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Cookie, cracker, biscuit--the name is wide-ranging for a baked delicacy that Filipinos have embraced as their own. We do not have a local name for it the way we call our rice cakes "kakanin" since we only began making it at the same time we learned baking breads during the Spanish period. But when pressed, the term "biskwit" (or biskuwit as spelled in the UP Diksiyonaryong Filipino) will have to suffice for the traditional biscuits baked alongside the pan de sal and ensaimada in our local panaderias.
The varieties are more than a dozen, with specific local names and recipes in each region. Cookie, cracker or biscuit, whichever term we use, it always suggests a plate of the oven-baked goodies.
The cookie is "a small, flat, sweet confection," according to Alan Davidson's The Oxford Companion to Food. "Cookies tend to be richer and have a softer, chewy texture." Meanwhile, biscuit is a generic term for a variety of flour-based items, "generally small in size, thin, short, or crisp in texture." So diverse is the term that even the wafer (or barquillos to us) can be considered a biscuit even if it's not cooked in an oven.
Although most of our traditional biskwit were derived from Spanish counterparts and recipes, Filipino ingenuity has transformed them into a uniquely Filipino delicacy. We use local ingredients like arrowroot, cassava flour, coconut milk, dayap, and even rice flour in making some of our biskwit. Most, if not all, of our local biskwit are crisp and crunchy than soft and chewy.
The role of the biscuit was more prominent in the "slower, lazier days" of our grandparents. Biskwit was "for people who had the time to nibble and savor it, with a cup of chocolate or coffee as part of the ritual of merienda," says Gilda Cordero Fernando in Philippine Food and Life.
That was an era when a large glass jar filled with cookies or biscuits can be found in local bakeries. The glass jars are still present in some areas in the country like in Malabon where it's filled with camachile--a perfect accompaniment to their savory pancit Malabon.
Aside from being merienda fare, the biskwit is served to guests, given to children as a treat, and bought as pasalubong from one's travels to the provinces. Some biscuits honor saints (like the sanikulas) and feast days like the lattice-work cookies of Pakil, Laguna described by Doreen Fernandez which were shaped like the Virgin of Turumba (Our Lady of Sorrows), the town's patron saint.
Here are our top ten favorite biskwit. Find them at your local panaderia, in the cookie or native delicacy aisles of supermarkets, or pasalubong booths at the malls:
Arrowroot flour makes these cookies delicate, starchy and dry. The flour is derived from the roots of the arrowroot plant Maranta arundinacea. Uraro is also known as araro in Bataan and Pampanga. Uraro cookies come in various shapes--round, scalloped around the edges like a cloud, piped through a star-tip in round shape (like Danish butter cookies), or cut into small curly flowers. The latter is sold as sampaguita in Kapampangan bakeries like the La Moderna Bakery in Guagua. The cookie is usually white and dusted with flour though some are lightly brown. The best uraro has a creamy texture and melts easily in the mouth, like the La Moderna sampaguita. Another brand I tasted (Sir Norman Baker produced in Liliw, Laguna) combined arrowroot, cassava, and wheat flour with coconut milk and buttermilk to produce a fine, creamy cookie. Uraro cookie-producing provinces include Laguna, Bulacan, Marinduque, Pampanga, Bataan, and Quezon.
Brands: La Moderna Bakery, Sir Norman Baker Homemade Uraro Biscuit, Rejano's Bakery of Marinduque, Bulacan Sweets.
Where to buy: Butchie's Recipes of La Moderna (Health Cube Bldg., Wilson St., Greenhills, San Juan), P55-P85 per pack, P85-P200 per jar
The pacencia are small drop cookies. Cordero-Fernando points out that it's "the only biscuit named after a virtue." Three kinds of pacencia are sold in the market. One is shaped like a large button with a smooth, lightly brown top and crisp texture. These are flavored with vanilla (sometimes with lemon, like the ones from Marby bakery). The other one looks almost the same but less crisp, with a hardened egg white icing on top. La Pacita Bakery calls these "Pacencia White wheat drop cookies." It has an airy exterior like a miniature broas and is very sweet. The last one refers to tiny meringue kisses, a recipe of which can be found in Enriqueta David-Perez's classic cookbook, Recipes of the Philippines. Food writer Michaela Fenix remembers the pacencia as small and airy "meringue-like cookies." The Eggnog Cookies sold under the Nissin label (in yellow and blue packaging) are the updated sibling of these cookies. Perhaps the key ingredient in all these pacencias is the egg white which makes them light and airy. Beating the whites up into soft peaks indeed takes a lot of patience in making these tiny cookies. But once you pop a few into your mouth, you'll be rewarded immediately.
Brands: La Pacita Biscuits, Marby, Marky's Prime Bake, La Luisa Biscuits, Nissin Eggnog, etc.
Where to buy: Sold by the kilo (along with butter cookies and egg cracklets) at Shopwise's Le Gourmet area in Harrison Plaza, Manila. Starts at P11.50 per pack