Chona Ayson honors her grandmother by baking the most delicious old-fashioned ensaymadas ever.
Every year, whenever I fly to Canada to visit my brother and his family in Toronto, I’ll have at least six boxes of Chona Ayson’s ensaymadas safely packed in bubble wrap. It’s become our family’s favorite ensaymada, as it’s the one that comes closest in absolute cheesiness and buttery goodness, taste and texture, and sugary sweetness to the ensaymadas that our very own Capampangan Mary Poppins, “Apo Cion” used to bake when we were kids.
I remember how back then, every December, our kitchen was a beehive of activity, and every day, there were the unmistakable scents of ensaymadas being prepped, baked, and finished: the yeasty, slightly sour smell of the batter, being made to rise in giant bowls covered in cheeesecloth; the golden brown briochelike buns, hot out of the oven, unadorned still, but wafting that toasty aroma of freshly baked bread; and finally, the finishing with softened Anchor butter and grated Marca Piña quezo de bola, and a generous sprinkling of white sugar. The ensaymadas would then be carefully wrapped in wax paper, and delivered to the lucky recipients in those giant made-to-order white boxes from Cartimar. To this day, ensaymadas bring back powerful associations and beautiful memories of childhood holidays, and that’s why I love Homemade Treasures’ so much. Every time I enjoy one? It feels like Christmas Day.
They’re baked all the way up in a home kitchen in Porac, Pampanga, by Chona, who decided to say goodbye to her corporate career with Avon, to focus on her passion, baking. She’s a chemist by education, so she understands the science of her new profession. In 2010, after leaving Manila’s traffic and turmoil behind, she took an ensaymada baking class and started testing recipes; but her grandmother, Amparo Aguas Mercado, insisted, perhaps gently demanded, that her granddaughter use a recipe that she herself had created and perfected back in the 1930s when she was a young homemaker. Chona, of course, obediently followed her Lola, but made adjustments in moisture, baking time, and raw ingredients, in order to update and perfect the ensaymada for the present day. Remember, she’s a chemist by training, so she knew exactly what to do. The result? What many consider to be one of the best ensaymadas in all of Pampanga, and by extension, in all of the Philippines as well.
The baker slash scientist has recently turned her attention to developing ube recipes. She sources the purple tubers directly from her sukis from the market, and she’s mastered an all-natural, no artificial coloring halaya (ube jam), that she’s now using for her ube ensaymadas, her ube cakes with a delicate frosting reminiscent of ube ice cream, and her newest creations: chewy ube cookies topped with cheddar strings. And just like her ensaymadas, each and every ube masterpiece is a homemade treasure.
4 Ube Cake
5 Ube Cookies
3 Kitchen of Homemade Treasures 02
2 Chona Ayson