Torta Cebuana Moderna - 100% Sourdough Rich Butter Cakes
Torta depending on where you are in the Philippines can mean different things. Up to the day when I was just aware of one type, the only torta that I know is a savory dish made with eggplant and eggs that I often eat with ketchup. I do not know any other form of torta when actually, there are. Then, during my college years my dad introduced me to the torta of his childhood which is made from potatoes and eggs (I think there are tortas that are similar to this one in Spain and Latin America) that can be with or without meat depending on your budget :) and it has become a favorite for a cheap and filling dish to go with rice because the only thing that we have to buy are potatoes. Today, I am focusing on the torta of Cebu, a province in the central Islands of the Philippines where the Queen City of the South and Philippines’ oldest city lies – Torta Cebuana.
The best ones are said to come from the town of Argao in Cebu. It is a rich naturally leavened cake baked in fluted molds commonly made during the town’s festival. Torta Cebuana, the name alone strongly implies its Spanish roots. It must have come from Spanish Tarta/Torta which seems to be a cognate of the English Torte and Cebuana means something or someone with origins from Cebu in which this delicious cake comes from. It is a product of ingenuity or necessity from the locals in replicating the Spanish breads and cakes that the Spaniards brought with them that they sorely miss perhaps; many ingredient substitutions brought many delicious breads and cakes of the Philippines to life.
Authentic Torta Cebuana is made using a local toddy wine, egg yolks and lard, aged lard. It is then flavored with anise seeds which is very common in old world treats. Tradition states that the yeast in the wine should be the sole leavener of the cake and should be enriched with lard that is at least a year old rendered during the previous year’s festival then baked in a “wood-fired” oven that uses coconut shells and husks as fuel. The naturally occurring yeast and bacteria in the wine also imparts a special fragrance and flavor to the cake particularly tang and improves the shelf life; the lard also makes it very moist and gives it its unique flavor and aroma along with the touch of smoke that the wood-fired oven imparts. Here is a video of local artisanal Torta production in Argao, Cebu.
I really want to taste this interesting cake but I do not have access to the requisite wine and aged or even just good quality lard so I need to make sound substitutions so I did some research on recipes online. Many recipes for the sake of convenience and modernity call for baking powder and/or baking soda and right-off-the-bat I scrap them since it is not what this cake is all about. Some recipes call for instant yeast which seems to be a decent substitute but one thing that will be missed is the tangy flavor. I tasted the wine once and it has a nice fizziness and tang due to the live yeast and bacteria in it and I suddenly thought of sourdough which may be different in form but will more or less produce a similar flavor profile. It’s my first time to bake a cake without mechanical or chemical leavening in the form of baking powder so I was a bit skeptical if it will succeed. I made a lot of reading about yeasted cakes and then sourdough leavened cakes that I saw here on TFL. With the prerequisite knowledge complete, I proceeded with a plan.
With its characteristics: naturally leavened, with a pleasant tanginess, rich with egg yolks, moist and rich with lard; I made my own interpretation of the cake. Natural leavening and tanginess from sourdough, free-range egg yolks from our own chickens, flavor and aroma from butter and moistness from corn oil are the components of this cake and an addition of baking them in a modern electric oven; I wonder if baking them in my clay pot though not as efficient will make them taste a little bit more old-world. I flavored it with vanilla because I am not that big of a fan of anise, though I think some lime zest will be closer to traditional and local. It hardly resembles the traditional product and with that many modifications, I decided to call this cake Torta Cebuana Moderna; a modern take on this cake but with its essence still there.
The ingredients were very simple: flour,sourdough, egg yolks, sugar, salt, butter and oil. I built my sourdough starter in three stages using egg yolks as a liquid and AP flour with a thick batter consistency. The final build contained the salt, sugar, butter, oil and vanilla. I then let it rise overnight. There were some mishaps on the way such us some stubborn bits of batter that do not want to combine with the other ingredients. I should have started the SD builds with a thinner consistency but I was worried it would slow down when thinned down too quickly especially as it will be used in a high sugar high fat application. I strained it and salvaged what I can. Not wanting to waste anything, I still baked the lumps.
After an overnight rest, not much has happened in the fluid batter but there was clearly some growth in the lumps. I deposited the batters in greased 6-inch fluted molds and let them rise for 3 hours. I made 3 cakes from both batters. Again, it looks like not much has happened in the fluid batter but the lumps is over the rim of the pan.I baked them at 200°C
for 5 minutes and lowered the temperature to 180°C and baked for another 15 minutes; 20 minutes total baking time and the results were surprising!
The lumps did not show much growth in the oven and burnt on top while the fluid batter rose nice and tall with a beautiful hump not dissimilar to a Madeleine’s. The lumps almost had no taste but have an overly yeasty aroma and excess tang. The ones from the fluid batter have a slightly yeasty but complex aroma, dense and very rich and moist with the perfect sweetness and tang and a very nice buttery flavor that complements the sourdough. If you look closely, its not that different from the traditional Torta Cebuana in terms of looks, my crumb might just a tad less fine and moister.
If you look at its ingredients, torta is not that different from ensaymada. It’s like ensaymada in batter or cake form. If desired, you can also brush the torta with softened butter and sprinkle with white granulated sugar just like an ensaymada. It also goes well with Filipino hot chocolate. I never knew sourdough would make a great cake like this. It's been a year since I took the Licensure Examination for Teachers and I am fully-fledged teacher now so maybe this is a celebration cake for that. I am really thankful for all the blessings!
Filipino style hot chocolate - made from pure chocolate liquor, with or without sugar
and/or evaporated milk according to your liking. Tortas and ensaymadas go super
well with it.
Speaking of ensaymadas, here are some that I made for my co-teachers. I woke up at 4:00 AM to deliver them as fresh as possible to my co-workers without having to come late to work. They loved every bit of it, saying how artisanal they look and taste and its their first time tasting something like that.