Why It Works
- Baking the bibingka in banana leaves imparts a distinct tropical flavor.
- The addition of baking powder produces a fluffy, sponge-like texture.
- Finishing the bibingka with melted butter and a sprinkling of sugar under the broiler caramelizes the top.
Eating bibingka, a fluffy, lightly sweetened rice cake, is closely associated with Christmas time in the Philippines. It was the main reason I attended all those midnight masses as a child—the intoxicating smell wafted down the aisles of the church and had me inching closer to the doors in an effort to be the first one at the popular bibingka stall.
Bibingka belongs under the umbrella of kakanin, a category of indigenous sweets composed entirely of rice-based snacks, like biko. It’s is traditionally made from slightly sour galapong (ground fermented sticky rice), coconut milk, water, and sugar. The thick batter was poured into terra cotta containers lined with banana leaves, topped with more banana leaves, and surrounded by hot coals. This cooking technique produced a soft, spongy cake infused with the tropical aroma of toasted banana leaves.
My recipe for this simple rice cake is a nod to the ones I ate growing up, the famous bibingkas of Balasan, a municipality in the central Philippine province of Iloilo. Conveniently baked in an oven (no hot coals required), this bibingka is flatter and chewier and topped with caramelized macapuno (the soft, jelly-like flesh of a coconut varietal). I’ve made the banana leaf optional, but if you’re able to get your hands on a banana leaf, use it to line your pan. To make it, whisk together melted butter, sugar, egg, coconut milk, baking powder, a pinch of salt, and a combination of white and sweet rice flours into a batter, pour it into a cake pan or cast iron pan, and bake the cake in a moderately hot oven until it begins to set at the edges. At that point, pull the cake out of the oven, layer macapuno over the top, and return it to the oven until the cake is completely set. Pull it out one more time, get the broiler going, sprinkle the top of the cake evenly with sugar, and then a short spell under the broiler’s intense heat produces a lightly charred bibingka with sweet caramelized macapuno.
Bibingka is best enjoyed warm with a mug of steaming hot coffee or tea, and even though it’s associated with Christmas, it’s delicious at any time of the year. Feel free to also top yours with sliced salted duck egg, shredded cheddar cheese, or even pineapple slices!