"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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I once had a friend with a funny way of eating empanadas: right after buying one, she'd squish it flat. "Why?!" I asked. "To drive out the air," she grinned. And true enough, the empanadas we got often had way too much air in them. But she won't be doing that to Empanada Mas' pies. There's hardly any air in `em; once you get past the crisp, flavorful crust all you see and chew is filling. Rich, flavorful filling.
Cat and I got a boxful at the Pergola Mall branch of Empanada Mas, trying out the Chorizo, Chicken, Ham Cheese and Jalapeno, Tuna, Spinach with Cream Cheese and Pork empanadas, plus the Cream Cheese and Chives, Cheese, Chocolate, and Peanut Butter Fudge empanaditas. First, the crust: I have to say Empanada Mas trains its employees well. The empanadas were fried, but done just right and in very hot oil, leaving hardly any oil in the crust afterward. A hastily-trained cook would likely not wait until the oil was the right temperature, resulting in an oily, soggy empanada. Ours were really crunchy outside. And inside ... I have a feeling if I bought another box to bring home, only half the contents would make it to the house!
Ham & Cheese Jalapeno
Spinach with Cream Cheese
I'd already tried the Cream Cheese & Chives empanaditas before, which was why I got really excited when Cat told me we were shooting Empanada Mas. These little explosions of flavor make a good starter or snack, and you can mix them with the Cheese empanaditas to have a balance of flavors. The Chicken, Pork and Tuna are hearty comfort foods, just like mom used to make (or better - mom could never get her crust like that). The Spinach was a salad you can eat on the go, perfect for the health buff or vegetarian. Spice addict that I am, though, I enjoyed the Chorizo and Ham n Cheese with Jalapeno best. The Chorizo reminds me of a sausage we can only find in Davao, or a milder version of the Vigan longganisa in flavor -- loaded with garlic and pepper, and very fragrant. The Ham n Cheese with Jalapeno is nicely balanced, with just the right amount of the peppers so you can definitely taste the jalapeno but without its overwhelming the ham or cheese.
Chocolate, Cream Cheese & Chives, Cheese, Peanut Butter Fudge
Our hasty lunch -- grabbed on the way to Cat's parlor session for a friend's wedding -- ended on a perfect note with the Chocolate and Peanut Butter Fudge empanaditas. What kid wouldn't go crazy for flavors like these? I have to say when it comes to Empanada Mas' dessert empanaditas, I'm definitely still a ten-year-old.
Seeking a coffee spot for me is usually a case of 'let's find a joint that isn't Starbucks.' Not that I don't like Starbucks' coffee, but a) there are usually too many people and too much noise for me in the Starbucks branch here, and b) why should I patronize an American chain when I can have coffee exactly as I like it in a real homegrown Filipino cafe? Which is precisely why I like Figaro at the Pergola Mall. Not only is the coffee good, it has exactly the kind of quiet, classy but laid-back ambiance I find most relaxing.
What I'd never done before, though, was eat lunch at Figaro. Like most cafe-goers, this is a place I usually find myself at in between traditional mealtimes. This time, Cat and I tried their new entrees, the Chicken a la Kiev and the Cream Dory Provencal. The Chicken a laKiev is a chunky, hefty roll of chicken breast enfolding a pretty thick slice of ham and creamily melted cheese, served with Carbonara pasta and fries (also cut thick, as I like 'em). I must confess I was deceived by the size of this serving, thinking it was rather smaller than it really was; that chicken roll is not only sizeable, it's stuffed to bursting. Coupled with the fries, this dish moves comfortably to Medium-Heavy on my Meal Heftiness scale. Did I mention I liked the taste? My portion disappeared in less than ten minutes,which I guess should tell you all you need to know :-)
Cat also enjoyed the Dory Provencal, which came with Arrabiata pasta and green salad. Arrabiata's supposed to be a hot sauce, but Figaro's version is quite mild; however, we loved the flavor, very rich and not too oily. Cat thinks it was made with sun-dried tomatoes, as there was a sort of smoky intensity to the flavor of the tomato. I'm not sure about that, but I am definitely sure that I like this pasta, especially with more chili flakes poured on. The dory was fresh and tender, cooked just right, and its mild flavor with the mustardy, herby Provencal sauce made a nicely balanced contrast to the pasta. Next time anyone tells me healthy eating means eating like a rabbit, I'll confront them with this dish. (By the way, I used quite a bit of the Provencal sauce to dip my fries in; if you order the Chicken a la Kiev, by all means use the Force to influence your companion to order the Dory Provencal!)
Both dishes come with your choice of iced coffee or iced tea. I went for the coffee, Cat for the tea. Figaro's coffee is quite strong, the way I like it, but if you like your iced coffee sweeter you should ask
for sugar or syrup to go with yours. Both drinks were of course very welcome in the oppressive heat.
We had our meal, by the way, in Figaro's mini-function room. This enclosed rectangular space at the side of the cafe looks like it can seat 24 or so people, more if they re-laid out the tables. The back
wall is a bookshelf filled with Readers' Digest compilations. It feels like a library in here, and when it's not otherwise booked it'd be a perfect place to read or use the cafe's Wi-Fi in isolated peace. It would also serve very well for a meeting, seminar for small groups or a small party. Wonder if they'd be open to me taking my gaming group here?