All the vibrant colors: That’s how baker and cookbook author Abi Balingit remembers the polvoron of her childhood — a rainbow of colorful wrappers in a big box. The yellow one, she recalls, meant classic polvoron, sweet, buttery, and flavored with just toasted flour and powdered milk. “I grew up eating a lot of Goldilocks polvoron,” says Balingit, referring to the Filipino bakery chain with locations in her home state of California.
Thanks to their Spanish origins, polvoron and polvorones can refer to a confusing array of confections: Mexican sugar cookies, Spanish almond-flecked shortbreads, the powdered sugar-covered nut balls sometimes known as “Russian tea cakes.” For Filipinos, polvoron doesn’t require nuts, just crumbly shortbread to which flavors like ube and coffee can be added.
In Balingit’s debut cookbook Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, out on February 28 from HarperCollins, polvoron are particularly eye-catching delights, with crushed freeze-dried fruit adding an extra dose of color and flavor. And like everything in Mayumu, it’s not exactly traditional, but Balingit’s own playful version of something she loved growing up.
Mayumu — which means “sweet” in Kapampangan, the Filipino language that Balingit’s family speaks — is the manifestation of Balingit’s Bay Area upbringing. In addition to her mom’s Filipino desserts, Balingit, who is a friend, grew up on treats from Mexican paleterías, Vietnamese restaurants, and the all-American snack aisle. Those influences carry into her recipes: Her pichi-pichi, a chewy cassava-based Filipino dessert, is made with Mexican chamoy; her chocolate chip cookies include apple cider vinegar, bay leaves, and pink peppercorns, evoking Filipino adobo; her leche flan is topped with chai masala.
Baking was Balingit’s entry point to Filipino food, catalyzed by the pandemic. “Before the pandemic, I feel like my relationship with Filipino food was very much going to restaurants,” she says. “To cook Filipino food on my own, or even to bake, was something that I didn’t really tap into until there was no place to go.” Through baking, she could not only revisit comforting flavors and nostalgic desserts but also play around with them. In doing so, she made a new community for herself: Inspired by Bakers Against Racism, Balingit often shares treat boxes, the proceeds of which go to mutual aid efforts. Accordingly, her recipe for polvoron is fit to be shared, yielding 80 colorful cookies ready for a dessert swap.
But for all her riffs on the classics, Balingit is mindful of all her sources of inspiration. “I think that the process of [writing Mayumu] has given me much more appreciation for everyone who’s done it before me,” she says. “Without people making the traditional Filipino food and Filipino desserts, I wouldn’t know how to make a jumping point off that or play around with flavors as much.”
Rainbow Fruit Polvoron (Shortbread Cookies) Recipe
Makes 80 cookies
Polvoron are crumbly Filipino shortbread cookies that come in an assortment of flavors ranging from peanut to pinipig. I’m a big fan of adding freeze-dried fruits to my polvoron because they brighten the flavor of the cookies without altering their trademark powdery consistency. I always see a variety of bags of freeze-dried fruits at Trader Joe’s. It’s fun to bring them home, crush up the fruits, and add more color and life to any batch of cookies you make. There are special stainless steel polvoron molders you can buy from Filipino stores, but I never see them in my neck of the woods. However, I do have a ton of fun plunger cutter shapes that do the job.
2 ounces assorted freeze-dried fruits (I like to use raspberry, mango, banana, etc., for a variety of flavors!)
1⅔ cups all-purpose flour
⅔ cup whole milk powder
½ cup sugar
¼ teaspoon kosher salt
1¼ cups (2½ sticks) unsalted butter
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
Assorted gel food coloring
Step 1: Depending on how many different flavors of freeze-dried fruits you have, divide them equally into separate plastic snack bags. Seal the bags and use a rolling pin to pulverize them. Once ground to a powder, set aside.
Step 2: Place the flour in a large saucepan. Cook over low heat, stirring occasionally with a rubber spatula, for 10 to 12 minutes, or until the flour turns light brown and fragrant. Turn off the heat and transfer the toasted flour to a large bowl.
Step 3: Add the whole milk powder, sugar, and salt to the bowl. Whisk together until all of the ingredients are well combined.
Step 4: Place the butter in a medium microwave-safe bowl and microwave in 30-second intervals until completely melted. Stir in the vanilla. While still warm, add the butter mixture to the flour mixture.
Step 5: Divide the crumbly polvoron dough into different bowls, based on the number of flavors you want to make.
Step 6: Mix a freeze-dried fruit into each bowl by hand. Add drops of your choice of gel food coloring to tint the different dough flavors. It helps to wear gloves during this process so you don’t stain your hands
Step 7: Line two baking sheets with parchment paper. Form desired polvoron shapes by packing the mixture into your polvoron molder or plunger cutter. It’s best to shape the polvoron when the dough is still warm, so feel free to pop your bowl in the microwave for 10 to 15 seconds if you feel like the mixture has gotten cold. Be careful not to press the mixture in too hard or it will get stuck in the mold. Release each shaped polvoron onto the prepared baked sheets.
Step 8: Once you’re done shaping each polvoron, place the baking sheets in the fridge and chill for at least 1 hour to allow the polvoron to set.
Step 9: After chilling, you can wrap each one individually in tissue paper or cellophane. Alternatively, you can skip that step and serve the polvoron on a plate. Store any leftovers in an airtight container at room temperature for up to 1 week.
Reprinted with permission from Mayumu by Abi Balingit, copyright © 2023. Published by Harvest, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
Photography by Nico Schinco, copyright © 2023.