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.