"As a wife and a mom above everything else, I'd never feed anyone something I wouldn't feed my own family," says home baker-turned-entrepreneur Ria Ortega. "So everything that goes into my baked goods has to be fresh and first class. I wouldn't substitute to cut down on cost." This uncompromising stance on quality is evident in every bite of Ortega's fine desserts, from her blueberry muffins to her traditional Ilonggo ensaymada. That maternal attachment also shaped the name of her new business, Apron Strings - a name connoting strong and lovingly maintained family ties, and a long tradition of baking only the best.
Indeed, baking is in Ria's blood. She recalls watching her Lola Rosita making ensaymadas and fruitcakes from her earliest childhood, an activity she thought so much fun that when finally allowed to mess around in the kitchen at age eight, Ria took to baking like the proverbial duck to water.
"My father wouldn't allow me into the kitchen before I was eight. Since to a child whatever is forbidden just seems more enticing, my interest was really piqued. Finally when I reached eight, my mom enrolled me in a baking class with Lorrie Reynoso, and I knew I loved to bake because I would wake up in the morning, already looking forward to going to my classes," Ria says. Even now the ensaymada recipe she uses is her Lola Rosita's; thick, fluffy, buttery without being oily, the top fragrant with freshly grated queso de bola. "Eating that ensaymada just takes me right back to my childhood," Ria grins. "Heaven!"
Through her years growing up and later going on to a career in theatre and music, Ria maintained her ties to the kitchen. "Ever so often I would bake again, trying recipes from books and magazines or sometimes trying to formulate my own. I would want something, like a particular texture and flavor in brownies that I just couldn't find in commercial ones, so I ended up developing my own brownie recipe," she says.
On marrying and getting pregnant with her first child, Ria discovered that her version of 'nesting' was to spend even more time in the kitchen, and took more classes with Sylvia Reynoso-Gala. "That's when I began to realize my love of cooking and baking could be deep enough that I could turn it into a career," she says, and now she's finally making that leap of faith.
Apron Strings is starting out in the classic manner of homegrown businesses built with love -- on a shoestring, but with a ready and familiar clientele of friends who've known what Ria can do for years. Working out of her home, Ria takes orders for brownies, cookies, ensaymada, and cinnamon rolls, and is developing new recipes in her spare time.
One product we're watching out for with breathless anticipation is her cinnamon rolls with mango. She'll be participating in the Cuenca bazaar at Ayala Alabang Village and is hoping to get into Mercato Centrale in Fort Bonifacio. "When the demand gets big enough, I'll consider opening a bakeshop or cafe. Slow but sure is the way to go for me," Ria says. "Anyway, whatever happens or how long it takes, this will always be a labor of love for me. Baking isn't just about producing breads or cookies or cakes. It's about creating memories as we enjoy our goodies, whether it's in the process of making them, or eating them."
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We're proud to present another success story from BF Homes in Pinky Anonuevo, proprietress of Pinky's Goodies along El Grande Avenue. Starting from just her mom's signature butterscotch brownies, Pinky has grown Pinky's Goodies into a bakeshop that supplies retailers as far as Tagaytay and Davao and is now about to enter the Landmark chain of supermarkets.
She's also proof positive that Ilonggas have a magical connection to pastry. "What's the secret?" we ask her. "The sugar!" she laughs. "I think it's very simply because in Iloilo and Bacolod we're at the center of the sugar industry and with so much sugar available, it was easy to find ways to use it. Also I think because the Spanish influence is strong there -- look how many of our pastry products in Iloilo have Spanish names." These influences came together in a set of traditional family recipes that Pinky inherited from her mother, who inherited it from her mother, with which she established her bakeshop.
Date and Walnut Cookies
Pinky's Goodies sells Butterscotch brownies in traditional, Chocolate, and Mango variations, plus an assortment of merengues, muffins, cookies, yema, biscocho, and Iloilo's signature Pancit Efuven noodles. I got to sample the Butterscotch in their new foil packaging, which Pinky had to do to maximize their shelf life in anticipation of supermarket distribution, the delectable Banana Muffins, the Date and Walnut Cookies, and the Raspberry Cookies. They were good!
I specially liked the three varieties of Butterscotch, the Banana Muffins, and the Date and Walnut Cookies. The butterscotches were moist, chewy, full of nuts and fruits, and I could taste every different filling because they were neither too sweet nor too buttery. Yum. As for the Date and Walnut Cookies, they were also nicely chewy and the walnuts fresh-tasting. I hate the taste of stale walnuts, and these cookies were thankfully innocent of that taint. My personal favorite though would be the Banana Muffins, as I've always loved banana-based breads and cakes. I got mine baked just that day, and it was wonderfully moist and rich, with just the right amount of butter, the banana flavor very fresh and clean. Now that I know what Pinky can do, I'm just itching to try out their new Banoffee Pie ...
A house built on soup. That, in a nutshell, is Pat Pat's Kansi, a growing chain of Ilonggo restaurants whose core offering is a hearty beef soup called Kansi. Cat and I got to visit the BF Homes branch and met owner Enri Rodriguez, who told us Pat Pat's story.
Kansi - Laman
Pat Pat, it turns out, is an Iloilo lass who as a child kept asking for a particular beef soup from Bacolod. It got to the point that her
mom, rather than taking the ferry to Bacolod just to buy the stuff, reverse-engineered the recipe and added her own touches to make the Kansi that would later take Makati by storm. What's Kansi? It's the Ilonggo version of Bulalo, beef marrow soup, but cooked with a sour fruit called batuan plus the secret herbs and spices added by Pat Pat's mom. It's so flavorful, says Enri, that there's no need to add soy sauce or patis to the soup as most Tagalog diners usually do with their bulalo. Years later, the family put up a small restaurant along Kamagong in Makati. It's now devilishly difficult to find parking along Kamagong at lunchtime, with so many of Makati's office workers heading for Pat Pat's Kansi.
Inasal - Pecho
Cat and I sampled the signature Kansi, the indispensable Iloilo/Bacolod favorite Chicken Inasal, Pork Barbecue and the Sizzling
Sisig. First stop, the Kansi: we opted for the Kansi Laman (meat), an all-meat version, rather than the Bulalo (bone marrow) - I've been taking in too much cholesterol lately! On my first spoonful of soup I could already tell this beef had been lovingly boiled into submission over a slow fire, the flavor was so rich. Because we'd been shooting the other dishes the soup had gone cold, but Enri gave us fresh broth to bring our bowl of kansi back to steaming the way it should be enjoyed. The beef was very tender, and Cat, who usually takes her boiled beef with some kind of sauce, found she needed to add nothing at all as Enri smilingly advertised. Me, I'm the guy who always likes fire on the palate so I used the provided calamansi, fresh chilies and soy sauce to make a hot dip. Either way it went down great (had to try Cat's version too!).
The Inasal tasted just like those we had in Bacolod, smoky and tangy, while the Pork Barbecue was garlicky-sweet like the barbecue I grew up with. Both went down very well, though I found a bit more gristle than I liked on one stick of the barbecue. The Sizzling Sisig was a wow - really spicy the way I liked it, spiked with chopped chilies and fried to a crisp on a hotplate.
You'd expect a place that serves sisig like this to be a beer drinker's haven as well, but here we found another unique aspect of Pat Pat's Kansi: in line with its original concept as a down-home, family-friendly place, alcohol simply isn't on the menu. And because the owners want to keep the focus squarely on their strongest suits, the menu is restricted to only ten dishes, which if the four items we sampled are any indication they do really well indeed.
Speaking of menus, the place has been discovered by a new market--our Korean visitors. A Korean traveler stopped by last year and found the food to be very much in line with the Korean taste. So determined and enthusiastic was he to recommend Pat Pat's Kansi to his compatriots that he insisted to draw up a testimonial right there and then, which the Rodriguezes printed on a banner, and they now also have a menu with entries in Korean script.
Pat Pat's Kansi BF Homes branch is located at the lower level of Greenworld Plaza along President's Avenue. The place has ample parking, a requirement which Enri says the franchisors wisely made a prime requirement. The restaurant is Enri's first venture into the food business, and it's one he made based on his good relationships with the franchisors and his belief in the product. As he narrates, he took his wife Lea to sample the Kansi, and she was sold on the idea immediately. I have to say, after the first try we're sold on Pat Pat's Kansi too.
Boss Chief Inasal is a newly opened inasal, or barbecue, house along El Grande that can boast the true Bacolod taste. This cozy little nook, sitting no more than a dozen or so, is clean, cozy, conducive to hang around in -- and serves some mean inasal and La Paz batchoy.
Chicken Inasal is a deceptively simple dish, being just chicken marinated in a pickle of vinegar, soy sauce, garlic, ginger, pepper and turmeric, but there are just some cooks who do it so right you'll remember them and come back for more. Boss Chief has one of those cooks. We both got a leg quarter each, and they were done just right, cooked through but still thoroughly juicy and flavorful inside and out. They also added an innovation to the presentation of their inasal by serving it with a dip of bagoong (which they make themselves), calamansi, and chili in addition to the usual garlic-and-chili vinegar dip. As I'm allergic to bagoong, it was Cat who tried her inasal this way and she finds it much to her liking. "It's surprisingly well-suited for the dish, and I'm wondering if there is anyone else who's serving it this way," Cat says. At just 90 bucks for a combo meal of a leg quarter or breast with garlic-topped rice and a soft drink, Boss Chief's price compares very well with other inasal houses.
La Paz Batchoy
On top of our barbecue, Cat and I also shared a bowl of La Paz Batchoy, another of my favorites from the Visayas. Boss Chief's batchoy comes in a surprisingly hefty bowl, easily enough to constitute a hearty eater's lunch all by itself. The savory broth is apparently made using pork cheeks, the same flavorful cut used for making sisig, thus its rich flavor. In the broth were generous portions of fresh noodles, meat, slices of liver, and a sinfully delicious topping of chicharon, green onion and fried garlic bits. Now this is soup! Mrs. Melissa "Ging" Matubis, Boss Chief's Inasal's chief, is also testing the market by offering Manapla puto as an add-on for the batchoy, and she let us sample some. Very hearty! Being an Ilongga herself, Cat says this is still her favorite kind of puto. I liked it that the noodles were cooked just right, and tasted fresh; the last time I had a craving for batchoy and bought from another store the noodles were horribly soggy and had a bit of a funny taste already. Boss Chief Inasal is walking distance from my place, so I think you know where I'm getting my next bowl of batchoy.
As I like telling Cat, I know only four words of Ilonggo: Inasal, Batchoy, and Namit gid (delicious!). At Boss Chief, that vocabulary is all I need.