Last Christmas I made my way from “Still-on-Lockdown” Mumbai to my “Everything is normal here” house in Goa, India. I got there just in time to make the Christmas candy. My mother, sister-in-law Larissa, and I sat together to make a list of the things that would be on our Christmas tray or Kusvar. My mom prefers the convenience of cakes like semolina coconut bathk and simple shortbread cookies like nankhatais. Larissa and I decided on a whim to try Bebinca.
Bebinca is often referred to as the “Queen of Goan Desserts”. In fact, the Goa government recently announced that it is pushing for an official Geographic Indication (GI) tag from the World Trade Organization. The layered cake or pudding is sweet, buttery, and eggy (like a pudding) with notes of spice. It is made from several egg yolks and baked one layer at a time. 25 percent of Goa’s population identify as Catholic, and Bebinca is a must at pretty much all religious and secular festivals. Aside from Christmas, it’s a big part of the Easter celebrations, which is a common post-meal or tea-time candy. No chocolate or marzipan egg can touch the charm of a fluffy, perfectly baked bebinca.
Its origins are a bit of a mystery. Legend has it that the nuns at Santa Monica Convent in Old Goa came up with a millennial no-waste idea in the 17th century. They used egg whites to strengthen their habits and the leftover egg yolks to make sweets or doces conventuais (confectionery from the monasteries). It was Sister Bebiana who took the egg yolk and created a layer cake – seven layers to symbolize the famous hills of Goa and Lisbon. In her honor the cake was called bebinca.
That’s just a story, of course. Others say the Portuguese introduced Goans to Bebinca; The colonizers introduced the technique of adding eggs to many other sweets. There are versions of bebinca common in other former colonies to support this theory: the coconut rice cake bibingka in the Philippines and the coconut jaggery cake bibikkan in Sri Lanka.
In Goa bebinca means bebik and has become the epitome of Goan desserts. Wrapped versions are the perfect souvenir for visitors. For goans who don’t live at home, it offers the taste of nostalgia. Some like it warm, some like it cold, and the smartest take theirs aside with a scoop of vanilla ice cream. But the only feature that separates a mediocre bebinca from a large one is the layers. More is better here. Goans cut a slice, count the layers and verifiably nod if the number is over seven. Legend has it that when Sister Bebiana offered the seven-tier bebinca to a priest, she asked her to increase the number. Today you can find bebincas stacked up to 16 layers high.
Most Goans have a family member or a contact, a baker, a talented uncle or aunt who makes “the best bebinca”. These contacts are seldom shared outside of a small circle, and my family is fortunate to have three whose exquisite bebincas have been reliably arriving at my home in Mumbai for 13 years.
Last year my sister-in-law and I tried to be fourth.
Confession: I can’t bake. Baking and its complicated, disciplined adherence to timing and math (a subject I loathe) doesn’t appeal to me. This does not hold back my sister-in-law’s enthusiasm. Larissa came into our lives three years ago and brought an infectious energy, calm determination, positive mood and a face that you can’t say no to. She finds joy in cooking and baking. With her guidance, I bravely learned how to make filos – pancakes from overripe bananas and maida – liqueur pralines and beef stew with macaroni. Baking Bebinca didn’t seem that complicated with her.
While the ingredients are simple, making a Bebinca takes time, attention, and one thing that I’m definitely missing – patience. As classic cars will tell you, Bebinca was traditionally baked in earthen ovens, called tizals, and placed over a fire that was fired with Sonnam (coconut shells) and Charlotteos (coconut shells). The lower tizal had a layer of sand. After heating, a container of bebinca dough was placed on this sand. Another tizal filled with Sonnam or Charlotteos covered the lower tizal. Sometimes there were three tizals – Sand and Sonnam in the lower, Bebinca in the middle, and more Sonnam on top. However, the lack of firewood and clay bowls in our art in Goa meant we had to use a modern connection, the OTG (Oven-Toaster-Grill).
Larissa and I worked with a borrowed recipe from a friend’s grandmother and compared it to my mother’s trustworthy and well thought out recipe Joyce Fernandes cookbook. We mixed freshly grated coconut meat with warm water and squeezed it to extract coconut milk. We separated egg yolks, measured out flour and wiped everything together with a little salt and nutmeg powder until everything melted together. Then in the oven – easy enough. It took more than half an hour to cook the first layer, and eventually the dough rose like a dome and only emptied into an even, flat layer after pricking. To this we added ghee, then more batter for the second layer. The baking process – a total of nine shifts – took the whole morning. The end product was a mess: the bottom three layers were burned and glued to the baking sheet. The top six layers were firm and even, just like we wanted.
The good thing about Bebinca is that even the flaws are delicious. We scraped off the bottom layer and ate the crumbs with relish. The good layers went into the tray.
As someone who doesn’t like to cook, my Tryst felt meaningful with Bebinca. My favorite cooking memories as a kid were helping my mom make holiday candy. After I moved away, these opportunities became rare. Until last year. Baking Bebinca with Larissa reminded me that the joy of cooking is doing it with others. They discuss recipes, exchange tips and tricks, make mistakes (and eat them) and share successes.
Our second stab at Bebinca – baking, not eating – took place at another relative’s. In Goa, practically everyone is related by six or even three or four degrees of separation. The wonderful Janice Figueiredo became part of the family through Larissa’s sister Liane, who married Janice’s nephew. I had heard stories about their cooking skills. If Janice is invited to a party, she’s likely bringing her special bebinca, or Sans Rivale (a cashew cake). I had tried Janice’s Bebinca before and it was definitely one of the best, a taste that came from 30 years of practice.
When she heard of our failed attempt, she invited Larissa and me to try again with her. So we tried our second Bebinca on a winter evening. “It’s really straightforward,” was Janice’s common chorus throughout the evening. Under her watchful gaze, we followed the same process: measuring, sieving, wiping.
Larissa and I recognized our mistake early on: We were too stingy with the ghee. Janice had no concerns and bathed the tray with it. It was the ghee that gave each layer that lovely sheen and slight caramelization or leopard spots. We learned that getting the first layer right is important. Janice heated a baking pan with ghee on the stove, added batter to the fat until it sizzled, and let it cook on low heat for a few minutes. Then it went into the oven. Each layer was given 15 to 20 minutes to brown before being soaked in another mixture of ghee and butter – “for better viscosity and taste” – and covering it with more liquid.
Our cooking class soon turned into an impromptu party. When relatives poured in, the feni (local cashew liquor) came out. Conversations and laughter rang out in the kitchen. While the shifts baked, we made and ate beef samosas, aided by Janice’s daughter and nephew. The leftover egg whites went to another cake, the Sans Rival.
Our hours of hard work, if you can call it that, have paid off. The final bebinca was a thing of beauty, golden with craters of caramelization and shiny with ghee. It was rich, smooth to the touch, and tender on the tongue. It had seven layers, and although they were a little bumpy, they stacked up beautifully.
The older Goans in the house inspected the layers and smiled admiringly. Our queen stood tall and firm and enjoyed her moment in the glaring light of the fluorescent kitchen tube.
Unfortunately I’m not at home this Easter, so my third attempt at bebinca has to wait. In a month, when I celebrate a milestone birthday at home, I’ll be ready to bow to the Queen again.
Joanna Lobo is a freelance journalist from India who enjoys writing about food and its connections to communities, its Goan heritage and other things that make it hpy.