The eggs delivered that day outnumbered her rosary beads a hundred fold. About four thousand eggs needed to bake cakes, rolls, cookies, pies and the famous ensaimadas, a sort of brioche, so yellow it smelled of butter and eggs.
And while the prices of the ingredients have gone up and “competitors” have flooded the market with reinvented, revisited, recreated versions, from cake-y textures to Red Velvet flavours, she remained stubborn and loyal to the classic recipe her mother left her. “I made a promise at her deathbed, to never change the recipe and never to shortchange my clients,” she said.
Legend has it that while her mother was working then as a sales clerk for the Aguinaldo department store in downtown Manila, a lady with no name (and nowhere to be traced after), handed a piece of paper with a handwritten recipe and said “this will be the secret of your fortune.”
It did bring fortune, fame and a family tradition that Milagros, the “heiress” of the Hizon Pastry shop, refuses to change. Seventy years have passed and the artisanal bakery on J. Bacobo St. in old Manila still “rolls” out the city’s “best” ensaimadas, numbering to about 700 to 900 a day, kneaded in mixers and baked in ovens, imported from America, some of them older than Milagros herself. The machines have a thick coat of patina from daily use and from the constant steam of butter but after the early morning baking, Milagros makes sure the machines are fastidiously cleaned without a trace of a tiny dough drop or a minuscule cake crumb. Quality, tradition, and cleanliness are her obsessions, too much for someone who had assumed the burden of a family enterprise at an early age and with no interested successor among the next generation. Her bakers, sales ladies, extra hands who have been with her since ever and have now become part of the antique tableau are worried sick that the bakery will die with her. Of course, she can well sell the business but Milagros’ dedication is irreproachable, a sense of duty executed without compromises. Inocencia Hizon, her mother would have been very proud of her today.
Our meeting happened in a strange way. I arrived at the Za’s coffee shop, adjacent to the bakery one early morning on the second Saturday of the month. I saw her come out from a back door, walking as if in a trance, sweeping the room with a worried look and when she passed infront of the bar, she took out a tissue paper and robotically wiped the dustless counter top, looking lost between the chore of checking if the waiters have cleaned it and the 2000 Hail Marys she had to pray that day
She glided beside my table, the only one occupied at such an early hour, when many of the windows remained closed, the lamps have not been put on, the first coffee just about to be served to the first customer, who happens to be me. It was eerie but I felt at home and comforted in the time-warp dark room, reminiscent of the early seventies: wood panels, simple yet sturdy furniture, and a high ceiling with smoked glass chandeliers. Nothing has changed except a collection of Chinese vases that now lined the walls. I instantly knew it was her and yet, I still asked if she was well the owner. “I love this place,” I said, standing up to greet her, unconscious that my eyes started to water, my heart bursting with memories of many afternoons sitting in this room some twenty years ago. All of a sudden, I don’t know how it happened nor understanding why, we embraced as if we were long lost friends finding back each other and ready to spend long hours over cups of coffee with so many stories to tell. So, this is how it feels when kindred spirits meet. No bloodlines, no history, no past. Just a possible future.
I had very little to tell her, except that she nodded in agreement each time I noticed a detail in the decorations, a compliment for the cakes, the alertness of an employee. She didn’t need my approval but seemed pleased that I approved. I have come to this place so often in the past, with friends, with my first boyfriend, by myself. And the thing which kept me coming back was the delight of an authentic ensaimada.
An ensaimada (ensaymada) is a sweet bread, made of “resurrected dough” – letting it rise until it doubles in volume, punching out the air, letting it rise a second time, shaping the dough into rolls or coiled like a dog poo, giving it another hour for the final proofing until it’s ready for baking. Like the French brioche, it must be light, airy, the interior resembles a honeycomb, a rich and tender crumb, a flaky, golden and shiny crust. The quality of the ensaimada highly depends on the kind of flour, the amount of eggs, the quality of the butter and the patience of the baker. And at Hizon’s, they have perfected this formula: fresh, rich in butter and eggs, tasty, bread-like the way it should be.
I am not attempting to make a review nor a claim nor the error of saying this is “the best” ensaimada in Manila, in the Philippines, in the world, in the universe. For someone to be able to do that, he must have received the title of official taster of ensaimadas, have defined the criteria, have acquired the minimum level of technical know-how, and have tasted ALL the ensaimadas of the planet. I have no pretentions on any of the above, except perhaps, a few technical notes I have learned from a Belgian bread and pastry school that can haphazardly be applied to a Philippine bread (who puts sugar and cheese together as toppings?). The ensaimada was inspired from a Spanish recipe of a brioche but re-invented a thousand ways, the Filipino way….far too sweet, topped with grated Dutch cheese, filled with mungo beans, coiled or rolled, from minis to pizza sizes, and red velvet and nutella for modern flavours.
I’m old school and I don’t like tampering with old recipes at the excuse of innovation. Hizon’s ensaimadas are prepared with countless eggs and tons of butter, mixed in the afternoon, proofed the whole night, and baked early morning. I didn’t get the full recipe but I was made privy to some trade secrets divulged in privileged confidences amidst the sweltering heat of the atelier with steaming custards on the fire and swirling powdered milk cake icings in the beaters.
After we held each other apart, Milagros who became in the next twenty minutes my Aunt Mila, ordered coffee and asked me to take a seat. I chose a table by the window. By this time, the sun had come out, a few customers have arrived, finding their usual spots in this room where it’s still possible to have private conversations.
It was time for her to talk. About her flight to New York as a teen, her “waitress years” in a dining place in Manhattan, the Manila nightlife of the seventies, the dark days in a basement, the court trials and the orange costumes, her fears and sorrows, her solitude. I cannot comfort her, I was a stranger and her stories made me uncomfortably intimate but I didn’t want to leave her with no trace of the lady who came one morning looking for an ensaimada. So, I stayed and listened earnestly. My heart went out to her, I was ready to cry but her smile stopped me. She became radiant talking about her mother, the recipe, her favourite Japanese restaurant, her grandchildren, Dolphy (the king of Philippine comedy who was one of her favourite clients), her trips. We just bonded, an invisible link powered by this sweet-savoury bread.
My breakfast date, an old friend, finally arrived. He took Aunt Mila’s seat. He came to meet me with many stories to tell, including an imaginary renovation of a future appartment with Dior gray and Carolina Herrera pink. This was going to run all morning, over cups of coffee, which a distraught waiter came to serve.
From where I was, I heard Aunt Mila’s stern commands and some scuffle in the atelier as the “Queen of Immaculate Kitchens” have once again taken control of her kingdom.
The waiter returned carrying two plates of golden brown ensaimadas that just came out from the oven. There was no bill, just a piece of paper with Aunt Mila’s phone number, no doubt, an invitation for more seamless conversations with a new friend.