Iâ€™ve just finished reading â€œMemories of Philippine Kitchensâ€ by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2006); as well as â€œPhilippine Marketsâ€ a project of the Centro Escolar University (CEU, 2004). Both are coffee table books, large, lavish volumes with luscious photos and thick, beautiful-smelling paper. Both books leave me feeling extreme reverence and awe at the complexity and vibrance of Philippine cuisine.
So inspired am I by the books that I leave the house, intent on buying something I can cook or bake with. On my way, I come across some buko at a roadside stall and on impulse, buy four of them. Compelled into the kitchen, I set about making a buko pie.
The only time I ever get to eat buko pie is when Iâ€™m driving through Laguna to get to Tagaytay. Laguna is buko pie central, and come to think of it, so is Tagaytay. There are plenty of familiar names like Coletteâ€™s, The Original Buko Pie, etc. whose stores and stalls dot the landscape, each brand commanding their own fan base.
These buko pies, save for each brandâ€™s inimitable differences, consist of a crust made with shortening, slivers or scoops of buko meat cooked in its own juice and condensed milk, its top covered with either a lattice or whole crust. Itâ€™s simple food, not even dessert really, that seems more suited for breakfast or a snack. It cuts cleanly too, and is even easier to eat when the slice is eaten out of hand rather than with a fork.
I like the rusticity of a buko pie, its homely appearance and taste a paean to days gone by. Buko (BOO-ko) is of course, the young coconut that we Filipinos use to maximum advantage. We utilize the coconutâ€™s leaves, fruit, pith, trunk, and roots that result in everything from food to baskets.
At the center of a buko lies its precious treasure, the sweet juice and its meat. Here, we use a machete thatâ€™s about a foot and a half long (scary thing) to hack away its thick outer covering and husk. Working from the outside in, strategic whacks whittle away the tough exterior.
Hereâ€™s the coconut stripped bare. Iâ€™m dismayed to see that this is a more mature coconut than Iâ€™d like; any older and Iâ€™d have to use this buko for niyog (grated coconut used to make coconut cream [gata]). My buko pie calls for young coconut meat (malakanin texture) thatâ€™s almost translucent and soft enough to scoop out of the shell.
Still, Iâ€™ve come this far. With one determined whack, the shell is pried open and its juice collected. Each buko contains about one and a half cups of sweet liquid, refreshing when served with ice.
You can see how mature (hard) the meat is. I have my work cut out for me as I scrape, slice, pry and prod the meat out of its shell. In the end, I have a combination of strips, scoops, and scrapes. A traditional buko pie this is not.
My pie crusts are usually made with both shortening and butter â€“ the former for flakiness, the latter for flavor. But in keeping with the rustic and old-fashioned nature of this pie, Iâ€™m sticking with just shortening. Itâ€™ll prevent my crust from browning too much, and thatâ€™s all right since a buko pie is a pretty pale pie.
With the crust done, I cook the buko meat with sugar, two kinds of milk (evaporated and condensed), sugar, the buko juice, and cornstarch to thicken the filling. Further deviating from tradition, I make a simple custard and layer it on top of the filling. A simple lattice top improperly done (!) and I pop the pie in the oven. Itâ€™s baked just till the crust is golden, about 20 minutes.
This isnâ€™t very sweet as far as pies go, and is ideal for those who donâ€™t like sugary pastries (an oxymoron, really). My crust lacks liquid, which explains its extreme bordering-on-crumbly texture. But it satisfies me on a basic level and finally, I can have a buko pie thatâ€™s warm from the oven, instead of one that’s been sitting by the road for only goodness knows how long. After a long absence, it feels good to be back in the kitchen making something again.