Self-taught baker Abi Balingit, 28, didn’t plan to have her own cookbook when she started her baking blog, theduskykitchen.com, in August 2020, but a month later, a message from a literary agent on Twitter followed the course for what became Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed, which was released by Harvest, a lifestyle imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, on February 28, 2023.
Abi’s dessert cookbook, Mayumu, which means “sweet” in her family’s mother tongue Kapampangan (one of the major languages of the 187 spoken in the Philippines), features 75 mouthwatering recipes that combine Filipino classics with whimsical fusion concepts like strawberry shortcake sapin-sapin (a layered rice cake inspired by the Good Humor ice cream bar), adobo chocolate chip cookies (they’re exactly what they sound like — chocolate chip cookies with the savory notes of the tangy Filipino adobo dish), halo-halo baked Alaska (a gorgeous reimagination of the already photogenic shaved ice dessert), and more.
The deliciously designed cookbook is organized into five parts as an homage to the places that have influenced Abi: starting with Pampanga, Philippines where her parents immigrated from, to San Jose, California where she was born, to Stockton where she grew up and Berkeley for her time at UC Berkeley, then to Brooklyn, New York, where she lives now and where her baking blog and cookbook were born.
Here, Abi and I talked about how she came up with her scrumptious ideas, how her personal style reflects in her dessert creations and tips for new bakers.
Joann Natalia Aquino: Let’s start from the beginning. You started baking as a hobby at 13, then at 17, your mom gifted you your first KitchenAid mixer, which you still use today. What sparked your interest in baking and do you remember the first dessert you made?
Abi Balingit: My earliest memories of making desserts in the kitchen was actually helping my mom with maja blanca (coconut pudding with corn) and also with her cassava cake. Anytime she needed me to pour the cans of evaporated milk into the bowl or if she needed me to stir the coconut flakes if she was putting it on top of the maja blanca, those are my earliest, earliest memories. But the first thing I ever baked on my own, which may sound basic, was vanilla cupcakes — I think it was just the easiness of making cupcakes and how little time it took instead of baking a full on cake.
JNA: When did you start experimenting with different flavors in your baking?
AB: I think that for what I’m known for now, especially with the sweet/salty/savory combinations in baking, really happened during the pandemic. So I feel like it started in the summer of 2020 when I started to experiment a lot more with flavors that I was nostalgic for, especially the Filipino ones. I think a lot of it also had to do with feeling comfortable after you’ve been baking for a while and you feel more playful and creative with your flavor combinations — and that’s exactly what happened in tandem with starting the baking blog to document my baking journey and the desserts I made during the pandemic, including the pasalubong treat boxes as a fundraiser to support mutual aid organizations.
JNA: How did you get the ideas to combine unconventional ingredients to refashion classical Filipino treats?
AB: I think I got a lot of the inspiration by going through grocery aisles and picking up ingredients that I loved as a kid. All the inspirations are very diverse, but it does have a lot to do with what I missed as a kid and what I loved to eat. I also made sure to pull inspiration from not just sweet desserts and candy, but also savory Filipino dishes… It’s really cool to note that I’m not necessarily always going too out of the box, but I think it does add something to the collective whole of recipes that are familiar but with new iterations of it. I’m really proud of the elements of the cookbook that are very much new and playful and fresh.
JNA: I love how there are so many recipes in your book that incorporate the sour, salty, spicy and umami flavors with sweets. I was especially excited by your use of bagoong (a pungent fermented seafood paste many Filipinos once used to hide for its funky aroma) in the spicy bagoong caramels and kare-kare cookies. What made you include bagoong in your dessert recipes?
AB: For bagoong, I was seeing common trends like peanut butter and miso cookies, and so, I thought anything fermented and salty has a lot of room for experimentation. Also, one of my favorite dishes growing up was kare-kare (a peanut butter-based stew), and I wanted to take those flavors from kare-kare and be able to balance them well where it’s still a dessert – adding a little bit of bagoong goes a long way. And I just always have bagoong in my fridge because I love it as a condiment. Sometimes fishiness is something that a lot of Westerners are afraid of, but bagoong or fish sauce in desserts is similar to how I think about people eating bacon and maple syrup.
JNA: Your cookbook is so eye-catching, cheerful and surely one to hold on to or give as a gift. In your own words, how would you describe your personal style and how does your style reflect in the desserts that you make?
AB: I would describe my personal style as vibrant, eclectic and fun! I really gravitate towards wearing an abundance of color and prints. Whenever I shop for clothes, I especially love upcycled pieces and thrifted gems.
My bubbly personality and style show up in the diverse range of desserts that I make. It’s a joy to take risks with flavor combinations and punching up the color of many of my bakes. I consider myself a maximalist person and baker.
JNA: What advice would you give to a new baker?
AB: This might be a cliché, but patience is essential in baking and in your life. I think that it’s never too late to start baking, but it’s also never too late to have new dreams and new goals with baking. And that’s kind of exactly what happened to me during the pandemic — the cookbook wasn’t really the goal and intention of starting the blog, but it just happened that way… I really root for any baker or anyone to have patience with themselves. There’s a lot of ups and downs that happen and you just have to have faith in the end result.
JNA: What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self who just started baking?
AB: I think my biggest advice to her besides clean as you go, would be that it’s okay to feel like you don’t know everything. I think there’s so much there when you don’t say that you’re an expert and you don’t claim that and you allow yourself to grow… I hope that the younger version of me at 13 who’s just starting to bake realizes that there’s a long way to go and the journeys that we have can take many different turns, but it’s okay to just be okay with uncertainties and to give yourself enough room for the spontaneous things to happen.
JNA: What’s ahead for you?
AB: My main focus is this book right now. I definitely want to keep baking more — I haven’t been able to bake as much pre-writing the book, and I’m taking a really long hiatus from my blog itself and from baking for pop ups and the pasalubong treat boxes. I really hope to return to that and the roots of that. But if anyone wants me for a TV show or wants me to do anything, I am game for it.
Mayumu: Filipino American Desserts Remixed is now available at various online and local booksellers. Abi Balingit will be at Book Larder in Seattle (4252 Fremont Ave. N.) on Friday, June 2, 2023 from 6:30pm-8pm. More event info here. Follow Abi’s baking journey via theduskykitchen.com, or on Instagram at @theduskykitchen.
Joann Natalia Aquino is a traveling freelance journalist, a publicist, an arts marketer, and a traditional herbal medicine practitioner. She is a lifelong student of life, mind/body/spirit wellness, plant medicine, indigenous foodways and pre-colonial Philippine traditions. On Instagram: @missaquino