Boholano/Cebuano “tortas” are just one of those enigmas I have not been able to resolve over the nearly 10 years of writing this blog. On the one hand, my mother, who adored the tortas of her childhood, waxed poetic about special, often fiesta specific cakes that made them sound like the pinnacle of cakes and pastry. Broken down to the basics, as I understand them to be, these cakes are traditionally (and historically correct) made with the following critical ingredients: flour, eggs, lard (rather than butter), tuba (in place of yeast), sugar, and anise seed for that crucial flavor that distinguishes this cake from many others made of the same ingredients. Baked in pans say 4-6 inches wide, the resulting cakes are good for sharing between 3-4 people, depending on one’s appetite. Over the course of this blog, I have tried to come up with a “good” (I know, relative) or “authentic” torta recipe and despite hundreds of tortas baked, have failed thus far. It’s sort of like my epic failure at producing a consistently good white puto despite dozens of attempts.
I wrote about another source of Boholano tortas before, here, as well as a look at leaden Southern Cebu (Argao) tortas, here and these quite traditionally made tortas from a Marketmanila reader’s mom in Naga, Cebu, here. I tried to make a snazzy upscale Spanish-Cebuano family recipe here (utterly delicious, but lacking many of the traditional ingredients) and spent a day cooking up EIGHT batches of experimental tortas to less than splendid results, here. I also wrote about Myra Sun’s delicious ham infused tortas, here, which were commercially for sale in Cebu a few years back. So when I spied these freshly baked tortas at Osang’s in Baclayon, Bohol, recently, I was a bit giddy with excitement.
Osang’s has been our family’s source for the best broas (ladyfingers) in the country (yes, I say that confidently) since the 1960’s or so, and figured they must have an equally spectacular torta recipe as well. They don’t normally make tortas, but this just happened to be a couple of days before the town fiesta nearby, and their blackboard was filled with orders and they still managed to spare four of them for us to buy on the spot to take to our hotel and enjoy later that day.
Baked in their clay oven fired with wood and charcoal, these certainly looked like they were going to be wonderful. When we cut into and devoured one of the cakes later that day, they turned out to be not as traditional as I might have hoped. They definitely used yeast instead of tuba or coconut toddy, and while there might have been some pork lard, it’s more likely they used vegetable shortening or some butter mixed in with the shortening. There was hardly any trace of anise seed or flavoring and the top was simply sprinkled with sugar. It was, unfortunately, not as spectacular as I was hoping it would be.
Perhaps tortas the way I perceive them to have been, just aren’t a thing of today. Maybe it’s too expensive to make them with enough eggs, butter/lard and anise to make them economically viable. But I still would like to come up with a version I can call my own. Even if it has to be a 21st century take on an old classic.