I’ve just finished reading “Memories of Philippine Kitchens” by Amy Besa and Romy Dorotan (Stewart, Tabori and Chang, 2006); as well as “Philippine Markets” 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 I’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 Colette’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 brand’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. It’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 coconut’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 that’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.
Here’s the coconut stripped bare. I’m dismayed to see that this is a more mature coconut than I’d like; any older and I’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) that’s almost translucent and soft enough to scoop out of the shell.
Still, I’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 ”“ the former for flakiness, the latter for flavor. But in keeping with the rustic and old-fashioned nature of this pie, I’m sticking with just shortening. It’ll prevent my crust from browning too much, and that’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. It’s baked just till the crust is golden, about 20 minutes.
This isn’t very sweet as far as pies go, and is ideal for those who don’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 that’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.