|Cup of sugar: Pastillas de Leche à la Mila|
*Update: Read about the special paper-cutting art of pabalat, decorative candy wrappers for pastillas de leche here.*
"Just a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down,
In a most delightful way."
--From 'A Spoonful of Sugar' in Mary Poppins,
Music & lyrics by Robert M. Sherman and Richard M. Sherman
Long before it was enshrined in saccharine song by a practically perfect nanny, sweetening bitter pills and potions has been a mother's best strategy when nursing fractious youngsters back to health. I remember my own childhood bouts of sickness, when Mama would mix crushed baby aspirin with a teaspoon of milk and a sprinkle of sugar to mask the chalky medicine taste. It was still awful, but choking it down was made easier by that little bit of sweetness.
The idea of making medicaments more palatable with pleasant flavorings is as old as pharmacology itself - not surprising given that some concoctions found in ancient pharmacopoeia sound worse than any ailment:
"The compilation of remedies in the Papyrus Ebers [ca. 1550 BC] consists of 700 drugs and 800 prescriptions... From the plant kingdom, the Egyptians obtained peppermint, saffron, lotus flower, linseed, henbane*, anise, colocynth*, and other items, while the animal kingdom supplied lizard's blood, swine's teeth, putrid meat, stinking fat, milk, moisture from pigs' ears, and excreta from humans, donkeys, antelopes, dogs, cats and flies." *poisonous plants
[Ethel Thompson in 'Doctors, Doctrines and Drugs in Ancient Times', n.p.]
|From medieval pharmacy . . . |
(Photo credit: Wikimedia.com)
It's doubtful whether any amount of sugar-coating would have made these medicinals remotely agreeable. Thankfully, 21st century pharmaceuticals have relegated such noxious nostrums to ancient history and replaced them with easy-to-swallow caplets and fruit-flavored syrups. However, one form of sweetened medicine, minus the dubious ingredients, endures as - what else? - an actual sweet.
Pastilles: From Cures to Candies
Today, the word pastille brings to mind chocolate drops and fruit jellies, an affiliation which some sources credit to the popular sweetmeats of Giovanni Pastilla, a 17th century confectioner in the court of French queen Marie de Medici. However, a more likely etymology of the term traces further back, to the Latin pastillus ('small loaf' or 'little roll'), which fits well with an earlier and more widespread use of the word to describe both a type of incense and medication - small oblong or round pellets consisting of compressed herbs for burning and of viscous liquid solidified in sugar-dusted moulds for ingestion.
|. . . to modern candy shop|
(Photo credit: filippo_jean/flickr)
The jump from cures to candies wasn't a stretch: food historians agree that many of today's confections were cooked up from medicinals, such as marshmallows, jujubes and licorice. Unlike these tidbits, which are now best known as sweets, pastilles continue to straddle the line between remedy and treat. Products such as throat-soothing Gerther's Pastilles and the digestive aid Pastilles de Vichy are marketed as much for their candy-like characteristics as for their original medicinal properties, while brightly colored Rowntree's Fruit Pastilles still bear the term, though the tablets are now strictly for sweet tooth satisfaction. And don't forget chocolate: Droste Pastilles, in their distinctive hexagonal packaging, are the perfect convergence of health and happiness - what better way to pep up low energy or a heavy mood than with some cocoa therapy?
Pastillas: Soaps, Soups, Tweets and Sweets
In addition to its translation as pill, tablet, lozenge, etc., the Spanish cognate pastilla is used to describe various non-medicinal items shaped in bar or cube forms, such as soaps (pastillas de jabón) and soup stock cubes (pastillas de caldo). It is also the name given to a traditional Moroccan squab (pigeon) pie.¹ But in the Philippines, pastilla has a singular, significant connotation.
|'Our Own': Tasty pasalubong for sale|
Ask a Filipino to name his or her favorite native sweet and chances are that many will pick pastillas de leche. Made from a simple mixture of sugar and milk (preferably carabao, or water buffalo) boiled down to a thickened paste and rolled in more sugar, pastillas are practically synonymous with pasalubong - a special gift or souvenir, usually representative of indigenous Filipino culture and often a food item. Although it bears a strong similarity to dulce de leche and caramel candies in base ingredients and cooking technique, a pastilla de leche is neither as smoothly viscous as the former nor as chewy as the latter. Instead, variations can have consistencies ranging from soft cookie dough to the granular firmness of maple sugar candy. But is this sufficient difference to make pastillas de leche a uniquely Filipino sweet?
Boiling It Down
The history and origins of pastillas de leche are somewhat murky. Many references I found online categorize this confection as a native adaptation of a Spanish food, but it seems more of an assumption based on the Spanish name than on actual provenance. I could not find a similar candy bearing the same label in any Hispanic-based cuisines, other than 'pastillas de leche de burra', or donkey's milk tablet. Though it sounds promising as a possible precursor to Pinoy pastillas, what little information is available describes a hard candy that first appeared in Spanish pharmacies between the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and was marketed as a nutritional supplement and cough drop for children. In contrast, Filipinos may have been making pastillas de leche well before this period and descriptions do not mention any palliative purpose, other than as a cure for homesickness.
Perhaps the name is only a borrowed tag, to give a simple native sweet a bit of colonial cachet, as theorized by Jaime Veneracion in his paper "The 'Hispanization' of the Filipino":
"But because [Spanish dishes] came as the food of the colonizer, they entered at the level of domination. To the Filipinos, these thus symbolized status or 'class' that may only be consumed during special occasions such as fiestas and anniversaries... In some instances, when the Chinese and other Filipinos wanted to create the impression of being exotic, Spanish names had been given to what appeared as common dishes."²
While it's possible that pastillas de leche were so named to give it a more sosyal (elite) connotation, the more likely explanation is rather benign. One need only think back to the etymology of pastilla, then look at the Filipino sweet's traditional shape: an inch-long piece of confection rolled into a small, sugar-covered loaf... Still, why a Spanish name and not a native one? Though the candy recipe itself does not appear to have a direct Spanish antecedent, it is rooted in Spanish colonial influence.
|Elite Filipino mestizos|
(Photo from Wikimedia.org)
Nearly everyone³ agrees that pastillas de leche originated in the province of Bulacan, located north of Manila. This proximity to the seat of colonial rule in the Philippines made it an important source for the city's supply of various goods, which were produced on large estates owned by Spanish Catholic friars. The province was also home to many of a class of Filipino intellectuals called Ilustrados, who were expected to be educated in Spain and speak fluent Español in order to claim this social status⁴. Given that it was essentially a lingua franca of Bulacan, it is really no surprise that a Spanish name would be bestowed on a food created there.
Saints Alive! Or Make One Up...
|(Photo credit: Wikipedia.org)|
As for the confection itself, the only thing religious about it is the devotion shown by many Filipinos for its sweet taste. Pastillas de leche production is thought to be as old as the town of San Miguel and today, Bulacan remains the center of pastillas-making, with as many as 200 producers province-wide. Most of them are home-based businesses - a vestige of how the candy came about as a way for local farm families to use excess carabao milk, which spoiled very easily in the days before pasteurization. The traditional recipe calls only for milk, sugar and dayap zest (native lime) to be slowly cooked in a copper pot until the mixture is reduced to a thickened paste, which is then cooled, shaped into small 'loaves', rolled in granulated sugar and wrapped in colorful cellophane or papel de hapon (tissue paper) wrappers.
|(Photo credit: Lucius Catalan/flickr)|
Aficionados will insist that pastillas made with carabao's milk are the best tasting: richer, thanks to a higher fat content (compared to cow's or goat's milks), and more flavorful, with a salty undertone that heightens the sweetness. Nowadays, shortcuts abound with the use of sweetened condensed and powdered milks, while flavors and textures have gone beyond the soft, milky, hint-of-citrus original. As with so many foods in the Philippines, there seems to be a different variation of pastillas for every town or province.
The following is just a sample of those variations:
A Parade of Pastillas
Pastillas de Ube at de Langka
from Bulacan Sweets in Quezon
Essentially flavored pastillas de leche, these are made with the addition of purple yam paste (ube halaya) and jackfruit. While the flavor of ube is lovely, I'm always more enamored of the deep violet hue it gives to food, while langka has such a delicious mango-pineapple taste that I can't resist.
|(front to back) Pastillas de Langka, Ube & Leche|
Pastillas de Yema
from Sevilla Sweets in San Miguel, Bulacan
It's a perfect union between two of the sweetest and most beloved Filipino confections. Pastillas are made with egg yolks, giving them a light golden color and the rich egg custard flavor that is the hallmark of yema - an unequivocally Spanish confection that was enthusiastically adopted by sweet-tooths all over the Philippines.
Pastillas de Leche
from Rosie's Home Made in Boac, Marinduque
These pastillas are traditional in taste and texture, but are notable for their delicate shape. I can only imagine how long and with what skill it takes to roll out these impossibly slender sticks...
Pastillas de Patatas and de Kamote
from Maring's in Boac, Marinduque
In addition to the usual milk and sugar, mashed potatoes - both regular and sweet - are used in these versions. Their texture was not much different from classic pastillas, but the potatoes did impart a rather unappealing greyish tint to the candies. While I enjoyed the patatas version, the kamote had an odd, musty taste that I could not pinpoint. I wasn't a fan, but I'm willing to try from another producer if given the opportunity.
Pastillas de Leche, Zambales-style
from Gabriel & Rayn's in Nagcarlan, Laguna
Pastillas come in both a soft form and a more firm, brittle type that is achieved by cooking the mixture for a longer period of time. I learned that these candies are called Zambales-style, after the province of that name; unfortunately, I have not found any information to explain the connection. This particular product had an assertive caramel flavor and darker color than most pastillas, which leads me to wonder if it uses muscovado (unrefined brown sugar) instead of white sugar. Looks like I need to do some more research...
Mila's Pastillas de Leche
from Mila of Mogpog, Marinduque
These special pastillas were made from a family recipe and my first taste of them came during Holy Week last April, when Mila gave them as a gift. I loved them so much, she made another huge batch just for me. Spoiled! The special ingredient in this variation is coconut, but not just any coconut. Mila uses fresh bingi (meaning 'deaf'), the stage of coconut between the jelly-like buko (young coconut) and chewy niyog (firm mature coconut). Identifying a coconut at the bingi stage is left to seasoned coconut-pickers and the best chance to find one is when they are being harvested. Otherwise, they are nearly impossible to source in a grocery store. But don't despair...
Which pastilla would you like to try?
¹ Moroccan pastilla is pronounced bis-TEE-ya and is alternately spelled bstilla or bistiyya, among many other variants. It is perhaps closer in root to the Spanish word pastel, meaning 'pie'.
² Veneracion mentions pastillas de leche in reference to fiesta food; positing that it was so named for the purpose of appropriating the social cachet of the Spanish elite in colonial Philippines is my own opinion.
³ 'Everyone', that is, except for some people in the neighboring province of Pampanga, who cite the fact that the founders of San Miguel de Mayumo, where pastillas originated, planned for the town to be located in their province, as well as its partly-Kapampangan name.
⁴Cullinane, Michael. Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898-1908. Manila: Ateneo de Manila U P, 2005. p30.
⁴Cullinane, Michael. Ilustrado Politics: Filipino Elite Responses to American Rule, 1898-1908. Manila: Ateneo de Manila U P, 2005. p30.
Pastillas de Leche à la Mila
Confession: the gallon-sized container of Mila's pastillas that I brought back from our Easter vacation didn't make it past the end of April. She has promised to share her recipe the next time we visit, but with no such prospects in the near future, I couldn't wait. Starting with a basic no-cook recipe, I considered reasonable substitutes for the special bingi - using buko might add too much moisture that would prevent the mixture from setting firmly enough to roll, while niyog could alter the texture and make the pastillas too lumpy. Happily, I found a compromise that provides just the right amount of coconut flavor. Depending on how long it is cooked, Mila's pastillas can turn out either soft or brittle in consistency; my version yields a more fudgy texture.
1 small can (168ml) sweetened condensed milk
140g powdered milk
150g powdered coconut milk
1 Tbsp grated dayap or lime peel
1-2 Tbsps butter
In a metal or glass bowl, combine condensed milk, both milk powders and grated peel; stir well. Set bowl over a pot of gently boiling water, add butter and stir mixture until well-blended. Remove from heat and allow to cool. Refrigerate until mixture is firm enough to scoop one tablespoon and shape into small log. Roll in granulated sugar to coat then place candy diagonally on a 3"x3" square of cellophone. Wrap tightly and twist ends to secure.
Pastillas de leche will keep in the refrigerator for about two weeks.
If you'd like to try a traditional recipe, check out this recipe for classic Pastillas de Leche from the Carabaos Milk website.