I brought heirloom cookie molds from the Philippines to remind my American-raised sons of their heritage. These intricately hand-carved mahogany cookie molds are used to bake pan de San Nicolas, named for St. Nicolas Tolentino, patron saint of bakers.
On a culinary heritage tour back to my Philippine roots, I met cookbook author Lillian Borromeo at her home in Pampanga. She taught me how to make pan de San Nicolas and said she knew what town or family the cookie was from based on the carvings. The leaf-like patterns belonged to the Lazatins, vast landowners. The harp-shaped designs belonged to the Lansangans, family musicians.
I mixed the dough by hand, shaped it with my fingers and patted it into the wooden block. The pan de San Nicolas are sweet from the coconut cream and have a buttery aroma and a firm shortbread-like texture. The cookie looked breathtaking as I held it in my hand and took in every vine, every curve, every little detail.
Borromeo uses 2 cups of arrowroot flour (in the Philippines, it is 'uraru') for which I substituted Mochiko rice flour and regular cornstarch. If you can find arrowroot flour, use 2 cups in place of the rice flour and cornstarch.
Folk tales recount that these cookies were stored in large jars and fed to the ill with a prayer. The pan de San Nicolas was a cookie that healed.
In spite of the long baking process, I felt connected to generations of bakers before me because I did what grandmas before me did long ago. These cookie molds and Lillian Borromeo's recipe now have a permanent place in my New Jersey kitchen. (If you don’t have a pan de San Nicolas mold, substitute a springerle mold or other carved cookie mold. Madeleine molds also can be used.
--Elizabeth Ann Quirino
- 1/2 cup cornstarch
- 1 tablespoon baking powder
- 1/2 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup plus 2 tablespoons granulated sugar
- 6 large egg yolks
- 1/2 cup canned coconut milk
- 1/2 cup unsalted butter or margarine, softened at room temperature
- 1 teaspoon finely grated fresh lemon zest
- 1/2 cup vegetable oil
- 2 cups cake flour
- 1 1/2 cups rice flour (available at Asian markets)
In a large bowl, combine the cornstarch, baking powder, salt, sugar, egg yolks, coconut milk, softened butter, lemon zest and oil. Blend well with a wooden spoon. Slowly add the cake flour and the rice flour and mix until well blended. Knead the mixture until the dough is thick and has a smooth surface. This takes about 10 minutes.
Put the dough into an airtight container and freeze for 2 to 4 hours and up to overnight.
When ready to bake, take the dough out of the freezer and thaw on the counter for 8 to 10 minutes. Keep the dough very cold so it is easy to roll out and handle on the molds.
Heat the oven to 325 F.
Grease the carved surface of the mold with baking spray or shortening. Make sure to grease the inner crevices and corners so that the dough can be removed easily after shaping.
Place a piece of the dough, about 4 tablespoons, over the mold, on the carved portion. Flatten with your hand to spread it around evenly. Place a piece of parchment or wax paper over the dough and, using a rolling pin, roll and flatten the dough so it gets embedded in the design.
Place a round or oval cookie cutter over the mold, to cut the dough to the appropriate shape. Trim the edges of the cookie if necessary. Quickly transfer the molded dough onto a baking sheet lined with parchment paper or a silicone sheet. Continue to form the cookies and transfer them to the baking sheet.
Bake cookies 10 to 12 minutes, or until tops are lightly browned. They will be crisp on the outside, but will have a slightly soft shortbread texture inside.
Transfer cookies to a cooling rack. It will take at least 30- 40 minutes for the cookies to cool on the rack. When cookies are cooled, wrap in white cellophane wrappers to show off the intricate designs. Store in an airtight glass or plastic jar.