Food - The Magazine of Good Cooking


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(Also for Those on their Third debut!)

February, 1997 

By Nancy T. Reyes

We may not have developed the wine culture under the Spaniards, but we inherited the “sweet tooth” from them and their helpless indulgence with caramel, butter, egg yolks, sugar and cream. In Asia, we make the best "Western style" desserts; in our country, bakeshops do a lot of good business everywhere, whether the goods come from the private kitchens and are handmade by family members or are from commissaries as huge as warehouses and are manufactured by machines. (Small wonder in all of Asia, we also have the best dental practitioners.)

Food-Magazine-Feb-97---EstrelsThe formula of any “sweet” venture here follows this pattern: you bake your best bet desserts, give them away to friends as gifts to sample and then wait for comments and orders. Eventually and if the desserts are really good, the investment of goodwill and sampling returns tenfold from friends and friends of friends, neighbors, relatives. Pretty soon your circle of customers reaches the nth degree word-of-mouth. By this stage, you would know if your products can give you good business such that when you’ve boxed and ribbon the 250th cake within five months, you start and thinking convection ovens, 50-gallon mixers, 50-kilo flour sacks.

But here’s one success story that stuck to the good, old ways: staying and small specialized; keeping to handmade and made-to-order; not compromising on quality and volume, and keeping faithful to a good, old-fashioned recipe.

You must taste the best, traditional caramel-butter cake I have ever taste. The satiny, caramel-iced chiffon cake, bedecked with handmade butter flowers in peach, pink and pastel green got me feeling the sweet sixteen stuff all over again, like my blowing 16 pink candles on such a lady-like cake, and watching how the butter icing roses slowly melted from around the little flames. Even now as “caramel, butter icing, and chiffon cake” translate to me as fat, cholesterol and guilt-rich calories, the tiny voices inside my mind need not convince me to go for a second slice (better yet the corners), and even invade the un-sliced parts for more butter roses to put onto my slice. Without blinking, I can even clean up the sides of the cakes where some more icing has been left. One just cannot have enough of an Estrel’s cake. Perhaps it’s because sweet sixteen memories “taste” so good.


And here’s unbelievable news: Estrel’s cake are still being made by humans! The butter roses are piped by hand and the caramel icing is mixed by hand, the oldest cake decorator is 60 years old, Floring Carillo, who can pipe out perfect roses with her eye close closed, or while watching TV, or probably even if she’s asleep! She was taught by the founder Estrella (Estrel) Ylagan, her sister Alice Ylagan Navarro, and by a cousin Hermenegilda Macasaet. On top of the decorating skills acquired from Miss Estrel, the habit of being productivity occupied (for example, you can watch TV but don’t twiddle your thumbs) became the legacy of all whose lives were touched by her. The success story of Estrel’s Cakes is the best told by youngest surviving sister of the late “Manang Estrel,” Alive Y. Navarro, the faithful who inherited the business—the recipes, the baking secrets, the long list of the three generations of loyal customer.

In this age of bromide-laced flour and dough improvers, where every other croissants taste like artificial butter flavoring brushed on twisted Manila hemp, one cannot toss aside the cynical yet helpless regard for modern bakery products. Nobody has the time nor the energy anymore to produce anything by hand what machines do, and do faster. Somehow the Estrel’s way does not fit into the fastfood/”fastbake” mode because much of the old method of preparing the cake (based on the original recipe) is retained. Nothing has been modified except for the shift from Maria Y. Orosa clay oven (which cooked with live coals) to the now 40-year old Universal Chef oven; and from the hand beating the batter, the meringue and the folding in of cake batter to the use of the smallest size N50 Hobart mixer..

Now hear this. They have a helper who can beat as much as three pounds or six bars of butter to fineness, by hand with wooden spatula, yet still keep the butter firm. (We must check out her chest exercises.)

HeartShapedCake_EstrelsThe old oven can only hold four regular pans, which means the recipes are not (over)stretched by the hundreds of yields. They will not pre-prep more than three multiples of recipe. Technically speaking, this also indicates that the oven is at work 24 hours a day, which is actually good because that’s how to maintain a constant temperature. The secret is simple: good old ovens should never be cooled down nor moved from their place. “Antique lahat ng gamit namin, pati na yang gumagawa ng cakes,” laughed Alice as she and daughter Gina shared some anecdotes. Antique, you bet. The wooden spoon used in stirring the caramel to its doneness gets its “well" all eaten up before its gets changed, mused Gina. Their Arrow brand aluminum ware are not retired till they’re obviously dented or out of shape. And there is good reason for this: Pans and utensils are best when they are “aged.” In time they get into the groove, the right gauge of thickness (or thinness) to be part of the perfected baking process.

Quality ingredients more than make up half the success story. “We never changed the recipe, nor the way we did the butter roses and their shapes, sizes and colors of tinted peach, pink and green; nor the thickness and taste of the caramel icing. Before we used GI butter during Liberation. And at that time the best milk was imported Carnation full cream milk (has to be full cream, no dilutions). Now we use Alpine or Omela (from Thailand) full cream milk for the butter icing. And we have never substituted anything for Anchor butter ever since we started using it,” professed Mrs. Navarro.

She added, “During the Liberation, we baked and decorated cakes without the use of whatever appliances we see now. Beating was all done by hand, including the butter icing which remained firm. It was in the GI butter and we never had it so good! To make cake flour, I learned to mix cornstarch to all-purpose flour.”

I attest to the cake‘s quality by its taste and texture. The caramel icing is neither too sweet nor to creamy, it is just right with a slightly burnt-sugar note that makes you want to “capture” more it. The chiffon cake itself is smooth and fine, no fish-eggy aftertaste and definitely not characterized by an artificial flavor or aroma. Its mouthfeel is likened to light-as-cloud batter: meringue with just enough flour to hold it all together. A delicate, almost hazelnut sweetness is what is what one recalls of the butter roses. Take time to let it melt in your mouth and give you that old good-fashioned pure butter-syrup sincerity. The pleasure of the butter icing is that it is not sickeningly sweet or too buttery. In fact, it is under sweetened which suits the gourmet palate and diabetics as well.

"My sister got the recipe of chiffon cake from a box of cake flour. She tried and improved on it with the now popular caramel icing which is the signature of all Estrel’s cakes with butter flowers as decoration,” said Mrs. Navarro. “The recipe has been perfected,” She was proud to say. Sin duda!

Of the mementoes left behind by Estrella Ylagan, the most prominent is the letter from U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower, who thanked her for the “fine cake sent to me at Malacanan Palace.” This was addressed to the lady behind the “fine cake” in 1962, when Estrel’s business was at its peak. Eisenhower_Estrels

But the whole thing started from something small and way before this time. It was when Estrel worked as assistant to Maria Y(lagan) Orosa at the Plant Utilization Division of the Bureau of Plant industry that she got a good exposure to the culinary prowess of her boss. MYO was able to concoct recipes for darak cookies, coconut brittle using the sapa of the niyog, pork and beans, and more. Miss Orosa was an extraordinary “foodie” in her time that she even devised a clay “oven” now named after her. (Considered an outstanding Filipino, she was killed by the Japanese and is said to be buried at the back of Malate Church, right now a foodie street.)

Estrel absorbed all her cooking techniques and mastered the Maria Y. Orosa oven on which she baked sponge cakes and jelly rolls in small rectangular pans lined with butter and flour. Later, she was to teach her youngest sister Alice the methods of baking. Alice started out as the “coal watcher."

“Using the Orosa palayok was what I got used to. I became the baker of the house. Problem was I was always on the lookout if the charcoal was just right for the cakes. Estrel would become an expert in making the butter flowers. I could never make nice-looking ones except with sugar icing.” The sisters started by giving the cakes as gifts. Later they received orders from friends and officemates.
Alice_Y_Navarro_Estrels"The shop was founded around early 1949 in Lepanto St. right in front of Selecta, in an apartment owned by the Navarros (who would become my future in-laws),” recalled Alice.  “My sister was not interested in making it a big business. She didn’t even want a sign outside. We just made cakes to order. Ayaw na niyang mag-intindi pa sa City Hall. In 1949 I got married. She didn’t want me to.” Alice then lived her first months of married life in the province but when Estrel went to the U.S. she had to manage the business, so they returned to Manila and in the apartment. Later on we moved to Recto Ave., to the Laperal Apartments and we are there till now. It is right in front of San Sebastian College. We occupy the second, third, and fourth floors. The rent used to be P80 per unit with one room. Now the rates are P22,000 for the five doors we occupy. Our patrons followed us when we moved to Recto. Most of them are conservative, old-fashioned like us. Some of them have been around since we were still young, and now it is their apos…” (Alice is now 72 but does not look it!) The names on the list of loyal customers are very familiar and “de buena.” The late Leonila Garcia, Andres Castillo (Central bank governor then); Anselmo Trinidad, Justice Carmilino Alvendia and his family; Justice Cecilia Palma, Senator Joey Lina; the Buenasedas; Castros, Isabel Ferrer-Franco; the Lontoks of Elar’s Lechon, and the Jade Vine (which orders cakes like that one for the centennial of Josefa Jara Martinez, Mrs. Ming Ramos’ mother). Some cakes are brought to the US, and lately are more being ordered for overseas. Caramel_Cake_Manila_Quezon_City

From the photos I could sense a strong character behind the frail figure of Miss Estrel in her last years. She looked like a tough cookie, a foodie who refused to stop pursuing the excellencies of food. When she was still strong and fully in the business, she did not let summer go without making her nieces and nephews do kitchen duties. There were cooking and baking classes she enrolled them in and afterwards, they would have to report to her for their lessons and practice for her to taste.

Gina remembers when she was in high school, her Manang Estrel phoned and started dictating to her the recipe for bakhlava with instructions to try immediately. Gina and older sister Joy were usually tasked to do a dish whenever she’d have parties and she loved to give them.

The children cannot forget the culinary training they received from their aunt. Today, it is an integral part of their being heirs to the business she left to the sister Alice and her kids. Looking forward, Alice opines. “It’s up to them (my children) to expand it now. All my children help out especially pag December. Two of my sons can bake.” The Navarro children are Teddy  (46), Butch (43), Bobby (42), Hector (40), Joy (38) Gina (age withheld as a favor from me), and Mia (29). And it was Gina who spoke for her generation of the Estrel traditions: “We cannot, will not compromise quality for volume of business. One person can only handbeat for so many recipe. So we are sticking to made-to-order. This is the tradition that Estrel’s Cake got built on and is still enjoying.        

An Honor Roll of Sweets


September, 2005
By Norma Chikiamco and Cherie Mijares

Caramel Cake by Estrel’s

This cake has the light, airy texture of a patiently crafted chiffon cake topped by a rich caramel frosting done the old-fashioned way. The frosting is enhanced by multi- colored flowers made of rich butter cream that one of seldom finds in bakeshops these days. Everything about Estrel’s Caramel Cake says homemade, rich and traditional, qualities that have become quite rare in today’s increasingly modernized world.

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It takes courage in this day and age to stick to product that was first developed by a dynamic lady some five decades ago. And yet the family who makes the caramel cake today has perhaps no choice but to continue baking this cake because customers love it so much. And their customers span several generations of cake lovers. Couples who had it as their wedding cake later ordered it for their children’s birthdays, and later, for their children’s birthdays. Sources even say the Estrel’s caramel cake was the wedding cake of no less than the late, much loved food critic Doreen Gamboa Fernandez, when she married her husband Willi Fernandez.