Filipino-inspired baking is everywhere right now. The Filipino breakfast sausage known as longganisa is being tucked into flaky croissants; ensaymadas, a stalwart of Filipino bakery cases, are reinterpreted by enterprising bread bakers; and ube, the alluring purple yam beloved throughout the Philippines, is emerging in everything from blondies to lava cakes to cheesecakes.

And it's not just bakeries, either. Last year, Abi Balingit’s debut cookbook, Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, a vibrant love letter to sweets rooted in her Filipino heritage and diasporic upbringing, took the baking world by storm (and earned a James Beard nomination). More recently Sugarcane: Sweet Recipes from My Half-Filipino Kitchen from baker Arlyn Osborne, a delightful exploration of the Filipino American baking pantry, hit the shelves.  

And on social media, you can't escape violet viennoiseries, mango and calamansi desserts the color of sunshine, and other tropical bakes. There, Hannah Dela Cruz shares her modern renditions of classic Filipino breads such as pandesal (or more formally pan de sal) using naturally leavened techniques, while Rezel Kealoha reimagines both sweet and savory Filipino favorites in exciting, tita-approved adaptations.  

With every colorful cookie, creative mashup, and imaginative reinvention, they're charting a thrilling new course in baking, one that straddles tradition and innovation and is staunchly unapologetic.

But while this all feels new, it didn’t come out of nowhere. Modern Filipino American baking rests on a foundation laid by generations of previous bakers who built a thriving bakery culture at home and abroad. Today's next-gen bakers and pastry chefs — influenced by their multi-cultural backgrounds — are responsible for the most exciting baking happening in America right now. With every colorful cookie, creative mashup, and imaginative reinvention, they're charting a thrilling new course in baking, one that straddles tradition and innovation and is staunchly unapologetic. 

Bread beginnings

Originally, indigenous Filipino diets centered heavily around root crops and rice, not wheat. Regional sweets, known as kakanin, were made from rice or tubers including cassava and ube, or purple yam. Bread (and wheat flour-based desserts) became part of the Filipino diet after Spanish colonizers introduced wheat into the country in the 16th century. But it wasn't until the late 1900s, when more affordable American wheat and commercial instant yeast entered the market, that baking really took off in the Philippines. By the 1960s, according to Amy Uy, co-author of Panaderia: Philippine Bread, Biscuit and Bakery Traditions, two things happened that further cemented baking in Filipino culture: the proliferation of local flour mills (brought about by the U.S. Wheat Associates’ presence in the country) and the introduction of gas-powered ovens, which replaced the traditional pugon (wood-fired oven).

Sourdough Pandesal Photography and food styling by Hannah Dela Cruz
A sourdough version of pandesal, the soft, fluffy bread found throughout the Philippines. 

As a result, bread making became both a craft and means of making a living, particularly in the land-locked municipality of Cuenca in Batangas, which earned a reputation across the Philippines as the “home of the bakers.”

Even today, at many successful bakeries in the Philippines, one can likely find a master baker who has roots in Cuenca. According to Jenny Orillos, co-author of Panaderia, Cuencaños have always been an entrepreneurial lot. After gaining experience and knowledge at their home bakeries in Cuenca, the bakers, or “panaderos,” sought employment beyond the town, carrying their skills across the Philippines, including to the country’s capital of Manila. In doing so, they built the scaffold of a baking culture that endures to this day. 

At Marikina Bakery, located on the capital’s northeastern fringe, third-generation baker Martha Comia recalls the beginnings of her neighborhood institution. Her grandfather, Alejandro Gob, was from Cuenca and worked as a baker in Binondo, the world’s oldest Chinatown, situated in the heart of Manila, before opening Marikina Bakery with his wife, Rosario, in 1965. Today, the bakery offers over sixty varieties of bread and affordable classic Filipino baked goods such as Spanish bread (a soft, oblong bread roll with a sweet, buttery filling), kababayan (a dome-shaped sweet muffin resembling a native Filipino hat), and hopia (a flaky pastry with a sweet or savory filling).

How I recreated the Filipino bread of my childhood
Sourdough Pandesal

Hannah Dela Cruz tells the story of how she developed her pandesal recipe, using memory and sourdough. Read more.


In the Philippines, buying bread is a daily routine. Neighborhood bakeries, or panaderyas, are more than just places to buy bread; they provide both sustenance and connection. “There's a certain feeling of community, especially during the morning, the peak hours of buying pandesal for breakfast,” says Martha. “My staff already knows how many pieces of bread a certain customer will buy. There is no need for words. You build that relationship.” 

Senoriate Bread on a platter set on a breakfast table Photography and food styling by Hannah Dela Cruz
Light, airy Señorita Bread is stuffed with a sweet swirl of rich, buttery breadcrumb filling, then topped with more crumbs for delightful crunch. 

First-wave panaderyas 

As Filipino communities migrated to the US, so too did this thriving bakery culture. Bakers and business owners replicated culinary traditions within diaspora communities in the States, providing a taste of home.

The history of Filipino Americans indirectly begins with the Philippines still under Spanish rule. Filipinos, via the Manila Galleon trade, first set foot in North America by way of Morro Bay, California on October 18, 1587. Filipino American immigration continued in waves; the most recent swell arrived after the US passed the Immigration and Nationality Act in 1965, rescinding restrictive immigration quotas. 

My grandma, from Naga City in the Bicol region of the Philippines, immigrated to Los Angeles in 1984. She worked at a supermarket in Koreatown before settling in South Bay Los Angeles, where my family would follow shortly after. I grew up in Carson, California, home to a large community of multi-generation Filipino Americans. Childhood weekends were spent at a plaza abuzz with flavors of the homeland: longganisa at Seafood City, fried chicken and spaghetti accompanied by peach mango pie at Jollibee, and Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop, where we’d excitedly procure a bag or two of hot pandesal to have for breakfast. 

Valerio’s Tropical Bakeshop has its origins in Bacoor, Cavite City. Founder Victor Valerio Sr. And his wife Milagros immigrated to California and opened their first bakery stateside in 1979. Freshly made pandesal, the bakery’s signature item, drew the attention of many Filipinos who also emigrated and craved the familiar tastes of home.

Filipino Egg Pie Photography by Rick Holbrook; Food Styling by Kaitlin Wayne
Smooth, silky Egg Pie, a Filipino favorite often found in bakeries.

The owner of Gemmae Bake Shop in Long Beach, California has a similar story. After attending baking school (unbeknownst to her parents), owner Prescilla Tolentino opened her first bake shop in the Philippines in 1979, expanding to thirteen locations before moving to the US in 1990. Longing to bake again and provide for her children, Prescilla established Gemmae Bake Shop in West Long Beach in 1993. While today’s repertoire includes modern takes on classics, like pandan ensaymadas and ube cookies, the bakery prides itself on traditional Filipino breads, including monay (a bread roll traditionally marked with a split down the middle), pan de coco (a soft bread roll with sweetened coconut filling), and pianono (sponge cake roll with a creamy filling).

Catherine Tolentino, co-owner of Gemmae and Prescilla’s daughter, enjoys introducing Filipino food to curious customers while providing hard-to-find favorites for the Filipino community. “It’s very cool when the older generation of Filipinos come in and see, for example, monay. It isn't something you see readily outside of the Philippines, and it'll bring up all of these memories and emotions for them.”

Initially, these first-wave Filipino American bakeries fed a growing Filipino diaspora craving the comforts of home, but gradually they found a new audience. These flavors are no longer just catering to Filipino neighborhoods, but also expanding the Filipino American baking repertoire far beyond traditional pandesal, cassava cake, and leche flan to something more personal and undefined. 

Beyond the classics

Today’s new-wave Filipino American bakers are not only preserving traditional Philippine foodways, but also generating excitement and curiosity by pushing the possibilities of Filipino flavors with fun, innovative desserts.

In Mayumu, Abi Balingit draws inspiration from her Filipino heritage and influences from her multicultural Bay Area upbringing. She doesn’t shy away from blending Filipino flavors with a diverse pantry and the all-American snack aisle. 

She uses Mexican chamoy as a filling in chewy pichi-pichi (steamed cassava dumplings), Indian chai masala in creamy leche flan; and Japanese furikake and pinipig (pounded young glutinous rice) in old-school Rice Krispies Treats. In her Ube Macapuno Molten Lava Cakes, Balingit pays homage to both familiar Filipino ingredients and the nostalgic chocolate lava cakes that took American restaurants by storm in the ’90s.

Ube Macapuno Molten Lava Cakes

Ube Macapuno Molten Lava Cakes


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These “new wave” Filipino desserts are born out of both creativity and necessity: In part, it comes down to ingredients — what you can access, and what you have to find substitutes for. While you can find some Filipino dessert staples like frozen banana leaves or canned coconut milk more readily, finding fresh Filipino ingredients is no easy task thousands of miles away from the gifts of the tropics. Prized Carabao mangoes, which can be found stacked high among roadside vendors in the Philippines, are hard to come by in the States, and even if you can find them, they often carry a hefty sticker price. 

So in her Mango Float Ice Cream Cake — a dessert inspired by the classic no-bake layered Filipino dessert called Mango Float or Royale — New York-based Tatiana Bautista, Editorial Coordinator at King Arthur, substitutes unsweetened Indian canned mango pulp for its fresh counterpart. 

“I specifically developed this with Indian canned mango because it really reminds me of the sweetness of Filipino mangoes — pure, juicy, and without a hint of sourness,” says Tatiana. She adds: “It’s the best way to translate the tropical flavors of the Philippines into my American kitchen.”

Mango Float Ice Cream Cake

Mango Float Ice Cream Cake


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And then there’s ube, or purple yam, which is ubiquitous in Filipino desserts and instantly identifiable by its dazzling hue. In the States it’s most often found frozen, or in powder or liquid extract form. While fresh ube is finding its way into some Asian grocery stores, it is often shipped from overseas and consequently comes at a high cost, making it more a luxury produce than a quotidian crop. 

Instead, bakers in America often take advantage of more accessible packaged iterations to use ube prolifically in their own baking, taking this quintessential purple tuber beyond its humble origins and reimagining it in sugary manifestations.

On the West Coast, Chera Amlag and Geo Quibuyen spotlight ube in their vibrant ube cheesecake at Hood Famous Bakeshop in Seattle. Ishnoelle Richardson of Baking with Ish perches a custardy ube flan atop his ube blondie pie at Blossom Market Hall in San Gabriel Valley, California. 

Ube Bibingka Custard Buns

Ube Bibingka Custard Buns


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In the Midwest, Timothy Flores and Genie Kwon pair the tuber with huckleberry in a Basque cake at modern Filipino bakery and Michelin-star restaurant Kasama in Chicago. And Ube Bibingka Custard Buns, meanwhile, are a hit creation of San Diego pop-up baker Justin Gaspar.

Beyond just utilizing Filipino ingredients and flavors, many bakers are reinterpreting traditional recipes. Kym Estrada, owner of Filipino bakery San & Wolves in Long Beach, California, bucks convention and makes an entirely vegan pastry lineup reflective of her diverse upbringing. Her menu includes Filipino bake shop classics, as well as modern riffs on traditional Filipino favorites like champorado, a sweet chocolate sticky rice porridge (not to be confused with Mexican champurrado), as a donut reincarnation; rye chocolate pandesal; buko (young coconut) pop tarts; poppyseed coffee cake flavored with calamansi, a citrus fruit that tastes like a cross between a lemon and a lime; and strawberry cornbread bibingka.

“Bakers like me had the privilege of growing up in diverse neighborhoods where we're influenced by so many other cultures," says Kym. "My identity is much bigger than just being Filipino; it's influenced by everyone I've ever met and made connections with. It's about not being boxed in." As she points out, "Every Filipino-American baker and chef has their own iterations of the food we grew up eating."

Many Filipino American bakers, looking to reconnect with their roots, are also focusing on regionally specific recipes. 

Nicu Dalman, of Panaderya Salvaje in New Jersey, is one of them. He spotlights piaya, an unleavened muscovado sugar-filled flatbread popular in Negros Occidental in the Visayas — a belt of islands in central Philippines — whose bread and pastry culture is often overshadowed by contributions of Luzon, the largest and most populous island in the archipelago. With piaya, Nicu offers a peek into overlooked Visayan breads to an American audience.

Your guide to baking with ube
Different types of ube products next to each other

The beloved Filipino ingredient is found in many different forms. Here's how to use it in your kitchen.


Take another example: ensaymadas, the ubiquitous Filipino bread. The heirloom recipe for Filipino ensaymada was first introduced by Spanish missionaries from Mallorca, Spain. The Spanish-era ensaymadas of old — which often leaned savory due to the use of lard in the dough, rather than butter — are starkly different from the sweet, rich, fluffy, yeasted ensaymadas popularized today. These modern everyday panaderya-style ensaymadas are typically topped with just sugar and margarine; around Christmas (festivities start in September in the Philippines), one can find ensaymadas topped with a generous avalanche of grated cheddar or queso de bola cheese. But Malolos-style ensaymada, which hail from the heritage city of Malolos in Bulacan, just north of metro Manila, are not only a heftier shareable size, but also flaunt additional toppings such as salted duck egg or ham slices. 

It’s this style that has become the specialty of baker and recipe developer Rezel Kealoha, who showcases modern Filipino recipes on her self-titled blog.

For Rezel, sharing heirloom Filipino recipes is her way of preserving Filipino culture, especially among the Filipino diaspora, some of whom have never set foot in the Philippines, or have difficultly accessing recipe resources like cookbooks due to lack of availability overseas. After all, much of Filipino food tradition is passed orally or tucked away in the tiniest kitchens in provincial households. 

Giant Ensaymada

Giant Ensaymada


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“There [are] a lot of dying recipes. I collect vintage cookbooks and there [are] a lot of recipes in [those books] that nobody cooks anymore, so I go into the depths of the internet to try and see if anybody's making them. I hope this recipe piques people's curiosity to look more into Filipino bread recipes because there's a lot out there.”  

Ultimately, Filipino American baking pushes deeper than just adding ube powder to a cookie or pandan extract to a sponge cake. It is a voyage through history and culture, born from a yearning to understand our roots, as well as a desire to embrace, celebrate, and share our dual identity as Filipino Americans. 

We’re telling our stories in every dessert. Each colorful bread or playful pastry provides a cross-cultural perspective, weaving together our multiple identities and our history to create a thrilling new culinary legacy in real time. In a baking landscape that is ever-evolving, one thing is guaranteed: Filipino American baking is here to stay.

Cover photo by Rick Holbrook; food styling by Sheila Jarnes.

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Ube Bibingka Custard Buns
Ube Bibingka Custard Buns
4.5 out of 5 stars 2 Reviews
Total
2 hrs 25 mins
Yield
12 filled buns
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Filed Under: Story
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The Author

About Jessica Hernandez

Jessica Hernandez is a second-generation Fil-Am multimedia storyteller focusing on gastronomic preservation and cultural advocacy. She is the co-creator and writer of meryenda, a digital publication exploring the complexities of Philippine culture and diasporic food ways. Her current areas of intere...
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