Born and raised in the Bay Area, we grew up as “an American of Filipino descent.” At least, that's how our Dad explained it. While our heritage was Pacific Islander (or 'Asian', as we usually checked off), we immersed ourselves in American culture. This resulted in a love/hate relationship with ethnic food– specifically Filipino cuisine. It took longer for us to appreciate certain tastes beyond lumpia and pancit. However, one of our fondest memories was choosing dessert from the local bakery after Sunday mass. Ensaymadas in particular were our weakness. Creamy frosting, salty cheese and bits of ham incorporated into a doughy mass turned any “No” into an “Okay!”.
When we heard about Bill Bracken, our initial thought was his departure from DivBar in Newport Beach. Besides his non-profit, Bracken's Kitchen, he's been working on something delicious in the kitchen. Collaborating with his wife, Molly, Ramon and Ramon's wife, Chari, they conceptualized The Ensaymada Project. As the token Filipina in this Forker family, we became obsessed with learning more.
The ninth of 11 children, baking was a part of Chari's upbringing in the Philippines. She taught special eduction and ran a successful baking business for three years (when school wasn't in session). After a chance meeting with Ramon while vacationing in California, the couple ultimately got married and had four children. Over a decade after her previous baking career, Chari relaunched on the mainland in 2010. 30,000 ensaymadas and a Cottage Food license later, she is a dedicated partner of the project, perfecting her recipe over the last few years.
Ramon grew up in a food-centric family as well. He helped with the family business, packing specialty Filipino condiments created by his grandmother. His love of food led to culinary school, graduating from the Culinary Institute of America in New York. Most notably, Ramon worked at Spago under Wolfgang Puck and for Bruce's Kitchen, doing catering for many television shows. But it was during his time at The Peninsula Beverly Hills where he developed a professional relationship with Bracken. Ramon assisted Bill when he opened DivBar, occasionally bringing some of Chari's desserts.
The Peninsula was also where Molly would meet Bill. While in college, she worked two jobs. Mornings were spent assisting her father's seafood business prepping fish. At night, she served in a restaurant. A baker at heart, Molly was earning her Masters in Hospitality Management from Cornell before moving from New York to California to gain restaurant manager experience at The Peninsula.
According to Bill, “There's nothing more opinionated, nothing that involves more passion than food.” Bracken's list of culinary accolades include graduating with honors from CIA, being named Chef of the Year by the California Restaurant Writers Association and earning the AAA Five Diamond award a dozen times while overseeing The Belvedere as Executive Chef of The Peninsula Beverly Hills.
Ensaymadas aren't just a Filipino treat. They have ties to Argentina, Puerto Rico and other countries. Its cross-cultural appeal makes this pastry more universal than others. Eaten as breakfast, dessert or a snack, The Ensaymada Project specializes in five flavors at the moment: Original, Mocha Nutella, Cinnamada, Maple Bacon and Ube (purple yam). Coconut and sweet mango cream tastes are in development. Bracken also wants to expand into more savory bites, with sundried tomato and basil and a truffle variety on their to-do list.
While their original idea was to open a walk-in bakery, they are currently an online business only. Each and every ensaymada is rolled out, 'snailed' into its signature shape and packaged by hand. Big things come in small packages, and these buttery pastries easily induce food coma. We wish The Ensaymada Project the best in bringing one of our childhood favorites into the mainstream. It's about time.
Learn more about The Ensaymada Project at www.ensaymadaproject.com.