I learned of Chari Reyes a few months ago, while researching the Ensaymada Project. With a modest production kitchen tucked away in Tustin, she perfected a recipe for a doughy, sweet Filipino dessert I grew up on. I met with Chari between batches to elaborate on family, baking and her messed-up commute.
How would you describe an ensaymada to someone unfamiliar? It is a really soft dough, rolled and snailed [swirled] by hand with the best butter. It is then allowed to rise and baked to a very, very light golden brown. When slightly cooled, our original one is smothered in sweet buttercream, and then dusted with Parmesan cheese. It has to be super-soft, with a melt-in-your-mouth feel. If you've had the right one, you'd want to eat the whole dozen. Of course, we have stretched the boundaries of the classic Filipino versions and have added a lot of American flavors.
What is your beverage of choice? Vanilla matcha [green tea] latte from Peet's Coffee.
Best culinary tip for the home cook: Believe in your product, knowing that if you can make your kids happy at home with it, the world can and will follow. They are my worst critics.
You're making breakfast. What are you having? An omelet with spinach and freshly brewed coffee. And always an ensaymada on the side.
Can you tell us the secret to making a perfect ensaymada? The secret is to never rush them. From the first proof to snailing to the second proof, we pay so much attention to each one, snailing them to perfection. It must be done by hand.
What is your favorite flavor? The new red velvet.
Where was your most recent meal? Smoked salmon made by hand by my husband, along with braised short ribs and lentil soup. Your earliest food memory: Growing up, I always had what's called arroz caldo--rice in chicken soup with a bit of saffron, which gives it a yellow tinge. And of course, we always had my mother's homemade ensaymadas around the house.
Your best recent food find: Absolutely love the yakitori at Torihei in Torrance, especially the liver in teriyaki sauce.
Favorite places to eat (besides your own): Santouka Ramen, Korean barbecue and Islands.
Most undervalued ingredient: Probably fish sauce, otherwise known as patis. Anything is elevated to umami level with it.
Culinarily speaking, Orange County has the best: Pho, especially the one with oxtail meat.
Strangest thing you've ever eaten: OMG, the Rocky Mountain oysters at Harris Ranch! I thought they were oysters, except the texture, taste and cheap price made me a tad suspicious. Only to realize as each bite came through what they really were. I almost threw up.
Weirdest customer request (and did you do it?): We recently attended the Las Vegas Foodie Fest with our friends at the White Rabbit food truck. They make amazing Filipino fusion food, such as a to-die-for pork sisig. [The truck is] named after the Chinese candy, White Rabbit. Anyway, a customer came up and asked for a rabbit-flavored ensaymada. After a little back and forth and realizing what he was asking for, it took all we had to not bust out laughing. And no, we did not have any rabbit ensaymadas.
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Favorite meal growing up: I loved my mom's "meal in one," as we called it. It was spaghetti noodles topped with corned beef, corn kernels and bread crumbs with some butter chunks. It was baked to create a crispy crust. It sounds like a strange combination, but it introduced the term "delicious" to me.
When is the storefront coming? I see it rising next year.
Learn more about Chari's dessert at www.ensaymadaproject.com.