Friday, December 31, 2010

*232. Tastes Like Heaven: PAMPANGA'S SANICULAS

SAINTLY SWEETS. Saniculas cookies made with the imprint of San Nicolas de Tolentino, the miracle healer. Legend has it that he revived the sick with blessed bread mixed with water, hence the "panecillos de San Nicolas", or simply 'saniculas' in Pampanga.

Every time my parents go to San Fernando to attend to business matters, they would go home with my favorite pasalubong: packs of saniculas—those crumbly, arrow-root based cookies imprinted with the image of a saint—or so we were told. So, when I ate one, I would carefully nip the edges of the cookie and save the center for last—the part with the stylized figure of a man in relief. This, they say, is San Nicolas, the Great Miracle Healer.

San Nicolas de Tolentino, the cookie’s inspiration, is an Augustinian Recoleto who was gifted with the power of healing—through his blessed bread soaked in water. He is depicted wearing a star-dotted habit, holding a cross or a palm in one hand, and a dish on the other, with a partridge bird perched on the rim. This is in reference to a legend in which a bird served for eating was restored to life after feeding on his dish.

The Macabebe priest, Fray Felipe Tallada, wrote about this wonder worker in the first Kapampangan book published by the Augustinians in 1614. The town, in fact, has San Nicolas de Tolentino as its patron, his fiesta marked on September 10.

The celebrated miraculous bread, known as “panecillos de San Nicolas”, is known simply in Pampanga as “saniculas’. There used to be a ritual blessing of the cookies before they are distributed, although this tradition is now rarely practiced, saved for some Recollect parishes like San Sebastian where saniculas are still blessed during Masses.

The cookie itself is made using age-old techniques and ingredients like arrowroot flour (uraro), eggs, lard, dalayap (lemon rind) and coconut milk. Mrs. Lillian Lising-Borromeo, Pampanga’s culinary historian who still makes “saniculas” from heirloom recipes, insist on using homemade pork lard, instead of ordinary margarine to give the cookies better aroma, taste and texture.

The “saniculas” wooden moulds which are used to impress the dough with the distinctive imprint are interesting kitchen artifacts themselves. They are often commissioned from Betis and Bacolor carvers, and although the designs vary, the moulds always have the abstracted figure of the saint in the center, surrounded by floral, vegetal and curlicue patterns.

Kapampangan cooks treasured these uniquely-designed wooden molds, which commonly came as single blocks. Some have back-to-back designs, but most are often carved with the owner’s initials. As fine examples of folk art, “saniculas” moulds have also found their way in antique shops.

The shapes of ‘saniculas’ may also vary, and Atching Lillian—with her expert eye--could even determine the Pampanga town where the cookies were made, from their shape alone. Masantol churned out round ‘saniculas’, while Sta. Ana favored harp-shaped cookies that echo the calado transoms of old houses. The “saniculas” of San Fernando and Mexico are leaf-shaped, with pointed ends.

The shaped dough, laid out on a tray, are then ready for baking in the oven. In the olden times, a cooking contraption fed with live coals and very similar to a bibingkahan was used. Dough scraps were used to make smaller cookies called “magapuc”.

Today, it is heartening to know that my favorite ‘pasalubongs’ are still being made year-round in the aforementioned towns. Recently, I drove all the way to Mexico to buy a box of “saniculas” specially made by Atching Lillian. Wrapped in paper, the delicate, crumbly cookies with the signature image of the saint are a delight to eat, especially with hot chocolate. And ‘saniculas’ continue to work wonders—healing hunger pangs, satisfying cravings and nourishing the body with their wholesome, heavenly, homemade taste. Praise the saint who started it all!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

is there anyplace where i can buy those beautiful cookie molds?