Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Mango Cheesecake with Kamachile Crust -- a Pinoy twist on a classic favourite

Full disclosure... I am not a baker. I used to bake a lot when I was in high school, specially during summer vacations.   I would bake anything -- peanut butter cookies,  oatmeal cookies,  ensaymada, layer cakes, pies of all sorts -- we had a really nice oven, a professional mixer, a cabinet full of all the baking tools.  But after some time I realised that the exactness, the preciseness of baking was just too much for my unconstrained and free wheeling self.  
One afternoon a few weeks ago, I was cleaning out the kitchen cabinets and came upon a few survivors of those summers, many many years ago -- odds and ends of spatulas, measuring spoons,  a pastry cutter, my old rolling pin ... so I decided I would try and bake something again.

A simple cheesecake is one of the easiest things to make and I prefer them baked and not frozen.
I decided to start with that.    We had a basket of  ripe mangoes so I thought that I would bake a mango cheesecake.  Instead of using the traditional graham cracker crust, I decided to experiment by using local kamachile cookies,  from Pavino's bakery in Lucban.

The kamachile cookies were easy enough to turn into evenly sized crumbs -- I just used my marble almirez.

 Mix the crumbs with sugar and melted butter to form the cheesecake crust.

I scooped out large slices of mangoes -- nothing tastes quite as good as ripe Philippine mangoes.  

The mango slices are then pureed -- in a blender or a food processor until smooth.  You need 2 cups of mango puree for this cheesecake.  

My kamachile crust turned out nice and fragrant after 12 minutes in the oven.  Since I couldn't taste it, I  wondered if it would work as well as the traditional graham cracker crust.  But then again, this is probably why baking is not for me -- I just can't seem to stick to the classic recipe.

After incorporating the mango puree,  the filling takes on a nice yellow colour -- I can't wait to put it in the oven and see how my mango cheesecake will turn out!

I just have a small table top oven which is hardly ever used.  After the cheesecake was done, Jay said the top seemed burnt -- perhaps the rack should be brought down one notch, the cake may have been too close to the heating element on the top.  This is just one of the inconveniences of having a small oven.  I suddenly missed the gigantic  G.E. electric oven we had when I was growing up.  I could actually bake two cakes at a time plus a batch of cookies!

I refrigerated the cheesecake overnight, to make it set.  The next morning, it was a our breakfast treat. I'm extremely happy to report that the kamachile crust tasted great -- with more flavour than a graham cracker crust.  While it was perfectly thin,  it  held up to being sliced and didn't crumble at all!
My crust experiment was a success -- no more graham cracker crusts for me!
The cheesecake itself was nicely creamy without being heavy or dense, the mangoes added a light touch.  The creaminess of the cheese was complemented by the inimitable taste of ripe mangoes and had the right zesty note at the very end.
Making a cheesecake was a great way to start baking again,  it's simple and easy to make.
And if I may say so myself, the result was definitely reassuring and rewarding -- perhaps there are more baked goods in my future.

Here's my recipe for Mango Cheesecake with Kamachile Crust (adapted from Epicurious.com)


Kamachile Crust

kamachile cookies, enough to make 1 1/2 cups of kamachile crumbs
1/3 cup sugar
6 tbsps. unsalted butter, melted


Ripe mangoes, enough to make 2 cups of mango puree
3 packs of cream cheese
1 1/4 cups sugar
2 tsps. vanilla extract
4 large eggs

How to Make 

For the crust:

Pre-heat the oven to 325F or 160 Celsius.  Lightly butter bottom of springform pan.
Mix together kamachile crumbs and sugar. Add melted butter and mix evenly until moistened.
Press crumb mixture on bottom of buttered pan and bake until set, about 12 minutes.
Cool completely.  Don't turn off the oven.

For Cheesecake

Puree mangoes until smooth, make 2 cups.  Beat together cream cheese, sugar and vanilla until smooth.  Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.  Since I don't have a mixer, I had to make sure that I really blended the ingredients well.
After all eggs have been added, slowly pour mango puree and mix well until completely blended.
Pour filling over crust in pan.
Bake cake in 325F/160C until cake is set and golden around edges, about 1 hour and 25 minutes.
Cool cake one hour then refrigerate uncovered overnight.
Transfer cake to platter, slice and serve with ripe mango wedges.

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Big Flavors at Balay Dako, Tagaytay City

I have always been a fan of Tonyboy Escalante,  chef proprietor of Antonio's in Tagaytay and his various spin-offs.   The latest incarnation of his cooking chops is Balay Dako just a kilometre away from the Rotonda.  This replaces Antonio's Grill which was was his less formal and more affordable restaurant that served mainly Filipino favourites and ihaw ihaw specialties.

On week-ends, go up to Tagaytay early enough if you want a good table at Balay Dako.  They do not accept reservations and the place is always busy.
Balay Dako is built in the lot that Leslie's used to occupy.   I had many a palayok of lovely hot bulalo at Leslie's and now, that big nipa hut is gone and has been replaced by what looks like a plantation style home  -- a big house, a Balay Dako.

When you enter the restaurant there is a deli off to one side where you can shop for Ilonggo delicacies like mango tarts, piaya, dulce gatas and even organic vegetables grown from Antonio's farm.  There are also jams, preserves,  fresh baked breads -- the spanish bread is particularly good!

 If you used to eat in Leslie's you'll probably remember that the nipa hut had a second floor.
Balay Dako has transformed this into a large hall which can be used for private parties.

 On week-ends, there is a breakfast buffet --  the menu looks tempting ... chorizo, tapa, tinapa, etc. All of the lovely delicious things that make up a good Pinoy almusal!

There is a nice open air deck with sofas and chairs -- perfect for al fresco cocktails at dusk!

This is the breathtaking view of the lake from the second floor veranda.  On a beautiful day like this,  you could just sit and and gaze at this for hours!

The manager comes up to say our table is ready so we go down to the main dining room.   There are two seating levels -- if you're early, get a table on the lower level where you can look out
at the view of the lake and the volcano.

Unfortunately this table had been taken so we had to content ourselves by being one table away from a ringside seat to the stunning view.  Screens are placed on the wide floor to ceiling windows -- it keeps the breezes flowing freely and yet keeps those pesky flies out.

Time to look over the simple but tastefully designed menu and order our lunch!

For starters, we chose kinilaw and calamares.  The firm fresh fish was marinated in an exact blend of citrusy, acidic, spicy flavours.

The attentive waiters at Balay Dako wear white, with long white aprons, reminiscent of the uniforms at Antonio's.  They were efficient,  polite and yes, knew just when to smile for the camera. 

We decided not to have the Tagaytay staple of bulalo but opted to order sinigang na bangus. It was a good choice -- the soup had the right touch of sourness and was deep with bangus flavours.  Sabaw pa lang, ulam na!

The kare kare had chunks of tender oxtail and the sauce was not too thick, just the way I like it.

We had wanted to order cochinillo but sadly, it was not available that morning.  The waiter recommended the twice cooked lechon.   It must have been fried with soy sauce and laurel and therefore it tasted much like dry adobong lechon.  Hmm, maybe that would have been a better name for this dish.

To assuage our disappointment about the cochinillo, we ordered more pork -- a strip of deadly
lechon kawali.  The meat to fat ratio was good, it wasn't dripping with oil but perhaps the skin could have been just a bit more crackly.

Taal Lake was represented on the table by a dish of fried tawilis -- this is truly no-waste-tail-to-head eating!

We did not finish all of the food on the table but at the end of the meal, we all had room for dessert.  Hmm, maybe I am not the only one with a betsubara (Japanese term for second stomach)
We ordered turon na saging and mantecado ice cream with dulce gatas topping -- presto, turon a la mode!  

I'm glad we had a third dessert --  maja blanca.  It was fragrant with the aroma of coconut cream
and corn with a latik topping that was nutty and brought out all the subtle sweetness of this old time kakanin.  Balay Dako's version tasted home made, in some grandmother's kitchen.  This is something I would definitely buy if they started to sell it in their deli.

Stuffed with Balay Dako's good food plus pasalubong from the deli, it was time to head back, ahead of the week-end traffic.  Perhaps next time we should come earlier, enjoy the breakfast buffet, eat lunch and stay until the cocktail hour!

Eclectic Dining at Cafe Voi-La in Tagaytay City

Tagaytay has become so crowded with cafes, restaurants, bars, boutique hotels -- that traffic along the ridge is literally bumper to bumper on week-ends.  To maximise your Tagaytay dining experience -- good food enjoyed amid cooler weather and nice views, it's best to come on a weekday when you can have the place to yourself.

On one weekday trip to Tagaytay,  we decided to stop by this new-ish cafe that we had noticed on the drive in to Highlands.  Cafe Voi-La is just a little bit past the entrance to Crosswinds.  

The interiors are definitely more colourful than the facade.  Bright pinks and greens  work well with lacquer furniture and are complemented by a blend of other very warm and vibrant colours.  The chairs and seat cushions are a riot of colours and patterns as well.

The look is eclectic Asian fusion --a mish-of- this, a mash-of-that but it's all good and it all works.  The overall effect is charming and not at all tacky.

We decided to sit out on the front veranda where brightly painted wicker sofas are mixed up with wooden tables and chairs.   Bright blue water goblets and native straw and fabric placemats make for  attractive and appealing table settings.  All kinds of sconces and lamps adorn the ceiling and the walls.  The lighting must be soft and magical at night. 

The menu is as varied and eclectic as the decor.  There are Asian dishes,  pizzas,  steaks, cakes and pastries, and some western and local dishes.   This put us all in a mood to just order what we liked, even if none of the tastes would probably match. Which is why for starters, we all shared and enjoyed this pomelo salad.  The pomelo was juicy and sweet but with that bit of tartness for a fresh and clean taste.    The serving was generous and good for four people.

Who knew that a pomelo salad would go well with a four cheese pizza?  Cafe Voi-La's pizza was good -- the crust was thin, the cheeses were authentically delicious.

We also ordered  fish and chips.   The fish was firm and fresh, not at all greasy and the dusting of parmesan and herbs was a nice touch.  Servings at Cafe Voi-La are not skimpy and are meant for sharing which to my mind equates to good value.  

 We almost did not order dessert but the attentive and knowledgeable waiter tipped us off on the house best seller.  The salted caramel cheesecake was delicious and easily the best I had tried.  It was a sweet and salty surprise to end our initial foray in to Cafe Voi-La's menu.

Good food, a killer cheesecake, and time well spent with friends... Cafe Voi-La is an ideal place to enjoy a quiet and restful week-day in Tagaytay.

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

Pinoy Empanadas -- best for merienda!

I have always enjoyed savoury pies called empanadas -- they make great little snacks.  Hearty enough to assuage the hunger pangs and yet not too heavy as to spoil the appetite for the next meal.

In Galicia, empanadas were a regional specialty and ubiquitous, specially along the Camino.  The Gallegan empanada is baked either as a large round pie, cut in wedges or as a big rectangular block sliced in equal sized squares.  The most common (and perhaps the cheapest) filling is tuna or atun. Once in while, a nicer bar or albergue would carry a few more varieties like jamon con queso, chicken or chorizo.   I would usually stop for a slice of empanada along with a cold beer or coke when hunger pangs struck along the Camino.

Back home, I remembered the many times I cooked this snack when I was in high school.
Unlike the Gallegan empanada,  my  empanadas were fried, not baked.  My father taught me how
to make these deep fried treats and I would make them on week-ends when he and I would share
the kitchen and the cooking duties.
I decided to make empanadas again a few days ago and was quite happy with the result.  I made smaller pies than usual, just enough for two bites.   Despite being deep fried, they were not at all greasy or oily -- everyone loved them!  I'll probably double the recipe the next time I make this
tasty homemade merienda fare.

Here's my recipe for Fried Empanadas with Pork Filling


Empanada dough

2 1/4 cups all purpose flour
1 1/2 tsps salt
1 stick butter or 1/2 cup shortening like Crisco  (I used Star Margarine)
1 large egg
1/3 cup ice cold water  
1 tbsp white vinegar

Pork Filling

Garlic and onions, chopped fine for sautéing
1/4 kg ground pork
Salt and pepper to taste
Potatoes, cut in small cubes and pre-fried
Finely chopped carrots, also pre cooked along with the potatoes
One small red bell pepper, finely chopped

Optional -- some people like raisins in their empanadas (my mother for one always insisted on these)
   but I don't like the sweetness that raisins have  but feel free to add them if you  wish, just make sure  
   you soak them before you cook them.

How to Cook

Sift the flour and salt on to a mixing bowl.  Cut in the shortening using a pastry cutter until the mixture has small lumps.  In a separate bowl, beat together egg, ice cold water and vinegar.
Add to the flour mixture and mix together until mixture just blended (be careful not to over mix).
On a lightly floured surface, knead the mixture to bring it all together.  Form dough into a ball and cover with plastic wrap.  Refrigerate for an hour.

While the dough is resting in the fridge -- make the pork filling.

Saute garlic and onion and bell pepper.  Add the ground pork mixture and cook till browned.  Season to taste.  Add fried potatoes and carrots.  For a bit of colour, add a bit of light soy sauce but be careful
not to make the filling too salty.  Remove from pan and let cool.

Remove dough from the fridge.  Cut off a piece and roll to a thin flat shape.  Form into equal round shapes.  Into each round piece of pastry, spoon some of the pork filling in the centre,  fold the circle
in half and moisten edge to close.  Crimp edge with a fork.

Heat oil in a pan, enough to cover the empanadas.  When oil is hot, cook empanadas, making sure they do not crowd the pan.  Fry till golden brown and drain excess oil on thick paper towels.

Serve warm.

This recipe is good for 24 small empanadas.