The Capampangans, who are inhabitants of Pampanga, are very much well-known for their discriminating taste for food and high regard for cooking.
This prevailing fact traces its roots to the olden times. Accounts say that every female born to a Capampangan family is exposed to the kitchen at an early age. To master her culinary skills, she is obliged to prepare her family’s dishes. This devoir continue until she passes it on to her daughters.
Lillian Mercado-Lising Borromeo, who is fondly called as “Atching Lillian”, is a living proof to this tradition. She came from a wealthy Capampangan root where her grandparents were “don” and “doña”, a status that is equivalent to business tycoons or magnates in the modern times. Thus, she grew up with the practice of meticulous food preparation.
Atching Lillian, along the way, learned that one of the secrets of the unique, incomparable taste of Capampangan cuisine is the use of carabao’s milk and dayap (lime). She recalled that her grandparents had a herd of carabaos. With the abundance of carabao’s milk, her grandfather used to drink fresh carabao’s milk while taking a sip of duhat (jambul) every morning. Her grandmother, on the other hand, uses the milk with dayap juice in most of her recipes.
“The carabao’s milk with dayap juice, when used in cooking, adds a very distinct flavor,” Atching Lillian said.
As the only female among the brood of four, she inherited a family heirloom that included 17th century cooking and baking utensils and some secret family recipes. Among these century-old recipes is the making of “Panacillos de San Nicolas” or San Nicholas cookies. For the Capampangans, they call it “Saniculas”.
According to Atching Lillian, this recipe is the most noteworthy of all because this was passed on to her by her grandmother Impung Andang (Doña Alejandra Andres David Hizon) who learned the recipe from the Dominican sisters. Atching Lillian, hailed as the “Guardian and Steward of Capampangan Cuisine”, unselfishly shared her family’s priceless recipes especially that of the Saniculas.
Saniculas, a melt-in-the-mouth goodness, is the oldest cookie introduced in the Philippines by the Spaniards, circa 1600. Its inception was born out of oversupply of egg yolks. During those times, the whole of egg except its yolk (i.e. albumen), was mixed with lime powder and sand to build churches, schools, and other government buildings. Hence, the Spanish nuns thought of using the yolks in several pastries and other delicacies.
Every family, too, was encouraged to come up with a product out of the yolks. Saniculas was one of them.
Atching Lillian, with her passion of sharing the secrets of Capampangan cuisine, gladly demonstrated how Saniculas is made.
It starts by gently mixing the ingredients that is composed of arrowroot flour, egg yolks, carabao’s milk, duhat, and enough amount of water to make the dough. The dough is kneaded and flattened using a cookie mold and a rolling pin with gradual precision. After which, the dough is ready for baking.
Atching Lillian, during her demonstration, insisted on using carabao’s milk, instead of any other milk. This, she said, gives the cookies its exact aroma, taste, and texture.
The making of San Nicholas cookies back then, she said, was a lot more interesting. The nuns or the women making it, had to pray three Our Father, three Hail Mary, and three Glory be to the Father. After which, one has to put her hand inside the oven to check if the cookies were already cooked. In some instances, if the cookies were still not properly cooked after the three prayers, they would pray the Salve Regina also known as the Hail Holy Queen.
The baked cookies back then, she quoted others as saying, were perfect in its taste and texture as the prayers served as their timer. Interestingly, too, the Saniculas is imprinted with the image of San Nicholas, the great miracle healer.
But the cookie’s interesting facts don’t end there. Every 10th of September, the feast day of St. Nicholas de Tolentin, the Saniculas cookies are blessed and distributed to devotees for it is believed to have a curative effect. This practice was said to have been passed on by the Spanish friars to the Filipinos. Other than this, the cookie can also be crumbled and scattered on rice fields to ask for a bountiful harvest.
Needless to say, every bite of Saniculas does not only satisfy one’s cravings. It also represents a tradition of love, devotion, peace, and miracle.