada is: that soft, warm, subtly-salty bread, brushed with buttercream, sprinkled with salty, savory cheese, and dusted with a generous amount of sugar. And true to Filipino sensibilities, you also probably eat this wonderful and delectable bread dipped in hot coffee or chocolate.
For the sole purpose of being succinct, let’s describe ensaymada simply as sweetened, yeasted bread. Historians suggest it was invented by the Catalans of Spain, all the way back in the 17th century, and was made with sugar, pork lard, strong flour, yeast, and eggs. Traditionally, it was mixed by hand, allowed to rise for at least 24 hours, and baked in a very hot oven. Then it would be served plain, filled with jam, or simply dusted with sugar or topped with ice cream.
The Spanish were so enamored by this sweetened bread that they would serve it at banquets, holidays, and religious festivals, and continue to do so until today. It became so popular, in fact, that it reached all Spanish territories, most notably our country, where its popularity (nearly literally) took on a life of its own.
Wheat and wheat products first became popular in the Philippines when the Spanish colonized the country, bringing with them heirloom and traditional techniques of breadmaking, ensaymada included. Of course, being Filipinos, we quickly jumped at this newfangled way of eating our daily starch, fell, and stayed in love ever since. We loved it so much that we exercised our innate ingenuity and created breads that were distinctly Filipino, taking influence from the Spanish, the Americans, and even the Chinese. In fact, Spanish tradition dictated that ensaymada is to only be made with pork lard and very strong bread flour, making for a very dense bread. Filipino bakers, however, disagreed with this, instead making an ensaymada so soft, it can be likened to a cloud, similar to how we enjoy it today.
But breads, including ensaymada, are made with wheat and wheat can’t grow in a country as hot as the Philippines. And if we can’t grow wheat, how will we produce flour to make the breads we love so much?
The Filipino baker probably responded with something along the lines of, “It doesn’t matter, my people and I love bread so I’ll just import flour elsewhere!” He probably then proceeded to buy sacks of flour from Spain or America, just to satisfy the demand of his patrons for his delicious breads.
And that’s truly indicative of how Filipinos are: despite bread being a mainly Western invention, we were able to “Filipinize” it and all its variations into something that was significant both nutritionally and culturally. For Filipinos, bread is an exercise of resourcefulness, creativity, and, most importantly, hopefulness. Who hasn’t hoped and prayed that when you come to your favorite bakery, the pan de sal was freshly baked, ready to be grabbed, and consumed by you?
Bread has become so culturally prevalent that whatever your status in the Philippines, you consume bread in one way or another. It isn’t rare to have bakeries in every street corner, each selling the same thing, but at different times and with different designs.
Breads like ensaymada have been around for so long, and will probably stay that way for many more generations to come. If the jovial, spirited, and warm Filipino were to be described as bread, ensaymada would probably be the best one to use.
I’m hoping this very short dissertation made you hungry. If so, here’s a quick, non-traditional recipe to get your mind off, and your mouth on, ensaymada:
1 kilo bread flour, sifted
200 grams sugar
100 grams softened unsalted butter or margarine
30 grams instant dry yeast
10 grams fine salt
Butter or buttercream, for brushing the ensaymada
Edam or any salty cheese, for sprinkling on the ensaymada
Sugar, for dusting the ensaymada
- Simply mix all the ingredients together by hand or a mixer with a dough hook attachment until smooth.
- Form it into a ball and set it on a clean surface. Cover with a clean, damp towel and allow it to double in volume, about one to three hours.
- Once doubled, cut the dough into small balls and arrange on a lightly greased baking tray. Bake in a preheated oven at 200º C for eight minutes, or until the tops are lightly colored but are still soft.
- Allow the ensaymada to cool before brushing with buttercream, sprinkling cheese, and brushing sugar on it. Serve immediately with hot coffee or chocolate.
Remark on how Rusca of Heneral Luna was right, that Filipino ensaymada tastes much better than American muffins.