My mother used to make us a thick hot chocolate drink or sikwate from tablea — chocolate discs made from local cocoa — using her worn out batirol: a tin jug with a wide mouth and a long wooden stick with a blunt hammer at the end, similar to a meat cleaver, which was used to pound the tablea and stir it. She was methodical and patient with this routine. While boiling milk in a stainless steel pot, she pulverised the discs until they were rough grounds, poured in the steamed milk, then whisked the stick furiously using both hands until the chocolate mixture foamed.
We had sikwate for breakfast almost everyday before going to school. This was a tradition in Cebu where I grew up: sikwate had to be made the traditional way from a batirol, with fresh ripe mangoes and budbud: a long sticky rice cake about the width of two fingers, made with coconut milk, sugar and salt, wrapped in banana leaves, and steamed for a few minutes…you just knew when to stop steaming when the banana leaves are sweaty and it smelled like a dewy morning when the rain has just stopped.
When I returned to Cebu after finishing my postgraduate course in New York, I would bring a flask of sikwate to work. Curious colleagues asked where I got my beverage from and if they could take a sip, because the entire floor, from sales & marketing to food & beverage offices, smelled the intoxicating scent of my mom’s sikwate. I had to ask my mom if I could bring a larger container so I could share her sikwate. One day, my boss asked me if mom could teach the chefs how to make authentic Cebuano sikwate. Mom was very flattered and not only demonstrated the method, she even gifted the chef with his own batirol.
Mom always had her tablea within reach everywhere she went. During her cancer treatments last year in Taiwan, she brought her portable electric cooker (I also had the exact same device; we had brought them together in Hong Kong) so she could make her sikwate at dawn, before we wheeled her to her proton therapy session.
These tablea cupcakes are my way of enshrining this memory of my mom, as well as to share it with you, dear friends and readers. The biggest lesson Mom taught me was to always be my own person while being proud of where I came from. Once upon a time, I was an energiser bunny who had transitioned from pulling all-nighters in a newsroom, to learning how to compromise and juggle intersecting tasks in a hotel environment. These days, I prefer being cocooned in the kitchen, feeding my passion and fine-tuning my flavour memories. Every time I smell chocolate, particularly from the roasted aroma of native tablea, I think of my mom and the constant comfort this brought her.
The crust is crackled and has a light crunch…am not sure if this is a result of the tablea, since it’s not finely ground or is as powdery as unsweetened cocoa. Nonetheless, it retained that smokiness of ground cocoa, and the cake is springy and moist, thanks to the olive oil. The coco sugar also lends a slight coconut taste overall.
Baking time: 35 minutes
Yields: 12 cupcakes
3/4 cup crushed tablea, around 5 discs
3/4 cup boiling water
1 cup all-purpose flour
1/2 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon sea salt
1 cup coco sugar
3/4 cup olive oil
3 large eggs
1. Heat bowl of tablea in microwave for 2 minutes on high. Gently crush the discs using a mortar or a blunt wooden utensil until it turns into thick powder. Whisk in boiling water until it becomes a smooth and runny paste. Set aside.
2. Preheat oven to 170 degrees Celsius. Line the base of a 12-piece muffin pan with cupcake paper, or in the absence of that, cut parchment paper into 12 rounds of about 5 inches in diameter, ensuring there is at least half an inch more from the top of the cupcake mould, in order to lift the cupcake with ease once baked.
3. In a separate bowl, combine flour, salt and baking soda.
4. Combine coco sugar, olive oil and eggs into the bowl of a stand mixer with the paddle attachment, or beat manually until you get a thickened cream.
5. Turn the mixer speed to the lowest point and pour in the cocoa mixture. Continue beating for a minute or two. Fold in the flour mixture. Stir with a spatula until everything is incorporated.
6. Pour batter into the cupcake moulds, making sure it’s filled up to 3/4 of the top of the mould, so it won’t spill when baking. Bake for 30 to 35 minutes or until the top becomes solid with a crinkly texture all around. Slowly remove from muffin pan and allow to cool for 5 minutes or so.