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Arlyn Osborne’s Ube Cheese Pandesal

I wrote about pandesal for The Washington Post a few years back. It was my first recipe to be published in print, a classic take on the Philippines’ most beloved crumb-dusted bread roll. It’s a bakery staple, a standard breakfast item, and a go-to choice for afternoon merienda, or snack. Pandesal translates to “salt bread” in Spanish but it doesn’t taste salty. Instead, it’s the ideal canvas for smearing with myriad spreads and plunging into steaming cups of warm beverages. It’s as ubiquitous as bagels in New York or baguettes in France. It’s iconic. A national treasure.

Late 2019 saw the dawn of a new era for pandesal. The introduction of captivating colors and unconventional flavors were designed by the creative minds of many sheltering in place. Flavored pandesal didn’t dethrone the original, but it didn’t wither away either. Many bakeries, in the Philippines and Stateside, continue to offer a rainbow of options.

If this new generation has a classic pandesal to crown, it’s ube cheese, a regal display of amethyst and gold. Each purple pillow is soft and springy, oozing with melty cheese and creamy ube halaya (purple yam jam). Philippine desserts are no stranger to the company of cheese. Here, its velvety saltiness balances the sweet, vanilla flavor of the nation’s most loved tuber. Graham cracker crumbs are scattered over top, adding a toasty crunch and the gentle taste of honey.

What I love about this dish is that it reminds us how food can tell the story of history, and not just our personal ones. It’s a marker for critical events, like the pandemic in this case. And how, in the bleakest times, you can find comfort and community in making something familiar, something new.

Photo by Linda Xiao

With a soft, velvety crumb and shaggy coconut icing, this is on the lighter side of the chocolate cake spectrum, more airy than dense. The glaze, which is poured onto the cake while it’s still warm, soaks into the crumb, making it very moist. You can use either sweetened or unsweetened coconut for the glaze. The sweetened kind gives you a candy-like topping that’s a little like the filling of a Mounds bar; unsweetened flakes take the sugar quotient down a notch. In either case, it’s a pretty, festive cake that comes together in a flash.

INGREDIENTS

Yield: 20 rolls

FOR THE DOUGH
4 tablespoons (56 grams) unsalted butter
1 cup (240 grams) whole milk
⅓ cup (66 grams) plus 2 tablespoons (25 grams) granulated sugar, divided
One ¼ oz. (7 grams) envelope active dry yeast
⅓ cup (83 grams) ube halaya, at room temperature
1 large egg, at room temperature
1 teaspoon ube paste
3¾ cups (468 grams) all-purpose flour
1½ teaspoons kosher salt

FOR THE FILLING
¾ cup plus 1 tablespoon (200 grams) ube halaya, cold
Twenty 5 gram-pieces Velveeta cheese, shaped into 1-inch (2.5 centimeters) coins (see Note)
¼ cup (25 grams) finely crushed cracker crumbs

Note: To portion the 5 grams pieces of Velveeta cheese, cut half of a 16 ounce (450 grams) block into 24 even squares (you’ll only use 20 pieces).

METHOD

For the dough: In a small saucepan, melt the butter over low heat. Whisk in the milk and heat until an instant-read thermometer registers between 110° and 115°F (43° and 46°C).

Remove from the heat. Add 2 tablespoons (25 grams) of the sugar, sprinkle the yeast over top, and whisk to combine. Let sit undisturbed until foamy, about 5 minutes. Whisk in the ube halaya, the egg, the remaining ⅓ cup (66 grams) of sugar, and the ube paste.

Fit a stand mixer with the dough hook. In the stand mixer bowl, whisk together the flour and salt. Add the yeast mixture and stir with a fork until a sticky dough comes together.

Fasten the bowl into the stand mixer and knead on medium speed, scraping down the sides of the bowl halfway through, until the dough is smooth, stretchy, and no longer sticky, 7 to 10 minutes.

Grease a large bowl with cooking spray. Shape the dough into a ball and place it into the bowl. Flip the dough over (this greases both sides). Cover tightly with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until puffed and nearly doubled in volume, about 2 hours.

To assemble: Press the dough down with your fist to expel the air and transfer to an unfloured work surface. Divide the dough into 20 equal portions (about 48 grams each). Keep the portions loosely covered with plastic wrap while you work.

Line a sheet pan with parchment paper. Working with one portion of dough at a time, cup your hand over the dough and roll it around in a circular motion against the work surface until it forms a smooth ball.

Using your hand, flatten the ball into a 2 ½-inch (6.5 centimeters) round. Add 2 teaspoons (10 grams) of ube halaya to the center of the dough and press a cheese coin into it. Bring up the edges of the dough, and pinch to seal. Dip the top of the bun into the graham cracker crumbs and place seam-side down on the lined pan, arranging the buns in five rows of 4, spacing them 1 inch (2.5 centimeters) apart.

Cover loosely with plastic wrap. Let rise in a warm place until puffed and expanded in size about 50 percent, about 1 hour. (The buns will not be touching, but the gaps between them should be almost closed).

Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).

Bake until puffed, the buns are touching, and an instant-read thermometer inserted into the side of one of the middle buns registers 190°F (88°C), about 20 minutes.

As soon as they come out of the oven, transfer the pan to a wire rack and cover loosely with a tea towel for 10 minutes (this helps them soften a bit). The filling can be quite hot so just be mindful.

Store in a resealable plastic bag in the refrigerator or freezer. Reheat in the microwave.  

From Sugarcane by Arlyn Osborne. Excerpted by permission of ‎Hardie Grant Publishing

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