Filipino desserts get a bright, sweet remix in Abi Balingit's tiny Brooklyn kitchen

Brooklyn baker Abi Balingit of The Dusky Kitchen is a believer in "putting sprinkles on everything"

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Food Editor

Published March 7, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Abi Balingit, author of "Mayumu," and Raspberry Chamoy Pichi-Pichi (Photo illustration by Salon/Nico Schinco/Harper Collins)
Abi Balingit, author of "Mayumu," and Raspberry Chamoy Pichi-Pichi (Photo illustration by Salon/Nico Schinco/Harper Collins)

It's impossible not to want to pick up Abi Balingat's debut cookbook based solely on the cover alone. Featuring a slice of the baker's impossibly fluffy halo-halo baked Alaska — made by layering coconut sponge cake, an evaporated milk granita, ube ice cream and whimsical Swiss meringue — against an acid green backsplash, the book really exudes a sense of "hey, we could have a lot of fun together."

Without a doubt, "Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed" is one of the most fun dessert cookbooks from which I've ever baked, packed with playful mashups like ube skillet cookies and confetti pianono that reflect Balingat's identity and invite you to let go of what is possible in both Filipino and American desserts.

But "Mayumu" also has a soft center that really appealed to me coming in as a reader who initially picked it up while feeling a little burned out (in general, but also specifically in the kitchen). In the introduction, Balingat provides some of her best-practice tips for bakers who, like her, will be working from small kitchens. One point, in particular, caught my eye immediately. "Patience is underrated," Balingat writes.

"Whether it's your first time or seventeenth time making a dessert, be kind to yourself if something goes wrong," she continues. "Don't let one bad bake keep you from ever baking again! In a lot of ways, I treat baking as self-care. The act of it allows me to take deep breaths, slow down and focus on a recipe."

With a little patience, Balingat believes that anyone can become a great baker. After reading "Mayumu," I believe this, too.

During an appearance on "Salon Talks," Balingit spoke with me about the development of "Mayumu," how she managed to launch a successful baking business and blog out of her tiny New York apartment and how her unique sense of fashion informs the aesthetics of her desserts. Watch Abi Balingit on "Salon Talks" here or read our conversation below.

The following interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

I first came across your baking on your Instagram and blog, The Dusky Kitchen. Where did that name come from?

I live in Brooklyn right now, and originally when I was first starting the blog — I had plans for this before the pandemic — I was thinking of how I would commute from Manhattan, and every time I could bake was only after work, so it'd be dusk, as the sun was setting pretty much, that I only had that opportunity to go in the kitchen. I have one window in my kitchen, so it's always dusky. I thought it'd be really cute and quirky, even though it is a problem when you're doing a lot of food photography with limited light, but it's like, make the best of the situation kind of a name.

You essentially launched a second career as a baker from your home kitchen. You had another job, and you weren't working in a professional bakery. What was your kitchen like at that point?

I feel like everyone in 2020 was baking banana bread and sourdough. It was all over the place. But personally, at the time I was living with three other roommates, and so it was bustling because we were all working from home. I do work a nine-to-five job, but remotely. 

There were times when, to put on the stand mixer, I'd keep an ear out, because you can hear everyone's Zoom meetings. The walls are thin. I felt really bad because KitchenAids, I love them, but they sound like a Mustang or something. They're so, so loud that it doesn't matter where you turn it on or try to muffle it, it's just super loud. So, I think it was just always bustling in the kitchen, or at least I tried my best to be cognizant of everyone's space and time. But it was truly the only escape that I felt, especially being really nostalgic for being home. My family's in California.

How did having that experience of formulating desserts in an apartment kitchen play into how you wrote recipes for other people?

Everything I did was basically all tested from my apartment. I never went to another location to do anything. I was really mindful of some recipes. A lot of Filipino recipes that I tried growing up were always to feed families of very large sizes, which is typical of my family as well. But living in an apartment, and also feeding yourself and cooking and baking for one, I was really just like, "Well, there's certain recipes." I technically have one recipe that's a mug of pudding for one.

It's nice because I think that a big part of baking and being cognizant of waste, I really love trying new recipes, but I feel like I have to justify it with, we're going to give this away to neighbors, we're giving this away to roommates, we're giving it away to roommates' boyfriends, we're giving it away to everybody.

"Sponge cakes can be a little unforgivable if it's very naked, but luckily you can just cover it in frosting and sprinkles."

Your cookbook is gorgeous. You write that you let your palette roam free, in terms of inspiration. Can you talk about what you meant by that?

With something being called Filipino-American, I'm always in awe of just what American actually does mean to everyone because everyone's experiences are so different depending on where you grew up. Luckily for me, I grew up in the Bay Area, and also the Central Valley in California, so I've always been exposed to everyone of different ethnicities, cultures, and so many influences from just being friends with people or just going out to restaurants, especially living in New York.

I think it all sums to the fact that there's just so much access to so many different types of ingredients, different types of just cuisines that I think this book is emblematic of. It is Filipino at its core, but being Filipino-American, I think a lot of those recipes are all a little bit of fusion from somewhere else, and I really like that about it. I think it's really true to me. I never lived in the Philippines full-time, so it is definitely a different experience, especially what you have readily available in terms of ingredients. That adaptability is really present in the book.

One recipe that I specifically want to highlight — because I feel like it really beautifully encapsulates this idea of "Filipino American Desserts Remixed" — is your play on confetti cake. Can you talk a little bit about this recipe and how you developed it?

I'm a big fan of Pillsbury's Funfetti anything. I'll order that at any bakery if I can. But a Pianono, it's like a Filipino sponge cake, and has Spanish roots, with all colonial origins of the history in the Philippines. It's named after a Pope, I think. The actual sponge cake traditionally can be pretty simple. It's just a simple vanilla sponge, or can be an ube sponge, which is light margarine kind of a filling. But for this, I definitely have a bit more of a sweet tooth. I would say the biggest compliment in Asian desserts, usually, is that it's not too sweet, so I really try to get that middle balance.

Instead of just margarine and sugar, I go ahead and use a whipped cream filling, so it's not as overwhelming. But the top and the covering of it all is an American traditional buttercream. I love it, because it's so colorful. It's just within the batter, it has sprinkles on the outside. I really am a believer in just putting sprinkles on everything to cover up anything. I'm not perfect. I remember a few iterations of it, I was like, "Oh, there are cracks." Sponge cakes can be a little unforgivable if it's very naked, but luckily you can just cover it in frosting and sprinkles. So, I think it's really good for just anyone at any level to try it, even though it is intimidating doing a Swiss roll of any capacity.

Speaking of presentation, does your love of fashion play into inspiration for how you present your desserts?

I feel like traditionally I'm very much really into color and whatever I dress up as. Technically my hair is in process right now. I'm molting into a different color at this point. But I inherently and subconsciously, I feel like I've just incorporated that in a lot of the desserts in the book.

"Being Filipino-American, I think a lot of those recipes are all a little bit of fusion from somewhere else."

There's specifically one that's a rainbow fruit polovoron. Polvoron is just a crumbly shortbread cookie made with toasted flour, and so I bump up colors sometimes with gel fruit coloring. With freeze dried fruit, some of it is super vivid, just the red, raspberry is just super, super red. So, there's certain things that are naturally occurring that are really colorful. Ube is definitely the first thing that comes to mind. The ethos of my baking, too, is it may not be everyone's cup of tea. If it is, that'd be nice, but at the same time you do you, and whatever that means to everyone. I really hope people take pride in whatever they're making in their kitchen.

Did you feel pressure to make this book more traditional?

I'm really lucky because my editor, she's also Asian American, and that really made a difference honestly, in being able to write what I wanted to write without judgment, or without any need to whitewash certain recipes. I think it's really hard though sometimes when you're making fusion things, you definitely want to give credit to whatever culture you're taking from. So a Latinx-inspired dish with Filipino, I'll definitely say that.

In terms of explanation, sometimes it can be a little hard to be like, "Where did this come from?" And I think the really good thing about my editor was also just give people more context, because they're just going to be like, "Where did this come from? What's happening in your head?" And I think sometimes you think that's just automatic that people just, "Oh, yeah, this makes sense," but certain things do take more explanation. I think finding the fine balance of being able to explain it well, but also not over-explain because you shouldn't have to, was really something that was really a challenge, but also really great about the book.

As a baker, you actually talk about umami throughout the book. I feel like that's an element of sweet baking — at least in America sometimes — that often gets overlooked.

I love sweet, salty, savory. And I think the thing about my cookbook, I feel like, not just from Filipino desserts, I love getting inspiration from Filipino savory dishes, and so there's definitely a lot of cookie recipes. I jump off of that point, but it's just exciting to use the whole gamut of Filipino ingredients and also ingredients that are not necessarily Filipino, but can be added to a Filipino dish. So I love it, it's so much fun.

What are some pantry essentials that you would encourage other people to keep on hand if they're looking to cook through your cookbook?

There's certain non-negotiable ingredients that you have to definitely go to a specialty Asian grocery store to get. And for me it's ube extract. Those kinds of things are super important. In terms of flavor, it's hard to mimic any other way.

"My editor, she's also Asian American, and that really made a difference in being able to write what I wanted to write without judgment, or without any need to whitewash certain recipes."

A big part of Filipino cuisine is a factor of just there's so many preserved things, and things in jars, and condiments. Especially in dessert recipes that are the chilled desserts that are obviously halo-halo, fruit salad, buko pandan. There are certain things that are like nata de coco, and this sugar plum fruit, these chewy yummy little jelly things and red bean are all preserved in syrup. So you definitely should get jars of that, because it's just really what makes it different from any other kinds of desserts.

Coconut, coconut flakes, can be in some things that I definitely use in the book. But if you have flour, sugar, butter, eggs, those are also important because there's definitely a lot of just traditional types of bases of cookies and cakes, and all the American fair of desserts.

Your cookbook is very approachable. Let's say that somebody is a novice baker. What recipes would you point them to in the book?

There's one that sticks out to me, because I just made it for a friend for a potluck, and it was a thing where I was tight on time. I have a fiesta fruit salad recipe that's very common for any Filipino party. It's just basically putting condensed milk and usually just some cream-based type of milky liquid, and also just all these canned cocktail fruit, just the jellies that we were talking about, nata de coco. You just put it all together in a bowl and you mix it, and you let it sit for a couple hours as long as it's cold.

But I love those desserts that are not intimidating at all. You literally just put everything in a bowl together, and you serve it, and everyone is happy, and it's refreshing. I think mine is a little different from traditional fruit salad, just because I think I handpick a bit more of the fruits that I add in it. I have this weird thing where I don't love maraschino cherries, and I don't love the texture of the canned pears in a fruit cocktail. It's mushy. So for this, there's lychee, there's grapefruit slices. I think there's a bit of peaches and everything. So, it is a bit more tailored to my taste. I definitely recommend that recipe if you're really just short on time and want to impress the crowd.

By Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is Salon's food editor. She is also an award-winning radio producer, editor and features writer — with a special emphasis on food, culture and subculture. Her writing has appeared in and on The Atlantic, National Geographic’s “The Plate,” Eater, VICE, Slate, Salon, The Bitter Southerner and Chicago Magazine, while her audio work has appeared on NPR’s All Things Considered and Here & Now, as well as APM’s Marketplace. She is based in Chicago.

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Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Abi Balingit Baking Cookbooks Desserts Filipino Food Mayumu Salon Talks The Dusky Kitchen