Bebinca - A Goan Layered Pudding
Bebinca (also called Bibinca or Bibink) is a quintessentially Goan dessert that most people who have had it, rave about. There are some of us don’t quite like it, but it’s a dessert you cannot be indifferent about. Made with flour, sugar, loads of egg yolks, coconut milk and ghee (clarified butter)/ butter, this multi-layered pudding-like dessert is so rich that anyone who can eat a large slice of it is asking for trouble. Christmas in Goa is incomplete without Bebinca, as are most other celebrations in Catholic homes here.
Bebinca seems to exist in one form or another across former Portuguese colonies in Asia. I have seen it served in an Indian restaurant in Portugal, and I understand that it is similarly made in East Timor as well. Macau has a coconut milk custard-like version called Bebinca de Leite. In the Phillipines, it is Bibingka which is not layered, but a cake made from rice flour or tapioca flour and coconut or cow’s milk and cooked in banana leaves. There is an Indonesian layer cake called Kek Lapis which looks a lot like Bebinca in its layers, but is made differently.
Bebinca is the kind of food that makes for tall stories that you might almost believe. If you come down here, you might get to hear of the days when Bebinca was made with a hundred yolks, had so many layers that it was unbelievably tall and would take the better part of a day to bake.
There is some truth in all this. While it requires a lot fewer than 100 egg yolks, and there has been a 16 layer version and it does take a few hours to make, there is no denying that even making a 7 or 8 layered Bebinca requires a bit of time and skill. It’s definitely not one of those desserts you can throw together at the drop of a hat.
The batter is made up and then each layer is cooked like a pancake, over which the next layer is poured and cooked and so on till the batter is used up. Each layer must be cooked from the top, and usually takes about half an hour to cook. Traditionally this is done by placing hot, burning coals on the lid of the pan in which the Bebinca is cooking so only the topmost layer gets cooked. Slow even cooking is the key. Over cooking can lead to a chewy rubbery texture while the desired texture is soft, pudding and well cooked.
Think of a stack of thin pancakes fused together as one yet where each layer retains its integrity to form a multi-layered cake and you have an idea of what Bebinca looks like. The trick is to cook it over low heat so each layer is cooked through, yet stays soft and pudding-like without becoming chewy. The darkened top of each layer of cooked batter lends the beautiful layered look when Bebinca is sliced.
In Portuguese, the Goan Bebinca is known as Bebinca das Sete Folhas (Bebinca of Seven Leaves, referring to the seven layers). So it’s not surprising that fewer people make Bebinca at home today, even during Christmas. Most families know someone who is acknowledged as the best Bebinca maker in their neighbourhood and come any festive occasion, an order is placed and the Bebinca is brought home and shared. Some of the very small Goan bakeries or “Aunties” who make them at home to order, serve up the most awesome Bebinca. There are packaged versions available, that tourists take back with them, which are not bad but they’re not the real deal.
While my husband loves Bebinca, it's not something I really like. That said, I have always wanted to try my hand at making Bebinca at home but using hot coals wasn’t an option for me! Then I discovered that one could cook it in an oven but never gathered the courage to try it.
All the recipes I found online, and a couple in some books, had me a bit confused and I didn’t want to risk adapting in my usual style, as I knew there was a lot that could go wrong here. Then I remembered the Joanita Auntie downstairs. In India, we don't address elders by their names, not even if they're not family. So a lady who is reasonably older than oneself is usually addressed as Auntie as a mark of respect.
As I was saying, I know this Auntie who is the mother of two of my former neighbours (they’re sisters). She lived just down the road from our housing complex and would drop in to visit her daughters quite frequently. I asked her for a recipe to make Bebinca and that is what I used. Her method includes the addition of a caramel sauce to one half of the batter. I have not come across this before but she tells me that it ensures a more pleasing contrast between layers once the Bebinca is done and sliced.
Usually home bakers cook bebinca in a moderate oven (I've seen temperatures from 160C to 200C in various recipes!) which should be about 180C (350F). I decided to cook my Bebinca in the grill mode of my oven as it meant that the upper heating element would cook it from the top.
For caramel sauce:
- First extract the coconut milk.Put the grated coconut in a blender and add 1 cup hot water. Run the blender until the coconut has become as smooth a paste as possible. Take the ground coconut out and press it through a fine sieve, into a bowl, so that you can extract as much of the coconut milk as possible. This is thick coconut milk, also called the 1st milk.
- Now put the pressed coconut back into the blender, add the other cup of hot water and process again till it is as smooth as possible. This time the ground coconut will be a bit more watery. Again put everything into a sieve and press out the coconut milk into another bowl. This is thin coconut milk and also called the 2nd milk. Discard the coconut. Keep both coconut milks separate. This video explains this process well.
- Now make the batter for the Bebinca.Put the sugar and the thick coconut milk in a large bowl. Using a wooden spoon or whisk, stir them together until the sugar dissolves. Now very lightly beat the eggs and add to the coconut milk and sugar and mix well.
- Add the nutmeg and the flour and mix well, making sure there are no lumps at all and the batter is very smooth. If the batter is a bit thick use a bit of the 2nd coconut milk to thin it out. The batter should be like pancake batter in consistency. Divide the batter equally between two bowls. You might have some 2nd milk left over.
- Now make the caramel sauce(it’s not a sauce really but we’ll call it a sauce). Melt the sugar with 1/8 cup water (half of the 1/4 cup) in a pan, on high heat. Do not stir, but watch it till the edges start becoming brown. Stir a couple of times and once it is deep brown (not burnt) carefully add the remaining 1/8 cup water and mix well. Let the caramel sauce cool a little, then add it to the batter in one of the bowls and stir quickly till well mixed and smooth.
- For easy understanding, I’m going to call this batter the caramel batter and the one without the caramel, the plain batter.
- Now it’s time to finally make the Bebinca!
- Turn the grill in your oven on. I used the grill in my oven because the heating element for the grill is on top.
- Take a 7” aluminium cake tin and pour a generous tbsp. of ghee into it. Place on your stove on low heat. Once the ghee is hot, pour about half a cup full of the plain batter into the cake tin. Let it spread to cover the bottom of the cake tin. Cover the tin with a lid (I used a glass one so I could see into the cake tin) and allow the layer to cook until the edges appear to be turning brown.
- Take the cake tin off the heat and pour a little more ghee (about 1/2 tbsp) on top. Put it into oven (grill mode) and let the layer cook till the top is brown with a few spots. This took about 10 minutes under my grill. The top should somewhat resemble the top of crème brulee when torched.
- Take the cake tin out and add another generous tbsp. of ghee. Pour about 1/2 cup full of the caramel batter now. Let spread out completely and put it back into the oven to grill until this layer is also brown.
- Take it out again, pour another tbsp. full of ghee and a half cup full of the plain batter this time and put it back into the oven. Keep repeating this using ghee first and then the batters alternately, till all the batter is used up. The last layer should be ghee.You should have between 6 to 8 layers to your Bebinca by the time you’re done.
- Let the Bebinca cool a bit, then loosen the sides with a knife. Turn the cake tin upside down on a serving plate so the bottom layer is now the top layer. Cut into thin slices and serve lukewarm as it is or with vanilla ice-cream, if you prefer.
While my Bebinca wasn’t perfect, I was quite happy with the way it turned out. It tasted good though it could have been a bit moister. I think I needed to thin my batter out a bit. My layers needed to be thinner and darker in colour. I was a bit worried about overcooking the Bebinca so I think I need to cook the layers a little longer.
Like the Auntie who gave me recipe told me, “it’s quite nice, but you need more practice. You need to get things wrong so that you can learn from the mistakes and become good.” I shall be making Bebinca again, and the next time it will be under her supervision.
This is my last post for this year and I’m saying my goodbyes to it on a sweet note. My thanks for all your good wishes and support which makes my blogging here a pleasure. My best wishes to you all that the coming year is all that you wish for and much more. See you all on the other side of 2011.