Kapampangan Eats: A Glimpse Behind the History of San Nicolas Cookies
Food, like a loving touch or a glimpse of divine power, has that ability to comfort. -Normal Kolpas
On the tenth of September every year, parishes in Pampanga, Philippines have a unique bread tradition in honor of San Nicholas de Tolentino--one of the traditions passed by the Spaniards to the Filipinos. Saint Nicholas is described as the Super Saint of the Augustinian order according to locals. Aside from being the traditional patron of forty-six Philippine towns, he was known for the legend of Guadalupe's San Nicholas. Otherwise known as the Pan de San Nicholas, this sacramental bread (or more appropriately a biscuit), this Kapampangan delicacy found its roots upon the miraculous appearance of the shrikes (locally known as tarat) during the patron saint's feast day, hence the eponymous name "Pan de San Nicholas."
The distribution and blessing of bread were distinctive features of the San Nicholas feast, which still continues today. It was said that the bread was as miraculous as the patron saint's charities. It was stated that he had envisioned Virgin Mary while he was sick. The Virgin mother then advised him to eat bread that has been dipped in water--an advice he took that caused his timely recovery. Because of this, the tradition was born, and his followers continued the practice of portioning and blessing bread on his feast day.
But San Nicolas cookies are eaten not only on his feast day but any day of the year. In Pampanga, these perfectly molded cookies are famously crafted by Lilian Borromeo of Mexico, Pampanga. She has preserved and continued the tradition of making the succulent cookies from the recipe she inherited from generations before her. Lilian Borromeo's cookies are manually molded into heirloom wooden templates handed down to her, which make them truly unique.
It is said that eating Pan de San Nicholas has curative and restorative derivatives, but today, that may be attributed to a placebo effect. If you want to try your hand at making this famous Kapampangan biscuit, you can head over to Lilian Borromeo's kitchen, famously known as Kusina ni Atching Lilian. You will be granted a cooking demo by the chef, Atching Lilian herself and be rewarded with a souvenir for your efforts.
However, if you are unable to travel to The Philippines, you can try your hand at making the cookies at home:
Pan de San Nicholas Cookies
1-1/2 cups rice flour ( Mochiko brand, from Asian markets)
1/2 cup cornstarch
2 cups cake flour
1 T. baking powder
1/2 tsp. salt
1 cup + 2 T. granulated sugar
6 egg yolks
1/2 cup canned coconut milk
1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine, room temperature
1 tsp. fresh lemon zest
1/2 cup vegetable oil
In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch, baking powder, salt, sugar, egg yolks, coconut milk, softened butter, lemon zest, and oil. Blend the mixture well with a wooden spoon. Slowly introduce the cake flour and rice flour into the mixture until well blended.
Knead the dough until it’s thick and smooth.
Place the dough into an airtight container and freeze for two to four hours, or even overnight.
Remove dough and thaw at room temperature for eight to ten minutes.
Preheat the oven to 325 degrees Fahrenheit. Meanwhile, grease the carved surface of the mold with baking spray, making sure you have covered the crevices and corners.
Place a piece of the dough over the carved portion of the mold until completely covered. Place a piece of parchment over the dough and, using a rolling pin, flatten the dough so it gets embedded into the mold’s design.
Place a round or oval cookie cutter over the mold and use it to cut the dough into the appropriate shape. Transfer the molded dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper.
Bake the cookies for 10 to 12 minutes or until lightly-brown.
Transfer the cookies to a cooling rack and allow to cool for 30 to 40 minutes. Once cooled, wrap in white cellophane wrappers and store in an airtight glass or plastic jar.