I joined a food essay-writing contest in April. I didn’t win, and looking back I realize that I wrote more about a certain person than the actual food. But I have no regrets. This essay serves as a catharsis of my loss of a loved one, and I’d like to share her story with you all.
Lola Belen’s Chiffon Cake
There’s a running joke in the Dela Fuente clan during reunions and family dinners—that every person must get a slice of Lola (Grandma) Belen’s chiffon cake or she will start sulking, better known in the Filipino culture as pagtatampo.
A native of Daet, Camarines Norte, Evelina Zaleta Dela Fuente and her husband Vergel moved to Cavite in the late ’90s to live close to their children and grandchildren. With the Bicolano culture deeply rooted in her ways, Lola Belen’s kitchen was a place of love and home-cooked goodness.
She would spend hours on her laing, a Bicolano dish of shredded taro leaves boiled in fresh coconut milk with just the right amount of daing (dried fish), sile (chili), and other spices. My mother Nani and her four siblings would pretend to figure out who the favorite child is by comparing who gets to take home the biggest Tupperware of laing from Lola Belen.
We all loved her cooking—from her pineapple flavored version of the adobo to ginataang alimango (crab in coconut cream sauce), but the star of the dinner table is her chiffon cake.
A familiar fixture during Sunday meals in her garden, Lola Belen’s chiffon cake came straight from the cake pan. There were no frills added—no decorative icing, fruit toppings, or even a fancy crystal plate to hold it.
A close relative of the angel cake and sponge cake, the chiffon cake has been Filipinized into various flavors such as ube and mocha, while many provinces such as Daet prefer the traditional plain version. Lola would carefully slice her traditional chiffon cake to make sure that each member of the family got a piece. I remember how she always asked, “Did you try my chiffon cake yet?” with that child-like glimmer in her eyes as if it were the first time she had baked it.
Sometimes my cousins and I jokingly told visitors—especially new boyfriends—to get a slice of Lola’s cake and compliment her out loud or incur her wrath.
But there was no need to pretend. Her chiffon cake was truly a family favorite. Light and fluffy, it’s not as overpoweringly sweet or as dense as a commercially produced butter cake. A slice of Lola Belen’s chiffon cake always made the perfect ending to a savory buffet of spicy and creamy Bicolano dishes that graced our family dinners for years. My cousins and I would take home leftover cake slices to be paired with our morning coffee the next day.
When my sister Karen earned a Pastry Arts degree in 2005, Lola passed on her chiffon cake recipe—handwritten and inherited from an old friend who once ran a bakery in Daet, where traditional sweets such as pili tarts and uraro cookies are hometown favorites. Lola and Karen would whip up variations of the chiffon cake, such as one version sweetened with pineapple syrup and another covered in lemon icing.
There was a slight dilemma that my sister couldn’t seem to fathom—that no matter how strictly she followed the recipe, her cake came out tasting different from Lola Belen’s. She asked if she could watch Lola bake her cake from scratch in her own humble kitchen, without all the modern baking equipment. After an afternoon of note-taking and careful observation, my sister came home and I excitedly asked her, “So what’s Lola’s secret?”
Karen smiled. “She’s just slow,” she said. She described how Lola would take her sweet time manually mixing the ingredients. While culinary school taught my sister to mix the light ingredients into the heavy ingredients first, Lola would do it the other way around. Karen also noticed that Lola preferred using her old-school measuring cups that she’s kept for decades—the non-Pyrex ones she used to bake goodies for her children back in Daet.
“Why don’t you copy the way she does it? Work slow and use her cups,” I suggested. Karen humored me and tried this procedure, but without much success. She even used Lola’s ring-shaped mold that gave her chiffon cake the moniker, “Donut Cake.” Karen’s version, although sweet and delicious, never tasted exactly like Lola’s. We succumbed to the theory that you simply can’t replicate the love that Lola would put into her cooking.
My beloved Lola Belen passed away in 2009. My sister and mother have inherited a few recipes from her, but the rest she took to the grave. Lola’s old baking pans now sit in a special spot in my sister’s kitchen. Once in a while, Karen whips out that familiar donut-shaped mold to bake Lola’s chiffon cake for family gatherings.
The cake is still the star, sitting in the middle of the table in commemoration of a well-loved matriarchal figure in our family. Once in a while I would get a slice and let my taste buds bring back fond memories of her. While fighting back a tear, I would tell my relatives, “You better get a slice of the chiffon cake or magtatampo si Lola.”