The ensaymada we enjoy today has a long-storied past, making a journey from an island in Spain towards Philippine shores. As time went by, it became more Filipino than its roots as our bakers adapted it to local tastes. Many homebakers have taken the liberty with the basic formulation to turn it into a bread we celebrate with. In the book, Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions (Anvil, 2015), ensaymada has its very own chapter.
From Mallorca to Intramuros
The story of this bread can be traced to the Balearic Island of Mallorca in Spain where bakers made a bread named ensaimada de Mallorca. The coiled bread takes its name from lard (saïm) which is spread as a fat on the surface of the flattened dough, giving it the visible flaky layers when baked. To this day, bakeries in Mallorca continue to make their ensaimada the traditional way as the government of the Balearic Islands regulate its preparation and sale, giving it the status of “protected geographical indication” in 2003.
If we look at the official list of ingredients of the original ensaimada de Mallorca, it will produce a lean dough: bread flour, water, sugar, eggs and a starter dough (the sponge). The flattened and greased dough is rolled back up and turned to form a spiral. “Looking at a cross-section of it, alternate layers of dough and fat can be seen, with the number of layers depending on the number of circles that form the spiral,” says the government website. (Imagine a soft dough with the layers of a croissant.) The dough is fermented for up to 12 hours then baked freeform on a half sheet pan (not on a brioche mold). Its only adornment is a dusting of powdered sugar.
This was the kind of ensaimada Filipinos knew during the Spanish colonial period—flaky, airy, delectable from the lard. An advertisement in a Spanish language newspaper in Manila in 1885 reflected this. The bakery, Panaderia Y Pasteleria La Isla de Mallorca located in Calle Fundición, Intramuros, boasted of “ensaimadas exactly the same as the best in Mallorca.” The bakery also stated the ensaimada were carefully made by European staff in a clean area using the best flours they can get at that time.
Pampanga and Bulacan
Fast forward to the 18th century, the ingredients and preparation of the ensaimada evolved into something richer, more extravagant. Its texture and technique went the way of a brioche because there were more egg yolks and the fat (lard or butter) was incorporated into the dough aside from the greasing of the flattened dough and spreading of the butter and sugar as a topping to the baked ensaimada.
The ensaimada were served during Easter and Christmas, with bakeries trying to outdo each other on being the best in town. El Gusto Panaderia y Reposteria, founded in 1914 in Calle Azcarraga in Quiapo, took out an ad during Christmas of 1947 offering their famous “ensaimadas de la Pampanga.”
These ensaimada from the province of Pampanga were held in high esteem then as it is now with Pampango homebakers using old recipes passed down through generations. The sources of their recipes may come directly from Spanish cooks or as taught by cooking teachers.
Gilda Cordero Fernando writes in Philippine Food and Life that “Victorina Ocampo, well-known San Fernando gourmet, learned the rudiments of the pitisus (cream puffs), brazos and ensaymadas from the Spanish cook of the archbishop who had moved in next door with his retinue of muchachos and cocheros.”
Two popular cooking teachers from Pampanga (Luisa Lichauco and Rosario Hizon Ocampo of San Fernando) had the ensaimada on their syllabus, teaching the bread to many bakers in the province. Former students and their heirs continue the recipe (sometimes tweaked along the way) and the enterprise of selling ensaimada.
If you dig deeper, the city-based homebaker you order those classic, buttery ensaimada from would most likely have roots in Pampanga. This regional variation is most often huge as a saucer with a golden yellow interior, tender crumb, and a strong flavor of butter slathered within and on top. Grated queso de bola and sugar complete the look. A recipe of “ensaimada Pampangueña” in Efren G. Bunquin’s The Golden Treasury of Baking and Candymaking from 1976 lets the dough rise for four hours, a long fermentation period for traditional ensaimada.
Pampanga’s neighboring province, Bulacan, has its own take on this bread, particularly the bakeries from the town of Malolos which specializes on it. The most legendary was the special “enseimada” from Panaderia Villegas, which popularized its Spanish butter-coated bread with the jamon de China, and later on, salted egg, on top. Unfortunately, the Villegas enseimada did not survive as the recipe was not passed on to heirs and its preparation was shrouded in mystery.
But there are still bakeries that make their own version of the Malolos enseimada, particularly Eurobake in Guiguinto which descended from La Panaderia Concepcion. Many Bulacan bakers studied under Alberta Uitangcoy-Santos (one of the women of Malolos) who used lard in her recipe for that distinct taste and texture.
Ensaimada, enseimada, ensaymada
Beyond Intramuros, Manila also had its share of bakeries that specialized on the ensaimada—Maria Luisa’s Bakery in Cubao (founded in 1936), Annie’s Bakeshop in front of Sto. Domingo Church in the 1960s, and Panaderia San Sebastian in Quiapo, and many others long-forgotten.
While these bakeries made special ensaimada, the corner bakery also did their take on a simpler panaderia-style version with margarine and sugar on top (no cheese). This was the kind more accessible to the public, with no need for special orders and is more affordable.
We can also take note how the name of the bread evolved in spelling: from ensaimada to ensaymada (the term listed in the U.P. Diksiyonaryong Filipino). In Bulacan, it’s enseimada or ensemada. In Pampanga, it’s also known as cemada.
In some heirloom recipes, potato water or potato yeast is a secret ingredient to make the dough tender. Once the dough is rounded and ready (and allowed to rise for 1 ½ to 2 hours, perhaps even more depending on the recipe), each piece is flattened and stretched very thin. On the surface, you spread the butter (or lard) and sprinkle the cheese, a practice which provides a bit of the layers although with the dough being rich and the fermentation longer, layers are not as distinguished as the original Mallorcan ensaimada. The practice of adding butter and cheese goes as far back as the 1930s based on recipes collected by Doña Maria Paz (Pacita) Zamora de Mascuñana who co-wrote a cookbook in 1930. The practice could go even further if we follow the trail of the ensaymada crumbs.
How you bake it also influences the shape and size of the ensaymada: if you go back to its Mallorcan roots, the coiled dough is baked on a sheet pan so it tends to spread wider and becomes a little bit flat. If you place it in a brioche or mamon mold, expect the bread to be round, tall and billowy.
Where to buy them
Thankfully, we have choices and access to the kind of ensaymada we wish to have. We can go for the classic or the modern varieties. If you want the regular, panaderia-style ensaymada, get them at Kamuning Bakery in Quezon City where it is baked in a pugon.
To splurge on a classic Pampanga-style ensaimada, order from the homebakers. There’s Homemade Treasures by Chona Ayson (0928-5070928) and Pasteleria Mallorca in Quezon City (3732789, 3732790). Or visit the weekend markets in Makati (Imang Salud’s still makes them). I love buying from homebakers because they make the breads with a lot of heart and there’s always a story to tell behind their breads.
For filled ensaimada, there’s the ube ensaymada of Diamond Hotel. Baby Pat Breads and Pastries (0917-7901127) by Pearl de Guzman of Laguna has both classic and flavored ensaimada. Cookbook author Angelo Comsti lists unusual makeovers on the ensaimada back in 2013.
Imagine how many more has sprouted since then—both ensaimada that looks back and ensaimada that looks forward. Our bellies and food memories should be all the richer.
Jenny Orillos is the co-author of Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions (2015).