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Pan de San Nicolas, considered “the oldest cookies in the Philippines” are buttery and sweet from the coconut cream and have a firm shortbread-like texture. The baked cookie looked breathtaking as I held it in my hand with its every vine, curve and delicate details.
During a culinary heritage tour in the Philippines, I met Mrs. Lillian Borromeo, chef and cookbook author, known as the keeper of Kapampangan cuisine at her home in Mexico, Pampanga. She taught me how to make Pan de San Nicolas or Panecillos de San Niculas from an heirloom family recipe. The oval-shaped cookies were baked on intricately hand-carved cookie molds made of mahogany, yakal or molave by wood craftsmen from the town of Betis. Each Pampanga town or family had personalized carved designs on the molds. The leaf-like patterns belonged to the Lazatins, vast landowners. The harp-shaped designs belonged to the Lansangans, family musicians and so forth.
My recipe version was inspired by Atching Lillian Borromeo’s cookbook “Atching Lillian’s Heirloom Recipes.” I adjusted the original recipe to suit the present-day climate and altitude in America.
Makes about 18 cookies.
1/2 cup cornstarch
1 tablespoon baking powder
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
6 large egg yolks
1/2 cup canned coconut milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine, softened at room temperature
1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup vegetable oil
2 cups cake flour
1 1/2 cups rice flour
In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch, baking powder, salt, sugar, egg yolks, coconut milk, softened butter, lemon zest and oil. Blend well with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the cake flour and the rice flour and mix until well blended. Knead the mixture until the dough is thick and has a smooth surface. This takes about 10 minutes.
Put the dough into an airtight container and freeze for 2 to 4 hours or up to overnight.
When ready to bake, take the dough out of the freezer and thaw on the counter for 8 to 10 minutes. Keep the dough very cold so it is easy to roll out and handle on the molds.
Pre-heat the oven to 325 F.
Grease the carved surface of the mold with baking spray or shortening. Make sure to grease the inner crevices and corners so that the dough can be removed easily after shaping.
Place a piece of the dough, about 4 tablespoons, over the mold, on the carved portion. Flatten with your hand to spread it around evenly. Place a piece of parchment or wax paper over the dough and, using a rolling pin, roll and flatten the dough so it gets embedded in the design.
Place a round or oval cookie cutter over the mold, to cut the dough to the appropriate shape. Trim the edges of the cookie if necessary. Quickly transfer the molded dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone sheet. Continue to form the cookies and transfer them to the baking sheet.
Bake cookies 10 to 12 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. They will be crisp on the outside, but will have a slightly soft shortbread texture inside.
Transfer cookies to a cooling rack. It will take at least 30- 40 minutes for the cookies to cool on the rack. When cookies are cooled, wrap in white cellophane wrappers to show off the intricate designs. Store in an airtight glass or plastic jar.
Note: These wooden handcrafted cookie molds were purchased from Mrs. Lilian Borromeo in Mexico, Pampanga. Contact Outereater@gmail.com for information.
*If you don’t have these Philippine antique cookie molds, substitute with a springerle mold from online sources.
Update: Google Philippines featured the original blog post of “Pan de San Nicolas” on www.AsianInAmericaMag.com by Elizabeth Ann Quirino as part of the 365-day digital campaign about the Philippines.
Elizabeth Ann Quirino, based in New Jersey is a journalist and author of the “How to Cook Philippine Desserts: Cakes and Snacks” Cookbook. She is a member of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and blogs about Filipino home cooking on her site AsianInAmericaMag.com.
More articles from Elizabeth Ann Quirino