Why It Works
- Baking the bibingka in banana leaves imparts a distinct tropical flavor.
- The addition of baking powder produces a fluffy, sponge-like texture.
- Finishing the bibingka with melted butter and a sprinkling of sugar under the broiler caramelizes the top.
Eating bibingka, a fluffy, lightly sweetened rice cake, is closely associated with Christmas time in the Philippines. It was the main reason I attended all those midnight masses as a child—the intoxicating smell wafted down the aisles of the church and had me inching closer to the doors in an effort to be the first one at the popular bibingka stall.
Bibingka belongs under the umbrella of kakanin, a category of indigenous sweets composed entirely of rice-based snacks, like biko. It's is traditionally made from slightly sour galapong (ground fermented sticky rice), coconut milk, water, and sugar. The thick batter was poured into terra cotta containers lined with banana leaves, topped with more banana leaves, and surrounded by hot coals. This cooking technique produced a soft, spongy cake infused with the tropical aroma of toasted banana leaves.
My recipe for this simple rice cake is a nod to the ones I ate growing up, the famous bibingkas of Balasan, a municipality in the central Philippine province of Iloilo. Conveniently baked in an oven (no hot coals required), this bibingka is flatter and chewier and topped with caramelized macapuno (the soft, jelly-like flesh of a coconut varietal). I’ve made the banana leaf optional, but if you’re able to get your hands on a banana leaf, use it to line your pan. To make it, whisk together melted butter, sugar, egg, coconut milk, baking powder, a pinch of salt, and a combination of white and sweet rice flours into a batter, pour it into a cake pan or cast iron pan, and bake the cake in a moderately hot oven until it begins to set at the edges. At that point, pull the cake out of the oven, layer macapuno over the top, and return it to the oven until the cake is completely set. Pull it out one more time, get the broiler going, sprinkle the top of the cake evenly with sugar, and then a short spell under the broiler's intense heat produces a lightly charred bibingka with sweet caramelized macapuno.
Bibingka is best enjoyed warm with a mug of steaming hot coffee or tea, and even though it's associated with Christmas, it’s delicious at any time of the year. Feel free to also top yours with sliced salted duck egg, shredded cheddar cheese, or even pineapple slices!
- 1 banana leaf, cut into two 8-inch-wide by 10-inch-long pieces (optional, see note)
- 2 ounces unsalted butter (4 tablespoons; 55g), melted, divided
- 3 ounces white rice flour (1/2 cup; 85g)
- 1 1/4 ounces sweet rice flour (1/4 cup; 40g), preferably mochiko (see note)
- 1 1/2 teaspoons (7g) baking powder
- 1/8 teaspoon Diamond Crystal kosher salt; for table salt, use half as much by volume
- 2 3/4 ounces sugar (1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons; 80g), plus extra for sprinkling
- 3/4 cup (175ml) full-fat coconut milk
- 1 large egg (1 3/4 ounces; 50g)
- 3 ounces (85g) macapuno, drained (see note)
Adjust oven rack to middle position and preheat to 375°F (190°C). If using banana leaf, rinse banana leaf pieces under cold running water and pat dry with paper towels. Working with one piece of banana leaf at a time, hold banana leaf with tongs about 2 inches above medium-high flame of a gas burner, turning every 3 to 5 seconds, until soft and pliable, about 15 seconds. Transfer to a plate and repeat with remaining piece of banana leaf. Place banana leaf pieces in an 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pan or cast iron skillet, arranging them in an overlapping configuration to completely cover the bottom and sides of the pan, pressing down on them with your hands to ensure they are flush with the pan. Brush evenly with 1/2 ounce (1 tablespoon; 15g) melted butter and set aside. Alternatively, if not using banana leaf, grease an 8-inch anodized aluminum cake pan or cast iron skillet with melted butter or pan spray and line with parchment; set aside.
In a medium bowl, whisk together white rice flour, sweet rice flour, baking powder, and salt until well combined, about 1 minute. This dry mixture will look homogeneous well before it truly is, so use patience at this stage, and whisk longer than may seem necessary.
In a large bowl, whisk together 1 ounce (2 tablespoons; 30g) melted butter, sugar, coconut milk, and egg, until sugar is dissolved and mixture is thoroughly combined. Add flour mixture to coconut milk mixture and whisk together until completely smooth and no dry flour remains, about 1 minute. Using a flexible spatula, fold batter once or twice from the bottom up, then scrape into prepared pan.
Bake until batter is beginning to set at the edges, about 10 minutes. Remove from oven and evenly distribute macapuno in a single layer over top. Return pan to oven and continue to bake until cake is puffed, edges are lightly browned, and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out with few moist crumbs attached, or to an internal temperature of around 200°F (93°C), about 12 minutes.
Remove from oven and preheat broiler. Brush top of cake with remaining melted butter and lightly sprinkle sugar evenly over top. Broil until cake is golden brown and macapuno is slightly caramelized, about 2 minutes.
Transfer pan to a wire rack and cool for 10 minutes. Run a butter knife along edges to loosen, then invert onto a wire rack, remove banana leaves or parchment, and place cake right side up on serving platter. Serve warm.
Fresh or frozen banana leaves can be purchased at Asian markets and online. To store unused fresh banana leaves, wrap tightly in plastic, transfer to a zipper-lock bag, and freeze for up to 3 months. If using frozen banana leaves, defrost in the refrigerator overnight.
I prefer Koda Farms brand mochiko (sweet rice flour) for its fine, smooth texture. You can substitute other brands of sweet rice flour, just be sure to sift it twice first to get rid of any lumps before adding it to your bibingka batter.
Macapuno, or coconut sport strings, are preserved young coconut strips made from a variety of coconut that has a soft jelly-like flesh and contains very little water. It tastes sweeter than your typical coconut and is commonly used in Filipino desserts. Macapuno can be found in Filipino or Asian markets and online.
If desired, you can add other toppings, such as 1/4 cup shredded cheddar cheese, 1/4 cup frozen thawed grated coconut, and 1 sliced salted duck egg after you brush the top with butter and sprinkle it with sugar.
Make-ahead and Storage
The batter can be prepared in advance and refrigerated in an airtight container for up to 5 days.
Wrapped tightly in foil or plastic, bibingka will keep for up to 3 days at room temperature. Reheat in the microwave in 10-second intervals.