The Comprehensive Field Guide to Filipino Bread
If you ever venture into a panaderia, many Filipino breads are actually pretty good. You just need to know when is the best time to get them, where and which breads. Most often, the old-style panaderia still makes the bread even your Lola would approve.
There are breads that taste better when served hot enough to melt butter. To get them, you will have to wake up as early as 4:30 in the morning for your breakfast breads or trudge under the afternoon sun beginning at 2 p.m. for merienda. A bread eater’s body clock is in tune to these important hours just as the panadero builds the bakery’s production schedule around breads that come out at these times.
The rest of the breads are available at the panaderia counter all hours of the day. Some are wrapped in plastic, others just sit on plastic trays to entice customers. These breads are known as pang-estante (for display on the shelf) and sold turo-turo style (you point at your favored bread, the sales staff wraps it up for you).
The panaderia breads have even inspired local pastry chefs and bakers to make their own by-special-order versions, such as gooey Spanish bread, sourdough pan de sal and flavored ensaymada.
Whichever means you get them, think about the craft (of baking) more than the carbs, nostalgia rather than novelty.
Pan de sal
The pan de sal is the primary Filipino bread that is always sold hot, wherever you are in the country. In the 1970s, the hot pan de sal craze pushed it a little further which enabled warmed pan de sal to be sold at all hours of the day, not just in the morning. You will know it’s true blue pan de sal with its slightly crusty, breadcrumb-dusted exterior and the almond-shape cut on the top edges (known as “singkit” or “gatla” in baking parlance). If your local panaderia produces slightly anemic pan de sal, ask for “tostado” so the panadero can brown it a little bit more in the oven.
This coiled, sweet bread has to cool down before it gets on the display case. A topping of butter, sugar and/or grated cheese is spread on top, hence the need to keep it cool. But in old-fashioned cafés, the ensaymada may be flattened in a hot press until slightly toasty and served warm with hot chocolate. Traditionally served during Easter and Christmas, the ensaymada is as old as the pan de sal and the recipe has shifted from a flaky bread to the rich brioche we know today. You can get fancy with a made-to-order gourmet variety or settle down with a simple, soft and airy panaderia version in all its margarine-yellow glory.
This compact, smooth-crusted bread is known for its many varieties, beginning with the familiar round bread with an indentation in the middle. With a slight change of the bread formulation and shape, you get monay-style breads in different sizes—putok or star bread, lechon bread, pinagong, sputnik, even elorde, named after Gabriel “Flash” Elorde, the champion Cebuano boxer from the 60s. They taste slightly better when warm so grab them if your panaderia had just brought them out.
Pan de coco
This Filipino bread encloses a very Filipino ingredient as its filling: inside the tender bun is sweetened coconut. The filling can be prepared in its natural state (so it retains its color), with yellow food color or as dark as a brown sugar bukayo. The best ones taste fresh and creamy with just the right ratio of filling to bun.
You will never see this rectangular loaf bread sold hot off the oven as it requires complete cooling for it to be sliced properly without getting all squished up. The pan Amerikano was introduced into local bakeries during the American period, hence the name. It is also known locally as Pullman or tasty, which are derived from American-era loaf breads. You can get them in different iterations (whole wheat, low-sugar, ube-cheese loaf, etc.) at the supermarket but the panaderia still churns them out regularly. If you’re of a certain age, you know it is often paired with pancit during parties or made into sandwiches (remember the rainbow-colored loaf breads?).
Kalihim reflects the secret life of breads. The base of the bread has a red filling that was originally made by recycling the panaderia’s leftover breads into a sweet pudding. It’s an open secret among bakers. But with improved bread production and lesser wastage, the kalihim has also morphed into the lipstick bread. It has the same look as kalihim but with a thinner filling made with flour, sugar, water, evaporated milk, sugar, red food color, and vanilla (no more leftover bread pudding). The result is a red-tinged bread that gets your attention and all sorts of saucy names from its imaginative buyers.
We have not yet found extant records if what we know as the Spanish bread really originated from Spain. These crescent-shaped rolls with a sweet filling may be more modern than its name is letting on. But we pay that no mind when we bite into a hot, generously-filled Spanish bread: our hands are sticky and buttery, our chins covered in breadcrumbs. Some bakeries make the filling with just butter (or margarine), sugar, powdered milk, water and—the secret sauce—breadcrumbs. Older recipes have grated coconut while others mix butter and cheese (like the “Hispanish bread” at Sonya’s Garden’s Panaderia in Tagaytay).
Pan de bonete
Shaped like a bonnet or bell, the bonete is best eaten while still warm you can taste the salty-savory lard which coats its crust and stains the brown paper bag with oil. The aptly-named Bonete Master of Batangas City has made it in our book, Panaderia, as one of the best bonete we have ever-tasted. But you can also get a good one at the almost century-old Panaderia Dimas-Alang in Pasig City. Vienna Bakery in Palanca Street, Quiapo makes a blander version but its interesting cylindrical shape and the bakery’s historical roots (founded in 1901 and still thriving even with the change in ownership) makes it worth a try.
Pan de leche
The soft and tender pan de leche is your classic dinner roll. Translated as “milk bread,” we serve it slathered in butter, filled with ice cream, or just eaten as is. In some Visayan-speaking provinces, specially made smaller pan de leche are skewered together, brushed with barbecue sauce and grilled alongside chicken and pork barbecue to make sinugbang pan de leche (barbecued milk bread).
This little sesame-dotted bread is made from dough shaped into a ball and fried until the crust cracks and turns golden brown. It is always that crunchy crust that gets me to buy one. I find that the best ones are smaller as there is more of the crust to munch on.