upper waypoint

Abi Balingit's Dessert Cookbook Is a Love Letter to the Bay Area's Filipino Bakeries

Save ArticleSave Article
Failed to save article

Please try again

A baked Alaska dessert with a small Filipino flag inserted on top, displayed on a cake stand.
The halo-halo baked Alaska has ube-flavored ice cream inside. The dessert is emblematic the cross-cultural approach in Abi Balingit's new cookbook, 'Mayumu.' (Nico Schinco)

Growing up, I assumed fruit custard was a uniquely Indian food, no different than khichdi or palak paneer. Chilled fruit custard, sweetened with apples, bananas and grapes, made frequent appearances at my mother’s dinner parties, indistinguishable from other milky Indian desserts like kheer or shrikhand. I never saw anything similar to it in American restaurants or at my white friends’ houses: How could I guess it was anything other than Indian?

“Oh my god, I thought the same thing about fruit salad and Filipinos,” confesses blogger, baker and recipe developer extraordinaire Abi Balingit. We are chatting about her new memoir-cum-cookbook Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, which documents the sweets she ate and made growing up in the Bay Area’s thriving Filipino communities.

“Our fruit salad has canned fruit, too, but we add more Filipino stuff like coconut jellies and sugar palm fruit, so I always thought it was 100 percent Filipino,” Balingit says. “Another product of colonialism and imperialism for sure.”

Our respective fruit salads and custards reflect a bizarre quirk of history, where the legacy of colonization and globalization has influenced our food to the point where the term “fusion” doesn’t really mean much. Asian cooking has been fused with Western culture. So why not make, say, a baked Alaska with ube ice cream — the tantalizing dessert displayed on the cover of Mayumu? Or a jello salad buko pandan?

Cover of a cookbook with a photo of a slice of baked Alaska with ube ice cream on the inside. Text reads, "Mayumu, Filipino American Desserts Remixed."
The cookbook was published by HarperCollins in February 2023. (Courtesy of HarperCollins)

“Obviously, growing up in America, the desserts are cupcakes, cakes and cookies — and these are things in the Philippines, too,” says Balingit. “I went to Seafood City or the small Filipino market and saw coco pie and ube pie, but at the same time I went to Safeway or Albertson’s and saw, like, Hostess and Little Debbie’s. There was nothing weird about it to me, there was no sense of foreignness or discomfort.”

Sponsored

For Balingit, Mayumu isn’t just a cookbook. It is a snapshot of growing up Filipino American in California. While the book exhaustively covers how to make every Filipino dessert one is likely to find behind the glass case at a Union City bakery — from bibingka to pandesal to kutsinta – Balingit adds little elements drawn from the porous, pan-Asian culture of the Bay. Her bibingka, for example, is topped with melted White Rabbit candies, which she fondly remembers coveting at 99 Ranch, while her pastillas, a chewy candy made from condensed milk, are flavored with matcha powder, that boba-shop staple.

The book is split into five parts, each named after towns Balingit resided in and accompanied by short reflections about what each location meant to her. Balingit was born in San Jose, moved to Stockton when she was six years old, went to UC Berkeley for college and finally flew off to New York City for work. The sequencing of the recipes tracks Balingit’s development as a baker: Early parts of the book cover Filipino classics like puto and biko, done relatively simply, while later parts show off her matured virtuosity and broader cultural horizons — leche flan infused with chai, cookies flavored with karekare or adobo.

Portrait of cookbook author Abi Balingit, who wears a colorful apron that matches her pink and green hair.
Balingit spent her formative years in San Jose and Stockton.

It’s not always a forward arc. Sometimes, Balingit doubles back. She puts her basic pandesal recipe in the fourth chapter, set in Brooklyn. After leaving the Bay’s plentiful Filipino bakeries behind, she had little choice but to make the bread on her own.

“Bakeries are so essential for daily life,” says Balingit, wistfully. “Growing up, I don’t think my parents made pandesal ever; I would be surprised if anyone in San Jose or Stockton did. The bakeries do such a good job already.”

Mayumu is littered with references to Bay Area Filipino bakeries — the famous chains Goldilocks and Valerio’s in particular get big shoutouts — that innovated with items like monggo-swirled brioche loaves and ube tres leches cakes. And the Fil-Am urge for baked goods and candy doesn’t just stop at strictly Filipino joints. Balingit also pays tribute to Costco madeleines and poppy seed muffins, gas station Twinkies and even Midwestern Buckeye candies, introduced to a young Balingit by a friend studying at Ohio State University. All done, of course, with a Filipino twist: The madeleines are lychee flavored, the Twinkies use Filipino mamon instead of sponge cake, the Buckeyes swap out fudge for yema (a Filipino egg custard).

A bowl of madeleines topped with dried rose petals and a purple-pink hibiscus glaze.
Balingit’s madeleines are flavored with lychee and have a hibiscus tea glaze. (Nico Schinco)

Despite the legacy of generations of Asian American pastry chefs working in places like Valerio’s, very few have had the opportunity to write at length about their work. Balingit and I ended our conversation trying to come up with previous books in this niche, but we couldn’t think of any. Hours of additional Googling on my part only turned up a scant few: Aileen Chung Belshe’s hard-to-find Hawaiian Sweets, Treats And Eats, Pichet Ong’s Sweet Spot and Kristina Cho’s recently released Mooncakes and Milk Bread.

“It wasn’t smooth sailing trying to get this book sold to a publisher,” Balingit admits. “99 percent of publishers said no because it was so niche — not just a Filipino American cookbook, but a dessert cookbook as well. It shouldn’t be like that. Nobody would bat an eye if this was an Italian American dessert book.”

Luckily, Balingit connected with a Korean American editor at Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins, who took a chance on her work.

“It sucks, but that’s the beauty of all these new diaspora cookbooks coming out,” says Balingit. “Hopefully we’re breaking the mold a bit and making it easier for people to justify why their foods matter.”

To promote Mayumu, Balingit is hosting meet-and-greets at Omnivore Books (3885 Cesar Chavez St., San Francisco) on Sat., March 25 and the San Francisco Public Library’s Excelsior branch (4400 Mission St., San Francisco) on Sunday, March 26.

lower waypoint
next waypoint
Marin County’s Best Late-Night Restaurant Is a Poker Room With $26 Prime RibLive Review: Madonna Gives a Master Class in ‘Eras’ in San FranciscoZendaya Donates $100,000 to Bay Area Theater CompanyA Bay Area Rapper and Software Engineer Made an AI Album in 24 HoursYBCA Gallery Remains Closed; Pro-Palestinian Artists Claim CensorshipGeorge Crampton Glassanos has Pendletons, Paint and PassionSan Jose's Japantown Highlights Underground Scene With 'Photo Night'‘Raymond Cooper’s Oakland’ Tells Everyday Stories of a Bygone EraSex, Violence, ‘Game of Thrones’-Style Power Grabs — the New ‘Shōgun’ Has it AllMy Daughters Sold Girl Scout Cookies. Here’s what I Learned in the Thin Mint Trenches