Have A Taste Of This Kapampangan Lola’s Legendary Cookies

Take a crispy, sweet bite of history!

IMAGE Majoy Siason

Atching Lillian Borromeo lives in a time capsule. Her home houses kitchen artifacts some of which are 200 years old. From ancient clay cooking pots, coconut shell spatulas, to ornate, wooden cookie molds-every nook and cranny is alive with a piece of history. It's in this historic kitchen that she keeps recipes much older than her, well and alive. One of the recipes she breathes life into are the Sanikulas cookies-as the locals call it-but officially named "Panecillos de San Nicolas," for San Nicolas de Tolentino, the patron saint of the bakers, the sick, the children, the souls in purgatory, and of calamity.

The cookies are traced back to the namesake San Nicolas de Tolentino, who lived sometime in the late 13th-early 14th centuries.
Photo by Majoy Siason

The Legend of the Healing Cookie

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Legend says that one day, Saint Nicholas had gotten sick. Getting sick was no laughing matter during that time, before the advent of modern medicine, a simple cold could be fatal. However, he'd dreamt instructions from the blessed virgin to get a piece of bread, soak it in a glass of water, and eat it to be cured. It worked!

These are the simple ingredients needed to make spectacular cookies.
Photo by Majoy Siason

The Spanish Nuns Brought Us The Cookies

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Hundreds of years later, the recipe was first brought to the Philippines in the 1600s when the Spanish were building their churches. Back in the day, the primary ingredient for cement when making these big, ornate, churches was a lot of egg whites. So, this created a surplus of unused egg yolks. Millions of egg yolks were dumped and buried in a barangay now called "Masangsang" for the putrid smells the yolks gave the place. To solve the egg yolk problem, the nuns began to teach the local women how to make Panecillo de San Nicolas, directly translating to "the little bread of Saint Nicolas."

Atching says that the process of making the dough uses her senses. It's really her fingers that hold the secret to the finest Panecillo de San Nicolas.
Photo by Majoy Siason

How Atching Lillian Borromeo Makes The Cookies

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A simple search online would yield plenty of San Nicolas cookies recipes. Are they copycat recipes, you may ask? Most of them are straight from Atching herself, who has made it a point to freely give her recipes to keep them alive well beyond her. Just as she'd picked them up from her grandmother, her impo, she wants us to pick it up from her.

That's not the only reason why she isn't afraid to give it away. She also knows that what makes the cookies truly unique is because of her very own hands. You see, to make the dough is a two-step process. First, you make accurate measurements of butter, flour, cornstarch, coconut milk, and egg yolks. The second step is all about feeling the dough, though. Atching uses her fingertips, as she kneads the dough, to know when to stop. Once you're making the recipe, this is where you'll differ.

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These antique wooden molds are still 100% functional.
Photo by Majoy Siason

The Philippine History of Panecillos de San Nicolas

Other recipes around the Philippines were also concocted because of an oversupply of egg yolks: leche flan, Brazo de Mercedes, and more. What makes these cookies unique though, was that the Kapampangans found a way to make it even better.

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See Also

The rolling pin ensures that the dough gets the full impression of the hand-carved mold.
Photo by Majoy Siason

In the old recipe, the simple mold used needed just one heavy tap and that was it. The Kapampangans devised a way to impress more intricate details into the cookies through a strenuous process using a wooden rolling pin. They pressed the dough in, then rolled from the middle up, then to the middle down. Traditionally, the women also swayed as they rolled, as a form of exercise to get a tiny waist.

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Every wooden mold represents a family's history.
Photo by Majoy Siason

It began a trend. Families would carve their molds to set them apart. A family with a fishpond business had cookies with fish scales impressed in their cookies. Those from Macabebe, known then as the warriors of Pampanga, had a symbol of a weighing scale to symbolize justice. A family of farmers had a leaf-shaped wooden mold. Today, a lot of these molds have been given to Atching for safekeeping.

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Can These Cookies Heal?

Although deeply religious, Atching is careful to say that these cookies aren't a panacea. She says that some people though, claim, that what makes it special is not just the tansya-tansya, nor the heirloom molds, or the traditional bibingka oven, but in how they are baked. Instead of timers, the Kapampangans would sit near the oven and wait while saying prayers. It takes three Our Fathers, one Hail Mary, one Glory Be, and one Ave Regina for the cookies to bake. They check the cookies, and they're not ready yet, the pray another Our Father. Also, some would ask for the cookies to be blessed by the church.

The perfect cookies don't just look great, they must also easily break-as a sign of the perfect brittleness.
Photo by Majoy Siason

A Cookie Lost In Time

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That's not where the Kapampangans ended innovating these cookies. Atching describes learning a certain cookie when she was young from just watching her grandmother. One day, when she was tasked to bring an "extinct recipe" to a book launch at Angeles City, she made this special cookie. Using the Panecillos de San Nicolas cookie dough that's impressed with a beautiful, floral mold, it's then stuffed with sweetened kundol.

Dulce Prenda are an elevated version of the humble cookies.
Photo by Majoy Siason
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When the priests saw the cookies, they exclaimed: "This is Dulce Prenda!" They then proceeded to tell the story of the cookies. There was going to be a La Naval parade in Pampanga and all the rich people offered land, money, and other extravagant gifts. Those less fortunate also wanted to honor the feast and so they thought of a recipe that would combine the recipes they were taught: the Spanish Panecillo de San Nicolas and the Chinese sweetened kundol hopia. They then named it from a line in the song "A La Virgen Maria," which was being sung as the procession rolled by.

Today, the Dulce Prenda recipe is barely alive. When Mount Pinatubo exploded years ago, it made the people of Bacolor migrate to different locations, tearing the tradition apart. Thanks to Atching Lillian Borromeo though, at least now we can all remember it.

Atching's cookies are special not just because of the way the buttery, softly sweet cookie crumbles and melts in your mouth perfectly, but because of how rich the stories behind them are.

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You can take home history with you with these box of cookies.
Photo by Majoy Siason

You may buy the cookies at Kusinang Matua ni Atching Lillian Borromeo located at  2021, 174 Jose Abad Santos Avenue, Mexico, Pampanga. Make sure you call them at (045) 966-0211 first to see if they have cookies ready. You can also arrange for a buffet lunch at Kusina Matua for a minimum of ten people for P 700/ head. 

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